ALTERNATIVE ROCK CULTURES: Cab Calloway: Original Rapper
[18 November 2005]

by Iain Ellis
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In the perennial "forerunners of rap" debates many artists have been variously cited as the O.R.'s: Original Rappers. Louis Jordan, Bo Diddley, James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, and the Last Poets have all displayed characteristic features that have earned them someone's lauded acclaim as the "Godfather(s) of Rap". To this notable list one might put forth another worthy candidate: Cab Calloway.

In style, persona, lyrical purpose, and rhythmic priority, a bricolage of hip-hop ingredients can be discerned in this Baltimore maverick from the 1930s swing era. Particularly in current hip-hop pranksta Andre 3000, one witnesses Calloway's musical heir enjoying a celebrated career by integrating Cab-style wit and showmanship into his music, moves, and wardrobe. Andre's upcoming Prohibition-period movie, My Life in Idlewild, scheduled for release in 2006, has an accompanying Outkast-written soundtrack that even fuses the period's swing and ragtime to his more familiar pop-hop sound.

Just as Andre 3000 has found common ground in the past swing era to infuse his genre with new imaginative scope and vigor, so Cab Calloway may be seen conversely as a prophet of rap aesthetics, providing an array of stylistic and comedic techniques that have lived on into contemporary forms. A compelling argument can be made for pronouncing Cab Calloway as the primary precursor of hip-hop and as the trailblazing innovator of comedic rap. He embodies multiple traits that we now associate with and are accustomed to expect from modern hip-hop culture:

Rhythmic emphases, rhyme infatuations, celebrations of decadence, slang, bling, and an overall manifestation of cool: Cab Calloway was hip-hop's preeminent godfather.

Through his "party" songs and Hepster's Dictionary, Calloway provided a vast lexicon for the youth subculture that surrounded the swing genre; that argot revolved around a comic inverse-universe of terms and definitions (e.g., bad = good; crazy = happening). Such antonymous irony is clearly still alive and well in today's obstreperous hip-hop-driven youth slang culture.

Rhythm and rhyme propelled his popular slang, as well as vocal style, which thrived on attitude more than technical prowess. Singing/storytelling alongside — in sync rather than around — the backbeat, Calloway innovated a vocal technique that was to later inform the beat-based singing of Bo Diddley, James Brown, and the subsequent histories of funk and rap phrasing.

His visual style was both "street" and a grotesque parody of rags-to-riches success and materialism. Sometimes associated with "pimp" style, Ice T and Snoop Dog, amongst many, have since adopted Cab's excess "bling" and exaggerated sartorial splendor.

His signifying humor and boast raps separated the "hip" from the "square", both internally within jazz circles and in relation to the broader culture. Such in-house battle-banter has been a staple ritual within the history of rap music.

The words contained in his songs were grounded by the restraints of the black urban underground, but were also constituted by the wild and witty fantasies of the unleashed imagination. Like hip-hop, the lyrics of Cab-style swing were drawn from African-American city streets.

Calloway's black pride and sense of "cool" were always demonstrative but largely pre-political in consciousness and form. A superiority "boast" humor at the personal level pervades his comic scenarios as it has so much of rap's 25-year history. Such wit signifies rather than contemplates larger political correlations.

Who was first to inquire "Are you fly?" Answer: The Professor of Jive, Cab Calloway.

One cannot help but feel that the history of popular music would look somewhat different had Cab Calloway not existed. His winning humor brought new spirit and possibilities to youth expression, performance, lyrical subjects, language, image, and promotion — all central elements in the developments of rock and rap as popular art forms. Moreover, his humor was beyond mere self-indulgence; it offered a spirit-raising antidote to black and white youth during the depression-ravaged years of the '30s. He was a unifier, a pied piper that gave a stressed populace something to connect to, to celebrate with, and to temporarily brush away the blues. His was a comedic escapism of body and mind; he cajoled the jitterbugs to jitterbug and made "hep" slang an irresistible proposition. If you were "hep to the jive", you were part of a club, one identified with racial integration and hedonism, one against stiff adult rules and prejudices.

