Remembering Clyde Stubblefield (1943-2017)

It took only 20 seconds for Clyde Stubblefield to drum his way to immortality. They came near the end of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” recorded in a Cincinnati studio in late 1969. Brown counts him in — “1, 2, 3, 4. Hit it!” — and Mr. Stubblefield eases into a cool pattern, part bendy funk and part hard march. It’s calm, slick and precise, and atop it, Brown asks over and over, “Ain’t it funky?”

It was. That brief snippet of percussion excellence became the platonic ideal of a breakbeat, the foundation of hip-hop’s sampling era and a direct through line from the ferocious soul music of the civil rights era to the golden age of history-minded hip-hop of the 1980s and 1990s.

Though Mr. Stubblefield wasn’t enamored of the song — “I didn’t like the song. I still don’t really get off on it,” he told Paste magazine in 2014 — its mark became indelible. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx,” Sinead O’Connor’s “I Am Stretched on Your Grave,” George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” and Kenny G’s “G-Bop”: Mr. Stubblefield’s “Funky Drummer” break appeared as a sample in all of those songs, and over a thousand more, from the 1980s to the present day. It made Mr. Stubblefield, who died on Saturday in Madison, Wis., at 73, perhaps the most sampled drummer in history.

The cause was kidney failure, said his manager, Kathie Williams.

Mr. Stubblefield was born on April 18, 1943, and grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he was drawn to the rhythms of local industrial sounds, from factories to trains. “There was a factory there that puffed out air — pop-BOOM, pop-BOOM — hit the mountains and came back as an echo,” he told Isthmus in 2015. “And train tracks — click-clack, click-clack. I listened to all that for six years, playing my drums against it.”

His sharp funk provided the anchor on anthems like “Cold Sweat,” “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and “I Got The Feelin’.” Always, his playing was complex but collected — his flourishes between beats were as essential as the beat itself. Brown demanded a lot of his band, and Mr. Stubblefield, with playing that had punch, nimbleness and wet texture, never appeared to be breaking a sweat.

“In short, there have been faster, and there have been stronger, but Clyde Stubblefield has a marksman’s left hand unlike any drummer in the 20th century,” Questlove, the drummer and music historian, said in 2011. “The thing that defines him, that sets him apart from other drummers, are his grace notes, which are sort of like the condiments of what spices up the main focus.” He added, “His grace notes, his softest notes, defined a generation.”

Shortly after Mr. Stubblefield left Brown’s band, he settled in Madison, where his brother, who was in the Air Force, was stationed. He lived there until his death, becoming a local fixture thanks to a regular Monday nightclub gig that he held through the 1990s and 2000s, and his work on the Wisconsin public radio show “Whad’Ya Know?” He was inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2000. A pair of his drumsticks are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Though “Funky Drummer” was released as a single, it was never on an album until the 1986 compilation “In the Jungle Groove.” That was in the thick of hip-hop’s sampling era, and it caught on quickly, becoming perhaps the most important drum pattern in hip-hop history.

Brown was a notorious taskmaster as a bandleader, and he also retained all the songwriting credit for the work his band did, meaning that as the hip-hop generation discovered Mr. Stubblefield’s playing and used it as a backbone, he saw none of the financial rewards.

“All my life I’ve been wondering about my money,” Mr. Stubblefield, with a chuckle, told The New York Times in 2011. He tried to remedy this by releasing albums of his own — “Revenge of the Funky Drummer” and “The Original Funky Drummer Breakbeat Album.” In 2011, the DVD release of the documentary “Copyright Criminals” featured a collection of new Stubblefield performances designed for easy sampling.

At times, Mr. Stubblefield performed with his old bandmates. He and Mr. Starks formed a duo, Funkmasters, that released music and also recorded instructional videos. At times, Mr. Stubblefield performed with the J.B.’s, a collection of former members of James Brown’s band; they released a 1999 reunion album, “Bring the Funk on Down.” And he reunited with the original J.B.’s rhythm section on the soundtrack for the 2007 comedy film “Superbad.”

Survivors include his longtime companion, Jody Hannon.

The later part of Mr. Stubblefield’s life was marked by bouts of poor health. He had a kidney removed in 2002. In recent years, he suffered from renal disease and underwent dialysis multiple times a week. He also had a thumb amputated after a burn accident in 2014.

In 2000, Mr. Stubblefield received a diagnosis of bladder cancer, which he survived, but he faced daunting medical bills of approximately $90,000.

Named as one of the greatest drummers of all time, Mr. Stubblefield leaves behind a great host of fans & admirers.
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