Aside from scrolling through the “cover flow” feature on my iPod classic, one of my favorite pastimes is trying to extend the love of hip-hop to anyone who crosses my path. I am vigilant in this mission, armed with a firm resolve fueled by a desire to convert rap haters into hip-hop junkies and to deepen the established fan’s appreciation for the art form.
One surprisingly successful technique for reaching these goals has been to expose recruits to “old school hip-hop”. In this case, that means rap from the ‘80s.
I find it surprising that this technique would work because, for one thing, I would expect the music to sound dated. Will the deliveries sound stiff and antiquated compared by today’s standards? Rap is heavy on contemporary references and nods to popular culture. Will the references be too difficult to understand for those who didn’t live in the time period? Recommending songs that are over 20 years old to people who are 20-and-under doesn’t sound like the greatest idea. Nonetheless, people above and below the 20 year mark seem to respond to a thoughtfully selected playlist of these oldies.
Which leads me to the other surprising thing. Was Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back really released 20-something years ago? Goodness gracious! Where did the time go? It feels like it was only yesterday that Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith of EPMD were full-time hip-hop business partners. I still listen to a lot of this ‘80s music as if it’s brand new. Going into the year 2010, and considering where hip-hop has been thus far I’m curious, as well as cautious, about the direction of the art form.
I’m not prepared to make the overly broad statement that rap songs from the ‘80s are superior to the songs of today. If proponents of the “old school” or “golden age” would be honest about it, we would admit that there are “bad” songs from every era. However, I will say that the ‘80s rap sound has an attractive, inviting quality that entices fresh ears and open minds. It was a good time back then, and the music of that era still makes for a good listen.
Somebody has already figured that out, otherwise there wouldn’t be any “old school” rap compilations. Still, I wonder if the masterminds behind these releases realize how tough it is to successfully fit such projects into the hip-hop aesthetic (like the 2009 release of Biz Markie’s Diabolical: The Biz’s Greatest Hits).
Rap isn’t really built for reflection. It’s supposed to be fresh, state-of-the-art, and unmistakably now. Looking to the past is not what an emcee is supposed to be doing. Although we know there are legitimate reasons for compilations and “best of” albums (fulfilling a contractual obligation, for instance), a rapper whose name is attached to one of these sets is, arguably, a rapper who has fallen off and become less relevant.
This should lead us to wonder about a tribute album or an album of hip-hop standards, where contemporary artists would cover or remake classic tunes. In small doses this has gone over relatively well, as reworking classic tunes is a technique rap has used repeatedly anyway, whether through sampling (geez, pick any one of the gazillion James Brown loops we’ve heard) or redoing the words to fit the artist (such as Snoop Dogg redoing Doug E. Fresh’s Slick Rick-helmed “La Di Da Di” or Biz Markie’s “Vapors”). In 2009, Mick Boogie and Terry Urban’s homage to De La Soul, the Le Da Soul mixtape, features an army of emcees eager to put a new twist on De La Soul’s sizable catalog.
There’s nothing like a distinct vision and a new context to illuminate both the strengths and shortcomings, if any, of the original. From a cultural perspective, these compilations are interesting forms of peer review and critique that exhibit tremendous confidence in the source material. You can successfully remake songs and simultaneously pay tribute to their creators when you know those songs will hold up to the scrutiny.
Now, I can’t tell you all of my secrets, but I can certainly share some of the “old school” songs that I’ve found to be of interest to my small, informal sampling of today’s listeners. If you’re trying to convert someone to rap or broaden the horizons of an existing fan, try this group of songs as a catalyst. These selections aren’t offered for your consideration as the “best” rap songs of the ‘80s, although some would probably qualify, nor are they meant to comprise a definitive list. Other songs from this period would fit well, too. Rather, this discussion concerns the elements in these songs that listeners seem to find intriguing.
1. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, “The Message” (1982)
You’d think this song would be so obvious and so well-known that it would need no introduction. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Its deliberate, methodical rhythm effortlessly lulls new listeners into its mixture of funk and social commentary. Melvin “Melle Mel” Glover’s voice has a commanding, authoritative tone to it, even as he expresses an uncanny sense of vulnerability (“Don’t push me, ‘cause I’m close to the edge / I’m tryin’ not to lose my head”). Why MC Melle Mel isn’t a regular contender for the Greatest Emcee title is beyond me, but “The Message” is such an important song. Kids shouldn’t be allowed to graduate from high school without hearing it.
