The Sounder

All About the Drum… How a record made for an MGM B-movie in the 1970s birthed the drum break that created hip-hop
Let me qualify that. There are (arguably) three funk and soul drum breakdowns that not only became part of hip-hop’s unconscious; they form the basis of hip-hop itself. The breaks appear on the following records: James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” from 1970, The Winstons’ 1969 track “Amen, Brother” and Michael Viner and the Incredible Bongo Band’s 1972 tune “Apache.” Each of them is sublime. Even if you’ve never heard the original records or ever been into hip-hop, you’ll still know these breaks because they’ve been sampled, slowed down and sped up on numerous tracks across genres ever since.

As a DJ and a record collector obsessed with James Brown since I was old enough to nod my head and tap my feet, I could rave on about the late drummer Clyde Stubblefield’s thunderous bass and dancing snare on the “Funky Drummer” for hours (and “Mother Popcorn” and “Cold Sweat” for that matter too). “Funky Drummer” contains the break that’s said to be the most sampled since sampling began – though Stubblefield himself claimed, “I actually didn’t care much about that beat. People ask me to play “Funky Drummer” all the time, and I really don’t know how it goes. It was just something I put together at the moment, and (people) took it and made a big thing out of it.”*

Like the beat or not it was inevitable people would make a big thing out of it – the infectious quarter-note hi-hat style is so goddamn funky it’s no surprise producers and music makers the world over wanted to take it and use it for their own records. And once the sampler appeared in the 1980s, that’s exactly what they did. (Only years later did the original bands get any kind of royalties for their work, and sometimes not any, but that’s another story).

I could also tell you about how the break from The Winstons’ “Amen, Brother” (which was actually the B-side of their 1969 hit single “Colour Him Father” and was performed by drummer Gregory Sylvester ‘G.C.’ Coleman) became the basis not only for numerous hip-hop records (N.W.A.’s 1989 massive hit record “Straight Outta Compton” and Mantronix’s “King of the Beats” from 1990 being just two) but also for almost every early drum and bass and jungle track coming out of the UK at the beginning of the ‘90s. Shy FX’s “Original Nuttah” from 1994, a record I play whenever I drop a d&b or jungle set because it’s that good, is just one example. The punch of the snare drum and the addictive overall groove of the six-second Amen break invades your bones and will not leave – at whatever pace it’s played.

But the breakdown from the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” is the one I love the most (but only just). I’d even go so far as to call it the break of the century. Originally recorded 45 years ago by Michael Viner (pronounced vee-ner) and the Incredible Bongo Band, the track and the break was resurrected by one man, the father of hip-hop himself DJ Kool Herc. But it wasn’t the first Incredible Bongo Band track he pushed – that was “Bongo Rock” the initial single that kick-started the album of the same name which included “Apache”. According to hip-hop legend, Herc dropped “Bongo Rock” on the crowd at a club called Hevalo in 1974 New York. Like “Apache,” the record was all percussion and drums and crazed surf rock guitars. But what Herc did in the DJ booth, something completely innovative at the time, was play the track on one turntable and place a second copy of the single on another turntable. Then he lined up the needle on that second turntable to start exactly at the drum break on the duplicate copy. Immediately when the break finished on the first record, he switched to the second turntable and then flipped back and forth from drum break to drum break to set up this continuous looped beat. Those who were there said the dance floor went mental, and once MCs took the mics hip-hop was born.

But the “Apache” break was the one he mixed on the decks the most. Herc’s fellow block party DJ from the era, Grandmaster Flash (who recently played a sold-out DJ set at Beirut’s Grand Factory in Lebanon, showing just how far hip-hop has travelled since the ‘80s) recorded an incredible remix flipping and scratching the break into a continuous and infectious track. Looping the hottest drum breakdowns of funk and soul records became the thing every New York DJ had to do.

Picture the scenes – made popular recently in the Baz Luhrmann Netflix TV series “The Get Down”. Kool Herc in Bronx community centres, surrounded by his huge sound system set-up – giant speakers, two turntables, giant bass cabinets, tweeters, woofers, a Mackintosh amplifier – a thousand people or more dancing from afternoon till past midnight, breakdancers in circles, kids outside playing double Dutch. The parties were massive, and MCs began to ‘rap’ over the drum breaks to work up the crowd.

With the advent of the sampler, the drum breaks became the basis for some of the biggest hip-hop records of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Apache break itself can be found in the Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache Rap” and Run DMC’s “What’s It All About?”, in Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Live at Union Square” and Nas’s “Made You Look”. The break is timeless. And it all came from a record made by a German producer (Viner) at MGM in L.A. for the studio’s 1972 B-Movie The Thing with Two Heads – that was “Bongo Rock” with the album including “Apache” recorded with session musicians in Canada the same year.

The Apache break was simply a killer beat – hammering bongos and congas from the brilliant King Errisson taking the forefront in the mix above and beyond the soaring guitars, along with drums so tight they could make your grandma move, played by one of the great ‘70s rock drummers, Jim Gordon.

Ultimately, hip-hop wouldn’t exist without “Apache,” “Funky Drummer” and “Amen, Brother”; without James Brown, Clyde Stubblefield, or G.C. Without DJ Kool Herc and New York City. And without hip-hop, life wouldn’t be worth living. Now who knows where I can track down an HD copy of The Thing With Two Heads? –RS

* talking to Wax Poetics magazine in 2003

To listen to The Sounder’s All About The Drum playlist, featuring over an hour of seminal 70s/80s soul and funk records and featuring the drum breakdowns that made hip-hop, click here