Cab Calloway: The Original Hip-Hop MC

“Put me in the spotlight,

give me two or three thousand people and a decent group of men behind

me with instruments, and you can’t give me more.”

—Cab Calloway

Born December 25, 1907 in Rochester,

New York, Cabell Calloway III’s luck was established even before birth.

This Christmas baby would go on to front one of the sharpest Big Bands

of the 1930s-1940s era, and pioneer a musical style Hip-Hop MCing would

draw great inspiration from a few years later. 15 years ago to the date,

this inimitable genius, Cab Calloway, passed away; but the legacy of

his music and magic couldn’t be more pervasive in an era when Hip-Hop

artists are increasingly turning to orchestral support to spruce up

their stage shows. In the grandest tradition, Cab Calloway is the original

Hip-Hop MC.

With a mother who played the

organ at church and an older sister, Blanche Calloway, who led a band

of her own, music was destiny for Cab Calloway. But the road from Rochester

to Harlem wasn’t no cakewalk. Like many young Black men his age faced

with unflattering domestic conditions, he wasn’t too impressed with

schooling, and thus acted out.  In his memoir, Of Minnie the

Moocher and Me,

published 1976, Cab recounts how much he “played hooky, hung out in

the streets, hustled to make money, and was always in and out of trouble.”

In turn, he was sent to a “reform school” run by a granduncle in

Pennsylvania. But that hardly changed him.  

He loved to hustle—newspapers,

that is. Cab spent day and night selling newspapers across town, making

enough money to put some kind of food on the table his family ate on.

Lacking a father figure for some of his earlier years, rebellion, as

is most often with kids that age, set in. He tells the story of a day

he was shooting dice not far away from home on a Sunday morning, and

suddenly a hand reached across from behind to the top of his shoulders;

only it wasn’t just any hand: It was his mother’s. “Boy, what

are you doing here, shooting dice on the Lord’s Day! I thought you

went to Sunday school this morning. Get yourself up and get on home,”

she furiously castigated him. Still, at that age, nothing seemed to

be getting across to him—nothing but the street life.

It took many years—not until

Junior High and High School—before Cab Calloway would come to terms

with the benefits of a quality education. Junior High would be a turning

point of sorts, as even with “few books or supplies” he was swarmed

by teachers who never ran out of “love and understanding.” Didn’t

matter that they were still stern. “They pushed us to learn,

but they were sensitive to each child so that nobody ever felt left

out or uncared for.” This “closeness and understanding,” he posited,

is a “fundamental” element missing in urban schools these days.    

Tupac’s Version of “Minnie The Moocher” f/ Chopmaster J

It also helped that in High

School, the historic Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Cab

developed a fondness for basketball, and found out, alongside those

who ever crossed him on court, that his talents might just lead him

professionally. It was also in those mid-teen years that he picked up

a new passion—singing. Picking up where he left off, Cab again turned

to hustling—playing basketball in the day and singing vaudeville acts

in the night, earning enough money to own a car at such young age (even

more rare for a Negro of the times). 

The whole world might owe it

to Cab’s momma, though, who, soon after hearing him harmonizing with

a couple of boys down the street, outright ordered: “Cabell, you have

such a nice strong voice. You’re going to take voice lessons.” Thus,

he was put in the care of Ruth Macabee, “an ex-concert singer,”

who taught him the fundamentals of music and singing, how to manipulate

sound vocally, and, most importantly, how to enunciate clearly enough

to provide the audience with precise polyrhythmic pleasure. This technique

would prove highly useful throughout Cab Calloway’s career, as lyrical

virtuosity became his strongest ally.  

And while blessed with a good

voice, Cab knew his limitations. He was Black—Negro—Nigger—and

had to accept it—even if, to some, he looked anything but. “The

only difference between a black and a white entertainer is that my ass

has been kicked a little more and a lot harder because it’s black,”

he admits. But he never once wavered: “I’ve always known, from the

days when I was a nigger kid selling papers and hustling shoeshines

and walking hots out at Pimlico—hell, I’m a nigger and proud of

it.”

Cab’s first big break came

through his sister, Blanche, a legend in her own right, who, after much

badgering and a commitment by Cab to enroll into College once the gig

was up, landed him a spot in the late 1920s hit-Broadway Plantation

Days which she was also starring in. The experience, consisting

of a twenty-five member cast and a sixteen-piece orchestra, would be

life-changing for the budding star. Blanche knew the shadowy skeletons

of show business all too well and tried to discourage her young brother

from taking the same route; she reminded of how much his mother still

wished he pursue Law School. But the felicity of success, or “the

pleasure of being in the spotlight and being admired,” was too raw

to resist. And for one so talented, it was only a matter of time before

he set up shop in Chicago—initially to enroll in Crane College—and

began making a name for himself in the whorehouses and “low-life”

nightclubs of the Windy City.       

Outkast: Listen to the influence of Cab Calloway in ‘Kast’s “The Mighty O”

While still attending college,

he was able to assemble a small band known as The Alabamians, which

soon embarked on a nationwide tour that would end one chapter in Cab

Calloway’s life and begin a new one. Even as they traveled throughout

the Midwest, the band’s eye only twinkled for one city—New York.

All bands of the 1920s and 1930s era knew national success wasn’t

worth a lick without New York’s approval—a strange, but ironic,

reality Hip-Hop has never been comfortable confronting, much less admitting. 

