A History of the "Apache" Breakbeat

The "Apache" breakbeat dates back several decades. Check out some of its better versions.

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Complex Original

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Some songs receive cover versions by other artists over and over again. Some are sample bedrocks. A few are both—and perhaps the greatest and most emblematic of these is “Apache.”

Written in the late ’50s by an English songwriter aping a Hollywood movie starring Burt Lancaster as a Native American, made into a hit by a Eurovision Song Contest-winning Swede and the backing band of a British MOR balladeer, and a surf-guitar favorite by the mid-’60s, “Apache” would have been a tough, cool instrumental rocker left to the recesses of musical history had it not been for another Hollywood movie, whose soundtrack featured a goofy funk version of another pre-Beatles hit, “Bongo Rock.”

In that small hit’s wake, the Incredible Bongo Band’s version of “Apache” would sound the call for B-boys to battle on the dance floor—first in the Bronx, then worldwide. Thanks to the most commanding breakbeat this side of the James Brown catalog, the Bongo Band's “Apache” is one the most-sampled records of all time, and there are no signs of that changing anytime soon.

Going from surf standard to hip-hop’s national anthem is hardly the only mutation “Apache” has made in its lifetime. More than 50 years since the first version was released, the song’s DNA can be heard in music from rap to jungle to pop. Here are 25 songs that trace the strange and singular evolution of “Apache.”

Written by Michaelangelo Matos (@matoswk75)

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Bert Weedon "Apache" (1960)

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Album: King Size Guitar
Label: Top Rank
Producer: N/A

In 1959, a British RAF veteran and ad man named Jerry Lordan saw a five-year-old Burt Lancaster action flick, Apache, very loosely based on the story of Massai, the last Apache left after Geronimo surrendered to the U.S. cavalry in New Mexico. The movie inspired Lordan—a part-time songwriter-to pen a simple, resonant riff that seemed to trail dust in its wake.

The first version of "Apache" was by Bert Weedon, who died at 91 this April 20. Weedon was the first solo guitarist to have a hit in England (with 1959's "Guitar Boogie Shuffle"); his guitar-instruction books helped inspire the first wave of British rock-up to and including the Beatles-but his skipping, jaunty take on "Apache" inspired brickbats from Lordan decades later.

"He hasn't even played the music that I wrote," the songwriter told an interviewer in 1993, two years before he died. "I wanted something noble and dramatic, reflecting the courage and savagery of the Indian." Weedon hardly provides that. But before anyone else laid hands on it, he proved one of the ineffable rules of "Apache"—it sounds good at any tempo.

The Shadows "Apache" (1960)

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Album: N/A/
Label: Columbia
Producer: Norrie Paramor

Cliff Richard became a British pop mainstay with big, soft ballads, such as his big American hit, "We Don't Talk Anymore" (No. 7 in 1979; in the U.K. it went to No. 1). Just to situate it: the top two picks to its right on the video's YouTube page are Paul Davis's "I Go Crazy" and Ambrosia's "How Much I Feel." But well before things got truly blowsy, Richard was, it is requisite to say, "England's answer to Elvis Presley," but it was his backing band, the Shadows, led by thick-toned guitarist Hank Marvin, who were the musical draw.

The group heard "Apache" while touring England and cut it at the tail end of a session, figuring it was a B-side. They quickly learned otherwise: Stoic and unflinching, their "Apache" went to No. 1 in England and stayed there five weeks, making it the second-biggest record of the year there, after Elvis's "It's Now or Never." Cliff helped out by playing a Chinese tam-tam drum.

Jorgen Ingmann and His Guitar "Apache" (1961)

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Album: Apache
Label: Atco
Producer: N/A

America didn't need Cliff Richard in the early '60s-it already had its own Elvis, thanks-but clearly "Apache" needed to set foot on the soil that inspired it. Who better to do so than a future Eurovision Song Contest winner? Grethe and Jorgen Ingmann—a Danish wife-and-husband singer-and-guitarist team—topped the 1963 edition of the fabled event with the jaunty, B-musical-ready "Dansevise (I Loved You)," but two years earlier Jorgen had scored something sweeter on his own: a U.S. No. 1. In Ingmann's hands, "Apache" was airier, but its tom-tom beat evoked Native American drumming, while the guitar, not echoed but answered by slide squeals, evoked the Pacific Island pop then in vogue via the living-room exotica of Les Baxter and Martin Denny. It also cemented the melody as one of pop's most enduring.

The Ventures "Apache" (1962)

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Album: The Ventures
Label: Liberty
Producer: N/A

It took little time for the loping guitar theme of "Apache" to become a surf-rock standard-a year after Ingmann's version hit No. 1, Seattle's Ventures split the difference between it and the Shadows' version. They approach it like a known quantity-something everyone knows, is familiar and friendly with, and whose contours are played with lightly-the expression of a musical style at its early mature peak.

