James Brown in the OED
With the recent release of the James Brown biopic Get On Up, directed by Tate Taylor and starring Chadwick Boseman, I thought it might be worth reflecting on the legacy of Mr Dynamite. It goes without saying that James Brown contributed in enduring ways to the history of pop music; there’s good reason for his surfeit of nicknames, including the Godfather of Soul and the Godfather of Funk. After all, Brown practically invented the genre of funk with his singular take on rhythm and song structure, earning himself a lasting influence on a wide variety of genres, ranging from hip hop to Afrobeat to jazz.
But what about Brown’s linguistic legacy? While Brown may not have the reach of the Beastie Boys (quoted a surprising nine times in the Oxford English Dictionary), he still manages his fair share of mentions. Looking at these mentions in the OED in conjunction with his musical legacy, Brown’s indelible mark on the language of pop music is more than clear.
His Bad Self
Currently cited by the OED as the first instance of the word superbad, Brown’s 1970 song “Super Bad” offers an excellent example of Brown engaging with popular African-American slang use of bad in the period. In this context, when Brown sings, “I’ve got soul and I’m super bad,” he’s offering up a boast about his talent, not angling towards any self-criticism.
As noted above, Brown’s positive spin on bad was not exactly new. Bad has been used to mean “good” or “excellent” since the 19th century, particularly in the jazz world, before fully exploding into African-American culture in the 1960s. Brown also deployed this sense of bad in other songs, most notably in his 1968 song “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud”, which begins his exhortation to the studio performers to play and/or sing “with your bad self.”
Bobby! Should I take ’em to the bridge?
Another first citation in the OED you can chalk up to the Hardest Working Man in Show Business is for the phrase to take it to the bridge, meaning to bring the band to the bridge of a song. The citation comes from one of Brown’s 1970 hit single “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine”:
Bobby! Should I take ’em to the bridge (Go ahead!)
Take ’em on to the bridge? (Take ’em to the bridge!)
Can I take ’em to the bridge? (Yeah! Right on!)
Take ’em to the bridge (Yeah!)
The call and response interaction here between Brown and his band members is a hallmark of his style. (In “Get Up,” most of the responses come from Brown’s organist Bobby Byrd.) This interactivity between not only performer and performer, but performer and audience, is threaded through Brown’s entire body of work.
In fact, several of Brown’s songs depend on exactly this improvisatory approach by which Brown’s guiding the band through the song itself (the aforementioned bridge, most memorably) makes up the song. The best example is probably “Make It Funky,” in which Brown tells the band to, you know.
It would be a bit remiss of me to leave off discussion of Brown’s hit “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” without a note on sex machine. Brown’s use of the term is risqué, and defined as ‘a person characterized as vigorous, unremitting, and insatiable in his or her pursuit and performance of sex’. The term was originally used in a rather different context, to describe a person (often a woman) who performs a sexual role or function in a mechanical, unfeeling way.
Case in point is the current earliest citation for this sense in the OED, which comes from Irish-Indian suffragist Margaret E. Cousins’s 1922 book The Awakening of Asian Womanhood: “[Food preparation and child-rearing] turn the women of the household often into drudges, overworked cooks, and mere sex-machines.”
And while it’s hard to say what effect Brown’s male-centered, playful take on the term may have had, there’s no doubt that his slightly divergent sense has received widespread recognition.