wax Poetics
Illustration by Brad Howe.

It’s Their Turn

When did you first hear the Skull Snaps? Was it in the summer of 1993 when the Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By” rode the pneumatic drums of the Snaps’ “It’s a New Day” to radio ubiquity? No, it must’ve been the year before, when tracks like Black Moon’s “Who Got the Props,” Lords of the Underground’s “Funky Child,” and Erick Sermon’s “Hittin’ Switches” were all bouncing off that same syncopated kick and rifle-shot snare. Maybe you were the aficionado who noticed Premier’s inventive chop of those same sampled drum elements for Gang Starr’s “Take It Personal.” Or maybe you were a real rap head back in 1991 and had Organized Konfusion’s “Who Stole My Last Piece of Chicken,” which sliced off a bit of bass along with the meaty beat. If so, you surely would’ve picked up Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s first LP and heard “If It Ain’t Rough It Ain’t Right” and a few fragments of the Snaps tune “Trespassing.” Me, it must’ve been 1989, when Pete Rock was destroying doubles of Stezo’s “It’s My Turn” on WBLS. The raw drums at the intro of the tune were stunningly naked, and DJs reveled in their pulchritude, endlessly rewinding and manually looping the loop, creating a double helix that held the coding for a generation of hip-hop music to come.

published online
Originally published in Issue 15
By Andrew Mason

Regardless of when elements lifted from the mysterious group known as the Skull Snaps first entered public consciousness, there is little argument that the drums that Dooley O discovered on a dusty record found in his neighbor’s basement back in 1988 have become a key ingredient in what constitutes the boom-bap of hip-hop, a primal component so powerful that it is an automatic panacea for any anemic rhythm: just add Skull Snaps, and it’s all good. The list of rap tracks that have utilized the powerful sounds since they were brought to light is lengthy.

Although it took fifteen years for the intensity of the music—which the Skull Snaps recorded in 1973—to find an outlet in their own country, British fans of U.S. soul had already adopted “I’m Your Pimp” and “My Hang Up Is You,” with both tunes getting regular play in northern-soul venues from the late ’70s onward.

For all the attention that was focused on the inscrutable Skull Snaps LP, a whispered-about sight at record conventions, protected from the rabble by plastic and a ponderous price tag, it is surprising that so little was ever discovered about the band itself. Serious collectors managed to turn up a subsequent Skull Snaps single that didn’t appear on the album, but the group seemed to have vanished after that all-too-small handful of scorchingly soulful releases. There are no photos of the band members on the LP jacket, only a list of three musicians (except on the Charly bootleg, in which the names were deleted). Who were the Skull Snaps? How could the creators of such a good record, with such solid musicianship and widespread appeal, just disappear? Astoundingly, the Skull Snaps—Samm Culley, Ervan Waters, and George Bragg—have been in New York City all along. Incredibly, they are still friends. And, finally, they are getting the chance to tell their story.

The Skull Snaps: (l-r) George, (overlay of George, Samm, and Erv), Erv, and Samm. Photo courtesy of Samm Culley.
The Skull Snaps: (l-r) George, (overlay of George, Samm, and Erv), Erv, and Samm. Photo courtesy of Samm Culley.

Samm Culley is the bassist and de facto leader of the group. The tenor voice in the trio, he does most of the talking and is quick with a smile.

Ervan Waters plays guitar and sings falsetto, a ruthless combination of skills fronted by a thoughtful demeanor.

George Bragg is the bear of a man who sat behind the drum kit for the trio. A lifelong Harlemite, his remarkably pliable deep-bass voice is in the service of a remarkable musical mind.

Ed Stasium is now a multi-platinum and Grammy award-winning producer/engineer, with records from Gladys Knight and the Pips to Talking Heads under his belt, but that was all in the future when he met the Skull Snaps in 1973.

Wax Poetics sat down with these veterans and let the tape roll.

Wax poetics
Wax poetics
Without one rehearsal, we played and sang together, and it sounded like we had been together for years—just magic. Samm Culley

Culley: Erv and I are originally from the Eastern shore of Maryland. I had an uncle in the music business, Frank “Floorshow” Culley, a great sax man in the ’40s, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. 

Waters: We migrated to Newark, New Jersey, the big city, in hopes of making a splash. We got there and we met Samm’s uncle. He had a hit record on Atlantic called “Cole Slaw.” He was pretty big. He was the one that introduced us to the clubs in Newark and New York.

