Hip-Hop History 101


During my research for my last blog post, about the immortal Gangstarr album Hard to Earn, ¬†I happened to come upon some interesting classics. When I wrote on the scene making song “THe Planet” off the Gangstarr album I saw that they sampled “Holy War (Live)” by the rap group called Divine Force. The fact that their name, Divine Force, and the title of the song, “Holy War,” are together is of no coincidence. Once I saw these titles, as well as the label name my biblical alarm bells began to ring and jingle, LL Cool J style. The group was signed to an independent record label owned by the Funky President Melquan, and the name of the label is Yamak-ka Records Inc. It might be a play on certain words, or a reference to an ancient code, or an in-joke that no one will know unless we ask the owner. However, to a simple Jew like myself it was clear that it looked like the yiddish word for Jewish headgear, or as well call it in Hebrew a Kippah.

The song is a live recording of the MC ripping through his routine, with sheer raw energy. However, what caught my ear is what he says by the 1minute and 20 second mark where he rhymes, “Let me snap your fingers all wiggle, scream shout or laugh or just giggle, Shake that body, body, that body, don’t f#%k with me you’ll feel sorry, that’s word, I’m not the herb, understand what I’m saying.” The Wu flag rose high as I realized that this was a line used by Ghostface Killah on the song “Mighty Healthy” from his masterpiece of an album Supreme Clientele. Just take a listen and the words coincide……

Ghostface glides through his words with such skill and razor-sharp precision. Remarkably he drops the same line from the Divine Force track at the 1 minute and 20 second mark, gotta love the spread of history from a track recorded in 1987 to a track recorded in 2000.

Another great record made in the 1980’s is the classic, and heavily sampled, “Buffalo Girls” by Malcolm McLaren. This British ginger Jew had quite an extensive history including managing the New York Dolls in their last throes (that;s their last two weeks to be exact), and would later assemble the iconic English Punk outfit The Sex Pistols. After all of that he remained on the pulse, and close to the newest music and fashions coming out of New York City. He immersed himself in the scene and like most of the other young Jews he felt at ease working with young African-American DJ’s and artists like Afrika Bambaata and the Zulu Nation. The track is a pastiche of early hip-hop beats and sounds, that would be duplicated throughout the decade. The track made by him and the World Famous Supreme Team combines the fresh sounds with this video to the song, which was released in 1982.

The interesting part is the catchy introduction where McLaren hollers out “Buffalo girl go around the outside, around the outside, around the outside…..two buffalo girls go around the outside, around the outside, around the outside.” This line would be used two years later by the World Famous Supreme Team on their hit “Hey DJ,”

where they use the same holler “First Buffalo girl, go around the outside.” However, the words rang very clear when I heard. or rather saw, this by Eminem.

Eminem pays homage to the McLaren line when he holler out in the beginning of the song, “Two trailer park girls go round the outside, round the outside, round the outside.” We just made a historical leap showing that it not only the snippets of music sampled that convey the deep historical roots of Hip-Hop. This is no coincidence as these artists and producers are extremely aware of their musical history. So much so that the great, and production wise criminally underrated, group The Beatnuts dropped on their first EP an intro as an ode to the World Famous Supreme Team.

I also recall the use of specific choruses as a throwback to past artists. One of the most underrated albums, and mastermind producers, that I hold near and dear to this day is Prince Paul’s concept album from back in 1999. It’s an amazing day in the life of a young cat trying to rise up in the game, yet only to be done in by his so-called best friend. The album has many great guest spots, spanning from the heavy Chubb Rock to Biz Markie, and from Kool Keith to Mr. X to the Z Xzibit. One of the best songs is an early phone call to his girlfriend by the name of “The Other Line.”

It’s a great narrative where his girl is caught up again in the repetition of calling out for him from work. As each rapper goes back and forth you feel the stress of the girlfriend as she relents once again. When I first heard it my ear caught the last section where a chorus is sung out by a few guys saying “someone is calling my phone, someone is ringing my bell, someone is ringing my bell, etc.” The past slapped me square in the face as I went searching for that snippet I knew I heard before. It was only after listening to one of my favorite stations, Beatles Radio, where the divine gave me the answer.

Thank you Wings, or Paul McCartney for that matter, just listen to the track and you can draw comparisons.

As I noted earlier, Ghostface Killah brought us back to the Divine Force lyrics, and Ghostdini has a talent in fashioning his songs as a current blast from the past. Very few rappers out there cannot even fathom to feed our eras with both talent and wisdom. The last one I want to focus on is KRS-One, who is one of these grand purveyors of the culture. I want to point to a lesson of his, meaning a track that replicates these lyrics in such a great style. Hear is “Hip Hop vs. Rap.”

