Digging for the Perfect Beat: Davey D on the Vinyl Roots of Hip-Hop

April 3rd, 2013

When Dave “Davey D” Cook got into hip-hop in the late ’70s, he didn’t see himself as an archivist. A teen growing up in the Bronx, New York City, he was digging through his mom’s records looking for a great funky beat to rap over. At the time, hip-hop was only five years old. Cook was inspired by Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant who is widely credited with starting the genre as a Bronx party deejay in 1973.

Hip-hop historian and record collector Dave "Davey D" Cook.

Hip-hop historian and record collector Dave “Davey D” Cook.

Herc revolutionized music with the idea of the “breakbeat.” He’d isolate the drum breakdown of a song, and use two copies of the record on two turntables to loop it over and over. Then, he’d rhyme over the beat. The rhyming became known as emceeing or rapping, while manipulating two turntables was called deejaying.

By 1978, all the cool kids in the Bronx were experimenting with emceeing and deejaying. Forming TDK (Total Def Krew) and the Avengers, Cook and his friends started digging for vinyl and obsessing over every move by Herc, Bambaataa, and Flash. By the time Cook headed to UC Berkeley in California, he’d amassed enough records to form a mobile DJ company and pay his way through college. He went on to found the critically acclaimed “Hard Knock Radio” program on Berkeley’s KPFA 94.1 FM, and also worked 11 years at San Francisco commercial hip-hop station KMEL 106.1 FM.

Now, Cook has become known as one of the most esteemed hip-hop historians, professors, journalists, authors, and political activists in the country. He’s got a particular affinity for matching beats to speeches by civil leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And part of Cook’s deep wealth of knowledge comes from the 70,000-some records he’s accumulated over 35 years. We asked him to explain the importance of vinyl and “crate-digging,” as in digging through record crates, in the evolution of hip-hop.

Collectors Weekly: When did “crate-digging” start?

Top: DJ Kool Herc deejays in NYC in 1999. Photo by Mika Väisänen, via WikiCommons. Above: Kool Herc and the Herculoids put on a Bronx party in the 1970s. Via The Flog.

Top: DJ Kool Herc deejays in NYC in 1999. Photo by Mika Väisänen, via WikiCommons. Above: Kool Herc and the Herculoids put on a Bronx party in the 1970s. Via The Flog.

Dave “Davey D” Cook: The activity of crate-digging has been around since the inception of hip-hop in the early 1970s—because that’s what you had to do. We were trying to find records that had a particular kind of percussion breakdown, commonly referred to as a “breakbeat.” To do that, we had to dig through people’s record collections. We had to go shopping at obscure stores. But I started hearing the term “crate-digging” in the ’90s, when people in the community wanted to move away from commercialized hip-hop. Deejays started trying to find the original songs that were sampled in some of the earliest rap songs, and they started playing those beats at parties. But the activity of searching for records is a hallmark of hip-hop, period.

Collectors Weekly: In the ’70s, how did you find these breakbeats on records?

Cook: We were always trying to find a record that had a drum beat that you could catch, something that was going to be at least a few bars, that nobody had ever heard before. That meant going through every record that was in your mom’s collection. Me, I found a song called “Rainmaker” by Harry Nilsson. It was on the flip side of a song, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which appeared in the 1969 movie “Midnight Cowboy.” After I found it, it was up to me to go find a second copy of that single, because you needed two records to extend the breakbeat when mixing. I’m sure the process was similar for everybody who was trying to deejay.

By then—I was getting involved in ’77, ’78—breakbeat staples had already been established, and everybody would go and look for those records. “Catch a Groove” by Juice, “I Just Want to Do My Thing” by Edwin Starr, and “The Fruit Song” by Jeannie Reynolds were popular ones, and they had to be on a 12-inch in order to really get the breakdown. If you went to parties, you were going to hear those staples. There was a whole list, including “Apache” by Incredible Bongo Band, “It’s Just Begun” by Jimmy Castor Bunch, and James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.” And then each deejay was always going to try and find a record that others didn’t have.

