Rolling Stone reports that Clyde Stubblefield, a professional session drummer who produced one of the most sampled clips in the history of music, has died. Born in Tennessee, Stubblefield was entirely self-taught, touring with Eddie Kirkland and Otis Redding before eventually hooking up with James Brown in 1965. Stubblefield would play with Brown and his band—including fellow drummer “Jabo” Starks, who he’d continue to collaborate with for decades under the name Funkmasters—for six years. During that time, Stubblefield’s drumming on albums like Cold Sweat and I Got The Feelin’ helped to define the rhythms and sounds of funk; he also laid down a track that would come to define the sound of ’80s hip-hop, as well.
The song in question was “Funky Drummer,” recorded in 1969, and featuring an extended solo in which Stubblefield plays an eight-beat rhythm of statistically proven force. (To quote Brown’s introduction to the drum break: “You don’t have to do no soloing, brother, just keep what you got… Don’t turn it loose, ’cause it’s a mother.”) The beat was rediscovered in the mid-’80s by the nascent hip-hop scene, and went on to provide the driving baseline for everything from Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” to tracks from Madonna and Sinead O’Connor. It’s estimated that Stubblefield’s solo has been sampled on more than a thousand songs, including “Fuck Tha Police,” “Run’s House,” “Freedom! ’90,” “Mama Said Knock You Out,” “Shadrach,” and literally hundreds more.
Stubblefield’s career has proven to be an interesting test case for questions about sampling and copyright law: As a session player, he never saw a dime from the galaxy of songs that sampled his work, although Prince—who considered Stubblefield “a legend”—apparently paid for $90,000 of the drummer’s medical bills in the mid-2000s. That same period also saw him receive widespread recognition for his contributions to music; his name frequently appears in the upper echelons of “greatest drummers of all time” lists from publications like Rolling Stone.
For his own part, Stubblefield—who continued to play and tour until health problems slowed him down in the early 2010s—doesn’t seem to have held a grudge against the artists who profited from his work. In 2011, he took the stage at Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night, teaming up with Chuck D and Questlove for a rendition of “Fight The Power.” Questlove eulogized Stubblefield earlier today on social media, calling him “The Funky Funkiest Drummer Of All Time.”
Stubblefield was 73.