Dance to the Drummer’s Beat (Part 2)

“Take the funky drummer give him back to james”

In my last post, I was looking at the convoluted relationships between DJ performance in the context of a ‘live’ Hip Hop party and the live musician’s role in the creation of the first Hip Hop records. It’s now time to follow the chronology of the story and deal with the development of digital sampling of the kind any producerw would recognise today. But just before that…..if you’ve read any of my other blogs you’ll know I have a penchant for Igor Stravinsky into the mix- well here he comes again: in a paper from 2005, (The story of ORCH5, or, the classical ghost in the hip-hop machine), Robert Fink has identified ORCH5, a pre-set on the Fairlight sampler. It is a cheesy full orchestral ‘hit’ which Fink convincingly argues was sampled from a recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird Ballet. To hear Stravinsky’s ‘hit’  in action in early Hip Hop you need go no further than Africa Bambaataa’s 1982 classic Planet Rock. Here it is on the invaluable whosampled.com website:


Planet Rock was Bambaataa’s chance to get in the studio hot on the heels of Flash; again the samples were all replayed: Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express, and Numbers and a bizarre synth rendition of part of the melody line from The Mexican. When I hear many of these early sample replays it seems that it would have been very easy to have played something slightly different, still achieving the same effect without the copyright issues. Another case is the opening track of The Message (album) – the Sugarhill horn section replay a snippet of the horn part from Jimmy Castor’s Just Begun, which is such a standard funk part that anyone could have come up with a slightly different part – so how come they often didn’t? My guess is the DJ’s were so tied to their vinyl versions, the same ones they used at the parties, and they couldn’t bare to use an alternative. For their audiences, the recognition factor was an important part.

By the mid eighties after Wheels of Steel and Planet rock, sampling was to become much easier and consequently more sophisticated. The boundless eclecticism in choices of source material was to be taken even further and by the late eighties Hank Shocklee (Public Enemy) and Prince Paul (De la Soul) had really pushed Hip Hop’s  levels of sonic complexity.

Shocklee, with his aptly named production outfit The Bomb Squad popularised that MOST sampled of drum breaks, James Brown’s The Funky Drummer. Shocklee exploited this frequently; it is used in seven Public Enemy, often layered in with several other simultaneous samples. What distinguished the bomb squad productions was this level of vertical layering of samples- often with rock guitars are included, (some played live by the Black Rock Coalitions Vernon Reid). Shocklee made a wall of sound as though he was  Hip Hop’s Phil Spectre. In fact, in the hands of Shocklee, the funky drummer is like a piece of DNA code that, more than just being part of the groove, influences the entire surrounding sonics of the track.

Bring the noise, Rebel without a pause and  Fight the power are PE’s famous examples:

The sample itself is a very funky drummer (Clyde Stubblefiled), in a very funky band at a peak moment of funkiness four and a half minutes into a very ‘live in the studio’ recording. James Brown tells the band: “Fellas, one more time I want to give the drummer some of this funky soul we got going here.” He tells drummer Clyde Stubblefield, “You don’t have to do no soloing, brother, just keep what you got… Don’t turn it loose, ’cause it’s a mother.” (keep playing that beat because it’s good!)  He must have realised something special was happening, and after the break he names it on the spot, with tape still rolling: “The name of this tune is the funky drummer.”

It was this pinnacle of funkiness was always my concern about the merciless use of the sample – any old piece of music, without any intrinsic groove merit, could be made unnaturally funky with the application of Stubblefield’s chattering snare. Stubblefield has never received any royalties, because of course the writing credits are all to the James Brown estate.

Even when they weren’t sampling funky drummer, they could sound like they were: Security of the first world contains a drum pattern played by Shocklee (possibly on the pads of an earlyMPC 60). When Madonna sampled this for Justify my love, there was confusion as to whether she had sampled the funky drummer. All the usual legal wrangling has ensued. Here are the musical details, again from Whosampled:


“I think one of the things that sampling has done is open up an entire palette for people to use sounds from all different genres: jazz, Afro-Cuban, reggae, or rock. It doesn’t matter where it came from.”

