James Brown – Hot Pants (1971)

Hot Pants James Brown

James Brown wasn’t called “the hardest working man in show business” for nothing. Starting in 1959, Brown released 66 studio albums in 47-years. His extensive touring further bolstered his reputation, both expanding his fanbase and earning Brown a spot as a a premier musical performer. By the time the ‘70s rolled around, Brown was not only an established name in the music business – he was basically his own genre. Most of the other big names in the early funk movement had deep ties to either soul or psychedelic rock but Brown’s music had its own distinct flavor. More than a decade into his career, Brown was not only still rocking it: he was innovating along the way.

Hot Pants comes right at the beginning of Brown’s prime and proves he was in his own league. Right at the beginning of an amazing run, it not only kept Brown in the American limelight but also granted him several classics – Revolution of the Mind, Black Caesar, The Payback and Hell. The beauty of Hot Pants, though, is that it isn’t structured like most of his other masterpieces, or even other funk releases of the time period. Most classic funk of the era, whether it be Innervisions, 3+3 or Brown’s very own The Payback have a tendency to weave throughout styles. They provide smooth soul, heavy funk and hints of jazz fusion, ensuring the album is varied and approachable. As a result though, it’s rare to find a funk album that maintains an atmosphere, that sticks with one style for its entirety. In that way, Hot Pants is one of the exceptions.

Above all else, Hot Pants a funky jam session, driven by the JBs, some of the best rhythm players in the world. The entire album feels like one connected piece, riding on a continual cyclical rhythm, churning away tirelessly. At a certain point in the album, the repetitive rhythms stop feeling groovy and funky, and transform into something hypnotic. The level of repetition on Hot Pants shouldn’t reasonably sound good, or this funky, but Brown and his band manage to make it into a trance-inducing experience. They lock into an incredible groove, churning and pulsating nonstop for 30 minutes.

Most of James Brown’s career is built off a groove but Hot Pants is dominated by a sense of anxiety. When a solo explodes it’s a squealing saxophone, a rattling organ or lethargic trombone. Compare this to his earlier albums which rely on a more traditional sound and tension and release. Brown builds songs gradually, until an incredible solo bursts through, Brown yelps passionately or a drum breakdown shifts the tone of the song. Hot Pants completely avoids this approach, instead keeping songs tense and anxious for their entirety. The band builds up, vamping, vamping, vamping, until the solo hits and – wham – more funk! More speed, more sax, more vocals! Instead of building up to something, Hot Pants is just a continual increase, a never-ending onslaught of energy. While it may mean the album has less obvious standout moments, it values the experience more. It’s an all out funk-a-thon, incredibly in the moment, with no stops, no rest.

If the 70s were a cultural reaction to the free-for-all of the 60s, Hot Pants is a perfect reflection of that fact. Parliament-Funkadelic was all about keeping the party going and embracing the now, Curtis Mayfield spent most of his time trying to lift Americans up with positivity. Hot Pants, on the other hand was about the recovery. It may not get the attention of There’s a Riot Goin’ On or What’s Going On but Hot Pants is in many ways a similar reflection of the confusion and cultural hangover of the 70s. Brown doesn’t muse or analyze in a direct lyrical fashion but the anxious, uneasy music is in many ways a great representation of the uncertainty and “the malaise” of the American 70s.

Take “I Can’t Stand It” for example. Fred Thomas lays down a furious bassline, bouncing around at incredible speed only to sync up perfectly with a short, slick horn riff. John Starks absolutely rips it up on the drums, playing off Thomas’ rapid, energetic rhythms. Every element of this track keeps the energy going and the stakes high but the minimal approach makes it feel as though something’s off. In funk, when the pace is increased, it almost always leads to something bombastic but Brown opts to take things in the opposite direction. Thomas solos on the bass for about a minute, with Brown chiming in for moments of encouragement (“you got it!”, “walk on!”, “COME ON!”). The song falls apart, with the band just chatting over an instrumental until it all fades out.

Oddly enough, most of the album is dominated by this style of “rapping”, just conversing back and forth between band members. Brown encourages the JBs to pick up the pace, solo, bring in a line of horns or just stay consistent. They respond, both with instruments and vocals, chiming in with little solos, mini jams or humorous quips. This free-flowing, improvisational approach keeps the album from nose diving, keeping things engaging and approachable. Hearing Brown so nonchalant, rapping back and forth with his friends makes Hot Pants much more approachable and one of the most entertaining sets I’ve found in his catalog.

