My good friend Michael Turner recently found and posted the above rare clip of King Stitt toasting on his Roots Knotty Roots page and I wanted to pass it along and write about it here. This particular clip interested me because I have been researching the link between toasting and early hip hop and wanted to take a few minutes to elaborate and solicit your thoughts.
As Buster Brakus notes in this clip, the backing band is Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. He notices Carl Brady on percussion who is a life-time member of Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and possibly Marvin Brooks on tambourine. Brakus says that Clancy Eccles told him that Eccles and King Stitt performed a lot with Byron’s band.
What interests me most is toasting as an art form. Count Machuki first began toasting for Tom the Great Sebastian and then came to work for Coxsone since he was skilled at attracting a crowd and keeping the crowd. Machuki says that he was so desired by the crowds that they were disappointed at the recorded version of the live performance, solidifying the concept that ska is very much a live experience. In The Rough Guide to Reggae, authors Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton quote Count Machuki. “There would be times when the records playing would, in my estimation, sound weak, so I’d put in some peps: chick-a-took, chick-a-took, chick-a-took. That created a sensation! So there were times when people went to the record shop and bought those records, took them home, and then brought them back, and say, ‘I want to hear the sound I hear at the dancehall last night!’ They didn’t realize that was Machuki’s injection in the dancehall!”
“Toasting was developed by the sound-system operators,” writes Mohair Slim. “To emphasis the music’s rhythm, the DJs chanted staccato noises over the top of the instrumental tracks that were the staple of the early dancehall. A common technique was the rapid-fire repetition of words, like “ska-ska-ska” or “get-up-get-up-get-up” also employed were locomotive-noises (“ch-ch, ch-ch, ch-ch”), hiccups (“he-da, he-da, he-da”) and grunts. Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd and Byron Lee all utilised toasting to accentuate the fervour of their records.” The clip above is evidence of Byron Lee using this art form. Classic Skatalites tunes like Rocket Ship and
Legendary historian and artist Clinton Hutton says the toasting had a deeper impact on the power of the sound system. “The mike gave the voice reach and agency. The deejay could talk to the fans in the dancehall as well as to the persons outside of the dancehall. He could advertise the next dance and venue that the sound system would be playing at. He could praise the sound system owner/operator and help to brand his name and enterprise in the minds of the people. The disc jockey could dedicate a song or songs to a specific person or group of persons. He could announce the names of persons going off to England or coming from prison. Yes, he could really ‘wake the town and tell the people,’ to use a line from Daddy U-Roy. He could cover the weaknesses in a selection with live jive, with toasting, with scatting, with bawl out.”
I would argue that toasting is the grandfather of hip hop. It is evident that those who either participated in or witnessed the activity of toasting in the 1950s and 1960s Kingston, at the sound system dances brought this cultural phenomenon to the shores of the United States where it then evolved into hip hop traditions. In the 1970s, hip hop began when a disc jockey by the stage name DJ Kool Herc began hosting block parties in the South Bronx. He, like the Jamaican predecessors, toasted over the music to encourage the attention of the participants. Hip hop toasting then evolved into adding musical flourishes to the music, utilizing two turntables to create percussive effects like scratching and looping, and it then evolved into rapping completely as a vocal, rather than a few words over the existing soundtrack, and vocal percussive effects, beatboxing. Hip hop culture spread to communities throughout New York and then the world in the 1980s.
Scholar Joseph Heathcott notes the origins of hip hop culture in Jamaica. “Taking shape on the playgrounds and street corners of the South Bronx, hip-hop was from the first moment a popular cultural practice that stretched across borderlands, linking the local to the transnational. Not coincidentally, hop-hop erupted in the one American urban neighborhood with the highest concentration of Jamaican labor migrant families: the South Bronx. . . . Islanders imported with them to the South Bronx highly developed musical and electric performance cultures centered around the mobile sound system. If ska had filed to gain a purchase on the American music scene, and if reggae was only beginning to establish its credentials, it was the sound system and dance hall culture that ultimately made sense on transplanted soil. Where Jamaican genres of music only penetrated American markets obliquely, Jamaican performance practices provide enteral to the creation of hip-hop.”
Is it possible that DJ Kool Herc knew of these Jamaican toasting methods? Most definitely. DJ Kool Herc, whose real name is Clive Campbell, was born in 1955 in Kingston, Jamaica where he lived until he was 12 years old, during the height of the sound system era. He came to the Bronx in 1967. His first gig was DJing his sister’s birthday party and he did as he learned, filling the break sections of the song with toasting to keep the audiences going. This is not to say that DJ Kool Herc was merely imitating the originals, and indeed he was innovative by incorporating the turntables themselves in future gigs to create additional techniques that became separate from the ska genre and a part of the hip-hop genre, but credit is due the first toasters—Count Machuki, King Stitt, and Sir Lord Comic.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this connection. Please share your knowledge of vintage toasting and the hip hop link with me as I continue to research this fascinating musical evolution.