(Shocklee 2011, Sonicscoop)

My personal experience of Hip Hop comes after this period: I was in New York for what I think of as the third wave of Hip Hop- after the Sugarhill dominated old school of the early eighties, and the Public Enemy phase of the late eighties- I moved to NYC in 1990 and experienced the peripheries of the Jungle Brothers/Tribe called Quest/De la Soul wave – the Afro-centric and very ‘positive’ Native Tongues vibe.  (This scene has also been ‘old school’ since at least 2000).

As a flute player I became musical director of a New York club Giant step. The idea here was to have short jams inserted into the night’s music. These would have  the classic Hip Hop format of DJ and MC’s, but also with live musicians (preferably with a jazz aesthetic). In fact that’s how I got the gig. I turned up at this new club and the doorman spotted my flute case. The week before they had had an unsuccessful jam when a jazz player had stopped the DJ so that he could play a quick impromptu set- big mistake- would-be dancers were left standing around waiting for it to end so that the DJ could bring back the breaks. So this week I went in and waited for the DJ to start mixing breaks and I came in over the top- one of those breaks I know was Herman Kelly’s Dance to the Drummer’s Beat:

And I’m pretty sure in my eagerness to ‘get over’ I quoted something that I knew would mark me as being in the know- Boogie Down Production’s The Bridge is Over, which had been on my Sony Walkman all week:


From this you can see that I was interpolating (onto the flute) BDP’s interpolation (on piano) of Supercat’s original keyboard bass riff!

As usual I can’t claim to be the first to do this- before he became a famous disco producer Francois Kevorkian had been drumming live with Walter Gibbons in the early 70’s New York Underground, and I know people had been playing live with a DJ in London as well. But anyway, I stayed on in New York and played in Giant Step every week for several years-my  bragging rites include being on stage with Melle Mele (he ran a jam session like he was James Brown) Kay Gee (Cold Crush Brothers) and my involvement in the biggest collaboration between Jazz and Hip Hop that I know of: The Red Hot and Cool aids awareness project which in 1994 produced a show and album which included Pharoah Sanders, Lester Bowie, Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane, Donald Byrd, The Roots, The Pharcyde, Me’Shell NdegéOcello and more- it was an impressive line-up, and the whole show was filmed as a documentary, which now seems very quaintly ‘period’. (Lots of ‘right on’ politics and a good dose of Cornell West. See bibliography, if you’re interested, I’m not really recommending trawling through this).

By now I had co-founded a band, Groove Collective and the rhythm section providied much of the live backing for this show- back stage I remember being harangued by a drunk Guru (MC for Gangstarr) for not being true to the authentic Hip Hop aesthetic of two turntables, and a microphone (also a DAT1 player) – shortly afterwards he was to produce his most successful record Jazzmatazz (1993) using jazz musicians.

By now the hateful term Acid Jazz was being used to describe much of this collaboration between Jazz instrumental discipline and DJ aesthetics- I still thought of it as Funk!

You might wonder how a flute could have been useful in Hip Hop, but this was the early nineties, and the aesthetics of looping and sampling had moved away from the electronica of Flash and Bambaata- everything was now very organic and analogue feeling- sounds of scratches from old vinyl, lots of jazz samples , use of upright bass (sampled or live as when Tribe Called Quest used Ron Carter on Verses from the Abstract).  The flute had been well used in funk and fusion of the early 70’s because it was perceived as having a more Afro-centric nature (the same was true for the soprano sax). This made it a good fit for the more Afro-centric nature of Hip hop in the early nineties, (I was even described as the flute MC by influential rapper Masta Ace). So I found myself playing with and becoming intimately familiar with the say the Substitution break, Impeach the President, the Bob James Nautilus break, etc…..

Particularly I came to understand the much maligned aesthetics of sampling; how musical information could be  de- and re-constructed in new contexts; through digitally liberating it from its original performed environment a snippet of music could take on new and unexpected life.

So for instance a relaxed Coltrane style solo played by Tom Scott in 1967, has a single lick which could go by unnoticed, until Pete Rock sample it for They Reminisce Over You:


Now of course they could have spent a few hours trying to get the perfect hook out of a live player, but there are no guarantees that that will work- but Tom Scott’s little riff was exactly what Pete Rock wanted, even though he probably didn’t know he wanted it till he heard it.

I did play some live sessions for Hip Hop producers and  even though I was more familiar with the aesthetics involved, it was never easy.

