DJ Kool Herc describes “Apache” by The Incredible Bongo Band as the national anthem of hip-hop. “Apache” includes a famous drum and percussion break that has reliably put bodies on the dance floor through hip-hop’s prehistory:
The Apache break is an especially interesting sample, because there’s a yawning gap between its lame original context and the diversity of uses that musicians have since put it to. More than most samples, the Apache break has enormously transcended and eclipsed its original context. “Apache” was first written as fake Native American music by Jerry Lordan in the late fifties, inspired by a cowboys-and-Indians movie. How such a lame song became a cornerstone of electronic music is a long and convoluted story. Here are two good tellings: an essay called All Roads Lead To Apache, and a followup New York Times article.
Here’s the story of “Apache” in network diagram form:
“Apache” has been sampled uncountably many times. The first noteworthy example is “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.”
In a similar vein, check out Double Dee & Steinski’s “Lesson” mixes. They’re must-hears if you care about the art of the mashup.
In keeping with the old-skool flavor, here’s West Street Mob’s “Break Dance Electric Boogie,” which uses some of the horn parts from the Incredible Bongo Band recording in addition to the percussion break. Got to love those vocoded robo-vocals.
The first song to sample Apache that landed on my consciousness was probably “Things That Make You Go Hmmm…” by C+C Music Factory:
Drum n bass producers love the Apache break. Instead of just looping the sample, they like to slice and dice it into new, more complex beats. Goldie’s “Inner City Life” is a high-profile example. I admire the drum n bass guys conceptually, but when it comes to day-to-day listening I’ll take hip-hop every time. Nas uses the Apache break on “Made You Look” — I think he even paid for it.
I have some friends who like hip-hop as music but are uncomfortable with the practice of sampling. They have this idea that sampling is a form of stealing. These friends tend to rally around the Roots, who play hip-hop on live instruments. The thing is, even though the Roots’ Questlove is one of the best drummers in the world, he also programs and uses samples in his production work. Hear Roots MC Black Thought do one of his hottest rhymes over Apache on “Thought@Work.”
Electronic music undermines the western concept of the composer. For any track based on the Apache break, who composed it? Jerry Lordan wrote the song but you’d never guess a connection between his original recording and anything that samples the Incredible Bongo Band. Should the composer credit go to the Incredible Bongo Band? Or just their rhythm section? Should it go to Kool Herc or whichever DJ first had the idea to loop the break by itself, or the producer who did the sampling? What’s the connection between Jerry Lordan’s song, the Bongo Band version, the Sugarhill Gang’s recreation of it and Missy Elliot’s song sampling the Sugarhill Gang? To me, the question becomes meaningless. Music emerges out of collective cultural practice more than any single person’s mind.
Asking what the origin is of a given piece of music is like asking what the origin is of my blue eyes. The gene/musical meme analogy is a useful one. James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” has dominant hip-hop genes. The roots of hip-hop are obvious in this song, since JB is literally rapping over a funk beat. It’s like the way my mom has blue eyes — there’s no big mystery where that gene came from in me. My dad had brown eyes, though; the blue-eyed gene was recessive in him. The hip-hop gene is recessive in the Bongo Band’s “Apache”, and more recessive still in Jerry Lordan’s original.
Hit me in the comments for other noteworthy Apache uses.