How Afro-Cuban Percussion Helped Shape Hip-Hop

Hip-hop as an art form was born of the black and Latino experience in New York City, especially in its northernmost borough, the Bronx. But some of the genre's foundational influences can also be found father south—much farther south.

The Caribbean influence in early hip-hop was embodied by DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, two of the genre’s pioneers who repped their Jamaican heritage. Puerto Rican emcees and DJs have likewise been instrumental in the genre since its founding. However, a lesser-known Caribbean influence comes from Cuba. In fact, Cuban—or, more accurately, Afro-Cuban—percussion was and remains integral to hip-hop.

Below, we’re going to trace this influence from the earliest popular Afro-Cuban rhythms to contemporary hip-hop beats.

How Afro-Cuban Drums Found Their Way to Hip-Hop

For many of us, the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Cuban music (and even Latin music in general) is salsa. Its rhythms were built from the percussion of Son Cubano, an Afro-Cuban genre that existed for decades before it mixed with jazz and became known to American audiences as salsa. (Its precursor, “rhumba" dance music, was popular in the U.S. as early as the ‘20s and was even closer to traditional Son Cubano.)

Don Azpiazu Havana Casino Orchestra - "El Manicero"

Birthed more than a hundred years ago, Son Cubano was the result of Cuban folk music merging with African rhythms and percussion. Congas, bongo drums, cowbells, and claves were all key Afro-Cuban percussion elements used in the folk music and would eventually find their way into hip-hop through disco and other later forms of pop. (Though cowbells are folk instruments found in various forms across the world, they were popularized in the United States through salsa.)

Notice the Latin beat at the heart of the Bee Gee’s disco hit “You Should Be Dancing" in this isolated percussion track, the conga underpinning Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around" or the congas, maracas, and the distinctly clave-like glass bottle sound in Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough."

Michael Jackson - "Don’t Stop 'Til You Get Enough"

Just two months after the Chicago White Sox held a “Disco Demolition Night" promotion between games of a doubleheader, The Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight," the first widely popular hip-hop song. Judging from the percussion, it seems that hip-hop picked up right where disco left off.

Digging a bit deeper only confirms this conclusion. The backing beat on “Rapper’s Delight" is an interpolation of Chic’s “Good Times"—a disco hit that was released just months earlier—and this early rap hit begins with a familiar Afro-Cuban rhythm.

The Sugar Hill Gang - "Rapper's Delight"

The Afro-Cuban Influence On Drum Machines

Outside of disco rhythms performed on traditional Afro-Cuban instruments, there was a second avenue through which Afro-Cuban percussion came to be used in hip-hop: drum machines.

As mentioned above, long before the ‘70s, American audiences loved Cuban music in the forms of salsa and rhumba, as reflected by (and perhaps further spurred by) Lucy and her Cuban bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy.

I Love Lucy - "Cuban Pete & Sally Sweet"

If you were a gigging musician in the cocktail clubs and lounges in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you were expected to be able to play Latin-tinged pop and jazz. So, when the first drum machines were invented to accompany professional organists as they played such gigs, they came programmed with the necessary Afro-Cuban beats and sounds.

As the first commercially produced drum machine, the Wurlitzer Side Man, introduced in 1959, came equipped with pre-programmed rhythms—like the rhumba and the cha-cha—and included the individual sounds of instruments like claves and maracas.

Wurlitzer Sideman

Other drum machines like Roland precursor Ace Tone Rhythm Ace FR-1 and the Korg Minipops followed suit, including the rhumba, cha-cha, and mambo along with Afro-Cuban percussion.

While music certainly changed a lot from 1959 to 1980—and drum machines developed into triggerable, programmable machines—Roland still saw fit to include four Afro-Cuban percussion instruments on its groundbreaking TR-808: claves, maracas, conga, and cowbell (though the cowbell sound is famously unrealistic).

Since the 808 included 12 instruments total, this means that a third of the instruments at the user’s disposal were Afro-Cuban. Becoming the most popular drum machine in hip-hop, the 808 helped continue the use of Afro-Cuban instrumentation in hip-hop from its introduction to the present day.

Consider the 808 beat of Bambaataa’s seminal “Planet Rock," which included the distinct, pinging cowbells. Or Missy Elliot’s “Work It," which has a clave beat throughout and includes a cowbell breakdown at the end (which itself is a sample from the Run-DMC track “Peter Piper").

Missy Elliott - "Work It"

And of course, live instrumentation of maracas, congas, and other Afro-Cuban drums and larger Latin influences have never left, as hits like this past summer’s “Wild Thoughts" by DJ Khaled demonstrate (video link mildly NSFW). Clearly, the decades-long positive association of Afro-Cuban percussion and hip-hop is here to stay.

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