March 28, 2013

So You Don’t Like Hip Hop: Part 2 – Early MCs


In SYDLHH: Part 1, we looked at some of hip hop’s earliest influential tracks.  As mentioned therein, the DJs ruled the roost in early hip hop, and most artists got their start wanting to be DJs.  In fact, even Jay-Z notes in his memoir/book of annotated lyrics Decoded that he first wanted to be a DJ.  It didn’t take long, however, for MCs to take the hip hop crown, and with just a few exceptions (e.g. J Dilla, DJ Screw, the RZA, DJ Premier) they’ve never given it back.  In SYDLHH: Part 2 we will look at some of the earliest MCs and how they furthered the growth of the genre.  I intended initially to limit this overview to just one post, but there is simply too much to say about the 8 MCs I want to cover, so Part 2 will go up in two posts (and even limiting it to two posts requires me to repeatedly remind myself that this series is just an overview).

Run-D.M.C. – “It’s Like That” (March 12, 1983): Profile Records

Formed in Queens around 1982, Run-D.M.C. was made up of Run, D.M.C., and Jam Master Jay.  While the group wouldn’t break into the mainstream until 1986’s Raising Hell, they began changing the rap game as far back as 1983’s “It’s Like That” b/w “Sucker M.C.’s”.

Produced by Russell Simmons (Run’s brother) and Larry Smith, “It’s Like That” was released by Profile Records and while it didn’t exactly light the charts on fire, it did lay the ground work for a new version of hip hop.  As can be seen in Part 1, hip hop prior to Run-D.M.C. was dance oriented with MCs and DJs using sampled and looped funk, disco, electronic, and other dance beats to rule the clubs and street parties.  Run-D.M.C., however, particularly on tracks such as “It’s Like That”, introduced beats that were not sampled or looped but hit hard while containing a level of minimalism that allowed the beats to breathe.  These harder/minimalist beats would go on to provide the background for most hip hop of the next 25 years and are used almost exclusively in hardcore hip hop.  Similarly, Run-D.M.C.’s look in dress, Adidas track suits with gold chains and similar outfits, and performance set up, with only the three group members on stage, brought both a simultaneously hard and minimal feel to the group’s visuals.  Again, this ascetic became the hip hop standard.

Lyrically, “It’s Like That” extends the conscientious themes of  “The Message” through discussions of poverty and the difficulties faced by those simply trying to stay afloat.  Unlike a lot of similarly themed songs, however, and despite lines like “Won’t you tell me the last time that love bought you clothes”, “It’s Like That” is explicitly hopeful.  After describing the difficult lives of those around them, Run-D.M.C. close with four stanzas exhorting the listener to take the improvement of their lives into their own hands.  Of the four stanzas, my favorite is the call for education, “One thing I know is that life is short/So listen up homeboy, give this a thought/The next time someone’s teaching why don’t you get taught?/It’s like that (what?) and that’s the way it is”, but each of the four demonstrate a hopeful realism that would be central to Run-D.M.C.’s entire catalog.

Schoolly D – “P.S.K. What Does it Mean?” (1985): Schoolly D Records

The first artist discussed in SYDLHH not from the environs of New York City, Schoolly D is a Philadelphia native often credited as the first gangsta rapper.  In fact, Ice-T was inspired to write the first well known gangsta rap song “6 in the Mornin'” after hearing “P.S.K.” for the first time.  Produced by Schoolly D and DJ Code Money as a single on Schoolly D Records, before it was included on his debut self-titled release for Jive Records, “P.S.K. What Does it Mean?” is gangsta to the core.

Musically, “P.S.K. What Does it Mean?” is truly of its time.  Backed solely by drums and scratches (already demonstrating the minimalism Run-D.M.C. inaugurated two years earlier), Schoolly’s flow is molasses slow (unlike later gangsta rap, which tends to have accelerated flow) and, other than a brief sample at the beginning, Schoolly’s is the only voice you hear on the track.  Lyrically, “P.S.K.” includes the stories of sex, drugs, and violence that would become the norm for gangsta rap (P.S.K. itself is a direct reference to the Philadelphia gang the “Park Side Killas”).  The one difference between the stories in “P.S.K.” and the gangsta rap to come is that “P.S.K.” is substantially tamer and less graphic than N.W.A., the Geto Boys, etc.  For the time, however, it was a shocking depiction of life on the streets of Philadelphia in the early to mid 1980, and its influence cannot be understated.

