Since the mid-1970s, David Toop has skillfully combined careers in three disparate disciplines: music, journalism and academia. In that time, he has earned respect from his peers in all three fields, releasing a wealth of cutting-edge albums and a number of exemplary music books.
It was in the world of improvised music that Toop first made his mark, joining forces with free-jazz musician Max Eastley for the 1975 full-length New And Rediscovered Musical Instruments on Brian Eno’s label, Obscure Records. Since then, he has continued to record and release albums that draw inspiration from a myriad of experimental styles, in the process collaborating with like-minded musicians including Eno, Scanner, Bill Laswell, Jeff Noon, Ken Ikeda and Japanese art-pop troop Frank Chickens.
Toop’s first serious foray into music journalism came in 1984, when he wrote one of the first books to document the New York hip-hop scene, Rap Attack. Since then, he has gone on to author five more books, including 1995’s analysis of ambient music’s past and present, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds. Back in 2001, Bill Brewster sat down with Toop in London to discuss Rap Attack, the early days of hip-hop, DJ culture and the creative potential of sampling.
What does Grandmaster Flash mean to you?
Well, Flash was like a… flash. You know, there are a few records that came out in the early history of recorded hip-hop that were like moments of real revelation. One was “Planet Rock” and the other was “Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel,” because both of them were so different to anything that had gone before, that it was just like an epiphany.
“Planet Rock,” I didn’t even like when I first heard it. It’s a classic situation of you hear something, you hate it and next time you hear it, it’s your favourite record ever. Rick Rubin said that to me once; it’s a sign that you’re really gonna love something if you hate it immediately, and then suddenly you get a religious conversion to it. It’s because it throws everything out of whack in the way you feel about records and how they should be made.
“Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel” was one of those records. For me, as a personal thing, it plugged into a lot of other ideas, other histories that I’d been involved in, which was the experimental avant-garde area of music history, which was a parallel music history for me, and black music of various kinds. And it connected very strongly with that, but it also clearly was the way hip-hop should be.
You’d read all these things about hip-hop jams [parties] and the records were like R&B disco records, which translated what had gone on, but “Wheels Of Steel” was actually what had gone on. And the fact that the record company allowed him to do that and that it was a successful record both artistically and commercially was incredibly exciting, I think.
Did you know what was going on with hip-hop when you heard records like that? When did you first hear about it?
I did know a bit, because I’d heard records like “Rapper’s Delight” when it first came out, and it didn’t make that much of an impression despite the fact that I’d always collected records by people like Lightnin’ Rod, Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron and all the R&B records, like Dr. Horse. I had all those records and I knew all those records but, for some reason, when I heard “Rapper’s Delight” it didn’t connect in my mind immediately. Perhaps because it seemed to be just a gimmicky pop record.
In fact, I went to New York in ’79 but I wasn’t really aware of hip-hop then. I was sort of plugged into the whole John Zorn scene and I went out there to play, in fact. But I was going out with Sue Steward at that time, and she went to New York in ’81 and came back with quite a few records on Sugar Hill and Enjoy and I thought they were fantastic.
We were working together on a magazine called Collusion and we published some articles on hip-hop, including some on hip-hop DJing, in ’82. And that was about using six decks, three DJs working at the same time, and cutting out records and collaging; all those different techniques that were part of the early history. There was a writer called Steven Harvey who wrote the piece on the disco underground–
Actually, I interviewed him recently and he said if I saw you to remember him to you.
Well, Steven wrote some really good pieces for Collusion. He wrote that piece on the disco underground, which is probably like a key piece.
And I edited that thing, because it was huge. It was like about 20,000 words long.
Sampling was very important and we take it for granted. It became so much part of pop music that nobody really thinks about it anymore.
You don’t happen to have the unedited version, do you?
I may have, in the loft. We’re having a loft conversion, so I’ll have a look. Anyway, I knew a bit, and I started writing about hip-hop myself for a few places and then I heard those records, so there was a kind of an understanding. Not a full understanding – I don’t think I got that until I went to New York to do all the interviews for Rap Attack in ’84.
To come back to your question, Flash was a real pioneer and he was obviously one of the three most crucial people to the growth of hip-hop. Very articulate, and a great spokesman. Plus, with the Furious Five he had hits that were very important as well. Lot of different reasons why he was important.
What do you think his role is in the history of music?
I think that he is the most significant person in bringing a certain approach to collaging music, through DJ methods, into a popular sphere. Those techniques have been done before by composers like John Cage, and they’ve been used in electronic music. And they’ve been used in fringe, marginal areas of rock music and what have you. They’d appeared in a diluted form, I guess, in music like disco.
