Take a listen to this, and tell me it doesn’t remind you of modern rap and hiphop. It’s one of many tracks recorded in the forties at Parchman Farm, Mississippi, by folklorist Alan Lomax. Music that can be traced directly to the songs sung by American slaves as they worked the fields. In that sense, these prison songs are the closest thing we’ve got to slave hollers—the heart and soul of the blues. It’s the oldest African American music. Which is why on her recent groundbreaking Lemonade, Beyoncé samples the prison song “Stewball.” Cause among other things, that album’s all about what it means to be black in America.
You’ve heard other Prison songs too. That mega dance hit from the early 90’s, a remix of a ‘70s rock track, “Black Betty“? A worksong first recorded in a Texas prison in 1933. Black Betty—by the way isn’t a person. She’s the whip. And if you listen to the originals, it’s pretty easy to see why they’d be a gold mine for hip-hop and dance samples. The vocals are on fire, the rhythms, kept by chains and axes, are incredible. And they’re run through with the same spirit that makes modern hip-hop what it is. If you’ve been anywhere near a radio blasting top 40 in the past couple of years, you’ve probably heard this song. Really big hit. A track by British DJ/producer David Guetta, featuring rappers Nicki Minaj and Afrojack. The real power in that song is the “hook”—the “be my woman…” part. That hook is a sample from the Parchman farm recordings. And those voices? You guessed it. Convicts. The song’s called “Rosie,” about a local gal who’d hang around the prison. Sung by a group of axe-wielding prisoners, lead by a prisoner nicknamed 22.