February 12, 2013

So You Don’t Like Hip Hop: Part 1 – The Beginning

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five

Some facts about me: I’m white (a full fledged WASP actually); I’m middle class; I’m in my 30s; I’m a father; I live in the midwest; and I love hip hop.  It’s that last one that surprises people.  Due to the first five things listed I’m not supposed to like hip hop, even though I’m a huge music fan.  Nonetheless, whether it’s Golden Era East Coast, hardcore West Coast, southern, indie, or otherwise, if it falls under the hip hop umbrella there’s a good chance I listen to it.

The simple reason people are surprised by my hip hop fandom is it’s not ‘my’ music.  Hip hop, rose from the streets to tell the stories of the street.  Meanwhile, I’m about as ‘street’ as a labradoodle, and can’t pretend to relate to hip hop’s stories through personal experience.  Those stories, or at least the ones many people identify as wholly representative of hip hop, are largely made up of hustling, gang banging, and the like, and involve violence, drug dealing, misogyny, and other things utterly alien to my suburban, midwestern upbringing.  Obviously songs of this type are a subcategory of the broader hip hop spectrum, but the real problem with the assumption that I wouldn’t be a hip hop fan is the underlying presumption that just because I haven’t personally experienced these things I have no interest in the art that is being created as a result.  Good art should challenge its audience in some way and hip hop often does so by confronting its listeners with hard truths.

It’s these twin issues of mistakenly thinking all hip hop deals with violence and misunderstanding the challenging aspects of the parts that do, that make it particularly hard for me to hear other music fans say something along the lines of, “I like all types of music…except hip hop.”  All music fans have certain genres or artists they don’t connect with (art is highly subjective after all), but too often the dislike of hip hop is based on these two issues without further investigation of the genre, and hip hop absolutely requires further investigation.  At surface level some things about hip hop can certainly be off putting, if not downright horrifying, but the art wouldn’t be honest without including the less than desirable aspects of the lives of the artists or their friends/family.  Put simply, you can’t properly document the street without using the language of the street.  Additionally, a close reading of many hip hop lyrics that deal with violence will demonstrate the violence, language, et al., are not in any way glorified, but rather demonstrative of a tragedy at the center of a story.

“So You Don’t Like Hip Hop” is my way of helping music fans navigate the world of hip hop to find that one style of hip hop, or even one song, that cuts through the noise and speaks directly to them.  I will present groups of tracks tied to together by things like era, locations, or style with a very brief description of why the track is important.  This really is a labor of love for me because I truly believe that once an entry point to the genre is found, music fans can follow their song down the rabbit hole of hip hop and emerge on the other side saying “I like all types of music.”  Up first we’ll look at hip hop’s earliest ground breakers:

The Sugarhill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight” (September 1979): Sugar Hill Records

“Now, what you hear is not a test/I’m rapping to the beat.”  The first line of the first hip hop song to chart in the U.S. (I don’t count Blondie’s “Rapture” as it was only partially ‘rapped’), reaching #36 on the pop charts and #1 on the R&B charts, is actually an explanation that Wonder Mike was not just talking to make sure the mic worked, but that his lyrics were actually the song.  Kind of an inauspicious beginning, but one that was needed.  The Sugarhill Gang was put together by Sugar Hill Records in an effort to capitalize on the burgeoning hip hop movement emanating from the Bronx, and the masses that were as yet unaware of the movement likely would have been utterly confused by what seemed to be Chic’s “Good Times” with random talking on it instead of the usual lyrics.  The members of Sugarhill, Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee, were basically unknown as rappers in the hip hop community (Big Bank Hank was the The Cold Crush Brothers’ manager, but his verse was ghostwritten by Cold Crush’s Grandmaster Caz), and the community did not take kindly to Sugarhill being the group that first brought hip hop to the mainstream.  Nonetheless, “Rapper’s Delight” remains a wonderfully fun introduction to the genre due in part to its (in)famous hook: “I said a hip, hop, the hippie – the hippie/To the hip hip-hop, and you don’t stop/The rock it to the bang-bang, boogie say ‘up jump’/The boogie to the rhythm of the boogie: the beat.” Other great lines include: “Ya see I’m six foot one and I’m tons of fun/And I dress to a ‘T’/Ya see I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali and I dress so viciously”; “Have you ever went over a friend’s house to eat/And the food just ain’t no good?/I mean the macaroni’s soggy the peas are mushed/And the chicken tastes like wood”; and of course “So you bust out the door while it’s still closed/Still sick from the food you ate/And then you run to the store for quick relief/From a bottle of Kaopectate.”  This isn’t a song with a deep message, or any message at all, but the mix of the “Good Times” instrumentation and fun rhymes are perfect to put on for a Saturday night out.