But they had never really been done quite so openly in party music. And hip-hop was party music. Never mind all the other stuff that we now know about, like the sociology, the politics and so on. But it was party music, primarily. It was remarkable that it was a party music that was so avant-garde. Plus he was a pioneer in hip-hop and hip-hop has been a hugely important form of music in the 20th century up until now.
I think also he was an organiser. People tend to downplay that or they don’t realise its importance, but you always need organisers on a scene who’ll go and do things and set things up and do them properly and not make a complete fuck up of it, and he was obviously very good at that. He was like a figurehead.
I remember going to see the group that toured in this country as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five after they’d split and Melle Mel introduced this DJ – I can’t remember who it was – and said, “Grandmaster Flash!” and it wasn’t. It was kind of tragic in a way. And ridiculous as well.
What happened was a classic music business story and a real tragedy because, you know, he was a smart person. Intelligent man. I must say, I saw him DJ at this club called Broadway International in Harlem and he was just DJing. Terrible club. And it was absolutely extraordinary.
In what way?
The fluidity and the invention. For me, as a personal thing, not being there at those early hip-hop jams, unlike people like Tommy Silverman, who were. Virtually every white person who went to one of those early hip-hop jams was so completely blown away that they became important in some way in communicating about the music, or starting a record label, because it was so radical. So, for me, the only exposure I’d had of that was seeing Flash play at Broadway International in ’84. And then seeing Afrika Bambaataa play at the Venue.
Yeah. Which was quite early on. It was just so different to anything you could go out and do, whether it be bands or clubs or anything else. It was just… from anther planet somehow. We take it for granted now, but the whole way of DJs performing was just really radical.
How important conceptually?
It was very important, really, and we take it for granted. Sampling became so much part of pop music that nobody really thinks about it anymore. At that time, to make music from other people’s records in a creative way, rather than a plagiaristic way, and to create new kinds of musical forms, was a breakthrough. Creating new kinds of musical forms is something I’ve always been interested ever since I was 14 years old and listening to R&B records. Just looking for ways that were different to, you know, European classical music.
Flash and Bambaataa and Kool Herc and all the other people who were around at that time, I don’t think they really thought too much about how different what they were doing was, because it was quite a self-contained world. It was developing without any help from record labels or promoters or commercial concerns. They were having to work in clubs and pay their way in clubs, but that’s about as far as it went. It was something you can’t even imagine anymore.
In fact, it’s something that’s quite rare in any part of the history of popular music for something to be allowed to develop for a few years outside of that, because it was like a bubble that they were inside.
I don’t think they really knew how remarkable what they were doing was. They didn’t have many commentators writing about it. There were a few people writing for New York magazines, but there wasn’t a great weight of critical theory building up. That came much later. I think it even came after Rap Attack, really. Because Rap Attack wasn’t a theory book, it was a straightforward musical history book. And all the verbiage and theorising came later, by which time it was all done and dusted, really.
There were bands that were part of the Harlem and Bronx scenes that disappeared, so musicianship was no longer associated with making music in New York.
Do you think it’s quite weird that even though it was so close to one of the media centres of the world that it remained so apart from it?
It is weird, but then that’s something to do with American society and the structure of American cities, which is very different to the structure of European cities. And that separatism is so much part of what happened before the civil rights movement and what happened after the civil rights movement and the ghettoisation that took place in American cities.
So, from that point of view it’s not so strange, because I think there always has been this incredible division in American cities. America itself is often ignorant of what’s happening outside of itself to an extraordinary degree, because it’s so powerful and it’s so self-contained–
And so insular in many ways. So I think it’s a reflection of that, the Bronx falling so badly into decline. And Harlem as well; being like this world of politics and culture and hope at one point and not too many decades later turning into a complete ruin. That lack of mixing – people didn’t go to Harlem or the Bronx much, or if they did, they went a targeted way. Maybe they’d go to the Apollo, or to the Bronx Zoo, and then they’d go back home again. That lack of fluidity. And the people who lived in the Bronx thinking that going downtown was like going into some alien zone. Also that sense of deprivation, just not feeling it’s possible to own these things or to even know that they exist. And that’s part of hip-hop history.
