In 1973, Hamilton Bohannon, who died on Friday aged 78, released his debut album, Stop & Go. It was a solid set of tough, largely instrumental funk tracks, the kind of album that was destined to get lost amid the glut of incredible soul music pouring out of American studios – 1973 was the year of Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop, Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On – and to be rediscovered years later by crate-diggers and sample hunters, which it duly was: plundered for tracks by Jay-Z, Mary J Blige, Public Enemy, the Ultramagnetic MCs and Pete Rock.
You might say it sounded like the work of a musical journeyman, which pretty much describes Hamilton Bohannon in 1973. He’d spent the 1960s drumming for Stevie Wonder before putting together the Motown Sound – a kind of touring equivalent of the label’s legendary sessioneers the Funk Brothers – who played gigs with Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops and Martha and the Vandellas, and then leading the house bands at a variety of Detroit nightclubs. But on its title track, Stop & Go contained the germ of an idea: Bohannon’s drumming stripped away the syncopated style that was standard on funk tracks in favour of a simple, driving rhythm, the bass drum playing four beats to the bar, or four-to-the-floor.
You could see where he’d got it from – it was like a more muscular version of the beat he’d played backing Stevie Wonder on I Was Made to Love Her, or Wonder’s cover of We Can Work It Out – and, in fairness, Bohannon wasn’t the only musician stripping funk’s rhythm down. Over in Philadelphia, Earl Young was doing something similar, although Young’s take was more subtle and delicate, more reliant on shifting hi-hat patterns, as evidenced by his playing on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ The Love I Lost, as strong a candidate as any for the title of first disco record. A session man rather than a star, despite his day job as a member of The Trammps, Young always played in service to the song.
Bohannon, however, played aggressively, as if he’d unilaterally decided that the drums were a lead instrument, which suited his sound. Philly soul was lush and sophisticated; Bohannon’s music was raw, the drums pushed to the forefront of the mix.
He gave his style a name, Bohannon’s Beat, as the title of a 1975 album track put it, and set about refining it over the following years. Dance Your Ass Off (1976), its title appended with a message from the devoutly Christian Bohannon that it was “not used in the sense of profanity”, is a masterpiece of pumped-up relentlessness with tracks that seem to meld into one continuous pulse.
He authored a succession of New York club anthems, but, curiously, Bohannon’s early singles were always more successful in the UK than in America. Perhaps they fitted more readily with the sound of contemporary British pop. He kept using the word “stomp” in his song titles, and there was a lot of, well, stompy-sounding music on Top of the Pops in 1974 and 1975: the last burst of drum-heavy glam rock; the 60s soul tracks revived by the Northern Soul scene and the modern singles made in their image, including Maxine Nightingale’s Right Back Where We Started From. But it was disco that made Bohannon a star. He finally hit paydirt on 1978’s Summertime Groove, home to Let’s Start the Dance, not so much a song as a string of irresistible hooks strung together, timeless enough for him to rework in 1981 as Let’s Start II Dance Again, adding something approaching a rap vocal by Dr Perri Johnson and enjoying a hit all over again.
It was his biggest hit by some distance, although his albums were usually of a high quality, packed with compelling reasons to dance: Take The Country to New York City, Throw Down the Groove, The Hammer, a re-recording of Stop and Go from 1979’s Too Hot to Hold that showed how he’d honed his signature sound over the years into something unique, spurning disco’s lushness in favour of something that, as he put it, “came out hitting hard”. But it wasn’t until Bohannon’s moment had theoretically passed that it became apparent how influential he had been.
If Earl Young was rightly heralded as the architect of the disco beat – it was his style that was endlessly copied, him who played on countless hits, both as a member of MFSB and the Salsoul Orchestra, disco’s twin answers to the Wreckin’ Cru – then the raw relentlessness of Bohannon’s approach turned out to presage a subsequent generation of less ornate, more rhythmic dance music. “His repetition, open grooves, sample-ready pockets, big kick drum and raw bass were the foundation of house music,” suggested US writer Ronnie Reese, not without evidence. Bohannon tracks were huge in the Chicago clubs that gave birth to house music: Frankie Knuckles played a re-edit of Let’s Start the Dance at the Warehouse – “a major, major piece for the dance music community in Chicago,” recalled DJ and producer Ron Trent – while Ron Hardy did the same with Caroline Crawford’s Bohannon-penned and produced Coming On Strong at the Music Box.
The list of house and techno artists who have sampled his work is huge: DJ Pierre, Cajmere, Underground Resistance, Danny Tenaglia, Dimitri From Paris. And house music gave Bohannon his biggest hit of all: Paul Johnson’s Get Get Down, a top 10 hit in 1999, was based on Bohannon’s 1978 track Me and the Gang. Bohannon sued Johnson for using his work without credit, which even Johnson’s peers seemed to think was fair enough, given how obviously it resembled the original. And, for the most part, Bohannon remained philosophical about his impact on house and techno. “When the music changed like that, I didn’t have to try and record something to keep up with it,” he noted. “Because … my music was already doing it.”