Dance to the drummer’s beat (PART 1)

This post is a quick look at the tangled the mix of live playing, sampling and DJ’ing in old School hip Hop. One of the great advantages of the blog format is the chance to lay in audio a youtube links, so the reader can actually hear what is being talked about.  I do, however ask you, dear reader, to be aware that this limits us to MP3 audio, and if you want to REALLY here some of this stuff, find it in a decent audio form.

My five year old daughter has some interesting books, courtesy of a cool mother in law. Along with a story built around Coltrane’s Giant Steps (I’ll lend it to you Zack), we have an illustrated children’s account of DJ KOOL HERC! When the Beat was Born gives a child friendly account of the origins of Hip Hop in the Bronx. Spurred on I went looking for more on the subject and a visit to  Edinburgh University library shows a good ten feet of academic literature on hip hop, much of it describing a world I know nothing – which is weird because I lived in new York for 11 years from 1990, and had some experience making music on the peripheries of Hip Hop.

Moving on, alongside reading about Kool Herc with my daughter, I also picked up a copy of what is I think the first hip hop Album: Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s The Message. Coming out in 1982, Christgau gave it an A- and it made it to No 53 on the US charts. I’d never heard it, only knowing the famous title cut and one other track- and thinking (as I do) that I know a bit about Hip Hop this record came as a real surprise. It begins with typical late 80’s funk- big slap bass, live drums with gated snare and funk vocals- vocals as in singing; it is two and a half minutes before any rapping starts. It makes me realise that The Furious Five were as much a doo-wop vocal unit as they were rappers – and, they can sing (unlike most rappers to come after). Two songs in a row, Dreamin’ and You Are, are smooth RnB with falsetto vocals and sweet harmonies! The record has an overriding electro feel with Kraftwerk style vocoder and lots of drum machine.  There are of course lots of borrowings from other records but I hesitate to call them real samples because they are all replayed by a live musicians, which was actually how all the earliest Hip Hop records were produced (replaying samples is now commonly called interpolation, a term borrowed frommaths via classical music).

As for the most famous track, The Message the band didn’t even want to record it. Sugar Hill CEO Sylvia Robinson cannily reckoned that to get mainstream rock media interested in Hip Hop there needed to be some ‘serious’, ‘socially aware’ lyrics. Flash and the guys thought this would ruin the party but she pushed them; in the end only Melle Mele (Melvin Glover) rapped on this track. Also, notably absent from most of the record is DJ Flash himself. Only the last track The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel, featured the man who made the live shows work- more on this later….

But back to my daughter’s book, which goes something like this:

Clive Campbell grew up in Jamaica where, since the 1950’s, DJ’s with portable sound systems had provided the music for any public/social occasions). He then moved to the Bronx, where his father owned a huge Hi-Fi system and taking advantage of this, he and his sister began to promote their own parties in the early 70’s.   As he became DJ Kool Herc, Clive he realised that certain parts of certain records really created the right vibe for his audience. It was the era of early disco, and while he played much of that music, it was the breakdowns from those records that his dancers really responded to: ‘the breaks’. They also went for some of the slightly the older funk records, especially James Brown, who was largely being usurped by disco. Herc began buying two copies of the same record so he could play the breaks back to back- talking over the mic while switching to the other turntable to fill in the interruption. And so in the South Bronx in 1974 the ‘breaks’ came into being, and with them the B -boys and girls (B for breaks).

So far so good- there is of course more to the story and you can find it all beautifully outlined in Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s book Last night a DJ saved my life:

For instance they describe how another DJ, Walter Gibbons was playing in the Downtown New York disco scene, at around the same time was doing the same things as Herc with many of the same records.

Next comes Joseph Saddler AKA Grandmaster Flash. One of Herc’s loyal followers, he also quickly superseded his hero with his development of what he called ‘Quick Mix theory’. Herc changed records without keeping time, but Flash set himself the goal of being…. “able to go to just the particular section of the record, just the break, and extend that but on time” (Brewster and Broughton 1999 p 214)

Now there was no need to interrupt the flow- the pulse was preserved and a few seconds of break could be stretched into many minutes and then followed seamlessly by another.

