Overseas Transmission

Hip-hop's origins in a German synthesizer?

You might figure that the German band Kraftwerk and their 1977 single "Trans-Europe Express" would mean about as much to the history of hip-hop as, say, Rick Springfield and "Jesse's Girl." Wrong. In his new book Hip Hop America, critic Nelson George praises this rather obscure track -- he calls it "a dense, hypnotic synthesizer extravaganza created by a quartet of rather robotic looking Germans" -- as one of the songs that laid down the rhythmic groundwork for '80s hip-hop culture. "It was the music of people who did the hustle on asphalt in the summer wearing Converse and espadrilles," he writes; "it was the music of a city that was nearly bankrupt yet found millions to remodel Yankee Stadium for an ungrateful George Steinbrenner; it was the music of an aesthetic in transition."

"Trans-Europe Express" was also one of the first songs to be sampled. The song's devious, Hammer Horroresque synthesizer riff can also be heard in another early hip-hop classic, Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock." Both songs appear on The Perfect Beats: New York Electro Hip-Hop and Underground Dance Classics: 1980-1985, a just-released four-CD set (also available separately) which pulls together 58 songs from that trend-shifting era. It was the early '80s, and people were fed up with the cheesy, pop-saturated mechanisms of disco. Rap had yet to surface from underground, and people were desperate to dance to something they wouldn't be embarrassed to listen to in public. The Perfect Beats documents how club DJs and studio producers out of New York City were crafting their own brand of syncopated, definitively postmodern dance music.

Both "Trans-Europe Express" and "Planet Rock" appear on the first volume of Perfect Beats, which focuses on how dance music creators were inching away from the conventions of disco and forming electro, a new dance sound. The leading producer of the movement was Arthur Baker, who appears on the first disc with "Walking on Sunshine" (credited to Rocker's Revenge, and written by reggae star Eddy Grant), as well as Planet Patrol's drum-machine fave "Play At Your Own Risk" (recorded with multi-instrumentalist John Robie) and, of course, "Planet Rock." There are also some lesser-known club favorites here, including the Nick Straker Band's jazz-funk rarity "A Little Bit of Jazz" and another synthesized wonder from Kraftwerk, "Numbers/Computer World."

Latin hip-hop was ignited by producer-performers like former club DJ and future Madonna collaborator John "Jellybean" Benitez, whose flaming "Dancing on the Fire" appears here on disc two along with other quintessential tracks touched by Latin dance's nuances. The flowing drum machines and skirmishing synthesizers flood every track on this volume. Even "Confusion," performed by legendary Brits New Order (and co-produced by Arthur Baker), is touched by Latin freestyle. And watch out for Liquid Liquid's "Cavern," which later had its wily bassline lifted by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel for their rap classic "White Lines."

Electro's greatest vocalists are the focus of the third disc. The worldwide club success of dance diva Shannon, whose seminal dance hit "Let the Music Play" appears on disc two, gave producers the itch to spin their own Shannon clones. Shannon producers Mark Liggett and Chris Barbosa got a single out of Grammy-winning session vocalist Lisa Fischer (under the alias Xena) with "On the Upside." Arthur Baker and John Robie also scored with "Honey to a Bee," performed by Tina B (Baker's wife). Even "Jellybean" Benitez got a diva dance hit with "Do You Want It Right Now," featuring the vocal stylings of Quincy Jones protegee Siedah Garrett. The disc includes noteworthy nondiva tracks such as Heaven 17's strumming "Let Me Go" and another Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force marvel, "Renegades of Funk."

Disc four goes back even further, to the '70s funk that influenced electro. James Brown works his mojo with "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose"; former Temptation Eddie Kendricks throws some romanticism into the proceedings with "Date with the Rain." Other vibrant old-school tracks include the Jimmy Castor Bunch's "It's Just Begun," Lonnie Liston Smith's "Expansions" and Blackbyrds' gleefully ribald "Rock Creek Park." But this volume also signifies how these tracks became precursors for underground dance. The electro tunes that open the disc, including C-Bank's "One More Shot," Quadrant Six's "Body Mechanic" and Jonzun Crew's "Pack Jam," drop the progressive rhythm that would eventually lead to the hip-hop music of today.

The Perfect Beats is a bass-gorged time capsule from the Reagan era, the soundtrack for any party, a how-to regimen for aspiring DJs, a musical haven for nostalgia buffs, a reference library for today's hip-hop listeners, and more. But it's first and foremost a testament to a long-unappreciated genre of music. And it's startling to realize that while much of hip-hop came from the East Coast, the West Coast and the Dirty South, crucial elements of it emerged from some German guy's synthesizer.

 
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