Posts Tagged ‘DJ Kool Herc’

Buried Treasure: Bongo Rock

23 September 2010

[Today: The original break beat…]

Michael Viner was an MGM music executive who needed two tracks for a chase scene for a bottom rung B-movie called The Thing With Two Heads. So Viner joined together with drummer Jim Gordon, bongo and conga player King Errisson, and producer and songwriter Perry Botkin, and gave the group the grandiloquently ridiculous name of the Incredible Bongo Band. They recorded a cover of a 1959 hit called ‘Bongo Rock’ and backed it with a song called ‘Bongolia’. When ‘Bongo Rock ’73’ became a surprise hit and sold more than a million singles, MGM decided to finance a full length album.

That LP was called Bongo Rock, and it sank without a trace upon release. It was filled with driving instrumental covers that included extended drum and percussion passages. One song in particular – ‘Apache’ – caught the ear of a South Bronx DJ named Kool Herc, who began spinning it into his late-night block party sets. When Herc looped together two turntables and stretched the percussive break in ‘Apache’, he made it the first breakbeat in Hip-Hop. From humble (and absurd) beginnings, ‘Apache’ became one of the most sampled records in history, and a cornerstone in the birth and growth of hip-hop.

Kool Herc calls it the “national anthem of hip-hop” and Pete Rock says that “If you don’t know ‘Apache’ you don’t know hip-hop.” Indeed, listening to Bongo Rock is like peeking beneath the scaffolding of hip-hop’s messy, ever-changing, graffiti-strewn exterior. Within this tossed-off commercial non-entity, it’s possible to hear the backbone of everything from Grandmaster Flash to Beastie Boys to Nas to Missy Elliott, without really straining your ears. It should have been a short hop from The Thing With Two Heads to obscurity for the Incredible Bongo Band, but Bongo Rock took a detour through the South Bronx and ended up becoming one of the most influential recordings of the 20th century…

Listen: Apache

Listen: Bongolia

Listen: Last Bongo in Belgium

Masterpiece: The Message

23 January 2009

[Today: Flash is fast, Flash is cool…]

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five | The Message

Before he became an innovative, world-famous DJ, Grandmaster Flash was just an 18-year old kid named Joseph Saddler who lived in the South Bronx of the mid-70’s. Young Flash was inspired by both a local block party DJ named Kool Herc – who looped the breakbeats off of funk albums by alternating between two copies of any given record – and the mid-town disco DJs who were seamlessly matching beats to connect songs on the fly. Combining the theory of what Herc was doing with the technical mixing skill of a disco DJ, Flash invented a new way of creating music.

His brilliance wasn’t appreciated all at once. Flash literally went home in tears after his first live audience refused to dance to this strange new music made completely from snippets of other albums. But by the time he joined forces with the Furious Five – a collection of some of the best MCs of the day – in 1977, he was a local star on the rise. MCs Melle Mel, Cowboy, Scorpio (aka Mr. Ness), Raheem, and Kid Creole were nearly as groundbreaking as Flash himself. Cowboy in particular is responsible for so many of the pat phrases that litter the history of hip hop (“Hip hip hop and you don’t stop…” etc) that his heirs ought to receive daily five-figure royalty checks in perpetuity.

Flash & Co turned down the chance to become the first rap artists to record an album – an honor that instead went to the built-for-the-occasion Sugarhill Gang. After dropping a few singles, they released the full-length LP The Message in 1982. It’s a curious record – the first six songs provide a raucous yet relaxed vibe that’s a veritable time capsule of the block party roots of the genre. But the title track closes out the album with a seven-minute roadmap to everything that Hip-Hop would become. By drawing from the scenery around them, the group created a gritty, autobiographical sound that would alter the course of rap music.

In early 1981, pop group Blondie released the song ‘Rapture’, which quickly climbed to #1. During her rap within the tune, Debbie Harry name-checks Flash (“Flash is fast, Flash is cool”), but neither that boost nor the success of ‘The Message’ could prevent Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five from breaking up in 1983. In 2007, they became the first Hip-Hop act elected to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame – pioneers once again.

Listen: The Message

Buried Treasure: That’s The Joint

22 January 2009

[Today: Hip-hop from a bygone era…]

Funky 4+1 | That's The Joint

During the dawn of Hip-Hop in the South Bronx of the late-70’s, rapping and scratching was just a way to pass the time and have fun, and wasn’t remotely seen as a commercial enterprise. The idea of making a rap record seemed like nothing more than a silly fantasy, and even after the surprise success of The Sugarhill Gang single ‘Rapper’s Delight’, many within the rap community viewed the music business suspiciously. Afrika Bambaataa explains that “When we started seeing the recordings, a lot of us in the Zulu Nation stayed away from that at first because people thought once it got into vinyl it was going to kill the culture.”

By the time many of rap’s originators warmed up to the idea of recording, the moment had passed them by and some key figures – including the original DJ, Kool Herc – were never captured on tape. Founded in 1977, Funky 4+1 included five stellar MCs: Lil’ Rodney Cee, KK Rockwell, Jazzy Jeff,* Keith Keith, and Sha-Rock. The group never released a full-length LP, but they were still fairly prolific by the standards of the day. Between 1979 and 1983, they recorded 7 songs, all of which are contained on the 2001 compilation That’s The Joint.

Sha-Rock (aka Sharon Green) was the first female MC, but she was no gimmick. These five voices work together in a show of musical teamwork rarely heard in modern Hip-Hop. Indeed, much of That’s The Joint sounds delightfully dated, including the simple rhyme schemes, unbridled enthusiasm, and lengthy running times. Every track here clocks in at nearly six minutes, while the title track goes 10 minutes and ‘Rapping And Rocking The House’ checks in at a whopping 13 minutes. This is music that was made to conquer a restless crowd, rather than the Billboard charts.