It is crucial to understand that dancing was the motivating force behind this innovation. Many of the first rappers and DJ’s were originally dancers, going to Downtown discos and cutting moves that rejected the sedate two step hustle of the slightly older disco crowd they were sharing their dance floor with. Once Herc’s Bronx parties started, these dancers  had their own scene.

Along with disco and older funk, many oddity records made it into these mixes. Hip Hop DJ’s choose tracks on meritocratic criteria,  interested only in the right grooves and sounds regardless of genre and this was especially so if the record contained a useful break. Thus we have Apache by Michael Winer’s Incredible Bongo band -a particular gift with a whole minute and 20 seconds of clean break. (Winer was a record executive, who put together a shifting array of session players to produce music for a B film The thing with two heads). Apache was written by a Brit, Jerry Lordan, with the clichéd Hollywood parody of a Native American melody (something like Ray Noble’s 1938 jazz standard Cherokee); it is really to my mind a cheesy piece of music and was first a hit for The Shadows in 1960. Then Herc discovered it, and in so doing identified one of Hip Hop’s core drum breaks that has been sampled more times than anyone could count. I never heard a DJ play more than a few bars  of the ‘song’ section (if at all)-it was the break that was of primary importance- here it is:

Another oddity, and one of my favourites is The Mexican, by a British rock band Babe Ruth:

(Note at 3:30 they throw in a quote from Morricone’s For a Fstfull of Dollars)

Recorded in in 1972, The Mexican a ‘funky’ track hidden inside a rock album. Its discovery and subsequent commandeering is well outlined in Last night a DJ saved my life, and again highlights a connection with the Downtown disco scene; briefly the album was a rock hit in Canada and and was heard by New York DJ Steve D’Acquisto, who brought it back to Dave Mancuso’s Loft (the doyen of NYC’s underground dance scene). In typical New York fashion, it wasn’t long before it was uptown on Herc’s decks, and that was where The Mexican found its true and permanent home as the B-boy anthem. This story perfectly illustrates the wonderfully convoluted way in which Hip Hop was fashioned out of New York’s dense urban music scene (literally dense in geographical terms when compared to other US cities).  1

So disco and Hip Hop grew from some of the same roots, dispelling one of Hip Hop’s later creation myths that it was a rejection of disco.

Hip Hop has a founding triumvirate of DJ’s: Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Africa Bambaataa; the last was the ultimate  non-denominational crate digger (record hunter)- it was he who discovered Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express as a  dance track- he also loved to play the break from Sergeant Pepper’s reprise and the Monkees Mary Mary- here are the two bars which must have necessitated some very fast mixing to cut between them:

(Bambaataa would then relish telling everyone they had been dancing to the Monkees).

I tentatively identified The Message as a first Hip Hop album; trying to identify the first Hip Hop single  is much more problematic; even more hopeless, but endlessly entertaining is trying to identify the first rap- you can go all the way back to 1930’s big band recordings, but just for fun I’d like to put forward comedian Pigmeat Markham’s Here Comes The Judge:


Regardless of how far back one can find a rap, MC’ing in Hip Hop was probably also introduced by Herc, for whom it was the ‘toasting’ he saw as a child back in Jamaica- a Master of Ceremonies, working for the DJ, who would talk to the crowd over the music and keep the party going. So in The  Bronx, Herc found that having a few “put your hands in the air….and wave em like you just don’t care” helped the party along; but these MC’s were very much the second fiddle to the DJ- nothing like the later development of superstar rappers

It seemed that the components were in place to put it all on record, but there was a reluctance- Flash felt:

“who would want to hear a record which I was spinning re-recorded with MCing over it?”

Brewster and Broughton 1999 p 238

Any way hip hop was an event, a happening; not any single song, but a live collaboration between DJ, MC’s, dancers and the crowd; therefore, unsurprisingly the first hip hop records didn’t come from the the people making the scene.

