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Surfing the First Wave of Hip-Hop: The 'Apache' Story
How the Shadows' 1960 anthem made its way to the Sugarhill Gang and hip-hop royalty.
By Mike Duffy
Even if you don’t know the name of the song “Apache”, or even who originally wrote and recorded it, you’ve heard it.
This ubiquitous earworm boasting sweeping horns, action-movie organ, wave-riding guitar, and, most importantly, relentlessly dueling drums and bongos, has been sampled by countless hip-hop artists since the genre’s birth in the late 1970s.
And while the sample adopted by the likes of the Sugarhill Gang, LL Cool J, MC Hammer and Nas is most often lifted from the short-lived Incredible Bongo Band and their 1973 album, Bongo Rock, the roots of “Apache” go much deeper—more than a decade, in fact, to legendary British rockers the Shadows and the Stratocaster-wielding Hank Marvin.
Originally written in the late 1950s by Jerry Lordan, a singer/songwriter in the U.K., the instrumental “Apache” was inspired by the 1954 Burt Lancaster action movie of the same name.
The Western riff Lordan penned was recorded by solo guitarist Burt Weedon, who had a hit with 1959’s “Guitar Boogie Shuffle.” Problem was, in Lordan’s eyes, that it shuffled too much. Lordan wasn’t impressed with Weedon’s jaunty version, prompting him to introduce it to the Shadows after playing it for them on their tour bus.
That’s when things fell more in line with Lordan’s vision, as Marvin and his Strat gave the riff an echo-y, Old West vibe that took the world by storm in 1960. The Shadows’ “Apache” reached No. 1 not only in the U.K. charts, but also in Australia, France, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. It was also voted Record of the Year by NME. (The Shadows’ version did little in America, where they had little promotion.)
The song’s western groove underwent several more versions before it reached what the Sugarhill Gang and a slew of others would use, however.
In 1961, Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingman went to No. 1 in the U.S. with an “Apache” rendition that was more buoyant than the Shadows’. The following year, Seattle’s Ventures released their own “Apache” that fit perfectly within their surf-rock aesthetic … effectively making it a staple of any surf-rock band’s set.
The bridge to hip-hop was nearly completed in 1973, when the Incredible Bongo Band recorded a jazzy iteration, brimming with drum and conga breaks to go along with a more in-your-face guitar riff that beckoned people to the dance floor.
As the story goes, Michael Viner, a former staffer for Robert Kennedy and then-MGM Records executive, assembled a group of studio musicians that included former Derek & the Dominos drummer Jim Gordon and Bahamian percussionist King Errisson. The project was for two tracks—“Bongo Rock” and “Bongolia”—for the science fiction flick The Thing with Two Heads starrng former NFL player Rosie Grier and actor Ray Milland.
Viner decided to record a full-length album (entitled Bongo Rock) after those sessions, an LP that spawned what would become hip-hop’s sample of choice.
The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” might have bombed forever—it languished upon its release—but pioneering Bronx DJ Kool Herc took note of its infectiousness and began spinning the record at parties in the mid-‘70s.
In a practice he called “the merry-go-round”, Kool Herc would mix two copies of Bongo Rock, finding that the place would jump when the eventually infamous “Apache” break would occur.
Now a B-boy anthem as the ‘80s arrived, the Sugarhill Gang picked it up for their 1981 hit “Apache (Jump On It)”, laid some catchy rhymes on top of the memorable melody and officially made the “Apache” breakdown an all-timer.
Since then, members of hip-hop royalty have consistently turned to “Apache.”
Grandmaster Flash touched on it with 1981’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” LL Cool J used a snippet of it for “You Can’t Dance” off 1985’s smash Radio, Sir Mix-A-Lot had a hit with 1996’s “Jump On It” and most recently, Missy Elliot won a Grammy Award in 2007 with the “Apache” sampling “We Run This.”
Who would have thought that one of the—if not the—most important samples in the history of hip-hop goes all the way back to a Western-tinged rock song? But it is just one of many reasons why Marvin’s Stratocaster stylings continue to endure to this day.
The song forever remains a prime example of how anyone can create something new out of something old. Sometimes all it takes is a riff or a drumbeat. In the case of “Apache,” it was all those and more.