Politics and race stopped Cymande in their tracks. 50 years later they’re being recognised as fathers of hip hop

You might not have heard their name but you’ve probably heard their music.

London band Cymande’s unique blend of funk, jazz, soul and reggae didn’t garner widespread success in the 70s and the band broke up.

But by the early 90s, their self-titled debut record had become known as a “sacred crate” in New York City amongst the DJs and artists pioneering what was then a new genre: hip hop.

London DJ Norman Jay – who has seen Cymande’s music rise from the ashes – watched on as hip hop giants such as the Fugees, Wu-Tang Clan and De La Soul sampled the songs he grew up listening to.

He describes Cymande’s track Bra, which was sampled by De La Soul on the track Change in Speak, as “proto hip hop”.

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“If you don’t know Bra, go online, YouTube, check it out and then you’ll get a penny-drop moment,” he said.

A range of early hip hop artists used the band’s soulful music to create hits.

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The Fugees used Cymande’s track Dove on their song The Score.

Wu-Tang also sampled the same track in their song Problems.

French artist MC Solaar’s hit Bouge De La samples Cymande’s The Message, as does American artist Masta Ace’s track Me and the Biz.

A time of racial tensions

A group of seven men plus a child.

Cymande feel they were ignored by the British music press in the 1970s.(Supplied: Crayshaw Films)

Cymande formed in the 70s in south London and after recording three albums they toured the United States, supporting Al Green. 

The band played the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, in what Cymande guitarist Patrick Patterson described as “heady days” for the group.

But when the band went back to England, they couldn’t break through.

It was a time of high political tension in the UK, with many Black and South Asian people suffering violent racist attacks at the hands of the far-right National Front political party.

Patterson says there were also structural barriers blocking Black bands like Cymande from getting coverage and commercial success.

A man playing guitar on stage.

Guitarist Patrick Patterson says it was difficult for Cymande to get exposure in the UK.(ABC News: Andrew Altree-Williams)

“I think it’s fair to say that the music industry in the United Kingdom was not fair to us, it was not fair to other Black bands at the time,” he said.

“It was difficult to get access, and difficult to get exposure.”

Lloyd Bradley, music journalist and author of Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital, agrees.

“Britain on the whole, in the early 1970s, still looked upon its Black population as foreigners, regardless of whether they were born there, grew up there, went to school there or whatever,” he said.

“It’s not Jamaican. It’s not American. What can it be?”

The band members say they also felt ignored by the British music press at the time.

“The music media wasn’t that accustomed to giving Black bands profiles. Radio wasn’t accustomed really to giving Black music profiles,” Patterson said.

“Maybe some of those people sit down now, you know, 50 years on and say, ‘Wait, what’s happened there? How did how did we miss this?'”

‘Beginning stages of hip hop’

Six men stand together, one holding a saxaphone.

In the 1990s rising hip hop stars began using samples of Cymande’s tracks.(Supplied: Crayshaw Films)

Disillusioned with the industry and their place within it, in 1975 Cymande disbanded.

“We were not prepared to go back to [the UK] to play small venues, doing clubs and things like that, so we said, ‘Let’s call it a day, we will take a break,'” bassist Steve Scipio said.

“It was intended to be a short break, so that we could just get away from that situation for a while and revisit it later.

“But as it happened it turned out to be about 40-odd years before the band reconnected again.”

A man playing guitar and singing on stage.

Bassist Steve Scipio says the band welcomed having their songs sampled.(ABC News: Andrew Altree-Williams)

It was in this period that Cymande’s records took on a life of their own, which is explored in the new documentary Getting it Back: The Story of Cymande.

Director Tim Mackenzie-Smith tracked down some of the DJs responsible for the emergence of hip hop as a medium, some of whom considered Cymande’s first album tremendously influential.

The film captures the unique ways early hip hop DJs like Jazzy Jay switched between two turntables, playing the same record, conjoining parts of the track Bra to create early hip hop and disco beats.

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“So [DJ] Jazzy Jay, one of the real OG hip hop DJs from the Bronx, he showed us what he used to do. And he said [Cymande’s self-titled album] was one of the hip hop sacred crates,” Mackenzie-Smith said.

Jazzy Jay explains in the documentary: “Play that one part on that side, mix it back and forth, and that was the beginning stages of what we know right now to be hip hop.”

‘Fresh exposure to the music’

When Cymande’s records were forming the building blocks of a genre that was about to change the world, founding members Scipio and Patterson had moved on from music and were working as lawyers.

Scipio says he found out the Fugees were sampling Dove in their number one album The Score through his children.

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“My children were connecting with the music before I did because they were listening to that kind of music. I wasn’t so much listening to it. I mean, I was heavily practising law at the time, as was Patrick,” he said.

“I think the first actual song that I heard where the music had the sample was the Fugees, then we started taking more of an interest in terms of what was happening with the music, and we started to get a bit more information about other actors and what they were doing.”

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Scipio says he welcomed the recognition.

“We thought that was great for us because it was giving fresh exposure to the music, and also currency to the music,” he said.

“It was being utilised now within the context of the music that was happening at the time,” he said.

As lawyers, Patterson and Scipio made sure they were compensated.

“We did not suffer badly with that. Generally what happens is if you chase people, you let them know that that’s yours and something has to be done, and it gets sorted out,” Patterson said.

“So we’ve been fortunate in the sense that we never had to go and litigate, formally, to get that money.”

Australian tour

Following the resurgence of Cymande as a musical force, the band has re-formed and has been touring internationally with a mix of original members and new additions.

After their sell-out tour in Australia, which includes a spot at Victoria’s Golden Plains Festival, the band will return to the UK to finish a new album.

“We’ve done what is clearly half of an album, so when we go back to the United Kingdom we’re going to complete that mission,” Patterson said.

For music journalist Lloyd Bradley, Cymande’s resurgence is well-deserved.

“I think it was brilliant that the American hip hop community found them,” he said.

“It brought them to prominence again.”

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