What It Was

You think you're bad. You are so not bad. Sonny Hopson could quite feasibly be called bad. Hopson was a disc jockey who waited for nobody's approval and played 45s on the radio in Philadelphia in the 1960s. Radio was segregated, life was pretty segregated, and Hopson turned that isolation on its head and made his AM radio address (1340 AM-WHAT—how good is that?) a safe haven for jet-black lingo, music, and culture. On this recording (available from phillyarchives.com), Hopson talks a mile a minute, rhyming station IDs and playing funk and soul like Dyke and the Blazers, Eddie Bo, and James Brown. That's right: He was playing hip-hop's biblical breakbeats when they were brand-new. (So for beatheads, his recording is like a videotape of King Tut's tomb being loaded.)

Like dancehall DJs, Hopson makes reverb-soaked announcements during the instrumental pauses in vocal songs. James Brown and Wilson Pickett provide show promos, and Hopson gives shoutouts to the Arcadia Ballroom and Al Berman's Men's Clothes ("When you see the price tags, you might fall down to your knees, they might freeze, your back could crack, your hip pocket jump out of the socket"). The ads and news flashes—Nixon speaking from Thailand—are also spanking. The fidelity is subpar at best; without any source listed, I'd guess it's an old quarter-inch reel-to-reel put through not particularly high-resolution digital mastering. So much for the party tape. It's also one long track, unbanded, so don't try to find anything twice. It's archival for sure, but essential for anyone who thinks hip-hop is new, radio always sucked, blackness is a cultural given, or funk is kitsch. The culture Hopson helped build was hammered out of the face of a mountain white folks didn't want black folks to know even existed. That it's become Mount Rushmore in the last 30 years is still a miracle.

 
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