Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Luther Campbell
Photo: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture / © Janette Beckman

The ‘Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap’ Brilliantly Conveys Rap Music’s History in America

The Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap is a brilliant and expansive look at one of the most popular and important art forms of the last half-century.

Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap
Various Artists
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
20 August 2021

Along with racism and classism, Chuck D could also mention sexism and misogyny (something the rapper railed against in his art, as well, for example, in his duet with Janet Jackson “New Agenda” in which he extolled the wisdom, strength, and power of Black American women). Though there are examples of misogyny and homophobia in hip-hop, women have been instrumental in the art. They were there, in the beginning, making some of the most critical work in the genre. Female pioneers like  Roxanne Shanté, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Yo-Yo, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliott, among others, are represented in the list of songs.

In her essay, journalist Kierna Mayo pays tribute to “Hip-Hop Heroines” by recalling the early female rappers who made their mark in the genre. Calling them “hip-hop’s foremothers”, Mayo namechecks innovators like Sha-Rock, Lady B, and the Sequence. She highlights that the popular misconception of the dearth of women in hip-hop as well as maintaining that despite their lack of pop/crossover success, these young hip-hip artists “may have been invisible to the worlds outside their own, but filled with a brash spirit of self-confidence and self-worth not uncommon to girls from around the way.” She rightly asserts, “these young women and their contributions to the culture could never be erased.” (86)

The wide-ranging span of the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap reinforces Mayo’s statement. There are many female acts (including new wave/punk icon Blondie) whose impact on the genre and popular culture cannot be underestimated. The aforementioned The Sequence, the brilliant rap trio that featured future neo-soul star Angie Stone, is featured with their 1979 classic “Funk You Up”, considered one of the first hip-hop songs released by a female group. They wrote the song with hip-hop legend Sylvia Robinson, who produced the track. It sounds fresh and groundbreaking, yet its echoes are heard in subsequent rap female groups like Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, or JJ Fad. The song has a skeletal quality with simple strutting bass, looping synths, and gregarious vocals.  Salt-N-Pepa’s canny 1991 hit “Let’s Talk About Sex” is influenced by “Funk You Up”, even if the song is unique and original, as well. Its feminism is far more pronounced, and Salt-N-Pepa’s pop-friendly sound means the music sounds smoother and fits into top 40 radio (it reached the top 20 on the pop charts) with its commercially-minded house production.

There are many other moments in which we hear the classic Old School Hip-Hop finding its influence and resonance in more contemporary material. The disco of Fatback Band’s 1979 “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” is located in the hip-house of Jungle Brothers’ 1988 brilliant “I’ll House You.” House and dance have an important role in the collection, particularly in the songs of the 1980s. The intersection of hip-hop and house is a natural one as both genres give due prominence to DJs and record producers, and both hip-house and dance music are seen mainly as club music. Dance music and hip-hop music is often escapist music, a way to transport its listeners; it also speaks to the relationship between queerness and hip-hop, an admittedly complicated relationship.

Though hip-hop’s relationship with dance and DJ culture is undeniable, some of the most vital work from hip-hop artists is the social commentary. Because hip-hop is a genre primarily created by Black musicians, it’s inherently political. More so than any other genre in popular music, hip-hop is a confrontational artform, endeavoring to critique politics and tell urban tales set to a beat. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 classic “The Message” is an early conscious hip-hop example. Its lyrics – penned by Duke Bootee, Melle Mel, Clifton ‘Jiggs’ Chase, and Sylvia Robinson (who took on producing responsibilities with Duke Bootee) – show an unflinching look at urban blight. Melle Mel raps over the squelchy synths and pounding bass, highlighting social ills like drugs, vagrancy, homelessness and poverty, gang violence, with the chorus repeating a desperate mantra. “I’m tryin’ not to lose my head / It’s like a jungle sometimes / It makes me wonder how I keep  from going under.”

What’s so startling about “The Message” is that even though the production sounds of its time, its power is still relevant, despite it being nearly 40 years old. The social critique on the songs in this collection still speaks to issues that had not been solved. In NWA’s incendiary “Fuck the Police”, the group blast through our speakers with a blistering take on police brutality and racism in policing. The unsparing words decry racial profiling, spitting invectives such as “Fuck the police comin’ straight from the underground / A young n***a got it bad ‘cuz I’m brown / And not the other color, so police think / They have the authority to kill a minority.” The violent imagery throughout the song illustrates the NWA’s outrage and contempt for racialized violence.

