Let us begin with two songs that are not part of our presentation but are fit to set the stage.
In 1956 Neapolitan singer Renato Carosone recorded the satirical song “Tu Vuò Fà L’Americano”, which poked fun at locals who mimic the American lifestyle. Never mind that the tune was itself indebted to one of the first styles of American popular music – swing – to be successfully exported (and quickly imitated), “Tu Vuò Fà L’Americano” (‘You’re a Wannabe American’) is a vivid caricature not just of post-war Italy but many other places where American popular culture proliferated at one point or another.
Then in 1972 jack-of-all-trades Adriano Celentano unveiled the nonsensical “Prisencolinensinainciusol”, in which he assumes a mock American English. An avid adopter of American music since his beginnings as a recording artist in the late ’50s, Celentano, a great communicator, intended the imaginary language as a statement on our inability to communicate, but clearly “Prisencolinensinainciusol” – sometimes among the rap-before-rap-existed tunes people like to pull out of the hat – and its meaningless vocals still speak volumes of the (physical and cultural) American presence in Italy.
Enter Italo Disco. A branding actually devised by German distributor ZYX Records in ’83 for marketing purposes, Italo Disco is not the same as Italian disco music from the ’70s, neither does it have to be made in Italy or in the 1980s. The term was never as current in the music’s place of origin as it was outside of Italy. It typically describes producer-driven dance music that makes excessive use of synthesizer keyboards, is powered by drum machine percussion and known for its peculiar interpretations of pop song conventions.
Given a bad name twice over, Italo Disco has assumed its place in pop music history, to some degree defining the first half of the ’80s for mainland Europeans. It encompasses ‘serious’ pioneering (following in the footsteps of Giorgio Moroder) sophisticated electronic dance music that contributed to the evolution of the genre (particularly Chicago house) as well as a strange parallel pop music universe where familiar things are arranged and combined in the oddest ways. An underground music industry churned out tracks that were not completely unambitious (the faces of Italo Disco – where available – were often models while session musicians performed the vocals) but lacked any reasonable business plan.
Why does this matter here? Rapping got caught up in Italo Disco, simple as that. Rap seems to have been used almost subconsciously by Italo Disco producers, as something that was supposed to be on contemporary dance records. For that reason rap took root in Italo Disco. Since the combination of rapping and singing didn’t become the norm for dance music until 10-20 years later, you could say the Italians were on to something. Either way the bulk of the rap parts in music from ’80s Italy can be attributed to Italo Disco. (We found roughly 100 tunes with sometimes-more-sometimes-less – mostly short – rap performances, probably only the tip of the iceberg.) But not everything with a rap on it qualifies also as Italo Disco.
The genre is so consistently bizarre that greater success was simply out of the question, even though Italo produced some truly great pop tunes. So today’s RapReviews.com list of historic non-hip-hop tunes with rap lacks the radio and crossover hits that France or the United Kingdom had. Despite setting itself up for conflicts in terms of images, Italo Disco is refreshingly anonymous and even though it can be highly exploitative and derivative, it can also get to the heart of the matter that is dance music. Rap strictly plays a supporting role in that setting. Even the irony of names like Rap Factory or New York Rappers seems to have been lost on the participants.
1) Pino D’Angiò – “Ma Quale Idea” (1980)
I guess you can always find some proto-rap from the ’70s on backwards. In Italy people cite certain songs by the likes of Adriano Celentano, Lucio Dalla, Rino Gaetano, Ornella Vanoni or Marina Bellini for the occasion. But even though we tread a gray area as soon as we try to regulate what rap is, we should be able to detect the influences we are looking for when rhythm takes precedence over melody and cadence over conversation.
So Pino D’Angiò‘s “Ma Quale Idea” is it. The granddaddy of all Italian rap tracks. The purported number of 12 million copies sold worldwide is very hard to believe, even considering the artist also recorded French and Spanish versions (and the Latin American market is always underestimated). As is to be expected, the nascent domestic hip-hop scene in the mid-’80s had its own contemporary influences, still “Ma Quale Idea” is listed several times in sampling databases, including in connection to two mid-’90s European hip-hop tracks. Moreover, Roman rap duo Flaminio Maphia paid tribute to the song in ’04.
