Posts Tagged ‘Grandmaster Flash’

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

Buried Treasure: A South Bronx Story

26 March 2010

[Today: Band of sisters…]

Here’s a South Bronx story: Helen Scroggins looks around her South Bronx neighborhood and watches kids being swallowed up left and right by the mean streets. In her living room, she sees her daughters grooving to TV programs like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and the PBS program Soul. When the girls ask her to buy them instruments, she obliges one Christmas, on the condition that they actually put in the time to learn how to play. She believes this will give them something constructive to do and keep them out of trouble. Friday night “music reviews” become standard, and before long Renee (guitar), Valerie (drums) and Deborah (bass) have a sound, and a band. Their name comes from the initials of two of the sisters’ birth stones (emerald and sapphire) and the color they hoped their records would attain (gold).

“At first we used to just try to copy records from the radio,” Renee told NME in 1981. “Then we got tired of that ’cause it didn’t come out right. So we decided we wanted our own sound and we never tried to play after anyone else again.” After gigging around New York and opening for a wide variety of acts, from Grandmaster Flash to The Clash, they crossed paths with Factory Records owner Tony Wilson, who paired them with producer Martin Hannett (of Joy Division fame). His sparse production of the group’s 1983 debut Come Away With ESG accentuated their percussion-driven rhythms – the backbone of their punk/funk/disco/soul hybrid sound. Laced with conga drum and reverb, their music sounds like gritty funk recorded in a gleaming, sterile lab environment, and their clean beats have made them a favorite of DJs and sample-grabbers the world over.

ESG wasn’t a punk band musically, but by performing in front of live audiences after limited self-training, they handsomely paid off the theory of punk music. In several ways they were the inverse of the Ramones – they were actually siblings, they really didn’t know how to play (the Ramones, like most punk bands, were better musicians than they let on), and their sound was funky and futuristic. But like the Ramones, ESG never found commercial success. The title of their 1992 EP Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills told the story of a band struggling to stay afloat. The group has broken up and re-formed several times in the interim, and the best moments from their on-and-off career can be heard on the 2000 compilation A South Bronx Story.

Listen: Moody

Listen: My Love For You

Listen: You’re No Good

Buried Treasure: Fresh Wild Fly & Bold

15 January 2010

[Today: One of hip-hop’s cornerstones…]

The Cold Crush Brothers formed in 1978, near the dawn of hip-hop, and were among the first handful of important groups in the genre. They appeared in the genre-defining 1982 film Wild Style and became the first group to take hip-hop international with their 1983 tours of Europe and Japan. But because Charley Chase, Tony Tone, Grandmaster Caz, Almighty K.G., Easy A.D. and JDL never released a full-length album, they are little more than an historical footnote for contemporary hip-hop fans. That the entire breadth of their recorded catalog fits comfortably on a single compact disc is testament to how much hip-hop has changed through the decades.

In the beginning, hip-hop was a live phenomenon, used to literally rock the block. It seemed completely separate from – and impossible to capture in – a sterile studio environment, and many of rap music’s pioneers (including Grandmaster Flash) openly scoffed at the notion of recording an LP. With its 10-minutes-per-track running time and dance-oriented direction, Fresh Wild Fly & Bold is a vivid reminder that old school hip-hop was much closer to disco than what goes in the hip-hop bins today. The title track is a series of hip-hop shorts patched together into a full-length megamix while ‘Punk Rock Rap’ sounds more like the theme to a kids show than the Punk/Rap hybrid suggested by its title. But both songs are 100% fun, and that’s probably the biggest difference between hip-hop now and then.

As Grandmaster Caz told Cincy Groove Magazine in 2008, “The difference between hip-hop back then and today is that there is a bigger machine behind it. Hip-hop is fueled by that machine. Back then hip-hop was fueled by us. The first hip-hop record came out in 1979 and hip-hop started in 1973. So for those 6 years it was just pure hip-hop. Hip-hop today is just as good, it just comes from a different place than it did back in the beginning.” But regardless of all those differences, it’s possible to hear how modern hip-hop arrived out of this. In their attitude, style, and flow, the Cold Crush Brothers were a walking blueprint for the genre they helped popularize.

Listen: Fresh, Wild, Fly & Bold (Mega Mix)

Listen: Punk Rock Rap (Mega Mix)

Weekend Playlist

7 December 2009

“Do not let any record company disturb your creative flow. You are not writing for the record company. You’re writing for the public.” ~ Grandmaster Flash

Ambulance LTD | Ambulance LTD

Erma Franklin | Super Soul Sister

Lightnin’ Hopkins | Best Blues Masters Vol. 1
[album cover not pictured]

Girl Talk | Night Ripper

Lynyrd Skynyrd | Winterland – San Francisco, CA – 3/7/76
[album cover not pictured]

The Outsiders | CQ

Slint | Spiderland

HKB Finn | Vitalistics

The Smoke | It’s Smoke Time

Reigning Sound | Too Much Guitar

Ghostface Killah | Supreme Clientele

Cafe Tacvba | Cafe Tacvba

Curtis Mayfield | Curtis/Live!

Various Artists | Mile Marker 383

Lee Hazlewood | Requiem For An Almost Lady

Jeff Tweedy | Chicago, IL – 10/21/99
[album cover not pictured]

G. Love & Special Sauce | The Best Of

Rodney O. & Joe Cooley | Everlasting Hits
[album cover not pictured]

U2 | Melon

Funky 4+1 | That’s The Joint

Grandmaster Flash | The Official Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash

Sonic Cool

26 August 2009

Sonic Cool by Joe S. Harrington

A few years back, someone created a cool diagram of the history of rock that was designed to look like the map for the London Underground subway. Sonic Cool, a 2002 book by Joe S. Harrington, functions much the same way – it’s a satisfying, thorough, point-to-point history of rock music. This dense, 500+ page tome connects the many dots between Elvis Presley and modern music, and while there are literally tons of books on the market that attempt to tell the story of Rock & Roll, Sonic Cool lays it all out as well as anything else written on the topic. In spite of my criticisms, this is a strong book that deserves serious recommendation.

