This entry is a continuation of So You Don’t Like Hip Hop: Part 2 – Early MCs, originally posted on March 28, 2013.
Boogie Down Productions – “9mm Goes Bang” (March 3, 1987): B-Boy Records
Formed in the Bronx (the ‘Boogie Down’) in the mid 1980s, BDP was made up initially of MC KRS-One (the name was his graffiti tag) and DJ Scott La Rock. La Rock was working as a social worker at the Franklin Avenue Men’s Shelter in the Bronx when he met shelter resident KRS-One. KRS-One initially dismissed La Rock as just another social worker, but the two struck up a bond when KRS-One arrived at a party to find his social worker behind the DJ equipment, and the duo soon began working together.
In March 1987, BDP released its debut album, Criminal Minded on B-Boy Records. Using primarily reggae dancehall samples, and of course James Brown, the album included BDP’s initial singles, “South Bronx” and “The Bridge is Over”, which focused on the Bronx’s place in hip hop history, but is mostly notable for its focus on hardcore/gangsta themes. Principal among these songs is “9mm Goes Bang”, one of the earliest songs of gun violence told in the first person. Over a punchy reggae beat, “9mm” tells the story of the narrator (in this case likely KRS-One himself) killing a crack dealer named Peter, Peter’s crew attempting to get revenge for the killing, and the narrator turning the tables on the crew and killing each of them. It is a truly violent song that laid the groundwork for east coast hardcore, and fits the album’s cover image (the first hip hop cover art to show the artist(s) holding weaponry) perfectly.
Sadly, the album was also the last time KRS-One had DJ Scott La Rock behind him. Shortly after the release of Criminal Minded, La Rock was asked by BDP associate D-Nice to mediate a dispute in the South Bronx, shots were fired into the vehicle La Rock was riding in and he was hit in the neck, dying at the hospital a short time later. This incident would change KRS-One. Over the coming years his lyrics steadily became more and more conscientious and political, and spurred KRS-One to spearhead the Stop the Violence Movement, and its fundraising single “Self Destruction”, aimed at reducing violence in the African American community in general and hip hop specifically.
Big Daddy Kane – “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” (June 21, 1988): Cold Chillin’ and Warner Bros Records
Getting his start as a writer for Biz Markie and as a member of Marley Marl’s legendary Juice Crew, Big Daddy Kane is both a battle rapper and ladies’ man. Battling is central to the history of hip hop for the simple reason that early MCs had to fight their way to the top, and the best way to get a crowd reaction and gain fans was to defeat your competition. Kane rose to the top (and stayed there, based on the fact he remains routinely ranked among the best MCs ever), through complex rhyme schemes, his huge personality, fashion sense, and his often incredibly sexual lyrics. Kane even makes an appearance in a pool with Madonna in her Sex book.
Released in June 1988, Kane’s debut album Long Live the Kane featured “Ain’t No Half Steppin'”, which is battle rap to the core and went on to become the album’s (and in fact Kane’s) biggest hit. Produced by Marley Marl, “Ain’t No Half Steppin'” features a slow, jazzy beat and samples, among others, from Quincy Jones, ESG, Billy Squier, and the titular track by Heatwave. Marley Marl’s beat serves to put the focus squarely on Kane’s rhymes about how if you step to him and try and knock him off his pedestal at the top of the rap game, he will take you down. In fact, Kane goes so far as to explain exactly what he’ll do if you take him on: “Brain cells are lit, ideas start to hit/Next the formation of words that fit/At the table I sit, making it legit/And when my pen hits the paper, ahhhh shit!” Throughout the track, Kane’s delivery, cadence, and rhymes are incredibly varied and complicated. Kane even goes so far as to include up to six rhymes in a single line, e.g. “The best, oh yes, I guess suggest the rest should fess/Don’t mess or test your highness/Unless you just address with best finesse/And bless the paragraph I manifest.” “Ain’t No Half Steppin'” is an absolute clinic that could be matched by only a handful of MCs in history, if at all.
If you’re not a fan of overtly sexual lyrics, much of the rest of Kane’s discography isn’t for you, but if you can listen to and not groove to “Ain’t No Half Steppin'”, then you must be dead.
