It might be hard to remember but there was a time before rap, before minimal, before dubstep, before trance and before garage. And there was even a time when the divide between dance music and hip-hop music didn’t exist at all.
Everything was about dancing.
Afrika Islam, a teenage prodigy DJ in the South Bronx in the early 1980s who ended up producing Ice-T and who is playing in Bangkok this month, remembers it well. “People forget that hip hop in those days was up-tempo. Everything was about dancing,” he remembers. “The rapper wasn’t at the middle of things, he was at the side of a DJ and a lot of people who were dancing.”
Sub-genres didn’t exist then, he remembers. “Now you have a house DJ who plays just that or a minimal DJ who does just that. But our mix tapes in the early 1980s – they had our music from the streets, but we’d also play Billy Idol or the Clash or even Hall & Oates. There was a persistent search for the new.”
And the constant factor was that whether it be dance music or hip-hop music, “it was still being made with the same shit… a Roland 808 drum machine or 303 bass synthesizer”.
So what changed?
“What changed was that the most successful producers from Detroit and Chicago went across Europe where they were more popular and that left a gap.”
And that gap was filled by the emergence of the gangster rap scene in Los Angeles, with a greater emphasis on the performer and less so on the danceability of the music.
This had one great commercial advantage over that of house and techno music, remembers Afrika. “House music had no face, it was music in clubs done by anonymous people. But hip hop had a frontman, someone who could take it out of a club and into the street.”
And rap also had a great advantage over band-based dance music whether it be a Chic or a Pointer Sisters or a SOS Band. “Hip hop was a 2 man operation, or a 3 man operation if you include a manager. One guy on a mike, one guy on a turntable”. In other words, it had a logistical and economics advantage. “A band on the other hand would often be a 15 person operation by the time you include guitar techs and so on. It took a lot of motherfuckers to do that stuff!”
The rise of hip-hop.
The funny thing was that Afrika and his peers at the time had no idea that the techniques they were perfecting in scratching, multiple looping of beats, sampling and electronic music generation would be so revolutionary. “They were just the things we did in the Bronx, our techniques that we learned and added too. But now it seems the feeling of new has been taken away,” he laments.
Neither did they have any idea that hip hop would become such a pervasive cultural and political force. “The 60’s was all about challenges to the status quo and the use of drugs to alter perceptions. But that wasn’t about black people specifically. Rap was the 1st generation of music where black people screamed back. And because record companies saw they could make a profit out of it they gave those people a platform.”
Being part of the hip-hop evolution.
But Afrika also remembers how the house and underground electronic music of Chicago and Detroit percolated to the mainstream. “It wasn’t about major record companies, it was about labels who were run by people who were part of the street… Trax, DJ International, Tommy Boy and so on. They were white people but they had girlfriends or black friends on the street who introduced them to this music.”
For his part, Afrika played a part in the evolution of 1980s hip-hop on both American coasts. He started off with Zulu Nation and the Rock Steady Crew in New York City under the tutelage of Afrika Baambaata, found time to help make Chicago house records as early as 1986 and ended up in the West Coast where he found his greatest fame as a producer and songwriter for seminal gangster rapper Ice-T.
Afrika Islam in Bangkok.
Afrika will play a 2-hour DJ set in Bangkok later this month where he celebrates these influences and the unity between hip-hop and dance before genre-isation set in.See him play at Overground Bar+Cafe, Sukhumwit Soi 22 on Friday, August 23 supported by local electronica act Wasabi Bytes.