LL Cool J – “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” (October 6, 1985): Def Jam Recordings

These days LL Cool J is mostly known as an actor on a procedural television show, but as a 17 year old in 1985, Def Jam released his debut album Radio, featuring lead single “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”.  With production from Rick Rubin, Radio as a whole is a vital hip hop document due to its status as the first full length release of seminal hip hop label Def Jam Recordings (following singles by T La Rock & Jazzy Jay, LL Cool J, and Beastie Boys, and an EP by Rubin’s band Hose).  Nonetheless, and with apologies to “Rock the Bells”, “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” is the album’s clear centerpiece.

“I Can’t Live…” was written by LL and Rubin and is an ode to the ghetto blaster, specifically one playing LL himself at high volume.  Lyrically, the track is a largely straightforward example of hip hop braggadocio with LL showing off his hard hitting flow, e.g. “My radio, believe me, I like it loud/I’m the man with the box that can rock the crowd/Walkin’ down the street, to the hardcore beat/While my JVC vibrates the concrete”, but LL does include a few Easter eggs for the careful listener.  Included among these Easter eggs are the following lines referencing Def Jam and Rubin: “Let your big butt bounce from right to left/Cause its a actual fact this jam is def/Most definitely created by me/Goin’ down in radio history/I’m good to go on your radio/And I’m cold gettin’ paid cause Rick said so.”

From a production standpoint, Rubin has become famous over the last three decades for his stripped down production style on everything from hip hop to Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash.  “I Can’t Live…” is a perfect example of this style, with Run-D.M.C.’s minimalism taken to an extreme: Only a drum machine and a couple DJ scratches back LL.  In fact, there are moments, incredibly brief though they may be, where all sound drops away.  This gives the track a sparse feel and places the focus squarely on LL’s rhyming style for the simple reason that there is no place for LL to hide.  I think it would be intimidating as an artist to have the song hinge so strongly on the sound of your voice, but LL comes through with flying colors, and this is how I’ll remember him no matter how many fake crimes he solves.

Eric B. & Rakim – “Eric B. is President” (January 1, 1987): Zakia Records

Rakim is the “God MC” and Eric B. is as good a DJ as Rakim is an MC, so I’m not really sure what else needs to be said about Eric B. & Rakim, but I suppose…

Eric B. & Rakim met as teenagers when Eric B. (from Queens) began looking for an MC to work with and was introduced to Rakim (from Long Island) by a promoter.  They immediately started working together and hooked with Marley Marl for their first recording session.  Out of that session came “Eric B. is President”, which followed Run-D.M.C.’s lead when it comes to hard hitting beats, but differed in that it continued to use funk and dance track samples to back Rakim’s lyrics.  Whether Eric B. or Marley Marl was actually responsible for creating the music is strongly disputed, but in any event the track combines the bass line from Fonda Rae’s “Over Like a Fat Rat”, the drums from The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President”, and of course James’ Brown’s “Funky President”.  It’s a remarkable combination of tracks that creates a truly one-of-a-kind sound, but it’s Rakim that makes “Eric B. is President” great.

Rakim has a remarkable ability for rhyme that knows no equal.  At surface level his flow is incredibly smooth and easy, almost laid back, but a deeper listen shows just how much he mixes the rhyme structure up throughout “Eric B. is President”.  He starts out with some internal rhyming: “I came in the door, I said it before/I never let the mic magnetize me no more.”  Then moves to a line with a triple rhyme: “But it’s biting me, fighting me, inviting me to rhyme/I can’t hold back, I’m looking for that line.”  In the second verse he complicates things further by throwing in extra rhymes both within and overlapping lines: “I made it easy to dance to this/But can you detect what’s coming next from the flex of the wrist/Say indeed and I’ll proceed cause my man made a mix/If he bleed he won’t need no band-aid to fix.”  Listening to Rakim rhyme is remarkably similar to listening to a great jazz musician solo by taking a theme and gradually weaving it throughout a piece.  Just when you think Rakim has lost the thread he brings it back around and makes you sorry you ever doubted his virtuosity.

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