The composition is itself a low-key interpretation of McFadden & Whitehead‘s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” from the year before, aligning itself with old school hip-hop recordings more distinctly than many of the other items we so far came across in the course of Early Sightings of Rap in 1980s Pop. Pino singing the hook himself is also noteworthy if you recall the melodic routines of pioneering crews like the Furious Five or the Crash Crew.
Regarding the technical aspects of the rapping on “Ma Quale Idea”, we can note that Pino D’Angiò (born Giuseppe Chierchia) comes up with his own original cadence and intonation. There’s something resembling a double-time part, but to consider it to be immediately inspired by the Treacherous Three would be crazy. More likely we can attribute it to the artist’s own vocal dexterity.
Before we forget, the pre-Italo Disco “Ma Quale Idea” (‘What an Idea’) portrays a pushy, vain macho through the performer’s ironic lens. A character who comes alive during one particular song. Sound familiar?
Pino returned to rapping across several albums – as recently as 2016 (despite undergoing surgery due to throat cancer), recorded an Italian version of Chagrin D’Amour‘s “Chacun Fait (C’qui Lui Plaît)” (“Una Notte Maledetta”) in ’83 (female part: Piera Simone), slipped a bit of rap cadence into a song he penned for superstar Mina in ’87 (“Ma Chi È Quello Lì”) and helped write and can be heard on the seminal trance track “The Age of Love” (’90).
Easily the longest-serving rapper (or ‘rapper’, if you prefer) in our Europe-wide survey, Pino D’Angiò, as other early adopters of the rapping form, dismisses the idea of uprooting hip-hop and transplanting it to a different environment. As he told Vice.com six years ago: ‘Hip-Hop is not for us, it has nothing to do with us, with our language, with our culture, with our tradition or with Italian youth.’ Generations of Italian hip-hoppers and rap artists (some of which he explicitly respects) would beg to differ. Just goes to show that the items we present here have very little – if anything at all – to do with hip-hop.
2) Band of Jocks – “Let’s All Dance” (1983)
If you’ve joined our previous explorations of the most random of all random rap appearances (Europe, 1980s, pop music – go figure), you might have noticed that broadcasting played a role in the careers of some of the performers. Some went on to work for radio or TV, some already were working for radio or TV. Luca de Gennaro, rapping as D.J. Look on “Càpita” (’83), spent his entire career in radio, television and the DJ booth, even authoring the book ‘D.J. Power – L’arte e il mestiere del disc jockey’ (‘The Art and the Craft of the DJ’) and curating the early ’90s compilation “Italian Rap Attack”. Someone we merely mentioned in relation to a rapped song was Barbara Marchand, a Monaco-born radio and TV presenter who was employed extensively by Italian public broadcaster RAI. Also, a certain Massimo Liofredi who can be heard rapping on the Italian tune “Eté Super” (’83) by duo Kristal, joined RAI in the ’90s, ascending to the position of chief executive at two RAI TV channels. It were however the new commercial stations in Western Europe who gave young people the music they were craving as the monopolies of state radio came to an end.
We can say with some certainty that safe for a few specialized stations, commercial radio in Europe to this day willfully ignores hip-hop music both domestic and American, not to mention that historically the ties between rap and radio could never run as deep as in the States. If radio people in Italy, the Netherlands, Germany or Switzerland were ‘rapping’ in the early ’80s, it was all about attention (we mentioned Phil Barney as an exception in France). And of course there is the assumption that it helps if you are a professional or at least passionate talker if you want to give this rapping thing a try.
In Italy, a number of radio personnel/personalities performed on rap singles. In Florence Radio Fantasy put together a Radio Band who recorded the six-and-a-half-minute jingle “Radio Rap” (’84), in Milan staffers of Rete 105 released the “Vacances J’Oublie Tout” cover “Vacanze” (’83) while nothing less than ten vocalists made up the DJ supergroup Band of Jocks.
Did those ‘jocks’ realize they got into the same formation as the innovators in New York City? Had they heard “Superappin'”, “Zulu Nation Throw Down”, “That’s the Joint”, “The New Rap Language” and “Jazzy Sensation”? We can’t measure songs that differ vastly in their set-up and in their setting by the same yardstick. It’s just interesting that a novelty project from Italy resorts to a similar format as hip-hop’s foundational recordings.
