Music

'Boombox 3' Collection Explores the Fun of Early Rap

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The latest installment in Soul Jazz Records' Boombox series, tracing the evolution of recorded rap in the late '70s and early '80s, provides us with the useful reminder that once upon a time, rap had a sense of wonder, newness, and joie de vivre.

Boombox 3: Early Independent Hip Hop, Electro and Disco Rap 1979-83
Various Artists

Soul Jazz

3 June 2018

If there's a rap fan in your midst, please give them a little space these days. They're probably suffering a case of emotional whiplash.

After all, these last few weeks have consisted of one dizzying turn after the next in Hip-Hop Nation. They've included:

  • Kanye West's announcement of his admiration, if not respect, for the alt-right and the rise of Trumpism, tenuous grasp on history be damned (it would be curious to note if any of those heartened by the news, besides new BFF and listening-party attendee Candace Owens, actually went on to further investigate West's subsequent releases, or any of his previous ones);
  • The collective shoulder shrug the world gave to his series of five-consecutive album releases, whose run-up was far more fascinating than the music itself (will someone please make Kanye great again?);
  • Hip-hop's latest beef, between Pusha T and Drake over Drake's baby-daddy status (really, who among us with a life cares about which rapper has issues with another rapper?);
  • The not-completely-shocking murder of XXXTentacion, the rapper folks either loved for his music or despised for his personal life, or both (why does the seemingly random nature of his killing remind me of the way Omar was killed on The Wire?);
  • The Carters' surprise release Everything Is Love (in which the wherewithal to shoot a video in the Louvre, of all places, casts having more money than God as a political statement in favor of the underdog, and made us all go APES**T nonetheless);
  • Drake's sprawling opus Scorpion, which featured only 10 fewer tracks on its two discs than on all of Kayne's five-album run (and on which he finally showed signs of evolving past the hip-hop version of Randy Newman's "It's Lonely at the Top").

Why, it's almost enough to make us forget a minor event like Childish Gambino's "This Is America."

The common denominator of all these events goes beyond cultural notoriety and/or social import. For all their lyrical content and sonic inventiveness, none of this music is driving people onto a dance floor, at least not to the extent hip-hop once did. Yes, folks are blasting it from their cars, streaming it all day and so on. But aside from maybe using it as a soundtrack to a cardio session, no one is actually moving their asses to most of these beats. Nor, to be honest, could they if they even wanted to.

Now, one could argue these current sociopolitical times don't call for mindless boogie music. That would be accurate as far as it goes. But black and brown people have been facing hard times in America for centuries, and that hasn't stopped folks from stomping at the Savoy, shaking a tail feather or tearing the roof off the sucker. Even no less a radical firebrand than Emma Goldman didn't want a revolution she couldn't dance to.

And it's not as if party music hasn't co-existed alongside weightier fare over the years in rap. For every Public Enemy there was a Biz Markie to get the party started, for every De La Soul on the workaday grind there was a 50 Cent announcing shawty's birthday. Artists like Ice Cube and 2Pac easily toggled between decrying the ills of the world and getting folks to dance anyway, often doing both in the same song.

Nowadays, the balance seems to be out of whack. There might be a cute Cardi B or Migos track out there at any given moment, but folks seem more inclined to parse such music for a broader social context, or carry on Twitter feuds about it, than to relax and enjoy it. And even if they were to move to it, nothing about what's happening in rap now suggests that dance - the communal feeling of a bunch of people rocking to the funky beats of the DJ's mix - matters anymore. Perhaps that's why the "throwback rap" radio format of '90s hits is so popular now - it specializes in the tunes that people had good times to back in the day, and it seems rap circa 2018 has forgotten that club-banger jams, even if they don't move the cultural envelope, have a useful function in the world, at least for those of us who need a break from everything else. (It may also be easier to make a propulsive track by sampling somebody else's groove, as was the case with many of those radio hits, or by enlisting studio musicians than by booting up some keyboards and computers in the bedroom; then again, that hasn't stopped EDM producers worldwide).

So let us now praise Soul Jazz Records for the latest installment in its Boombox series, tracing the evolution of recorded rap in the late '70s and early '80s. Aside from introducing younger rap fans to the genre's history, it's provided us with the useful reminder that once upon a time, rap had a sense of wonder, newness and joie de vivre.

A quick primer: rap had been a going concern in New York City years before anyone thought to record it for commercial release. With the surprise success of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" in 1979 on Sylvia Robinson's newly-minted Sugar Hill Records, the floodgates opened, and soon records became rap's ticket out of its wombs in Harlem clubs and Bronx playgrounds.

The first two Boombox releases concentrated on the first records made in New York following "Rapper's Delight," with artists like Spoonie G and entrepreneurs like Bobby Robinson regretting their decision not to record sooner and making up for lost time while the iron was hot - rap was still thought to be something of a fad, and people wanted to make the most of what they thought would be the only 15 minutes of the genre's fame. But those records found their way out of the five boroughs, and in time artists and hustlers across the country were angling to get on board. Boombox 3 picks up the trail with some of the first rap records made outside New York, as well as further documenting the various roots of the NYC scene.

The first thing you'll notice is that none of the artists, labels or entrepreneurs are household names, even to most old-school aficianados. The major record labels of the day refused to take rap seriously at first, and outside of Sugar Hill and Robinson's Enjoy Records, most first-generation rap labels (including those represented here) had only a handful of releases in their catalogues, if indeed that many.

Next, you'll discover that all the music was performed by live musicians in a studio - no sampling (that technology did not yet exist), and no DJ's making new tracks by working two turntables (Grandmaster Flash and others were already doing that, but none of the Boombox 3 tracks feature such beat-making). And for the most part, those musicians were just as anonymous, then and now, as the rappers they played behind (only the Sugar Hill rhythm section of Skip McDonald, Doug Winbush and Keith LeBlanc received anything close to notoriety, let alone just renumeration, for their work - and much of that came years after the fact).

