"THE BEAT BOX BITES BACK" - FACE MAGAZINE MAY 1984
1984: Two AM at The Funhouse and the giant video screen fills with the image of the Master O.C.'s hands scratching an Enjoy 12 inch. O.C. and Krazy Eddie are vibrating the sound system for the Fearless Four, onstage (and ever-so-human) performing the robot raps of "Problems Of The World", "F-4000" and the one that made their name, "Rockin it".
Twenty-four years earlier, one night in 1960, Bobby Robinson left his retail store - Bobby's Happy House Records on Harlem's 125th Street - got into his car and drove 60 miles to hear a tune called "Wiggle Wobble". Robinson, a black record producer who released material by many R&B artists, had heard about the song and the dance craze that went with it.
He remembers it clearly: "It was a thing called the Wobble. It was a kind of dance like a wobbling duck and everybody was doing it." The song was a dance instruction novelty performed by Les Cooper, a piano playing ex doo-wop singer. Bobby recalls the mayhem it was creating with the crowds and the trimming he felt was in order: "It was a song where people listen - 'You put your right foot forward and then you wiggle to the left' - and all this and that. So I said, 'The very first thing I wanna do is take all the words and throw 'em in the garbage. ' So he had a fit. 'No! No! This is the instructions telling them how to do the dance. ' I said, 'They know how to do the dance !"
With his mouth shut firm, Les Cooper took "Wiggle Wobble" to a million sales and beyond on Robinson's Everlast label. It was far from being Bobby's only dance fad success. For the first release on a new label, Enjoy, he launched "Soul Twist" by King Curtis and over two decades later - on the same label - jumped the bandwagon again with "I’m The Packman (Eat Everything I Can)" by The Packman.
The Packman wackawacked electronically rather than wiggle-wobbling acoustically, but dance craze records are consistent over the years. Duck mania or Pacmania - what's the difference? Records like "I'm The Packman" (tagged electro-funk in this country) have made the chips hit the fan. An already sharply divided soul scene in Britain has riven into war zones - discos with mutually hostile rooms for fissured sub-subcultures, guerrilla tactics from fanzines like Blackbeat, civil strife in Echoes magazine, enemy sympathisers in Black Music and heavy artillery from radio jock Robbie Vincent (a pithy dismissal, "that electro shit", in THE FACE).
To the chagrin of white soul fans (traditionalists and jazz funkers) many electro-consumers are young blacks; despite its European / Asian influences it is still a major representation of black and Hispanic teen lifestyle in today’s urban America. 1982 was the year when the funk warped out into hyperspace.
An all-electronic black music had been a long time coming - Sly Stone was using drum machines in the early Seventies (check out "Time" on "There's A Riot Going On"); Stevie Wonder's "Music Of My Mind" and "Talking Book" albums established him as a synth innovator and Sylvia and Joe Robinson's All Platinum setup in New Jersey used frosty electronic backdrops for the pop disco of The Moments and Sylvia herself. It was all Platinum, reconstituted as Sugarhill, Bobby Robinson's Enjoy and individual records like Vaughan Mason's "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll" which helped establish a new ambience in East Coast post-disco. Slow and heavy, it reflected South and West Bronx break beats.
Like an update of Mississippi fife and drum rhythms filtered through the Isley Brothers it led to electronic pulse music only barely clinging to disco conventions. Free Expression's "ChilI Out" in 1981 was a crucial record as was "Jazzy Sensation" on Tommy Boy. "Jazzy Sensation" convened hip-hop DJ Afrika Bambaataa and various of his MCs with disco DJ Shep Pettibone and producer Arthur Baker. The record had contrasting rap versions of Gwen McCrae's "Funky Sensation" – both used electronic percussion but one featured bass guitar and the other substituted synth bass.
You could almost smell the smoke from burning bass guitars and drum kits. Bambaataa's follow up, "Planet Rock", was again a collaboration with Baker plus MC group Soul Sonic Force and keyboardist John Robie. Bam wanted to re-create the melodrama of B-Boy favourites like Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" or Babe Ruth's "For A Few Dollars More" Morricone cover as well as using rhythmic ideas from Captain Sky's "Super Sperm" and Kraftwerk's "Numbers". A big fan of Yellow Magic Orchestra (you can hear Bam and Jazzy Jay cutting up YMO's "Firecracker" on the notorious "Death Mix" on Winley), he was deeply impressed by Kraftwerk’s music and image; "Kraftwerk - I don't think they even knew how big they were among !he black masses back in 77 when they came out with 'Trans Europe Express'.