This sample aesthetic influenced the way those of us in this scene played live. At the Giant Step club, the majority of us were coming from a jazz background. One quick and easy way fro me create unrehearsed cohesion was to quote from the mutually known jazz canon. So I would make my own ‘break’, by choosing a little snippet form a bebop tune- for instance the opening of Charlie Parker’s Scrabble from the Apple

In its original rhythmic context it is played off the ‘1’ , but I would place it on whatever beat I felt, and then repeat it say every other bar.  I might also shift it from upbeat to a downbeat, inverting the rhythm of the phrase. Once I had played it once or twice other horn players could quickly join in and then we had a live sample going. The key thing was DJ’s and MC’s liked it and the dancers didn’t complain!

Now this was some years before I ever formally studied twentieth century classical composition, but there is a similarity to modern classical composition technique; these samples were like melodic cells which could be repeatedly manipulated in many ways: inverted, beat shifted, etc.

It was, and still, is very common to hear criticism of ‘Rap’ just using ‘machines’ to make music; lots of jazz players I knew in NYC, while being happy to come down and jam at Giant Step still couldn’t help but feel that “the thing about rap is that they left out the ‘C’”

There was plenty of discussion on the ethics and musicianship, even with DJ’s (who were now morphing into producers). One moment that stands out in my memory was a free  Groove Collective gig in down-town Brooklyn. As soon as our drummer Genji Siraisi set up the kit and started sound checking (of course making sure he played something funky) I saw DAT players popping out all over the place as dudes caught a few beats for later looping. One guy recorded the whole show standing behind the drum kit.

There were also searches for solutions – thus in 1991 I found myself with Giant step’s CEO on a meeting with new Hip Hop wonders Digable Planets, to talk about sample interpolation. They had an album built on a huge number of jazz samples and they were worried about legally clearing them. They were huge fans of Giant Step and were hoping we could enrol sympathetic musicians to replay some of these jazz samples. While we were there, and I swear I am not making this up, their lawyer called notifying them that one of their samples was cleared. The rest must have followed suit, because I heard no more from them. That is not surprising- by now older musicians were realising that legal, cleared samples could provide them with great new income.

As well as DJ’s and break beats, I was also introduced to the Akai Mpc 60 sampler, not that I used it; my role was sitting on the couch while people tried to find the perfect loop. This mainly happened in Groove Collective recording sessions. The sampling aesthetic was taking new form in live bands who were starting to sample themselves. I think our drummer Genji Siraisi was one of the early exponents of this- in 1993 we began recording our first album with producer Gary Katz and he wanted to record the whole noise of Giant Step for a night. We also recorded a live studio session with audience, and from this material Genji began cutting up and sampling his own beats and other snippets of the band. These were looped and sequenced on the MPC 60 and then we went back in the studio and played all over them again. One of our example’s was Rent Strike:

The old sounding horn intro was also us, with intentionally added vinyl scratch and distortion.

Now we, the ‘musicians’, were copying the DJ’s. What Hip hop had done was turn everyone into a ‘beat’ connoisseur- just few snaps of a snare or a bit of bass and a whole roomful of hipsters would know a track and jump on the dance floor as thought they had heard the chorus of a pop song. Of course it was to also become devalued. Break beats became ubiquitous, and I’ve already made my complaint that they often provided the only groove in what was otherwise completely unfunky music, (Madonna’s Justify my Love).

By 2002 I was back in the UK and the BBC history series ‘Two Men in a Trench’ had a play list of funk breaks and rare grooves played using the mx player in a cell phone. As with so many other aspects of the underground, break beat/funk was no longer secret. My feelings can best be summed up my title, quoted from The Black Sheep’s To Whom it May Concern, an Adornoesque rant directed at  ‘inferior’ Hip Hop and lazy sampling:

“ take the funky drummer give him back to James.”

(But that should be Clyde Stubblefield)


When the Beat was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the creation of Hip Hop, Roaring Brook Press New York 2013

Bill Brewster, Frank Broughton, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, Grove/Atlantic, Incorporated 2007

Fink, Robert, The story of ORCH5, or, the classical ghost in the hip-hop machine. Popular Music, Cambridge University Press 2005

Whosampled website: http://www.whosampled.com/


Red Hot and Cool documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRHEFMeuT14

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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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