Hip Hop (Before It Had a Name) Vol I :Cab Calloway by Rouge Une

Cabwell “Cab” Calloway (b. December 25 1907 d. November 18 1994)

If you watch the Alright video by Janet Jackson you will catch a glimpse of one of the final performances (he is in the yellow suit and returns her watch right at the end) of perhaps the creator of the vocal and performance template that contributed the most to hip hops’ evolution.

For example, take a track like Minne the Moocher,

“Hey folks, here’s a story about Minnie the moocher,
She was a low down hoochie coocher,
She was the ruffest tuffest frail,
Minnie had a heart as big as a whale,
Hi di hi di hi di ho”

Setting aside the call and response sections which echo all of the great crew cuts from the first school to the new school (although they have fallen into disuse in recent times- more on this in a future blog.) What you actually have is a embryonic rap,
“he gave her his town house and his racing horses
Each meal she ate was a dozen courses.”

But the words are not what makes him hip hop before it had a name, nor is it his confident, eccentric on stage persona (which James Brown and Little Richard would later adopt and Grandmaster Melle Mel and Run DMC would reference.) No it his “scatting” that creation of rhythms and poly-rhythms starting from the main melody and moving away thru and around it. These random and not so random sounds replaced with words becomes freestyle (real freestyle made up on the spot- but that too is another blog).

Improvisation had always been a staple of the blues tradition and was integral to the creation of Jazz, some argue that the term Jazz comes from Jazzing which is to improvise on the main theme of a song, but what Calloway does is different and it is possible to argue revolutionary. He places the performance of the vocal at the heart of the piece, not the words themselves or the clarity of his voice. No, it is how he does what he does rather than its content that he wishes you to observe. He double and triple times his “flows”, he sometimes gets off beat only to come back on beat in an unexpected place. These are all things we think about when we talk about how good an MC is.

It may not be MC’ing as we know it today but I would argue that Cab Calloway could be considered one of the first to combine vocal performance that was not traditional singing with a primary emphasis on style, flow and improvisation and thereby laid the foundation for the eventual evolution of what we know today as Rap.

In coming posts we will take a look at other artists that are not traditionally associated with Hip Hop but those of us that understand Hip Hop and are Hip Hop, we know that’s it’s ALL Hip Hop. With this and subsequent posts in this series hopefully, you will see that. Enjoy.   

Ya Man,

Rouge Une

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~ by Professor Mike on January 11, 2011.

4 Responses to “Hip Hop (Before It Had a Name) Vol I :Cab Calloway by Rouge Une”

  1. Great writing! I can’t wait to read more.

  2. Most only find hip hop’s roots in mainly hip hop, but i have always been one to relate it to earlier genres, such as blues and sometimes a sort of folk, but this has to be one of the most interesting and creative links i have read, with his brand of “freestyling” being a great ode to a more urban poetic styling. Cab Calloway,you ARE an Emcee. RIP sir

  3. FFW to 2011 his grandson produces hip hop beats. He participated in Istandards Beast of the Beats IV

  4. Great piece. O course I know of Cab Calloway, but have never gone back to listen to his music. May have to check some out now. Next up: Gil Scott Heron?

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