It took a long time to find that “Rainmaker” song in the store, because they put out limited copies out of the 45. I found it at a store in Greenwich Village, and I was playing it on the little table when Afrika Bambaataa, the deejay known as “the master of records,” walked in. I didn’t know Bam personally at the time, and he was somebody to be feared, if anything, when you saw him. I remember him looking over at me and asking, “What song is that?” And I was like, “Wow, that’s Bambaataa! Wow, he’s asking for a breakbeat!” I told him what the song was, and then I bought up the three copies that were there and left. To me, it was a big deal that Bambaataa wanted to know the record that I had. For him, it was probably nothing.

Of course, other people’s parents saw “Midnight Cowboy,” and they probably had the original version of the popular song, “Everybody’s Talkin’.” It was just a matter of time before people discovered it, because I definitely have heard that breakbeat used on tapes of other parties. But I’m sure everybody has a story in which they found a breakbeat that at least, for them, it was like they discovered it on their own.

If you think about it, it was an archival process. We didn’t intend for it to be that way, but the need to be different and creative, or to be the first, required us to go search high and low. Some people went to a record store called Jerry’s Den. I used to go to Downstairs Records on 42nd Street, which was a popular place.

Collectors Weekly: When you were in the record store, were you able to take the record out and listen to it?

Cook: At Downstairs Records, they would play the album for you. People used to stand around and listen. Some people would be like, “Well, let me try and peep the name of that and see if I can go find a copy cheaper.” For example, Captain Sky’s “Super Sporm,” was a popular breakbeat at the time. You could buy it at Downstairs Records for something like 15 bucks because it was on an LP. At the time, I lived near a white neighborhood in the Bronx called Riverdale, so I’d go to a record store up there and see if they would have it in the funk section. No white kids were checking for these records at the time. The shopkeepers in Riverdale didn’t know this was going on. They didn’t know why I wanted two copies of the same record. They didn’t know why I wanted something as obscure as Captain Sky. They’d say, “You want this record? For real? Here, keep it. Nobody buys that.”

I remember I heard this Jacksons record, “Enjoy Yourself,” that had a conga breakdown, something an older cousin who used to deejay had. To him, it was just a record. To me, that’s like, “Man, we should use that in our crew. Man, that’s going to mean something. … The Jacksons … I know I can find that. But I’m going to go to that store in Riverdale and get it because they’ll have it for less.” And they did. Of course, I wasn’t going to tell you about that store because that was my spot. Otherwise a lot of people come in; next thing you know, they want to sell those records for a lot of money. Or the one or two copies they have aren’t there no more, because somebody else came and raided them.

Collectors Weekly: How did the pioneers of hip-hop use vinyl?

Cook: Afrika Bambaataa, he had records that you wouldn’t even know where to begin to look. That’s why he was called the master of records, because he had crazy drum beats that made you go, “Wow! Where did you get that?” But that’s what made Bam, Bam. He was somebody that obviously had an extensive knowledge of music, had a record collection, and was crate-digging before people even thought about that. Same thing with DJ Kool Herc. The name of the game was how creative can you be, how can you flip the script, how can you present music in a way that’s going to keep the floor popping and people impressed.

Afrika Bambaataa in 1998. Photo by Mika Väisänen, via WikiCommons.

Afrika Bambaataa in 1998. Photo by Mika Väisänen, via WikiCommons.

Collectors Weekly: And DJ Kool Herc is the person who created breakbeats?

Cook: Yeah, Kool Herc is the father of hip-hop. We give him credit. Some people say others were playing beats at the same time. I’m sure they were, but Herc is the father. We know Herc; we didn’t know everybody else. Herc brought what he knew from Jamaica, he threw those big parties in the Bronx, and he set it off. People assume he was starting with reggae records because he’s Jamaican American. I wasn’t at that first party 40 years ago, but Herc himself told me on numerous occasions that he was playing funk. I would imagine it was James Brown and funky R&B hits like those by Kool & the Gang. I’m sure he just took records that he could find a funky beat on and just build with it.

