Pick It Up, B-Boys! The Toasting/Hip-Hop Connection.

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.

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.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this connection. Please share your knowledge of vintage toasting and the hip hop link with me as I continue to research this fascinating musical evolution.

Ska at the Glass Bucket

Glass Bucket

This is the Glass Bucket Club, a stage that once bore the greats before ska ever existed. This stage helped to shape the musicians who would go on to create the sound that swept Jamaica and the world. Without this stage, it could be argued that Jamaican music would be altered and unrecognizable.

The Glass Bucket Club opened on December 22, 1934 on Half Way Tree Road in Kingston owned by Bob Webster and later Joe Abner. This area of Kingston was a border between uptown and downtown and the club certainly catered to high-class clientele. On opening night, some 700 patrons packed the club to see “the Rhythm Raiders, a new dance orchestra under the direction of’ Dan Williams. These musicians have been carefully chosen. not only to play for dancing, but to accompany the Vaudeville troupe which will be a regular feature of the Glass Bucket dances. Vaudeville acts are to be brought from the United States, each troupe remaining on the island for six weeks beginning January 5th,” read the Daily Gleaner announcing the opening.

Because the club catered to the upper classes and tourists, the entertainment offered was according to established tastes and was frequently dictated by trends in the U.S., such as Vaudeville. But when tastes changed from Vaudeville to the sounds of big band orchestras, the Glass Bucket adapted. It was here, at the Glass Bucket in 1956, that great American jazz singer Sarah Vaughan came to perform in mid July. Don Drummond played trombone as part of Vaughan’s musical backup and Vaughn was so impressed with his playing that she said he likely ranked in the top five trombonists in the world. Other acts included Xavier Cugat and Abby Lane. In the 40s and 50s the people who went the Glass Bucket wore gowns and tuxedos, or suits at least. There were formal shows on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve and galas of all sorts.

It was also here that Margarita, who was advertised in Glass Bucket advertisements as “Jamaica’s No. 1 Torrid Rhumba Dancer,” performed her sultry dance. Another advertisement on July 9, 1955 for her performance at the Glass Bucket stated, “Sparkling Native Flooor Show featuring Desir & Rahma in their sensational dance on broken glass, and Marguerita, ‘exotic dancer.'” Margarita’s father, Jad Eid Mahfood, did not approve of her dancing at the Glass Bucket, or anywhere, but she snuck out to do it anyway. When Anita won a competition at the Glass Bucket, her father was there to see it, unbeknownst to her. Her father’s discovery never stopped her though. The Glass Bucket also served as the live broadcast venue of the Teenage Dance Party (TDP) hosted by Sonny Bradshaw which was broadcast on JBC Radio in its early days. Later, Winston Blake played the venue with Merritone Disco, and his moves made him the first King of the TDP.

Byron Lee & the Dragonaires first performed here in 1960. Lee recounted these days for an article in the Daily Gleaner. “When you go to the Glass Bucket you had to have a reputation.  We used to play as an opening act,” for such entertainers as Perez Prado from Cuba and Sammy Davis Junior. Soon they graduated to holding main spots of their own. Lee said the Glass Bucket’s real party days were Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, with lunch being served and activities such as rehearsals being conducted during the week. On party nights, when the music was provided by a band before clubs utilized sound systems, the music started at 9 p.m. and by 1 a.m. things were winding down. “By 8 p.m. people started to come in. They expected that you would start at 9 p.m., or they would clap you,” Lee said. Lee remembers that it was also a very peaceful time. “You used to park your car, don’t roll up your windows when you come back everything was inside. Sometimes even the key was in it,” he said. Lee brought ska to the Glass Bucket from what he had seen at Chocomo Lawn, sent there by Edward Seaga to popularize the sound. “Glass Bucket mash up the night. Glass Bucket was for the rich and famous and then for the people. Ska played that role,” said Lee.

Today, the site of the Glass Bucket, which changed names to VIP during the later 1960s, is a shopping plaza.

 

Ska, Ska, Ska! Jamaica Ska!

world fair

Here they are! The Jamaican delegates to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, ready to head to Palisadoes Airport on April 16, 1964. From left to right in the front we have Jimmy Cliff, Eric “Monty” Morris, and Alphonso Castro. Standing from left to right is Prince Buster, Linda Jack, Roy Willis, Sonia Blake, Byron Lee, Janet Phillips, Carol Crawford, Ronnie Nasrala, Beverley Neath, and Ken Khouri.

