Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The Old-School

Just finished Chang's excellent 'Can't Stop, Won't Stop' , and whilst it exhaustively covers the socio-political background to the birth of Hip Hop, there is plenty to discuss regarding the actual music of the period - especially from 1982-1984: the Electro era.

But first, the first wave of old-school rap - and continuing on from my earlier post, the years 1979-1981.

Very few rap records were licensed by UK labels during this period, but nevertheless a few imports made an appearance amongst the soul-RnB radio shows at the time. These tended to be the rap records with a more conventional disco/soul backing track. 

One of the earliest - and best - of these early rap/disco tracks was by early hip hop DJ Eddie Cheba, on the Bronx independent label Tree Line. In Mark Skillz profile of Eddie Cheba for Wax Poetics magazine, no less than Chuck D is quoted as saying Cheba "...infiltrated the over eighteen college bracket that simply hated on the art form. They put a bow-tie on Hip Hop at that time to get it through". 

"Lookin' Good" served the same purpose in the UK. It deftly sneaked Hip Hop culture into mainstream disco/soul clubs and radio shows that may have rejected more 'hardcore' examples of early rap such as "We Rap More Mellow" or "Superappin'". Not that "Lookin' Good" is a watered down affair - its success - and demand to this day - is its combination of an original, well-produced, driving disco rhythm track (not too dissimilar from Kleeer's 1979 disco classic "Keep Your Body Working", although certainly no loose cover version as many early rap backing tracks were at this point), female vocals and quick-fire, confident rapping from one of the pioneers of the genre.

Despite the huge success of "Rapper's Delight" in 1979 it was still the more conventional 'rap' tracks that crossed-over into the mainstream clubs. Another example in early-1980 was "Education Wrap" by Community People, which made an appearance in the official Disco Top 30. Like the Eddie Cheba track, it combines an original backing track - this time a mid-tempo, jazzy groove - with conventionally sung sections, female backing vocals and short bursts of staccato rap. Saxophone and piano solo complete this positive-message rap released on New York independent Delmar International.

In winter 1979/80, Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'" became the second rap record to break over into the mainstream - this time benefitting from Mercury Records major label promotion and distribution network in the US and overseas. 

Unbeknown to many - including the media outside of New York, was the existence of a growing selection of producers and artists eager to follow in the footsteps of the success of The Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow, etc. It wasn't until the release of the "Genius of Rap" and "Rap Tracks" compilations did the UK become more fully aware of labels such as Enjoy and artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, The Treacherous Three, etc. All of whom were established legends of the Bronx Hip Hop scene.

Even further off the radar were the multiple rap releases by promoter and producer Peter Brown on labels such as Sound Of New York, USA, Heavenly Star, Golden Flamingo and others. Many of these obscure releases would not fully be appreciated until the demand for "old-school" rap in the 1990's.

These releases were not the hybrid disco/rap releases that breached the mainstream. These were often intense, raw, unadulterated rap routines played out over a particular labels in-house band extending a faintly disguised instrumental cover of popular disco/boogie hits of the time.

Between 1979-1980 certain 'rhythm tracks' were especially popular, e.g. those based on Cheryl Lynn's "Got To Be Real", The Whole Darn Family "Seven Minutes Of Funk", Cloud One "Patty Duke", etc.

Other backing covers featured on early rap tracks included versions of Direct Current "Everybody Here Must Party", Freedom "Get Up and Dance", 7th Wonder "Daisy Lady", A Taste Of Honey "Rescue Me", etc - a mix of obscure B-Boy classics and mainstream disco grooves.

Labels such as Paul Winley and Enjoy often recorded original backing tracks - the former label featuring the Harlem Underground Band, the latter a group of musicians led by legendary hip hop drummer Pumpkin - the King Of The Beats. 
Sugar Hill label owner Sylvia Robinson would initially use Positive Force on "Rapper's Delight", then the classic trio of Doug Wimbish, Skip McDonald and Keith LeBlanc played many of the backing tracks for their rap artists.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Book Choice #1:

Jeff Chang: Can't Stop, Won't Stop

Currently a third of the way through this superb and comprehensive history of Hip Hop. Chang traces the roots of today's global Hip Hop phenomena, all the way back to the Kingston & South Bronx ghetto's of the early-seventies. 
The pre-Hip Hop culture of gangs, drugs and poverty against a back-drop of short-sighted urban renewal programs is particularly fascinating. This stark reality of life in the South Bronx is captured in the 1979 documentary "80 Blocks from Tiffany's":

There are also two graffiti-based Hip Hop documentaries from the early-eighties worth watching: "All City" and "Style Wars" by Henry Chalfant.

Being a white kid growing up in leafy Suffolk, my experience of Hip Hop culture was of course entirely different - totally removed from the harsh reality shown in these documentaries. 
But my experience is valid as it is a perfect example of the global nature of Hip Hop. Just as the graffiti artists yearned to bust out of the confines of their home turf and go "All City", the commercialization of home-grown "rap" music by record label owners Sylvia Robinson (Sugarhill), Paul Winley (Paul Winley) and Bobby Robinson (Enjoy) led to Hip Hop culture breaking out worldwide to mass youth appeal.
My first exposure to Hip Hop culture was preceded by my own "Adventures On the Wheels Of Steel". I had acquired my parents record deck and armed with my Aunt's collection of funk/disco 7"s proceeded to play them to death. Two of the records I inherited came in for extra abuse: Gary's Gang: "Keep On Dancin'" (1979 Columbia) and Lonnie Liston Smith: "Space Princess" (1978 Columbia). 

