Give the drummer some
Orlando resident Tony Cook, an incidental pioneer
Published: February 3, 2011
Back To Reality
Tony Cook, a mostly retired 53-year-old drummer currently living in the Orlando neighborhood of Rosemont, created what might be the world's first-ever house music record – although he didn't intend to. The way Cook tells it, the year was 1983, and he was trying to tap into the trend of the times and score a rap hit. But after sending his song to New York to be mixed by a couple of club DJs, it returned rearranged and stripped of its rap (originally performed by Cook himself and hooked around the phrase "Get on up and clap yo' hands!"). Titled "On the Floor," the song was released in 1984 and soon entered the realm of musical mythology as "the granddaddy of all house records."
This whimsical idea of Cook stumbling into a musical eureka moment makes for great press-release copy. The promotion materials for Cook's recently released retrospective of early '80s "side projects," Back to Reality, on Stones Throw records, includes a quote from label owner Peanut Butter Wolf calling "On the Floor" "the missing link between funk and house music." But this hindsight belies the record's reliance upon happenstance: According to Cook, the DJs entrusted to mix the song, Timmy Regisford and Boyd Jarvis, altered "On The Floor" to specifically make it work on the dance floors of New York City clubs at the time. When Cook first heard their version, he says it was "quite a surprise," though, in an affable and gracious tone, he points out that he respected their mix. But Cook's original, unabashed intent to create a rap record offers a more exacting insight into how established musicians viewed the then still-nascent hip-hop genre, and exactly what constitutes something being a rap record.
Accounts of hip-hop's musical genesis usually include a pared down description of a generation of kids from the dilapidated South Bronx becoming disgruntled with disco's flashy but vacant stylings and deciding to create their own form of music. This was formalized in 1979 with the release of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." There was disco, and then there was hip-hop, with one replacing the other as the du jour music of the day. But, as Peanut Butter Wolf says, the transition wasn't that sharp.
"It's an irony because hip-hop was the counterculture to disco in a lot of ways, but it embraced certain songs," Peanut Butter Wolf says, citing Chic as a group whose music coexisted with hip-hop. "To me, when I was a kid, I didn't know the difference. When ‘Rapper's Delight' came out I knew that I really liked it, but I really liked [Fatback Band's] ‘Double Dutch,' too."
Cook backs up this take on the turn-of-the-'80s era. As a "traditional" musician – along with stints playing with Etta James and Billy Ocean, Cook toured on-and-off with James Brown's band for more than three decades after the funk trailblazer discovered him jamming at a block party in his hometown of Augusta, Ga. – you might expect Cook to have been disgruntled at hip-hop's magpie-like reliance on reusing snippets of other artists' music, especially Brown's, as its basis. But Cook, who moved to England in 1981 after disco music curbed the commercial benefits of touring with James Brown, enthusiastically embraced the new idea and attitude of hip-hop from the first time he heard "Rapper's Delight" overseas. "I thought it was fresh, I liked it, and I was thinking we should try it," Cook says, pleased to have been an active musician witnessing the emergence of a new genre. (Cook claims that James Brown was also a fan of early hip-hop and would often stop dressing-room conversations to praise a song playing on the radio.)
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