(August 17, 2023).  While many people credit Sugar Hill Gang’s groundbreaking 1979 smash “Rapper’s Delight” with being the song that changed the game for rap music and, by extension, hip-hop, more discerning fans would correctly note that Fatback’s “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” actually preceded “Delight” by several weeks of release and by one week on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart (called Hot Soul Singles back then).

But to find the songs that actually started hip-hop, one would have to go beyond those two iconic records and account for its six-year embryonic state (while it was still developing after its August 1973 “birth”), and even further beyond that.

That’s because, while rap music as we know it now wasn’t commercially available (at least not nationally) during those early years, funk and disco music in general has always been a part of hip-hop culture.  It’s what started it.

DJ Kool Herc, circa late 1970s/early ‘80s

As readers of this blog and others know, this year’s celebrations of hip-hop’s 50th birthday are centered around August 11, 1973, the day that now-legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Famer DJ Kool Herc hosted a famous “Back-To-School Jam” in the South Bronx and pioneered the use of two turntables to mix and extend the break beats of several of the era’s percussion-heavy funk records.

And so it is those funk (and disco) records that should be heralded as birthing the genre and culture we’ve been calling hip-hop for the better part of 50 years, a half-century in which rap certainly plays a huge part…just not the first part. 

The first known documentation of Herc’s deejaying phenomenon—and the records he used to pioneer it—was an article that ran in the July 1, 1978 issue of Billboard Magazine, tucked away in the trade publication’s “Discos” section…itself less than five years in the making.  

In that piece, late writer and future hip-hop author Robert Ford, Jr. wrote about how Bronx DJ Herc “rose to popularity by playing long sets of assorted rhythm breaks strung together,” a practice Ford noted other Bronx DJs had picked up on using what he referred to as “B-beats” (break beats).

Herc’s playing style—mentioned as being nearly five years old at the time of the article—was linked to one record in particular that initially held the now-famous DJ’s fascination: “Bongo Rock” by the Incredible Bongo Band.

“Bongo Rock” by the Incredible Bongo Band (1973)

That upbeat instrumental tune—a remake of a song written and recorded by the late Preston Epps in 1959—begins with a heavy conga drum riff, but includes a strong melodic brass and drum arrangement that carries most of its two-and-a-half-minutes.

It was the song’s drum riffs and rhythm breaks—short as they were—that Herc imagined being longer, so he used the two turntables playing the same record to extend those sections and bring his vision to life.

The Incredible Bongo Band was a group of musicians who were assembled in Los Angeles by the late Michael Viner, a film and record producer (and A&R man) born in Washington, DC.  

This version of “Bongo Rock” was on their first album of the same name (first on Pride Records and later MGM) and was charting in Billboard at the time Kool Herc immortalized it at that August back-to-school jam.  The “Bongo Rock” single peaked at No. 57 on the August 25, 1973 Hot 100, two weeks after the infamous school party that started it all.

But the “Bongo Rock” single was only part of the story.  

Also on the Bongo Rock album was IBB’s version of “Apache,” itself a percussion-heavy funk remake of the instrumental tune “Apache” by The Shadows (and a No. 2 cover hit by Danish guitarist Jørgen Ingmann in 1961).

The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” (1973)

While IBB’s 1973 remake of “Apache” wasn’t cited in the 1978 Billboard article as one of the records DJ Kool Herc had been spinning and other deejays were buying in droves, it later became known as one.  

Furthermore, it has been sampled an astonishing 756 times, according to WhoSampled.com—one of the most sampled songs of all time—including on records by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1981’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”), MC Hammer (1988’s “Turn This Mutha Out”), Nas (2006’s “Hip Hop Is Dead”), among countless other classics.

The song was sampled initially (and most faithfully) by rap pioneers the Sugar Hill Gang. Their 1982 hit single retained the title “Apache” and added lyrics containing trite Native American references like “Tonto” (from The Lone Ranger TV series), teepees, moccasins, smoke signals, etc.  It was a top-20 soul chart hit (No. 13 peak) in early 1982.

More impressively, Sugar Hill Gang’s “Apache” peaked at No. 53 on the Hot 100 in April ’82, placing it among the first rap records to infiltrate the pop chart during hip-hop’s still-lean years (“Rapper’s Delight” had been the first in 1979).

The IBB version of “Apache” has been widely documented as being one of the most influential songs in hip-hop history, with its 756 samples underscoring its importance to the genre.  Both DJ Kool Herc and hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa have cited its influence.

“Apache” was the subject of a 2013 documentary called Sample This, which further recounted the song’s creation and how its famous break beats have been the DNA of so many rap records. 

Other records mentioned in the July 1978 Billboard article as having been a part of DJ Kool Herc’s early repertoire included songs by Dennis Coffey (“Son of Scorpio”) and Jeannie Reynolds (“The Fruit Song”), as well as another remake of “Bongo Rock” by a group called the Arawak All-Stars (based in Jamaica).

Dennis Coffey’s “Son of Scorpio” (1972)

Coffey is a legendary Detroit musician who was a session musician for Motown and who famously became the first white artist to appear on Soul Train in January 1972 (before Gino Vannelli, Elton John and David Bowie all did it three years later).  “Son of Scorpio” was a 1972 followup to his huge 1971 hit “Scorpio,” which reached the Billboard top ten and sold a million copies.

“Son of Scorpio” tried to recapture the magic of its predecessor but never charted.  It has, however, been sampled in other tunes at least 16 times, according to WhoSampled.com.  Of note, the more successful “Scorpio” has been sampled over 120 times, including in classics by Young MC (“Bust A Move”; 1989), Public Enemy (“Night of the Living Baseheads”; 1988) and Fugees (“The Score”; 1996).

