Welcome to the Radio Slipstream Hip Hop Extravaganza.
This has been over 5 goddamn years in the making. I can’t really hope that the wait has been worth it, but I sleep better knowing that you probably weren’t worried/waiting. And I hope you have a real good time.
This is part 1 of 3 or 4 episodes in the series, and, just to make you a little more angry than you already are, there won’t be a single hip hop song in the whole show. That’s because to start things off I’m going to explore not just the roots but the soil and the seeds that gave birth to the whole new rap movement.
So why exactly am I putting all this time into a show about hip hop. is it just white guilt? or is there something more going on?
Hip hop is pretty interesting, because it’s one of the newest major genres on the block, especially if you don’t include things like Crunkcore and Shitgaze. It’s one of the biggest selling genres out there, but at the same time it is often scorned by people who just don’t see why anyone would like it or who think it’s promoting questionable lifestyles and values (that latter criticism can be hard to deny in some cases, but i still can’t help but see an interesting similarity to the original reception of rock and roll music). I find myself running into hip hop haters less and less as civilization advances, but there’s still many many people out there who just don’t listen to it much, and that has included me a fair bit. So I decided I wanted to really figure out what the genre was all about.. I had people talking about ‘old school hip hop’ a lot, and wasn’t sure what all the classic records were, or if I did, didn’t know why they were, and wondered about how the whole movement came together. So this showcase is as much a journey of discovery as it is a celebration, but I hope you’ll find it to be both. I want all of you to listen to the whole thing, and I don’t want anyone who listens to the whole thing to tell me they ‘just don’t like hip hop’.
I used to be one of those “I don’t get hip hop” dudes. And part of my reason for embarking on this research mission was to do away with that, or just get informed. The endgame is that I probably now listen to more hip hop than any other genre. I’m converted to the church of the emcee. Praise Herc.
Episode Zero Track Breakdown
The Last Poets - When The Revolution Comes (1970)
In some ways pretty indistinguishable from ‘proper hip hop’.. it pretty much might as well be.. it was The Last Poets and ‘When the Revolution Comes’ from their debut self titled album. The Last poets are pretty close to being the first rappers. Their music fused traditional rhythms and poetry, with an emphasis on black identity, which is pretty much what hip hop does. They even traded in the drumming for jazz and funk rhythms starting in about 1972, a style that they dubbed ‘jazzoetry.’ The band actually met in prison, where Jalal Mansur Nuriddin was serving time for refusing to fight in Vietnam. They called their poetry ‘spiel’ing and would often perform on street corners of the impoverished Harlem ghettos where they lived. As you probably heard, their lyrics were intensely and unapologetically political.
Cab Calloway - Minnie The Moocher (1931)
We’re now heading back to the 1930s, and a cat named Cab Calloway who asked America if they were hep to the jive. Cab developed on the singyspeaky sibilant scatting that Louis Armstrong started and built his own hip talk where ‘crazy’ and even ‘baad’ was a good thing. He was all about the partying, he made parents worried. Its been argued that his style was a precursor to rap as well, gaudy and over the top, or you might say ‘straight pimpin’. ‘over the top’ applied to his performances as well as his clothes. You’re gonna hear probably his most well-known track ‘Minnie the moocher’ from 1931.
Louis Jordan - Saturday Night Fish Fry, Parts 1 & 2 (1949)
Louis Jordan, is a bit more often cited as ‘godfather of hiphop’. He popularized the jump blues- an uptempo hybrid of jazz blues and boogie woogie, and was an important figure in early RnB, although back then, what that really meant was you were a black musician. RnB today has very little to do with what’s called RnB these days. Like Cab Calloway he was a showman, known for his charisma, presence and humour on stage. He was also extremely popular, even scoring a #1 hit on the white charts (back then radio was segregated), and he’s the 5th most successful black recording artist according to the Billboard charts. The song we’ll be hearing is a rollicking tune called Saturday Night Fish Fry. It’s like In Da Club of the 40s, telling the story of a totally off the hook party that gets broken up by the cops. Very hip hop! It’s sung in a conversational, poetical style that’s been compared to rap by many people.. including SCHOLARS!
Bo Diddley - Say Man (1959)
Bo Diddley was one of the important figures in the development of rock and roll.. and allegedly hip hop as well. “Say Man” sounds like an obscure B-Side but is actually his only number one hit. The reason it’s important is it’s talking over music, which is what rap is. It’s also putting people down, which is particularly important to hip hop. It’s a good example of what’s called ‘the dozens’ which comes from african american oral tradition.. two guys insult each other back and forth on the fly as a sort of competition of wit.. does that sound a bit like freestyle rap battling? yes, it does. So. An important facet of the roots of hip hop.
