Continuing the Living History Lesson
5. Public Enemy, “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor” (1988)
When I think of Public Enemy, I tend to think of Chuck D’s booming voice and the Bomb Squad’s wall-of-sound production that turns sampling into the ultimate mosaic. That’s not what “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor” is all about. The production is all there, but Chuck’s voice is nowhere to be found. This joint belongs to William “Flava Flav” Drayton, the very same Flava Flav who has appeared on reality shows like Surreal Life, Strange Love, Flavor of Love, and Under One Roof. I’m not going to comment on Flava Flav’s television career, except to say that people who don’t know Public Enemy but know Flava tend to be surprised to learn that he ever rapped. I sometimes get the same reaction from DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince songs (“Wow, that’s Will Smith?” in response to “Brand New Funk”) or Queen Latifah’s early work (“early”, because I’m not a fan of her “jazz” work).
Most of the time, Flava Flav was Chuck’s hype man, adding commentary or dropping a much needed “Yeeeeeeeeahhh boy!” at the opportune moment. An anomaly in the Public Enemy’s ultra-political album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor” finds the hype man taking center stage for a bizarre display of word usage. But then, maybe Flava’s attack of grammatical and semantic hysteria was the point, the ultimate expression of protest against social order and control. “Then you pick your teeth with tombstone chips,” goes Flava. “And casket cover clips, dead women hips you do the bump with.” Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.
“911 is a Joke”, while not released in the ‘80s, is my pick for the overall superior and definitive Flava Flav song (as if there are a lot of them), but “Cold Lampin’” is kind of dope, in the same way that Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele and MF Doom’s work would later fascinate and frustrate us.
6. Big Daddy Kane, “I Get the Job Done” (1989)
Another contender for Greatest Emcee. Antonio “Big Daddy Kane” Hardy is a bad mutha, and while I always hear Long Live the Kane touted as his “classic”, I think It’s a Big Daddy Thing was way better. It was more versatile, filled with battle raps as well as love songs. One song that seems to combine elements of battling and love was the Teddy Riley-produced “I Get the Job Done”. Shucks, you could hardly throw a rock in those days without hitting a song produced by Riley. “I Get the Job Done” takes Kane’s penchant for bragging and applies it to his sex appeal. Women buy him gifts, chase him, and just seem to plain enjoy him. Or, at least, that’s the way he tells it. With the confidence of Muhammad Ali, Kane is happy to oblige the forlorn and the loveless. He’ll “do things in places your husband wouldn’t / and do certain things he probably just couldn’t”. He’s a licker, a squeezer, a nibbler, and a massager. “So, when your main course is doin’ nothin’ for ya,” he says. “Just look at me as a tasty side order.”
We could actually stand to have more songs like this, as well as straightforward love songs, since one of rap’s biggest critiques is that it tends to be too hardboiled. Tenderness, especially when it comes to sex, is rarely conveyed well. It’s either too explicit or too tepid. When this type of stuff is handled thoughtfully, as in Brother Ali’s “You Say (Puppy Love)”, it can be refreshing.
7. MC Lyte, “Cha Cha Cha” (1989)
Although I frequently give Queen Latifah props as Top Female Emcee, I’ve always loved Lana “MC Lyte” Moorer. The tenor of her voice and the precision of her delivery make her undeniable, not to mention her willingness to try a variety of subject matter. Despite the variety, however, she is well suited to battle mode where she can verbally stomp her competition. “Cha Cha Cha” is that type of song, but the execution is so smooth, with one of the slinkiest bass lines in all of rap, that she accomplishes her mission without being menacing. At the same time, she naturally sounds a bit like a mobster from an old black-and-white movie. I can easily see her pulling a Humphrey Bogart and saying something like, “Move kid, ya botha me. Am-scray, will ya?” “Cha Cha Cha” is more subdued and matter of fact than “I’m Bad”, LL Cool J’s earnest tribute to his lyrical skill.
“My competition?” Lyte asks, mockingly. “You’ll find ‘em in the hospital. Visit time? I think it’s on a Sunday. / But notice, they only get one day to shine / The rest of the week is mine.” MC Lyte has unquestionably earned her “emcee” title.
8. Run DMC, “My Adidas” (1986)
Much of hip-hop’s post-2000 lean has been toward rugged individualism rather than group oriented projects. “Super-groups” such as Slaughterhouse (Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden, Royce Da 5’9”, and Crooked I), eMC (Masta Ace, Wordsworth, Punchline and Stricklin), and Diamond District (Oddisee, X.O., and YU) might be pointing the resurrecting the group mentality. Groups like Tanya Morgan and the individual and collective resurgence of the Wu-Tang Clan also bring rap’s original community spirit to the fore.