Collectors Weekly: Then Grandmaster Flash perfected deejaying?

Cook: Yeah. Herc came up with the breakbeats. Flash is the one that got the technique down. Like, in retrospect, most people weren’t always good at catching the beats and keeping it all on the same rhythm. That was what Flash did, and he was also fast. Now, technology allows me to press a button, and I can bring a record back and forth real quick, so it doesn’t matter how short the breakbeat is. I can catch it. When you have vinyl, real skill means that you’ve got to be quick and accurate.

“If you were rapping, and that record came on, man, you’ve got to get a piece of it. Everybody would be fighting over it.”

If you just had a drum beat that was like, “Ahhhh! Boom boom bap, boom-boom boom-boom bap. Ahhh!” in order to catch that, so that all you’re hearing is the drum beat, you’ve got to be incredibly quick. Now, you don’t get an appreciation for that until you realize that they weren’t using Technics SL-1200 turntables with strong motors. They probably had 45s underneath the 12-inch that they were spinning backwards. Then, they’d have to have the right touch to keep the records sounding halfway decent, right? And they’re doing all this from one hand to the next.

Flash, he could do that. Bambaataa, he probably wouldn’t have been able to do it, because he was much slower than Flash. But Bambaataa would find a longer beat that would be just as funky, so he would make up for the lack of speed. Herc and others might do needle-dropping, where they pick the needle up and just drop it back. But Flash would actually be quick enough to catch it, and that’s what made him stand out.

Grand Wizard Theodore deejays a party in the 1980s. Via Instituto Urbano.

Grand Wizard Theodore deejays a party in the 1980s. Via Instituto Urbano.

The other person that was real fast was Grand Wizard Theodore. But Theodore, the guy who invented the scratch, would have used a different technique to catch the beat. You might hear, “Ahhhh! Boom boom bap, boom-boom boom-boom bap” and then it goes into another part of the song, and Theodore would keep you going because he would scratch the beginning. “Ah-ah-ah-ahhh! Boom boom bap, boom-boom boom-boom bap. Ba-da da ba-da!” So it was all these different things that they contribute, but Flash was the technician. Bambaataa would be the master of records. Herc was the sound man.

Collectors Weekly: So people played close attention to the deejay?

Cook: Well, when you went to the early parties, there were maybe two or three different crowds. One crowd stood in front of the ropes and just listened to what the emcees were doing, and they were vibing off that. I was an emcee back in the day, so I wanted to hear how the emcees were going to do routines. When I was going to see Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Four—and then later the Furious Five—I was like, “I want to see Kidd Creole, Melle Mel, Mr. Ness—as Scorpio was known back then—Rahiem, and Cowboy.”

But my partner, DJ Gee, he was standing at the ropes and he wanted to know every record that Flash was playing. Like, “Man, what song was that?” Or, “Man, I need to try that breakbeat. Oh, that’s how he cut it. How is he doing that?” All those things were part of the education. And the holy grail for you at that time was if you could discover a track that everybody would have to search for and it would become a part of that staple list.

In the 1970s, Bronx emcees would scramble over a chance to rap over the breakbeat from Juice's "Catch a Groove."

In the 1970s, Bronx emcees would scramble over a chance to rap over the breakbeat from Juice’s “Catch a Groove.”

You searched for this record both as a deejay and as an emcee, because you wanted to have something that you can ultimately rhyme over, like, “This is my cut.” Keeping in mind that at a party, you didn’t really have much say so. Your deejay was the attraction. You just didn’t stop him and say, “Hey, man, this is the record you’re going to play.” No. The deejay is playing some stuff, and you can get on and do your thing. I love the song by Edwin Starr, “I Just Want to Do My Thing,” and I always wanted to flow over that. Everybody wanted to flow over Juice, “Catch a Groove.” If you were rapping and that record came on, man, you’ve got to get a piece of it. Everybody would be fighting over it. You’d hear somebody saying, “Come on, finish that rhyme so I can get in there.”

