‘Retrospecting’ Musically: The Link Between Ska, Toasting, Hip Hop and Dancehall

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Years ago when I was doing research for my Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies focussed on Jamaican dancehall culture, I became aware of the inextricable link between dancehall and hip hop. The well known story is that DJ Cool Herc’s Jamaican upbringing, his migration to the United States where he settled into a Bronx, New York music scene, and the transplantation of the toaster / DJ / mic chanting aesthetic constitutes a huge link in the flow of rhythms and performance aesthetic which produced rap and hip hop.

This is what is popularly known of Herc, and said by Franklin Bruno @HUMANFRANKLIN in this way:

“It’s the early 1970s, you’re DJ KOOL HERC (Clive Campbell, born 1955) and you’ve just invented the breakbeat, a key element of hip-hop. A West Indian immigrant weaned on Trenchtown sound-systems before moving to the Bronx with his family at age 12, Herc’s turntable technique scorched the dance floor, as intended — but it also facilitated the extension of DJs’ traditional between-song exhortations into MC’ing — that is, rapping — as we know it. And there’s the rub: though Herc dabbled in Jamaican-style “toasting,” he was neither a rapper at heart nor a nascent producer, and he was eclipsed, as early as 1977, by such worthy contemporaries as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, who took his innovations — and crews of vocalists — into the studio. Herc, however, never made a record of “his own,” and while he remains an active live DJ, especially in Europe, he has never enjoyed the financial fruits of the seed he planted. Unfair? Yes. But then, Prometheus never managed to monetize his gift to humanity either.”

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What is less said and known is the connection between African American forms of toasting and how they influenced Jamaican DJs such as U Roy before Herc could even master a turntable. This is what I say in a paper entitled ‘Negotiating a Common Transnational Space’ published in the journal Cultural Studies:

Gilroy (1993) highlights transnational music cultures from nineteenth century singers to Hip Hop, Reggae and Rap in referencing ships, sound systems, phonographs, vinyl and other technologies that facilitate crossing. Closer to home, [there’s] Chude-Sokei’s (1997) reading of [transnational impulses created by] ‘Ragga’ sound…. When one considers the movement of Jamaican DJ style, its antecedents and influence, the case of the Reggae and Dancehall transnation is effectively made:

“[Jamaican DJ] U-Roy’s prime historic place…is not only the fact that he more than any other picked up, translocated and transformed [African American DJ Jocko] Henderson’s techniques, shifting them out of the radio and recording studios into the streets, then back again, but also in the fact that he in turn provided the model for the expatriate Jamaican Sound Systems that would take over The Bronx in the early 1970s and eventually form the foundation for Hip hop and rap. “Your Ace from Space”, as an expression and a cultural marker, establishes and signifies the transversal cultural history that unites African American and Jamaican popular culture across a half-century, from Henderson to Beckford to The Bronx and on to Shaggy on one hand, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard [ODB] on another, ODB being a straight incarnation of late 1960s Beckford” (Olu Oguibe, email communication, February, 25, 2005).

My sincere thanks to Olu Oguibe and Annie Paul who put me in touch with him in the first place. The earlier iteration of these ideas were published in Stanley-Niaah, S. and Niaah, J. (2006) “‘Ace’ of the Dancehall Space: A Preliminary Look at U Roy’s Version and Subversion in Sound”, Social and Economic Studies special issue on popular culture, 55: 1&2, pp. 167-189. Check out the entire issue for some other cool articles.
Another link in the equation is Heather Augustyn’s articulation of the link between toasting and ska. In ‘Pick It Up, B-Boys! The Toasting/Hip-Hop Connection’ she makes the connection to ska in a fundamental way and I quote from this recent blog post of hers to extend the conversation about genealogies thus far under-explored in the ethnomusicology landscape. She asks some crucial questions. Let us both know what you think.

My good friend Michael Turner recently found and posted the above rare clip of King Stitt toasting on his Roots Knotty Roots page and I wanted to pass it along and write about it here. This particular clip interested me because I have been researching the link between toasting and early hip hop and wanted to take a few minutes to elaborate and solicit your thoughts.

King Stitt Rare Clip

As Buster Brakus notes in this clip, the backing band is Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. He notices Carl Brady on percussion who is a life-time member of Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and possibly Marvin Brooks on tambourine. Brakus says that Clancy Eccles told him that Eccles and King Stitt performed a lot with Byron’s band.