Davie Allan & the Arrows "Apache '65" (1965)

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Edgar Broughton Band "Apache Drop Out" (1970)

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Album: N/A
Label: Harvest
Producer: Peter Jenner

Davie Allan may have been a crucial pre-Jimi noise-guitar wizard, but when Hendrix proclaimed, "You'll never hear surf music again," at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, young Americans believed him as surely as they believed Eminem's proclamation that "Nobody listens to techno" in 2002. The rise of the Beatles and Bob Dylan mandated that rockers now write all their own songs; cover versions didn't go away, but they became far less prevalent than they once had been.

So this 1970 single was an oddity for that reason alone-it was a dual cover, inserting Jerry Lordan's famous riff among the lurching blues-rock of Captain Beefheart's "Drop Out Boogie"-which, in a way, makes Broughton the first musician ever to "sample" "Apache," a practice that would go into overdrive thanks to another version released three years later.

The Incredible Bongo Band "Apache" (1973)

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Album: Bongo Rock
Label: N/A
Producer: N/A

Davie Allan wasn't the only one on the "Apache" line who scored movies for American International Pictures. Michael Viner, an MGM Records staff producer and onetime Robert Kennedy campaign worker, was another. In 1972, MGM Records staff arranger-producer (and onetime) Michael Viner cut a silly version of a silly song ("Bongo Rock," a 1959 instrumental hit for Preston Epps) under the name the Incredible Bongo Band, for the grade-Z flick The Thing with Two Heads, starring Oscar winner Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) and football player Rosey Grier. The song reached No. 42 on the Billboard R&B chart. Since Viner was boss, he decided to go ahead with a Bongo Band album featuring more covers.

"They told me, 'You have $15,000 and three days,'" Viner said in an unpublished 2006 interview. (He died three years later.) "These producers at AIP-I was very fond of them, but they were a very cheapy organization-said, 'You are invited to watch a film in San Francisco.' They bought an economy ticket and got me a Cadillac for the day. We were talking and meeting everyone, treated very nicely. Then we're watching the scene being filmed: a couple of motorcycle guys harassing an old couple in a car, and it's driven off the cliff. That was my rent-a-car."

Viner hired arranger Perry Botkin Jr., who called in drummer Jim Gordon-formerly of Derek & the Dominos, and the co-writer of "Layla"-and Bahamian percussionist King Errisson.

In 2006, Botkin described his arranging style in an unpublished interview: "There might be a percussion intro of some sort, then the horns would play the chorus, then Jimmy and King would improvise for a couple of minutes, then the band would come back in and play the last minute. That was basically the structure for both of the Bongo Band albums.

The reason it became such a sampling hit was that they had all these two- and three-minute drum and conga breaks in the middle all of the tunes. Michael is a good producer, but he's not a musician. I don't recall any instructions as far as structure. He just wanted a loooot of drums. He didn't say that, but that's what he wanted. We didn't sit down and have meetings. I was really busy during that time. It was just another gig. What has gone since then is quite amazing to me."

"What has gone on since then" begins in 1973, the year of Bongo Rock, the album. In the South Bronx, Clive Campbell-the DJ known as Kool Herc-began playing two copies of the record on different turntables. It was an "experiment," he told Terry Gross in 2005, that he named the Merry-Go-Round. "I was noticing people used to wait for the particular parts of the record, to dance to, just to do their special little moves." The track that worked best, he found, was Bongo Rock's "Apache." "They still can't beat that record until this day," he told Gross. "Everybody's still using Bongo Rock's 'Apache.'"

They sure are. The hard downbeat and floating bongos that begin the tune announce this "Apache" something very different than before-but not altogether different from the soundtrack funk that blanketed the post-Shaft soundscape. The widescreen arrangement-strident guitar, wild-ass organ, and, of course, all those objects being hit-could buoy even the most dead-end imaginary scenario (though probably not The Thing with Two Heads, because nothing could).

Every part of the arrangement, from the horn fanfare (that riff sounds good on anything) to the long, perfectly calibrated break at its climax. And when Herc went back-and-forth with his two copies, a lot more people began to move. As for the drummers: King Errisson has spent much of his career in Neil Diamond's touring band, while Jim Gordon would eventually be committed to a mental institution after killing his mother with an axe.

Tommy Seebach Band "Apache" (1977)

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Sugar Hill Gang "Apache (Jump on It)" (1981)

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Album: 8th Wonder
Label: Sugar Hill
Producer: Sylvia Robinson, Jigsaw Productions

Though the Bongo Band's definitive "Apache" came the same year as the battle of Wounded Knee, the Native American aspects of "Apache" tend to be, let us say, secondhand. That's even truer of the Sugar Hill Gang's "Apache (Jump on It)": "Tonto, jump on it! Kemosabe, jump on it! Custer, jump on it!" the trio hollers cheerily over the Sugar Hill house band's tin-pot rendition of the Bongo Band arrangement, hooting in their best fake-powwow. Not a great look; nevertheless, it's the first rap record to cement the Bongo Band's version as a crucial precursor.