KRS starts out by giving us, the listeners some time to feel the beat, sway our heads, and drop a rhyme if we have the time. He then raps about the differences between Hip Hop and Rap, basically Rap being a style and Hip Hop being a true way of life. He then starts flipping beats, but mostly lyrics of classic rap songs of days past. He even cites his own classic “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” and even dropped some mad obscure references that even this historian couldn’t get. He dropped the line “Frisco Disco, the disc is like Nabisco, Chocolate chip cookie, don’t fuck with me rookie,” where he’s speaking of the 1970’s single “Frisco Disco” by the group Eastside Connection. No one might remember how it sounds like, but it’s most famous for being sampled by Slick Rick for his song “Mona Lisa.” By the second half of his lyrics each stance is a replicated series of words, or sayings, by many popular rappers and musicians. If you look down the list he begins with…

“So this DJ, he gets down, Mixing records while they go…” is from Jimmy Spicer’s magnum opus “Adventures of Super Rhyme” from 1980.

“Round and round, round we go…” is from Tupac’s “I Get Around.”

“Two Years ago a friend of mine…” is from Run-DMC’s “Sucker MC’s.”

“And Flash is gonna rock your mind…” is from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “Freedom.”

“Welcome to the terror dome, the terror dome…” is from Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome.”

“I wonder if I take you home…..” is from Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take you Home.”

“E-F-F-E-C-T, A cool operator operating correctly….” is from Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend.”

And on and on it goes until he finishes off with “You ain’t fresh, you ain’t fresh, you ain’t,” thanks to the line from The Boogie Boys song “You Ain’t Fresh.”


The point made is that for all of its detractors, Hip Hop is the only music where you can literally hear the past come alive, either through a sample or through words. The spoken word is just as powerful, and sampling aside this is another direct line to the griots of Africa. These stories told and retold through repetition, and later reinterpretation, help us listeners, or at least invigorate us, understand the true depth of history in Hip-Hop.






Twenty Years Ago…Anotha Classic


Reaching the ripe ol’ age of 33 makes a Hip-Hop scholar nostalgic for the beats of lyrics from the days of yore. As I asserted on my last post, twenty years ago many classic albums in the realm of rap music were unleashed onto the masses. I remember it very well-being an astute listener, thanks to my parents giving me a deep appreciation for music, constantly digging for the great sounds permeating from the various genres that popped off in the 1990’s. Many classic Hip-Hop masterpieces came out in 1994, but this is my journey down memory lane. That’s why I’m bringing you down to my block where we only bang the classic beats laced with the fiery lyrics that used to mean something. One of these classics was the fourth album dropped by the group Gangstarr titled Hard To Earn.

The first time my eyes caught site of the album cover I was mesmerized by the overt redness with the solid chain link surrounding their logo reading GangStarr. The red is so blaring, but I was still fascinated by these two guys, MC Guru and DJ Premier. Once I flipped over the back I knew that this was the crew that no one wanted to fuck with. The menacing look of Jeru, Group Home’s Melachi the Nutcracker and Lil’ Dap, Premier, Guru and the ever-present Big Shug were all staring right at me, and I couldn’t stop staring back. For nostalgia’s sake I made sure to show the cassette version of the fold-out art cause who the fuck was buying CD’s, or afford them for that matter, back in High School? Not me. Once I popped in the tape the sound matched the cover perfectly, like Michael Jackson putting on his rhinestone uni-glove. The title screamed it all in fine print. This is some hard shit, and these guys didn’t play around, but were extremely serious about the music, and the state of affairs. It all starts with that fuzzy background you can only envisage coming from a Brooklyn basement, where the crew is writing rhymes, talking shit, drinking, rolling blunts, as Premier mans the turntables for that next sample to pop off. You then hear the “intro (The First Step)” with an overlying cool, slow, but fierce guitar lick, thanks to the sample from the Weather Report (The group not the news segment), as Guru in his monotone voice tells us what’s in store….

Guru tells it plain, saying that the rap game is not for everyone, and that his demeanor was always true and authentic from his heart. Unfortunately, in the present day everyone thinks they can be rap stars while overloaded with the bullshit. And then we embark on our voyage on the Gangstarr foundation’s charter boat to soulsville. It all begins with Phife Dog’s voice, as they sampled A Tribe Called Quest’s classic song “Check the Rhyme” to let you know that these guys are hard, and extra funky..

It’s all laid down from the start with Guru’s words saying “It’s a long way to go when you don’t know where you’re doing, you don’t know where you’re going when you’re lost.” The words are so solemn and true to the path of all people on this green earth. His words penetrate due to his voice and certainty as he kills the track, while Premier cuts each time as a chorus the words of Q-Tip from the same Tribe song. He also laces it up with samples of Melvin Bliss, Quincy Jones, and Richard Pryor. When I first heard the album this song prepared me for the ensuing onslaught of sheer talent and rugged energy.