When that came out I thought that was one of the best and weirdest damn records I ever heard in my life ..That's an amazing group to see -jus' to see what computers and all that can do." Being a B-Boy or B-Girl was about being cool. Kraftwerk's four besuited Aryan showroom dummies were passion from the deep freeze. Like a massive joke at the other extreme from George Clinton's theatre of excess, they were fascinating to kids who had grown up parallel with the micro-chip revolution.
The music tracks for both "Planet Rock" and "Play At Your Own Risk" (a record by Planet Patrol) were recorded in one night. Baker remembers that the sound was partIy defined by the lack of technology at that time. "There was no secret to that sound - it was just that we didn't have racks of shit. We had this one PCM (a digital delay unit). In the last year and a half technology has gone haywire. When we did 'Planet Rock' that was one of the first records to use a Roland .., now everyone has a drum machine."
Funk used to need human metronomes like Hamilton Bohannon, Fatback's Bill Curtis and the J.B.s' John ' Jabo' Starks. Now it has the Roland, an analog drum machine with a microprocessor memory which, along with more sophisticated (and costly) digital machines like the Linn Drum and the Oberheim DMX, has come to dominate dance music. The usual whine about robotic machines (they are - that's why kids like them) is to a certain extent irrelevant.
Even if drum machines hadn't existed, disco mixes would have forced somebody to invent them. Bass drums were being pushed further and further to the front of the mix and by 1979 (the last year of classic disco) a record like Walter Gibbon's mix of Colleen Heather's "On The Run" (West End) comes across like a four-on-the-floor bass drum solo with vocal accompaniment. The inevitable tiny inconsistencies become terrifying chasms in the pulse.
Though drummers like Keith LeBlanc (producer of Malcolm X's "No Sell Out") at Sugarhill and Pumpkin at Enjoy reintroduced bass drum syncopations. It was only a matter of time before the newdrum machines were following, then outdoing, their patterns Sharon Redd's "Beat The Street" from 1982 (a record not generally considered electro-funk) has a bass drum playing 16th notes - impossible even for Kung Fu masters or Bionic Women. One of the first Beat Box records - Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "Flash To The Beat" (Sugarhill) was an official remake of a bootleg released on Bozzo Meko Records, a live recording from Bronx River Community Centre. "Flash To The Beat" showcased Flash throwing down vicious fills on his ancient Vox percussion box - on the illegal version putting Einsturzende Neubautan to shame.
"Flash To The Beat" and "Planet Rock" grew out of hip-hop and were parallel to the late Patrick Cowley's hi-energy productions for Sylvester (derived from Giorgio Moroder's sequencer disco) and the electronic soul of D Train, Kashif, The Peech Boys and The System. Most of the latter type of records have proved acceptable to the 'serious' soul fraternity in Britain - luckily so, since an enormous amount of black music is now being almost exclusively made with analog and digital equipment.
It was he juvenility of electro, though, that stuck in people’s throats. Strange as it may seem, it's hard for some people to see pop culture as inspirational. Electro is craze music, a soundtrack tor vidkids to live out fantasies born of a science fiction revival (courtesy of Star Wars and Close Encounters) and the video games onslaught. Nobody can play Defender or Galaxian for long without being affected by those sounds - sickening rumbles and throbs, fuzzy explosions and maddening tunes - and when Gorf and Gorgar began to talk the whole interactive games phenomenon took on a menacing aspect.
Do they know you've just spent all your mother's money? Do they care that your fantasies are saturated with deep blue space wars and glowing violet electronic insects? AII the electro boogie records that flew in the "Planet Rock" slipstream used a variant on imagery drawn from computer games, video, cartoons, sci-fi and hip-hop slanguage.
Just as The Cuff Links defined relationships through nuclear war images in their song "Guided Missiles" (recorded in the A-Bomb conscious Fifties), so, on "Nunk" in 1982, Warp 9 sang "Girl, you're looking good on my video…" Space breaking releases included Planet Patrol's "Play At Your Own Risk", Tyrone Bronson's "The Smurf", The Fearless Four's "Rockin' It" (with its spooky "they're here" intro taken trom Poltergeist), "Hip Hop Be Bop (Don't Stop)" by Man Parrish, George Clinton's "Computer Games" album, "Scorpio" by Flash and the Furious Five and The Jonzun Crew's "Pack Jam".
Planet Patrol are a vocal quintet from Boston (a breeding station tor asteroid funkers) originally called The Energetics, who applied their skills to a classic Baker / Robie rhythm. The record mixed acoustic piano with synthesisers and dub delay effects - tagged onto the end of the instrumental is a brilliant accapella section which speeds and slows the hip-hop version of applause (a sort of macho dog bark).
