Wake the world: hip-hop’s Caribbean roots

Garry Steckles reminds us that hip-hop, the genre that’s taken over the world of music, started right here in the Caribbean

  • U- Roy. Photograph by Urbanimage.tv/Tim Barrow

I happened recently to catch some recorded footage of hip-hop
megastar Eminem making an acceptance speech — or, to be more precise, mumbling
into a microphone — at one of those glitzy award shows that have become staples
on TV music channels.

It was the first time, I must confess, that I’d actually heard the truculent
young man speak, and as his appearance was preceded by the Ken and Barbie
announcers speculating breathlessly about how outrageous his behaviour would
probably be, I listened carefully.

All Eminem did, as it turned out, was thank the artists who had come before
him in both hip-hop and rap — something he’d apparently conspicuously avoided
until that moment. Good for him, was the consensus, as he praised pioneers
like Grandmaster Flash, the Sugar Hill Gang, and a long list of others.
No quarrels from this quarter — as Bob Marley sang, “In this great future
you can’t forget your past.”

What Eminem did forget, though, was to pay his respects to the real originators
of hip-hop — the artists who first came up with the idea of chatting and chanting
over a rhythm, rather than singing along with it. Without them, there’d be
no hip-hop, no rap, and, in all probability, no Eminem.

As this is a Caribbean magazine, I’m sure what follows will hardly be news
to many readers. But, in the interest of giving credit where it’s due, and
for the benefit of those of you who aren’t familiar with the roots of what
is now the world’s most commercially successful music — and particularly for
young hip-hop fans who weren’t around at the beginning — it has to be noted
that what was to become rap in the late 70s, and then evolved into hip-hop,
originated two decades earlier in the smoky dancehalls of Jamaica. And I
don’t mean Jamaica, New York.

Some of the names who should have been on Eminem’s thank-you list but weren’t:
Count Machuki, King Stitt, U Roy, and Kool DJ Herc.

Count Machuki was the man who first came up with the idea of chatting over
a record. And he did it back in the 50s, the decade when ska was invented
in Jamaica, and the island seemed to be bursting at the seams with new musical
ideas. Machuki, who was the ace DJ with the legendary travelling sound system
of Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, inspired both King Stitt and U Roy to take up the
new dancehall art form; and, as ska evolved into rock steady and then reggae,
the popularity of DJs grew, with artists like I Roy and Big Youth also bursting
on the scene. They were so successful, in fact, that during a single week
in 1970 — still years before the emergence of rap — U Roy held the top three
places in Jamaica’s pop charts (the three tracks, for the benefit of music
aficionados, were Wear You to the Ball, Wake the Town, and Rule the Nation).

Kool DJ Herc was never a star in Jamaica, but he was a big fan of the popular
DJs, and he played a pivotal role in the evolution of rap and hip-hop simply
by leaving the island.

Kingston-born Herc moved to New York in the late 60s,
got himself a sound system, and started carrying it to block parties in the
Bronx — and, in true Jamaican style, entertained the partygoers by DJ-ing
over the pulsating rhythms.

I’m by no means a hip-hop expert, but people who are describe Herc as “the
first hip-hop DJ,” and he had a pivotal influence on Grandmaster Flash, who
were to become rap’s first serious hit-makers in the mid-70s.

The musical cross-pollination continues to this day, with Jamaican artists
like Sean Paul and Shaggy emerging from the island’s dancehall scene to attain
international recognition, and being featured on compilation albums along
with today’s generation of hip-hop superstars.

Hip-hop and rap join an already long list of the English-speaking Caribbean’s
remarkable contributions to popular culture — along with ska, rock steady,
calypso, soca, reggae, the steel pan, rapso, mobile sound systems, dual-turntable
mixing, and the greatest musician of the 20th or any other century (yes, I’m
on about Bob Marley again).

Which strikes me as pretty good going for a region with a combined population
of not much more than five million.

And which also leads me to a shameless piece of self-promotion: if you’re
a fan of any of the aforementioned musical genres, do check out a programme
called Caribeat on WINN-FM, the St Kitts-based radio station that’s been rocking
the eastern Caribbean since going on the air last year.

Caribeat started out as mainly a reggae show, but the format was changed
recently, and you can now hear everything from soul to soca, from reggae to
rock, from salsa to ska, from Ella to Masakela.

And, yes, if you hadn’t already guessed — the host is some fellow called
Steckles. Caribeat’s on the air at 9.30 EST every Wednesday evening, and you
can listen online at www.winnfm.com.