The Bass Motherland

“It’s roots are in the sound of the African or should I say the mother bringing us back again. From drumming in the Congo we came with a strong flow. For then it landed on American soil, through the blood, sweat and the toil.” A Jazz Thing (Verse 1)

These words from the late great GURU (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal) of Gangstarr give a great jumping off point for analyzing the SOUND of Black music. What are its sonic origins? What are its traditional sonic characteristics? Have those sounds transformed or stayed the same throughout our time in America? From Traditional Work Songs, to Gospel and Jazz, all the way to the modern Hip Hop production of today, we can find similarities that run through all styles of Black music. We will also examine the growth Black music has made. From hand claps and stomps to advanced drum programming and sequencing.  From one voice wailing repeated chants, to full groups creating rhyme schemes that keep your finger on the rewind button.  All of this began with the sound of the African.



Picture this. A man is chopping wood with an axe carved out of bone. His nature puts the blade against the bark in a steady rhythm, he can’t help it. He has to do his work to the beat ya’ll.  In the midst of his work a very fine tree stump reveals itself, and inspiration hits. He hollows out the stump and lays the hide of his lunch over it. After the skin is on nice and tight he scrapes the fur off, and something magical happens. He strikes his palm against the skin once. BOOM! And again, Bap! Boom, Boom, Bap, Boom ba boom Bap! And just like that the beat was born in Africa.

On a track entitled Can’t Truss It by Public Enemy emcee Chuck D says “I know where I’m from not dumb ditty dumb. From the Bass Motherland the place of the Drum.” What is the significance of this? Chuck with some ill wordplay is giving us insight into the most important element of Black music. The rhythm section (particularly the bass and drums)  and a phenomenon I call The Power of Percussive Layering or (Popl)

Africans traditionally used percussive instruments. “Drums big and small. Some were hollowed out trees, some were cut off gourds. On a smaller scale for accompaniment bells, castinets, gongs, rattles, kalimbas and xylophones were employed.” (Southern- The Music of Black Americans)

What did we do with all these different types of percussive instruments? Well think about what a painter does. A painter mixes primary colors together to create original complex shades. A great painter is also able to blend those original shades together on the canvas to form something that expresses how they feel, and often times sends a message. The Power of Percussive Layering (POPL) is no different. Many simple or primary rhythms are played simultaneously, each individual pattern has it’s own little pocket to fill. Once all the parts are combined. 5 or 6 drum parts (or colors)  sound like one. All the layers playing their part to add original hues to the rhythmic collage.

The composition below gives a great description of how the beat was birthed.

Jim Ingram- Drumbeat


Traditional European music emphasizes the primary beats of music. 1234 counted very straight ahead with even notes. Africans however, we love to embellish and play with the beat adding perpetual syncopation (accents on beats that you would not expect)  The POPL puts emphasis on and uses the in between beats to create a groove. It is this groove that makes hips sway, heads fly backwards and arms flail with joy. These layers created Duke Ellington, James Brown, and Madlib. It is these percussive layers that helped us survive generations of bondage. As far as drums go. We are the beaters, and never beaten (Ingram- Drumbeat)

Here is a chart comparing characteristics of African Music to European Music.

The best way to understand the layering is to listen to it. I have listed some listening points to be aware of


  1. Listen to how different percussion parts enter and exit the beat.


  1. Listen out for a main “Steady rhythm” The part you nod your head to.


     3.    Listen out for accompanying drums that play in between the main beats of the steady rhythm.


This song is called Tribal Conversations by Jimmy Lopez. 


This  is a great example of a steady back beat, with lighter percussive parts entering and exiting the rhythm, filling the in between portions of the main beat. The bass drum provides the main pulse, but we hear many different instruments adding color, and different patterns build within the rhythm.

A few more examples of POPL-


Oyin Momo Ado- (Sweet as honey)- By  Babatunde Olatunji

A perfect example of a “Staggered Entry” each instrument coming in one at a time allowing you to hear how the beat builds. Each pattern creating its own color. But the space they occupy together creates a whole piece. The composition opens with an incredible Kalimba (Thumb Piano) solo at about 25 seconds we hear some bass enter the groove. With Bass and drums firmly in place the rest of the layers including a repetitive vocal chant come to life.


