Prince and the Funky Drummer

Drummers around the world are mourning the passing of Clyde Stubblefield, possibly the most-sampled performer on record. He died on Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin, the city which he had long called home and performed regularly.

In a recent interview, Stubblefield described learning to play the drums along with the sounds of factory smokestacks and passing trains as a young man in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He joined James Brown’s powerhouse organization in 1960 and stayed there for just over a decade — Stubblefield can be heard on hundreds of recordings, notably favorites like “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

His solo on “Funky Drummer” (a 1970 single by Brown) isn’t really a solo at all but a continuation of the steady groove he plays throughout the entire nine minute take. The song made its first appearance on In the Jungle Groove, a mid-80s compilation LP of alternate takes and outtakes. The break found new life in the era of hip hop sampling. This is how Stubblefield became one of the most widely-heard musicians in history. The quintessential use of the “Funky Drummer” break may be in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” in which Chuck D offers credit (if not royalties) to Stubblefield.

Stubblefield is sampled in hit records by Run DMC, LL Cool J, Boogie Down Productions and hundreds of other hip hop records. He was even sampled — we are not making this up — by Kenny G. As explored in the documentary Copyright Criminals, Stubblefield rarely received royalties for the use of his performance. In fact, he found himself in serious financial trouble while fighting bladder cancer fifteen years ago.

And a remarkable part of the story finally found the light last year after Prince passed away. Stubblefield revealed that Prince — who he had never met — contacted him in 2000, and arranged to pay off his medical bills in full. The total was more than $90,000. The only condition was that Stubblefield not reveal who had done it.

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