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How Cypress Hill's Eric Bobo Discovered Lost Tapes by His Legendary Dad, Percussionist Willie Bobo

Photo of percussionist Willie Bobo
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Photo of percussionist Willie Bobo with son Eric Bobo
Late musician Willie Bobo and a young Eric Bobo play together.  | Photo: Courtesy of Nacional Records

Legendary percussionist Willie Bobo (born William Correa), who played alongside iconic artists like Tito Puente and Carlos Santana, might be best known for his contributions to the Latin Jazz genre, but he was also one of the most influential musicians to the early years of hip-hop. The phrase “kick the Willie Bobo,” meaning to chill out or be smooth, even became hip-hop slang. Rapper Grand Puba was the first to say it on Mary J. Blige’s song “What’s the 411 (Remix).”

Willie Bobo passed away in 1983 but his son and percussionist Eric Bobo, widely known for his work with Los Angeles hip-hop group Cypress Hill, carries on his late father's legacy. And with a recent public announcement that Eric Bobo discovered lost tracks that were recorded more than 40 years ago by his father, audiences have a rare opportunity to revisit Willie Bobo's offerings to popular music.

The finding happened in the mid-1990’s when Eric Bobo was visiting his mom’s house, searching for something in a closet. That's when he came across a stash of tapes with his dad’s name on them. His mom told him not to touch. But still, Eric Bobo snuck out a couple and brought them to friend Mario Caldato Jr., well-known as a producer and engineer for the Beastie Boys.

After a private listening session of the tapes, Caldato immediately turned to Eric Bobo and said, “we have to do something with these.”

Photo of percussionist Willie Bobo
Photo of percussionist Willie Bobo.   | Courtesy of Nacional Records

But they could not do anything with the recordings without Eric Bobo’s mom’s blessing. She is very protective over anything relating to her late husband, who passed away at the age of 49. She doesn't even like people going through old family photo albums, says Eric Bobo.

As it turns out, these lost tapes were recorded during the years 1970-1975, when Willie Bobo was an unsigned artist in-between record deals. He had just completed a deal with Verve Records and was looking to Sussex Records for his next project. With no pressure from the record executive suits telling him what to play, these demo tracks are some of his most free-spirited recordings, making them that much more special.

Eric Bobo would eventually approach his mom, seeking her approval to issue the never-before-released tracks: “Look I've been taking the tapes out and think [they] need to be out. At least listen.”

She took a weekend to listen to the tapes before giving the OK to share her husband's songs.

Now, some 20 years or so later, Nacional Records has released an 11-track album titled “Willie Bobo: Dig My Feeling,” which contains them.

Thinking back to those days in the early '70s when the demo tracks were recorded, Eric Bobo remembers it was a struggle when his father was in-between deals, and remembers snapshots of news that rocked the country during those times — the Watergate Scandal led to President Nixon’s resignation, the Vietnam War came to an end, and there was the Patty Hearst kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

“I was too young to understand, but this is what shaped music. This is why Marvin Gaye’s song 'What’s Going On' was so powerful,” he says.

Eric Bobo also did not comprehend the magnitude of his father's musical contributions. Willie Bobo was named musician of the year at just 18 years of age by Down Beat magazine. Growing up, jazz musicians like Art Blakey often visited their Spanish Harlem home for rehearsals.

Eric Bobo’s first gig was at five years old playing with his dad’s band. As Eric grew older he would start to bring some of his own flavors to his dad’s gigs and rapped over beats. Hip-hop was the new sound in the streets and The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was the new sensation.

Early hip-hop featured much live instrumentation. If you listen to Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” you’ll hear a timbale solo. Latin musicians and hip-hop artists were connected by percussion. Unlike disco, the other popular genre of the time.

“It was manufactured pop. To Latin artists, disco was boring,” Eric Bobo says.

As more hip-hop artists and producers started to sample Latin and jazz records, Eric Bobo’s path started to take shape. He got to see musicians like Roy Ayers, Puente and Miles Davis perform live. Today, Eric Bobo continues to relive those moments as he comes across hip-hop tracks that sample their work.

“I had no one to share this experience with. I was in my own room, in my own bubble,” Eric Bobo says.

But later on in Eric Bobo’s career things changed and he even recalls when Q-Tip of iconic hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest came up to him and said that Willie Bobo’s song “Do What You Want To Do” was one of his favorites.

Photo of percussionist Willie Bobo
Photo of percussionist Willie Bobo.   | Courtesy of Nacional Records

Then in the early '90s, Eric Bobo was invited to play with his Latin jazz trio at the wedding of Beastie Boys' member Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz. They already knew all about his father from collecting his vinyl records. It is there that another member of the group, Michael "Mike D" Diamond, invited Eric to audition to play percussion for the band. All members of the group dug his work and he got the gig. In 1992, Eric joined the Beastie Boys for the “Check Your Head” album tour. The last two weeks of the tour, L.A.-based hip-hop group Cypress Hill joined the line-up. Sen Dog of Cypress Hill reached out to Eric to play with them as well.

During this period, hip-hop had become more consolidated to the MC and the DJ. The DJ was now considered the band, in Cypress Hill's case this was DJ Muggs, and a percussionist or drummer would only interfere. But with Cypress Hill, there was already a Latin element to the group and percussions fit in organically. They teamed up with House of Pain for the 1993 Soul Assassins tour.

“Percussion fills in the track and adds color,” Eric Bobo says. Today in hip-hop, live bands with rhythm sections are common, but the understanding of the tones and textures they add to the live show seems somewhat lost, he continues. “The rhythm section is there, but the use of it is stale. Trap drums are the same in every song. Same with reggaeton. The band is still in the background, with no interaction. It’s sonically strong, but visually people don't get it.”

When Eric Bobo heard the music of L.A. jazz artist Kamasi Washington and saw how Kendrick Lamar opened his listeners up to musicianship, he felt there was hope.

Eric Bobo is currently working on a new Cypress Hill album produced by DJ Muggs, a new album with Chilean producer Latin Bitman, and another project with DJ Rhettmatic for their DJ and percussion collaboration project, Cypress Junkies.

He has not played his dad’s music in over 25 years, but new album “Willie Bobo: Dig My Feeling” might change that.

“Live music, no matter how the industry goes, is an important piece of the puzzle,” he says.

Eric Bobo was never able to play his father’s music the same way his father did and satisfy fans. But this new music has never been played live, so audiences won't know what to expect.

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