But, before all of this, there was Run DMC (Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, and Jason “Jam-Master Jay” Mizell), the self-proclaimed Kings of Rock, the Kings from Queens, New York. Their 1986 Raising Hell LP spawned a number of hits, such as “Tricky” and “You Be Illin’”, though nothing could surpass Run DMC’s remake of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”. It helped that Aerosmith came along for the ride, giving Run DMC, and hip-hop along with it, some of that good ol’ fashioned crossover appeal.
Hip-hoppers have traditionally balked at words like “crossover”, “mainstream”, and “commercial”, partly because these words connote pandering and trend-chasing. Run DMC, however, were not trend chasers, they were the trendsetters, and this is evident in how their style of dress. They wore t-shirts and jeans, which wasn’t a new thing, but they also rocked sneakers without laces. And just in case, people weren’t paying attention, they wrote an enthusiastic song about those shoes, with a def(t) beat to match, called “My Adidas”. This is hip-hop’s “Blue Suede Shoes”, an ode to the things we love, no matter how insignificant the object of our affections might seem to other people. Run DMC loved their shoes, LL Cool J felt good about “Kanday”, Tone Loc enjoyed his “Funky Cold Medina”, Nelly stomped in his “Air Force Ones”, and Lupe Fiasco adored his skateboard (“Kick, Push”). That’s the kind of passion people respond to.
9. LL Cool J, “I’m Bad” (1987)
The long and storied career of James Todd Smith, known to rap enthusiasts as LL Cool J, encompasses rap albums, TV shows, and films. At the time of this writing, he co-stars with Chris O’Donnell in NCIS: Los Angeles. Back in the ‘80s, LL Cool J was a young upstart who learned early on that he could appeal to an audience with his looks as well as his rap talent. On 14 Shots to the Dome‘s “Funkadelic Relic” (1993), he loosely recounted his career to that point, saying, “‘I Need a Beat’, it was a hit on the DL / but every time I did a show my name was misspelled.” Early disappointments aside, one of LL Cool J’s many contributions has been the way he lived up to the meaning of his name, “Ladies Love Cool James”. When he dropped “I Need Love”, from his Bigger & Deffer album, he brought balance to his battle rap game and created a slow jam that’ll still get requests on a radio station’s “Quiet Storm” playlist. Unfortunately, this isn’t about “I Need Love”.
Instead, the kudos belong to “I’m Bad”, a swaggering powerhouse of a song that’s packed with punch lines. LL Cool J rifles through as many pointed and witty couplets as he can muster in just less than five minutes. I’d think that rappers who specialize in snappy punch lines—Redman, Joell Ortiz, Royce Da 5’9”, and so forth—would acknowledge LL Cool J’s feats of grandeur in this regard. In any event, it continues to get people listening. “Even when I’m bragging, I’m being sincere,” says LL.
10. Kool Moe Dee, “Let’s Go” (1987)
Beefs and battles are the stuff of hip-hop lore, and Kool Moe Dee’s “Let’s Go” is right up there with the best of the diss records. If Tupac Shakur’s “Hit ‘Em Up” stands as one of rap’s most vicious ad hominem attacks, Mohandes “Kool Moe Dee” Dewese crafted one of the slyest. “Let’s Go” was a hard hitting assault, aimed at knocking the aforementioned LL Cool J down a peg. The two had already sparred on record a couple of times before in Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now” and LL Cool J’s “Jack the Rapper”. On “Let’s Go”, Moe Dee goes after LL’s ego, previous songs (“Jack the Ripper” and “Rock the Bells”, in particular), voice (“Your records were smokin’, but you sound like a girl”), attempts to flaunt his sex appeal, and subject matter (especially the love songs). Kool Moe Dee’s constant use of internal rhymes and line enjambments makes the song clever, but it’s his attack on LL’s very name that takes it over the top. Stringing together an entire section of pejoratives that start with the letter “L”, Kool Moe Dee absolutely rips into his opponent. Although LL would later respond with renewed vigor on Mama Said Knock You Out with “To Da Break of Dawn”, I’ve always seen Kool Moe Dee as the winner of their feud, if not in terms of longevity and record sales then at least on a technical, blow-by-blow level. More importantly, the abilities of battling and freestyling used to be a significant part of calling oneself an “emcee”. “Let’s Go” sums this up well.