In this song, Brown vows revenge on the man who stole his money and his girl, insisting that the "big payback" is on the way. He's not very specific in his threats, but it's clear that he means business.
James Brown wrote this song for the 1973 movie Hell Up In Harlem, which was directed by Larry Cohen. Brown had soundtracked Cohen's film Black Caesar earlier that year, scoring a hit with "Down and Out in New York City."
Brown's musical director Fred Wesley and drummer John Starks came up with a song after watching a rough cut of the movie, which had the working title Black Caesar's Revenge. According to Wesley and Starks, when they recorded the song, Brown came into the Augusta, Georgia session and literally tore up the sheet music. He reworked the song, incorporating lyrics that describe exactly what was going on in the first scene from the film.
They recorded the song and overdubbed background vocals and horns a month later. Wesley then flew the tapes to Los Angeles and delivered them to Larry Cohen, who rejected the song (Wesley says Cohen told him it wasn't funky enough; Brown said Cohen told him it was "too black"). An irate Brown ordered Wesley back to Augusta, and the song was used as the title track to his 1974 album. The song proved more than funky enough, going to #1 on the R&B charts and earning Gold status for selling over a million copies.
Edwin Starr ended up doing the music for the Hell Up In Harlem film, which went nowhere.
The full version of this song runs 7:35. For the single, the song was divided into two parts, with "The Payback - Part I" (3:30) on the A-side and "The Payback - Part II" (4:07) on the flip. Part I was what most radio stations played.
Many of James Brown's songs formed the basis of later hip-hop and R&B tracks, and this one is no exception. Among the hundreds of songs that have sampled or interpolated "The Payback" are:
"Hold On" and "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)" by En Vogue "In the Meanwhile" by Jodeci "The Big Payback" by EPMD "Somethin' Funky" by Big Daddy Kane "Protection" by Massive Attack "Can't You See" by Total "Get Down" by Nas "The Boomin' System" by LL Cool J "Mic Checka" by Das EFX "Blow Your Mind" by Redman "King Kunta" by Kendrick Lamar
TV series that have used this song include:
Scrubs (2003, "My Kingdom") The Wire (2004, "Moral Midgetry") Damages (2007, "Because I Know Patty") The Cleveland Show (2010, "The Curious Case of Jr. Working at the Stool")
Some movies to use it are: Dead Presidents (1995) How to Be a Player (1997) Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) How High (2001) Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) Django Unchained (2012) Identity Thief (2013)
In 2015, this was used in a Nike commercial titled "Snow Day." In the spot, various pro athletes (including Odell Beckham, Jr., Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Paul George and Ndamukong Suh) meet up for a game of football in the snow.
The Payback album was released in December 1973, by Polydor Records. It was originally scheduled to become the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film Hell Up in Harlem, but was rejected by the film's producers. Fred Wesley recalled to Uncut in 2017:
"The Payback was supposed to be the soundtrack for Hell up in Harlem, and that's why the title track was originally written. It was originally 'Revenge' but it turned out to be called 'The Payback.'
All the music on the album was supposed to be the soundtrack but I carried the music to the producer out in Hollywood and he didn't like it. He said, it's not funky. I said, well you tell Mr Brown that, I'm not gonna tell him. So I dialled James's number and a producer took the phone. 'Mr Brown, this ain't funky,' he said, but then his face turned a different color. 'But..I mean...ye...uh...' and he gave me back the phone, and James Brown said to me, 'Bring the music home we'll put it out as an album.'
I had to bring all the music back to Augusta, Georgia, where he did indeed put it out as an album. Imagine someone saying The Payback isn't funky?"