Sunday, October 29, 2006

Surf Music, Hip-Hop, Race and Copyright

In Jimi Hendrix's song "Third Stone from the Sun," he ad-libs "You'll never hear surf music again." He later explained he wasn't dissing the genre, but had mistakenly heard Dick Dale had died. Dale is still alive (here's a link to his website), although of course Hendrix isn't. Michael Viner is also alive. Michael who? A fantastic article in the Sunday New York Times by Will Hermes explains who Michael Viner is and how a derivative of surf music became first a funk hit and then the national anthem of hip-hop.

Viner, 62, is white and worked on Robert Kennedy's campaign for President until 1968 when Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles by a Palestinian. Viner then roomed with Rosie Grier, an African American who had also worked for Kennedy as a bodyguard and who was standing next to Kennedy when he was murdered. (It was Grier who captured Kennedy's killer Sirhan Sirhan). Grier had been a football player and also did needlepoint. Grier became an actor and Viner took over music at MGM, where he worked on soundtracks. That experience came in handy when he produced a chase scene in a 1972 movie called "The Thing With Two Heads," a "ludicrous but racially provocative horror film" starring Grier and the great Welsh actor Ray Milland as two heads attached to the same body. (The tag line was: "They transplanted a white bigot's head on a soul brother's body!").

One track in the movie was called "Bongo Rock." When it became popular as a 7" single, the record label put out a fancy version, but as Mr. Viner explained, "as soon as people saw all the white guys in the band, it stopped selling," so the record company put out a version with two black hands over a pair of bongos. In 1972 Mr. Viner also put together a group, The Incredible Bongo Band, for a full-length LP which bombed. A follow-up album called "The Return of the Incredible Bongo Band," is said to have "fared even worse." Although the albums are reported to be scheduled for release in the U.S. tomorrow (here is a link to, they appear to have been released previously in the U.K.; here is a Juno Records site that lists them and which has sample Mp3 files. Viner sold his rights to MGM, but got them back in 1990.

"Apache," the Incredible Bongo Band's 's most famous performance, sounds to me like really bad surf music that collided with really bad proto-funk. The underlying musical composition was written by Jerry Lordan, a Londoner, who was inspired by a 1954 Burt Lancaster-Charles Bronson movie of the same title, about a warrior called Massai, the last Apache left after Geronimo's surrender to the U.S. Cavalry in New Mexico. Imdb notes: "There really was a renegade Apache warrior called Massai, who was a bloodthirsty killer renowned for stealing, raping and murdering. And he did indeed escape from a prison train bound for Florida and make his way back to his homeland. It is however doubtful whether he was 6 foot and had blue eyes like Burt Lancaster."

Michaelangelo Matos has an article entitled "All Roads Lead to 'Apache,'" discussing the song's history here. He neatly sums its history up this way: "[A composition] written by a white Englishman imitating Native Americans as portrayed by white Americans and made famous by a Dane with a vaguely Hawaiian sound, was arranged by a Canadian, [only] to become the biggest record in black New York." Oliver Wang has an index of mp3 files of various performances of the song here. (The URL given in the Times article to Wang's website is incorrect). Wang includes the initial performance by English guitar instrumentalist Bert Weedon in 1960, followed by performances by Cliff Richard and the Shadows (also in 1960), a snippet by the Ventures (1963), the Sugarhill Gang (the first hip hop sample, from a 1981 12"), Goldie (1995), Moby (1999), and The Roots ("Thought @ Work" 2002). L.L. Cool J sampled it in 1985 ("You Can't Dance"). Missy Elliot's August 2006 MTV clip "We Run This" is said by the Times article to "owe a lot" to Apache. Other hip-hop artists like Nas ("Made Ya Look" and "Thieves Theme") have frequently used samples from other songs off of The Incredible Bongo Band album.

The song's appeal in the hip-hop world was not intially attibutable to recording artists, but instead to a Jamaican immigrant to the Bronx, Clive Campbell, known as DJ Kool Herc. Mr. Herc in an interview on NPR's Fresh Air stated: "I'm not a DJ, I'm a disc jockey. I play the discs that make you jockey." Here are two radio interviews with him on Fresh Air: August 29, 2005; March 30, 2005. Kool Herc is quoted in the Matos article as calling Apache the "national anthem of hip-hop." Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa have also warmly embaraced the song. Their own unique performances of it, like Kool Herc's involve use of simultaneous multiple versions of the recording melded into a derivative performance. A July 8, 2002 Fresh Air interview with Grandmaster Flash is here. The derivative attributions go back of course to the movie, which inspired the song, which in turn inspired countless different performances across many different genres as well as national and racial lines.

While Viner is reported to have hired someone help him stamp out bootleggers and illegal samples, he has no had problems with the hip-hop community. As Mr. Hermes reports: "Current rap artists are happy to pay for the imprimatur of using the original Incredible Bongo Band recordings, which are not just laden with history but remarkably funky."


Anonymous said...

Splendid stuff here. Why, I wonder, haven't musicians sampled the heck out of the Nonesuch Explorer series of field recordings? (Or have they...?) Take this from West Africa: Drum, Chant & Instrumental Music: [WMP], [Real]. (See the record and others in the series on Amazon.)

Perhaps the music is too complex, the polyrhythms not amenable to dancing one's butt off. But that's where the mixer has her work set out for her!

William Patry said...

Thanks, Dean. I have ordered my copy (no mp3 files for me_.

Anonymous said...

"Apache" may be a favorite among urban hip hop, rap and funk revivalists but it is also a favorite among urbane 12 year olds who watch Will Smith in re-runs of Fresh Price of Bel Air. Will Smith does a mean cowboy roping from a horse dance movement to the tune which I caught while passing by the television set one evening. My son can do a mean imitation of it, too.

Anonymous said...

Fresh Prince, not Fresh Price...

William Patry said...

The Price is Right

Anonymous said...

OK, you've officially slayed me here. As a DJ of nearly three decades, having grown up in the belly of hip hop playing the break from "Apache" on a rig plugged into a street lamppost, I am grateful for this history. Best of luck on completing the treatise, and thanks for the delightful return to childhood memories.

K. Matthew Dames

Anonymous said...

On the Ventures Live in Japan 1965 album, in which the Ventures made Apache famous in Japan, this British-composed-interpreted-by-a-Dane-and-inspired-by-a-white-blue-eyed-Irish-American-actor tune is dedicated to Ventures drummer Mel Taylor, himself half-Indian (and half-Jewish).