First the good – Harrington writes in a breezy style, and he’s done a fine job of seamlessly connecting the many offshoots of rock history. He’s to be commended for not being afraid to back up and repeat certain points that are essential to multiple strains of Rock (The Stooges, MC5, and New York Dolls justifiably feature in many chapters). He also deserves a medal for his two sentence description of Rock & Roll, which alone trumps many volumes on the subject:

“The common denominator between both Blues and Country was the funky down-home quality that enabled one to let go of his/her emotions and not feel self-conscious about it. Elvis realized this, and it was through his realization that the synthesis of these two musical forms could finally take place (hence “Rock ‘n’ Roll”).”

Harrington’s no-holds-barred writing style is best exemplified by his entertaining description of Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson:

“A raving bearded satyr who looked like he hadn’t taken a bath in two months, his stage antics included leaping around the stage wearing a codpiece and honking on his massive flute. The most well known flautist in Rock, Anderson was also an outspoken detractor of other bands and a tireless promoter of himself. His air could be summed up in one word: pompous.”

But this book starts to run into trouble with the second half of its subtitle, The Life & Death Of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Because the history of rock has been written so many times, one can assume that Harrington was encouraged to put a unique twist on it: hence, in his opinion, rock “died” sometime around 2002. His reasons for this conclusion aren’t abundantly clear, but they seem to revolve around the rise of music videos, the triumph of style over substance in music, and the ascendence of Hip-Hop.

At any rate, he runs into the same problem as kooks who predict the end of the world – namely, what happens the day after the prediction, when the world is still turning, or rock is still going?? Much can be said about the troubles of the music industry, but nobody in their right mind thinks that rock is now dead. By wrapping his book around that conclusion, Harrington comes off as a doomsday crank, and dates his book in the worst possible way.

The same could be said about his tendency to project the worst bits of a musical genre on its audience. In particular, his ranting about Grunge and Generation X are the literary equivalent of foaming at the mouth. I’m squarely within the demographic of Gen X, and a lot of my fellow X’ers will probably be surprised to learn that we’re part of “a generation of self-loathing, doubt, and anxiety… a generation with low self esteem that aspired to nothingness.”

Even more reprehensible is Harrington’s conclusion, based on a woman’s comment that her grandmother owned a copy of Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’, that “Granny was a former coke whore who chain-smoked and spat venom.” If that’s the lone borderline racist comment in this book, it’s certainly not the only time that Harrington draws a reckless, sweeping generalization that’s based on questionable musical profiling.

Harrington is an astute music critic, but he stumbles when he tries to connect the history of music to larger events. For instance, his assertion that “The defeat of [George] McGovern in ’72 left a big scar on the collective psyche of the baby boomers” is a laughably unnecessary reach (Vietnam, yes – Kennedy assassinations, yes – McGovern? Please…). Thankfully, Sonic Cool overcomes its obvious flaws because it’s mostly dedicated to unraveling the absurd, complex, entertaining history of Rock.

Weekend Playlist

26 January 2009

Here’s some of what we heard during the weekend that was…

J.K. & Co. | Suddenly One Summer
J.K. & Co. _ Suddenly One Summer

Esther Phillips | Home Is Where The Hatred Is
Esther Phillips _ Home Is Where The Hatred Is: The Kudu Years 1971-1977

Neil Young & Crazy Horse | Sleeps With Angels
Neil Young & Crazy Horse _ Sleeps With Angels

Grandmaster Flash | The Official Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash
Grandmaster Flash _ The Official Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash

Gomez | In Our Gun
Gomez _ In Our Gun

Deltron 3030 | Deltron 3030
Deltron 3030 _ Deltron 3030

Gorillaz | Demon Days
Gorillaz _ Demon Days

Nitin Sawhney | Prophesy
Nitin Sawhney _ Prophesy

The Stooges | Heavy Liquid [6CD]
The Stooges _ Heavy Liquid

Various Artists | Even More Dazed & Confused
Various Artists _ Even More Dazed & Confused

Various Artists | Children Of Nuggets
Various Artists _ Children Of Nuggets

Various Artists | Latin Funk Flavas
Various Artists _ Latin Funk Flavas

The Story Of UK Funk
Various Artists _ Brothers On The Slide: The Story Of UK Funk

Stevie Ray Vaughan | The Boxed Set
Stevie Ray Vaughan _ The Boxed Set

David Crosby | If I Could Only Remember My Name
David Crosby _ If I Could Only Remember My Name

Steve Miller Band | The King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents The Steve Miller Band
Steve Miller Band _ King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents The Steve Miller Band

Skip James | Hard Time Killing Floor Blues
Skip James _ Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

Bob Marley & The Wailers | Exodus
Bob Marley & The Wailers _ Exodus

Sweet | Desolation Boulevard
Sweet _ Desolation Boulevard

Tosca _ J.A.C.

Kings Of Leon | Aha Shake Heartbreak
Kings Of Leon _ Aha Shake Heartbreak

Michelle Shocked | Captain Swing
Michelle Shocked _ Captain Swing

The Complete Live Recordings 1963-1971
Fred Neil _ The Sky Is Falling: The Complete Live Recordings 1963-1971

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