The years 1978/79 throw up a log jam of contenders for the first Rap records; there is a B side, King Tim III (personality Jock) by The Fatback band:

Then there are the efforts of songwriter and producer, Paul Winley, who had been making hits on his own independent label since the fifties. Using his daughter Tanya, who was learning raps from school, he grabbed some extra time from his studio musicians, The Harlem Underground and produced Rappin’ and Rhymin’:

Nothing earth shattering, but Tanya does mention “two turntables”, “a serious mixer” and “echo chamber” etc. so she knew the scene,  but rappin and rhyming does not have a Hip Hop feel. Their next effort Vicious Rap, credited as 1978 (that is probably false historical revisionism on the part of Winley), is better. Winley had also started compiling and selling the first compilation ‘break records’ (illegally), and the musicians must have been listening to them, because Vicious Rap has a pretty convincing break beat feel, (a little bit like Apache) and it is the probably first track to introduce the much used cliché of the police siren:

So that is round about 1979- then comes Rapper’s Delight. There is a sense of deja vu here -just as the first jazz recording was by The Original Dixieland Jass Band, rather than say King Oliver, so The Sugarhill Gang was a construct of Sugarhill records CEO Sylvia Robinson- Flash Herc and Bambaataa had never heard of them, although one them, Big Hank, had been a bouncer at one of Herc’s parties. Still none of that changes the fact that this was the breakthrough Hip Hop record.

Rapper’s delight again used a live rhythm section, a minor funk band called Positive Force, but instead of coming up with a new jam as in Winsley’s records, this was a replay of a break- a technique now called interpolation (a term borrowed from maths and twentieth century classical music).

The Break was the bass and drums breakdown of Chic’s Good Times, (1979) which Grandmaster flash had been mixing and cutting in the clubs. Positive Force replayed Bernard Edward’s bass-line, and were effectively making a cover of  the song.  It’s a long bass line – four bars with an almost classical balance to it: the first bar (with the 1,2,3 that influenced Queen’s Another one bites the dust) than an answer, followed by the third bar repeating the first bar up a fourth (subdominant) then another answer. What that all means in listening terms is that it creates a sense of a  tune – it’s a compositional element that is is long enough and provides enough musical information to stand being repeated many times- it helps make a hit.

It has to be remembered that sampling was very difficult in 1980; this was the year the Fairlight sampler became available. It was very expensive and best suited to producing (to my ears at the time and still) cheesy/fake horn sounds that appealed to people like Peter Gabriel and Jan Hammer.

See it in action here:

More amenable systems such as the Akai S-series samplers didn’t arrive till the mid eighties.

That was why Rapper’s Delight was played by a live band-in fact so dependent were Sugarhill records on musicians, they created, like Motown and Stax, their own in-house band the Sugarhill Band.

It is this set of musicians that dutifully recreated Flash’s breaks  (samples) throughout my Furious Five CD. All of the breaks that is except for the last track on the record- the seven minutes of  The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel. This is the first popular music recording to use samples taken from record – this is a ‘live’ performance in the studio of a DJ with two  turntables (the “wheels of steel”), in a single take. Apparently it took several takes to get a mistake free single performance down on tape. First released as a single in 1981, it is a linear sequence of records “re-recorded” to use Flash’s own words. It is also a track that tied together  the growing Uptown/Downtown scene that Hip Hop was pioneering, and illustrated its interdependent links. By now hipsters like Blondie had paid homage to Hip Hop with their own Rapture and Flash acknowledged them right back, by using the section where Debbie Harry does her shout outs to “Fab Five Freddie” and Flash “Flash is back”

Other samples are Chic’s Good Times again, (both from the original record and from the replay of Rapper’s Delight) and its progeny, Queen’s Another one bites the dust. Apache is in there and several of the Furious Five’s own previous singles. From here on, sampling was to become ever more complex, convoluted and self referencing -a real cat’s cradle.

*** Tune in for part 2 in a couple of weeks ***


When the Beat was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the creation of Hip Hop

Roaring Brook Press New York 2013

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life:The History of the Disc Jockey

Bill Brewster, Frank Broughton

Grove/Atlantic, Incorporated 2007

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My PhD was entirely devoted to the process of composing music. Before academia I spent eleven years (from 1990) as a full time musician based in New York, working as both as a session player, and as the musical director of The Groove Collective, a band that combined Jazz, Latin, and Funk forms. This led to six albums and performances around the world including Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals, the Roskilde Festival, Red Rocks Amphitheater Colorado, and Filmore West. I have also performed in orchestras, and as a solo flutist, including a broadcast on BBC Radio Three.

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