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Dennis Coffey

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A scorching Funk instrumental penned and performed by longtime Detroit session guitarist Dennis Coffey, "Scorpio" is one of the classic breakbeat tunes that laid the foundation for Hip-Hop's sound, first as a popular record among DJs in the 1970s and then as a much-sampled rhythm track ever since. Like James Brown's "Funky Drummer" or The Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache," Coffey's four-minute jam has become integral to any history of Hip-Hop's development. It was one of the first songs featured in Paul Winley's early breakbeat anthology record series, Super Disco Brake's [sic], and "Scorpio" subsequently appeared as a sample in a wide range of tracks like "Bust A Move" by Young MC, "Night of the Living Baseheads" by Public Enemy, and "The Score" by Fugees. And while the song's classic drum break is seemingly omnipresent, that's not to denigrate the rest of the funky single's sound. Indeed, as Nate Watts (bass player for Stevie Wonder) recalls in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, if a bass player coming up in Detroit in the early '70s couldn't play the extended bass solo that former Motown session player Bob Babbitt laid down on "Scorpio," then he "wasn't a bass player."
A Detroit native, Coffey was a fixture on the Motor City music scene from the mid-1950s onward, recording his first session as a precocious fifteen year old in 1955. After gigging in a number of Detroit ensembles over the next decade, the guitarist settled in as a widely recorded member of Motown Records' famed Funk Brothers studio band by the end of the 1960s. As Motown's Sound of Young America moved more toward psychedelia in that period, Coffey's experimentation on guitar was essential. His effects-laden guitar contributions to Temptations hits like "Cloud Nine" and "Ball Of Confusion," for example, were central to the texture of those tracks, and a big part of the re-envisioning of that group's sound under producer Norman Whitfield. Other Motown chartbusting singles to feature Coffee on guitar include Edwin Starr's "War" and The Supremes' "Someday We'll Be Together."
Signed to record under his own name for the MGM subsidiary Maverick Records, Coffey debuted with a set of raw instrumentals entitled Hair and Thangs in 1969. But it was two years later, with the release of "Scorpio" as a single that Coffey's name went national. The 7-inch sold over a million copies and peaked in Billboard's Top Ten. Within a year, Coffey made television history as the first white artist to appear on the popular black music show, Soul Train, performing - of course - "Scorpio" for host Don Cornelius and his dancers.

While "Scorpio" was the lone commercial breakthrough for Dennis Coffey, his music is much-revered and oft-sampled among Hip-Hop DJs and producers. For instance, his 1974 blaxploitation soundtrack for the Jim Kelly martial arts feature, Black Belt Jones, is another breakbeat extravaganza; its main theme figures prominently in LL Cool J's 1989 single, "Jingling Baby."
Dennis Coffey
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