According to accepted folk wisdom, the song generally credited as hip-hop's point of insertion into pop culture, Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight", is a bit of a farce. As the story goes, "Big Bank Hank" Jackson and his cohorts swiped most of the song's rhymes from other NYC-area rappers. Sugarhill Records owner Sylvia Robinson saw an entrepreneurial opportunity and, unable to snare the rights to Chic's "Good Times" for the backing track, hired session pros to emulate it. Thus, "Rapper's Delight" is basically secondhand rhymes rapped by second-tier rappers over a secondhand beat. Yet it's justifiably considered a classic, and the 25th anniversary of its release is the stated impetus behind The Hip Hop Box.
Welcome to the always-controversial, ever-contradictory world of rap.
It's telling that the first of several essays in the liner notes (after a disappointing, negligible foreword by, according to the sticker on the packaging, a "living legend" -- albeit who is well past his prime) is titled "The Death of Hip-Hop". According to its author, journalist Michael A. Gonzales, "the wild styled... passion and hunger that once existed in rap has been replaced by cookie-cutter contentment. How many gangstas and ho's does it take to change a light bulb, anyway?" The disdain, almost contempt for contemporary rap's pervading combo of gun culture and big business is tough to miss. The producers and compilers of The Hip Hop Box apparently agree; and, more or less, the proof's in the four-disc, 51-track pudding.
Disc One could stand on its own as just about the best compilation of early hip-hop around. The simple production (usually just a beat box and keyboard) and rudimentary rhymes are a striking reminder that, like its forbearer reggae, hip-hop began as popular music in the purest sense: it reflected the tastes, pleasures and grievances of its particular audience, and was meant to be consumed and enjoyed in public. This is evidenced from Treacherous Three's celebratory "Body Rock" to Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five Featuring Melle Mel & Duke Bootee's brooding, downright scary "The Message". The deeply personal nature of hip hop is established here as well, nowhere more so than on Roxanne Shante's "Roxanne's Revenge", a comeback to UTFO's "Roxanne Roxanne" on which 14-year-old Shante sounds simultaneously dangerous and vulnerable.
In terms of production, Afrika Bambaataa was sampling Kraftwerk and inadvertently inventing electro on "Planet Rock", which sounds like it could have been recorded in 2004. These early tracks benefit most from the excellent sound remastering. On previous CD issues, they've been tinny and hollow. Now, the electronic rhythms and disco beats bound out of the speakers.
Disc One spans nine years, over a third of hip-hop's lifetime. This is mostly because The Hip Hop Box doesn't feature strictly underground tracks, and not many songs crossed over until 1986, when Run-DMC's Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys' License to Ill (neither of which is featured here) broke things open. By 1989, though, Too Short and 2 Live Crew are going X-rated, singing about "freaks" who "gave head like [they] made it up". In hindsight, even these "Freaky Tales" are rendered without the meanness of their successors. Actually, the chronicles of sexual conquest are so over-the-top that they're quite funny, especially when Too Short raps about his escapades with a voice and creeping bassline that suggest he thinks he's reading lost ancient prophecies.
Disc Two also sees producers making more of a name for themselves, broadening hip-hop's palate in the process. The Bomb Squad make Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" a sonic war-zone with their trademark samples, whistles and sirens. Prince Paul adds humor and cut-and-paste psychedelia to 3rd Base's "Gas Face", one of several "lost classics" featured in this set.
Disc Three, spanning the early-to-mid-'90s, is where production, rhymes and flow all come to full fruition. Compared to the early beat-box experiments, Black Sheep's kinetic, funky "The Choice Is Yours" and "Pete Rock & CL Smooth's atmospheric, airy "They Reminisce Over You" are nothing short of symphonic. Digable Planets and The Pharcyde employ more overtly jazzy elements, while The RZA shows just how haunting a simple piano loop can be on Wu-Tang Clan's starkly realist "C.R.E.A.M." and Warren G and Nate Dogg make g-funk sound effortless on "Regulate". New sounds, social conscience, the need for fun: this is what it's all about.
Mid-to-late-'90s and the profanity quotient has more than doubled, while too many samplers and drum machines have been set on auto-repeat. Gems are to be found, though. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's utterly original take on the genre -- they sing -- is still refreshing. "Love 2 Luv U" catches Timbaland (with MC Magoo) in the ascendant, bringing back electro and adding an element of chrome-plated style. Gang Starr rarely lay down a bad track, and "You Know My Steez" is no exception.
Those looking to detract will have plenty of ammunition. Box sets like this are bound by nature to beg questions like, "Is 'I Left My Wallet In El Segundo' really the best representation of A Tribe Called Quest?" Furthermore, an entire box set could be compiled from what isn't here: "Jam on It", Slick Rick, EPMD, the Beasties, Doggystyle, The Chronic, Kool Keith; OutKast, No Limit and Southern rap in general; Missy Elliott... the list goes on. And arguably rap's three most luminous figures, 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G., and Eminem, appear only as guest artists or on lesser, posthumous tracks (or, in 'Em's case, not at all). While giving plenty of props to reggae's influence on hip-hop, the liner notes never even mention the role of the producer-in many cases, more vital than the rappers themselves. Then again, The Hip Hop Box never claims to be all-inclusive.
One final note: though the collection includes tracks up through 2003, it ends with Dr. Dre's "The Next Episode", from 1999, almost as if the producers and compilers are saying, "After this, it all went downhill." Will the post-"Hey Ya" era bring about a renaissance or just prove that the best rap really isn't rap any more? We'll find out soon enough.