If it all sounds like late '70s/early '80s funk, that's because it essentially was. Remember: hip-hop was built from snippets of popular funk beats (plus anything else that proved to be funky enough, like Babe Ruth's "The Mexican"). And at the time there was no funkier beat than that on Chic's "Good Times" (1978), the undergirding of "Rapper's Delight" and the inspiration for Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" (1980). Both of those beats are represented here: members of the R&B band Black Ivory, which actually had a minor hit or two, did their version of the "Good Times" beat behind Sicle Cell and Rhapazooty's "Rhapazooty in Blue" (they clearly don't make names like that anymore), while Sugar Daddy sweetly rhymes over Queen's beat in a tune creatively titled "Another One Bites the Dust". Rest assured those records were far from the only raps cut on those beats.

Further, let the record show that women were on the mic even way back then. On "Ms DJ Rap It Up", she proclaims, "Get on up no more sittin' down / I am the baddest witch in town" over an old-school keyboard riff Dam-Funk would die for (that was back before such a thing as parental advisory stickers). That was also one of several early rap records produced by Jamaican expats in NYC, further cementing the the Caribbean roots of hip-hop exemplified in Kool Herc's recasting of the Jamaican sound system model to parties in the Bronx.

Lest anyone think that topical rap music began with Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "The Message" (1982), take a listen to "Get Fly" (1982) from TJ Swann and Company, which namechecks headline makers of the era like the Guardian Angels, budget cuts," Iran and the embassy abduction", Ronald Reagan's election and the Abscam political bribery scandal ("There's just no remedy as you can see / to get us out of this poverty"), or the schoolhouse rap of Sherod's "Schooling", complete with that staple of the era, a timbales solo.

Once "Rapper's Delight" made its way out of New York and onto radio playlists, it quickly inspired others throughout the country to try their hand at this rapping thing (I'm kicking myself as you read this for not snatching up those super-early adaptor records; some of those 12-inch singles might break eBay). Boombox 3 represents the unlikely rap meccas of Columbus, Ohio (the Mifflin Ensemble, "On the Move"), Milwaukee (the Majestics, "Class A") and Phoenix (Poor Boy Rappers, "Low Rider Rap" and "The DJ Rap"), as well as the future hotbed Houston (Brothers' Disco, "Thumpin").

On that particular tip, Boombox 3 continues the series' excavation of the roots of West Coast rap. To be clear, it didn't begin solely with the World Class Wreckin' Cru, which gave us Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, and Uncle Jamm's Army, home to Ice-T. The first West Coast rap record was "The Gigolo Rapp" (1982) from Disco Daddy and Captain Rapp, making copious use of Rick James' "Give It to Me Baby" beat (a subsequent release from the same, short-lived label was included on Boombox 2). Also in the mix early on was the Caution Crew with "Rhythm Rock", whose backing track owes a lot to Lakeside and other early '80s funk.

To be sure, first-generation rap wasn't universally beloved: left-leaning listeners wanted lyrical fare closer to the Last Poets than anything heard here; and many older blacks failed to see any redeeming musical qualities in the nascent art form. Absolutely none of the tracks on Boombox 3 made a dent in the charts nationwide. But these records further cemented rap as a music people far removed from NYC would create and consume, and eventually made it possible for harder-edged and genre-advancing fare to emerge. By then, rap music was already beginning to splinter off in new directions; once hopes Boombox will continue to track that evolution with further deep archival digs.

Do not be surprised if folks who weren't around back then (Kendrick Lamar, for example, was born five years after the latest releases on Boombox 3) scratch their heads and wonder who in their right mind would have made music that sounded so old-time and simple. Instead of telling them to get off your lawn, ask them to consider the landscape of jazz music in 1959. Former vanguardists Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk released canonical albums, and new vanguardists like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra were blowing open the status quo. But if they were to look back 35 years prior - about the same distance from Boombox 3's music to today - they would discover that the jazz of 1924 also sounded old-time and simple. After all, Louis Armstrong had not yet made his first records with his Hot Five and Hot Seven combos, Duke Ellington had not yet assembled the full core of his first great band, Bill (not yet Count) Basie was just beginning his jazz apprenticeship in New York, and Eleanora Fagin was just nine years old, a long way from becoming Billie Holiday. Yet the jazz of 1924 bore significant fruits of what the music would soon become.

Among other events: Armstrong moved to New York City, after he and fellow New Orleans expat Joe "King" Oliver had ruled the jazz roost in Chicago, and joined the Fletcher Henderson big band; Jelly Roll Morton published the soon-to-be-eternal "King Porter Stomp;" Django Reinhardt took up the guitar and started playing out in clubs across Paris; and George Gershwin wrote "Rhapsody in Blue," the first major shot at jazz-inflected symphonic music (or the other way around, if you prefer). Just as no one could have seen in 1924 what jazz would spring forth 35 years later, no one around the time of Boombox 3's tracks would have envisioned a rapper winning a Pulitzer Prize.

The point is that art evolves, often at a dizzying rate, and that the hotness of what's new and now doesn't negate the freshness of what came generations before it - in its day, it was the new and now thing. The new and now stands on the past's shoulders, even if it's nowhere near obvious at a cursory glance. That's the case Boombox 3 makes for early rap - in between the major milestones, there was a lot of music from people never to be heard from again, of varying degrees of quality but none of it without the ability to charm and entertain, all of it helping prove the broader point of rap's true viability and potential. It's highly doubtful music like this would be a hit nowadays, given how far rap has come since then. But maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea if some of today's artists took a cue from these tracks, and figured out a way to make rap fun again.

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