60 Years Ago, Bo Diddley Popularized Something Your Favorite Rapper Does (Video)

On November 20, 1955, American television viewers were introduced to Bo Diddley, a Mississippi musician whose style would come to influence future generations in ways that are still felt powerfully today. What is now known as the “Bo Diddley Beat” may be his greatest legacy; the syncopated five-accent rhythm he incorporated in his playing and singing originated in sub-Saharan Africa, which migrated to help create the Afro-Latin music that would develop in the years during and after the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Eventually, the Bo Diddley beat would become an easily identifiable characteristic of Rock & Roll and Pop records by everyone from Buddy Holly to Weird Al Yankovic. While not the first musician with recordings featuring this beat, Bo Diddley is credited with applying the same rhythm to his singing voice, which would introduce the ancient tradition of Toasting to a mainstream audience, an influence directly related to the development of Rap.

According to David Toop, author of The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip-Hop, “One of the clearest links between present-day rappers and the rich vein of tall tales, tricksters, boasts, and insults is Bo Diddley.” Even Mr. Biggs, of the seminal Rap group Soul Sonic Force, gave the late Diddley his due credit; “we used to call it a Bo Diddley syndrome when we used to brag amongst ourselves,” he told Troop. He would go on to incorporate toasting in much of his future recordings, which also featured lyrics from the Dozens, a spoken-word game immensely popular in African-American communities (the genesis of “yo mama” and “yo so ugly” jokes and many other rich, multi-generational traditions). Songs like “Hey Man” play like musical stepping stones to Rapping, with Diddley and his maracca player trade barbs back and forth; Troop calls this track the “great-grandfather of the Rap attack.” Born in 1928 as Ellas Otha Bates, Bo Diddley’s 1955 performance came several months before Elvis Presley’s, making Diddley the first to perform Rock & Roll on Sullivan’s iconic show, before the term had even entered the lexicon of American pop culture. And – in what is most certainly a Hip-Hop moment if there ever was one – Diddley was banned from future performances by Sullivan himself, who was allegedly furious with the artist for performing his self-titled track. As the story goes, Diddley was originally supposed to play it safe by performing a cover of “Tennessee” Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” but opted to use the opportunity to play “Bo Diddley” instead, which the audience clearly enjoyed. Watch the historic performance below, in which Diddley delights the (probably all-White) audience with his revolutionary music.

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