Cab Calloway: Original Rapper

Iain Ellis

Rhythmic emphases, rhyme infatuations, celebrations of decadence, slang, bling, and an overall manifestation of cool: Cab Calloway was hip-hop's preeminent godfather.

In the perennial "forerunners of rap" debates many artists have been variously cited as the O.R.'s: Original Rappers. Louis Jordan, Bo Diddley, James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, and the Last Poets have all displayed characteristic features that have earned them someone's lauded acclaim as the "Godfather(s) of Rap". To this notable list one might put forth another worthy candidate: Cab Calloway.

In style, persona, lyrical purpose, and rhythmic priority, a bricolage of hip-hop ingredients can be discerned in this Baltimore maverick from the 1930s swing era. Particularly in current hip-hop pranksta Andre 3000, one witnesses Calloway's musical heir enjoying a celebrated career by integrating Cab-style wit and showmanship into his music, moves, and wardrobe. Andre's upcoming Prohibition-period movie, My Life in Idlewild, scheduled for release in 2006, has an accompanying Outkast-written soundtrack that even fuses the period's swing and ragtime to his more familiar pop-hop sound.

Just as Andre 3000 has found common ground in the past swing era to infuse his genre with new imaginative scope and vigor, so Cab Calloway may be seen conversely as a prophet of rap aesthetics, providing an array of stylistic and comedic techniques that have lived on into contemporary forms. A compelling argument can be made for pronouncing Cab Calloway as the primary precursor of hip-hop and as the trailblazing innovator of comedic rap. He embodies multiple traits that we now associate with and are accustomed to expect from modern hip-hop culture:

Through his "party" songs and Hepster's Dictionary, Calloway provided a vast lexicon for the youth subculture that surrounded the swing genre; that argot revolved around a comic inverse-universe of terms and definitions (e.g., bad = good; crazy = happening). Such antonymous irony is clearly still alive and well in today's obstreperous hip-hop-driven youth slang culture.

Rhythm and rhyme propelled his popular slang, as well as vocal style, which thrived on attitude more than technical prowess. Singing/storytelling alongside — in sync rather than around — the backbeat, Calloway innovated a vocal technique that was to later inform the beat-based singing of Bo Diddley, James Brown, and the subsequent histories of funk and rap phrasing.

His visual style was both "street" and a grotesque parody of rags-to-riches success and materialism. Sometimes associated with "pimp" style, Ice T and Snoop Dog, amongst many, have since adopted Cab's excess "bling" and exaggerated sartorial splendor.

His signifying humor and boast raps separated the "hip" from the "square", both internally within jazz circles and in relation to the broader culture. Such in-house battle-banter has been a staple ritual within the history of rap music.

The words contained in his songs were grounded by the restraints of the black urban underground, but were also constituted by the wild and witty fantasies of the unleashed imagination. Like hip-hop, the lyrics of Cab-style swing were drawn from African-American city streets.

Calloway's black pride and sense of "cool" were always demonstrative but largely pre-political in consciousness and form. A superiority "boast" humor at the personal level pervades his comic scenarios as it has so much of rap's 25-year history. Such wit signifies rather than contemplates larger political correlations.

Who was first to inquire "Are you fly?" Answer: The Professor of Jive, Cab Calloway.

One cannot help but feel that the history of popular music would look somewhat different had Cab Calloway not existed. His winning humor brought new spirit and possibilities to youth expression, performance, lyrical subjects, language, image, and promotion — all central elements in the developments of rock and rap as popular art forms. Moreover, his humor was beyond mere self-indulgence; it offered a spirit-raising antidote to black and white youth during the depression-ravaged years of the '30s. He was a unifier, a pied piper that gave a stressed populace something to connect to, to celebrate with, and to temporarily brush away the blues. His was a comedic escapism of body and mind; he cajoled the jitterbugs to jitterbug and made "hep" slang an irresistible proposition. If you were "hep to the jive", you were part of a club, one identified with racial integration and hedonism, one against stiff adult rules and prejudices.

