ROOTS 'n' RAP
Diggin' in the Crates, part I: The Stax-Volt Sound
[This is the first in a series in this column which will look into the
trax that hip-hop DJ's have carried in their crates from back in the
day to the 95. Future columns will delve into King Records/James
Brown, Philadelphia International Records, Douglas Records, Ohio funk,
Spoken Word, and the Jazz Roots of hip-hop. Each column will also
track a few samples down to the source -- RAP]
What do Big Daddy Kane's "The Beef Is On," Cypress Hill's "How
I Could Just Kill a Man," Heavy D's "Don't Curse," Das EFX's "Dum
Dums," and Salt 'n' Pepa's "Tramp" all have in common? They all rely
on samples and loops from the catalog of Memphis's legendary Stax/Volt
records. Sometimes overlooked in the shadow of Motown, Stax was a
cultural crossroads in the pivotal years of the 1960's, and even
though Stax (unlike Motown) was not originally Black-owned, it
acquired over the years a reputation for a Blacker, more streetwise,
less pop-crossover sound.
It's no coincidence, then, that musicians such as Isaac Hayes
paid their dues writing or recording for Stax, and that when DJ's
reached into the crates, it was Stax more often than Motown that
provided the beats (Stax house drummer Al Jackson Jr. should be up
there with Clyde Stubblefield and Ziggy Modeliste in the funky-drummer
hall of fame). It's strange to think, then, that it all started way
back in 1960 in a disused Memphis movie theatre located at 926 East
McLemore, when a white banker (and former country fiddle player)
teamed up with his sister to borrow enough money to buy an Ampex reel-
to-reel tape machine.
That theatre, which later was dressed up with the legendary
neon marquee showing the Stax of Wax, eventually housed more talent to
the square inch than any recording studio in the country. Some of
it was due to fortuitous urban and cultural geography; keyboardist
Booker T. Jones was a gangly sixteen-year-old who lived just
around the corner; songwriter David Porter worked at the Big Star
grocery store across the street; Rufus Thomas hosted a popular
show on Memphis's WDIA.
But the neighborhood feel belied the nationwide audience of
these artists: at 50,000 watts, WDIA was one of the most powerful
Black radio stations in the country, with over 1.2 million Black
Americans in its listening area -- over 10% of the Black population of
the U.S. at the time. Stax's deal with Atlantic in 1961 connected it
with their nationwide distribution and promotion, and guaranteed Stax
artists a better royalty rate. Motown's Berry Gordy worked his
artists hard, but paid as little as a fifth of the standard royalties,
while at Stax hard work meant hard cash.
It wasn't just the money, though -- it was Stax's commitment
to Black artists, songwriters, and promotion via Black radio that gave
it the edge. While Motown was aiming itself directly at the pop
charts -- and white consumers -- Stax always went for the R&B charts
first, even when, in yet another racist twist, Billboard magazine
stopped listing R&B charts altogether in 1963-5. As Mable John -- one
of Gordy's first signees, said when defecting to Stax in 1965, "Motown
is not basically a soul company -- it's more pop and I'm not a pop
singer. Gordy had no soul writers or producers, so I asked for a
Memphis was also part of a larger cultural crossroads between
country music, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll; if it was Sun
records that first vanillified jump blues and called it 'rock'n'roll,'
it was Stax that took it b(l)ack. Their artist roster during their
glory days was a hall of fame all in itself: Otis Redding, Sam and
Dave, Johnnie Taylor, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Albert King, the Bar-
Kays, Booker T. and the MG's, Eddie Floyd... the list goes on and on.
Stax's in-house band and jam-session atmosphere was a rich
collaborative atmosphere for all its artists. On the promotion side,
Al Bell took care of business, keeping Stax's links with Black DJ's
and record-shop owners strong.
It all seemed to good to last, and in some ways it was; with
Otis Redding's death in 1967, the label lost its brightest star, and
the following year saw all kinds of upheaval at Stax. Major labels
wanted a bigger slice of the R&B pie, but lacked the organization and
links with Black communities to get it. When Atlantic itself was
bought out in 1968, Stax used a clause in its contract to end their
distribution deal, and make its own.
Stax inked its own arrangement with Gulf+Western in '68, and
for a while it seemed things would go on just as they had. But having
a large corporate parent inevitably changes things, and in any case,
Stax's artists themselves were changing and evolving. As the '70's
dawned, Booker T. Jones left for California (and A&M records), and
writer/guitarist/A&R chief Steve Cropper was replaced by Detroit's Don
Davis. Stax branched out with more subsidiary labels, and something
of that neighborhood feel was lost.