Jeannie Reynolds from her album Cherries, Bananas, & Other Fine Things (1976)

As for Jeannie Reynolds’ “The Fruit Song,” the suggestively sung 1976 disco nugget–about cherries and bananas, you figure out the metaphors—postdated hip-hop’s 1973 beginnings, but was still cited as a DJ Herc favorite.

Reynolds, who like Coffey was from Detroit, had two earlier soul chart hits in Billboard, including a top-10 hit in “The Phones Been Jumping All Day.”  She recorded for Casablanca Records, notably before Donna Summer launched her career there. 

“The Fruit Song” by Jeannie Reynolds (1976)

Given the tune’s slower tempo, DJ Herc was known for playing “The Fruit Song” and similar recordings at faster tempos—45rpm rather than the 33-1/3 speed of its album version.

“The Fruit Song” later became a Chicago steppers anthem, but its opening drum rifts were perfect for the work Herc and other Bronx deejays were doing at the time of its release…enough so that it was cited as one of those “cut-out records” (old, used or cheap, out-of-print records no longer available in wide distribution) that deejays were still buying at a local Bronx record store called Downstairs Records, according to the July 1978 Billboard article.

Sadly, exactly two years after that issue of Billboard was published, Jeannie Reynolds, who reportedly suffered from depression after her career faltered, committed suicide (at age 25) after taking the lives of her two young children. “The Fruit Song,” unlike Reynolds’ two earlier records from 1975, had never charted.

Grandmaster Flash sampled “The Fruit Song” for his 2002 release “Turntable Mix (Flash Got More Bounce).”

Notably, all of the above songs have been sampled by hip-hop icon Grandmaster Flash, one of the pioneers of the genre, further cementing their place in history as being there during those lean years after it all started.

But no article heralding hip-hop’s beginnings would be complete without going beyond August 1973 and mentioning artists whose music inspired both the funky drumming and the rap elements that came to define hip-hop: Pigmeat Markham, The Last Poet Jalal Nuriddin, and Soul Brother No. 1 James Brown (and his former drummer Clyde Stubblefield).

Pigmeat Markham’s “Here Comes The Judge” (1968)

First there’s the late Markham, who could easily be credited with having the earliest “rap” recording with his 1968 hit “Here Comes The Judge,” which combined his legendary comedic delivery with “soul-talking” to come up with the closest thing to rap that predated the 1970s.

“Judge” (backed on the vinyl 45 with “The Trial” on its B-side) could arguably be considered the first “rap” single to chart (it peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard soul chart and No. 19 on the Hot 100).  

But that would necessitate contrasting every non-hip-hop song before October 1979 that included a rap element, including country-pop tunes like Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and “Uneasy Rider,” plus C.W. McCall’s “Convoy,” which clearly aren’t hip-hop but had prominent rap verses. 

Then there’s the late Last Poet Jalal Nuriddin (backed by Kool & the Gang before they really blew up and when they were still very funky) who, as part of the collective Hustler’s Convention, came up with the 1973 album Lightnin’ Rod.  That album featured the track “Sport,” a now legendary prototype of hip-hop with its cocksure lyrics and Nuriddin’s braggadocio on full display.

Lightnin’ Rod’s original recording of “Sport” (1973)
Jalal Nuriddin performing “Sport” live (circa early 2010s)

While “Sport” was lighthearted in nature, The Last Poets—a collective of poets and musicians emerging from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s—often tackled more serious subject matter and laid the groundwork for the socially conscious hip-hop that became prevalent a decade later (“The Message,” “Survival,” etc.).  

And finally there’s James Brown.

The Godfather himself is singularly the most influential artist to hip-hop, with his songs having been sampled more than 15,000 times (according to WhoSampled.com), with 8725 unique samples stemming from 450 of his songs.

The chief source from his catalog of legendary funk tracks is 1970’s “Funky Drummer” (1795 songs have sampled it).

James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” (1970)
History lesson by Clyde Stubblefield for both “Cold Sweat” and “Funky Drummer” (by James Brown)

“Funky Drummer” with exceptional drumming by the late iconic funky drummer himself Clyde Stubblefield, was recorded in late 1969, with James Brown reportedly being so impressed with Stubblefield’s performance in the studio that he could be heard anointing the song with its title as the recording session finished.

“Funky Drummer” has been sampled in classic hits by Public Enemy (“Fight The Power”; 1989), Dr. Dre (“Let Me Ride”; 1992), N.W.A. (“Fuck Tha Police”; 1988), LL Cool J (“Mama Said Knock You Out”; 1990), and Mos Def (“Mathematics”; 1999), plus too many others to mention.

Of course, one could cite Brown’s whole catalogue of uptempo funk hits as being critical to the development of hip-hop; they were likely part of DJ Kool Herc’s set lists as he unwittingly went about the business of laying the genre’s foundation. 

So if I had to sum all of this up, I’d say the songs that started hip-hop were, in no particular order: “Apache,” “Bongo Rock,” “Son of Scorpio,” “Sport,” “Funky Drummer” (plus any number of James Brown’s cuts), and to a lesser extent, “Here Comes the Judge” and “The Fruit Song.”

Sure, “Rapper’s Delight” and “King Tim III” deserve their places in hip-hop history, but would those tunes have even existed without the songs above to pave the way?


DJRob (he/him/his), who believes love of music without knowing its history is not really love, is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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