What interests me most is toasting as an art form. Count Machuki first began toasting for Tom the Great Sebastian and then came to work for Coxsone since he was skilled at attracting a crowd and keeping the crowd. Machuki says that he was so desired by the crowds that they were disappointed at the recorded version of the live performance, solidifying the concept that ska is very much a live experience. In The Rough Guide to Reggae, authors Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton quote Count Machuki. “There would be times when the records playing would, in my estimation, sound weak, so I’d put in some peps: chick-a-took, chick-a-took, chick-a-took. That created a sensation! So there were times when people went to the record shop and bought those records, took them home, and then brought them back, and say, ‘I want to hear the sound I hear at the dancehall last night!’ They didn’t realize that was Machuki’s injection in the dancehall!”

“Toasting was developed by the sound-system operators,” writes Mohair Slim. “To emphasis the music’s rhythm, the DJs chanted staccato noises over the top of the instrumental tracks that were the staple of the early dancehall. A common technique was the rapid-fire repetition of words, like “ska-ska-ska” or “get-up-get-up-get-up” also employed were locomotive-noises (“ch-ch, ch-ch, ch-ch”), hiccups (“he-da, he-da, he-da”) and grunts. Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd and Byron Lee all utilised toasting to accentuate the fervour of their records.” The clip above is evidence of Byron Lee using this art form. Classic Skatalites tunes like Rocket Ship and

Legendary historian and artist Clinton Hutton says the toasting had a deeper impact on the power of the sound system. “The mike gave the voice reach and agency. The deejay could talk to the fans in the dancehall as well as to the persons outside of the dancehall. He could advertise the next dance and venue that the sound system would be playing at. He could praise the sound system owner/operator and help to brand his name and enterprise in the minds of the people. The disc jockey could dedicate a song or songs to a specific person or group of persons. He could announce the names of persons going off to England or coming from prison. Yes, he could really ‘wake the town and tell the people,’ to use a line from Daddy U-Roy. He could cover the weaknesses in a selection with live jive, with toasting, with scatting, with bawl out.”

I would argue that toasting is the grandfather of hip hop. It is evident that those who either participated in or witnessed the activity of toasting in the 1950s and 1960s Kingston, at the sound system dances brought this cultural phenomenon to the shores of the United States where it then evolved into hip hop traditions. In the 1970s, hip hop began when a disc jockey by the stage name DJ Kool Herc began hosting block parties in the South Bronx. He, like the Jamaican predecessors, toasted over the music to encourage the attention of the participants. Hip hop toasting then evolved into adding musical flourishes to the music, utilizing two turntables to create percussive effects like scratching and looping, and it then evolved into rapping completely as a vocal, rather than a few words over the existing soundtrack, and vocal percussive effects, beatboxing. Hip hop culture spread to communities throughout New York and then the world in the 1980s.

Scholar Joseph Heathcott notes the origins of hip hop culture in Jamaica. “Taking shape on the playgrounds and street corners of the South Bronx, hip-hop was from the first moment a popular cultural practice that stretched across borderlands, linking the local to the transnational. Not coincidentally, hop-hop erupted in the one American urban neighborhood with the highest concentration of Jamaican labor migrant families: the South Bronx. . . . Islanders imported with them to the South Bronx highly developed musical and electric performance cultures centered around the mobile sound system. If ska had filed to gain a purchase on the American music scene, and if reggae was only beginning to establish its credentials, it was the sound system and dance hall culture that ultimately made sense on transplanted soil. Where Jamaican genres of music only penetrated American markets obliquely, Jamaican performance practices provide enteral to the creation of hip-hop.”

Is it possible that DJ Kool Herc knew of these Jamaican toasting methods? Most definitely. DJ Kool Herc, whose real name is Clive Campbell, was born in 1955 in Kingston, Jamaica where he lived until he was 12 years old, during the height of the sound system era. He came to the Bronx in 1967. His first gig was DJing his sister’s birthday party and he did as he learned, filling the break sections of the song with toasting to keep the audiences going. This is not to say that DJ Kool Herc was merely imitating the originals, and indeed he was innovative by incorporating the turntables themselves in future gigs to create additional techniques that became separate from the ska genre and a part of the hip-hop genre, but credit is due the first toasters—Count Machuki, King Stitt, and Sir Lord Comic.

See the full post with video here: http://skabook.com/foundationska/2013/11/pick-b-boys-toastinghip-hop-connection/

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