Collectors Weekly: How would you use records to practice, as an emcee?

Cook: I would make “pause-button tapes.” That means I would just take that breakbeat, play it over, pause, play it over, pause, play it over, pause, so that I could extend that break. Then I would rap over that breakbeat and record it on to another recorder so I could hear myself. That was a popular thing; in fact, people used to make pause-button tapes for a long time for a lack of equipment. At first, people were cool with the pause-button tapes, but there was a little hierarchy. “Well, that’s cool, but he’s cutting. He’s actually mixing.” You didn’t have as much juice if you were just doing pause-button tapes.

The influential Cold Crush Brothers crew formed in the Bronx in 1979. Via Instituto Urbano.

The influential Cold Crush Brothers crew formed in the Bronx in 1979. Via Instituto Urbano.

Collectors Weekly: So cassette tapes were also an important part of the culture?

Cook: That’s how the information got passed around, with the tapes of those jams at the parties. You had a tape of a tape of a tape, and you were trying to decipher what the emcee’s saying and the beat that’s playing. Those tapes, especially if they were from the big-name crews, are important. Whether you got a fresh tape, or what generation of tape you got, was an indication of your connection to folks. In other words, if I had a fourth-generation tape because of a friend of a friend of a friend passed it, that wasn’t the same as, “My man just gave me this tape straight off the deck.”

Grandmaster Flash in the early days. Via Last.fm.

Grandmaster Flash in the early days. Via Last.fm.

I had buddy, Neil, who used to make tapes. He would bring his boombox to the event and sit it next to the speaker. So I might get a second- or third-generation from him. Some of the groups knew him; they knew he was good for tapes, so they would let him record and wouldn’t trip. Other people, if they had the equipment and the know-how, they got a direct recording off the sound board. That wasn’t always possible.

When we used to practice, our crew put a boombox in front of the speaker and recorded ourselves. When we played them, we had to have an ear to understand what was going on. For the most part, it would sound like gargly gook. But somebody else, they’d be like, “That’s that song. I hear what he’s doing.” You would pick up on a lot of the details because you were that much into it.

Collectors Weekly: Can you tell me about your record collection?

Cook: I have about 70,000 records, maybe a little more. I keep them in different storage places. One storage is the A level, and the other storage is the B level. And people will come to look at my collection. Some are looking for independent rap that came out of different cities. Others look for those old breakbeats. Some people want to collect. Some people want to buy cheaper and then sell. There was one cat who wanted to buy some of my records for $2 each, who knew buyers that were willing to pay like $50-$60 for a record. I don’t know those buyers, and I don’t have time to cultivate those type of relationships, so I was fine with it. That’s a hustle, too.

“The holy grail was discovering a beat everybody would have to search for.”

I don’t let most people into the A storage. I’m not going to sell those records ever to a buyer. I’m going to sell them to another deejay because I don’t want those tucked away somewhere. I want the people that get them that are going to be like, “Yo, I used them.” I have another guy that comes and gets a lot of the local San Francisco Bay Area stuff. He’s an archivist, and that’s really his passion. So he gets that A-list stuff as well because he’s going to do something that I’m not able to do, which is he’s going to archive it and make it available for all.

Collectors Weekly: How have computers changed deejaying?

Cook: Technology has made what should be accessible accessible. By that I mean, when you’re the only person in town with something, that’s great for you, but the gift of music is meant to be shared. I mean, not telling people where they can find certain records is not a benefit for the artist. But as a deejay you’re an artist yourself. It’s not in my interest to tell everybody where to get the same records that I’ve got. But when I don’t tell you where the record store is, I’m sure the artist would say, “Man, those are some extra sales I could get.”

