The First Rap Single: Fatback’s “King Tim III”

Fatback Band – King Tim III (Personality Jock) (Spring, 1979)

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Contrary to popular belief, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” – unleashed upon an unsuspecting world on September 24, 1979 – was not the first commercially successful hip-hop single. “King Tim III (Personality Jock),” a B-side released by a funk band called Fatback (originally The Fatback Band) on August 29, 1979, holds that distinction. An instant hit among both Manhattan radio djs and Bronx party rockers, “King Tim III” is also notable for being the first hip-hop single to chart, appearing on the R&B chart a mere seven days before “Rapper’s Delight” exploded on to the Top 40 chart.

According to Funk (an excellent guide book by Dave Thompson) Fatback, a well known 1970s funk outfit who ultimately amassed 31 R&B chart hits, were intrigued with hip-hop’s potential after “[encountering] the B-Boy party scene in the Bronx.” Encouraged by the burgeoning scene’s success (Thompson notes that “Eazy AD of the Cold Crush Brothers claims sales of 500,000 plus tapes long before any rap records were ever released”), Fatback hired radio dj Tim Washington, aka King Tim III, to rap at their live shows. Audiences reacted positively to the addition and Fatback soon decided to “combine one of King Tim’s raps over a track called “Catch the Beat,” retitle it “King Tim III” and … place it on the B-side of their next single.”

The song was immediately popular, arriving at perhaps the perfect moment in hip-hop’s evolution. Still in its infancy, the genre needed a vehicle with which to transcend its underground roots; a song or album capable of distilling the music’s raw, youthful enthusiasm into a polished sound palatable to mainstream audiences. “King Tim III,” and later “Rapper’s Delight,” did just such a thing. Indeed, one ought to consider these seminal records in the same way musical historians regard “Rock Around the Clock” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – as watershed moments that forever changed the sound of popular music.

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