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.
In a 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."
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."