Breaks With Tradition

Breaks With Tradition: “The Champ”

Breaks With Tradition is a new Stereogum column that examines a certain song that’s been frequently sampled and how that song has been used through the years.

Sometimes a groove is just a groove, but sometimes it’s a miles-deep goldmine of unintentional metacommentary and a focus point for the weirdest aspects of cultural repurposing. Songs get recorded for reasons ranging from pure mercenary money-making to deeply personal artistic expression, but if you don’t know where on the spectrum a particular composition actually falls — especially when you’re in the process of cutting it up and scrapping it for parts — the origin means nothing.

There is a long, entangled narrative you can build around the Mohawks’ 1968 cut “The Champ,” a sorta-rewrite of a December 1966 Lowell Fulson single. Except the single’s credited to Lowell under the contractual-obligation-dodging alias/pseudo-typo “Lowell Fulsom.” And the song that the Mohawks are playing sounds a bit more like the version that Otis Redding and Carla Thomas did when they covered it — you could say usurped it, at least on the charts — a mere four months later. The main difference in arrangement between the Otis & Carla version and the Mohawks? The former, while recorded for Stax with Booker T. & The M.G.’s as the house band, doesn’t feature Booker playing the Hammond B3 organ, his signature instrument as a bandleader for his own group.

But “The Champ” is defined by it, both through its recurring riff and its exuberant solos. So start with an original that’s recorded by the artist under an assumed-but-obvious almost-pseudonym, eclipsed by its far more successful and better-known cover, then turned into a mostly instrumental semi-rewrite — credited to one Harry Palmer, rather than Fulson — that sounds more like the band the record’s imitating than the band originally sounded.

And then everyone started sampling it.

The Original: The Mohawks, “Champ” (from The Champ, Pama, 1968; originally did not chart; re-release charted at #58 on the UK singles chart, 1987)

There are plenty of cases where relative nobodies, zero-hit wonders, and anonymous session players are introduced to the pop-music canon and a sort of microcelebrity just by being sampled. But the Mohawks are one of the more special cases in that their renown was steeped in one of history’s most relatively thankless musical contexts: library music, the work-for-hire stuff created for licensed use in TV, film, and other media.

Library music is what a company goes with when they don’t have the budget or the inclination to shell out for an original commissioned soundtrack or an expensive piece of licensed music, and so much of it was produced at such a high quality and in such a broad array of styles that its adoption as sample fodder wasn’t just inevitable but pivotal.

As far as the Mohawks went, they were a strange case. They were a group of library music purveyors masquerading as a pop group when one of their sessions got an atypical commercial release; a handful of songs off their 1968 LP The Champ resurfaced a year later on The Big Beat, put out by the iconic production library label KPM Music.

As the various personnel from the group reveal in a clip from the long-incubating crowdfunded documentary The Library Music Film (which began screening this month), the band that would be the Mohawks didn’t exactly set out to cut a b-boy classic. Bassist Les Hurdle jokes about how he and drummer Byron Davis were a strange rhythm section in that they somehow achieved funk, despite not being all that funky at that point.

But the real pull of the song’s origin is that organist/composer Dr. Alan Hawkshaw, who’s composed more songs than most people have had cups of coffee and is the Venn diagram overlap between David Bowie and Grange Hill, pulled off one of those rare perfect hooks, so simple in its catchiness that it feels impossible somehow. That organ feels as percussive as it is melodic, so deeply body-moving that it became a breakbeat standard despite the fact that it’s a melodic refrain instead of an unaccompanied percussive break. It wound up sharing an Ultimate Breaks & Beats volume with James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” and if that’s not high honors, nothing is.

The First Sample: Afrika Bambaataa, Afrika Islam, And Jazzy Jay, “Fusion Beats Vol. 2″ (Bozo Meko 12″, 1980/81)

If you’re wondering how something as obscure as a British library music record became a hip-hop standard, “because Zulu Nation got ahold of it” is as unsurprising an answer as you’d want. Afrika Bambaataa and his crew were almost supernaturally attuned to obscure crate-digging gems, thanks to being extensively dedicated to monitoring as many industry record pools and far-flung club scenes as possible.

But getting there first, at least in a known recorded quantity, isn’t the most interesting thing about this cut. The identity of bootlegger “Bozo Meko Records”, and the question of where they got this Zulu Nation pause tape to put on the flipside of a live Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 performance, was a longtime mystery that was finally put to rest a few years back.

“Breakbeat Lou” Flores confirmed on Easy Mo Bee’s Instagram that “Bozo Meko Records” was the brainchild of his Ultimate Breaks & Beats partner “Breakbeat Lenny” Roberts and Bambaataa himself. And as Afrika Islam himself confirms in the comments of the above YouTube clip, he put together the beat as a pause tape — a pre-sampler way of reproducing an extended DJ break by using a dual-deck tape recorder to dub a piece of music you wanted to build a beat out of, one loop at a time.