EPMD – “You Gots to Chill” (August 30, 1988): Fresh Records, Sleeping Bag Records, Priority, and EMI Records
Long Island’s EPMD (“Erick and ‘Parrish Mic Doc'” or “Erick and Parrish Making Dollars” depending on the source) are MCs Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith. EPMD’s party rap style (“Well you should keep quiet while the MC rap/But if you tired, then go take a nap!”) differs from many of the other MCs highlighted in Parts 2, but their flow and ability to rhyme fits right in with the Golden Era greats. Most importantly, though, EPMD’s use of funk samples helped lay the groundwork for the coming G-Funk revolution.
In August 1988, Fresh/Sleeping Bag Records released EPMD’s critically acclaimed debut album Strictly Business featuring single “You Gots to Chill”, which would reach #4 on the R&B charts. Produced by DJ K La Boss and highlighting samples of Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” and Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie”, “You Gots to Chill” is the perfect party music, and, like “Ain’t No Half Steppin'”, focuses on up and coming MCs challenging the kings. While Kane took an attack tone, however, EPMD demonstrate just what they think of these wannabe usurpers through their laid back, boredom: “In the beginnin’, I like to let my rhymes flow/And at twelve I press cruise control/Sit back and relax, let my rhymes tax/Maintain MCs while the Double E macks” and “When I enter the party suckers always form a line/Then they ease their way up, and try to bite my lines/I did thousands of shows, dissed many faces/And deal with new jacks on a one-to-one basis.” It’s clear throughout the song that no matter what happens, EPMD will keep a level head, dispatch the challenger, and continue partying.
Unfortunately, the ease with which EPMD drops these rhymes mirrored their personalities. They weren’t larger-life-figures and didn’t have a schtick (other than including the word “business” in each album title and a track called “Jane” on each album), so they’ve slipped beneath the surface of the years and not gotten the credit they deserve.
Slick Rick – “Children’s Story” (April 3, 1989): Def Jam and Columbia
Born in London, and blinded in the right eye as an infant, thereby necessitating an eye patch, Slick Rick moved to the Bronx at 12, and hooked up with Doug E. Fresh. Eventually known as one of hip hop’s great storytellers, Rick first gained notoriety in 1985 as a member of the Get Fresh Crew with”La Di Da Di”. On the strength of that track, Rick released his debut solo album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick in 1988, with its centerpiece second single, “Children’s Story”.
Using the bass from Bob James’ smooth jazz classic “Nautilus”, piano, and drum machine, “Children’s Story” is quite literally a bedtime story told by “Uncle Ricky” to an unknown number of kids. This particular bedtime story is of a 17 year old boy named Ty whose friend convinces him “we gonna make some cash/Robbin’ old folks and makin’ the dash.” Unfortunately, Ty is drawn into a life of crime until one day he tries to rob an undercover cop. When the cop attempts to arrest him, Ty panics and pulls a gun before fleeing. This leads to a chase during which Ty shoots officers, steals a car, takes a pregnant woman hostage (he lets her go because “Deep in his heart he knew he was wrong”), and is finally gunned down. “Children’s Story” closes with lines demonstrating it is very much a cautionary tale (“This ain’t funny so don’t ya dare laugh/Just another case about the wrong path/Straight ‘n narrow or yo’ soul gets cast”), but after he says ‘Good Night’ his young audience discusses weird Uncle Ricky and what the ‘straight ‘n narrow means, so its unclear if the meaning hits its mark.
It’s also unclear whether Slick Rick himself caught the meaning of “Children’s Story” as he soon found himself in prison for 2 counts of attempted murder, but the messenger’s failures don’t lessen the moral of “Children’s Story”.
An author and editor at MiG, Craig lives in Minnesota with his wife and son and is an attorney in his real life. Once upon a time Craig played the trumpet and spent four years in the Hawkeye Marching Band and pep band. These days Craig finds himself most often listening to experimental rock, hip hop, and post punk, but you can see everything he's listening to at: www.last.fm/user/cafreema Craig is not ashamed to admit the first concert he ever attended was New Kids on the Block.
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