The Akan, a West African ethnic group, are famously known for their Sankofa bird symbol, which shows a bird reaching back to retrieve an egg with its mouth. The Twi language of Ghana translates Sankofa to mean “go back and get it,” a translation that serves as a perfect reference to the Southern roots that permeated hip-hop culture. That hip-hop originated in the Bronx is a commonly accepted fact, yet many overlook several key Southern elements of its origin and evolution.
During the Great Migrations (1870–1920 and 1950–1970), thousands of African Americans fled the oppressive racism of the South and moved to Northern cities such as New York and Chicago with hopes of a prosperous economic future. Many of these Southern Black migrants brought blues and gospel musical influences to Northern cities. Their descendants were centralized in urban areas and, through a confluence of socioeconomic conditions, became architects of hip-hop culture.
The first generation hip-hop DJs, such as Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaattaa and Kool Herc used obscure funk and soul music produced by Black Southern artists of the 1960s and ’70s. During hip-hop’s infancy, these DJs began to use two records to extend instrumental breakdown sections catering to the rhythmic sensibilities of acrobatic dancers named b-boys. These break rhythms were used in routines for such seminal hip-hop groups as the Cold Crush Brothers, Crash Crew and the Fearless Four.
The Sankofa element is also present in hip-hop’s sampling practices. For example, in 1975 the Mississippi-based band Freedom released — to very little fanfare — a song titled “Get Up and Dance,” which inadvertently became a staple song played at early hip-hop park jams. Nine years later, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, who, in turn, sampled the original group’s name “Freedom” for the aforementioned single, sampled the same song. In 1989, KRS One sampled the song for his single “You Must Learn.” Then in 1992, R&B group SWV sampled “Get Up and Dance” on its hit single “Anything,” which featured seminal hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. The lineage of those songs embodies the Sankofa spirit, given that none ever deviate stylistically from each other.
If there’s a Southerner connected to the hip-hop sound, it would be James Brown, who has been sampled more than 7,000 times. Born in Barnwell, South Carolina, and raised in Augusta, Brown’s music is steeped in Black Baptist church traditions. Aptly labeled the Godfather of Soul, Brown’s wails and preacher delivery have traversed several generations of hip-hop music since the park-jam days.
Brown’s “The Funky President,” released in 1974, was first sampled in 1981 by Spoonie Gee for “Spoonie Is Back” and most recently by Kanye West for “Clique,” which features Big Sean and Jay-Z. Brown’s samples have remained a staple, a fact that highlights how he is the most sonically influential musician in hip-hop.
His influence on hip-hop is further underscored when considering that b-boying began as a way to emulate Brown’s acrobatic dance moves. His “Good Foot” routine, which accompanied the infectious rhythms of “Get on the Good Foot,” became a classic example for stalwart b-boys. Undulating dance moves like the Robot, Camel Walk and the Boogaloo became b-boy staples.
The MC element of hip-hop has lineage ranging from gospel quartets to melodic vocal styles of such jazz greats as Cab Calloway. However, there are two Southerners who have, in a very direct way, influenced the art of emceeing.
Born in an independent Black community, Hayti District in Durham, North Carolina, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham’s live performances were relegated to vaudeville theaters and nightclubs on the “chitlin circuit.” His routines grew in popularity once he began making TV appearances and his comedic rap recordings were released on Chess Records in the 1960s. His stylistic parodies inspired MCs such as DJ Hollywood and Kurtis Blow.
Music historians, arguably, consider Blowfly the first rapper. His recordings were released years before the world knew who the Sugar Hill Gang was. Born Clarence Reid in Cochran, Georgia, and later relocated to West Palm Beach, Florida, Reid wrote and produced for Betty Wright, Gwen McCrae and Brown collaborator Bobby Byrd. He adopted an alter ego with the pseudonym “Blowfly,” under which he recorded a lewd comedic album titled The Weird World of Blowfly in 1971. Reid considered himself an extension of Pigmeat Markham’s spoken-word approach. His sexually explicit albums influenced the style and content of every rapper from Too $hort to 2 Live Crew and were heavily sampled by hip-hop artists.
Hip-hop culture always reaches back in order to move forward. This is the nature of the African aesthetic, the subconscious demand of contemporary Black artistic creation. Given these examples of Southern influences in hip-hop, one can argue that hip-hop couldn’t have happened without Black Southern musicians.
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