They may not have enjoyed chart success, but their chemistry and charisma were enough to earn Funky 4+1 the first live appearance by a rap group on a national TV broadcast. When they played Saturday Night Live in 1981, they gave America a glimpse of the future. Since then, they’ve been regularly sampled by artists looking to capture some of their old-school flavor – most notably by the Beastie Boys on their classic album Paul’s Boutique – but nothing beats the real thing.

Listen: That’s The Joint

Listen: Rapping And Rocking The House

*[Not to be confused with the DJ who worked with The Fresh Prince.]

12 Events That Changed The Face Of Modern Music

12 May 2007

There are thousands of individual moments that stand out in the history of music. Many of them groundbreaking, some are tragic, a few are uplifting. Here are a dozen that I think drastically changed the way music comes to our ears:

78 - image
November 1918 – The patent for manufacturing records expires, opening the levees for an endless supply of albums that persists to this day. This isn’t a moment that’s often given much play in the history of music, but if anything resembling today’s pro-business government were in power at the time, such an important patent might not have been allowed to expire, perhaps changing the way a huge number of people have gotten their music fix over the years. Though many would say this fact was rendered fairly moot by…

Wall St.
October 29th, 1929 – The stock market in the United States crashes, precipitating the onset of the Great Depression. Of course, people without anything to eat aren’t buying a lot records (unless they’re in college), so this event spelled the effective end of many entertainers’ careers. The production of albums went into a steep and unabated decline that didn’t reverse until after WWII. It’s hard to say how many great voices were lost forever on the day the stocks all turned from money into ticker tape.

Les Paul - image
1948 (date unknown) – Les Paul invents audio multitracking. And the way that modern music is made was born. Multi-tracking is to music what instant replay is to televised sports – it’s nearly impossible to imagine what happens without this development. You can forget about those Pink Floyd records, that’s for sure.

Elvis at Sun
July 5th, 1954 – Elvis records at Sun Studios. It’s entirely debatable whether Elvis and Sam Phillips invented Rock on this fateful day. For the sake of argument, let’s say they didn’t. This would still rank as one of the great moments because it was the birth of the first true music superstar. Elvis would jump to RCA before he would become a worldwide phenomenon, but there’s no doubt that the spark was lit in Memphis, one day after the country’s birthday party.

Beatles - JFK
February 7th, 1964 – The Beatles arrive in America. When their plane touches down at JFK airport, a crowd of 3,000 awaits, and The Beatles immediately begin their conquest of the country. The volume of records that the Fab Four would sell here sealed their artistic (if not financial) freedom and enabled them to spend precious time in the studio crafting albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s that expanded the parameters of modern music.

Dylan Newport
July 25th, 1965 – Bob Dylan plugs in. When Dylan turned on his electric guitar on this Sunday evening in Newport, Rhode Island, it signaled the arrival of rock music as a culturally significant art form. At this point, The Beatles were just starting to make music that could be called Art with a straight face. Some cases have been made that the violent booing at Newport was about poor sound qualilty – but what those people were really yelling about was the death of the old guard.

Monterey Pop
June 16th-18th, 1967 – The Monterey Pop Festival. This “wear flowers in your hair” festival set the template for every large scale music festival ever thrown in its wake. And oh by the way, it also hepped the world to Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. Woodstock’s iconic mess and Altamont’s outright disaster took some steam out of the concept, but Lollapalooza reignited the idea full scale to the point where there are no shortage of brand name festivals in circulation today.

Kool Herc
Late August 1973 – Cindy and Clive Campbell throw a house party. Cindy Campbell wanted to raise some money for school clothes, and her brother Clive had a killer sound system. The party that they threw during the last week of August 1973 in the rented Rec Room of their apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, South Bronx is generally regarded as the Big Bang of Hip-Hop. Clive later became known as DJ Kool Herc, and later still as the father of Hip-Hop culture.

John Lennon
December 8, 1980 – John Lennon is murdered. Lennon was the musical conscience of his generation. His anti-war activities during the 70’s earned him a spot on Nixon’s enemies list and nearly got him deported. Then he was suddenly gunned down one evening by a deranged, pathetic excuse of a person. His death was tragic and unexpected, and foreshadowed the transformation of the music industry into a bunch of vapid, me-first hair-jockeys. Speaking of…

August 1, 1981 – MTV is launched. And the way that music was packaged, sold, received, and perceived was forever changed. MTV (oh by the way, co-founded by ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith) became a nearly overnight sensation that made stars out of VeeJays (love you Martha Quinn!), Michael Jackson, and hair metal bands. Within 10 years it would become a 24/7 reality TV station with little or no music videos, but its influence has lingered.

52nd St
October 1st, 1982 – Billy Joel’s 52nd St is released… [wait for it…] on compact disc. This Japanese issue marks the first album to see production on compact disc, and introduces the world to a brand new format.

January 10th, 2001 – Apple introduces iTunes. Behind a podium at MacWorld in San Francisco, Steve Jobs ushers in the digital age of music. This supersleek music application literally changed the way people interact with music. And when the iTunes store opened two years later, the focus of music began a seismic shift away from compact discs and towards MP3s, and (as a consequence) from albums to singles. And although we’re still riding the wave of this development, it’s easy to see it’s a big one.

[A few runner-ups: Monopolization of airwaves effectively kills AM/FM radio in America, Release of Eric Clapton’s ‘Crossroads’ ignites box set fever, Release of live Rolling Stones bootleg ‘LiveR Than You’ll Ever Be’ ignites bootleg fever, Ramones release self-titled debut, starting US Punk movement, Berry Gordy Jr. founds Motown Records.]