The two part “Escape-Ism” continues Brown’s bizarre approach, riding off a semi-orchestrated mishmash of horns, squealing saxes and droning organ. The entire track whirls and chugs along off a continual 3/4 rhythm that ends up feeling dark and on the verge of collapse. By the time the band even gets around to soloing, they provide jagged, off-kilter little riffs that don’t quite match the tone of the other instrumentation. Brown himself hops on the organ, ripping into a piercing, grating little solo. He lets the organ drone on chords awkwardly, clangs around on out of tune notes and rarely even gets into a groove. He lets the solo just fizzle out and yells at his band to pick up the pace. Jimmy Parker jumps right onto a sax solo which could be best described as avant-garde, squealing and honking his way into a gradual rhythm. The song then starts to slowly fall apart and the band keeps the beat while chatting until everything fades out. Once again, the song never quite reaches a conclusion, remaining unfinished and ultimately leaving a sour taste on the mouth. It feels like the band is using this session to merely improvise and work their way through the songwriting process on the go which leads to an incredibly unique piece of funk.

The album’s two more traditional songs, “Blues & Pants” and “Hot Pants” feel more more complete and approachable, while still maintaining a similar atmosphere as the rest of the album. “Blues & Pants” in particular feels more cohesive, including some fiery organ and an amazingly funky trombone solo. However, the bouncy, repetitive rhythm section maintains a similar vibe, even if the solos aren’t quite as peculiar or off-putting. “Hot Pants” is a similar addition to the album, driven by an incredible pace, jangly bass lines and Brown’s yelping improvisational vocals. As the most traditional track on the album, not only was it a number one hit, it’s a perfect way to tie things together. The anxious energy dissipates ever so slightly, providing listeners a fun, upbeat cut. “Hot Pants” feels like a reprieve from the rest of the album’s anxious energy but at the same time, maintains similar musical elements and a similar vibe to ensure the album stays cohesive.

Hot Pants is a fascinating piece of music. It bridges the gap between Brown’s earlier starry-eyed, gleeful soul and his more intense approach to funk. In many ways, it feels like a reflection of the shifting cultural zeitgeist at the turn of the 70s. Idealistic tendencies transformed into a darker, pessimistic mindset and Hot Pants is a perfect musical representation. Brown’s rhythms and the band’s solos are more intense, more jagged and more avant-garde. As a result, Hot Pants is one of the most engaging, cohesive and thought-provoking albums in both Brown’s catalog and the greater world of funk.

Author: Charlie

Charlie Wooley is an aspiring journalist and founder of The Tenth Man Blog. An avid sports fan and music nerd, he’s written for publications such as Pop Gates, Every Deja Vu and Tremr. A local San Diegan, you can catch him eating fish tacos or cruising through Balboa.

2 Responses to “James Brown – Hot Pants (1971)

  • Nicely done! If you like the Hot Pants album, you’ll LOVE the 2003 re-issue of “Motherlode” including material from that early 70s era. His “passionate scream” from this era was a shriek that, to this day, I still can’t comprehend how he got his voice to do that! I guess being “The Godfather” comes with such amazing powers. That Hot Pants album was distributed by King Records in Cincinnati (an interesting story in and of itself – with a Bootsy Collins connection). Fred Wesley’s trombone and Bobby Byrd’s consistent presence were essential to his keeping the groove. James Brown was a controversial figure (his “I’m Black and I’m Proud” provoked many of the same reactions we see in the BLM movement today) but his funk, as you note with its popularity in the sampling crowd, is timeless!

    • Charlie
      2 weeks ago

      Oh sweet, I’ll definitely have to check out that Motherlode issue, sounds like it’s something I’d really love! I’m always looking to dig into more funk, it’s a style that I’ve started to enjoy more and more over the past few years. I didn’t realize there was such a cool story behind the Hot Pants release either.

      FYI I ended up posting the wrong draft at first (whooops) but I tapped into the album’s context a little more on the newer version of the writeup. I don’t tie it to BLM directly but he definitely seemed to stir up some controversy over the years. Certainly more than I expected at least.

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