Grandmaster Flash "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" (1981)

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Album: N/A
Label: Sugar Hill
Producer: Sylvia Robinson, Joey Robinson, Jr.

And this was the first record-same label, same year-to cement the central place of the Bongo Band's "Apache" in the DJ canon, rather than the rap one, per se. Performed live on three turntables in a single, unbroken take-not the first-Grandmaster Flash tossed together "Apache" with Chic's "Good Times" and its big rip-off, Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," Blondie's "Rapture," and several earlier Sugar Hill records like the world's greatest salad chef. "Apache" peeks through only once—at 0:35, for 17 seconds-but that taste is just right.

West Street Mob "Break Dance (Electric Boogie)" (1983)

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Album: Break Dance - Electric Boogie
Label: Sugar Hill
Producer: Joey Robinson, Jr. & Lealand Robinson

Sugar Hill Records liked to keep things in the family. West Street Mob was a funk trio that included Joey Robinson Jr., son of Sugar Hill founders Joe and Sylvia Robinson; their 1981 hit "Get Up and Dance" was post-Chic boogie with some P-Funk touches-occasional Mr. Wiggles the Worm-style talk-box backtalk.

But by 1983, electro was everywhere, and "Break Dance (Electric Boogie)," the title cut from their second and last album, featured heavily synthesized voices (a la Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5's "Scorpio" the year before) over a Bongo Band loop. Aimed straight at DJs and dance floors, it established that using the original recording for five minutes without cease wasn't a bad way to go.

Double Dee & Steinski "Lesson One-The Payoff Mix" (1983)

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Album: N/A
Label: N/A
Producer: Double Dee & Steinski

Grandmaster Flash didn't sample "Apache" on "Wheels of Steel"-he replayed the record live to tape, cutting the intro beat twice. Double Dee & Steinski—Madison Avenue men Douglas DiFranco and Steve Stein-simply cut tape. A lot of tape: "The Payoff Mix" was their entry into a Tommy Boy Records remix contest, as the label attempted to get some attention for former Soul Sonic Force members G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid's "Play That Beat, Mr. DJ." Cutting more than 40 individual sound bites over the groove, the duo threw "Apache" in at 1:51, after the words "Play it for the hip-hop." It was becoming official: the Bongo Band "Apache" was hip-hop, whether anyone rapped on it or not.

L.L. Cool J "You Can't Dance" (1985)

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Album: Radio
Label: Def Jam
Producer: Rick Rubin

So naturally, somebody rapped on it; just as importantly, somebody sampled it, grabbing a few seconds digitally and manipulating it to their own ends. It's not incidental that this first sampler was Rick Rubin, hip-hop's greatest early producer; nor is it that the rapper who jumped on "Apache" for real was Uncle L in his unrepentant youth. "You Can't Dance" is mostly driven by a hard drum machine, a la most of Rubin's tracks for Cool J's debut, Radio, but at 0:27, in come those bongos, right on the word "dance"-the other thing that break signifies-to make it into a cruel taunt.

Kool Moe Dee "Way Way Back" (1987)

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Album: How Ya Like Me Now
Label: Jive, RCA
Producer: Kool Moe Dee

Speaking of taunts, the cover of hip-hop veteran Kool Moe Dee's 1987 album, How Ya Like Me Now, features a familiar-looking Kangol crushed under the front wheel of a Jeep, and contains the notorious "No Respect," a direct challenge to L.L. Cool J's boasts the latter would shut down entirely with 1989's "Jack the Ripper." They agreed about one thing, though, and that was "Apache": Moe Dee utilized it on this number, a deliberate throwback to rap's club-based birth that added echoing atmosphere to the sparely utilized bongo clop. Call it the beginning of "Apache" signifying not just hip-hop, but old-school hip-hop.

Ultramagnetic MC's "MC's Ultra (Part II Edit)" (1987)

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Schoolly D "Housing the Joint" (1987)

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MC Hammer "Turn This Mutha Out" (1988)

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Album: Let's Get It Started
Label: Capitol, EMI
Producer: MC Hammer

"Two years ago," John Leland wrote in the July 1989 issue of Spin, "Ice-T was about the only credible rapper on the West Coast, and he was a transplanted New Yorker. By the spring of 1989, we're in a whole new ball game." The biggest name of that initial L.A. wave wasn't N.W.A or Tone-Loc, but MC Hammer, whose second album would move 10 million units before the rapper's overspending caught up with him.