Pam the Funkstress of The Coup employs both turntables and computers in her deejay sets. Via The Coup's Facebook page.

Pam the Funkstress of The Coup employs both turntables and computers in her deejay sets. Via The Coup’s Facebook page.

Technology has allowed the actual cornerstone, which is the music itself, to be available to a lot more people. With that, everybody has their artistic bent, and that’s not a bad thing. So everybody is a deejay now. Guess what? You just can’t be that special person that shows up and has a party just because you’ve got equipment. Those who were actual deejays now have the challenge of taking those computers and doing something crazy with them.

Somebody like Pam the Funkstress of The Coup, for example, if you do a party and she’s on the bill, you don’t want to follow her, because she takes that computer and she does all kinds of crazy stuff with it. She turns it into a drum machine and she flips it, and she makes her set memorable. So if you’re anywhere in the lineup, they can compare you to her. That’s not going to be a good look. She comes on and she’s banging drums and hitting the computer in certain ways. The people are like, “Now, that’s funky. What was that other guy doing?” And that’s what she’s supposed to do. You also have people that now do remixes on the fly. They have all these new computer programs that allow them to time pyrotechnics to their sets, make customized songs, all that sort of stuff.

Collectors Weekly: How does vinyl come into play now?

Cook: It’s only now that crate-digging has crossed over—and it’s big business. You can go to some of those white areas that once upon a time I would go to to get a cheap record, and it’ll be very expensive because now you got all these white kids that have crate-dug. The record stores have been raided by the DJ Shadows of the world, so they already know the value of their vinyl. If I go to a Rasputin’s Records and try to get a James Brown record, they might have it up on the wall for 75 bucks. Ironically, I might go to the hood somewhere and find that record for cheap. I might go to a mom-and-pop shop that is just trying to get rid of stuff and making money selling current material. They’re like, “I think I got a James Brown here; sure, take it, leave.”

Grand Wizard Theodore deejaying at Experience Music Project in Seattle in 2002. Photo by Flintmi, via WikiCommons.

Grand Wizard Theodore deejaying at Experience Music Project in Seattle in 2002. Photo by Flintmi, via WikiCommons.

Crate-diggers, they’re always looking for places like that. They’re always thinking, “Let me see if I can find a haunt that hasn’t been raided yet.” And they’ll keep it to themselves the same way that when I was younger I wasn’t going to tell people that I knew some record stores in Riverdale where you could find some of these soul records that were suddenly being re-popularized. It’s all a game at the end of the day, and it’s an eternal search. Even if you don’t have records, it’s still a search.

Now, it’s easier for me to do stuff digitally. I have a lot more freedom because I don’t have to look for two and three copies. I’ll go searching on YouTube, and I don’t have to worry about if the records are warped. You’ve got so many people that put stuff up, and there’s all kind of strategies for how to look for certain records. Some people put records up so they don’t get detected. I found tons of records on YouTube that I would have never known about. There are certain people that I know to follow that I never would tell people about because that’s my line. I know this guy puts up his entire collection, and he always has 45s coming up. But I ain’t going to tell nobody because I don’t want those records to be pulled down for any reason. So he doesn’t put the exact names and titles on there, but I know them and people that follow him know. It’s still fun to search and seek them out.

(Read more of Cook’s insights as well as his interviews with hip-hop pioneers at Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner. Download early hip-hop mix tapes at Old School Hip Hop Tapes.)

3 comments so far

  1. props Says:

    time will reveal the brilliance of this nascent art form, the people simply weren’t ready. the (popular) modern era is concealing the transformative and uplifting potential of this music, for now…

  2. Col McGillveray Says:

    I think the Northers Soul community in Britain may have dibs on the being first create diggers..

  3. Stephanie Says:

    I love crate-digging, it’s a great way to explore music for pennies on the dollar if you know where to go. And there is nothing like coming across an old soul record and hearing it crack and pop on the turntable. Love this article!!!

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