There’s a kind of shakiness that comes from the painstaking analog-tech methodology: Record the sample, pause playback and recording, rewind the tape, cue it all up to record again, and repeat as necessary. So this mix, which also drops in James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and Dyke & The Blazers’ “Let A Woman Be A Woman And A Man Be A Man,” isn’t as metronomic as you’d expect from a highly skilled turntablist with a Flash-caliber sense of clockwork timing, much less an expertly used SP-1200.

But history’s history. The exact release date of this 12″ is still a little foggy, but it’s safe to say this is to early pre-digital sampling what “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel” is to DJing: an early sensation that opened the door for entirely new possibilities for hip-hop on wax.

The Early Sample: DJ Chuck Chillout, “Hip Hop On Wax – Volume 1″ (Vintertainment 12″, 1984)

Speaking of which, here’s DJ Chuck Chillout — 98.7 KISS FM alumni, WBLS radio host, and memorable Beastie Boys namedrop — cutting the living shit out of a roll call of essential hip-hop breaks from “The Champ” to Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” to the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun” to Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” to… well, you get the gist better with audio, which is essential listening for anyone who’s interested in the development of turntablism in the ’80s.

Chuck’s radio gig took precedence over his recording career, so this single’s one of a handful of top-billed releases where he was able to preserve his dizzying scratch technique for posterity (at least, before he got a Soundcloud going). And we’re lucky he did. After “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel” moved fewer units than Sugar Hill Records had hoped, the idea of actually releasing a 12″ completely dedicated to a DJ scratch routine seemed like a niche idea at best, with solo scratch routines not coming into play too often again until hip-hop transitioned from a singles format to an album format. And yet…

The Breakthrough Sample: Eric B. & Rakim, “Eric B. Is President” (Zakia 12″, 1986; later remixed on Paid In Full, 4th & B’way, 1987)

…you could still have dope scratch routines as part of rap tracks. Eric B. would have his own solo showcases a year later when Paid In Full let him stretch out for “Eric B. Is On The Cut” and “Chinese Arithmetic.” But hearing him work every single possible angle of that riff from “The Champ” into the scratch routine that augments the beat on “Eric B. Is President” — especially the superior mix from the original ’86 12″ — is more than enough evidence from the word go that he’s integral to the duo’s success. When you’ve got an MC as line-drawing in his revolutionary rhyme technique as Rakim debuting on a track that gives the DJ titular billing, that DJ has to be amazing.

The Weirdo Sample: Miles Davis, “Fantasy” (from Doo-Bop, Warner Bros., 1992)

Back to Easy Mo Bee: It has to be such a disorienting span of time in one’s career to go from Miles Davis’s skeptically received final recorded album Doo-Bop to the Notorious B.I.G.’s universally respected debut Ready To Die in just a couple years, right? Hell, throw critical reception and record sales out the window, and just mull over the idea of being the man who did beats for Miles and Biggie. That’s nuts. How do you not score free drinks for life and/or a New York deli sandwich named after you when you’ve got a stretch of your resume that looks like that?

The problem with Doo-Bop, at least to the people who really take issue with it, is that they’re not really into the rhymes on this — fair enough, I guess, though that’s been chalked up to some of the songs, including “Fantasy,” being partially unfinished when Miles died in September ’91. Say what you will about the lyrics (I’ve heard worse), but the beat is a nice halfway point between New Jack Swing and acid jazz that does an end-run around the more cloying cliches of both genres and settles into a strong groove. Even if it’s kind of cocktail-lounge music, at least the beats bump hard enough that it sounds like they mix the drinks strong there.

The “Champ” riff is pretty noticeable, if unsurprisingly used in a pretty tasteful way, but it does raise a question: Who do you think was more geeked to hear themselves sampled on a Miles Davis song, Alan Hawkshaw or ESG?

The Recent Sample: Migos, “Stir Fry” (from Culture II, Capitol/Motown/Quality Control, 2018)

OK, so sure, Pharrell had this beat lying around for nearly a decade before he gave it to Migos, and it’s still kind of hazy as to whether this is a legit direct sample of “The Champ” or just an unusually inspired mutated replication of its sound, reproduced through some kind of Pharrell-ian evocative sorcery.

Harry Palmer is actually credited on the song’s AllMusic page, so let’s go with the former — in which case, shit, the idea to switch up the key to Hawkshaw’s riff like that and turn it from an upfront old-school b-boy alarm call to a more sneakily deployed nagging melodic tic is the kind of blasphemy the “Champ” sample needs at a time when the vast majority of its usages just lift the vocal. Oh, speaking of which — turns out the voices in “The Champ” are actually shouting “tramp!” Huh. How about that.