Monday, November 25, 2013

The REAL Meanings of "Burn Baby Burn" & "The Roof Is On Fire"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides a partial time line & some comments about the chant & musical refrain "burn baby burn" or its variant form "burn mf* burn and the musical refrain "the roof is on fire". This time line is from 1967 - 2002 and particularly focuses on the Soca record "Follow The Leader".

This post also includes comments gleaned from an informant about how "the roof is on fire" chorus was chanted in call & response style at certain African American parties & dance clubs beginning in the mid 1980s. My comments about the cluster of "being on fire"/"getting hot" Black slang terms that mean something that is done very well or someone who is doing something very well [such as playing musical instrument, singing, or dancing] are also included in this post.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, and folkloric purposes.

Click for a companion post that showcases four videos of the Soca song "Follow The Leader".

All copyrights remains with their owners.

*”mf” is my abbreviation for the widely known expletive that has two syllables which begin with those letters.

"Gale Encyclopedia of US History:
Urban Riots of 1967"
"Beginning in April and continuing through the rest of the year, 159 race riots erupted across the United States. The first occurred in Cleveland, but by far the most devastating were those that took place in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan. The former took twenty-six lives and injured fifteen hundred; the latter resulted in forty deaths and two thousand injuries. Large swaths of ghetto in both places went up in flames. Television showed burning buildings and looted stores, with both National Guardsmen and paratroopers on the scenes."

From “The Trammps – Disco Inferno Lyrics"
The Tramps song includes the verses:
"(Burn baby burn) disco inferno
(Burn baby burn) burn that mother down
(Burn baby burn) disco inferno
(Burn baby burn) burn that mother down...

Up above my head
I hear music in the air
That makes me know
There's a party somewhere"...

(Just can't stop) when my spark gets hot
(Just can't stop) when my spark gets hot"
It’s my position that those lines refer to sexual energy, to a dance event & dancers who are "hot", and to an expanded meaning of the fires that occurred during the riots of 1967. That expanded meaning alludes to the need to burn down [tear down] mainstream America’s (and the world’s) entrenched, unjust system to make way for a more just, equitable system for all. It's important to emphasize my view that these interpretations don't mean that that song condoned or encouraged riots or burning businesses, or other such actions.

The “up above my head” verse is almost entirely lifted from the African American Spiritual with that name. However, in that Hip Hop Song, the "up above my head" verse refers to music at a disco party and reflects the role of that music - to "heat up" [raise the energy of] those in attendance that party. In other words, that song’s purpose is to help “get the party jumpin” with loud and energetic music [music that is “bumbin” ].

"The Hip Hop song "The Roof Is On Fire" was composed and recorded in 1984 by the Bronx, New York based Hip Hop group Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three.

"The Roof Is on Fire" is a single from Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three which was released in 1984 that reached number five on the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart.

That song is remembered for its chorus:
“The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire!
We don't need no water—Let the mf* burn!
Burn, mf*, burn!"
*This expletive is fully spelled out in those lyrics and on that page.
Another page about that group,, indicates that “Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three was an old school rap group best known for the singles "The Roof Is on Fire" and "Request Line", both of which have been sampled by many other groups, for a large variety of genres...

The phrase and hook from "The Roof Is on Fire" has become more notable than the band itself, having been sampled by groups such as Chemical Brothers, Coal Chamber, Kid 'n Play, Rancid, The Pharcyde, and The Bloodhound Gang and many others.”
The use of the expletive "mf" is an extension of the word “mother” that is found in The Trammps’ song. In the context of those songs both of those words mean the same thing.

Read my comments above about the meaning of the “burn baby burn” chant.

The "burn baby burn" was re-introduced to a lesser extent in 1992 in relationship to the Los Angeles, California riots that were sparked by the acquittal of police officers who were charged in the Rodney King videotaped beating incident.

"Watts Riots: Burn, Baby, Burn
During August of 1965, the Watts riots transfixed the nation in an explosion of racial violence that, when it was over, left 36 dead, 900 reported injured, over 4,000 arrested and at least $200 million dollars of property damage. It was an orgy of burning and looting that left the area looking like a ravaged war zone. It all started with an arrest of a black man by the hated LAPD on charges of drunken driving"...

The Soca dance instruction song* “Follow Da Leader” was first recorded by the Trinidad & Tobago duo Nigel and Marvin Lewis. (The word "da" in that title means "the".)

"Follow Da Leader" includes a sample of the Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three's chorus of "The Roof Is on Fire" but the "Follow Da Leader" chorus purposely omits the expletive that is in that Hip Hop song. Inspite of that expletive being omitted, in the "Follow Da Leader" record & in Nigel's & Marvin's live performances of that song those singers noticably pause where that word would have been. In doing so, listeners to that song who are familiar with the inclusion of that expletive in the Hip Hop song which is the source of that refrain, can add that word during their singing of it, or they can feel a sense of "one upmanship because they are a "hip to the fact" that that expletive is implied by that noticable pause.
*A "dance instruction" song is one in which the singer leads the listeners in the performance of various dance moves.

