Fab 5 Freddy & Max Roach: Hip Hop Bebop, Spin, October 1988


Max Roach

Max Roach

Max Roach says the new Charlie Parkers are in hip hop. The inventor of modern jazz drumming celebrates the new generation with wild stylist Fab Five Freddy.

MAX ROACH — legendary drummer with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk; a key figure in the creation of the music known as bebop; University of Massachusetts professor and recipient of a MacArthur, or “genius” fellowship; and now a collaborator with Fab Five Freddy on a hip hop/bebop project — is screaming at me at the top of his voice: “I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it. Don’t talk no more. Just get the fuck out of my house, you racist motherfucker, you supremist cocksucker.”

Roach lunges at me from across his living room as Fab Five Freddy tries to intervene: “Max, check it out. What he’s saying is right. Be cool…”

Yo, bum rush the honky. It wasn’t meant to be this way. Initially I’d come to Max Roach’s Central Park West apartment with Fab Five Freddy — writer; graffiti artist; rap video maker; originator and star of the film Wild Style; creator of one of the most widely scratched records in rap history, ‘Change the Beat’; and all-around hip hop renaissance man — to discuss the theory that hip hop is the new jazz, that there are profound historical links between what is happening in rap today and the bebop of the late ’40s and ’50s.

Things started out politely enough. I contended that rap can hardly be considered some sort of racially pure music when homeboys sample and scratch not only traditional black resources like James Brown but also use the likes of Billy Squire, Led Zeppelin, the Steve Miller Band, Elton John, The Monkees (check out Run DMC’s latest single ‘Mary, Mary’ if you don’t believe me), Thin Lizzy, Kraftwerk, Boz Scaggs and the Rolling Stones. Given this, rap is hardly some form of purist folk music. In an era when George Michael tops the Black pop charts, it’s obvious that all kinds of cultural miscegenation is taking place.

Roach: The culture that’s come from black folks is the most profound sound of the 20th century. From Jelly Roll Morton to Scott Joplin right up to hip hop, it’s all in the same continuum. Hip hop is related to what Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker did because here was a group of young people who made something out of very little. Louis Armstrong didn’t go to school; he was an orphan, he came from a poor section of New Orleans, he came from disenfranchised black people. He didn’t have the advantage of a conservatory education but he came up with something that affected the whole world. And the same goes for Charlie Parker. Hip hop came out of the city’s poorest area, out of miserable public education, out of miserable housing. They didn’t have instruments to learn on and take home and play, they didn’t have rhetoric classes to learn how to deal with theatre, they didn’t have visual arts classes. And yet these people came up with a product of total theatre. On the visual arts side they came up with something erroneously called graffiti. On the dance side they came up with break-dancing. And on the music side, because they didn’t have normal instruments, they invented a way to create sounds with turntables. They came up with something that affected the whole world in terms of rhythm, movement, the spoken word and the visual arts. They joined the ranks of the Louis Armstrongs and Charlie Parkers because they created something out of nothing. No one gave them any kind of direction; they had to do it themselves with the materials they had available.

Fab Five Freddy: I’m the kind of person, and I guess it’s bred into us, that thinks that you have to turn an apparent negative into a positive. That’s what hip hop does and that’s what bebop did.

Why is it that the most startling pop music innovation of the ’80s came from people so poor and disenfranchised?

MR: Innovation is in our blood. We’re not the kind of people who can sit back and say what happened a hundred years ago was great, because what was happening a hundred years ago was shit: slavery. We’re not the kind of people given to nostalgia. We can’t go back and say we produced Mozart in 1800 such and such, because we were slaves. Black people have to keep moving. That’s why every new generation of black people is obliged to try something new. Every new generation of black folks comes up with anew innovation because we’re not satisfied with the way the system is economically, politically and sociologically. Hip hop is one of those phenomenal innovations. When I go to a record company they always ask, “What you got new, what you got new,” because they know I can’t do the same shit all the time. Every day is a new audition. And it’s the same with hip hop. Since I started listening to it four or five years ago, it’s evolved at breakneck speed. The changes in the music are very radical and it’s changing all the time. Black folks are always saying, “Man, we gotta keep on getting up. Man, we gotta keep on getting up.” Every new generation of black people is going to come up with something new until things are equitable for black people in society.

FFF:Just looking at the few years we’ve had hip hop, it’s grown to something where we now have gold records. But the beat and the attitude from the days it was going on in the schools and parks and people’s basements are still there. But now we have people like Public Enemy who look at the form and see it as a tool, see that if you combine the right formula you have a powerful weapon that can entertain and educate and provide information as to what’s going on in the streets and communicate at a rate of speed that’s never been seen before. A rap record can be made and brought to the public in about 10 days time and for not much money. That’s the reason why the music grows so rapidly.

Isn’t there danger that by thinking of hip hop as the new jazz you give hip hop a sort of spurious, middle-brow respectability — the sort of sterile respectability that jazz has these days? Isn’t the most valuable thing about hip hop the fact that it’s disreputable?

