To become one of the best American funk bands of the 1970s, the Lafayette Afro Rock Band had to leave the country. After forming on Long Island in 1970, the group surveyed the landscape: Funkadelic had released their self-titled debut and would soon drop Maggot Brain; Sly Stone was a year removed from Stand! and was prepping There’s a Riot Goin’ On; Curtis was in the world; James Brown was Soul Brother No. 1. Funk was proving that its pliability went beyond its grooves: free your mind, and you know the rest.
So their asses followed to Paris, where a strong African immigrant community thrived in Barbî¨s, a hard neighborhood adjacent to Montmartre in the north of the city. There, the group encountered concepts of percussion they’d never seen in the U.S., and by the time of 1974’s Soul Makossa, they’d learned to weave their flinty funk around the rhythms of their new neighborhood.
Unlike most hybridizations, it’s not terribly difficult to find the seams joining the Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s major influences. On the title track, a cover of Manu Dibango’s 1972 hit, drummer Donny Donable hammers away at his high-hats, almost holding the song still while percussionists Keno Speller and Arthur Young spin around him in circles. The horns, though, come together with a kind of bright uniformity so clean that it seems impossible they’re working in tandem with the clattering drums. You can practically point at the parts here and label their origin. Hand drums: West Africa. Stacked brass: East Bay.
They expand the idea on “Azeta,” whose horn lines are so shiny and clear they may as well be a recording of the USC Trojan Marching Band. If the influence of the Family Stone is evident in Michael McEwan’s guitar in “Oglenon,” the marathon drumming that underpins and eventually overtakes it pulls the song away from Woodstock and into The Shrine.
But it’s the opening bars of “Hihache” that would cement their legacy. They’re not complicated. Donable plays a simple pattern by himself. The way he swings the kick drum and the languid pace make it sound like the song is stumbling forward and recovering every few beats. With that high-hat, snare, kick combo, Donable has played several hundred songs at once. The “Hihache” intro is one of the most sampled cuts of all time, having been used by everyone from Biz Markie and Ice Cube to Flying Lotus (twice!) and ’N Sync, who used it to propel their megahit “Tearing Up My Heart.” It backs A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhime” and Wu Tang Clan’s “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ ta Fuck Wit.” Even Chris Rock used it to score a hit in “No Sex in the Champagne Room.” It’s the kind of beat that’s so iconic it seems originless, completely devoid of context; when bassist Lafayette Hudson begins to knock along and McEwan enters with a wisp of feedback, it’s hard not to think of the music they’re making as nothing more than the first in a long line of ideas to wrap themselves around the beat.
But “Hihache” is worth more than a few seconds of drumming. Everyone is in full force here. McEwan plays in streaks, flashing with wah and floating in and out of the song. The horns descend one after another like dancers coming down an Old Hollywood staircase, then break off into exploratory solos of their own, eventually passing off to keyboardist Frank Abel, who’s content to sit deep in the pocket and let the song simmer for a few moments. When he eventually takes a solo minutes later, it’s a lightly spangled thing that would’ve been just at home in the Philadelphia of the mid-’70s as it was in Paris. The whole song is a triumph of tone and intention and the easy feeling that sometimes comes with knowing that you’re doing something extremely well.
The next year, the Lafayette Afro Rock Band would release Malik, whose bittersweet sax jam “Darkest Light” would also become a classic sample (one that would give a young Virginia producer named Pharrell Williams his first hit). They’d change their name – first to the anonymous Ice, then to the decidedly not anonymous Crispy and Co. – before releasing a few more records, returning to the United States, and breaking up. Having spent their entire career in France, their records rarely made it overseas, which, samples notwithstanding, has prevented them from having the kind of impact here that they might have if they’d never left. But of course, without decamping for Paris, they would never have found the sound that changed hip-hop history. Those are the breaks. words / m garner