The photo was taken at Issa’s, a high-end department store similar to Macy’s. The Issa family were a big business family in Jamaica with branches in not only retail, but real estate, hotel, and tourism industries. The Issa’s originally came to Jamaica in 1893 from Bethlehem, Palestine. The first two Issa’s to come to Jamaica were Elias Issa and his son Abraham Issa in 1893. The father and son team first visited the World Fair in Chicago, the Columbian Exposition, before coming to Jamaica on a ship named the Arabian Prince. They were a wealthy family from the start with the equivalent of $5 million dollars today in their pockets when they began on the island. They established the House of Issa in 1894, a company that specialized in dry goods and industrial goods, which later went on to purchase the famous Myrtle Bank Hotel in 1944, the site of many jazz and ska concerts. The family company then built Ocho Rios’ first modern hotel, Tower Isle, another site of many ska-era concerts. This hotel is now the Couples hotel, opened in 1978. They also opened Negril Beach Village, later known as Hedonism II. It is easy to see why the connection between the Issa family, involved in tourism, and Eddie Seaga, Minister of Culture, was important to spreading the word of ska.

The connection of the Issa family to ska was more than just the support of the World’s Fair crowd and Seaga’s endeavor. The Issa’s were also involved in the juke box industry, owning and operating the machines in rum bars all over the island. An article in the Daily Gleaner in 1958 says that a juke box owned by E.A. Issa in Montego Bay was damaged when a man punched it after it jammed and his record wouldn’t play. Juke boxes were critical for entertainment, for bringing money into drinking establishments, since virtually no one, except for the wealthy, owned their own phonograph. Vincent Chin, better known as Randy’s, got his start this way, through Issa’s. He worked for Issa’s, as many did during those days, including Ken Khouri of Federal Records, and he drove around from rum bar to rum bar, taking out old records and installing the new ones. After the old ones were of no use to Issa’s any more, he bought them from Mr. Issa at a cheap rate, set up shop, and then sold the American R&B tunes to the public who had slowly started to acquire their own phonographs from places like Times Store, or Issa’s.

Issa, Seaga, Khouri–say what you will about the monied families in Jamaica during the early years, but love them or hate them, without their support of the creativity coming from downtown, ska may not be where it is today, nor the music that followed. What are your thoughts?

 

Spies, Gun Slingers, and Gumshoes. American Film in Jamaican Ska.

guns of navarone

Here is an advertisement for Guns of Navarone from the Daily Gleaner, January 19, 1963. Certainly it inspired The Skatalites and Don Drummond to create their classic ska version of the American film’s soundtrack. American movies were incredibly popular in Jamaica during the 1950sand 1960s, as were all types of American culture and media, especially music. Spaghetti westerns with tough cowboy stereotypes, and spy movies were favorites. In addition to “The Guns of Navarone” which was a seminal hit for the Skatalites, so too was the James Bond theme, “Dick Tracy,” and “Lawless Street” which was made after the 1955 western movie, while “007 (Shanty Town)” became a big hit for Desmond Dekker in later years. “Bonanza Ska” was a ska version of the classic television theme song played by Carlos Malcolm and his outfit. “Duck Soup” by Baba Brooks was a song in honor of the Marx Brothers’ 1933 movie of the same name.

Byron Lee & the Dragonaires even appeared in the Bond movie Dr. No, the first James Bond movie, which came to film in Jamaica. The Dr. No soundtrack included Byron Lee & the Dragonaires tunes “Kingston Calypso” and “Jump Up,” which they performed in the film as the house band in a scene set in a club. The club in the Dr. No was known as Pussfeller’s bar but they were actually filmed at a hotel and yacht club at Morgan’s Harbour which was located on the main road to Palisadoes airport (renamed to Norman Manley International Airport).

The Daily Gleaner on January 16, 1962 boasts the headline, “Dr. No Team Arrives.” Ian Fleming had already visited the island as early as 1948 and fell in love with the land and its people, eventually calling it home, so it is no wonder that he chose Jamaica as setting for his first film. The film stared Sean Connery and Ursula Andress. The article stated, “Many Jamaican actors will be used in the film. They Include Reggie Carter, ‘Miss Jamaica’ Marguerite LeWara, Eaton Lee, and others. Monty Norman, who is to write the music for the film, will use local bands as far as possible. Director Terence Young will be interviewing local artists at the Copacabana club tomorrow evening, for the cabaret scene.”

As a side note, the following month, musician and orchestra leader Carlos Malcolm and guitarist Ernest Ranglin filed a monetary claim suit in the Supreme Court against the production team, claiming that “he was engaged to compose and write musical scores and supervise the recordings, while Mr. Ranglin claims he was engaged to look after the arrangements.” It is not known what the outcome of that suit was, but the film was premiered in Kingston at the Regal and Carib Theaters on September 17, 1963.