Savanah Beat– Starts off with wood block holding down the main rhythm. Djembe enters the beat and plays in between the wood block. After a few seconds we hear some shakers come in creating three layers of percussion. The djembe plays various lead patterns in and around the wood block and shakers.

This video is a perfect example of the Power of Percussive Layering and how music and its rhythm is everything for us.

It is called “ There is no movement without rhythm ”As an African cultural practice every part of life has music attached to it. Here we see the people of Baro, Guinea, working and living to the beat. Using percussive layering to get their work done, to speak to each other, and just to have fun.

Enjoy this and we will break it down after.

Did you hear how the rhythms would start very simply with one percussion part. Then after a few measures, another instrument enters the beat, placing itself within the nooks of the main pulse? Each activity has its own place within the structure of the beat allowing the rhythm of life to create the music. We also learned the importance of the Djembe drum. The Djembe is the lead instrument here much like the electric guitar in Rock and Roll.

The drum and percussive instruments birthed the beat, but as technology and access to instruments grew so did the complexity and timbre of the POPL.  (Schomburg Library A/V recorded sound research)

Once we got our hands on guitars, and horns, pianos and microphones, the power of percussive layering took on a whole different feel. Listen to a few tracks influenced by ancient traditions of percussive layering.  You will hear the same elements but with the timbre of a full band, not just drums.

Check these examples

Memphis Soul Stew- King Curtis  Listen out for the Staggered entry of each instrument. King Curtis tells us which instrument is entering  and when it will come in. We hear several layers come in and create the sound pallate


Duke Ellington- Didjeridoo – Starts off with a drum break that leaves openings for all kinds of sounds. Piano stabs, staccato horns and whatever came to the minds of these master musicians. The opening 30 seconds are just drums, and Saxophone with the Duke adding pianos stabs in just the right places. When the full band enters all the layers are revealed, with the bass and drums creating a rock solid foundation. 


Black Ego by Digable Planets– This is the outro of the song. We hear effected drums with whisper vocals give way to a bass and guitar solo. The drums fall out for a moment, but when they return you hear all the colors at once collaging into a truly original shade of funk. 




I am a huge fan of all things Black 80’s and 90’s pop culture. This includes classic  film entitled “Coming to America” Starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. The film opens with a South African Acapella group named LadySmith Black Mambazo singing a tune called Mube Wimome Next to Fela Kuti they are probably the most recognizable African musicians within Western culture. LadySmith Black Mambazo sing in a vocal style created by South African Zulu’s known as Isicathamiya (Is-Cot-a-ME-ya).   They employ only the human voice as their instruments. This comes from traditional African practices.

Isicathamiya choirs are made up of mostly of basses, joined by a couple tenors, an alto, and a lead voice.  Their sound is recognizable by the emphasis of the bass voices.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo employs ancient techniques to make modern music. As slaves we often did not have access to our drums or any instruments at all, especially after Slaves owners realized we used the drums to communitcate. We had to use instruments no one could take away.

The track below is entitled “Bangers” by Talib Kweli and 9th Wonder. The start of the track is 9th Wonder discussing how slaves used the drum to speak to one another.

There are two instruments that every human is born with,  voice and body. As Talib Kweli quotes ancient Zimbabwe “If you can talk you can sing if you can walk you can dance” Enslaved Africans used the voice to sing and the body (hands, feet, thighs) to create rhythmic accompaniment.

In his book The Methodist Error John Watson writes; “With every word so sung, they have a sinking of one or the other leg of the body alternately; producing an audible sound of the feet at every step. If some in the meantime sit, they strike the sounds alternately on each thigh.” (Southern pg. 87)  So “Clap ya hands ha, Stomp ya feet ha” -James Brown (Give it up turn it a loose) is a truly ancient African tradition. 

Hip Hop is the ultimate manifestation of all these elements we are discussing. The listening example below shows how we use foot stomping and hand clapping through the generations. From the POPL in African drums to James Brown call and response all the way to Hip Hop scratching, with elements of black preaching. All of these characteristics are present below and relate back to using the body and voice as an instrument.