Culley: At this time, in 1962 or ’63, the Diplomats were formed. We worked constantly at clubs in the tristate area, and recorded a song for the Arock label. It’s probably the track I’m most proud of: “Here’s a Heart” by the Diplomats. It was the beginning of our professional career. 

On record, we were still a vocal group. We could play [our own instruments] and wanted to play on our own recordings, but the record companies would not allow that, because if you were selling in one area, one kind of music, they want you to stay there. Why venture into something new? That was the record companies’ philosophy. So we stayed with the flow for a while, vocalizing, because that was easy for us. Eventually we played and sang our own music on the last Diplomats single, “She’s the One.”

Erv and I met George Bragg on a gig in Queens in the late ’60s. Without one rehearsal, we played and sang together, and it sounded like we had been together for years—just magic. We knew then that it was something special, so Erv and I went to work with George as Soul Three.

The band gigged for a while as the Soul Three, before coming up with a new moniker.

Culley: The Skull Snaps name came from our live performances. We were a very dynamic, three-man group that sounded like ten people because of our vocal power and our playing ability. We all played more than one instrument and sang. When people saw us they said, “You guys do more than just blow our minds, you snap our skulls.” So when we were trying to come up with a name, we just flipped it to the Skull Snaps. 

Sometimes the club owners would get upset when they saw us setting up, since we were only three pieces. This was the era of Kool and the Gang and bands like that, big horn sections and all, and we would be up there with just the three of us. Once they heard us play, though, they were shocked.

Waters: We would sing horn parts, we would be playing and doing covers of popular tunes, and just hit the horn parts perfectly. They couldn’t believe how big our sound was for just three people.

Bragg: I used to have an Echoplex machine next to the drums, with all our [vocal] mics running through it. I would flip it on when Erv was singing one of those high notes so he could catch a breath and the note would just sustain, people thought he could hold that thing forever! The snare drum also got echoed since it was picked up by my vocal mic. It would mess with people’s heads.

Culley: The Skull Snaps were really helped by Al Gee. For those that don’t know, Al Gee was a radio personality in New York who brought forth a lot of people like Frankie Crocker, Vaughn Harper, and Eddie O’Jay. At the time, we were only gigging—as the Soul Three and the Diplomats—and I said as far as I’m concerned, I think we should have a record. We should get into the recording thing. Al Gee encouraged us. [The group would later title a track for their mentor—the sought-after 45 “Al’s Razor Blade” on Grill Records. –Ed.] We started writing and it was turning out to be a little too much for us, so we brought in George Kerr to help.

Bragg: George Kerr couldn’t play a lick. Not one note. 

Stasium: George Kerr was the producer, but he was never in the studio. [laughs]

Culley: He found it easy to produce us because we already had everything together. It was as simple as him bringing in and dropping off some songs, and we did what we wanted to do with them. He brought some great songs to the project. Kerr is a very creative writer and producer, and a good friend. I learned a lot about production from George Kerr.

One of the songs that Kerr brought was by a new group he’d discovered, a combo from Ohio called Wood, Brass and Steel. “Hey, What’s That You Say” was written by Ineffie Woods, the wife of WB&S drummer Harold Sargent. The Skull Snaps retitled it “It’s a New Day.”

Culley: We changed a lot of the words. We changed everything to make it fit what we were doing.

Waters: The arrangements were never the same [as the original]. 

Culley: We were pretty forceful on how we wanted to do our album. We didn’t want anybody telling us how to do it. When we met Ed Stasium at the studio, that was really great. He was really into what we were doing, but he was kind of caught off guard, because the studio was just being built at the time. There were wires all over the place. Ed did such a fantastic job; he really gave it his personal attention.

Stasium: The Skull Snaps album was the first album I ever did. It was at Tony Camillo’s Venture Studio in Somerville, New Jersey, which was under construction at the time. As I said, it was my first album, so I had no choice but to make it up as I went along. It was just Sam, Erv, George, and I doing it. 

Culley: We recorded that whole album in one day.

Stasium: That could possibly be true. They were ready to go when they walked in the studio. There was no experimentation on those tracks. After we laid down the main tracks with the band playing live, we took a couple weeks to add the other stuff. They overdubbed vocals and Erv would do extra guitar parts.

Bragg: Ed Stasium had a nice reverberation room, with concrete slabs—a whole room of reverb!

Stasium: There was a closet that me and my friends converted to a reverb chamber. I ran the output of the board to a speaker in that room and miked that. That was how we got reverb. We painted it with epoxy to make it bright. The sound of the chamber depended on the weather—when it rained it got damp and changed the sound of the chamber! 

