Meet Skull Snaps, a Forgotten Funk Band That Soundtracked Hip-Hop

Skull Snaps

New Haven, Connecticut rapper Dooley-O and DJ Chris Cosby were digging through a neighbor’s record collection when they found a peculiar album, the cover of which boasted a drawing of three menacing skulls, with skeletons dancing on or near each one. The back cover had an image of a presumably female skeleton, wearing a fancy Victorian hat. The band was called Skull Snaps, and there was no photo of the artists anywhere to be found.

Dooley-O assumed this was a heavy rock album, and since he was a crate-digger who happily sampled any and everything, he decided to give it a listen. As it turned out, the album wasn’t rock, but funk—one song in particular, “It’s a New Day,” boasted a killer opening beat that was just begging to be sampled. And so, in 1988, Dooley-O did just that on a track called “Watch My Moves,” but since he didn’t have any industry connections that could help promote the song, it languished in semi-obscurity. (It was eventually released 14 years later by Stones Throw Records.)

One year after Dooley-O recorded “Watch My Moves,” his cousin Stezo, who’d gotten a gig as a backup dancer for EPMD, scored a record deal and asked Dooley if he could use the Skull Snaps break. Dooley didn’t like the idea at first, but he eventually relented. Stezo’s song, “It’s My Turn,” went big, reaching Number 18 on Billboard’s “Hot Rap Songs” chart.

That was only the beginning. Since Stezo let the sample play out naked in the song, it quickly became fodder for hundreds of other rappers. It now appears on nearly 500 songs, making it one of the most sampled breaks in hip-hop history.

“That thing sounds good. You can put any kind of groove to that and it sounds good. Any groove,” Stezo says today. “I remember Dooley being like, ‘Don’t leave the beat open because people are going to steal our beat.’ I said, ‘Man, what do we care about, as long as we’re the first ones.’”

Skull Snaps

Skull Snaps in 1970

That Skull Snaps break was sampled on a host of prominent rap songs—among them, the Pharcyde’s “Passing Me By,” Mobb Deep’s “Give Up The Goods (Just Step),” and Gang Starr’s “Take It Personal”—but even at the height of its usage, few people knew anything about Skull Snaps.

All of that is about to change. In 2011 and ‘12, Stezo shot a documentary about the group in 2011-2012 called The Birth Beats of Hip-hop: The Legend of Skull Snaps. And in October, Mr. Bongo reissued Skull Snaps on vinyl with support from band members themselves. As it turns out, Skull Snaps were a three-piece band consisting of Sam O. Culley, Erv Littleton Waters, and George Bragg. The members were also in soul group called The Diplomats, who released a number of singles in the ’60s. As for the album’s mysterious cover, Culley says it wasn’t intended to misdirect people. The band had a tough time being a funk trio who played their own instruments and did all their own singing, and funk and soul labels just didn’t know how to market  them.

“My favorite artist was Three Dog Night. Record companies weren’t really accepting black bands back then,” Culley explains. “So we said, ‘We’ll have no pictures on the album. The guy who did the artwork put the three skeletons on top of the damned skull and I’m like, ‘Damn that’s crazy looking. It’s the scariest shit I’ve ever seen.’ It made me think of bikers. That was my first thought. They’re going to think this is a bunch of bikers, you know what I’m saying?”

That strange record cover would likely have never come to pass without the group’s unusual name, which was inspired by R&B vocalist Lloyd Price. One night, Price was hanging out with the group and enthusing over their funky sounds. During one session, he blurted out that their music “made his skull snap.”

The Skull Snaps record was released in 1973, but the famous beat that would inspire a generation of rappers goes back to the mid ’60s, when the band members would play it at the beginning of shows as a way of getting the energy going. The unique sound and pop of the beat was made by taking a small 12-inch snare and dampening its sound by taping a wallet to it.

“It basically was a tune-up kind of thing,” Culley says. “The drums started playing, and I would start playing on the bass, and then Erv started playing on the guitar, and from that, we would just bam to another song which would be our show.”

When it came time to record the Skull Snaps record, they felt that jam needed to be included somewhere. They decided to append it to the beginning of “It’s a Brand New Day” because that was the first song they recorded. Just like in their live shows, they needed the beat to help them get calibrated in the studio.

“We said, ‘We can’t leave that out, because we know what that does to us mentally. It makes us tight, it pulls us right together,’” Culley says. “Once we started the beat like that and we had put vocal arrangement on ‘It’s a New Day,’ it was almost a surprise that the damn thing sounded the way it did, because we have never heard how it sound recorded.”

That beat, like much of the record, was a one-take situation. Just like that, unbeknownst to them, an important piece of hip-hop history was born.  

Unlike a lot of rediscovered ’70s soul/funk gems, Skull Snaps clearly sounds like it could have been a hit in its own time. The album strikes the perfect balance of heartbreaking ballads, uptempo soul songs, and gritty funk jams, all of them boasting impressive vocal harmonies.

“We said we were going to do every kind of song on the album. That’s what we set out to do, and that’s what we did,” Culley says. “Each one of us could sing lead. That made it even better, so when you switch off on different things, no one is not more powerful than the other.”

In the end, the strange album cover and lack of band photo probably didn’t help the band in their quest for stardom. But the biggest problem they faced was the fact that, just six months after releasing the record, their label GSF went belly up and completely disappeared, leaving the band in the lurch. The musicians were experienced, but they had hardly ever gigged under the name Skull Snaps.

“I can count the gigs on one hand that we did [under that name],” Culley says. “We were still using the name Diplomats, and we were all over the place. But they didn’t know it was Skull Snaps. And because we didn’t know what the record was going to do and once the company folded, we sort of pulled back on it.”

The members of the group have continued to write and record new music, and are gearing up to release a whole new Skull Snaps record sometime in 2019.

“It’s going to be different kinds of music—the same setup as the first album,” Culley says. “Very diverse, you know what I mean. It’s going to be really nice. I’m really appreciative of that fact that it’s happening now, and the idea that we’re still around and we’re still recording. We’re still in the business.”

Stezo and Culley are still in contact and talk regularly. Stezo hopes his documentary brings more awareness to who Skulls Snaps are as people and how talented they are. And he’s hoping most of all that the hip-hop community pay their respects. While shooting the documentary, he introduced the band to several rappers who had sampled the break for their own songs.

“Immediately everyone’s thoughts went to, ‘Oh my God, they’re here to sue us,’” Culley says. “But they found out it was just the opposite. We wanted to meet those people who had used that sample,” Culley says. “All of them were like, ‘You know how many careers you saved, how many lives you saved with that breakbeat?’ That’s amazing. And they’re still using it.”

Stezo, on the other hand, thinks that some of these rappers, particularly the more famous ones, should do the honorable thing and cut Skulls Snaps a check.  

“They live. They’re here. They’re healthy. Talk to them now while they can enjoy the money. Not when they’re gone,” Stezo says. “I heard it on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air one time. Jazzy Jeff was cutting it up while Will Smith was dancing. It was crazy. Where the fuck is Skull Snaps’ money? That was my mission. I’m still on that mission.”

-Aaron Carnes

One Comment

  1. Posted December 2, 2018 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic band. Absolutely not forgotten by me… :-)

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