FFF: I grew up in a house where jazz ruled. Jazz was always the highest art form in my house. My dad just wasn’t into contemporary music. Anything that got played on the radio he thought was garbage. My father had a position where beboppers were moving into a thing where they should logically have been the great pop music of the ’50s and ’60s. I remember that when I got into hip hop I always thought that my dad would think it was garbage, too. But when he really began to hear what was going on with hip hop, he was able to see a kind of comparison, what Max calls a continuum. Not so much aesthetically, but in the kind of attitude that linked bebop to hip hop: that sort of coming-on-hard, against-all-odds attitude. But also a sort of communal attitude. When Quincy Jones came to New York to throw a party for his son, he had L.L., Run-D.M.C. and Whodini come down. When Quincy saw what was going on he said, “I haven’t seen this kind of camaraderie since the bebop era.” The whole interchange of ideas in the bebop era is like rap today; like we’re all one big posse.

People are always saying hip hop isn’t real music, it’s just noise. Were there any parallels to the way hip hop has been received by critics and the like and the way bebop was initially received?

FFF: The initial reception of bebop and rap was similar. People tried to dis bebop by saying that the musicians were just into drugs and stuff like that. It couldn’t be music because the players were drug addicts and perverts. Bebop had that illicit air that rap now has. I remember when hip hop was being created, we were the thing in black music that nobody wanted to deal with. I also remember reading about how when bebop was being created I think it was Louis Armstrong who called it “Chinese music,” meaning it as a dis.

MR: And yet when Louis Armstrong played, other trumpet players would say, “All this shit he’s doing is wrong. He’s not playing ‘music’.” Hip hop is going through the same type of bludgeoning. It’s nothing new. People dismissed hip hop as noise because they were thinking in a myopic way. They didn’t see the wider picture that music is a small part of the world of sound.

FFF: Black music has constantly tried to rearrange that perfect balance by placing greater emphasis on rhythm. Hip hop is an extreme example of this because it is all rhythm and little melody.

MR: The thing that frightened people about hip hop was that they heard people enjoying rhythm — rhythm for rhythm’s sake. Hip hop lives in the world of sound — not the world of music — and that’s why it’s so revolutionary. What we as black people have always done is show that the world of sound is bigger than white people think. There are many areas that fall outside the narrow Western definition of music and hip hop is one of them.

Max, you seem to be suggesting that there’s an implicit political criticism in hip hop, an implicit dissatisfaction with the way things are.

FFF: I gave Max a tape of L.L. Cool J’s first album, Radio, to listen to. A couple of weeks later I asked Max what he thought of it and he said, “It sounds real militant.” I thought it was funny he should say that, because I thought L.L. was an ego rapper, and political rap seemed to be out of fashion. This was a time when Public Enemy hadn’t even come out yet. But Max wasn’t hearing militancy in the lyrics but in the drum sound. LL Cool J doesn’t seem like political music, but the politics was in the drums.

MR: The rhythm was very militant to me because it was like marching, the sound of an army on the move. We lost Malcolm, we lost King and they thought they had blotted out everybody. But all of a sudden this new art form arises and the militancy is still there in the music.

Is the black militancy you hear in L.L. Cool J’s rhythms changed by the fact that some of those beats were sampled from John Bonham, Led Zeppelin’s drummer, and the fact that hip hop often uses music from a wide variety of sources, many not obviously black: like Kraftwerk, Billy Squire, the Monkees, Elton John, Billy Joel, Mountain…

M.R.: Hip hop swings. I never heard Led Zeppelin swing. Jesus Christ, now hip hop comes from Led Zeppelin, you motherfucker…

FFF: Max, check it out. What he’s saying is right.

I’m not saying that Led Zep started hip hop, of course not. What I’m saying is that while hip hop is black music, it’s not purist black music…

MR: Led Zep is a poor imitation of black conscious music. European music didn’t even use rhythm until they were exposed to black music. You’re just trying to say some shit that blacks wouldn’t have nothing if it wasn’t for whites.

I’m not saying that at all.

MR: You’re English and you come to this country and try to tell us that everything we got came from whites. That’s a white supremist attitude. These black folks, the off-spring of slaves, created something that you white people could never even dream of and now all of a sudden you’re saying that white people started it. You’re telling me Charlie Parker came out of a white experience.

Do you know that record, ‘Planet Rock’, by Afrika Bambaataa?

MR: I know where you’re coming from. I’ve had it with you, you motherfucker. Get out of my house.


LEAVING MAX Roach’s apartment I’m reminded of something the Brazilian pop singer Gilberto Gil once said to me: “A racially pure music is for the Nazis. We live in an age when roots have been replaced by aerials.”


  1. Golden Oldies: An Occasional Series Highlighting the Best of Frank Owen’s Writing | FRANK OWEN says:

    […] Fab 5 Freddy & Max Roach: Hip Hop Bebop, Spin, October 1988 […]

  2. Adam says:

    Fucking Epic!!


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