The Watts Prophets - Funny how things can change & Amerikkka (1971)
We are moving forward now to the late 60s and early 70s and some beat poets in a more literal sense that standard. The show started off with the Last Poets, but there’s a couple other noteworthy members of their movement First off… The Watts Prophets are most commonly described as the West Coast’s less successful answer to the Last Poets. The group came together out of the Watts Writers Workshop about the same time the Last Poets were coming together on the other side of the continent. Their albums presented a politically charged poetry with a sing-songy delivery backed by tribal and jazz inflected drumming.
The Watts Prophets never acheived the success their Eastcoast counterparts, and were unable to secure a recording contract after their first two albums (one of which was called “Rappin’ Black In A White World (1971)” if you were questioning whether they fit in here). Their importance has been increasingly recognized along with the increase of hip hop’s popularity and they came together to record another album almost 30 years after their first — ‘When the 90s Came’ from 1997. I’ve heard in a number of modern rap tunes reference to spelling America with a triple K. That’s really not a new sentiment!
Gil Scott-Heron - Whitey On the Moon (1970)
Gil Scott Heron is the most well known of the proto-rapper poets. In his early years he wrote novels and poetry as well as performing music. His first album, “Small Talk at 125th and Lennox”, consisted of him reading his poetry with a collective of jazz and funk musicians providing backup, but subsequent discs saw him exploring more familiar styles, songwriting and jazzy neo soul tunes. He released a number of albums throughout the 70s and is came out with another “I’m New Here” — in 2011. He passed away that same year.
A few of these spoken word pieces point to some other important influences on the development of hip hop — griots, who were sort of the West African equivalent of bards — travelling from town to town and passing along both traditional songs and poems and creating new ones based on current events, and it is also worth mentioning the powerful orators of the black church who let the melody and rhythm of gospel music inform their sermons… I don’t have direct audio examples any of those unfortunately, but thought they should be mentioned! There you go! Mention!
Richard Pryor - Niggers Vs. The Police (1974)
Richard Pryor, noted stand-up comedian (often cited as the best stand-up of all time), was not at all afraid to ruffle feathers. He spoke about issues of racism openly and glibly, and received many criticisms for the “vulgarity” of his subject manner and vocabulary. In the end, though, he is remembered as one of the most important stand-up comedians of all time. As far as his connection to hip-hop = I’m just going to go to a quote from an insightful essay by Mark Anthony Neal in The New Black Magazine:
“Pryor was one of the critical forces that allowed for the mainstreaming of hip-hop in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Pryor made explicitly public the dark, funky, bittersweet, and beautiful realities of black life behind the color line, and offended a great many black folk who wanted those realities to remain out-of-sight from the white gaze.”
Or, going from another’s opinion from the American Chronicle
“In another generation Pryor would have been one of those black entertainers who donned blackface to appeal to a white audience. Rap artists who glorify violence and act like pimps and thugs did not appear out of nowhere, Richard Pryor showed them that adopting ugly stereotypes is the path to wealth and riches.”
Not going to takes sides on this one, Just going to play a little clip from his 1974 album “That Nigger’s Crazy” called Niggers vs Police. Its subject matter that I’m sure you’ve heard from many rappers. Not to mention pretty relevant at the dawn of 2015 thanks to some unpleasant news from the US of A courts.
Cassius Clay - Round 1: I Am The Greatest (1963)
If you go out googling, looking for thoughts on who is the first rapper (and believe me I did this a number of times), there are a number of cases being made for Cassius Clay aka Muhammed Ali. Ali was an incredible boxer, but more than that he was a truly outspoken showman and celebrity. He was known for his lively ego: cutting opponents down to size before a match with a flurry of quips and insults that would often rhyme. So basically hip hop without the musical backing. It turns out he also released an album under his birthname Cassius Clay in 1963, a year before his famous title fight against Sonny Liston. It was unassumingly entitled “I Am the Greatest”. I have to admit I think it’s pretty terrible, and the cheesy audience reaction doesn’t help. But culturally, it does serve as a good representation of an important cultural forbearer of rap music.
Rudy Ray Moore -Flatland (1975)
More stand-up comedy territory with Rudy Ray Moore, who owed a lot to Richard Pryor, but also pushed things a extremely close to early hip hop in the soundtrack to the 1975 blacksploitation film Dolemite. I mean listen to that funky backdrop with the lyrics rolling out over it, building a legendary character out of himself. He even refers to it as rapping. it kinda sounds more like hiphop than the stuff of earliest hip hop (See Part One)
Gil Scott-Heron - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1971)
More Gil Scott-Father-Of-Fucking-Hip-Hop-Heron. You’ve probably heard this track referenced before somewhere. It’s a classic doozy. You can get the stripped down bongo version on his earlier album, but this is the jazzed out smooth version from his seminal album “Pieces of A Man”. Usually Radio Slipstream never plays the same song twice and this showed up in an episode in 2006, but rules are made for breaking. Right?
Big Youth - Screaming Target (1973)
U-Roy - Natty Rebel (1976)
The Congos - Fisherman (1977)
Hip hop came from New York in the late 70s, but it really came from a DJ named Kool Herc, and he came from Jamaica, bringing the culture of sound systems and dub with him. Dub is reggae’s freaky, tripped out step-cousin. That is: a truck roles up with speakers on the back, and a DJ hooks in his two turntables and a party is born. Sometimes to make sure the party keeps bumping, someone hands a hypeman a microphone and he starts shouting out all sorts of demands in sync and tune with the DJ’s beats: “Put your hands in the air”, “jump around” etc. The sound system sound played down the melody and focused on pounding bass and skittery drums — a perfect backing for someone to start rapping.
And there you have the essence of hip hop: Street parties influenced by Jamaican dub culture brought to New York by Kool Herc.
If we’re gonna ever put this online, I’m not going to get into the individual tracks here. Suffice to say: Fisherman is one hell of a tune. Their main jam was produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry who is somewhat legendary (in that ‘we’re not always so sure it’s true’ way) for pioneering studio techniques that would prove pivotal in hip-hop’s development, and for being certifiably insane.
I don’t really have any music to offer from Kool Herc, who is, when it comes to hip hop, the man. So I offer this mini documentary, instead.
“Hip-hop….the whole chemistry of that came from Jamaica…..In Jamaica all you needed was a drum and a bass. So what I did was go right to the ‘yoke’. I cut off all the anticipation and just played the beats. I’d find out where the break in the record was and prolonged it and people would love it. So I was giving them their own taste and beat percussion wise….cause my music is all about heavy bass.”
—DJ Kool Herc
The Soul Samples
Lyn Collins - Think (About It) (1972)
James Brown - Funky Drummer (1970)
James Brown - Funky President (People It’s Bad) (1974)
The Honey Drippers - Impeach the President (1973)
The Winstons - Amen Brother (1969)
Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band - Apache (1973)
If you go over to whosampled.com and do some tallying, the 6 songs above have appeared in a (not insignificant) 4,789 songs.
The Godfather of Soul has been sampled about a million times in modern hip hop. Maybe more. Not only was his funky drummer cut up and layed over nearly a thousand hip hop hits, he pioneered call-and-response choruses, breakbeats, and fancy footwork that inspired early breakdancers.
And of course The Winstons, whose break in Amen Brother can be given credit for inspiring not only a number of songs, but a number of genres.
Sampling is an essential part of hip hop culture. Not to mention one of its most contentious parts. Want to do some litigating?? Come and listen to this!!
It instigates cries of “unoriginal”, “stealing”, and “not music” from purists and wads. But it connects back to the original hip hop being party DJs. They would scrap the boring parts of the songs and string together the funkiest, catchiest hooks and beats to keep the audience engaged and rocking. It’s just good editing. Hip hop is like the tweeting of the late 20th century music scene. It made old people grumble, but it was undeniably approachable to the kids (to be said always in an overbearing, condescending tone).
The original emcee was literally a master of ceremonies, rhyming over those funky samples to get the crowd going. And you might say the dang rappers bring nothing to the mix, but you are wrong. And they idolize their sources. Hip hop is chalk full of references and homages to songs that came 1, 5 or 20 years before. It wears its influences on its sleeve. Worships and reinterprets them. It was postmodern meta-pastiche before postmodern meta-pastiche was putting undergraduates everywhere to sleep.
And aside from sampling, the soul and funk of the 70s provided the spirit and performance of a whole ton of hip hop.
The Funky Beats
Sly & The Family Stone - Sing A Simple Song (1969)
Parliament - Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker) (1976)
Herman Kelly & Life - Dance to the Drummer’s Beat (1978)
The funk movement marked a logical progression from soul that gave way to disco, which in turn evolved into the first rap music. Not only that, it was a fertile ground for sampling, especially in the P-Funk happy G-Funk hip hop that started in the early 1990s. The over-the-top showmanship of the latter-day funks is certainly something that found its way into hip hop culture as well. Not to mention a narrative that ran through the electro infused hip hop of the early 1980s was cut of the same cloth: travelling to space to find a super rad place where brothers could dance and live in peace.
There might be more relation to hip hop, because honestly this seems a tad tenuous. But I chose these songs for this 5 years ago so I’m giving past me benefit of the doubt. Okay?
That’s it for Part Zero. At some point in the near to far-ish future, we’ll move up by a factor of infinity to Part One, and play you the first ever hip hop song that was recorded. Depending on who you ask.