Roots of Hip Hop Pt 1 : Preachers, Prisons and Soul Brother #1

Afrika Bambaataa
“While [African music] admits of being discussed,
it cannot be strictly defined” – Andre Craddock-Willis

It is impossible to fix one cultural antecedent as the ancestor of Hip Hop music but we can identify that it springs from the rich and complex history of African American music and expression.  As a result, both the musical and lyrical performers of Hip Hop- the MC/rapper and the DJ/producer- draw from a seemingly endless well of direct and indirect sources.  In the words of Afrika Bambaataa, Bronx, NY Hip Hop pioneer:

"You gotta remember that rap goes all the way back to Africa. There have always been different styles of rappin', from the African chants to James Brown to Shirley Ellis in the '60s doin' "The Clapping Song."  There's Isaac Hayes, there's Barry White, there's Millie Jackson, that love-type rappin', and there's The Last Poets. And then there's your "dozens," that black people used to play in the '30s and '40s.  The dozens is when you tryin' to put the other guy down, talkin' about his mama, his sister, his brother, sayin' it in rhyme.  These days, rap is made up of funk, heavy metal, soca, African music, jazz, and other elements.  You can do anything with rap music; you can go from the past to the future to what's happenin' now."

The definitive first study
of Afro-American music
What can be identified though, in acknowledgement Leroi Jones' Blues People, is the similar form and function of African American music and West African music.  Quoting Jones:

“...the music of the Negro in America, in all its permutations... [reveals] something about the Negro's existence in this country as well as something about the essential nature of this country, i.e. society as a whole.” (from Blues People Introduction, 1963)

Practitioners of modern African American music transmuted musical and cultural traditions of West Africa in reaction to their environment.  Jones asserts that essential qualities of West African music- its social function and its rhythmic and lyrical forms- continue on in the 20th century altered by African Americans experiences in the rolling fields of the South, the bustling urban cities in the north and the roads and train tracks that ferried them in between.

As African Americans encountered the wonders of modernity or the lingering oppression of slavery and institutional marginalization, the ability to account for these experiences were often lyrically expressed.  Thus, these experiences were expressed with grave seriousness in the work of African American preachersrevolutionary orators such as Malcolm X or Gil Scott Heron or the soul crooners like Sam Cooke.  

Skat singers like Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald or early rhythm and blues performers like Louis Jordan offered a more worldly expression that still bore links back to West African music and traditions.  And while particularly ribald, the "toasts" of the early 20th century displayed a verbal, lyrical rhythm while spinning a tall tale born from an actual event.  Below, a prison "toast" of the story of the legend of Stagger Lee

Clearly, in a wide variety of forms, African American cultural history has its share of oratory masters.  Hip Hop MCs and rappers have been influenced and informed by all of these traditions. The first “Masters of Ceremony”- the hosts of the first Hip Hop parties in the Bronx in the mid 1970s- adopted both the preacher's power and a toaster's rhymed wit.  These previously styles of speak and slang were twisted into a vocal performance at Bronx parties known initially as MCing and later called rapping.  The following briefly discusses the "Black American" musical influences of the 1950, 60s and 70s that had the most immediate impact on the sound of Hip Hop in 1973.

The Genius, Disc Jocks and Mr. Dynamite
Ray Charles

At the risk of oversimplifying, the crossover of the sacred sounds of much African American musical expression to a more secular gesture of mainstream American sensationalism is best evidenced in the music of Ray Charles.  Charles was not the only artist to do this as he built upon the foundation of jazz and blues music that emerged in the first half of the 20th century.  But Charles' pioneering fusion of traditional "Black" gospel vocal styling with lyrics about love and women made him one of the most acclaimed and reviled.  His 1959 hit "What'd I Say?" is the clearest example of this.  There is little question that Charles popularization of the concept and sound of "soul" shaped modern American R&B if not Pop music in general.

In "Towards An Aesthetic of Popular Music" Simon Frith theorizes that modern genres of popular music are shaped by the technologies that create and disseminate them.  With this in mind, it must be emphasized that the music of Ray Charles' contemporaries and successors was regularly received by audiences via radio during this period.   As popular forms of rock and R&B grew in popularity and stature, the experience of this music was often framed by the talents of the local disc jockey.   Sociologist Todd Gitlin speaks of how DJs in the 1960s shaped listeners experiences:

[The DJ] invaded the home, flattered the kids’ taste (while helping mold it), lured them into an imaginary world in which they were free to take their pleasures… …the disc jockeys played an important part in extending the peer group, certifying rock lovers as a huge subsociety of the knowing.

The local disc jockey played new hit songs first; introduced new artists; promoted local businesses, informed listeners what cool happenings were going down; and, simply, what was "cool" and what was not.
Standouts in the field always did this with a flair and change of speakDouglas "Jocko" Henderson, a popular DJ in Philadelphia and New York City during the 1950s and 60s used jive and slang while on air, granting his radio show character and status that was as entertaining as the music itself. A sample of Jocko Henderson’s broadcast style as he speaks between songs: 

"Soul Travelin'" by Gary Byrd is a musical example of the DJ's charisma and narrative power over the music.

During the 1960s and 70s, R&B music and their artists grew in profileDetroit's "Motown Sound" enjoyed both a large white and black audience and represented the first largely successful black owned record label.  The wider acceptance of "soul" music was reflective of the racial upheaval that began with the 50s Civil Rights Movement and Motown label owner Barry Gordy's purposeful streamlining of his artists' sound. 

Many, many other African American artists of this period continued the traditions of Ray Charles, marrying the gospel singing with gritty blues music, most notably those on the Memphis' Stax/Volt label: Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas, Booker T. and the MGs.  While Stax was not as financially successful as Motown, Stax records celebrated unabashed soul or told the blues of poverty in a fashion Motown would not dare.  Stax Records staff and musicians were both white and black, working in the deep South, no small feat as American race relations entered a even more tumultuous period in the later half of the 1960s. 

Embodying both the dirtier, funkier sound of Stax and the immense popularity of Motown was James Brown. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother #1, the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite became the most prolific black soul singer of the late 1960s, dominating R&B charts and pop charts alike. Risking his commercially privileged status, Brown also made considerable efforts to champion the "Black Power" movement of the 1960s and 70s in his music ("Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud") or as a an instrument of peace during the riots following Martin Luther King, Jr's assassination.  Brown's impact on Hip Hop and popular soul and dance music at large is undeniable. 
As Brown's musical career expanded in the 1970s his band the JBs in both sound and lyrics reflected the plight of the urban cities.  Lyrically, songs like "Get on the Good Foot" spoke of limited economic opportunity, while "The Payback" was tough anthem for street hustlers. Musically, Brown and the JBs created beats stripped of orchestration, emphasizing rhythmic improvised interplay between singer, drummer, bassist, guitarist, organ, and horn players.  "Think" by Lyn Collins, one James Brown's leading divas, showcases the JBs penchant for danceable grooves and provoking lyrics.

The JBs live show stunned audiences with unyielding volume and energy.  With unworldly fervor, James Brown's famous 1964 "T.A.M.I." show may be the best and most astonishing example of this:

For Hip Hop music, Brown and his bands provided innumerable rhythmic backdrops; as an African American icon he personified both an inspirational success story and the first example of a pioneering "Black owned" entertainment franchise that made decisions on its own terms.

Exploring the "Roots of Hip Hop" continue here with a look at Disco DJs and Jamaican Sound System culture.

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