Andy Smith explores hip-hop’s disco roots
by Marc Rowlands
Everyone knows the backbone of hip-hop is the breakbeat. From the block parties of NYC in the tail end of the 1970s to the late-’80s/early ’90s golden era of hip-hop, the best breaks from the seemingly inexhaustible world of soul, jazz and funk recordings were mined by dusty fingered DJs to form foundations perhaps even more fundamental to contemporary hip-hop than its four pillars. The breakbeat became such an underlying and integral element of hip hop that new breaks, their discoverers and their studio manipulators became revered as the fuel that, alongside lyrical delivery, would perpetuate the genre creatively. But, so central did the funk breakbeat become to the sound of hip-hop, that the music’s roots in disco are often overlooked. It is instead the legions of house music DJs and their dancers who have claimed disco as their ancestral history, with disco classics now an ever present highlight heard in house sets during the all day summer parties of Ibiza and the marathon weekends in Berlin’s darkest warehouses. In putting together his new compilation for BBE Records, Reach Up – Disco Wonderland, Andy Smith, a DJ grounded within hip-hop and with a longstanding reputation within the genre, hopes to go some way in reclaiming disco as the beginnings not only of house music, but of hip-hop too.
“A lot of people have asked how come I’m into disco now, but actually I was into it in 1978/1979 when I first got into music,” says Smith, who established his international standing in the mid-’90s when he sourced the samples integral to the success of albums by leading Bristol band of the era, Portishead. He went on to be their tour DJ and was the first DJ ever to release a multi-genre mix CD on a major label with 1998’s The Document. “It was the first club music I’d ever heard. It was also the way I learned to mix—non-vari-speed disco decks. So, for me, it’s like going back to basics.” It wasn’t too long after Andy Smith started to DJ that those same disco grooves would help spawn hip hop. In 1979 the debut release on Sugarhill Records heralded a new wind, the intro of “Rapper’s Delight” borrowing from disco group Love De Luxe’s “Here Comes That Sound Again” and the main groove famously coming from the unmistakeable bass line of Chic’s “Good Times.” Achieving much greater popular success than forerunners like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, it was the the first widespread introduction of rapping as vocal delivery and also of an as yet undefinable new movement emerging from New York. Although, rather tellingly, its label Sugarhill Records would switch back to a more traditional disco sound in attempting to follow the success (with Positive Force’s classic “We Got the Funk”), the seeds had been sown.
Within weeks, Harlem’s P&P Records were releasing their own disco rap material (their Cloud One “Patty Duke” can be found on Smith’s compilation). The Funky Four Plus One More and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had appeared on NYC label Enjoy too, although by 1980, the year of Kurtis Blow’s similarly disco-defined “The Breaks,” both acts had decamped to Sugarhill. “If your history with hip-hop goes back as far as mine, you have to love those early Sugar Hill and Enjoy records,” reckons Smith. “That early sound was essentially just rapping over disco records. I sometimes do a night called Hip-Hop On Wax where I just play old school hip-hop and I do play a lot of ’80s stuff because I find it really exciting. That’s where it grew from. To a lot of people though, that’s not old school hip-hop, not unless you play Young MC or Sugar Bear. Their old school is late ’80s, early ’90s. But, if you go back to the disco rap stuff though, things like Fearless Four, that stuff has a timeless quality. That’s the era that really got me into hip-hop. Obviously I loved the ’90s, Gangstarr, Pete Rock, but I maybe loved the ’80s more because that’s when it first hit me and it still sounds good today.”
It would not be until the the two musical pillars of hip-hop—rapping and DJing—met on wax that the breakbeat would start to become one of hip-hop’s true defining elements. But the latter of those pillars was still unrecognised on vinyl until the 1981 release of The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel (which, again, borrowed heavily from Chic and disco). In the late ’70s and early ’80s, hip-hop as we now know it, was still unformed and emerging via two separate and distinct disciplines, both of which relied heavily on disco; rap records were essentially just disco songs with a new style of vocal and hip-hop DJs littered their sets with disco records. “I wanted to tip my hat to the hip-hop side of things,” says Smith of acknowledging the latter on his new compilation, “so there are some crossover records that are known for their breaks. T-Connection ‘Groove to Get Down,’ for instance, is a classic breakbeat track.”
Since his emergence, Andy Smith has presented music from all sides of his record collection including funk, northern soul and ’50s R&B. While he is primarily known for his hip-hop sensibilities, each of the musics he presents is often respectfully offered in its own context. So, while the likes of Kenny Dope might sometimes display more of a hip-hop turntablist approach in their delivery of disco, on Reach Up – Disco Wonderland Andy Smith offers us disco music as he first heard it himself, at the dawn of hip-hop. There are nods to the breakbeat element of block party DJs, such as the aforementioned T-Connection and the Disco Dub Band, but the bulk of this mix and its accompanying collection are just as easily accessible to today’s house music fans who embrace disco as a familiar format. Where Smith’s compilation differs from the widespread understanding of disco as a forerunner to house music is mainly in its tempo. There are few charging, uptempo disco songs to be found here, the Salsoul screamers and 120 bpm bangers that so neatly fit into house music sets and on whose Earl Young drum patterns house music itself was initially styled. Instead, Smith begins by revisiting the pace at which hip-hop’s earliest records emerged, that mid tempo groove shared by the early Sugar Hill sound. “Advance ‘Take It to the Top’ is something I often play when I’m starting off a disco set, a nice slower groove,” he says. “It’s not all peak time stuff, some of it’s early doors tunes.”
“There’s a re-edit on there of Joanne Wilson ‘Got to Have You’ and that always stays in my bag. ‘Is It In’ by Jimmy Bo Horne too,” says Smith of two of his favourite inclusions on the collection. “The version of ‘For the Love of Money’ by Disco Dub Band would also always be with me. It crosses over; it’s as much a funk track as it is a disco track and I’ve had it on 7-inch for years.” Inspired by the Reach Up parties he has presented for over three years at places like Space in Ibiza, Lovebox Festival, Bestival, and the Scala, Smith says “the younger people really are into disco again.” Originally attacked in the late ’70s/early ’80s by some white, macho, rock music fans for its acceptance of flamboyant clothes, manners and attitudes, not to mention its links to Black, Latino, and gay subcultures, disco music is once again thankfully back in vogue. But just as it was partially squeezed from its popular standing by more macho rock music, as the ’80s progressed both the hip-hop and house music that had been birthed by disco also played their part in removing disco’s dancefloor hegemony. It could be said that house music repaid the debt in so overtly continuing disco’s musical legacy and by reintroducing its audiences to the now much beloved forebear. With Reach Up, Andy Smith joins a smaller cabal intent on granting disco music the respect it deserves within hip hop and reclaiming it as their own.
Reach Up: Disco Wonderland is available now on BBE Records.
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