Apache makes you go hmmm

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:

Click to embiggen

“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.”

When the Roots play this live, Quest and the percussionist re-create the break in the manner of The Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache Rap.” Missy Elliot sampled the Sugarhill Gang remake in “We Run This.”

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.

69 thoughts on “Apache makes you go hmmm

  1. Dr. Reason from OSU recommended this article to me… very interesting. I just watched the documentary “Copyright Criminals” where they discussed the same idea you have about electronic music “undermining” the western concept of the composer. Very good movie, and very good blog. I agree with you that the question of musical ownership becomes meaningless with all the permutations in sampling/remake culture (I can still, barely, sympathize with those who fight this new opensource culture and try to make money the old ways from this new music—-but as the saying goes: dinosaurs must die —-the technology is here, remixing and sampling are awesome).

  2. Its pretty cool to see how something that happened so long ago can be so popular in some of the most modern hits in today’s top artists and their respective music… Super cool! Nice article, very informative and interesting too!

  3. I had no idea that something could have such an outstanding impact on an entire music genre. It’s crazy to think that it came from such ‘humble’ beginnings. Great job at tracing the roots of this through the years, it was easy to follow and very informative!

  4. Nice blog man! I have always loved listening to hip-hop so now knowing where it all originated is awesome!

  5. It is so interesting that this song did not find success with two other recordings but that hip hop was just the twist that this song really needed! Great ending to a good history story.

  6. I really enjoyed this. I find it interesting how such a short clip can be used in different ways. It is always crazy how big it got.

  7. Thats so cool! I have actually heard that beat many times before in different forms and never made the connection.

  8. Whats good bro! Hope all is going well, just wanted to stop by and let you know that I learned more about the “apache” history and its unique rythm on your page. Thank you!

  9. That flow-chart is simply amazing. A couple of years ago I told one of my friends that The Sugarhill Gang used the beat before Sir Mix-a-Lot did and he refused to believe me. But seeing all the other artists that have also used the beat is remarkable. Great Work!

  10. Thank you for this great site! It is very interesting to see how this loop can be incorporated in so many different sounds. The song by Nas feels more like straight rap compared to the song by Missy Elliot recorded which has much more of a dance feel to it!

  11. Thank you so much for sharing these videos. I hadn’t realized that Apache had influenced so many of my favorite artists and songs.

  12. Great Blog! Nice to see some videos and work of Apache. And is amazing how one thing can get as big as it did. & keep on growing and inflicting diffrent people.

  13. I’ve really enjoyed learning and hearing about Apache & how he has inspired such successfull artists & hip hop itself. I really admire what he has done and will never be forgotten!

  14. It is amazing to see the impact that Apache has had on many artists in rap and hip hop that have been well known worldwide. I had no idea that this kind of impact could still be felt today from the early 1960’s.

  15. I like the history on Apache, well done. This song is a classic and always will be! Just dance 3 whuddup! Go Beavs!

  16. I’ve listened to made you look hundreds of times and never realized where the hook came from…now I know!

  17. I can’t believe that that one clip was used so many times.  The network diagram lays it all out so you can really see how it all links together.

  18. Its amazing that one man can have such an impact, especially after so many years. All of these versions incorporate the same beat and yet are distinctly different. 

  19. Before coming on to this website I hadn’t learned what Apache was.  It’s always good to learn new things! The song “things that make you go hmm…” is stuck in my head now!

  20. I love the bongo sample article.  It sounds awesome and is used so much!  Definitely makes music of the old sound new and rejuvenated,

  21. Music sampling has been such a huge part of hip hop. A little credit for the original beat would be nice though. Great blog!

  22. This is so Cool..! 

    I’ve always enjoyed Hip Hop, but hearing more from where it came from and what still influences today’s music is awesome!

  23. Apache is really something different. I never knew he was such an influential character to hip-hop music. 

  24. Apache has definitely had a HUGE impact on hip-hop, a lot bigger than I had originally thought. It’s nice to see the connections made here!

  25. I didn’t realize how much influence Apache had on the hip hop genre, very interesting to see all the songs it influenced. 

  26. I had never heard the song “Things That Make You Go Hmmm..”  Was nice to see a great song using Apache.

  27. (Mus 102-osu) I am amazed how much Apache has influenced an entire genre, and all the artist that have been inspired from it. I love the Apache Diagram, because it really opened my eyes on this type of music and how its grown

  28. Never realized how much this was sampled, many great artists have used this. This website is sweet and shows a great history of Apache

  29. I liked how you compared the orgin of music to that of blue eyes, because it had to come from somewhere but with so many different influences it changes repeatedly over time

  30. The Apache network diagram was a great visual representation and added to the article very well.(MUS-102, OSU)

  31. It is cool to see how the beats have changed over time. Each song is great in its own way.

  32. From OSU MUS 102-401.  DJ Kool Herc used his Bongo to influence the sound of hip hop or rap today. The sounds in his music were real and influenced computer generated sounds in the future. His work was the basis for dance hip hop and the style of many DJ’s using the same genre. 

  33. WoW def the realest info on the net about REAL hip hop not the idea of (ballers)money. What happened to the love to being socially conscious.

  34. I think its really cool how you were able to find all these songs with Apache beats and see how it changes over time, but still carries the same qualities. 

  35. Apache has a very rich history. I very much enjoyed reading this and listening to the music. I also completely agree that we are all influenced by the people around us sometimes when we don’t even know

  36. Never really realized how many beats have it in there, just always heard it and that was it. 

  37. I really liked how you stated that, “music emerges out of collective cultural practice more than any single person’s mind”.  I completely agree with you as we are all influenced by those around us and we can’t help but let their ideas seep in our minds.  Also, thanks for explaining sampling.  I had no idea what that was before reading your blog!

  38. I really enjoyed reading this blog and am excited to explore it more. As I learn more and more about the origins of hip hop I’m realizing how little I know about one of my favorite genres of music. Thanks for the awesome info!

  39. Really great article. It’s very interesting to see how Apache has changed and progressed over the years. There’s no doubt that Apache has had a huge influence on rap and hip hop. Thanks for all the videos and info.

  40. I really like all the different examples that you post of different songs that incorporate the Apache drum beat. It is cool to see how the beat has been modified into different styles throughout the years! 

  41. This is wonderful! I had heard many of these songs, but never realized this common break.

  42. Apache has an amazing history that a lot of people would enjoy learning about. This website is awesome and has abundant amounts of information about hip hop and I can’t wait to browse it on my own free time. 

  43. Apache has such an interesting history to it. I would have never thought that Missy Elliott was using this history in her music. I am very glad I was introduced to this site because it has taught me a lot about hip-hop already!

  44. The history of Apache is really cool! I am glad you made this so I am now more informed on the topic. I have just started a music appreciation class at Oregon State and I do not know much about hip hop but this is such a great start for my learning adventure! 

  45. Its fascinating how a few sounds can be morphed and used in so many different ways to create infinate song variations. I am just begining a ‘Hip Hop Music and Culture’ class at Oregon State and quickly realizing how little I know about the origins of the music I listen to every day… Thank you for sharing the history of Apache with us! I’m already having a completely new experiance when I listen to my favorite songs and hearing things that I never had before.

  46. I completely agree! Apache has definitely influenced the world of Hip-Hop. Artists should be commended on their innovation, originality, and talent for stringing together ideas and rhythms for the enjoyment of people like myself. 

  47. Wow, it is really interesting to see how just one short clip can be used, and used again as a hook in songs. It is also a very interesting topic to discuss who is to credit for using this clip. There is no doubt in my mind that while using somebody else’s  work, they should be credited, but not knowing who to credit can create a problem. I really enjoyed reading this article.

  48. This is such a great history of Apache. I will send my students over here to read and make comments! “Hip Hop Music and Culture” Oregon State University.

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