Give it up Turn it a loose – James Brown- DJ Alias cuts the break

  1. James Brown chanting- Clap ya hands HA stomp ya feet Ha. The vocal is reminiscent of Field Hollers and the cadance of black preachers. The drums are djembe like in timbre and feel giving us the rhythm of West African percussion.
  2. DJ Alias scratching- I am employing two separate DJ techniques. One is backspinning, used to keep repeating the same section of music for as long as needed. To back spin you choose a section of music, then on one turntable let that section play out, while that particular section is playing the I manually rewind the record on the other turntable to the starting point of the section and on the next one beat I drop it in on time.  The other is known as “Doubling” This technique requires me to start one record half a beat behind the other. I then use the crossfader to go in between both songs augmenting the rhythm as I see fit.

So all in one we have ancient African drumming and chanting blended with Hip Hop Dj techniques and the soul of the black preacher.

_____________________As we continue on…….._______________________________

Envision, a slave woman is working in the fields. The oppressiveness of the heat has saturated her ragged clothes. As sweat weeps from her brow she searches for something, anything to relieve this suffering. Suddenly she exudes an ardent guttural sound that echoes throughout the plantation. Her sound of misery is answered by the call of another, and another. A shirtless man with a flogged back stomps his feet in time with the calls, while the cracked hands of his sister begin to clap. They are not necessarily singing lyrics or playing a specific song, but using the voice and the body communally to heal and build hope amidst the anguish of servitude. These yelps, hollers, whoops, shouts, claps, stomps and hits were improvised daily, becoming the foundational elements of Black music in America. The techniques employed in field hollers have manifested into Negro Spirituals, The Blues, R&B, Funk, Soul, Rock and Hip Hop.

Listen below to some examples of how we have used the voice and body as an instrument throughout the centuries. Notice how each style grows in complexity as time goes on.

Rosie– Prison folk song sung in call and response style. Many voices forming to create one original sound. Only the voice and the heart were used to make this music. This music is built on the foundation of Slave Work songs and Field Hollers.

Nina Simone reinvented the Prison folk song about Rosie we heard above into a song entitled “Be My Husband”. Cultural DNA mix with real originality.

Be My Husband- Nina Simone– Listen to how Nina flips this. She takes a song passed down through generations and creates a version that suits her personal life.  Notice that the composition is only voice and drums.


 Black preachers have long been known to sing/chant/preach. Using guttural tones reminiscent of field hollers. The style is known as “intoning by some and when taken to the extreme as C.A.W. Clark usually did, it is called whooping” (Rev. Dr. M. McMickle. Phone interview)

One very noticable attribute of this style is the act of emphasizing the end of a phrase with a “HA” or ” Uh” it is  extremely common and has made its way all the way to Hip Hop as well, remember James Brown above “Clap ya hands HA”. Below we will hear C..A.W Clark give a portion of a sermon using the voice as an instrument. Whooping the congregation into a frenzy. Followed up by Juvenile borrowing that style to create the Hip Hop classic aptly titled “HA”

Rev. C.A.W Clark

Now listen to how Juvenile employs this same technique, ending each sentence or phrase with “HA” Showing us how the sound of Black music transcends generations.

(The track below is a lot louder than the above. Adjust volume)

Juvenile- HA

Scat singing is a style where the singer improvises melodies and rhythms using the voice as a horn, or piano, or a drum etc. Using the human voice to recreate or emulate an instrument. The example below is the most masterful expression of vocal scat techniques I have ever heard. The real scat begins at about 40 seconds. This style also made it’s way to Hip Hop culture with a group named Das Efx who we will here below.

Cecil Taylor and the Progressive Jazz Quartet- Who Parked the Car? – Masterful Scatting 

Song – Who Parked the car?


Mic Checka- by Das Efx- With Das Efx listen to how they add “iggity” or “ziggity” to the end of certain words or phrases. It is not as complicated as what Cecil Taylor was doing above , but the roots of the style are in Scatting.


