Heroin as a Rhythm
James Brown and J Dilla share a song.
An overdose topples without being shrill, it retracts consciousness by inciting too much of it. The drugs or habits used to achieve it work by making the body so superfluous to its own pleasure that it defers to astral consciousness or none at all. The best hedonists use this double excess to their advantage by offering as much pleasure as they seek until getting over is inevitable, willed. In 1972 James Brown delivered a soulful and supplicating public service announcement in the form of a song he called “King Heroin” which chronicled the disgraced narcotic from its import to its catastrophic effect on individual lives as it coaxed countless people to overdose. He personifies the drug, giving it a monolog that opens I came to this country without a passport, and ever since then I’ve been hunted and sought. Heroin becomes the foil to black Americans, also smuggled here and hunted, also used like an addictive pastime for a society with little soul.
(Kevin Christy illustration)
Brown’s heartfelt and almost tortured intervention lands somewhere between proto-rap and after school special, and then transcends both of those registers and becomes a mirroring or soliloquy where he projects some of his own turmoil onto a wish for collective healing. The substance is more alive than its users in Brown’s estimation. Heroin boasts, I can make a man forsake his country and flag, make a girl sell her body for a five dollar bag. Then the narcotic coaxes addicts to keep going until they’re jailed or dead: I’ll be waiting at the gate, sure my name is heroin, and you’ll be back for a taste. On the fade out Brown whispers this a revolution of the mind, get your mind together, and get away from drugs. This is a poem recorded over a sloping grove that never quite gets over itself and mimics the experience of using the drug it animates. Low moaning horns gain some momentum, but the beat’s agenda overrides their edging by refusing to let up. The horn section begins to sound desperate and dejected a couple of minutes in, incapable of accessing the pitch of triumph but also unable to stop trying. Detached exasperation and direct moralizing give the song a hip ambivalence. Listeners are exhorted to refrain from drug use, but the music itself mimics the effect of being high and reluctantly coming down, then spiraling down, then narrowly escaping rock bottom by getting high again. It could be an advertisement for what it despises, everything didactic runs this risk. This is the music of a man who feels like his people have been abandoned and systematically weakened; he has witnessed militants and musical geniuses turn into junkies, and even though though he knows he can’t save them all, he wants to leave an audible trace of what happened so that it cannot be erased by the ghosts of the future. The way addicts turn to heroin to dull their pain, James Brown uses this poem-as-song to alleviate some of the pain he’s experiencing as he watches soul after soul snatched by dependency on what kills them.
Unlike “Say it Loud,” (1968) “King Heroin” would not become a party song or radical anthem. Instead it’s a shadow’s theme, to be uncovered as evidence of what was happening between protests and festivals, when no one was looking or in the places where few dared to look for fear of what they knew was there and didn’t want to discuss. Brown leaves “King Heroin” for us like a trace or B-side to an era equal parts empowerment and genocide.
In the late 1990s or early 2000s, hip hop producer James Dewitt Yancey, J Dilla to his fans, sampled James Brown’s “King Heroin” and called the resulting beat “Heroin Joint.” The speed is doubled as if it’s a fast forwarding movie scene, and Dilla layers his own rhythmic improvisation over the original’s doleful horns, slurs them, lets them languish and recur in a loop, and then closes by slowing the track back down to its original speed which has the effect of conflating past and future, making the original sound like it’s what comes next. Such is the power and danger of looping when done by its best practitioners. It frees you by trapping you outside of and in between formalized time and the quantum leaps it makes possible are omni-directional. You can revisit trauma as easily as you can leap beyond it to a new adventure. Time is at Dilla’s mercy on “Heroin Joint” and succumbs to his mood, between sulking and bucking what worries him.
James Brown outlived J Dilla by a few months but both men died in 2006, both sharing the tones in this poem-song like friends might pass one another spliff or run together in an open field for no apparent reason, chasing the same horizon. Dilla’s version doesn’t come with words, and the acceleration should make it more playful, but has the effect of adding the melancholy of a withheld secret or confession retracting itself right as it seems ripe and ready to divulge, being chased back into a coiled stupor. Both songs seem to look for solace, and even offer some, but Dilla’s version is aloof and you might miss the comfort it offers because it also chases you away with the same rhythm it uses to lure you in.
By the 2000s, drug use was blasé, many would-be greats have fallen to it or been through it and come out on the other side, and the casualties and the causal tease of street drugs available on every corner were inevitable. Where James Brown is acrimonious, James Yancey revels and surrenders quietly to the idea of opiates, of something that can swoop in and rescue or distract you from your own suffering. And J Dilla makes it swing until you want whatever he is using to override time with space and motion. His catatonia in the face of his swinging, somewhere between apathy and awakening, is louder than James Brown’s speech, because in it there’s an ecstatic hopelessness that whispers we’re just gonna ride this beat, conditions are too dire for revolutionary pleas.
I love this fragmented, morphine driven genealogy, these cousin hymns, one exhorting minds and spirits to rise up and heal, the next retreating into a slice of broken dream and making it grin gently and wave a slow goodbye to paternalistic idealism so it can enjoy its inherited trauma in peace. Neither man was wrong. Dilla makes addiction sound friendly and benevolent; James Brown answers with severity and charm— of course the angel of death is friendly.