Album: Bongo Rock (1973)


  • While it may be hard to imagine that a track that wasn't released as one of its album's singles and failed to chart in the Hot 100 could be one of the most influential in American popular music, Michael Viner's recording of "Apache" with the Incredible Bongo Band certainly fits that bill. Integral to hip-hop's early architecture as a record that DJ Kool Herc - one of the genre's founding fathers - played frequently at his mid-'70s block parties in the Bronx, and a cut sampled by countless artists since, "Apache," with its memorable extended drum break, may well be one of the most-heard sonic textures that few people can identify by name. It is little wonder, then, why journalist Will Hermes, quoting Herc, proclaimed the cut "the national anthem of hip-hip" in a 2006 New York Times article commemorating the record's re-release.

    The Incredible Bongo Band's 1973 recording of "Apache" has become the most famous take on the song, but it wasn't the first. The tune was composed by Jerry Lordan and released initially by the British group The Shadows in 1960. In its original conception, the tune was a moody rock instrumental, obviously intended to evoke - as its title suggests - the open landscape of the American West. Centered around a twangy, reverberating guitar lead, the song's sparse sound anticipated Ennio Morricone's famous spaghetti western soundtracks from later in the decade. The Shadows' recording ascended to the top of the UK Singles chart, where it remained for five weeks. Unsurprisingly, given the song's immediate success as a guitar feature, a number of cover versions followed: by Bert Weedon, Jorgen Ingmann (a Danish jazz musician, whose rendition made it to #2 in the U.S.A. on the Billbaord Hot 100), The Ventures, and Davie Allen and the Arrows. By the Arrows' version, the song's feel had been transformed, from a dusty Western instrumental, to a raucous showcase for surf guitar.
  • The founding of the Incredible Bongo Band, and their path toward resurrecting the 1960s instrumental hit, was a haphazard one. In 1972, Michael Viner was working as an executive at MGM, specializing in film soundtracks. Earlier, Viner - by his own self-deprecating admission, "a second or third-rate musician" - had worked on the music for Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello's beach movies at American International. Viner's former roommate, NFL-star and aspiring screen actor Rosie Greer, was in the midst of filming an absurd sci-fi themed comedy about race, entitled The Thing With Two Heads, featuring Greer and Ray Milland as black and white faces attached to the same human body. Looking for music for a chase scene in the film, Thing's producers turned to Viner, who assembled an ad-hoc studio crew for the occasion. Calling his pick-up group "The Incredible Bongo Band" as a nod to its emphasis on layered percussion, Viner produced two tracks for the LP, "Bongo Rock" (a cover of a 1959 Preston Epps instrumental hit that had peaked at #14 on the Hot 100) and "Bongolia." Encouraged by the interest these tracks received from rhythm and blues DJs, Viner returned to the studio to assemble a full-length Bongo Band LP. He included the two tracks from Thing with Two Heads, as well as other recycled instrumentals from other artists, like The Ventures' "Let There Be Drums," and "Apache." The album - and its last-chance follow up, The Return of the Incredible Bongo Band from 1974 - languished in obscurity until DJ Kool Herc, looking for notable drum sections he could isolate to encourage dancers and show off his turntable virtuosity, discovered the extended drum section at the heart of Viner's rendition of "Apache."

    From there, "Apache" accordingly entered hip-hop legend. Herc used it regularly to amp up crowds, recalling later how it was a central part of what he called "The Merry Go Round" portion of his set: moving through all of the best break-beats in his record collection toward the end of the night. Other DJs similarly embraced the record. Grandmaster Flash, for instance, also made it part of his repertoire, and later recorded an incredible turntable remix of the track that appeared on the 2006 Bongo Band re-issue CD. ("Apache" is also a notable part of Flash's 1981 turntablism epic, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.") When Hip-Hop began appearing more frequently on record in the late '70s and early '80s, "Apache," either in wholesale or fragmented form, became ubiquitous. The Sugarhill Gang recorded a rap over it in 1981, in one of the less successful follow-ups to their hit, "Rapper's Delight." (This version of "Apache" appeared later in a memorable comic dance sequence by Will Smith and Alfonso Ribeiro on the television show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) Between the 1980s and 2000s, the number of Hip-Hop stars who sampled "Apache" is simply staggering, including LL Cool J, 2 Live Crew, Kool Moe Dee, Geto Boys, Boogie Down Productions, Busta Rhymes, Nas, Miss Elliott, Jay-Z, and Kanye West. Other Bongo Band tracks, with their driving drums, have appeared on singles, but finding a novel way to use "Apache," specifically, has become one of Hip-Hop's veritable rites of passage.


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