The album touches on many themes and ideas as the Guru weaves through various subjects while riding the wave of Premier’s beats. It should be said that DJ Premier should be given credit for embellishing on the Rick Rubin rap song formula of a verse chorus scheme. Primo was tune with this and he sonically added to the songs by making his choruses in line with the great Greek tragedies of the past. On almost every track Guru rhymes and then Premier chides in with his signature scratches and cuts, making his style unique, which has been duplicated since he began doing this back in their first album. He was also in such high demand by the mid-1990’s that they even constructed a skit with the likes of MC Eiht and Nas calling Premier and leaving messages on his answering machine…..of course accompanied by a sick beat….

Another great example of Premier’s skills is the last single off the album titled “Code of the Streets.”

The song, and it’s video, speaks of the evolution of street crime, especially the art of car-jacking. Guru laments, while delivering the story like a news anchor, on the life of black youth in the poverty-stricken ghettos of New York City. The pace is set beautifully with the sturdy beat that reminded me of a James Bond theme throwback. The beat, provided with the samples by Melvin Bliss and Monk Higgins, punctures and the mundane tempo of street life and the street report is made more penetrating with Premier’s cuts with the ping noise.

The album holds a lot of weight where Guru can delve into the more serious and general problems plaguing society twenty years ago, and arguably to this very day, like Gun control. One such song to deal with this is the great ode to guns titled “Tonz O’ Gunz.”

It all begins with the spoken words of Malcolm X decrying American violence, while criticizing the fact that African-Americans were being drafted during the Vietnam War in order to kill people on the other side of the globe. Along with his words you hear a menacing beat resembling a scream as Guru spits that “The state of Affairs is in mad chaos.” He is decrying the proliferation of guns in his inner-city neighborhood, while also decrying the culture of violence in America. It’s prophetic when he says that more gums will come and more will cry.

We all know that this is the album that gave us the engrained classic that are deeply embedded into our childhoods and inner souls….and these are “Mass Appeal”

With its perfect beat, keeping the time as Guru tells us why these guys are the cream of the rap crop,

and the energy-laden “DWYCK” with the helping hand of guests (Greg) Nice and Smooth (B),

…..displaying the far more playful side of this overall heavy album.

There are many more tracks on the album, but I want to point to two of my close and personal favorites, and the first one being the crew laden “Speak Ya Clout” where Guru shares the mic with Group Home’s Lil’ Dap and the amazing Jeru Da Damaja.

To put this track into context we have to realize that it’s sequel to the song off of their previous album Daily Operation¬†titled “I’m the Man.” Unlike the earlier track, where Guru starts it off, Jeru begins with the first verse, and then each gets a specific beat to rhyme on top in tune with each rapper’s personality. It all starts with Jeru, as his words are cut up from his verse from “I’m the Man” as he glides over a hard beat backed by a Weather Repost sample. We then slow down with Lil’ Dap as he gets a funked up beat with the help of mysterious sounds thanks to the Quincy Jones sample. We then glide to the end as Guru wraps it up nicely over a Caesar Frazier sample. They all work well together as Premier waves his magic wand while cutting it all up perfectly for the ear to catch the mashup of samples making this masterpiece of a track.

The last song, and another personal favorite, is a theme that comes up on every Gangstarr album, the beautiful borough of Brooklyn!!!

Even though Guru hailed from Boston, and Premier from Texas, they both focused on Brooklyn as the Gangstarr homestead. It was actually Guru who came first, and then hooked up with Premier, as Gangstarr was originally formed in Boston under Guru’s mantle. It was when he moved to Brooklyn and later hooked up with Premier where we get the official Gangstarr roster. On every Gangstarr album Guru gives us his ode to Brooklyn, and on this album he gives us his most personal and from the heart account of his history in Brooklyn, A/K/A “The Planet.”

It all starts off with a quick snippet of soul thanks to a sample of Taj Mahal’s “The Cuckoo,” and then we go into the serious sounds of the track thanks to some old school samples by the Divine Force and MC Lyte. The song is Guru’s story of leaving home, maturing on his maiden voyage, and always confident that he’ll make it out in B-R-double O – Klyn – The Planet. As he rhymes we follow Guru’s evolution from life in East New York, to the dead-end job, and the journey to become one of the best MC’s of all time. This song is his testament, which spoke volumes to me as I banged this track living in New Haven, CT while dreaming of life in the big city, in Brooklyn, in the Planet. This never left me as I made sure to move to Brooklyn, and make it the only Borough I ever wanted to call home. Many faded nights, lost dreams, happy highs, and shitty lows all came to me in Brooklyn. As his voice fades out with the words “The Planet” I feel that we both experienced our unique life in Brooklyn.

Rest in Peace to one of the greatest of all times….GURU.