A quick note here: I tried to use songs by KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions instead of “The Message”, but I didn’t get anywhere with that strategy. Nobody came out and said they disliked KRS-One, but I got the impression his style struck some listeners as a bit didactic and preachy while “The Message” was more relatable and personable. Honestly, the “Edutainment” segment of hip-hop just isn’t as popular now as it was back in the day.
2. Eric B. & Rakim, “Microphone Fiend” (1988)
Rakim Allah’s multisyllabic rhyme schemes and fluid delivery elevated the status of the emcee, so it’s only right that listeners would respond to his music.This guy, along with Eric B., has enough bona fide classics—like “My Melody”, “Eric B. Is President”, “Paid in Full”, and “Move the Crowd”—merit a playlist of his own. In fact, when Rakim returned to rap with The 18th Letter, the album that followed his split from partner-in-rap Eric B., the limited edition version was packaged with a bonus disc of his greatest work. “Microphone Fiend” exhibits Rakim’s blend of skillful wordplay and stoic-voiced seriousness, complemented by thunderous loops designed for maximum thump. Rakim compares his rhyming habit to that of a heroin user and a cigarette smoker’s craving for nicotine, both of which are rather complex and involved addictions. Yet he carries the analogy forward with aplomb as he shuffles through a barrage of intricate and witty bars. Rhymes that make thoughtful use of analogy and metaphor are always welcome.
3. Slick Rick, “A Children’s Story” (1988)
Given England-born Slick Rick’s 2009 appearances on songs by Raekwon (“We Will Rob You”), Mos Def (“Auditorium”), and Asher Roth (U.K. bonus track “Y.O.U.”), I wonder if the new school listeners unfamiliar with his work would believe he was “old school”. Seriously, Ricky “Slick Rick” Walters pretty much stole the show on Mos Def’s “Auditorium”. There, he rhymes from the point of view of a United States soldier stationed in Iraq. Wanting to foster an understanding with the locals, the soldier can’t understand the distrust he receives from an Iraqi child (“Gimme my oil or get [the] f*ck out my country”).
In “A Children’s Story”, hip-hop’s foremost storyteller weaves a tale of woe in the form of a bedtime story. What bedtime stories did your parents read to you? Fairytales? Well, that’s not what Slick Rick does. His story tracks a 17-year-old kid’s fatal shootout with the police after plotting with a friend to “make some cash, robbin’ old folks and makin’ the dash”. The beat is frenetic and energetic, exuding the type of youthful exuberance that often substitutes for wisdom and experience, with ominous piano stabs added for texture. Do you really wonder if hip-hop is dead? As long as we have engaging storytellers, hip-hop will have a pulse.
Two things about “A Children’s Story” that I find interesting. First, Slick Rick refers to his tragic hero as a “little boy” in the beginning, but later reveals that he’s 17. We sometimes forget that teenagers and young adults—and all of us, really—are children at heart. We love adventure, even if we don’t love the consequences. Second, as the story comes to a close, Slick Rick rhymes, “This ain’t funny, so don’t you dare laugh / Just another case about the wrong path”, but once it’s all done, he ends with an abrupt, and somewhat cheerful, “Goodnight!” So wonderfully flippant and nonchalant, considering the story that precedes it, but that little “Goodnight” reminds me of the way reporters segue into, and out of, gruesome stories on the nightly news. The reporter will sometimes say something like, “Hundreds of people perished in a plane crash,” and then, after giving the details he or she will go, “Well, back to you, Bob.” And the news anchor will say, “Thanks for that,” and move to the next topic. Shiver.
4. Salt-N-Pepa, “The Showstopper” (1986)
There are better, and more widely known, Salt-N-Pepa songs than this one. For Salt-N-Pepa’s female emcees Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandy “Pepa” Denton, “Push It” is still famous and continues to get them radio play. “I’ll Take Your Man” experienced a slight resurgence from its prominent use in the film Beauty Shop, starring Queen Latifah. “Tramp” does to men what men in hip-hop, and for centuries outside of hip-hop, have done to women, and its gender reversal technique is unassailable. I also thought “My Mic Sounds Nice” would be an attention grabber, but my informal experiment leads me to abandon that hypothesis. What it boils down to is that “Showstopper” is really just a fun record. Built around the same hopping rhythm as “The Show” by Doug E. Fresh (assisted by MC Ricky D, later known as Slick Rick), “The Showstoppers” was intended as a response track to “cold diss Doug Fresh”. There are a lot of fun records like this in the ‘80s, which tempted me to say something about Kid ‘n Play, but that’s probably a discussion for a different time.