Dance To The Drummer’s Beat: A Loop History

From “Throw The D” to the Fresh Prince, Jesse Serwer examines the raunchy second life of Herman Kelly’s b-boy classic

Herman Kelly - Dance to the Drummer’s Beat

New York has “Apache.” In New Orleans, there’s “Triggerman.” Baltimore has “Sing Sing.” And in Miami, there’s “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat.”

What Miamians call booty shake music began with the break from this 1978 single by Herman Kelly & Life. It was a favorite at Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell’s Pac Jam parties, where it inspired a dance called “Throw the Dick.” The cowbell clicks and punchy guitar stabs that roused area teens to simulate sex on the parquet of Dade County roller rinks in the mid-’80s would become among the most sampled songs in Miami Bass, starting with 2 Live Crew’s game-changing single, “Throw The D.”

“That’s where all of the wild dancing in Miami came from, the booty dances,” says the Marvelous J.P., a founding member of Luke’s Ghetto Style DJs crew. 30 years after Campbell launched Luke Skyywalker Records to release “Throw The D,” the sound of Kelly’s drums still inspires Miami crowds.

“Even today, if you go to the grown-folks parties [in Miami] and you throw on ‘Dance to the Drummer’s Beat,’ everyone goes to the floor,” says Chris Wong Won AKA 2 Live Crew’s Fresh Kid Ice. “That’s what started it all.”

2 Live Crew - Throw the D

Appreciation for “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” runs deep in the Northeast, where it was embraced by early b-boys and hip-hop DJs in New York and sampled on dozens of golden era rap records. But it is above all a Miami record, made at the headquarters of Emilio Estefan’s Miami Sound Machine and released through an imprint of Henry Stone’s T.K. Records, the quintessential Magic City label, at the height of its run as a disco powerhouse.

Not much is known about Kelly, the song’s writer, producer and featured performer. Though he still maintains a music company, Afterschool Publishing, “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” was his only hit. Thanks to Joe Stone, who oversees his late father Henry’s vast publishing catalog, I was able to track down Kelly via email. At least, I think it was Kelly that I spoke with: Questions sent to his address were returned with answers delivered in the third person.

“Herman Kelly was born in Detroit,” Kelly began. “Prior to joining T.K. Records, he was a staff drummer [and] percussionist for [Detroit radio station] WCHB’s TV show, and a freelance studio musician around the Detroit area, performing with different bands as a sideman drummer.” After learning to write music at Henry Ford College, Kelly transferred to the University of Miami. Transplanted to the tropics, he became immersed in the city’s burgeoning Latin music scene, performing with players from Cuba and other Caribbean islands.

Building on a composition he’d begun writing to showcase his talents as a multi-dimensional percussionist, Kelly assembled a culturally diverse cast of players to record “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” at Miami Sound Studio in 1977. A funky disco number with a festive atmosphere punctuated by all manner of literal bells and whistles, “Drummer’s Beat” showcased Kelly’s considerable percussion skills – its centerpiece is an effusive bongo breakdown reminiscent of Bahamian conguero King Errisson’s work on the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” and “Bongo Rock.” “Easy Going (Noches Eternas),” a more subdued disco track with lyrics in Spanish and English, was cut as a B-side.

Seeking distribution for the single, Kelly, like so many Miami-based musicians at that time, found his way over to Henry Stone and Steve Alaimo at T.K. Records. The Hialeah-based company, which had popularized the “Miami Sound” of Betty Wright, Latimore and Little Beaver in the early ’70s, had become the most notable disco label south of New York City thanks to genre-defining hits like George McRae’s “Rock Your Baby” and K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight.” Credited to Herman Kelly & Life, “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” was issued on 12" in 1978 through T.K.’s Electric Cat subsidiary.

Percussion Explosion!, Kelly’s only full-length album, appeared later that year. The album was recorded between Miami and Brazil, through arrangements made by executive producer Thomas Fundora, a Miami-based Cuban painter and songwriter. “Thomas was an ex-producer for RCA Brazil,” Kelly says, explaining the album’s international scope. “So we went to Brazil to finish recording, and hired RCA studio musicians to play on the album.”

Herman Kelly & Life - Dance To The Drummer’s Beat (Jim Burgess Remix)

Percussion Explosion!, which featured a mixture of Latin-inspired soul, youthful party sounds and more traditional R&B, ultimately failed to detonate. But “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” gathered steam in New York City with the aid of a disco mix from Jim Burgess, the influential gay DJ known for his opera-inspired sets at clubs like 12 West and the Saint. (He also had a Florida connection, having grown up in Okeechobee, about two hours northwest of Miami.) Burgess’ remix beefed up the bass and doubled the length of its bongo-fueled break, developments that likely contributed to its embrace by early hip-hop DJs and breakers in the Bronx and beyond.