The band was in for a rude

awakening once it hit New York. The stubbornness of some members had

refused Calloway’s input to switch up to a jazzier, more flamboyant

style to capture the essence of the city with big lights. It turned

out Cab was right after all. An embarrassed Cab eventually left the

band and, with the help of Louis Armstrong—the greatest performer

to emerge from the 20th Century—landed a gig, in 1930,

as lead singer for Connie’s Hot Chocolate, a huge Broadway

hit.

Cab was gaining national acclaim

for his prolific performances and, before long, confronted with the

opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream—front a Big Band. This dream

was a longtime coming, and though it took a while before assembling

a band with such towering legends as Benny Payne, Dizzy Gillespie, Jonah

Jones, and Milton Hinton, The Missourians in no time had attracted a

following.

It didn’t take long before

the mob took notice of this young man in his early 20s whose stage presence

far outrivaled even the most self-assured performers. Cab might not

have been the suavest of that era, but with his wide collection of wide-brim

hats, zoot suits, pearl-gray gloves, and spotless white shoes, he was

hard to beat. In 1930, he was proposed an offer by the mob to come play

The Cotton Club—perhaps the most recognized jazz spot of the ‘30s

and ‘40s—seeing as the great Duke Ellington was leaving his post

to star in several film projects. The young Cab had no choice but to

accept the offer—which he couldn’t refuse even if he wanted

to.

The Cotton Club, for all its

splendor and majesty, held strictly to segregationist policies, and

even Cab admits that “the idea was to make whites who came to the

club feel like they were being catered to and entertained by black slaves”—slaves

as widely renowned as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Duke Ellington,

and Louis Armstrong. But Cab Calloway makes a strong case in favor of

Negro musicians who still played regardless: “It shouldn’t have

happened then. It was wrong. But on the other hand, I doubt that jazz

would have survived if musicians hadn’t gone along with such racial

practices there and elsewhere.” Maybe. Maybe not.  

A year later, Cab Calloway

was a household name, and it came time to establish a theme song. Every

band had one. And thus arose to life the timeless classic, “Minnie

The Moocher.”

She was a red-hot hoochie

coocher/

She was the roughest,

toughest frail/

But Minnie had a heart

as big as a whale/

Before “Minnie,” Cab Calloway

and His Cotton Club Orchestra had made use of “St. James Infirmary

Blues,” the famous tale of a quite self-centered widower-to-be who

pays visit to his dying wife in an infirmary. The rhythm, tempo, and

even some arrangements from “St. James” were used in creating “Minnie,”

Cab admits: “If you listen closely … you’ll hear some of the same

changes and harmonies.”

His signature sound, “Hi-De-Ho,”

perhaps most recognizable by the Hip-Hop generation, actually came by

accident. The legend goes that Cab was singing one of those days, swept

up in the hysteria of the band and the audience, that he forgot his

lyrics, and suddenly, as taught him by the incomparable “Satchmo,”

began scatting, filling up the gaps in memory with “Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho

… Hi-de-ho-de-ho-de-hee.” That single instance might have been most

responsible for the rugged improvisation and vocal experimentation Hip-Hop

MCs from the 1970s onward made into an art-form that would change the

world.

Dirty The Moocher: ODB’s version of “Minnie The Moocher”

Calloway also did something

especially remarkable around 1931. He founded Cab Calloway, Incorporated,

an agency which began managing his 14-piece orchestra, and from which

he took 50% of the profits annually. This practice is yet to be broadly

adopted within the Hip-Hop artist community, but there’s hope yet. 

And even when faced with deep

discrimination in the deep South—including a lynching threat that

almost came through (!)—Cab Calloway kept playing. He demanded 100%

from his band, and saw to it that every member played with unfettered

excellence. And the country—and world—reacted accordingly. Cab would

go on to earn more than $10 million in his 60+ years as an entertainer,

touring the world, breaking down many color barriers—even getting

his white audiences to do more than just sit there and look pretty—that

sought to keep Negro musicians in “their place.” With an unbreakable

dedication to musical craftsmanship, he was able to star in more than

10 movies, sell out hundreds of halls, and spawn numerous hits—many

originals, many interpretations, including “Reefer Man,” “The

Scat Song,” “The Viper’s Drag,” “The Lady With The Fan,”

“Kickin’ The Gong Around,” “Ain’t Got No Gal In This Town,”

and “Zaz Zuh Zaz.”

Cab Calloway’s influence

on Hip-Hop music and culture can’t be overstated. His cool and sensual

calm can for instance be traced transparently in a Snoop Dogg or Big

Daddy Kane. His knack for witty, street tales resides on the pens of

modern day storytellers like Slick Rick and The GZA. His unmatchable

skill with scatting is seen in the adlib abilities of Mos Def and Black

Thought. And the high bar of performance set which no musician of his

era came close to reaching is admired in contemporaries like Busta Rhymes

and Public Enemy. The centrality of the body in music performance—his

loose, dark hair flapping like eagle wings, his waist twirling with

intensity so as to create circles with the tails of his zoot suit, while

still maintaining an unimpeachable elegance guarded by self-respect—is

a Cab Calloway original.

In Wilmington, Delaware, Calloway’s

legacy lives on in the Cab Calloway School of the Arts, a magnet school

tailored after his strong appreciation for the arts and engaging academic

curriculum.  

On this anniversary of his

passing onto glory, we remember Cab Calloway as the original Hip-Hop

MC who loved nothing more than “making people happy, making them feel

the fullness of life as I feel it and as I’ve lived it.”  A Historical Retrospective of Cab Calloway – A Taste Of Genius:

Hi-De-HoMinnie The Moocher

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