Bobby McFerrin live improvisation– A viturosic voice and body instrumentalist, uses no instruments besides his own body and voice, creating full compositions as a essentially a one man band. Listen to how he improvises drums, bass, and melody all using one microphone. 

We began this piece discussing how Hip Hop is the ultimate manifestation of all the elements of Black Music. Das Efx  and James Brown have showed us a few examples.  Now listen to Doug E. Fresh show us how the human voice can be a drum machine using a technique called Beat Boxing. Beat boxing is when the mouth, tongue and throat are used create percussive rhythms. In Hip Hop it was first used as a backbeat for freestyle rhymes, then as an addition to Hip Hop songs and eventually entire beatboxing compositions and albums.

Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick – La Di Dadi.

(Doug E. Fresh beatboxes the entire beat, Slick Rick raps and sings throughout) Notice that the whole rhythm section is Doug E Fresh beatboxing and nothing else.


How and why did these characteristics of vocal performance stay so true to form over the centuries?  It’s cultural DNA.

Samuel Floyd tells us (Power of black music  pg10) “All black music making is driven by and permeated with the memory of things from the cultural past.”

Each artist and subsequent generation from Sharecroppers to Das Efx learned from what was passed down, flipped it on it’s head and made something truly Doug E. Fresh.



The foundation of Black music is THE BEAT. The beat and the rhythm hold all the other parts up. From Chain gangs to gospel choirs, to Mobb Deep a knocking beat is an essential element of any authentic piece of Black music. The Beat of Black music is often made up of short repetitive phrases or sections that are based on a steady, usually polyrhythmic percussion pattern. In Hip Hop we take a short piece of this pattern and loop it indefinitely.

This loop in Hip Hop is known as “The Break” A section of the music where either the record shifts into a new musical direction for a short time, or a section where all other instruments fall out  leaving the percussion to shine but any instrument can fill a break.  This opening, or break in the music is another element handed down from our ancestors. Black music started out as these open drum patterns that we now call “Breaks”. Remember at first all we had were drums, voices and bodies.  Over the centuries Black music has become extremely lush and complex. However the break is still part of the foundation. When we “break open” the flow of a complex composition, stripping it down to its core, our roots are revealed.

Tricia Rose writes in Black Noize (pg67) “Rap Music techniques, particularly the use of sampling technology, involve the repetition and reconfiguration of rhythmic elements in ways that illustrate a heightened attention to rhythmic pattern and movement between such patterns via BREAKS and points of musical rupture.” These breaks and “ruptures” as Rose calls them are the legs of any hip hop beat, they hold the rest of the production up and help it to move from one place to the next.

In its true form Black music and dance are synonymous. When a djembe, tambourine, wood block and bone handled shaker make  a pattern together, this is a breakbeat. When dancers move in a circle to these breaks, trading spaces in the middle to get some shine, this is called a Ring Shout. What is the difference between the African tradition of the Ring Shout and a Break Dance cipher? Nothing. Leaving the drums agape has always compelled us to dance and or show off other musical gifts, including virtuosic instrumentation.

In Jazz the break is used for each member of the band to solo, or improvise within the structure of the song. Jazz follows in the African tradition of communal music making, but allows each artist to show off his or her own style and improvise as they feel.

“If there is any one aspect of performance that almost all the contemporary sources agree upon, it is the fact that slaves improvised their songs. “This improvisation goes forward every day….. The rhyme comes as it may, sometimes clumsily, sometimes no rhyme at all, sometimes most wonderfully fresh and perfect. (Southern 201)

The tradition of a solo break made it’s way from early Jazz into the Blues. The Blues expanded into Rock and Roll where the guitar solo became prevalent. Rock and Roll morphed into funk. Funk music took the musical element of vamping to make entire songs. (Christian McBride from- Mr. Dynamite HBO)

A vamp is a repeating musical figure that was normally used at the end of tune to fade out. Funk (most notably James Brown) took that small two to four measure section and had the band play it over and over and over. Looping the section while adding little improvisational hits and varying harmonic techniques. These ceaseless rhythms became the understructure of Hip Hop music. Hip Hop producers took the breaks and vamps of funk music, collaged them with fat kick drums and samples from around the globe to create the latest and most dynamic form of Black music….Hip Hop.