Chuck D, who contributes an essay and is a committee member, appears on the compilation with Public Enemy and their 1989 classic “Fight the Power”. It’s a song that appeared on the band’s 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet and the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s profound Do the Right Thing, a film about racial tensions in Brooklyn during a particularly tragic and brutal summer. Produced by the Bomb Squad, the song’s sound is rich, multi-layered, and thick with samples and record scratches and vocal samples (as well as an appearance by jazz great Branford Marsalis) The song opens with an explosive soundbite from activist Thomas TNT Todd’s anti-war, anti-racists speech:

Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight. Matter of fact, it’s safe to say that they would rather switch than fight

The song takes on power structures that are highly racialized and stratified along racial lines. They forcefully punch through ivory towers, urging their listeners to “fight the powers that be”. Public Enemy dismantle the iconography of white masculinity by tearing down John Wayne and Elvis Presley’s pop canonization with contemptuous lyrics. “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me you see…Motherfuck him and John Wayne / ’Cuz I’m Black and I’m proud…Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

When Sylvia Robinson and Duke Bootee were working on “The Message”, they found some resistance because the song they were working on wasn’t a party record. So much of hip-hop came up from creatives who grew up working poor, and often they would comment on the social conditions that gave birth to their art. As rap and hip-hop became far more mainstream and crossover audiences were buying rap records, superstars emerged. Artists regularly scored Billboard chart hits, found their music videos on heavy rotation on MTV, and were able to parlay their music success into multi-media stardom, including television and film.

These superstar artists would also become entrepreneurs, running media companies, record labels, and entertainment agencies, not only creating projects for themselves but nurturing music by other artists. Artists who epitomized the “rap superstar” are represented on this collection, as well, often by music that was released before their stratospheric rise in fame: Will Smith, Kanye West, Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Nicki Minaj, 50 Cent, and Drake are included, highlighting the commercial power of hip-hop and its potential to make its performers into crossover pop superstars.

The final disc, dated 2004 to 2013, encapsulates the future of hip-hop. On hip-hop, President Barack Obama opined, “Hip-hop is not just a mirror of what is. It should also be a reflection of what can be.” Obama is an important historical figure when telling the story of hip-hop as he was the first president to include hip-hop culture in his political narrative. He courted hip-hop artists to endorse and support his candidacy, and his place in history as the first Black president of the United States makes him a vital touchstone to a genre of music that often looks to Black history. On “My President”, Young Jeezy with Nas celebrate Obama’s win of the Democratic primaries, finding kinship in Obama’s success, linking it with his own (the song also links Obama’s groundbreaking history to Jackie Robinson, Booker T Washington, and Sydney Poitier)

What is significant when listening to the final disc is how diverse the voices are. We hear songs about partying, boasting of riches, and rapping skills. We also have songs about heartbreak and romance, but we also have the conscious rap featured throughout the nine CDs. Though contemporary and modern hip-hop has often been unfairly derided as merely “bling” braggadocio, the collection of songs on disc nine show that any reductive derision of modern hip-hop is narrow-minded. It seems fitting that the set ends with Drake’s emotional “Started from the Bottom” from his 2013 album, Nothing Was the Same. The song works on a haunting, solemn piano loop, stepping away from the machismo that sometimes defines some male rappers to allow for some vulnerability.

Ultimately, The Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap is a brilliant and expansive look at one of the most popular and important art forms of the last half-century. The collection also shows how diverse and wide-reaching the genre is, as it brushes against other popular music genres. There is an array of quality and importance of the songs included. Not only do we hear important, mini-magnum opuses, like early, groundbreaking work by key artists like Public Enemy, NWA, and Afrika Bambaataa, but commercial blockbusters by pop-rappers like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice are included, showing just how far hip-hops reached. The work of Vanilla Ice may not be important artistically or aesthetically. Still, it illustrated the genre’s commercial capital (as well as the history of white artists appropriating Black music styles). The tapestry weaved by the fabulous team behind this anthology is one that is edifying, inspiring, and entertaining.