A number of online pages indicate that Marvin & Nigel were the original artists to record that song, but I haven't found any specific date for that recording. I also haven't found any biographical information about that group. Additions to this post with that information and/or links to that information would be appreciated.

The song "Follow The Leader" is re-recorded by The Soca Boys, a Dutch music group whose members are of Trinidadian ancestry.
[translated from Dutch to English]
“The Soca Boys is a Dutch dance act, which in 1998 scored a worldwide hit with the song Follow the Leader. Besides a number one hit in the Netherlands, the song reached the charts in European countries, the USA and South America."
The lyrics, tune, and tempo of that recording are the same as in the original record by Marvin & Nigel Lewis.

The Soca Boys' "Follow The Leader" record is highly popular worldwide where it is used for a large number of activities, including parading in carnivals, dancing in conga lines during weddings receptions and as part of the entertainment on cruise ships and in resort clubs shows. The Soca Boys's "Follow The Leader" record has also been used in the Caribbean as the song for the children's game musical chairs. That record has also been played during parties, proms and for aerobic exercise routines such as Zumba and cheer-robics [at cheerleader camps]. The Soca song "Follow The Leader" has also been used as a fun sing & dance along activity in summer camps & schools, where it also has been used as a stress reduction activity or as a reward after test taking. Adults have also used "Follow The Leader" as a stress reduction activity.

{These uses for The Soca Boy's "Follow The Leader" song were gleaned from this viewer comment thread for a video of a video of that song:
WARNING: Like many other YouTube viewer comment threads, this thread includes profanity, sexually explicit language, racists comments, and other comments that are problematic.

The song "Follow the Leader" was recorded by the Spanish speaking group S.B.S.

The lyrics, tune, and tempo of that recording are the same as in previous recordings.
Additions to this post with information and/or links to information about the music group S.B.S. would be appreciated.

Nigel & Marvin - Follow Da Leader (2002)
Nigel & Marvin record an updated version of their now classic party song. That 2002 version samples the dance beat of Chocolate Puma's "I Wanna Be" record.

Remembrances of a 40 year old African American from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (referred to as "MH")

According to MH, "the roof is on fire” chorus from The Trammps Hip Hop record was a very widely used call & response chant at certain African Americans parties and small dance clubs from the mid 1980 on, and that chant is still heard at those venues, particularly those attended by African Americans who were young adults or teens during the mid 1980s. (The parties and small club events that MH recalls were in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the Washington, DC. area and were largely attended by Black students or who attended colleges or universities. However, she believes that "the roof is on fire" was chanted the same way in other African American communities beginning in the mid 1980s as result of The Trammps' record with that title and that chorus. She further believes that that chorus has been chanted the same way since that time, particularly among Black party or dance club attendees who were young adults or teens in the mid 1980s.

MH explained that although the "the roof of fire" chant was known to be from The Trammps' Hip Hop song, that chant was almost always done independent of that record being played. When a party was "getting good", and/or as a means of raising the energy at those parties so that the party got even "hotter", someone in the crowd, or perhaps the dj would seemingly randomly yell “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire". Immediately afterwards people still dancing and other people at the party loudly responded “We don’t need no water – let the
"mf" burn”. [I asked this informant if the crowd actually said “mf”. She replied "yes", but indicated that she didn’t because she doesn’t curse.]. MH also said that “when people in her generation hear songs like the song “Follow The Leader” which leaves out that curse word, they know that word has been left out - that word is understood**, although it's not sung out loud.

MH said that she believes that "the roof is on fire" meant that the atmosphere at the party or club was "heating up"/"getting hot". That chorus had no political meaning what so ever.

**In this context “understood” means the same thing as what occurs with the word “You” that is left out of commands such as “Come here”.

A number of Black slang [African American/Caribbean] terms are part of a "being on fire"/"getting hot" cluster. Those terms mean that something is being done very well or that someone is doing something very well [such as playing musical instrument, singing, or dancing].

Among those vernacular terms are "cookin", "smokin", "burnin", and [being] "on fire". I also believe that the logical result of something or someone being on fire resulted in the African American vernacular terms "dynomite", "the bomb", "sick", "killed [it]", "murdered", and "slaughtered". Those slang terms also mean "something that is done very well" or "someone doing something very well."

Note that "gettin hot" = "doing something very well" [because of that person's talent and/or skills or because the energy in a room has "heated up" are just two of a number of Black vernacular meanings for the word "hot".

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Special thanks to my informant MH.

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