Breaks With Tradition

“Good Times” At 40: The Hip-Hop Legacy Of Chic’s Immortal Smash

Forty years ago this weekend, Chic released one of music’s great historical delineation points (and a mother of a dancefloor-filler). “Good Times” is more than just a song, even though it’d be immortal if a song was all it was: widely considered the last #1 of the disco era before the industry backlash/burnout on the genre cut Chic’s career off at the knees, it’s also the stealth torch-passing of dance culture to a host of other club and DJ-driven styles, not the least of which was disco’s boogie-down kid brother from the Bronx.

“Good Times” was a smash in hip-hop circles because it was the funkiest that circa-’79 disco could get, and that bassline begged to have a rhyme rocked over it — so we got “Rappers Delight” out of it, and hip-hop went from a live club/block party/park jam experience to something you could buy in record stores, and now here we are 40 years later getting geeked about, I dunno, let’s say Bandana. But the place of “Good Times” in hip-hop is a little more complicated than just providing an interpolated groove for the Sugarhill Gang to make history over, and in many cases it’s more than just the bassline that became the sticking point. Here’s a handful of cuts that reveal as much.

The Original: Chic, “Good Times” (from Risqué, Atlantic, 1979)

I mean, it’s fucking “Good Times.” What do you need, a diagram?

Anyways, here’s what works: that opening piano flourish and everything else that piano does. Nile Rodgers’ riff, which like all great Chic riffs keeps dance music grounded in locomotive Catfish Collins funk fundamentals no matter how many strings you layer over it. Those strings in question, which famously razor-cut an authoritative orchestral equivalent of an awwwww-yeah! Tony Thompson’s drums, which recenter the idea of disco as a venue rather than a genre-trope and forego the kickdrum-conquers-all take on the 4/4 for an on-the-one-and-three emphasis. The titular nod to Kool & the Gang, whose own “Good Times” six years previous was the kind of virtuoso jazz-simpatico funk that Rodgers and Edwards cut their teeth on. The lyrics, which served as a sharp metacommentary on disco as “party music” by sneaking in inferences as to why people partied in the first place — good times to escape the bad, even if you can’t change your fate. That bass — where other late ’70s funkateers slapped, Bernard Edwards kneaded, and his basslines felt like getting socked in the gut, if only getting socked in the gut put the wind back into you and left you energized. It might just be the single greatest live-played bassline in postwar 20th century pop.

Here’s what doesn’t work: the fact that this was only #1 for a week before immediately being supplanted at the top of the charts by the Knack’s “Pump It Up” knockoff “My Sharona,” whose six-week run on top is widely considered to be the moment that disco’s heyday on the Hot 100 ended. It’s an unsporting life sometimes.

The First Sample: DJ Hollywood And Lovebug Starski Live At The Armory (bootleg tape later released as “Live” Convention “79”, 1979)

This column has played fast and loose sometimes with the interpretation of “first,” as well as where to traverse the line between sampling and interpolation. And sure, the story of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” is a rich one: it came around as a watershed moment of old school hip-hop on wax because artists of the original ’70s foundation — Grandmaster Flash, for instance — were skeptical of hip-hop actually working on wax when it had relied so much on live-show energy and displays of DJ prowess. That’s why Sylvia Robinson put the Sugarhill Gang together in the first place while focusing more on the MC side of the equation than the DJ. Having a studio band replay Chic’s “Good Times” instead of having a DJ cut and mix it meant that “Rapper’s Delight” didn’t faithfully fit the original vision of hip-hop — that’d come a couple years later, again via Flash — but it still got Chic suing for a cut of the profits, a situation that was eventually resolved after a bit of back-and-forth with ballbusting entertainment lawyers and a couple of Robinson’s hired goons. It’s all kind of a big tangled clusterfuck, which I highly recommend you read Dan Charnas’ The Big Paybackto get the full scope of. (To his credit, Nile Rodgers would later find the sample-based second life of “Good Times” a compelling one, even without factoring in what residuals he might’ve gotten from it.)

But here’s “Good Times” in the wild, so to speak — as the centerpiece of this routine from early hip-hop legends DJ Hollywood and Lovebug Starski, where you get to hear what the Chic hit sounded like in the context of hip-hop beneath the mainstream surface. It’s cued up right to perfection, finishing Hollywood’s line with the needle-drop (“I’m not a Duracell, I’m a alkaline/So let’s have a… ‘Good time!’“), and it shakes the earth with that bassline that even the hissy tape recording can’t desaturate. From there on out Hollywood switches between solid-gold crowd banter (including a spot-on Wolfman Jack impression) and classic old-school rhyming while Starski canonizes the soon-to-be-ubiquitous usage of that “good” soundbite as scratch-routine emphasis. According to the (limited) background of the event given in the “Live” Convention “79” bootleg — an all-star show held at the Armory in Jamaica, Queens — this took place after the release of “Rappers’ Delight,” considering some of the shots fired at Sugar Hill Records in some of the rhymes elsewhere. If this “Good Times” flip is a reclamation effort, it’s a dynamite one, underheard as it was.

The Early Sample: Grandmixer D.ST., “Crazy Cuts” (12″, Island Records, 1983)

The thing about a song like “Rappers Delight” so significantly codifying the idea of a particular break as part of one specific historical moment is that any further attempt to carry on that break’s popularity is going to have to come from somewhere else entirely. So while that Bernard Edwards bassline is old-school hip-hop’s first world-famous mark on pop music’s tabula rasa, it’s another element that really lingered: those harmonizing-in-unison vocals, attributed to Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin (with Michelle Cobbs given backing-vox credit). As that Hollywood/Starski performance highlighted, dropping in that “good” made for an enduring DJ-routine cut-in — you can hear it later on in LL Cool J’s “Rock The Bells,” Just-Ice’s “Back to the Old School,” and the “A.W.O.L.” segment of the Beastie Boys’ “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” — so it’s worth highlighting how it comes across in this cut by Grandmixer D.ST., released as a single the same year his contribution to Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” gave scratching an early boost of mainstream attention. (Like “Rockit”, “Crazy Cuts” is a co-production with Bill Laswell/Material, in case it sounds like a Future Shock outtake to you, too.) The premise of “Crazy Cuts” is that D.ST. is up “late one night in the boogie-down Bronx… working hard trying to invent a new form of scratching so that the elevation of hip-hop could continue.” His technique is so out-there, however, that he scares other turntablists into thinking he’s crazy, and comparing this eight-minute marathon of on-point electro-funk-lacing cut-and-scratch technique to a precursor like “Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash” does give it a more futuristic and wigged-out kind of energy. It shows up throughout, but hearing that “good” sliced up and spun to pieces during the muffled background space during the intro is a haunting harbinger.

The Breakthrough Sample: De La Soul, “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays'” (from De La Soul Is Dead, Tommy Boy, 1991)

And OK, maybe “Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash” was the real breakthrough all the way back in ’81; as a showcase of just how the “Good Times” bassline could be toyed with and reworked by other artists, it’s a masterclass in DJing as critical commentary. But Prince Paul and De La did something funnier with it, and more knowingly nostalgic, in a way that actually feels life-affirming. “Good Times” started out as a song about escaping drudgery in a stagflation-choked America — there’s a reason it invoked Great Depression-era standard/FDR campaign theme “Happy Days Are Here Again” — and at the turn of the ’90s, another recession threatened a repeat of history. This is where the best single off De La Soul Is Dead — maybe the best single De La ever put out — gets sharp: when everyone else in the world settled for “good,” they actually pull from the line “clams on the halfshell/and rollerskate” to invoke a retro-contemporary answer to hip-house as roller-rink throwback. The backbone samples are other mid-late ’70s dance cuts — Mighty Ryeders’ 1978 disco-jazz obscurity “Evil Vibrations,” Instant Funk’s ’79 Salsoul masterpiece “I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl),” the drums from Tower of Power’s ’75 groove “Ebony Jam” — but it’s that “rollerskates!” that, alongside Vinia Mojica’s euphoric hook and the geeked-out performances by Pos, Trugoy, and Quest guest Q-Tip, make this cut one of the best “forget about your worries” dance cuts since… ah, let’s say since “Good Times” itself.

The Weirdo Sample: Kid Capri Featuring Snoop Dogg & Slick Rick, “We’re Unified (Track Masters Remix)” (from Soundtrack To The Streets, Track Masters/Columbia, 1998)

Listen, I know that the reason to bump this track is to hear Snoop Dogg and Slick Rick occupy the same space. As likeminded complementary peers go, it’s the hip-hop equivalent of Two For The Price Of One, Gil e Jorge, or Waylon & Willie, if only for one track instead of an entire album. (NOTE: has anyone ever tried to get Snoop and Slick Rick to do a full-length album together? Because talk about your gimmes.) But if there’s anything that can distract you from speculating what rap’s two smoothest storyteller/players would sound like in Blackout!mode, it’s the bassline of this monster: under the aegis of Kid Capri, the prodigious DJ who spun at Studio 54 at the age when most kids hadn’t gotten the hang of the whole “learning to drive” thing, production unit Trackmasters Benihana the bejesus out of Edwards’ groove and that famous string-section stab until it’s simultaneously unrecognizable and instantly familiar. Sometimes the shiny suit era’s hubris paid off big.

The Recent Sample: Addison Groove, “Footcrab” (12″, Swamp 81, 2010)

I know, I know, 2010 is only “recent” if you consider “happened this decade” to be recent, but my early-40s beat-head self refuses to consider this song old, so here we are. That intermittent string stab just works as the punchy inflection point of this modern classic of UK funky-does-juke mutation, a handle for the unwary to grasp on as the rest of the track plays 808 pachinko.