Band of Jocks comprised presenters (and occasional recording artists) who hailed from various backgrounds with both ties to state radio RAI and pioneering ‘radio libere’ (‘free radio’) stations such as Radio Monte Carlo and Rete 105, who attracted a younger generation with contemporary music and informal language. Federico L’Olandese Volante (Dutch-born Friedrick Van Stegeren) made a name for himself as a disco DJ and engingeered obscure but entertaining tunes like “Wojtyla Disco Dance” (’79) and “Cashbah Boogie” (’83), Milan’s Leopardo (Leonardo Re Cecconi) was a major figure on the airwaves and behind the turntables, Betty Miranda (Miranda Gobetto) was a radio veteran who still had a gold single in France (“Take Me to the Top”) ahead of her, Ronnie Jones had come to Europe with the United States Air Force, making music with London’s seminal Blues Incorporated (once training ground for Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts) before settling in Italy, where he entered the broadcasting business, eventually hosting the show Popcorn between ’80 and ’85. He also has two more obscure rap tracks to his credit, “Cosmo Rap” (’80) and “Into the Groove (A-Thon) Rap” (’86).
“Let’s All Dance” is a classic broadcasting move to position the medium and its faces and voices as your companions. The sung English chorus vows to be there for the listener from sunup to sundown while the DJ’s introduce themselves with raps. One recurring segment that refers to the collective actually goes:
‘We are the ten DJ’s from the swift stylus
With a scratch over the rap
You know us by our voices’
It feels like rap in its natural habitat, but in reality what we’re looking at is rap that grows in a Petri dish, and when Kid Creole is mentioned, they mean the bandleader of Kid Creole and the Coconuts fame, not the Furious Five member. They also recorded the song in English, where it lives up to the promise to present a whole spectrum of sound providers even better (“We’re the best DJ’s from all around / Listen while we tell you what we’re puttin’ down / Workin’ on the radio from dawn to 8 / Others in the disco stayin’ up late”, etc.). Possibly undergoing some lineup changes, Band of Jocks repeated the feat a year later with “Good Times” (’84), which was more distinctly Italo Disco and also came in two language versions.
3) Natasha King – “AM-FM” (1983) / Red Dragon Band – “Let Me Be Your Radio” (1980)
Consider this a postscript to the entry above. Two tunes that are also inspired by the medium radio.
A New York transplant who was studying in Rome, Natascia Maimone was likely of Italian ancestry. She became Natasha King for “AM-FM”. Despite her being a native English speaker, it’s hard to make sense of what she’s saying. (Although the lines “Some people have stardom / They never live without boredom” sound promising.) She gets points for her fairly aggressive vocal style and how effortlessly she switches between rapping and singing. This was 1983, after all. Credit also goes to Pierluigi Giombini, involved in two of Italo Disco’s most famous tunes, Gazebo‘s “I Like Chopin” and Ryan Paris‘ “Dolce Vita”, whose production here adds a touch of pop swing to the transitional sound between old school and new school hip-hop (think Whodini, Spyder-D). The release also came with a “Bonus Break”. Giombini recalls on his website: “It was a big satisfaction for me, that the instrumental version of “AM-FM” was used by rappers in live improvisations in discos across the USA and England.” A claim that might not be as far-fetched as it sounds.
Red Dragon Band‘s “Let Me Be Your Radio” could easily be a ’90s big beat track. The song’s title also inspired this worthwhile Pitchfork feature on Italo Disco.
4) Sabrina f. Malcolm Charlton – “Boys (Summertime Love)” (1987)
I can see why I didn’t remember that this tune actually had a rap part. It’s skimpier than the singer’s top in the song’s video (not the one above – which has a stand-in lip-synching the rap vocals in this ’88 Top of the Pops performance). With “Boys (Summertime Love)”, Sabrina Salerno cracked the top 5 in 14 European countries (including Ireland and the United Kingdom). Although purists wouldn’t rate this as Italo Disco, its squeaky synths and rubbery rhythm echoed all across Western Europe, the leading woman embodying the stereotype of the enchantress prevalent in Italian entertainment in the ’80s, particularly la tivù (TV). Sabrina was no Madonna, her career as fleeting as the summer flirts she sings about.
As resourceful as musicians are, someone who was present during the creation of the song anyway, in this case co-writer Malcolm McDonald Charlton, took on the task to rap. Born in Scotland but living in Italy since ’82, Charlton, under the moniker Nick The Nightfly, joined Radio Monte Carlo in ’88 (radio again…), making a name for himself as a music connaisseur and eventually even as a prolific swing singer who is still active 30 years after his unnoted bars on “Boys”.