Writing in his book The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats, Grandmaster Flash identifies the single as one of the earliest and most important examples in a wave of disco and funk records that seemed to speak directly to the burgeoning youth movement coming out of New York City. “The funkier the music got over the years, the wilder the dancing got, and the wilder the dancing got, the more the music spoke directly to the b-boy,” Flash writes. “Herman Kelly, Kool & the Gang, Seventh Wonder, those guys were challenging break-boys to show what they were made of.”

Pookey Blow - Get Up (And Go To School)

In 1981, portions of the “Drummer’s Beat” instrumental were lifted, with Kelly’s consent, by Connecticut producer Tony “Mr. Magic” Pearson for “Get Up (And Go To School)” by kiddie rapper Pookey Blow. In the liner notes of The Third Unheard, a compilation of early Connecticut rap gems unearthed by Stones Throw Records in 2004, compiler Eothen “Egon” Alapatt suggests this may have been the first legally-cleared sample, belatedly giving Blow’s obscure novelty track a place in hip-hop history.

Four years after Blow dropped rhymes and a kazoo solo over the “Drummer’s Beat” break, Double Dee and Steinski prominently featured elements of Kelly’s classic in “Lesson 3 (History of Hip Hop Mix),” the final installment in their seminal breakbeat collage series, “The Lessons.” A year later, in 1986, “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” appeared on the third volume of Louis “Breakbeat Lou” Flores’ Ultimate Breaks and Beats. The track’s inclusion on an edition of the massively influential compilation series ensured that hip-hop producers nationwide would put its grooves to use.

Double Dee & Steinski - Lesson 3 (History of Hip Hop Mix)

However, the Miami DJs laying the foundations for what would become Bass music needed no such introduction. Along with KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes,” General Johnson’s “Let’s Fool Around” and Barry White’s “Theme From King Kong,” “Drummer’s Beat” was among a handful of disco-era holdovers popular at the Pac Jam, a weekly party thrown by the Ghetto Style DJs at the Sunshine Skateway North in Miami’s Norland area. By 1985, the first time Luther Campbell booked 2 Live Crew, then based at the March Air Force base in Riverside, California, to perform in Miami, “Drummer’s Beat” had become a siren call to partygoers at Ghetto Style events to “Throw The Dick.”

“‘Throw The D’ is what they call twerking right now, basically,” Luke explains, invoking both Miami booty dancing’s mass-culture endgame and its Caribbean origins: “It’s like a dutty wine.”

In West Indian parlance, a wine is a rhythmic, circular rotation of the hips – a dutty wine being a particularly suggestive female variation. Like Campbell, the son of a Jamaican father and Bahamian mother, much of the audience at the Pac Jam and other Ghetto Style events were of Caribbean descent, familiar and comfortable with such a movement.

“It was kind of like carnival, festival percussion [from the Caribbean],” 2 Live Crew’s Mr. Mixx says of the “Drummer’s Beat” break. “I think that was the draw of the record. In Miami, either you are of Jamaican or Haitian or Bahamian descent. There really weren’t many flat-out African-Americans.”

Fresh Kid Ice, a native of Trinidad, vividly recalls witnessing the scene of “Drummer’s Beat” coming on at the Pac Jam in his 2015 autobiography, My Rise 2 Fame: “[It was] guys throwing their hips back and forth and maybe dropping their pants in a big circle with all the girls down in squats with their hands on their knees, arching their backs and making their booties shake.”

The experience made a significant enough impression on Fresh Kid Ice that he wrote the lyrics to “Throw The D” (along with its eventual B-side, “Ghetto Bass”) on a red-eye flight from Miami back to California. Back at the barracks in Riverside, Mr. Mixx constructed the beat with a Roland TR-808 drum machine, scratching in samples from “Drummer’s Beat” along with bits of Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” and a skit from one of Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite comedy albums called “Romeo and Juliet.”

If you wanna have a [Bass] hit, put “Drummer’s Beat” guitar stabs in it.

Mr. Mixx

Campbell, who was entertaining the idea of managing 2 Live Crew after breaking their first single in Miami, had encouraged the group to record the song. But when every local label he approached passed on releasing it, he decided to press up the single himself, reluctantly giving birth to Luke Skyywalker Records, the imprint that would export Miami Bass culture nationwide and, for a time, make Campbell one of the most successful music executives outside of New York and LA.

Prior to “Throw The D,” 2 Live Crew’s lyrics had been strictly PG: “The Revelation” could even be described as conscious rap. After “Throw The D,” (which was mistakenly spelled “Trow the D” and credited to “2 Live Croew” on early vinyl pressings) the group would be known, almost exclusively, for explicit, x-rated lyrics. It was a development few would have predicted for Fresh Kid Ice, a reserved medic who thought he might become a doctor after leaving the Air Force, but one that certainly suited Mark “Brother Marquis” Ross, a slick-talking acquaintance of Mr. Mixx’s who replaced founding member Yuri “Amazing Vee” Vielot in the group after “Throw The D.”