Below are some sonic examples of “The Break” and its growth within Black music.

West African Break

Kiyakiya- Babtune Olatunji– At the start we hear the full timbre of the piece. At 19 seconds the vocal falls out and we just hear the drums. This is a break, it rocks for about 30 seconds then the vocal comes back in and the song continues. In Hip hop we rap over these breaks.


Gospel Break

Mavis Staples- I’ll Fly Away- In this listening example we will hear how Hip Hop techniques create original “breaks” from openings within the song. The full ensemble is present when the recording starts. At 31 seconds I again  manipulate the record with a technique called back spinning. Allowing myself to repeat the same portions over and  over again, in any pattern I see fit. After I am done using the first part of the break in a Hip Hop format I allow the organ to return and play out a solo until the vocal returns at 1:40 seconds, ending the break. The way I manually repeat the phrase “Oh Yes” is a foundational characteristic Hip Hop built from the breaks and vamps of earlier forms of Black music.


Blues Break

This is Muddy Waters performing “I just wanna make love to you” After the hook we hear a break beginning led by a harmonica solo. About a minute into the piece I addd the Hip Hop element of looping a small portion to create a new rhythm. After the loop I allow the song to start back up and the break finishes with some stop time, then ends.


Jazz Break- 

St. Thomas by Sonny Rollins is one of the most recognizable melodies in Jazz. The song happens to open with a break beat, and courtesy of master drummer Max Roach at 52 seconds  we get to hear an extended drum break. How many different rhythms can he play around the main groove? A Seemingly infinite amount.


Rock Break

This is snippet from I Just Want to Celebrate by The Rare Earth. First we hear the chorus/hook, as the instruments fade out you here the drums begin to take the lead at (35 sec). The drummer plays a hypnotic rhythm that ignites the crowd, while the singer ad libs around the groove eventually bringing the full band back in.

I Just Want to Celebrate- The Rare Earth

Funk Break

Bar-kays-  Holy Ghost Break begins at 21 secs. I then bring the track back to the start so your hear the full composition, eventually returning to the break section at 1:10.

Soul Break

Melvin Bliss- Synthetic Substitution/ DWYCK by Gangstarr

This break has been sampled over 700 times in Hip Hop, it is an essential part of the Hip Hop sound vernacular. Pay attention to the opening break from Synthetic Substitution then the drums from DWYCK. Dj Premier flips it into a certified classic.

Synthetic Substitution

DWYCK- Gangstarr

DWYCK encompasses all the elements we have been discussing. DJ Premier provides the POPL with drums from Synthetic Substitution and the break from Hey Jude by Clarence Wheeler and the Enforcers. We can’t forget about the classic Preemo scratches that create another layer of sonic texture. GURU and Nice and Smooth show us how to use the Voice as and instrument, then at 1:19 we have a Break section.

Hip Hop is the ultimate manifestation of all Black Music in America. We improvise with “Freestlye” sessions, Dance in circles like a ring shout, layer our percussion with sample upon sample. We employ call and response, write lyrics with common themes all while using  the voice as an instrument. We use the foundations of prior generations to create something fresh. Samuel Floyd wrote

“African American music has the same characteristics as its African counterparts, but also the musical tendencies, the mythological beliefs and assumptions, and the interpretive strategies of African Americans are the same as those that under lie the music of the African homeland, that these tendencies and beliefs continue to exist as African cultural memory, and they continue to inform the continuity and elaboration of African American music.

Louis Armstrong learned from King Oliver, Bessie Smith learned from Ma Rainey, James Brown learned from Little Richard. Our ancestors learned from their parents and griots the ancient musical traditions. What each generation did, was take a portion of what they learned and add their flavor to it, allowing something truly beautiful to be born…. Hip Hop.

Aaron McMickle

Aaron McMickle- DJ, Father, Musician, Music Lover. If you like how we connect the dots on this site, please leave a comment. Play the music presented here, and come back often. It's a life long journey

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *