A week ago, while we were on a brief vacation, taking care of personal life, like we do sometimes, we missed the anniversary of Mr. Charles Darwin, father of evolution theory and bane of people who don’t grasp that science and faith can coexist (honestly, if one really wants to believe in a god, I feel as though a complex system like evolution would only strengthen a case for a divine creator… how, the educated faithful could ask, could evolution happen unless someone had finely tuned the organisms of life to adapt?) It’s possible Darwin is the heart of what it means to be groundbreaking. His work forced humanity to start asking big questions about what we were and how we got here. It has inspired and enraged ever since. It’s hard to think of someone who is associated with something which has been more influential and more mired in constant conjecture, unless we wish to try and find the origins of religion itself. As such, Darwin may well be the most important man to ever live. It seems only right for us to mark his entry into the world, especially since in music, we also see evolution regularly.
By the time we reach the Ventures’ rendition of Apache, it has already gone through a couple iterations, starting with the original by The Shadows. In these incarnations, of which the Ventures version is my favorite, there’s a certain Western flair to the tone: it’s the soundtrack to some adventure or exploration, taking on the rhythmic triplet gallop of a horse, while the music sets the scene with a certain power and confidence, yet just a little bit of trepidation, likely due to not understanding the titular natives about to be encountered. It exists in a realm alongside “Bonanza” or “Rawhide” in that way, yet it feels definitive, in part due to the fact that, while this might be the most familiar interpretation of this era, it is likely you only understand the song in its later contexts, much as we use the elephant to understand the long-extinct mammoth.
The Incredible Bongo Band is probably the point where the song took on a life of its own. This project released a cover of the song that proved seminal. The extended drum break in the middle became the most used sample in rap music, which might make it clear what this version did for the song: it made it danceable. There’s a certain brooding to the original renditions that makes it very cinematic, very dramatic, but very internal when it comes to how it might affect one emotionally. The Bongo Band funked it up, adding some exultant horns and keeping the guitar in the background, the lead taken over instead by organs. It also introduces the more staccato intonation behind that main riff that will be indicative of later usages. The bongo beat underneath, however, is what made it truly new, as it took away the steady Western Surf rhythm and replaced it with something a bit more conducive to letting go and dancing. It ceases to have much of anything to do with the outlaw vibe of the original. This is the turning point for the song, the missing link, if you will. It’s the fish with legs between the fish and the amphibian. Just as we do not know the now extinct creatures that paved the way for our own species, the Incredible Bongo Band exists only as the bridge. The recording languishes in obscurity, even though the results are what makes the song most familiar to us.
Presented with the main riff of Apache, the modern listener will almost assuredly hear it followed by “Kemo Sabe, jump on it!” This is because of the Sugarhill Gang. Their “Apache (Jump On It)” did that most vital of things for an instrumental track: it gave it words. It’s not the first vocal rendition of Apache, but it’s probably the only one that matters, given its position in early rap music and the sheer familiarity of the chanted chorus. The Sugarhill Gang honors the source, referencing the wild west and the Lone Ranger throughout the chorus and verses, and punctuating the chorus with a not-at-all-racist (ok, totally racist) native war cry. It makes the track playful in a way the original is not, and while today the Lone Ranger may be about as hip as malt shops and bobbysoxers, at the time it was probably a pretty clever usage of a popular cultural touchstone. It’s not the only clever bit, however: the Sugarhill Gang seem to be the first to frame that classic riff the way they do. There’s the set of crashing staccatos before each turn of the main theme, and the post-script riff after the theme, which are in and of themselves just as classic and memorable. The seeds of a “party version” of the song were planted by the Bongo Band, but this finalizes it into its own animal. Many times samples and other musical quotes are a sign of lazy songwriting, but here, everything, down to the effects on the notes, is engineered to work for this particular imagining. It becomes its own new organism, despite obvious connections to the original.
It is hard to grasp why the idea of evolution is so hard when we can even see it occur in our own creative endeavors. Part of what makes the Sugarhill “Apache” so wonderful is how it has become its own thing, like a child striking out in his or her parents’ footsteps. Part of what makes the original so beautiful, whether by the Ventures or the Shadows or whoever, is that we can see something familiar in it, yet also know it is the bones that created what we already know. This particular song went through many changes to arrive where it is today, which is why it is important to go back to the beginning and appreciate it before it became the dancehall hit that it still is.
The song, however, like biological evolution, is never truly finished. For many of us, it may be that the “Apache” riff immediately conjures up yet another version: that of Sir Mix-A-Lot. The inveterate big-butt-lover’s take on the riff utilizes the Sugarhill Gang subtitle, “Jump On It,” but that’s not all it cannibalizes, as it holds almost an identical structure to “Apache (Jump On It)” as well. Mix-A-Lot decides that, instead of now-outdated Lone Ranger references, he will freshen things up with the many cities and states of America. This, of course, doesn’t cheapen it at all, or serve as an easy gimmick for cheers; anyone who has ever been to a concert knows that no musician would ever do this. It does, however, make the song “a bit” to “a lot” sillier, especially since, while the Gang leaves the iconic riff front and center, Mixy bellows amiably, “WHAT’S UP, [CITY], WHAT’S UUUUUUUUHHP?” This entire city is asked to “jump on it,” whatever “it” may be in this case. This, perhaps, is where we truly see the meaning of evolution. It’s not just change, but meaningful, fluid adaptation. The mutated chickens we hear KFC breeds, or the Monsanto seeds that resist all disease, are not about survival of the fittest, but about exploitation of breeds and seeking of profit. Once Sir Mix-A-Lot puts his spin on the song, we can see the beauty of true inspiration and musical evolution through the monstrosity of playing God. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson Darwin taught us: there is a natural tendency to positive change, and therefore God, if he’s out there, plays himself just fine thank you very much.
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