Anquette - Throw The P

2 Live Crew relocated to Miami to join Campbell, who would become a full-fledged member by the time their debut LP, 2 Live Crew Is What We Are, was released later in 1986. Not wanting to be beaten to the punch in the days of answer records and the “Roxanne Wars,” Luke enlisted his cousin, Anquette Allen, to echo “Throw The D” from a female perspective on “Throw the P,” which featured a more extensive use of the “Drummer’s Beat” break and bits of raunchy female comedian Lawanda Page AKA Sanford & Son’s Aunt Esther.

“Throw the D” isn’t technically the first Miami Bass record – historians of the genre typically cite MC ADE’s “Bass Rock Express.” But with its use of the sustained kick sound from the 808, scratched-in samples, explicit lyrics and generally hedonistic vibe, it became the template for other Bass records that followed.

On the heels of “Throw the D,” “Drummer’s Beat” appeared in numerous early Bass records, from the Gucci Crew II’s “Cabbage Patch” to “Bust This” by MC Shy D, the Bronx-born Atlanta rapper who signed with Luke in ’86 – and later toppled Campbell’s empire with a lawsuit over unpaid royalties. As Bass swept through the Southeast, pioneering outliers like Atlanta’s DJ Toomp (on Raheem the Dream’s “Eliminator”) and New Orleans’ Mannie Fresh (on “Freddie’s Back” and “Throw Down,” both with rapper/sidekick Gregory D.) also sampled from “Drummer’s Beat.”

“It became like the old fallback song,” Mr. Mixx says. “If you wanna have a [Bass] hit, put ‘Drummer’s Beat’ guitar stabs in it.” Sampling database catalogs 147 uses of “Drummer’s Beat,” mostly from the late ’80s, though it surely surfaced more than that. N.W.A used it on “Dope Man” from Straight Outta Compton in 1987; DJ Jazzy Jeff can be heard applying the transformer scratch to the break on “Live at Union Square,” a 1986 concert recording with the Fresh Prince that was later included, in abbreviated form, on the duo’s 1988 LP, He’s the DJ, I’m The Rapper.

New Jersey’s Mark the 45 King based the beat for “La Kim Theme,” by Flavor Unit cohort Lakim Shabazz, around a sample of “Drummer’s Beat.” The fleeting horn squeal that opens Kelly’s original appears throughout Run-DMC’s “Beats to the Rhyme,” overshadowed only by the more prominent and recognizable sample of Bob James’ “Nautilus.” In 1989, Body and Soul, a short-lived rap duo featuring TV host Dee Barnes, collaborated with Washington D.C.’s Trouble Funk for a go-go remake of “Drummer’s Beat” released on LA’s Delicious Vinyl. And in Baltimore, where DJs like Technics, Scottie B. and Miami-raised Frank Ski were defining the city’s uptempo club music style with its own set of signature breaks, “Drummer’s Beat” shows up frequently, appearing in tracks like 2 Hype Brothers & A Dog’s Frank Ski-produced “Doo Doo Brown.”

Chipman - Peanut Butter Jelly Time

No one mined “Drummer’s Beat” more than DJ Chipman, Miami’s tireless creator of instructional dance chants. Chipman and his group, Da Bucwheat Boiz, first used the break on “U Gotta Go,” a 1995 collaboration with rapper Kinsu based on a chant Pac Jam regulars would shout at guests violating the club’s code of conduct. “Drummer’s Beat” turns up on numerous other Chipman productions, most notably “Peanut Butter Jelly Time,” which became one of the earliest internet memes after it was picked up for distribution by Koch Records in 2001. Its status as a pop-culture touchstone was confirmed in a November 2005 episode of Family Guy, in which Brian and Stewie serenade Peter with the song’s titular chant while clad in banana suits (The series, however, would substitute a generic sound bed in place of the original beat.) Chipman used “Drummer’s Beat” to near-identical effect on “Ice Cream and Cake,” which later appeared in a national TV commercial by ice cream chain Baskin-Robbins.

Herman Kelly left Florida years ago, but his signature track still has an active second life in Miami. You probably won’t hear it on South Beach, but in places like Liberty City and Opa-Locka, black neighborhoods well-populated by mobile DJ soundsystems and community-oriented pirate radio stations, the “Drummer’s Beat” break still soundtracks everything from mattress commercials to innocuous dance routines at children’s birthday parties. Like jai-alai and Cuban coffee served through a window, it’s a Miami institution – rarely remarked upon, but remarkable for its durability nonetheless.

By Jesse Serwer on July 6, 2016

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