In 1985 James Brown was a contributor to the alternative newspaper Leeds Other Paper. In 1986, following work on his fanzine Attack on Bzaag, Brown was hired as freelance features writer for Sounds; from there he soon joined the magazine NME. In 1991 Brown became the manager of Fabulous, a rock band composed of various NME journalists. After leaving NME, he wrote features for the Sunday Times magazine.
In 1994, Brown launched the magazine Loaded, which became an early example of the modern "lads' mag" format. Brown won the British Society of Magazine Editors' "Editors' Editor of the Year" award for his work on the title.
Known for his heavy drinking and use of cocaine, Brown's staff had mixed feelings about his style, acknowledging his brilliance but criticising his "tyrannical" management. "James's whole style of man-management is all about fear, just making everyone feel that they're totally and utterly dispensable," one told The Independent for a 1997 feature after Brown had left for GQ. "If he's in the mood to have a go at you in front of everybody, he will. He could pick on anybody. The mood changes were frighteningly sudden." Another compared his experience on the magazine to that of a "battered wife" who keeps returning to her husband. "You could walk into the office at Loaded and you could tell if James was there or not," the photographer Derek Ridgers recalled. "If people were smiling, you knew he was out. And if they all looked a bit miserable, you knew he was in." Brown himself has said that he was depressed and over-indulging in alcohol and drugs during this period. "I could see that if I didn't move on, there was a danger of me becoming a drug addict and an alcoholic," he said.
In the 1997 Independent interview, Brown expressed pride in his accomplishment in beginning Loaded, stating, "The facts are there. I started the most influential magazine in Britain in the last 10 years and made my last company millions and millions and millions of pounds after an outlay of virtually nothing, and I've got something like six or seven major publishing awards." A former employee, interviewed for the same feature, disagreed, suggesting Brown's success had been a "glorious fluke" and adding: "He's had his hit single, but that's really all he's had and there are a lot of one-hit wonders out there."
In 1997 Brown left Loaded for the British edition of GQ. He launched the Man of the Year Awards and hired the then-unknown chef Jamie Oliver to write the food column. Brown parted company with GQ in early 1999 over what were termed "philosophical differences", having featured Field Marshal Rommel (shown in a photograph sporting a swastika band on his uniform) on a list of "The Most Fashionable Men of the Century." Assumed to able of dramatically raising GQ's circulation, it fell from 148,000 (May 1997) to 132,000 (last six months of 1998) during Brown's two years at the title.
After leaving GQ, Brown launched his own company, I Feel Good, and subsequently acquired Viz, Fortean Times and Bizarre magazines from John Brown Publishing for £6.4m.
He created the magazine Jack in August 2002 IFG was sold to Dennis Publishing for £5.1m in 2003 after the company's losses doubled to £1.1m year on year and film title Hotdog was sold having failed to reach break-even. Speaking in 2010, Brown said he had "made a lot of mistakes" at IFG and felt "a bit embarrassed about how little I had made of the opportunities I had created." In July 2004, Dennis wrote off its investment in Jack and closed the title with paid-for sales stagnant at less than 28,000 copies.
In 2007, he was hired as editor in chief of the free-to-air TV channel Sumo TV, saying he had plans to push the genre of "spectacular voyeurism." The channel was briefly moved into the Adult, Gaming and Dating categories before refocusing on content provided by Psychic Television.
After selling IFG, Brown worked across the media. On television he appeared with Gok Wan in Miss Naked Beauty and a participant in Channel 4's Extreme Detox. He also helped create Flipside TV and co-produced over 50 episodes before the show was bought for Channel 4 and then Paramount.
Brown was appointed as consultant editor-in-chief at Sport Media Group, a part-time post, in November 2007. In January 2008 Barry McIlheney was hired by Brown as the new editor-in-chief. The two men were responsible for a relaunch of the Daily Sport and Sunday Sport newspapers in April 2008. Brown's relaunch was unsuccessful, and the newspapers were saved from going out of business in 2009 only by the intervention of their founder, David Sullivan.
Brown also presented and co-produced I Predict a Riot for Bravo, a ten-part investigation into the history of civil disorder, and regularly appears as a pundit on the BBC's art shows Newsnight Review and The Culture Show. In 2010 he oversaw the relaunch of the Sky Sports Magazine.
In May 2010, Brown launched the website Sabotage Times to focus on music, sports, fashion, travel, TV and film. The website pays creators nothing but offers them a share of any syndication revenues.
Since 2010, Brown has made frequent appearances in the media, both on the radio for talkSPORT's popular show The Warm Up, hosted by Brown, Johnny Vaughan, and Gavin Woodman, and as a guest panellist on Alan Davies' show As Yet Untitled, broadcast on Dave. He is also an active business speaker, and took the stage alongside figures such as Kofi Annan and Al Gore at the Leaders In London summit in 2007.