Culley: Some of the things George did on that record—it went into that room and sounded like three Georges! Everything sounded so big. 

Stasium: I may have had at most three mics on the drums. Maybe an Altec “Saltshaker” 633 and an 87 on the kick. We ran everything through a Teletronix LA-2A. When I bought it for the studio, it was one of the last ones of their production line. I remember going into Manhattan to get it and the guy at the store telling me, “This is the last one we have and they’re not making it anymore.” I think it cost $600. We also used a Pultec EQP. 

LA-2A Leveling Amplifier
LA-2A Leveling Amplifier
We ran everything through a Teletronix LA-2A. When I bought it for the studio, it was one of the last ones of their production line. Ed Stasium
Pultec EQP-1A
Pultec EQP-1A

The LA-2A leveling amplifier, manufactured by Universal Audio (current market price around $4000), is one of the most revered pieces of gear in the world of audio engineering. It is this piece of equipment that contributed heavily to the intense nature of the drum break on “It’s a New Day,” pumping the kick and snare to their maximum levels. The Pultec EQP equalizer has a similarly exalted status, its hardware noted for imparting a certain warm quality to any signal that passes through it.

Stasium: There’s no more room for anything else [on that drum intro]; everything is maxed. You can hear the hi-hat pumping, and it just happens to work.

Culley: We didn’t know “New Day” would be the song on the album. When we played live, we often opened the set with a drum break just to set the mood, so that’s what we did on “It’s a New Day.” We just did it to get ourselves together. 

Waters: Ed Stasium’s specialty was lining up the bass and the drums. He would make them sound like they were one instrument, hitting together. You’ll hear that in all the later recordings he did with rock groups.

Stasium: In a funny way, the Skull Snaps helped get me a job. In 1987, I was going to meet Vernon Reid to talk about his new project, Living Colour. Before that, I was out shopping, getting some fish, going to a record store. While I was walking down the street, I saw this old guy out of the corner of my eye selling everything he owned, clothes and records. In front of the stack of records was the Skull Snaps album. I picked it up and said, “I did that record! How much do you want for it?” He said, “Fifty cents,” and I said, “Hell, here’s ten dollars.” I’d never had a copy of the album.

When Vernon came over, he saw the record and I told him that I engineered it. He told me, “I can’t believe you did that. I learned how to play guitar from that record.” The Skull Snaps album was Vernon Reid’s Bible. I think I got to do that [Living Colour] album because of the Skull Snaps.

Back to the 1973 Skull Snaps session.

Culley: Burt Keyes came in after we laid down the tracks and did some string arrangements. I also played keyboards.

Stasium: I can’t recall who did the horns, but it might’ve been the same guys that Tony [Camillo] later used for his Bazuka album: Randy and Mike Brecker, Lou Soloff, Lou Delgado, and Dave Taylor. [Unfortunately, Randy Brecker does not recall the session. –Ed.]

Waters: I think we all had a piece of percussion on the record. George played congas, too.

Culley: Maybe two months after it was finished, it was released. Everybody thought it was a great album, but it was different. It didn’t really fit in the top ten, so it didn’t get airplay. Plus, GSF, the label that released it, didn’t promote the record. Everyone said it was ahead of its time. 

We made no royalties on the album. Yes, it did make us the most sampled artists in history, but I think all who didn’t pay for sample clearances should know this: You stole from us, and our families. Some even used our name in their lyrics. Everyone asks us [if we] are okay with all this; well, the answer is hell no—we take it personal. Charly Records stole from us for years without hesitation; they have pimped the Snaps album to the fullest. 

As the ’70s progressed, the group changed names again, calling themselves All Dyrections and recording “Soul Makossa” for Buddah Records. Samm Culley worked extensively with the Fatback Band’s Bill Curtis, producing, arranging, and even singing (on the song “My Sweet Baby”) for the Fatback Records group the Puzzles. The Skull Snaps, incognito, even backed the legendary Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on a 1977 track called “Africa Gone Funky,” which was produced by Culley and released as a 45 on London Records.

2006 will see the first legitimate reissues of the Skull Snaps classic material, along with a long-overdue return to the spotlight by the band itself. 

Andrew Mason is a contributing editor of  Wax Poetics.

Mhat Bernstein is the curator of Phat Drum Loops (phatdrumloops.com), the Internet’s largest and oldest non-profit drum-break library, dedicated to spreading the word about the unsung heroes of sample-based music.

Special thanks to Eric Pomeroy for additional interview quotes.

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