The dog bark turned up again on Man Parrish's record - produced by Parrish (a white Brooklyn-born synth-freak whose previous experience included porno soundtrack writing) and Raul A. Rodriguez, a disco jock currently producing The Two Sisters on "B Boys Beware" and "High Noon". "The Smurf" by Washington DC born bass player Tyrone Brunson was pure dance craze instrumental.
Smurfing was a New York dance inspired by one of the Saturday morning TV cartoon shows, a fertile source of imagery for graffiti artists and catch phrases for rappers. Smurfs, like all great historical figures, have a complex background. Originally based on characters trom Spiro, a French comic of the Sixties, they became an international promo tool, a Dutch hit record (thanks to the genius of Father Abraham) and a series of dance discs.
The latter included "letzmurph Acrossdasurf" by The Micronawts (actually a Village Voice critic, Barry Michael Cooper, with a dub mix by Bambaataa) on Aaron Fuchs' Tuff City label; "Salsa Smurf" by Special Request (a Tommy Boy collaboration between two contributors to NYC radio station 92KTU - Carlos DeJesus and Jose 'Animal' Diaz, who also mixed Rhetta Hughes electro hi-energy "Angel Man") and "Smerphies Dance" on TeIlstar by Spyder D, a young man named Duane Hughes who, to my knowledge, is the only hip-hopper to carry a business card. Another dance craze of the period was the Webo or Huevo (Spanish for egg).
The Webo had its very own audiotrack, typical of '82 / '83 madhouse dub mixes, called "Huevo Dancing" by Fresh Face. "Huevo Dancing" was a creation of veteran soul singer / producer George Kerr and keyboardist / guitarist Reggie Griffin. lts violent electric drums and seemingly random attacks on the mixing desk faders give it a special place in my heart. Both Kerr and Griffin were associated with the Sylvia and Joe Robinson empire and Reggie Griffin went on to make his own electro boogie record, "Mirda Rock" for Sweet Mountain Records, a Sugarhill subsidiary.
Also doing time at Sugarhill with some uncredited session work was Michael Jonzun, of the despised, yet totally brilliant Jonzun Crew "Pack Jam" on Tommy Boy is one of the toughest records of the last few years (I say that as a person old enough to have seen The Ronettes and Otis Redding live on stage). Like "Mirda Rock" ("I am a computer") or Tilt’s "Arkade Funk" ("I am an arkade funk machine") there was no beating about the bush.
"Pack Jam" was a video game record and if adults wanted to run scared that was their business . Many af the electra musicians and producers recognise their music as the fusion that it is - street funk and hip-hop mixed with influences from British synthesiser groups, latin music and Jazz fusion - all thrown into the robot dancing. breaking and moonwalking meltdown. Lotti Golden and Richard Scher, producers / writers for Warp 9, Chilltown and Ladies' Choice, called their first Casio-powered Warp 9 release "Nunk", a hybrid of N-ew wave and f-UNK.
Electro is closer to past Afro-American fusions than a lot of the Seventies disco promoted by British disc jockeys currently running anti-electro campaigns ("Magic Fly" by Space, for example, a regular on early editions of Robbie Vincent's Radio London show) and it is arguable that it shows stronger black music roots than certain popular jazz funk or soft soul records of recent years.
Everybody acknowledges the pioneering of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock in combining electronics with Funk, Afro, Latin and Jazz (check out "On The Corner" and "Headhunters") and Material's production on Hancock's "Future Shock" was obliquely inspired by Hancock's own mid-Seventies albums.
The current phase of electro, particularly electro rap and scratch mixes, is like a black metal music for the Eighties, a hard edged, ugly, beautiful trance as desperate and stimulating as New York itself. Run DMC's records on Profile are direct-to-disc wall poems; The B Boys, The Boogie Boys, The Beat Box Boys, Davy DMX, Pumpkin and DJ Divine - all physical graffiti on music history books. For the Cold Crush Brothers, the Mad Max warriors of rap, their "Punk Rock Rap" is a reflection of the exotica of white rock uptown in Washington Heights.
Nothing is sacred in the computer age. As computer programmers, copyright lawyers and corporations struggle to protect themselves against micro raiders and mashers, the vidkids swarm down from the top of the screen, hungry for the cosmic crash. Wackawackawackawackawackawacka…
Face Magazine, 1984 . COPYRIGHT © FACE MAGAZINE
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