Thursday, May 31, 2007
The Incredible Bongo Band
Unlikely godfathers of hip-hop, the Incredible Bongo Band was a revolving-door group of studio musicians led by bongo player Michael Viner, who by day worked as an executive at the MGM label and ran its short-lived Pride subsidiary. Viner had worked on Bobby Kennedy's ill-fated presidential campaign before entering the music industry as a talent scout and A&R man in Los Angeles. By the early '70s, he was successful enough to start his pet side project the Incredible Bongo Band, taking unused studio time to record percussion-heavy instrumentals and pop covers with African and Latin influences. He placed two songs on the soundtrack of the 1972 B-movie The Thing With Two Heads, released on Pride, and the following year issued the first Incredible Bongo Band full-length, Bongo Rock, which reportedly featured a guest spot by Ringo Starr. Viner's funked-up version of the Shadows' "Apache" went on to become one of hip-hop's earliest breakbeat staples, as first-generation hip-hop DJs Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash came to rely on its percussion breaks to get block parties moving. "Apache" went on to provide the basis for the Sugarhill Gang's hit of the same name, and stands as one of the most sampled tracks in hip-hop history. The single "Bongo Rock" charted in the lower reaches of both the pop and R&B lists, and eventually assumed a status similar to "Apache" in the hip-hop world (though with lesser magnitude). Viner assembled a follow-up album, The Return of the Incredible Bongo Band, in 1974, but the band came to a halt not long after; Viner was getting overly ambitious (a planned session with the London Symphony Orchestra fell through), and mainstay drummer Jim Gordon fell prey to severe mental difficulties, all of which spelled the end of the road. The British Strut label later reissued both of the group's albums on a two-fer titled Bongo Rock: The Story of the Incredible Bongo Band.