“Apache” is a cornerstone in the foundation of hip hop. But how did a 1960 instrumental novelty by a British ukulele player become “The Hip-Hop National Anthem”?
The story starts as so many hip-hop stories do—with a Burt Lancastar film. British songwriter Jerry Lordan was inspired to compose the instrumental after watching classic American western flick, Apache. The famously rugged (though conspicuously non-indigenous) Burt Lancaster played the title role. Lordan wanted to write a song that mirrored the drama and power in his performance.
He conceived the basic structure some time in the 1950s.
Bert Weedon (July 1960)
In 1959, accomplished performer, bandleader, and session player Bert Weedon became the first British guitarist to top the U.K. charts with a song called “Guitar Boogie Shuffle.” He also became the first person to record Lordan’s new composition in July of 1960.
The Shadows (July 1960)
Lordan didn’t love Weedon’s take. He considered it “too jaunty.” At exactly the same time, Lordan was sitting in as the touring ukulele player for Cliff Richard and the Shadows. The Shadows were Britain’s original rock and roll hit machine. They liked Lordan’s tune, and decided to record their own version. They rushed it out ahead of Weedon’s cut, and subsequently spent five weeks atop the UK singles chart.
Weedon’s version topped out at #24 on the U.K. chart. Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch of the Shadows actually felt so guilty that they gifted Weedon the song “Mr. Guitar,” which hit #47 the following year.
Jorgen Ingmann (November 1960)
A popular Danish guitarist named Jorgen Ingmann recorded a jazz-inflected version of “Apache” in November of 1960. Evocative of American guitar pioneer Les Paul, this would be the first version of “Apache” to hit on the other side of the Atlantic. It was actually the beneficiary of a fairly sizable marketing campaign from Ingmann’s label—ATCO. Ingmann’s moodier take reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S.
Ingmann subsequently teamed up with his wife—Grethe Ingmann—to win 1963’s Eurovision contest with “Dansevise.”
Incredible Bongo Band (1973)
The next major milestone for “Apache” came a decade later. But this was perhaps the most important stage in its evolution.
Michael Viner was an artist manager and executive at MGM records. When the producers of a blaxploitation film called The Thing With Two Heads contacted him in search of supplemental soundtrack music, he assembled a random collection of ace studio musicians, distinguished by their heavy use of bongos, congas, and horns.
The result was The Incredible Bongo Band. Not a proper band per se, it was a collective of fluid, funky players who created highly infectious, highly danceable instrumental music.
They recorded only two albums—in 1973 and 1974. Their 1973 cut of “Apache” was not a hit upon its release. But the proto-disco syncopations, and specifically, the extended drum break*, made the record something of a cult classic among street-party DJs.
Towering figures in early hip hop like Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc seized on the Bongo Band recording in the late ‘70s. By the time hip hop first pushed its way into the Billboard charts in the early 80s, “Apache” was deeply woven into its DNA.
*The famous drum break would actually be provided by session man extraordinaire Jim Gordon, who is best known for his contributions as a member of Derek and the Dominos. Sadly, Gordon was committed to a psychiatric facility after murdering his mother in 1981.
Sugarhill Gang (1981)
Fittingly, old school’s poppiest unit cemented “Apache” as the bedrock hip hop sample. Following the massive success of “Rapper’s Delight,” Sugarhill Gang featured an adaptation of “Apache” on their second album, 8th Wonder.
Released as the second single from the sophomore effort, “Apache” reached #53 on the Billboard Hot 100. More importantly, it added a key lyrical refrain, commanding listeners to “Jump on it! Jump on it!”
Today, this version is a hardwood classic, complete with a universally observed line dance.
In 2013, a documentary called Sample This cemented the Incredible Bongo Band’s status in hip hop history, and abetted Apache’s reputation as Hip Hop’s National Anthem.
The proof is in the infinitude of samples, covers and interpolations that have kept Lordan’s original composition in constant circulation for more than 60 years. Behold: