Where would music be without the breakbeat and the power chord? What if DJs weren’t scratching? What if guitarists weren’t distorting? What if there was no fuzz in rock, no drops in hip-hop?
Weirdos, contrarians and geniuses often engage in a musical speculative fiction, divining what modern music might sound like without this or that innovation, much as alternate historians ponder what would have happened if, say, the Founding Fathers never declared independence.
Academics argue such exercises ignore inevitability. If the fledgling Americans hadn’t declared independence in 1776, they would have done so eventually. And it’s the same in music. If Link Wray hadn’t invented the power chord or introduced distortion, someone else would have gotten around to it. If DJ Kool Herc didn’t introduce the breakbeat someone else would have figured it out somewhere.
And that may be true. But Wray did, in fact, put the first power chord on wax and did, in fact, distort the sound his six-string made. He told Perfect Sound Forever he just wanted to play like Chet Akins. He wanted to match the pain he heard in Hank Williams and Ray Charles. In his attempt, he became an influence himself. The Who’s Pete Townshend — a man synonymous with the power chord — said he picked up a guitar after hearaing Wray’s “Rumble.”
If Townshend had grown up in an American city nervous about juvenile delinquency in the 1950s instead of London, he may not have heard “Rumble.” Stodgy powers-that-be banned the song because the title evoked violence and because its sinister, sexy tone — sweaty and turgid as hormonal teens at a basement party — was bound to cause the youth to get up to no good. “Rumble” did this without saying a word; it remains the only instrumental ever banned from radio.
Four decades earlier, Parisians rioted at the debut of “The Rite of Spring.” Or so the legend goes. And maybe that’s what the city fathers were worried about: Wray’s innovations might give life to repressed appetites which, thus made manifest, might spill into the streets.
The hand-wringing early rock caused transferred to metal — Wray’s influence on that genre is unmistakable — and to rap as the decades rolled on.
So while it may seem this year’s Musical Influence honorees are an unlikely pair — the bespectacled Wray perpetually preserved in black-and-white; the Jamaica-born Kool Herc, hunched over his turntables, exists always in vivid color — they are both innovators with contributions so singular that modern popular music and modern culture would be unrecognizable without them. A more material connection: Herc was one of the first DJs to sample “Apache,” now ubiquitous in hip-hop. Wray covered the song throughout his career and finally recorded his version in 1990.
The story of hip-hop’s birth has been repeated plenty of times this year, its 50th anniversary, but it’s worth repeating: on August 11, 1973, Cindy Campbell and her brother Clive (who the world knows as Kool Herc) threw a back-to-school party at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx. Of course there would be jams: the siblings grew up with a music-loving father.
“His favorite person was Ella Fitzgerald,” Herc told Spin in an August interview. “But in Jamaica there were other groups called Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. Then come the Skatalites, and then the Paragons and U-Roy and Big Youth. I learned from that.” Partygoers that fateful day heard Herc breaking and mixing James Brown’s album Sex Machine. The breaks escaped the basement, and the more lyrically astute listeners began rhyming rhythmically over them. Hip-hop would, with the rapidity we take for granted in an age of virality, explode into the consciousness to become a powerful force in culture and fashion.
As pioneers so often do, Herc slipped away. Hip-hop shifted from a genre driven by DJs to one focused on MCs. Herc worked at a record store, fell into addiction, recovered, got sick, recovered, occasionally to be referenced by rappers who knew their history, faded away again, returned again. He’s healthy now, and 68. He and Cindy led a campaign to keep 1520 Sedgwick affordable for working-class Bronxites.
Wray maintained a strong popularity in rockabilly-mad Scandinavia until his death in 2005. Though never forgotten by guitar gods, his music got a bump in interest after “Rumble” played during Vincent and Mia’s uncomfortable silence at Jack Rabbit Slim’s in “Pulp Fiction.”
Now the men get their due, legends linked by an award, the echoes of their influence resonating for an eternity.