Key Tracks: Joe Bataan on “Rap-O Clap-O”
The Salsoul label head tells the story of one of the first rap songs ever recorded.
Few artists can claim to be as prescient about spotting and creating new trends as Joe Bataan. In the ’60s, he saw how boogaloo and doo-wop fit together and turned them into “Gypsy Woman.” Combining salsa and soul, he created Salsoul, one of the most beloved record labels of the disco era. Citing financial disagreements with the other owners behind the imprint, Bataan had left Salsoul by the late ’70s. But he wasn’t done musically: A party in a community center convinced him to get in the studio once again. What resulted was one of the first rap songs to ever be recorded, “Rap-O Clap-O.” Bataan talked extensively about his career with us at the 2006 Red Bull Music Academy. Excerpted here is the story of this extraordinary tune.
I worked in a community centre in Harlem, right in the midst of 110th Street. It was called “Hell’s Kitchen.” It was hell down there. Everyone sat down on the stoop outside that centre and you’d have to sweep the people away from there. One day while opening up, someone wanted to rent the place, bunch of young kids. That night collecting the money, all these young kids were coming in, setting up turntables, this was 1978 or 1979, and I looked and the next thing you know there were ten people on the dancefloor and the next thing you know, it’s packed. I said, “What the hell’s going on here? I don’t see no band playing.” Someone said, “They don’t have no name for it.”
You could hear their feet shuffling on the floor, and it was a sound where you knew something was really going to transpire. Then in the middle of the record everybody’s clapping, someone’s talking on the mic. I said, “What the hell’s that shit? How much did they pay to get in?” “One dollar.” There was a thousand kids in there. I thought, “Let’s see if this is just a fad.” Someone said, “They do it all the time.” “All the time? Is this on records?” “No.” I had a brainstorm. “Woah, this isn’t out on records, I see something big.” So I talked to these guys Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde. One eventually became CEO at Motown.
I said, “How would you like to put this on records?” They said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I guess they didn’t believe who I was. They didn’t care. I hadn’t done anything for a while, they thought I was full of shit, but I went out and got RCA Studios, got everybody ready. At that time they weren’t thinking about using musicians for rap songs. I got these four guys, I put down the music and had everything done. There was a young lady named Jocelyn Shaw, who you might know as Jocelyn Brown. Gordon Edwards said, “Do you want a singer who sings like I play the bass?” He brought her, and she sang her ass off. I had the chills.
I didn’t want nobody to see, thought maybe I’m too old. I was a 39-year-old rapper. I was hiding in the toilet.
I waited three hours for Jekyll & Hyde, and nobody showed up to the studio. I guess they thought I was bullshitting them. I’d spent all this money, how was I going to pay these guys? How was I going to pay the studio? It was RCA. Luckily, I had a little line of credit. So I thought about Jocko Henderson – if you don’t know, he’s a DJ back in the ’50s and he used to talk on the mic like Frankie Crocker. He would say smart things like, “Whoo whappa-do, how do you do?” So I started thinking I could do this myself.
I tested myself in the back; I didn’t want nobody to see, thought maybe I’m too old. I was about 39, a 39-year-old rapper. I was hiding in the toilet. I tried it with all kinds of methods and then when the music played I just sort of walked through it. It was like it was made to order. When I got out there, I was really gun-shy. The girls started clapping, I tried that. Then I did the song, “There’s a new thing out.” Boom, the rest is history.
I took that around to all the record companies. They all threw me out. “Get the hell out of here, Joe, you don’t sing anymore.” I said, “This is something new, you’ve got to listen to this.” “Don’t give us that shit.” Then I took it to a guy named Luigi, I believe. There was a young kid in the back and Luigi said, “What have you got here?” I told him it was something new. He said, “OK, I’ve got to get this guy here. He listens to everything we do and we listen to what he says.” I said, “I don’t want no young kid telling me about my music.” He said, “Then it’s not going to happen because we all listen to him.” Turned out to be Larry Levan from the Paradise Garage.
Larry came out and we played the record and he started jumping up in the air. I said: “Holy shit!” And he’s smiling at me. I thought this might be good for me. The guy said, “What do you want?” I said, “I want an advance.” “We don’t do advances.” “Goodbye.” I started walking down the stairs, Larry came after me and said, “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go. Bring it to my club, let me play it in my club.” “Fuck those guys, man, they don’t know about music. I’m trying to bring them something new and they don’t even have the insight to see it. Hell with them, they don’t want to pay no money.”
So I kept going and met a girl named Denice, and she was working with Salsoul. I was still in touch even though I wasn’t with them anymore and she said, “You’ve got to let Kenny [Cayre] hear this. He’ll be raving about it, this is great.” I said, “No, me and Kenny don’t get on.” “Look, I’ve talked to him, I’ve told him that you’ve got something great.” And the word started filtering ’round the industry, Joe Bataan has something once again. One DJ summed it up, “This guy comes around every two or three years with something new and we’ve got to listen because he’s always bringing us something.”
What kind of club could generate this amount of sales? That was Larry Levan and The Garage.
So Kenny said, “What do you want?” “I want to release this.” He said, “I’ll put it out tomorrow.” I didn’t know he had a distribution deal with RCA, he could do that. I didn’t have no money. I thought I better not end up losing this because everybody’s going into get wind of this new stuff, everybody’s going to be doing it soon. Sugarhill Gang already beat me out. Fatback Band beat me out.
The brainstorm I had is that when I signed the contract I put a small notation in the bottom which he didn’t read. I finally got back at him. It said, “This record is only released for domestic purposes.” If it’s being played internationally, they must seek my permission. The record started selling like hot cakes. Larry Levan was playing it. He sold 20,000 copies through playing it in a disco – not a radio, a disco. It was unheard of. People didn’t know that discos could sell records. This was novelty back then, but they all know it now. What kind of club could generate this amount of sales? That was Larry Levan and The Garage.
RCA had no idea what they had, but they sent it around the world. Glen LaRusso and Saul Whitman called me up. “Joe, they want you to go to Holland. That record is a hit.” “How the hell can the record be a hit? It’s only been there a week.” “Believe me, I know the business. If Holland says something, so goes Europe.” “A little country like that. What do they know?” “Joe, they want you to fly over.” “Get out of here. For what?” “To do TV.”
At the time I had no home, I had no money. I was struggling for money [because] I’d lost my paycheck from Salsoul. I went down and bought myself a black t-shirt and I put a disco model of a girl dancing on roller skates on it, cost me $3. Then I got a gold star which cost 50 cents and a fake diamond and I pasted on a pair of red suspenders. I put those suspenders on and I went to Holland. They said, “Joe Bataan, Joe Bataan. Next.” I was ready to go onstage and I realized I forgot my shoes in my hotel room. "No, I didn’t do that, I didn’t do that!" I looked around. What do you do? All these kids are jumping up and down waiting for me because the record’s a novelty; they didn’t know about rap.
I found this old pair of tracksuit bottoms, and I put them on and went on stage. It became the rage of Europe, I found kids all over Europe imitating that dress code. Everywhere I went it was “Rap-O Clap-O.” I was signing autographs in every country, from Luxembourg to Belgium to France. In Belgium, it was number one; Holland it was number two, France was number three. “Rap-O Clap-O” was selling in the millions, so I stayed in Europe for six months going from country to country selling records. No pay, but never knowing the money I was generating – because you see in Europe, as opposed to America, the residuals are seven times that which you’d make in the States, especially if you owned the publishing. They would literally kiss your ass if you own the publishing to a big record. You could retire. I lived off “Rap-O Clap-O” for ten years. I’m still living off it.