Barring a Few Unsavory Detours, Sample This Thrives in its Music and Legacy


“Destiny played a major hand,” intones creepy leather-goblin Gene Simmons, dramatically overstating what went down at early recording sessions of Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, a group of technically masterful studio musicians whose work would inform the earliest days of hip-hop. Sample This documents the assembly of the group by Viner, a former Robert F. Kennedy aide with a passion for soul and funk. DJ Kool Herc discovered the band’s Bongo Rock album while trawling through crates of used vinyl, and its knockout track—a cover of a 1960s Britpop instrumental called “Apache”—was an instant hit at New York dance parties in the mid-’70s. Grandmaster Flash popularized “Apache” on a demo that cut up 10 different songs, and his remix is considered a classic. A flawless arrangement of hooks and breaks, “Apache” builds to a climactic duel between drummer Jim Gordon and bongo player King Errisson that a good club DJ could cross-fade and extend for 15 minutes. The track has since been sampled into thousands of songs by hundreds of artists, the Mitochondrial Eve of modern pop. This documentary’s visuals rely on digitally separating old photos into layers to create a View-Master parallax effect, a visual cliché that illustrates not just the story of the record, but also some tedious historical background including an irritating detour into the production of Charles Manson’s music. Simmons, the narrator, appears on camera for two jarring first-person interjections demonstrating just how far into the uncanny valley a living human can plunge. But the music is incredible, and through interviews with Rosey Grier, Afrika Bambaataa, Questlove, and a squadron of old-school studio musicians, director Dan Forrer unearths some of the hidden history of American pop.