The unlikely face of hip-hop

With the passing a couple weeks ago of Gil Scott-Heron — the spoken word poet best known for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised — there has been much talk about the origins of hip-hop.  Scott-Heron himself always insisted that he should not be credited as a hip-hop originator despite his obvious influence on it because he was just drawing on long-standing African oral traditions; that credit usually goes, instead, to Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc who brought dub-style mixing to New York.  But what is certainly true is that much of the music made since the 1970s — from disco to electronic to hip-hop — would not have existed without the sound manipulation and beat-matching made possible by new technology, which suggests another, more improbable influence on hip-hop: the nerdy, British, resolutely un-bling members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which was founded in 1958 and became one of the pioneering outfits exploring the boundaries of sound.

The video above is part one of a terrific documentary about the Workshop called The Alchemists of Sound; part two, below, begins with the legendary Delia Derbyshire demonstrating how found sounds and reel-to-reel tape machines can be used to beat match, producing something that with a little imagination might one day end up sounding like the Doctor Who theme song (the second video below) that she created in 1963 — or, with more imagination, the audio track for The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight.

Dan Chiasson has an illuminating review of the origins of rap and hip-hop in the New York Review of Books.

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