Economics contributed to the decline of big bands, Slave and all those huge bands with 15 members and eight conga players. [laughs] All those funk bands, they weren’t sustainable anymore in the same way as swing bands of the ’40s. There were bands that were part of the Harlem scene, that were part of the Bronx scene that disappeared, so musicianship was no longer associated with making music in a strange kind of way, in New York. I’m still not completely clear about that in my own mind what happened and why hip-hop, after it came on record, came to depend on just a few people, like Positive Force, the guys at Sugar Hill and Pumpkin, just those few musicians. And why musicians weren’t part of the hip-hop scene early on at all.
Do you think that they were effectively like the MFP musicians?
I think that’s a bit unfair.
Well, in the sense that they were sat in the studio day after day, with a DJ coming in and saying, “Take this bit here.”
Well, they weren’t even sat there. Doug Wimbish said to me that Sugar Hill had two studios. They had Hugo & Luigi’s studio and had another studio, and they were running back and forwards between them. Pumpkin recorded in a garage, I think. They were fantastic musicians.
Well, the MFP guys were, too.
Yeah, they were as well, that’s true. I don’t know. There’s an element of that, but it was different. They were bringing a definite style. They weren’t like hacks who could turn themselves to anything. They were, to some extent, listening to the rappers.
I think there were people at Sugar Hill who were like that. Jiggs Chase was a kind of arranger, and I think they had struggles with him wanting to do things in a very slick way and the rappers were kind of saying, “Do we have to do it this way?” They were sort of functionaries, really.
We were trying to nail down with Flash exactly what role he played on those records and it’s all a bit nebulous, but one of the things he said was that he brought in records, like “Freedom,” for example. So I’m assuming he went in and said, “Play this bit”?
I got the sense that he began to be marginalised from day one. And that’s why “Adventures...” was such an important record. It brought what hip-hop actually was back into the frame, because I think he’d been finding the breaks. He’d been the archivist, the record hunter. He was the DJ who knew what was working. He was creating all of the music in the early days and suddenly they get a record deal, and I’m sure there was a tendency to say... In fact, I’m sure I’ve heard it said, though I’m not sure who by, so I’ll have to be careful what I say... I’m sure somebody has said to me, who was involved, “Well, what did he do anyway?”
In a way, you could say they had a point. Once you’ve got the idea, the bit from “Freedom,” and learned the chords, played it and got the vocalists in, it’s like making a traditional pop record. And who’s this guy standing around? That’s what was wrong with hip-hop in the early days on record.
Do you think that if sampling technology had been further down the road that he would have become their producer, in the way that DJ Premier has done?
Possibly. It’s hard to say because they were all very young and very inexperienced. They fell right into it. They got record contracts with these entrepreneurs who were very important and had many positive qualities but also were… They didn’t know anything about this music, but they’d a lot of experience in… manipulation, let’s say. All these people, like Paul Winley, Bobby Robinson, Sylvia and Joe Robinson, that guy in Harlem, can’t remember his name… Some of these people were on the verge of criminality.
Walter Gibbons was mixing all kinds of breaks, which Flash was doing. And the idea of extending using breaks, Tom Moulton had done that.
Did you read that book about the music industry and the Mafia? That has lots of stuff about Sugar Hill and Morris Levy in it.
Yeah, the whole Mafia involvement. It’s funny… I sometimes get sent manuscripts for American university presses and they tend to be cultural studies things about hip-hop, which usually claim that what a wonderful thing it was in the early days of hip-hop because it was all black-owned businesses, and you have to say, “Well, unfortunately, that’s not strictly true.”
If it was true, they tend to be criminals or semi-criminals, or if they weren’t criminals themselves, then they were involved with the Mafia. So it’s a very utopian view of that period, and it’s not a good idea to get nostalgic about it, because it was corrupt. It certainly did no favours for the artists.
Artistically, it did give a few favours because there was a lot of paternalism in the way they did things. There was a lot of control. They used control to manipulate people and it was even easier to do it with people in hip-hop because they were so young and inexperienced and they hadn’t even had the experience of paying their dues in a funk band. They were ripe for the taking. A way of things established itself, and I think the musicians were intermediaries on a number of levels.
So I think Flash, as an inquisitive and inventive person, would’ve learned to use samplers. He was already playing around with drum machines. But I really don’t think they were given access to the technology.
I mean, there were sort of samplers in those days, sampling little fragments, ’cause I was making a record around that time and we worked out ways of making little samples using what was around at the moment. There were Fairlights, but they were useless, and nobody had them. They were hugely expensive pieces of junk, which were going in completely the wrong direction. There was AMS, a digital delay, and you could capture bits of sounds and trigger them. You could do that, but nobody was giving people like Flash access to the studio to experiment. You know, “We’re busy, we’re busy. This is how we do things.”