Calloway's humor had a psycho-social power of empowerment through its oppositional essence. In his songs and beyond, he taught the youth subcultures not how to live, but how they could live — if only in their wildest imaginations. Maybe you would never wear the sharp silk suits of many colors or the brimmed fedoras Cab sported on stage, but the alternative fantasies his appearance symbolized were good for the spirit, a relief from deadening reality. As such, Cab-style swing, like rap humor, provided black culture and white sympathizers with escapism and/or relief from subjugated existence in a polarized capitalist society. Both genres' apparitions of empowered identity reflect and temporarily satiate the desires and promises of those excluded or alienated from an official cultural dream that is only realized by a privileged few.

Lyrically, Calloway created a homology of dreams, too, fragments of scenes from the fantasy jazz world. Like so many rap narratives of recent years, Calloway's sketches involve wild parties, celebrating a decadent youth enjoying the fruits of sex, dancing, and drugs. Sometimes these were expressed through the coded lingo of jive talk (as in "The Viper's Drag") and sometimes they were brazenly explicit (as in "Reefer Man"). "Scat Song" and "Are You All Reet?" elicit the "party" humor; both exhibit the hedonistic pursuits and linguistic tongue-twisters that we have seen filter into so many subsequent rock and rap fantasies.

In "Scat Song" Cab argues on behalf of the spoken jazz rhythms that Louis Armstrong had developed a decade prior, with utterances full of onomatopoeia nonsense and childlike babble. For Calloway, scat was a liberating leap into primal youth, deserving of this instruction manifesto: "Don't give a hang what words you use at any time / Sing this silly language without any reason or rhyme / And skeep-beep de bop-bop beep bop bo-dope skeetle-at-de-op-de-day!" One can imagine the youthful Little Richard and Bo Diddley taking mental notes as they crafted their own youth-inspired glossolalia. This dumb free-styling continues to jitterbug from the page to the stage when Calloway asks his young advocates, "Are You All Reet?" then responds: "Just speel some jive, we'll dig you out, you see / Well, all reet! / Trilly filly? / Woo-woo! / Woo-woo! / I don't go Navaho."

Occasionally, Calloway's humor would veer towards pre-political satire, as in "Tarzan of Harlem" and "Jess's Natu'lly Lazy", where he gently mocks white stereotypes and racist assumptions. In the former he slyly teases white fears of the black man, reassuring with tongue-in-cheek that this urban-swinging Tarzan "really doesn't mean you no harm". In "Jess's Natu'lly Lazy" Calloway twists his humor into knots of paradox by adopting an exaggerated minstrel voice and dialect to evoke historical stereotypes of the lazy southern "negro", then using incongruity to celebrate rather than dispel or condemn that easy-going lifestyle: "You'se lazy, yeah I is / Just natu'lly lazy, hum-hum-hum / Down in Dixie let him stay / Oh, what's that? / Lordy, but he's lucky / He was born that way." The shifting pronouns and points-of-view further complicate perspectives and the narrator's (Cab's?) association with the song's character. Another song, "Yaller", though less comically complex, wittily parades the schizophrenic identity crisis of half-caste blacks in a culture that polarized around racial distinctions; this was an issue recurrent in the Harlem Renaissance literature of the times and was one clearly close-to-home for Calloway himself, a light-skinned African-American from a middle-class background.

The legacy that Cab Calloway left is formidable: Footage of him from his promotional films dancing ironically around the stage (he was no Michael Jackson!), hair flailing and body swinging, remind one of the tongue-in-cheek theatrics of Morris Day, Flavor Flav, and Andre 3000; Cab's silly sonic slang is the kind that has pervaded rock history since he first had the nation's youth yelling en masse, "You Gotta Hi-De-Ho", the "Hey Ya" of 1934; Cab's lascivious expressions and outrageous "pimp" style were every parent-of-a-daughter's worst nightmare. They were also prototypes for principle rock and rap images that others would later re-formulate. And when he declared "I Want to Rock", Cab Calloway patented and prophesized a statement of intent that not only prefigured rock 'n' roll by 12 years, but also gave to the expression all the youthful liberation, sexuality, and fantasy possibilities that would serve to frighten and horrify adult establishments over forthcoming decades.

* * *

The above essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book about rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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