About Dennis Coffey
Guitarist Dennis Coffey had already made his name in funk history long before he sat down to work out the basics of his instrumental classic “Scorpio” in early 1971. In fact, that’s Coffey’s glorious wah-wah work you’re hearing on Producer Norman Whitfield’s “psychedelic soul” singles created for the Temptations — “Ball of Confusion,” “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack,” etc. But Dennis, that rare white musician of the era who could hold his own with the Detroit jazz masters known as Motown’s “Funk Brothers” house band, was about to enter history, not just as a one-hit wonder but as one of the founding samples of hip-hop. But it was his comrades in arms at Motown, not Coffey himself, who laid it down.
Dennis had been smart enough not to sign on with Berry Gordy full time, leaving him open to play and record for whomever he chose. So when the Sussex label, mainly known today for a string of classic Bill Withers hits, offered to let him record a whole LP of instrumentals, he leapt at the chance; thanks to the blaxploitation explosion set off by Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft,” lush, orchestral funk was all the rage, and Coffey decided to go that concept one better. Assembling a monster guitar riff of no less than nine overdubs, done by three guitarists and scored like horns or strings over three octaves, he then called upon several of his
Motown mates — drummers Uriel Jones and Richard “Pistol” Allen, bassist Bob Babbitt, Eddie “Bongo” Brown on congas, and Jack Ashford on tambourine, among others, to help out. As always, he let them stretch out during the jam, leaving room for an extended breakdown. Very extended. In fact, it lasted for two minutes and 17 seconds, with half of that devoted to percussion alone. Helping things along was the interplay between Coffey and his peers, with Brown telling the bassist to “Grab it, Babbitt!” The energy was amazing. But the single went nowhere.
Nowhere, that is, until Sussex got wind a full year later that Detroit dance floors were on fire with “Scorpio,” and the resulting A&R push sent it into the pop Top 10. Coffey became the first white man to perform on TV’s “Soul Train,” tearing the place up by daring to perform it live. Enterprising Bronx DJs began using “breaks” in their sets a few years later, and “Scorpio” was almost always in there somewhere. In 1986, it was included in the landmark “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” compilation, and it soon became a staple of hip-hop and dance producers looking to funk up the decade’s stale keyboard beats. Coffey only had one followup hit, the Top 20 “Taurus,” but “Scorpio,” whose widescreen guitar riff also got sampled quite a bit, was enough to make his rep for life.
Famous songs that sample Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio”:
- “Bust a Move,” Young MC
- “Jingling Baby,” LL Cool J
- “Night of the Living Baseheads,” Public Enemy
- “The Score,” Fugees
- “Let Me Know Something?!,” Bell Biv DeVoe
- “We’re All in the Same Gang,” West Coast Rap All Stars
- “Depend on Myself,” TLC
- “Mobility,” Moby
- “Heroes,” Roni Size and Reprazent
- “The Ride,” Shapeshifter
Other artists who sampled this track: Girl Talk, Double Dee & Steinski, House of Pain, Queen Latifah, Run-DMC, Commix, MC Serch, Antoinette, Geto Boys, Digital Underground, Another Bad Creation, Young Ax, Cyantific, Breakage, Rom Tom