Bill Curtis: Fatback’s Rise and the Making of Rap’s First Release

“My aim is to be a kingpin with words, kids will jock my personality like King Tim the Third…” – Edan [Beauty and the Beat, 2005 LP]

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I recently spoke with Bill “Fatback” Curtis, longtime leader behind one of the most understated funk groups ever, The Fatback Band. Besides being astoundingly prolific, they’re also known for releasing rap’s first commercially recorded song, 1979’s “King Tim III (Personality Jock)”. My piece with Bill recently ran for The Guardian and I was only allotted roughly 1000 or so words. For those who are into Fatback, below is the extended transcript of our my talk with Bill on their ascent and lasting impact. – DM

Bill’s beginning and love of drums:

“I started in high school, probably sometime around the 10th grade, playing professional. I mostly was playing blues, most cats were only playing blues then. I got the gig because I was the only one in town with a set of drums. But  I didn’t know how to play the drums then. And my mother wouldn’t let no body borrow the drums. And the drummer the group I wanted to play with didn’t have drums. But I wasn’t letting no one borrow my drum set so they’d take me along and I eventually got good and played around town.”

On growing up around jazz greats:

“Bedford, North Carolina. It was like a mecca where all these bands would come through and I’d see them all. Butter Johnson and his band would come through. Duke Ellington would also come by. I saw Louis Jordan and all those acts. But I would only just watch the drummers.”

The making of rap’s first commercially released recording:

“That came about because I made a track and basically we were doing an album and I didn’t hear a single. I told my partner Jerry Thomas that we needed a hit to help the album. Otherwise, ain’t no one was gonna hear the album. So I said, ‘Jerry, what if we do a rap song?’ Jerry said ‘We ain’t got no one in the band who does rap, you crazy?’”

“I kept telling him I would love to make a rap track as our single and one of our members at the time was like, ‘I have a friend that lives in the projects and he’s a rapper.’ So I told him to bring his friend to the studio tomorrow and we’ll make it happen. I asked him what the rapper’s name was and he said ‘Timothy Washington.’”

On Fatback’s artistic pivots:

“From the time that Perception started, every one of our records was different from the last. We didn’t stay in any type of genre and whatever was going on, I was a part of it. So Disco was all big then, so I decided to just do it. Then as the band grew, my sound got more sophisticated, my sound got more polished. Then we played ballads eventually. I always wanted to include songs on the album where people would not recognize was us. I still do that to this day. I still put out 1 album a year since 2001.”

On MC Timothy “King” Washington III:

“So Timothy came to the studio and I played the track for Tim and he said ‘Yeah, I got some rhymes for this.’ So the entire song had already been recorded and was tracked so all Timothy had to do was rap over the beat. We played it for him and he did his thing. Afterwards, we didn’t know what to call the song so we just named it after Tim [laughs].”

“Tim was a very jolly and friendly guy and had a good personality that was kinda hyper, the kind of person who was open to trying everything. Everybody loved Tim, everyone jocked his personality.”

On “King Tim III” being rap’s first recording:

“There was rapping in the Bronx and the cats there had been doing it for a while. So Fatback certainly didn’t invent rap or anything. I was just interested in it and I guess years later we were one of the first to record it. But at that time you could already see cats rapping in the streets and doing stuff. To me, scatting in jazz is an early form of rapping. Louis Jordan was doing spoken word all the time too. So it just happened that I came out and recorded it but it was already becoming all around us by then. It’s very hard to say who is the first but they credit Fatback as the first so I’m proud of that.”

The labeling of Fatback’s music:

“Well, I call it that because it’s kind of like, we never rehearsed. Even when we recorded, we never rehearsed what we we’d play. Most of the guys had no idea until it was time to do it. I just call it street music because most of it came from the top off my head as to what we’re gonna do and all of it were sounds and energy of what you’d hear in the streets.”


Signing with Perception Records:

“I was producing my band and went to 3 or 4 record companies and presented the music and they weren’t hearing me. Radio had all that high fidelity and clean sound and my music was basically raw. It kinda had an edge to it and we didn’t go in there and try to doctor the music. We’d go into the studio and do like 12 tunes in an hour. So the record companies didn’t understand the type of music I was doing. It took people about 6 years or so before it seemed like anyone cared. But one day I was on Broadway and my friend (Frazier) said he was starting a new label called Perception and he asked me what it was that I’m recording?”

“I told him it was ‘Country Western Funk’ and that struck him as a great idea. So if you listen to his first album, there’s one tune on there that was kind of Country and the rest was funk. I think it is even kind of like House music. He put it out and apparently had a problem with it because no radio stations would play the music because none of them fit the radio station format. But Frankie Crocker heard and said it was the funkiest stuff he’s ever heard in his life. He really loved the song and he was the one who broke Fatback in New York.”

On New York’s longtime DJ and tastemaker, Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker:

“He was a radio DJ, the number one DJ at the time. He was the king at the time. If you wanted a hit, you’d have to give it to Frankie and he’d have to approve it. Every city has their number one radio jock, and ours, for funk music and black music, was Frankie. He was the man. Every time I’d see him, I’d shout ‘Thanks Frankie!’”

On Fatback’s fans:

“Listeners mostly haven’t heard of us let alone heard our new stuff. I still can’t get anyone to play my stuff! Every 3 month so I’m putting new tunes out on the market.”

On the worst of times:

“All of them [laughs]. We never got famous. We had a cult following, we never hit the big time. We never got to the stage of a Kool & the Gang or BT Express. One of the main reasons why is because we were self-owned. I own my own masters, I do the publishing, I wrote everything, so we never let a Barry Gordy come thru. So there wasn’t a middleman who siphoned our money.”


On the best of times:

“To me, the band was the best part. The original cats all played together until 1989 or so. Then my mother got ill and I came home to take care of her and she passed in 2001 and that’s where I kind of started the band up again with different members because by then we’re all old and scattered all over the place. My good years were when I was in New York with the original guys.”

On their biggest hits:

“The last tune I record is always my favorite and it’s always been that way. I guess it’s just because I’m excited about it. But the most popular tune “I Found Lovin’”. I also like “Backstrokin” and “I Like Girls”. Those were our biggest hits. Most of the people heard this while dancing in the Disco. I tell DJ’s that you always have to have a little Fatback in their mix. All these groups are learning and stealing from Fatback anyways so might as well play the original [laughs].”

Bill on his long legacy:

“I never thought we did anything super big. We’re just musicians. If decades ago, someone told me that the music I was making in the early 70s would still be heard today, I’d tell them they were crazy. The thing that happened with our music was, we were so far in front of everybody, it was able to live on for a while. Boston and Washington always liked our sound but you never really heard us elsewhere.”

“We weren’t touring because we were a huge local hit and were literally booked up for years. Then eventually we got to Texas and places like that. Then DJs discovered us and started using our stuff. Fatback is all drums and rhythm. People used to ask me why I even had horns in the studio since you never even really heard them on our songs. It was basically drums and bass and that’s our style.”



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