These two records had instrumental sections which focused on percussion. I gravitated towards these sections and wished I could extend them somehow. Simply lifting up the needle and returning it roughly back to the beginning of the "break" sufficed, until I came up with the idea of putting a piece of blu-tack on the vinyl at a place where the needle arm would hit it and gently scratch or jump back to the beginning of the break. (The damage to the needle soon put an end to my plans and I forgot about this attempt at extending breaks until I heard "The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel" - a record which made perfect sense to me).

Later that same year (1979), I was doing my usual Friday night routine of hiding a portable radio under my bed - a cassette recorder with an external microphone up against the speaker, taping the Disco Top 40 show on Radio Luxembourg, hosted by Tony Prince. Over the weekend I would play the C90's back and tick off the track names against the printed chart in that weeks Smash Hits magazine. 
A particular record that caught my attention was by a band I was familiar with from my Aunt's collection of 7"s - The Fatback Band. Now simply known as Fatback, this NY State based funk group always seemed upfront with the latest underground dance trends: previous hits included "Are You Ready (Do The Bus Stop)" and "Spanish Hustle." Now, albeit somewhat belatedly, they were the first mainstream band to release a 'rap' record: "King Tim III (Personality Jock)".

This mainstream attempt at 'rap' was a gentler introduction than "Rapper's Delight" which came out a few weeks later. "King Tim III" had three rap sections in amongst an original slice of typical Fatback funk, whereas the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" was a continuous stream of rap lyrics from 3 different "MC's" over an extended instrumental version of Chic's "Good Times". 
If the continuous barrage of quick-fire lyrics over a well-known disco hit wasn't shocking enough, I was in for another surprise when I went to the only record store in Suffolk that sold the occasional US import to buy a copy. They only had one US 12" copy (with the original red label) and it was far too expensive for somebody used to saving his lunch money to buy ex-jukebox 7"s for 50p each. The store owner told me it was reserved for himself in any case. He played it in the store and that's when I realized I had only heard the short version on the radio. The full version was 15 minutes long!

"Rapper's Delight" became a huge chart hit in the UK, and eventually I was able to afford a UK licensed 12" version. By then, I had heard an even better rap record: The Younger Generation's "We Rap More Mellow" (1979 Brass). A 12" so rare it was only in the mid-80's that I finally found a copy in a charity store in Ipswich - amongst a collection of disco 12"s sold by a US serviceman apparently.

The Younger Generation soon became The Furious Five, and with Grandmaster Flash made many classic rap and electro hits for the Sugarhill label. But only a few rap records - usually from more mainstream soul labels - made it into the disco charts over the next year or so, e.g. Jocko "Rhythm Talk" (1979 Philadelphia International) - a rap record that made the most of the huge success of its backing track: McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stopping Us Now", and Joe Bataan " Rap-O Clap O" (1979 Salsoul), a record that no doubt benefitted from its labels established disco heritage.

It took the success of a mainstream pop hit to re-ignite the UK's interest in rap music. Blondie's "Rapture" in 1981, name-checked graffiti legend Fab 5 Freddy and DJ Grandmaster Flash. Soon after, mainstream UK labels Island and Virgin Records both released defining Hip Hop compilations, licensing rap records that had passed unnoticed by the mainstream since the success of "Rapper's Delight". 
I had both of these compilations and played them to death. Island released "Genius Of Rap" - which built on the success of the Hip Hop classic "Genius Of Love" by the Tom Tom Club. Sleeve-notes by Robert Elms and the fantastic street image artwork portrayed a vibrant, exciting world of B-Boys, graffiti artists, rappers and DJ's. 
The cover of the Virgin compilation couldn't have been more different - just a stark white sleeve with the letters "Rap Tracks" - the track-listing seemingly making the most of its licensing agreements with US labels WMOT and Enjoy.

These compilations and the handful of rap records that were licensed by UK labels were my Hip Hop world in early 1982. But it wasn't long before Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force would electro-fy my particular planet later that same year. 

RIP "Mitch" Mitchell

R.I.P. "Mitch" Mitchell (1947-2008)

Drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Happy 30th Anniversary DALLAS

Jock & J.R. Ewing

The greatest TV show ever made celebrates it's 30th Anniversary this month, so pour yourself a Bourbon & Branch, get yourself down to the Oil Baron's Ball and raise a toast.

Monday, 10 November 2008



I recently produced a recording session where we had access to a legendary "Beatles Desk" - the EMI REDD.51. Originally designed in 1959 and used by The Beatles until 1969's "Abbey Road", this 4-track mixing console has a unique sound, full of valve 'warmth' and pleasing distortion. 
Left and right sections hold the mic inputs, amps and EQ controls. The beautifully symmetrical centre section holds the VU meters, channel faders, pan and send/return controls plus main output faders. 
A true work of art - it's longevity and desirability, a testament to the EMI design team.

Wax Poetics - Japan

Wax Poetics - Japan edition. Issue #1.

The best magazine on the planet goes East. Issue #1 proudly presents my in-depth article, covering Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi era as it's front cover feature. 
The article is one third of a much larger piece, originally written for a long-awaited "Herbie Hancock - The Warner Brothers Years" CD box-set. 
The full-length piece will be published on Planetary Folklore in the near future.