5) RAF – “Self Control” (1984)
We associate two iconic ’80s pop songs with American singer Laura Branigan – “Gloria” and “Self Control”. Both were Italian imports. Both, in their original version, Umberto Tozzi‘s “Gloria” and RAF‘s “Self Control”, are part of the Italian pop music canon.
None of us remembers the late Laura rappping in “Self Control” – and neither is there footage of Raffaele Riefoli rapping when he performs the song, but virtually all printings of the record contain raps either on the b-side “Self Control (Part Two)” or on the just as common 6-minutes-plus version, which combines ‘Part One’ and ‘Part Two’. So a rap was meant to be part of the song when it was written by Giancarlo Bigazzi, Steve Piccolo and RAF. Or rather two raps because we hear two distinctly different voices rapping. Some copies credit a certain ‘Shakespeare’ for the rap, which must be the guy who goes first while RAF himself likely goes second.
This info is completely irrelevant to the legend of “Self Control”, but let us still contemplate that everyone who bought that widely distributed record has heard those raps and that the original song which Laura Branigan covered with much success contained a rap part.
6) Den Harrow – “A Taste of Love” (1983)
If it’s a music genre, it has pop stars. To Italo Disco buffs, its producers, arrangers and engineers may be the real stars. But a face will always be able to make that extra human connection to the audience. This is elementary in any personality-driven genre, as readers of a publication called RapReviews.com surely know. Every individual who newly falls for pop music will become very well aware of that insidiously manipulative phenomenon called star power eventually.
When looks are important but other qualities are also needed, finding the total package can be difficult. Hence the music industry came up with a myriad of strategies to create the perfect pop star. A relatively extreme measure is the separation of visual ambassadors and actual performers. During and after Italo Disco, domestic labels regularly employed ‘models’ to front studio projects, a trend possibly started in the previous decade – and extensively practiced in the following one.
Stefano Zandri played pop singer Den Harrow (phonetically close to denaro – money) for many years while the vocals of his songs were successively performed by four different men. American-born Chuck Rolando, member of Italian disco group Passengers, raps and sings on the Den Harrow number “A Taste of Love” (something he also did the same year on the Passengers’ “Rhapsody”). It is another voice behind Den Harrow, Tom Hooker, who’s out to get his due on the 2018 Amazon Prime documentary ‘Dons of Disco’, for anyone interested in delving deeper into the matter.
One of the more lyrically congruent Italo Disco hits, “A Taste of Love” starts with – scratching. The instrumental version is titled “A Taste of Scratch” and Rolando even claims to insert the ‘taste of love’ right here, right now: “It’s in the song / It’s in the scratch”… Scratching appears in other early ’80s Euro pop productions, something we might cover when we tend to electro in a separate post.
7) Tullio de Piscopo – “Stop Bajon (Primavera)” (1984)
Drummers are sometimes drawn to hip-hop and rap because of their focus on rhythm and repetition. (As an art exhibition around my way currently puts it: ‘A beat is not a beat without repeat’.) Tullio de Piscopo, born in Naples in 1946, is a professional musician who has been involved in everything from rock operas to jazz trios and has worked with the likes of Max Roach, Quincy Jones, Billy Cobham, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Wayne Shorter and Gil Evans – to name but the jazz royalty he has collaborated with.
He has also tended to the musical heritage of his hometown, taking la canzona napulitana (with Edoardo Bennato and Tony Esposito, among others) all the way to Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in ’87. Included in ZYX Records’ “The Best of Italo Disco Vol. 2” (’84), “Stop Bajon (Primavera)” was an unexpected success (charting even in the UK, although 3 years after its initial release) that saw the drummer rap lyrics in Neapolitan written by Pino Daniele. Rap here is embraced in the jazz fusion context, even internationally validated by Don Cherry on trumpet.
For another surprisingly early arrival of rap in Naples, also check Oro‘s “Sasà” from ’83.
8) The Bombers – “I L.O.V.E. U (Radio Rap Version)” (1987)
We got acquainted with the tantalizing trio Centerfold in Early Sightings of Rap in 1980s Pop – The Netherlands & Belgium (Part 1). In Italy female pop soloists were probably more the norm. At least we didn’t come across an entire parade of girl groups like you would in ’80s Holland.
