D.J. Kool Herc is known as the Godfather of Hip-Hop, but he didn’t earn his title playing rap records. Beginning in the mid-seventies and stretching through the end of the decade, Herc spun Afro-funk (Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa”), bizarro psychedelia (New Birth’s “Got to Get a Knutt”), and, most famously, “Apache,” a jazz-funk record from a Vancouver-based group called the Incredible Bongo Band, on his mighty, floor-shaking sound system in the Bronx.
This was hip-hop in the days before the emcee took center stage: completely boundless and as geeky as the clerks in High Fidelity. Notepads in hand, aspiring D.J.’s and producers like Prince Paul and Pete Rock flocked to parties thrown by Herc and Afrika Bambaataa not to sing along to familiar anthems but to listen and wonder: What the fuck is he gonna play next? The records spun by Herc and Bambaataa became not just “classics” but the sonic backbone for hip-hop, songs sampled with the frequency of a teenager quoting Austin Powers.
“Herc played ‘Apache’ at one of the Bronx River Projects parties in 1977,” remembers Rock, whose jazzy, moody “T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You)” is considered one of hip-hop’s most glorious beatscapes. “I was just 7 years old, but I fell in love with the song immediately. It’s one of those records that never leave your brain.” Rock was far from alone in his “Apache” adoration: The record was once so difficult to find that bootleggers made a killing selling illicit vinyl copies on the Bronx’s mean streets.
Since then, “Apache” has been recycled by the Sugarhill Gang (who covered it in 1981 and added a silly chorus: “Kemosabe! Jump on it!”) and, more recently, Nas, on his fierce comeback tune “Made You Look.” It is unrivaled in its influence on hip-hop by any twelve-inch on record-store shelves. “If you don’t know ‘Apache,’ ” Rock says, “you don’t know hip-hop.”
“I always wanted to sample ‘Apache,’ ” confesses Salaam Remi, producer of “Made You Look,” “but I knew that if I was going to use it, I had to step it up ten notches or not do it at all.” At first, Remi experimented with speeding up the exhaustingly extended percussion and editing out specific bits of the song’s spaghetti-western-styled guitar licks. Finally, he settled on a back-to-basics approach. “The drums on ‘Apache’ sound so aggressive that I just slowed them down,” Remi says. “Doing that made the record sound a lot more gangsta.”
More important, “Apache” is inspiring hip-hop producers too young to remember the record’s mid-seventies heyday. “Most of my generation hasn’t even heard the original,” Remi says. “We know ‘Apache’ through records that have sampled it.” Indeed, producer Just Blaze, who has crafted hits for Jay-Z, Cam’ron, and DMX, says that he first encountered “Apache” through a mix tape from D.J. Jazzy Jeff in the late eighties. “When I heard Jazzy Jeff mix ‘Apache,’ ” he remembers, “I thought, This is what I want to do with my life.”