Calloway's humor had a psycho-social power of empowerment through its oppositional essence. In his songs and beyond, he taught the youth subcultures not how to live, but how they could live — if only in their wildest imaginations. Maybe you would never wear the sharp silk suits of many colors or the brimmed fedoras Cab sported on stage, but the alternative fantasies his appearance symbolized were good for the spirit, a relief from deadening reality. As such, Cab-style swing, like rap humor, provided black culture and white sympathizers with escapism and/or relief from subjugated existence in a polarized capitalist society. Both genres' apparitions of empowered identity reflect and temporarily satiate the desires and promises of those excluded or alienated from an official cultural dream that is only realized by a privileged few.

Lyrically, Calloway created a homology of dreams, too, fragments of scenes from the fantasy jazz world. Like so many rap narratives of recent years, Calloway's sketches involve wild parties, celebrating a decadent youth enjoying the fruits of sex, dancing, and drugs. Sometimes these were expressed through the coded lingo of jive talk (as in "The Viper's Drag") and sometimes they were brazenly explicit (as in "Reefer Man"). "Scat Song" and "Are You All Reet?" elicit the "party" humor; both exhibit the hedonistic pursuits and linguistic tongue-twisters that we have seen filter into so many subsequent rock and rap fantasies.

In "Scat Song" Cab argues on behalf of the spoken jazz rhythms that Louis Armstrong had developed a decade prior, with utterances full of onomatopoeia nonsense and childlike babble. For Calloway, scat was a liberating leap into primal youth, deserving of this instruction manifesto: "Don't give a hang what words you use at any time / Sing this silly language without any reason or rhyme / And skeep-beep de bop-bop beep bop bo-dope skeetle-at-de-op-de-day!" One can imagine the youthful Little Richard and Bo Diddley taking mental notes as they crafted their own youth-inspired glossolalia. This dumb free-styling continues to jitterbug from the page to the stage when Calloway asks his young advocates, "Are You All Reet?" then responds: "Just speel some jive, we'll dig you out, you see / Well, all reet! / Trilly filly? / Woo-woo! / Woo-woo! / I don't go Navaho."

Occasionally, Calloway's humor would veer towards pre-political satire, as in "Tarzan of Harlem" and "Jess's Natu'lly Lazy", where he gently mocks white stereotypes and racist assumptions. In the former he slyly teases white fears of the black man, reassuring with tongue-in-cheek that this urban-swinging Tarzan "really doesn't mean you no harm". In "Jess's Natu'lly Lazy" Calloway twists his humor into knots of paradox by adopting an exaggerated minstrel voice and dialect to evoke historical stereotypes of the lazy southern "negro", then using incongruity to celebrate rather than dispel or condemn that easy-going lifestyle: "You'se lazy, yeah I is / Just natu'lly lazy, hum-hum-hum / Down in Dixie let him stay / Oh, what's that? / Lordy, but he's lucky / He was born that way." The shifting pronouns and points-of-view further complicate perspectives and the narrator's (Cab's?) association with the song's character. Another song, "Yaller", though less comically complex, wittily parades the schizophrenic identity crisis of half-caste blacks in a culture that polarized around racial distinctions; this was an issue recurrent in the Harlem Renaissance literature of the times and was one clearly close-to-home for Calloway himself, a light-skinned African-American from a middle-class background.

The legacy that Cab Calloway left is formidable: Footage of him from his promotional films dancing ironically around the stage (he was no Michael Jackson!), hair flailing and body swinging, remind one of the tongue-in-cheek theatrics of Morris Day, Flavor Flav, and Andre 3000; Cab's silly sonic slang is the kind that has pervaded rock history since he first had the nation's youth yelling en masse, "You Gotta Hi-De-Ho", the "Hey Ya" of 1934; Cab's lascivious expressions and outrageous "pimp" style were every parent-of-a-daughter's worst nightmare. They were also prototypes for principle rock and rap images that others would later re-formulate. And when he declared "I Want to Rock", Cab Calloway patented and prophesized a statement of intent that not only prefigured rock 'n' roll by 12 years, but also gave to the expression all the youthful liberation, sexuality, and fantasy possibilities that would serve to frighten and horrify adult establishments over forthcoming decades.

* * *

The above essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book about rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.

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