The role of American film in early Jamaica ska is important. Scholar Joseph Heathcott writes, “Such songs reveal the close affinities ska musicians felt to liminal male characters—tricksters, spies, cowboys, private dicks—as well as the ongoing media and commodity ties between Jamaica, Britain, and the United States.”  The incorporation of such imagery in ska and rocksteady only grew and evolved in the English and American incarnations of ska in the subsequent decades as they were interpreted through new eyes.

Can you think of more Jamaican-era ska or rocksteady references to American film? Comment here.

 

Skanking Models

mademoiselle

 

Skanking models–no, that’s not a rude put-down, it’s the description of a photo spread from Mademoiselle magazine, September 1964. This issue featured a six-page spread of models “doing the ska,” complete with some text that makes the dance, and hence the music, sound like the newest hippest thing. Here are a few excerpts from the text:

“What’s it like in the discotheques these nights? There’s a new dance, the Ska–like the Game, set to music.”

“The Ska-step, Riding the Horse.”

“Where the music goes round and round (on records), where the dance is the thing and the Ska’s the limit, what’s going on. Rowing the beat, one of the characteristic steps.”

“The step–pulling the rope–another subdivision of the Ska.”

“The basic ska and a far-from-basic dress.”

Any link between the date on this vintage article and the timing of the World’s Fair in New York? You betcha! This article was part of the push from Jamaican officials (Edward Seaga) to promote Jamaican ska, and therefore Jamaican culture and tourism. The person standing behind the cameraman on all of these shots, teaching these models to skank, is none other than Ronnie Nasralla, he told me himself. Nasralla said they also performed with their troupe of Jamaican ska dancers, including Jannette Phillips when she wasn’t performing at the Peppermint Lounge, and Sheila Khouri Lee, before she became wife of Byron Lee, on American Bandstand and at hotels and clubs all up and down the east coast. Performing music for these stints was Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. The dance, “the Ska,” was nothing like the “skank” during the 2Tone years when the pogo and other forms came into the mix, but it was a dance with “steps” designed to capitalize on the success of similar dances, like the frug, the twist, the watusi and others.

Arthur Murray and Ska?

world fair photo murray

Did you know that Arthur Murray, the famous dance instructor who founded his franchise of national dance studios, once learned how to “Do the Ska” from Ronnie Nasralla and Sheila Khouri Lee, wife of Byron Lee at the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC? Pictured here is a rare photo of Ronnie Nasralla teaching Arthur Murray’s wife, Mrs. Kathryn Murray, how to really get down! The caption from the photo, which appeared in the May 3, 1964 edition of the New Amsterdam News, reads, “Mrs. Katheryn Murray apparently enjoys being on the receiving end of a dance lesson as she learns the new “Jamaica Ska.” She was among the celebrities invited to Shepheard’s Night Club for the American premiere of the “Ska” by a troupe of Jamaican dancers, who were flown up from the Caribbean island to demonstrate the dance. The combination of a slow twist, shadow-boxing, and setting-up exercises, has swept the jet set in New York in the short time since its debut.” The photo was shot on April 26, 1964.

You may have thought that Ronnie and Jannette, Ronnie Nasralla and Jannette Phillips, taught the crowds to “do the ska” at the World’s Fair in 1964, but actually, it was Ronnie Nasralla and his partner Sheila Khouri Lee, who was just Sheila Khouri at that time as she was not yet married, nor even dating, Byron Lee. Jannette, who appears with Ronnie on all of the brochures and albums that Ronnie designed for Eddie Seaga, then minister of culture, was serving a residency at the Peppermint Lounge in Miami during the time of the World’s Fair, so Sheila became Ronnie’s dance partner. There were other couples who performed the ska during the fair, but Sheila, who was childhood and life-long friends with Ronnie, as well as Eddie Seaga, filled the role and met her future husband, Byron Lee!

Now, you may notice, if you look carefully, a smiling man in the background of this photo. Who is that, but none other than Prince Buster looking quite dapper in his best threads! I wonder if this was before or after he met and took members of the group with him up to Harlem to visit Muhammad Ali where he was influenced by Ali’s recent conversion to Islam, Prince Buster himself soon converting to the faith as well. There were many others that likely danced or performed that day and all the days surrounding the Jamaican presence at the World’s Fair such as Millie Small, Jimmy Cliff, of course Prince Buster and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Eric “Monty” Morris, and Ken Khouri, founder of Federal Records, plus others. Over the years much talk has been had about who was not present at the World’s Fair, such as the Skatalites and Don Drummond, but it is just as important to go back and look at who was there and the impact this event had on the world of ska. Love Seaga or hate him, the fact is, without his push ska may never have been able to have the recognition it finally did, and although it didn’t take off the way he wanted it to at the time, it did put in the minds of Americans and the world that there was something brewing in Jamaica.

Little did the world know!