There were gains, though -- for one, Stax broke into comedy
records, signing the then-unknown Richard Pryor, whose 1973 debut
"That Nigger's Crazy" no major label would touch, let alone even guess
how to promote it. For another, Jim Stewart sold his interest in Stax
to Al Bell, making Stax a Black-controlled label. Bell was a
committed political activist with a long civil rights record, and he
initiated a period of wide-ranging activism at Stax. He supported the
Rev. Jesse Jackson in the early days of operation P.U.S.H., releasing
Jackson's speech "I Am Somebody" on Stax's Respect label. 1972 saw
what Nelson George rightly recognizes as a high-water mark of R&B
music and Black community activism, the Wattstax project:
'On August 20, 1972, Bell and Jackson stood side by side in
the middle of the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum, chanted "I Am
Somebody," and then raised their fists in the Black Power salute
before a hundred thousand music fans. With that gesture began a
long day of live music by every Stax artist to raise money for the
Watts Summer Festival. It was a symbol of black self-sufficiency.
Wattstax became a film -- shot by a predominantly black crew -- and
a six-sided album.'
(Nelson George, _The Death of Rhythm and Blues, 139-40)
It's an event that is simply unparalleled today -- even when
Priority records raised money to rebuild south central L.A., it did it
relatively quietly. We could use something like Wattstax today.
Unfortunately, as so often happens, success killed Stax
records, hurried along by white-controlled major record labels and their
lawyers. In 1972, Stax made a deal with Clive Davis at CBS, which
initially looked to be a flush one for them. Then Davis was
summarily fired, CBS failed to honor the terms of the agreement,
and Stax ended up being obligated to ship inordinately high
numbers of new titles at a lowered royalty rate within a very
short period of time. Veterans such as Carla Thomas were hurried
into the studio, then had their vocals buried under slathers of
generic strings; it was no surprise that sales were poor.
The only good thing to come out of this debacle was Isaac
Hayes's "Hot Buttered Soul," which Hayes -- for nearly a decade Stax's
in-house songwriter/arranger -- slipped through in the rush. It was a
huge success, and opened the door into "Shaft" and Hayes's most
productive and popular decade. But it was too late for Stax; after a
string of lawsuits involving CBS and the banks, Stax bled artists left
and right, and finally went under in 1976. To his credit, Al Bell
went down fighting, but there was not much he could do against CBS and
its endless supply of corporate lawyers.
There are, however, other forms of survival more important
than those recognized by corporate America. The hard-driving beats of
the Stax studio had a future that no one -- not even Bell himself --
could have foreseen. They were perfect for scratching and sampling.
The drum breaks and intros to Stax tracks were spare enough to build a
beat, but rich enough to suggest something more; check out Salt 'n'
Pepa's cut on Otis Redding & Carla Thomas's "Tramp" (from back in the
days when Spinderella actually *spun* some vinyl). The horn riffs
provide a perfect accent for the overdubbed beat, and the roughness
around the edges fits Salt 'n' Pepa's lyrics like a body suit.
The "Tramp" beat was a favorite from the start, and rivals the
"Funky Drummer" for status as an all-time DJ classic. The
instrumental skills of Booker T. & the MG's made their tracks another
favorite; even though Heavy D and guests "Don't Curse," the loop from
"Hip-Hug Her" gives the track a down and dirty undertone. Even the
Stax vocal singles have given up some samples for the hip-hop
underground; when Das EFX wanted a light but steady diet of funk for
"Dum Dums," Otis Redding provided it, and when Big Daddy Kane set out
to show that the Beef was On, the uptempo intro to Rufus Thomas's "I
Think I Made a Boo Boo" brought the sauce.
Thanks to extensive reissues, it's possible to get most of the
Stax/Volt catalog on compact disc, though you might have to buy it in
big chunks. First to be re-issued was the 9-cd set "The Complete Stax-
Volt Singles, 1959-1968"; all of the classic old-school Stax is here,
digitally remastered from the original tapes. Other boxed sets follow
the history of Stax after its split from Atlantic in 1968, and the
acquisition of its back catalog by Fantasy Records. Fantasy has put
out its own samplers of Stax classics, and Rhino/ATCO have re-issued
many of the original pre-'68 Stax albums on CD; you may have to look
around a little -- but not as much as DJ's back in the day, who might
search through a mountain of dusty vinyl to get that one Stax '45.
Even beyond the music, though, Stax is a major landmark in the
history of Black music. As Nelson George has observed, the early
history of hip-hop -- starting on black-owned labels such as Enjoy and
Sugar Hill and eventually becoming subsidiaries of major corporations --
has repeated the history of R&B in miniature. If the end of the hip-
hop is to avoid the crass commercialization that did in R&B, somebody
had better take a lesson from what one small label that stood up for
what it believed in could accomplish.
Credit/Discographical Note: Much of the 411 on the early years
of Stax is drawn from Steve Greeberg's exhaustive 64-page book
accompanying _The Complete Stax/Volt Singles, 1959-1968_, Atlantic
82218-2, 9 cds. I'm also indebted to Nelson George, Simon Frith,
Cilve Anderson, and Ian Hoare for their histories of R&B and the Stax