I suppose it goes back to ownership of the means of production!
It does! It does. All that’s completely changed now. In those days, music was made in studios, apart from things like Paul Winley’s Bambaataa thing, which was a live gig. And chaotically and badly recorded as it is, thank God it exists. And there were the bootlegs. I’ve got one or two, like the Live Convention series.
Do you think if Flash hadn’t thought of it, someone else would have? You know, Walter Gibbons was sort of doing what Flash was doing.
Yeah, well, disco was experimenting with it.
There are these strange and largely hidden links between hip-hop and disco, after all. So do you think they would have?
I think they already had. Disco, as you know, had its own peculiar transformations and translations going on, because there’s a commercial view of disco, a mainstream view of disco. But, you know, for me, the very early history of disco has very strong similarities with hip-hop, in the sense that disco didn’t exist any more than hip-hop didn’t exist. And people in little underground parties were playing lots of records that seemed appropriate to their scene. Like Barrabas records or African records or rock records. And that mix is very, very similar, in a way, to the mix of the early hip-hop records.
Then, of course, the industry caught on in the same way, and gradually there became a thing called disco music and people started making disco records. But nobody was making disco records, because they didn’t exist when it first started.
I think it was to do with when hip-hop started to emerge, which was – I don’t know when it was really – ’75 or ’76? And at that period disco was starting to become a real commercial proposition.
People were starting to make real disco records and it felt very different to the R&B tradition, and so there was a resistance, which is why people like Bobby Robinson got involved in hip-hop, because they couldn’t relate to that, since they were so deeply embedded in the R&B tradition. I suppose the European disco records – I’m not totally sure on my history here – but I suppose the European disco records were starting to come out then.
They started to come out earlier, but the more motorised ones were about ’76 onwards, I guess.
Yeah, which would roughly coincide with hip-hop establishing itself. I can imagine them thinking, a) this is gay music, b) it just hasn’t got anything we can relate to. But at the same time, there were really strong connections. “Trans-Europe Express” was a big record on every scene, disco, rock, hip-hop.
“The Mexican” is another cross-genre hit…
Yeah, and there’s a disco version of it, too.
The Bombers thing on West End?
Yeah, that was a big record. You could probably pull out a lot of records that were attributable to both scenes. I think the main thing was the difference of the beat. It’s interesting about Walter Gibbons with “Set It Off.” That was like a hip-hop record, really. It was like a hip-hop break record. But then it was like a disco record as well. Walter Gibbons was mixing all kinds of breaks, which Flash was doing. And the idea of extending using breaks, Tom Moulton had done that. So in a way they had very similar histories, but the culture that surrounded them was very different.
The aspirations were also different. In the end, I think disco was quite materialistic in many ways and it was about pure pleasure in many respects, and escapism. I think hip-hop was kind of escapism, but it had a kind of strong social aspirations, it was about a whole kind of culture.
Do you think it had many aspirations beyond “let’s have a party”? In the beginning, at least.
From what I can gather about the Kool Herc days, it was “Let’s have a party.” He was a DJ playing for parties. He was playing James Brown stuff and the MCs were shouting nonsense over the mic. I can’t see that there was any more to it than that.
A style developed, you know, a style of clothes and dancing. Graffiti already existed anyway, that was another thing. At some point, the same people in the same scene developed this secret society and they all came to mean something.
Certain people with big ideas came along, like Bambaataa, and saw links between what was happening socially, what people were doing with dance, graffiti, the kind of records that were being played, the way people behaved. He had a kind of distance from it. He could look at what was going on and analyse it. He could say, “This is what I would like to do with this movement.”
Then, of course, people started to write it up and, as soon as a history comes into being, it creates a kind of shape and logic. It’s one history. It’s not the history, the sole history. Unfortunately, with old school hip-hop not many people wrote about it. It’s quite hard now, because people have died and disappeared.
They’ve also closed rank a bit. They have meetings and stuff.
You can’t blame them for that, they’re the ones who have been shafted. And they see Puff Daddy and Master P and most of the music is shit. And these people are living in vast mansions. As Disney would say, “It’s a story as old as time.” You know, it can’t help them psychologically to see all that crap.
Johnny Dynell said that what Flash was doing was like Duchamp. Do you think that’s fair?
Johnny Dynell said that? [laughs] I don’t know. Was he like him? [asking himself] Duchamp’s such a complicated character, I don’t know if I understand him. No, I don’t think it’s the same. I think there are similarities in terms of the significance. I think that breakthrough of elevating the found object to art, by means of displacing context, has some similarities. Yeah, OK, there are some similarities. Because Flash took – and Bambaataa, and maybe Bambaataa did it more than Flash – a lot of elements and did his bricolage, and made them equally significant within a piece of music. I think that had quite a big impact.
Again, we find it difficult to appreciate now because we take so much for granted. I think the whole debate about high art and low art, what’s good and what isn’t good, our ability to evaluate quality, which is such a difficult issue now. Who’s to say what is good and what isn’t good? Is Aretha better than Throbbing Gristle? All of those things! Slightly a dead end, but also incredibly important to ask those questions.
I think Flash and Bambaataa played their part in that. Taking records that fans would say are soul classics, taking records that most sane people say were trash and mixing them into something that was really new and exciting.
So you weren’t actually saying to yourself, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to like that bit of the record, it’s rubbish.” I think Bambaataa did that quite deliberately. When he said he would take Rolling Stones records and Monkees records and people were going crazy… I don’t know whether he ever actually stopped, but he gave the impression that he almost stopped the record and said, “Look, I fooled you.”
Kool-Herc had some problems with things that Flash said in Rap Attack. Flash said that Herc wasn’t that great at mixing.
Because he was against this idea of… race records, really. It had its history in race records. I think by playing white rock records he was consciously trying to break down that division. I can relate to that quite strongly, because when I was at school I became a black music snob and I sold all the white music records that I had. I went through a phase of only buying black music. That reverse racism is a very peculiar manifestation of that mod sensibility in this country.
And is still…
Yeah, that whole lineage. I think he was taking on those issues and saying race and music is not so important as we make it out to be, you know? It was interesting that only someone like him could do it, I think. But this sense of just taking silly things like that Heller’s record on “Wheels Of Steel...” that spoken word thing, putting all of those things in the mix, they were like found objects in a way, so I think there is a relationship to Duchamp in a way. I don’t imagine Flash has too much interest in Marcel Duchamp…. But then, you never know!
When you researched Rap Attack in the early ’80s, how was Flash perceived then: big hero or the fella with the biggest name?
Well, there was a lot of competitiveness, but competitiveness is embedded in hip-hop history. That’s one of the things it’s all about. I think everybody acknowledged his role. The one person I should’ve talked to and didn’t was Kool Herc. That’s my major omission. I didn’t talk to Sylvia and Joe Robinson at the time, either, but I don’t consider that such a bad omission.
You never get speak to everyone, though, you just can’t.
No, you can’t. He was very elusive at that time.
Yeah. He had some problems with things that Flash said in Rap Attack. ’Cause Flash said that Herc wasn’t that great at mixing.
Which is, by general consensus, the view though, isn’t it?
Yeah, but he got pretty mad about that. I think history brings certain characters to the fore, often by accident, or because of their own force of personality. You know that, you speak to someone who is a monosyllabic dope… what to say about this person? Then you speak to someone who is articulate, who’s cooperative, who’s concise, who’s compendious and they become central to your story, while Mr. Say-Nothing gets marginalised, whereas if you’d have been there at the time, Mr. Say-Nothing would have been quite important.
I’ve always tried to make the effort to bring people like that into the story, because I think there was quite an inequality in the sense of how many people were involved, the way they’re involved, the different innovations that took place in the early days. Then people do interviews and a picture builds, then someone gets outraged and says, “I’m going to tell my story.” Then history gets revised, which is as it should be. History is very subjective.
Did you find that with Rap Attack?
I got back from Austria the other weekend and walked through the door and the phone rang. Picked it up and this guy says, “Hi, this is Michael Viner here.”
I said, “Yeah.” “I’d like to correct some things in Rap Attack about the Incredible Bongo Band.” I said, “The Michael Viner?” “Yeah.”
He was perfectly pleasant. I was a bit shocked this guy that signed the Osmonds was on the phone to me. The thing is, sometimes the information is very hard to come by, so you cut corners. Your writing is based on what little information you can get. And I couldn’t get anything about the Incredible Bongo Band.
You tend to smudge things and hope no one notices.
You do. I had The Thing With Two Heads soundtrack album and that didn’t tell me very much. I read something in Rolling Stone which said they were a Jamaican band, or maybe it was the guy that wrote Hip Hop, Steven Hager, which actually came out before Rap Attack. Nobody talks about that book, which is a shame I think. Steven Hager was much more connected than I was. Anyway, I repeated what I’d heard. I didn’t know it was Ringo Starr and Jim Gordon!
I made a number of mistakes in Rap Attack. It has a peculiar history of its own now. It’s kind of locked in stone because Pat Bates, who took all the photos, loaned them to a New York gallery who lost all of the negatives. So we can never re-do Rap Attack in another format. Which is why Rap Attack 3 is not very satisfactory. It was going out of print and they asked me what I wanted to do. It was stupid that it should stop at 1990, since so much has happened. On the other hand, my thoughts have been elsewhere and I just wasn’t enjoying a lot of the new stuff. I said I’d do a summing up of the last ten years at the beginning.
How did you come to meet Flash?
Steven [Harvey] set it up.
You interviewed him in Steven’s apartment, didn’t you?
Yes. Flash and his minder, a fellow called Kevin.
How did you find Flash back then? We were quite surprised at how shy and nerdy he was. His persona is so different.
Yes, he is. I didn’t know what to expect, because I’d only just started journalism. I only got into it properly through Rap Attack, so I wasn’t used to doing interviews. I went to New York and Pat and I did it as a team, I stayed at her apartment and I just got on the phone. It was very easy to do that then.
Everybody was very keen to talk. I thought Flash was fantastic. He just spoke in such detail, and he was so generous. I suppose he was quite nerdy in a way, although I didn’t really think of him in that way.
He has a very meticulous approach to things that, when he tells you he spent three years working in his bedroom on something, he’s more than likely telling the truth.
Yes. Some people I met at that time were obviously living quite chaotic lives. Some interviews didn’t happen because of that chaos. I went to interview a couple of the guys from the Cold Crush Brothers. We went to this project in the Bronx and there was nobody at home. The Fearless Four were obviously involved in some form of self-immolation at that point. But Flash just seemed very organised, intelligent and meticulous and very easy to talk to and get on with. I don’t think there was anyone at that time who wasn’t easy to talk to. That came later!
Aside from the obvious commercial worth of hip-hop now, how important to music was hip-hop?
I think it changed almost any form of popular music you can think of, partly from the point of view of sampling. The history of sampling through Herc, Bambaataa and Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore and Cold Crush Brothers, through to Mark the 45 King, that has had such a huge impact on the way people make records, and probably the way that almost anybody makes a record now. I think it had a huge effect on the way we regard what used to call black music.
In what sense?
I think disco also had a huge impact on that, but maybe in some respects in a negative way. Because disco ultimately went so far from its roots, and I’m not a person who’s big on roots, but although I can like some cheesy Cerrone productions, I think they are a very long way from the really great moments of disco, which are truly great. They’re kitsch, really. So I think for a while disco did a strange thing to R&B, which I think would’ve happened any way. But I think hip-hop really changed that whole idea of black music.
But there’s a paradox in that. Hip-hop is overtly African-American music – although there was a strong Hispanic presence in the early days – and it was an expression of a certain period in the relationship of African-Americans in relation to the rest of American society and global society. It became a global music. It became a lingua franca for anybody who feels marginalised. So Maoris in New Zealand use hip-hop as contemporary form of expression and it seems logical to me that that should be so.
It’s a way that facilitates saying what you want to say, without the message being lost in the melodies or the chord sequences or the singing style. You know, it’s a way of speaking. It’s a way of being able to say a lot of material in a short space of time. You can get some density into a hip-hop track. For that reason, North African kids in Paris or Maoris in New Zealand can use it to say what they want to say. It’s more relevant than the music of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. For that reason, it’s massively important.
What took hip-hop from happy party music to angry music?
Everybody will tell you it’s “The Message.” I’m not so sure. Maybe it was. There were always message raps in hip-hop, right from the beginning. In a way you could even say Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” was a kind of philosophising, even though it was based on a Jewish comedian’s routines. It was a way of using words to make a point, something that’s always been there in the R&B tradition.
It goes back to blues, which was a music that combined having a party with saying something substantial about your life. I think because of the conditions in which hip-hop arose, it was possible to say a lot of stuff and it was inevitable that people would use it to express their feelings about life.
Some people are party animals and some people think deeply about serious issues of life and some people do both, and hip-hop was a way of doing both. “The Message” was a kind of aberration in a way. The history of “The Message” was interesting in itself. It was mostly written by Duke Bootee, who was kind of a professional songwriter.
Again, if you go back to these cultural studies manuscripts that I like to keep dipping into so much, there was one that wrote an analysis of one of the message raps that came out at that time as being a great expression of militant African-American politics. I said in my notes that this book shouldn’t be published if you’ve got any sense, because this was a tune written by a couple of Jewish professional songwriters who had also written production-line pop. So, nothing against that, that’s fine. Pop music is full of these contradictions and strange juxtapositions. There is no political purity in pop and you shouldn’t look for it.
But don’t make claims for things that are clearly not there. But “The Message”... I did a second interview with Flash and Kid Creole as he was then called, not the other Kid Creole, who you seem to have a thing about! They were saying, “We just didn’t want to record this.” Even Doug Wimbish, Skip and Keith, their first demo – which I tried to find when I did that Sugar Hill compilation for Sequel – they did it like an African thing with log drums. It ended up with that feel, like the Jammers.
Was there an inspiration for it? It sounded so different to the other rap records that had been coming out at that time.
I just think they had worked for a while in that particular phase, which was pretty disco.
I guess at that time, records like Peech Boys and D Train would have been all over the city, wouldn’t they?
Yes, and your point about disco, they were just big records on the radio and everybody would have been listening to them. And Keith and Skip and Doug, they were fusion guys. Scratch below the surface of any innovative form of music in dance music, and you will find a fusion fan. Hateful as the music may be, you’ll find that these guys are real trainspotters about fusion. It’s the same as drum & bass. What they’re really listening to are those horrible fusion records, and that was certainly true of those three.
The Wood, Brass & Steel album is full of fusion-y stuff, isn’t it?
Funky fusion. What they would really have liked to have been doing was playing fusion. And fusion, by that point, was a bit knackered, I think. It’s a muso thing. I interviewed them a couple of times, Doug and Skip and Keith, and I got the sense that they were being run ragged doing these records. They wanted to be recognised as serious musicians, and they had this background in fusion, and I suspect that what happened was that they had made a lot of records in a similar style, if you listen to the Sugar Hill records, and I think they probably came to the point of trying something new.
The lyric was interesting, the feel to it, so they did this experiment with the log drums, this slow African feel, and what eventually came out was a record very much in the style of the System and Jammers and D Train and all those records of that time. Maybe it was right to do it like that because the lyric was different. I know that when Flash first heard it, he thought it was too slow, and funereal.
How happy do you think they were doing it? I saw them perform on The Tube and they turned up in party mode, doing it!
They didn’t really want to do it. I guess Melle Mel wanted to do it because he got some of his words on it and he was the main rapper anyway. I suppose, in a way, it really separated out the group. That was the point that Melle Mel was really becoming a star and also the point where Flash was really marginalised, because it had nothing that related to him.
The thing about the appalling clothes they used to wear… Robert Christgau wrote a negative review of Rap Attack when it came out. And one of the things he said was that people like me refuse to understand that rappers basically wanted to be Rick James. And I think there’s an element of truth in that.
I think I did find it hard to understand that people from that scene really secretly (or not so secretly) harboured ambitions to be Rick James. It’s an appalling thought, really, but fair enough as well. That Jheri curl and leather suits look, the party animal, super pimp and head buried in a mountain of coke, sex ten times a night. It was appealing and it was also the undoing of several on the hip-hop scene.
The ideas about performing developed in the early years of hip-hop were quite radically different to what had happened before.
Do you think Flash being edged out was inevitable? Do you think the MCs becoming the stars and the DJs being marginalised was inevitable?
I wrote a piece about this for the Cambridge Companion To Singing, believe it or not. [laughs] John Potter, who’s a member of the Hilliard Ensemble.
Never heard of them.
They sing early music. Very renowned group. They worked with Jan Garbarek. John is quite into hip-hop, strangely enough. I wrote about that, because it was about singing and the voice, the way that hip-hop had begun really as a DJ music, with the rappers just as rabble-rousers. Gradually, they came to the forefront and as has been the tradition in the history of popular music, they’ve become the stars. It’s the same thing that happened in the swing band era.
Well, Bing Crosby was a beneficiary of that.
Yeah, Bing Crosby. These vocalists who were on the sideline of this gigantic orchestra would eventually become the stars. I think it was inevitable what happened, but only because of the time. Move it on ten years and it wouldn’t necessarily have been the same, and I think that’s a great shame.
Do you think that’s because the industry at that stage only had one way of marketing these things? You know, the guy at the front with the mic.
I think that’s partly true, though disco had eroded that slightly. And there had been other forms of music. Progressive rock, for God’s sake, people doing concept albums. Bear in mind that the industry was quite homogenous in those days. If they’d had any wit about them, they could have thought laterally and said, “Why don’t we do it this way?”
I don’t think they really understood hip-hop and I don’t think it was until there were labels like Def Jam who were releasing the music who understood it and were proactive about changing the way they thought it should be. I don’t think you can entirely blame it on the industry. They did self-destruct, as well.
This is the Sylvia Robinson argument: They shoved it up their noses and wasted it.
Well, I’m sure that there’s some truth in that. You know there is, because you know the histories of people like Kurtis Blow. When I interviewed him, he said, “What I didn’t waste on drugs, I gambled away.” Spoonie Gee was another drug victim. They blamed everybody else and fell out with each other, because of the sudden pressures that were put upon them. The demands that were placed on them were just too much. It’s hard for anybody at that age to deal with that.
Has sampling and combining things overtaken the notion of pure musical creation?
That’s what I talked about in Austria, partly. I don’t think it’s just sampling and combining things, it’s creating music in a virtual space. In other words, in a computer, where actually the music doesn’t have to exist in a room at all until it’s transmitted through some speakers.
I think there’s another aspect to it, too: performance in hip-hop. The ideas about performing developed in the early years of hip-hop were quite radically different to what had happened before. I think it was that and making music from other people’s records and then using sampling to build up tracks, combined with other developments in technology like recording studios becoming more virtual – more people using Pro Tools for example. Basically, where you’re assembling tracks in the computer and you’re not having to create anything in the air in a room. Theoretically, everything can be virtual. I think it’s an interesting phase in human history!
You know, we associate music with all of these values to do with communality and sharing things in physical space with other people, and obviously that changed in the 19th century when recording was invented.
This is the most significant change now, and hip-hop has played a part in that, because a certain way of performing and a certain way of recording really came from hip-hop. I dunno about you, but I can’t be arsed to go to hip-hop shows because, on the whole, they’re a waste of time.
I can’t be arsed to go to any shows now!
But I think that’s part of it, too, because there’s not a lot of music happening out there – live music – that’s compelling and you need to go to see. There’s a lot of stuff that’s brilliantly played, but it’s just not very exciting. A lot of what I see is people performing live with laptops, samplers, whatever. It’s interesting, but it’s different
For somebody of my age – I’m 52 now – when I was a teenager I went to see everybody from Otis Redding and Thelonius Monk to Jimi Hendrix to fuck knows who else. I’m not going to go all Mojo on this and get nostalgic, because I’m not nostalgic at all, but it was definitely more thrilling seeing those people than it is seeing people I find it very interesting to listen to musically, sitting there with a laptop.
Is the DJ an artist?
If somebody restructures music and changes the way we think about how music can be structured, that’s the approach of an artist. But I wouldn’t go as far as to say that all DJs are artists. But I wouldn’t say that all artists are artists. [laughs]
Good answer! Are they worthy of superstar status or is it all marketing?
I think virtually everything is marketing. Except for the things that aren’t. And there are lots of things that aren’t. There’s a whole big underground now, “underground” being a devalued term. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on, whether there is any money or not. It will go on through its own means of organisation. It’s more and more disengaged from the mainstream entertainment industry. Do you think that DJs were marketed early on? I don’t think they were. I think they sort of became big and then…
To me, when it changed was when Chemical Brothers and their ilk went along with the idea that they were rock bands with computers.
I think you’re right. The whole thing is very complicated and it’s to do with print media as well. During the ’80s it was very clear when I was working on The Face. There were two approaches: one was stars, the other was scenes. I went to Washington and did the go-go scene. You went like an anthropologist and it was tribal. Everything was tribal. Or else there was George Michael.
Then there came a point where that started to shift. Suddenly it wasn’t possible to write about scenes and there were less and less stars and everyone was getting very frantic about the fact that the records people like were made by people who weren’t bothered about being famous. People like Aphex Twin. People were going crazy. They thought if they didn’t have these stars to lure people in then no one would buy the magazines. And they didn’t.
Sheryl [Garratt] put Monie Love on the cover of The Face, and the sales dropped so dramatically. It was extraordinary. She was trying to do something about that, change that. The record companies didn’t know what to do with it. TV couldn’t cope with it.
So I think it becomes this complicated interrelationship of media in which they feed off each other. If somebody comes along who fits the bill, they’ll work hard at it… and the public goes for it.
I don’t know anything about superstar DJs, really. I’ve listened to various forms of dance music all of my life, since I was 13 or 14, and I just lost interest a couple of years ago. Not because I don’t think there are good records out there, still, because I do. I just lost interest in the whole way the thing is run. The whole superstar DJ thing leaves me cold.
This interview was conducted in Crouch End, London in June 2001. © DJhistory.com