"Turn This Mutha Out," whose video helped push Hammer into the pop spotlight, has some of the cheesiest synths of any late-'80s record (no easy task) on its chorus; the "Apache" break is utilized during the verses, probably to establish him as a serious microphone contender. Even in retrospect, it's hard to argue with Leland's original assessment: "When he isn't dancing he seems to be shouting too much."

Young MC "Know How" (1989)

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Album: Stone Cold Rhymin'
Label: Delicious Vinyl
Producer: Dust Brothers

Six hours and change south of Oakland Coliseum, where MC Hammer once worked as a batboy, Queens transplant Marvin Young was a student at USC in Los Angeles when he met Matt Dike and Mike Ross, who ran Delicious Vinyl; soon he was ghostwriting Tone-Loc's "Wild Thing" and going solo as Young MC.

This album cut from Stone Cold Rhymin' has more status in England than America-its pairing of the wah-wah guitar from Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" and the Bongo Band's break is clean and ingenious, and from the opening lines, "Some of the busiest rhymes ever made by man/Are going into this mike, written by this hand," Young's rapid-fire cadence keeps up with Errisson's percussion, rather than simply riding atop it. Try that, Soulja Boy.

C+C Music Factory "Things That Make You Go Hmm..." (1991)

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Album: Gonna Make You Sweat
Label: Columbia
Producer: Robert Clivillés, David Cole, Freedom Williams

Of all the classic breakbeats that went from South Bronx turntables of the mid '70s to the charts of the early '90s, from James Brown's "Funky Drummer" (see George Michael's "Freedom '90") to the Soul Searchers' "Ashley's Roachclip" (see Milli Vanilli's "Girl You Know It's True"), "Apache" was probably too closely tied to its b-boy roots to power huge pop hits.

This hit from New York house producers-turned-chart mavens Robert Clivillés and David Cole's first album as C + C Music Factory is typical: The Bongo Band shows up on the turnarounds from chorus to bridge, while the track is powered by something simpler and more programmed. Taking its title from one of Arsenio Hall's late-night bits (not one of his better ones, either), it went to No. 4 and then became irrelevant almost instantly; Hall's show ended three years later.

The Future Sound of London "Papua New Guinea" (1991)

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Album: Accelerator
Label: Jumpin' & Pumpin'
Producer: FSOL,

Garry Cobain and Brian Dougans's working alias is problematic-Future Sound of London's prog-like mien isn't often borne out by the music itself, not atypical in electronic-dance, then or now. But when they hit things just right, it could be breathtaking-and nothing else they did hit as right as this early single, which was noted more for its vocal sample (Lisa Gerrard, from Dead Can Dance's "Dawn of the Iconoclast") and bass line (Meat Beat Manfiesto's "Radio Bablylon) than its drum track (guess). You'd think people just expected that sort of thing by 1991 or something.

Goldie "Inner City Life" (1994)

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Moby "Machete" (1999)

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Nas "Made You Look" (2002)

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Album: God's Son
Label: Ill Will, Columbia
Producer: Salaam Remi

Everyone knows what you can do with the "Apache" beat, and its horn-played riff. But nearly three decades on, New Jersey producer Salaam Remi found a new wrinkle when he slowed down the tail end of the guitar run just enough to give it a heaving new menace.

The result was perfect for Nas's casually hollowed-out rasp. "Made You Look" announced itself immediately as one of the rapper's very best, a loving snarl that enacts lyrical hunger while deconstructing it ("Don't call the car 'topless'/Say its titties is out")—not unlike what the track does with its central sample.

RELATED: Nas' 25 Favorite Albums

The Roots "Thought @ Work" (2002)

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Album: Phrenology
Label: MCA, Geffen
Producer: ?uestlove

Black Thought's sprint through a combo of the "Apache" break and the central riff from the Beatles' "Hey Bulldog" is "old-school" in a different way than Kool Moe Dee or even Nas meant it. If anything, his garrulous word pile-up ("Rapper of the year/Year of the rap/Come from South Philly where the hammers are clapped/Violate and you will answer to Black/You a thug?/Not really, there's the answer to that") has more in common with "Know How," only with both more and less to prove. Of course, ?uestlove could have replayed the drums and percussion himself-but why mess with perfection?

Switch "A Bit Patchy" (2005)

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Chase & Status feat. Kano "Against All Odds" (2008)

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Album: More Than Alot
Label: Ram
Producer: Chase & Status

American rappers utilize "Apache" to look back at their more innocent days, so why not British ones? London MC Kano vigorously recalls a rough upbringing on the city's streets ("I'm a hustler, I'm a, I'm a hustler/Raised on a battlefield, born as a sufferer") as his drum & bass paymasters layer that inexhaustible break over straighter and just as apt horns. The difference is that where Nas implicitly looks back to the days when Kool Herc rocked "Apache" in parks-in fact or by proxy-Chase & Status and Kano are looking back to the records that sampled it.

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