Joe Parsley’s spoken-word rhyming on a 1974 recording fits the definition of ‘proto-rap’
Go ahead and call it age discrimination, but I’m telling you, Joe Parsley is easy to dismiss because he’s old.
Every so often, the 84-year-old Springfield resident will walk up to kids listening to hip-hop and tell them he — the little octogenarian standing before them — was the first true rapper.
Oh, he knows why they laugh.
The man’s old. He ain’t dumb.
“What would you think?” he asked recently.
It’s still hard to equate rap with old folks.
Never mind the fact that if you were 18 when you bought “Rapper’s Delight” on 45 back in ’79, you’re now eligible for a 20 percent discount the next time you dine at Denny’s after 4 p.m. just by presenting your AARP membership card.
“I’ve still got hope,” said Parsley, who, at the age of 46 in 1974, bought several hours of studio time in Columbus and had 1,000 45s pressed of himself clearly rocking a mic before anyone had heard of rap.
Laugh, like everyone else.
But for almost 40 years, the man whose spoken-word rhyming on record confused most everybody — including the young backing band — has lived for the day when he’d get the last laugh.
And that day is at hand.
Last year, a surviving copy of his self-produced “Soul Streak” sold on eBay for more than $200.
Who’s laughing now, as Flavor Flav might say, boyeeee?
In November, a Chicago record label known for reissues of obscure soul material tracked down Parsley in order to license “Soul Streak” and its flipside, “Hooked,” for a forthcoming compilation.
And, just last week, a label based in Germany contacted him wanting to do the same.
“I’m amazed, man. I am amazed. I really am,” Parsley said. “I’ve been telling everyone.”
Known to friends as Jody, Parsley credited the song to Jody & the Individuals.
A blue-collar laborer all his life, he initially sent dozens of 45s to recording studios and radio stations across the country.
The members of the backing band each received a stack of 45s to give away to friends.
Later on in the ’70s, guitarist Ralph “Luv” Aikens would find national fame with the band Faze-O, one of the many Dayton funk bands whose records laid the foundation for hip-hop as we know it.
Faze-O’s biggest hit, “Riding High” — a Top 10 R&B hit in 1978 — has been sampled by everyone from Ice Cube to Kriss Kross.
Snoop Dogg went so far as to sample it twice.
But at the time of “Soul Streak,” Aikens was a young man from Xenia who, like dozens of area musicians, congregated in the basement of Parsley’s old house on West Liberty Street.
“He always called me up when he had something to work on,” Aikens, now 60, recalled.
Admittedly, “Soul Streak” threw him for a loop.
“I was like, ‘He’s talking all the way through it,’ ” Aikens said. “Now everyone’s rapping. He was ahead of his time. I just played the music and let him do his thing.”
It would seem that “Soul Streak” — Parsley’s lighthearted commentary on the ’70s streaking fad — now falls into the category of “rare groove.”
Record collectors continuously are scouring the permafrost for something to excavate that will expand our knowledge of the ancient past.
In other words, you wouldn’t believe how much music was recorded in the ’60s and ’70s — not all of it initially found an audience.
Tobias Kirmayer, a 34-year-old German DJ and record collector, has been seeking out rare American soul, funk and jazz 45s since the early ’90s.
In 2003, he established Munich-based Tramp Records.
With the blessing of the original artists, he began compiling his collection for a CD, vinyl and digital download series, “Movements.”
The fourth volume in the series — bearing such song titles as “Booty Whip,” “Cissy Popcorn” and “Ooo Wee Baby” — came out earlier this month.
“There is so much soul and funk music around which did not get the attention it deserves,” Kirmayer wrote in an email. “And that’s what I try to change with my label.”
Kirmayer is in talks with Parsley to use “Soul Streak” on a compilation of proto-rap tunes.
And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m the middle man between Kirmayer and Parsley.
Back in 2007, I produced a video on Parsley for the Springfield News-Sun website.
“The day you called me,” Parsley said, five years after the fact, “was the day I revised hope for that song.”
Thanks to the magic of the Internet, Kirmayer recently found the short story that accompanied my video.
“Thanks to guys like you,” Kirmayer said, “there is a way to find the musicians behind such records.”
While Kirmayer doesn’t have the original 45 — thanks to the current exchange rate, though, he’d get a steal at $151 euros the next time it pops up on eBay — it’s been in his head since he first heard it.
“In the past 12 months,” he said, “I accidentally came across a handful of obscure funk tunes which had a certain ‘rap’ flavor.”
When the idea to compile them came to mind, Kirmayer instantly thought back to “Soul Streak,” with Aikens’ wah-wahing guitar and Parsley nephew Fred Borden’s congas.
“I couldn’t sing,” Parsley confessed. “I could only carry some kind of tune after I got tore up.”
But, he’d been coming up with funny little rhymes for years.
He’s got a great one from the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. (It’s just a tad insensitive by postwar standards to reprint.)
“That’s when they was streaking,” he explained. “People were trying to say how terrible it was.”
He decided instead to champion the cause.
“Your body’s beautiful and everyone knows,” he raps, “that nature made you but it didn’t make clothes.
“So let’s take ’em off, you and me, I got a need to set my body free.”
“My rhythms were today’s,” Parsley said.
By song’s end, the message becomes clear — “Free yo’ body and you free yo’ mind.”
“It is indeed an early example of rapping,” Kirmayer said. “He was one of the first ones, for sure, but I simply do not have the knowledge to claim that he did it first.
“ ‘Soul Streak’ is definitely an unusual piece of music and certainly far ahead of its time.”
Free yo’ mind
Even Parsley knows that it’s supremely unlikely that the accepted history of rap will be rewritten to include “Soul Streak.”
“Rap’s a multimillion-dollar business,” Parsley said. “People have gotten rich from the things I did.
“The satisfaction is knowing that my idea was right-on.”
A man can dream, though.
“I’d really love some money,” he remarked.
The thing is, Parsley has been coming up with ideas his entire life.
Watch him dig through a box of old papers at his house and he’s just as likely to pull out a yellowing piece of sheet music as he is a patent drawing he made of a new, dog-proof garbage can.
Sitting with him, you’ll learn that he had mad ping-pong skills — “I was considered one of the best ping-pong players around” — and that he sold some songs to Motown.
He’s got a brittle, 1975 royalty statement from Jobete Music — the publishing arm of Motown — to back it up.
It’s the ping-pong claim that’s harder to substantiate.
“There’s nobody like Jody,” said Charlie Borden, of Springfield, another nephew who played drums on “Soul Streak” in 1974. “Everybody that knows him appreciates him, but the world should appreciate Jody.”
More than anything, Parsley’s basement acted as a sort of refuge for musicians and a training ground for aspiring ones.
“He never would criticize a musician,” Borden, 63, said. “He just seemed to let everyone express themselves.”
Springfield’s Tommy Tucker, who had a Top 40 hit in 1964 with the classic “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” would stop by at Christmas.
In addition to Aikens, of Faze-O, other guys went on to play and record with Isaac Hayes and Zapp.
To this day, Parsley insists that Aikens played one of his bass lines for an associate of Michael Jackson’s.
And, well, you know where this is going, right?
“You know that’s my bass line on Michael Jackson’s thing,” Parsley remarked to Aikens during a photo shoot for this story. “And you know where he got it.”
Aikens could only smile — then he hummed the intro to “Billie Jean.”