Soon after DJ Kool Herc found the record that “Sample This” calls “the national anthem of hip-hop,” he realized he had a treasure. Seeing the wild audience reaction to one drum solo, the teenage Bronx DJ ripped the labels off the disc so competitors wouldn’t know what it was.
Of course, word got around anyway. As writer-director Don Forrer’s discursive yet fascinating documentary reveals, the track is the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache.” In the movie, such hip-hop luminaries as Questlove and Afrika Bambaataa hail the tune as the most important in the genre’s history.
Herc started playing the Bongo Band’s “Apache” drum break around 1975, two years after it was released. But the movie’s chronology begins three decades earlier, with the childhood of its main character, Michael Viner. A politically-connected District native, Viner was among the few white kids who frequented such African American music venues as the Howard Theatre during the 1950s.
Viner worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, but left politics after the candidate was assassinated. He shifted to producing movies, music and eventually books-on-tape. One of his projects was a “band” with no permanent membership and an emphasis on percussion. The Incredible Bongo Band would be a fictional group — like the Monkees or the Partridge Family, but funkier.
Viner, who died in 2009, produced two albums for the Bongo Band. For the first, he decided to do a remake of “Apache,” a twangy British instrumental that had been a 1960 British hit for the Shadows. Known more for marketing skills than musical savvy, Viner left the sound of the Bongo Band’s albums mostly to arranger Perry Botkin Jr. and a crew of top-flight session musicians.
All these players have stories, and “Sample This” tells some of them, notably the ones involving madness and murder. In-demand studio drummer Jim Gordon may or may not have played on “Apache,” but he did perform on most of the album. Ten years later, probably in the grip of schizophrenic delusions, he killed his mother.
Guitarist Mike Deasy survived a brush with an ax-wielding Charles Manson, who tried to break into the L.A. rock biz in the 1960s. Bongo ace King Errisson has a less dramatic bio, although it does involve a boost from Sean Connery, who decided that “Thunderball” needed the percussionist’s Caribbean rhythms.
With all this material — and there’s more — “Sample This” doesn’t allot much time for hip-hop’s embrace of “Apache,” and barely discusses the “crate-raiding” culture that gives new life to forgotten LPs. Forrer, a first-time director, also shows little flair for pacing and structuring the tale (which is narrated by Kiss’s Gene Simmons, a Viner pal).
Yet the movie provides a vivid sense of the period, as well as an intriguing backstage look at the making of improbable pop classics. Like so many songs to rock and roll off the assembly line, the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” is random, absurd and sublime.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At AMC Magic Johnson Capital Center. Contains adult themes. 85 minutes.