When they chose their name, The Bombers might have wanted to distinguish themselves from a sexist ‘bombshell’ image, but we have no way of telling because they were one of a million pop projects that never get off the ground. This despite ‘Cindy Ray’, ‘Gabrielle’ and ‘Brigitte’ introducing themselves personally in the ‘Radio Rap Version’ of their single “I L.O.V.E. U”. Which is of course a classic feature of rap. And while rap didn’t invent multilingual songs, it apparently put itself forward for that purpose to newcomers to the artform, as this RapReviews.com exclusive series shows. Hailing from the States, Sweden and France, the three ladies eventually each rap in their native language on this b-side turning rap cypher. Notably produced by Gazebo (one of Italo Disco’s few international stars) with the help of some James Brown yelps (it seems). None of that could change the fact that The Bombers bombed.
9) Frisk The Frog – “Rap ‘n’ Roll” (1983)
Stumbling further down the Italo Disco rabbit hole, we meet Frisk The Frog, a project that seemed to have more in mind than it could deliver. It involved graphic artist/cartoonist Massimo Mattioli and producer Maurizio Marsico, an avantgarde musician at heart who has dabbled in new-wave, Italo Disco, classical music and film scores.
Frisk The Frog was a comic character appearing in Roman magazine ‘Frigidaire’, which would have made for an interesting point of departure. The song itself is a dadaistic jumble of largely unintelligble English performed by a male-female duo. Including a “Frisk is cool, Frisk is fast” nod to Blondie‘s Grandmaster Flash namedrop in “Rapture”.
The clip features footage from the console video game ‘Frog Bog’, and at times the lyrics seem to describe a gameplay. Later fusions of gaming and rapping notwithstanding, it’s doubtful “You can rap the frog” were actual instructions from a video game manual. As silly as it all is, keep in mind that Turinese Eurodance group Eiffel 65 had a million-seller at the end of the ’90s in “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” with a similar premise.
10) Gaznevada – “I.C. Love Affair” (1982)
Gaznevada (a name inspired by a Raymond Chandler short story called ‘Nevada Gas’) had their start during the student unrest of ’77 in Bologna and are among the pioneers of punk in Italy. Like others of their generation they let themselves be swept away by ensuing musical waves. As they made their way towards pop, they couldn’t (and wouldn’t) avoid brushes with new wave, no wave, synth-pop and what outside of Italy became known as Italo Disco. In 2012 Rolling Stone Italia counted their sophomore effort “Sick Soundtrack” (’80) among the 100 best Italian rock albums of all time and called it the Italian version of Talking Heads‘ “Remain in Light” or Devo‘s “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!”
A 2020 book by author Paolo Morando identifies ’78 and ’79 as ‘the two years that changed Italy’ (‘Dancing days. 1978-1979. I due anni che hanno cambiato l’Italia’). We can’t confirm this thesis, but it’s common knowledge that (mainland) Europe was reluctant to accept the rumors of disco being dead. To quote pop culture authority TV Tropes: ‘Italo Disco descended from the sustained popularity of disco in Europe after its presumed death in North America. Before that, many Europeans made songs featuring synthesizers in pop and dance styles, in part due to high song import and orchestra costs. Giorgio Moroder and Cerrone popularized the use of synthesizers in disco, and disco in Europe had quite greater synthesizer usage, including the “space disco” style.’
No matter the exact genre, Gaznevada’s “I.C. Love Affair” became a certified club hit. The ‘I.C.’ indeed stands for ‘Italian Chinese’, which is a somewhat surprising liaison for ’82. Their other track that turns up in relation to rap is called “Special Agent Man” (’83), perhaps they had a phase when they fantasized about secret service romances? More likely they simply relished erotic fantasies, in light of (rapped) “Special Agent Man” lines like “I spy your secret dreams on my private TV set” and “I kill all your lovers on my new electric chair”. (At least the song doesn’t go as far as N.O.I.A.‘s more creepy than kinky BDSM proposal “Do You Wanna Dance?” (’84)). Or maybe we’re simply dealing with an ’80s version of European exoticism, considering Gaznevada tracks such as “Japanese Girls”, “Western Boys, Eastern Girls” or “Living in the Jungle”. In “I.C. Love Affair”, vocalist Billy Blade repeatedly refers to his love interest as “my sweet little Ching”, which sounds awfully wrong to modern ears. Nevertheless Gaznevada are another example for how easily early ’80s new wave bands could arrive at the decision to include rapped vocals.