Funky 4 + 1 – “That’s the Joint” (January 1980): Sugar Hill Records

The first hip hop group from the Bronx to get a record deal (later to be the first hip hop group to perform on national television via Saturday Night Live), at the time of “That’s the Joint” Funky 4+1 was KK Rockwell, Keith Keith, Lil’ Rodney Cee, Jazzy Jeff (no not that Jazzy Jeff), and the first recorded female MC, Sha Rock.  As was often the case in the early days, Funky 4 + 1 was incredibly young with no one in the group being 18 yet when they formed in 1979.  On January 1, 1980, the group released their nearly 10 minute classic, “That’s the Joint” on Sugar Hill Records.  While The Sugarhill Gang’s MCs simply traded verses on “Rapper’s Delight”, Funky 4 + 1 had worked together long enough to create a true crew track, with MCs trading lines within verses and joining in unison at times.  The song was arranged by Clifton Jiggs Chase, an in-house producer at Sugar Hill who later sequenced “The Message” (see below), and part of the track was later sampled by Beastie Boys on both “Shadrach” and “Shake Your Rump”.  The track’s lyrics feature the type of braggadocio that dominated early rap lyrics and still pops up with some regularity.  Braggadocio was, and is, so common in hip hop due to the genre’s roots in battle rapping.  Rapping started on street corners, at outdoor parties, and then in clubs, and if you wanted to get on the mic you had to show you had what it took by standing out.  This was ordinarily accomplished by simply taking on your competition directly in a battle.  As battling really gives the MC two options to demonstrate their superiority, run down the opponent or talk up themselves, battle rappers quickly became proficient at coming up with new, interesting, and continuously more complex ways to do both.  “That’s the Joint” contains countless examples of early techniques and is a quintessential example of the myriad ways MCs could brag on themselves (as well as shout out some other artists they like).

Kurtis Blow – “The Breaks” (September 1980): Mercury

Kurtis Blow, named ‘blow’ by his manager Russell Simmons after a punch not cocaine,  was the first MC to sign with a major label (Mercury).  His debut self-titled album is somewhat scatter shot in style and quality, veering from hip hop to R&B to rock, but second single, “The Breaks”, despite peaking only at #87 on the Billboard Hot 100, was the first rap song to go gold and is a true classic.  The beat in “The Breaks” is original and the lyrics mention many, many types of “breaks”: Brakes on buses, cars, planes, and trains; the bad breaks of losing your job or your girlfriend; and breaks (pauses) in war, to name a few.  The focus of the track, however, is on the breaks that “will rock your shoes.”  The track contains six separate ‘breaks’ (dropping everything but percussion and guitar for a period), which are designed for dances and are really the basis of the song’s popularity.  The development of the break is credited to DJ Kool Herc, also credited with bringing Jamaican sound systems to the Bronx thereby lighting the spark that would become hip hop, who noticed that party goers preferred the breaks that already existed in songs.  Accordingly, in the early to mid 70s he developed what he called the “Merry-Go-Round” (switching from break to break on multiple turn tables), which greatly extend breaks and sent partiers into a frenzy.  Early hip hop artists built upon the “Merry-Go-Round” by creating tracks made up of breaks, and obviously “The Breaks” is a prime example of this development.  Again, there is no larger message to the track, but it is fantastic for parties.

Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force – “Planet Rock” (April 1982): Tommy Boy

1982 was the year hip hop really started to break (to get another use of the word into this article), and Afrika Bambaataa, already a leading figure in the genre, was at the forefront of the explosion.  Bambaataa started to DJ after hearing Kool Herc around 1973 and is one of the most interesting figures in hip hop history (I look at him as hip hop’s Sun Ra).  Bambaataa was born sometime between 1957 and 1960 and prior to getting involved in hip hop was a warlord of the Bronx gang the Black Spades.  After he visited Africa (thanks to winning an essay contest) and as the 70s progressed, however, he became involved in gang peace movements, changed his name to Afrika Bambaataa Aasim, and converted his gang work into the formation of the Zulu Nation (a positive community group in opposition to gangs), using hip hop to grow the Nation.  The Soul Sonic Force were Bambaataa’s MCs and on “Planet Rock” included G.L.O.B.E., Mr. Biggs, and Pow Wow.  On “Planet Rock” Bambaataa and the Sonic Force combined their love of funk and electronic music (the track is built upon the melody from Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express”) to create a groundbreaking sound that not only still serves as the basis for g-funk, but moves beyond hip hop to be a strong influence on house music.  “Planet Rock”‘s lyrics have had far less of an impact than its music, but they are no less interesting, focusing as they do on a message of peace and using music to bring people from around the world together on the dance floor.  A prime example of Bambaataa’s message are the lines: “You’re in a place where the nights are hot/Where nature’s children dance and set a chance/On this Mother Earth, which is our rock/The time has come, and work for soul, show you really got soul/Are you ready hump bump bump, get bump, now let’s go, house.”

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five feat. Melle Mel and Duke Bootee – “The Message” (May 1982): Sugar Hill Records

Another Godfather of hip hop, and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (whatever that’s worth), Grandmaster Flash also learned how to DJ from watching guys like DJ Kool Herc and was the first DJ to truly master scratching.  The Furious Five, like the Soul Sonic Force, acted as Grandmaster Flash’s MCs (goes to show how much more important DJs were in the early days of hip hop that they were the named party), and were comprised of Cowboy, Kid Creole, Melle Mel, Rahiem, and Scorpio (Duke Bootee was a Sugar Hill session musician).  Just the month after Bambaataa released “Planet Rock” and forever altered the music of hip hop, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message” and did the same for hip hop lyrics by creating the first great hip hop story track.  Prior to “The Message”, Grandmaster Flash, like basically all hip hop artists, primarily made party music, but the song’s hook alone (“Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head/It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under”) was enough to shock the listener through its depiction of living on a razor’s edge.  Add to that the song’s verses (particularly the specifics of the smell of urine everywhere, the party girl who becomes homeless and turns to prostitution, and the horrors of prison after turning to a life of crime to survive) and the horrors of inner city life were truly brought to the masses.  “The Message” only hit #62 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but all the conscious hip hop that followed can trace its history to the track, and it was the first hip hop song added to the United States’ National Recording Registry of historic sound recordings.  I really want all readers of this post to listen to all five featured songs, but if you must only listen to one, make it this one.



Filed under Hip Hop, Rap, So You Don't Like Hip Hop