The Year in Rap 2015: Looking to the Present Through the Past

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Every year we reach the inevitable end, and with we feel the unleashing of the floodgates. We are awash in various lists like top thinkers, top singers, top haters, top lovers, top fighters, top losers, top winners, top tops, top bottoms, tip tops, and the lists go on and exhaustively on. I relish in lists myself, but to spare you all the monotony I’m not going to give you a list of the present. Rather I want to show how much has changed, especially with Hip-Hop culture, or even more specific (for all you academics and scholar lickers), Rap Music. Before you all the young folk click over, and the old folk fold over whimpering not another rant by a 30 something lad residing in the NorthEast Corner of the US of A. However, many philosophers and historians have said that it’s useless to reflect on the present without understanding the past. In the present Hip-Hop culture is a strong force that has become ubiquitous in all walks of life. We not only see of hear it in its puritanical way within the four categories of Rapping, DJing, Breaking or B-Boying, and Grafittee or tagging, it’s bigger than that. Subconsciously we are all conditioned by it in various ways whether by the way we talk, use hand gestures, dress, converse, understand each other, and of course the way we consume popular culture. The top commercial tunes have rapping in them. The top soft drinks and sports wear use rap songs. The top grossing film of 2015 if about N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitudes) in the Hollywood critically acclaimed film Straight Outta Compton.

Hip-Hop is American popular culture, and at this point we have moguls from the Rap world who are the purveyors of the culture through the top echelons of media and mass consumption. However, in order to contextualize the innovation and how far it has evolved we have to look to the past. Where better than twenty years ago, circa 1985. So lace up your boots, get into your coke-filled DeLorean, flux capacitor ready, and here we go Doc Brown back to the future!

Now all you are bright scholars with sharp minds, but just to be basic let’s take a quick overview of the genesis of Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop came about in an urban center of the United States in the post-Civil Rights and Black Power Movement. This urban center was New York City of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s suffering from the de-industrialization of urban poverty-stricken areas. New York City was suffering a massive loss of money due to poor mismanagement from past administrations, including a massive nationwide recession and gas shortage. Besides mismanagement rollback was felt in all public sectors of the city such as assistance, transportation (mostly due to the decades of siphoning funds away for highways and bridge projects by the infamous Robert Moses), police, fire fighters, and all around shrinkage of all services. Besides all the financial rollback the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), let by the fearless leader J. Edgar Hoover, worked under the policy of Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). This policy called for massive sweeps and arrests of many members of the Black Panther Party in New York City, as well as members of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Both these groups were integral to local community help such as school lunches and after school programs. To put it mildly residents of these areas were handed plenty of shit to deal with, and how could they cope? A good number of Latino and Black youth joined gangs, but plenty wanted an escape, and that is where Hip-Hop comes in.

Originally they would be doing it in the park, or in the park area of the local projects beaming this magnificent bass! It popped up all through the borough of the Bronx, and would later spread like wild-fire through Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Harlem section especially, and Staten Island for those taking the ferry. Originally we had the DJ who would do his routine playing and mixing records from various genres, as well as replaying the “break” section of a great song. The DJ needed a voice so we now have the master of ceremony or MC to hype up the crowd. This would later develop into a rhyme routine, and then into a choreographed group performance full of tight rhymes, great dance routines, and those flashy suits. Remember that the precedent was Bootsy, Sly, James Brown, Kool & the Gang, and Earth, Wind and Fire who rocked the outer space type cloths.

Hip-Hop drew from a number of influences such as past genres of popular music, popular films from blaxploitation to kung fu flicks, and local cultures, and scholars also point to the long tradition of rap coming straight from African cultural traditions and artistic and religious customs and expression (FOR THAT SEE CHAT BELOW),

Naturally the sounds of Hip-Hop, mainly through the guise of rap music, became the best translation when making the transition into the recorded world. We all know very well that it was The Fatback Band that dropped the first real rap record with “King Tim III,” but the first label to put rap on the map was Sugar Hill Records, and the brain and experience of Sylvia Robinson. We should also give credit to Enjoy Records and its owner Bobby Robinson as another important label of the time, but Sugar Hill was the first real rap label. They began with the group, that they assembled, The Sugar Hill Gang and the mythical release of “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. Now from 1979 to 1985 most Rap records were released as singles with two to four songs on each record. It wasn’t until 1986-1987 where you have an extensive release of long-playing records. However, twenty years ago had seven notable releases that can both prophetic and profound as the progenitors of an international phenomenon.

In 1985 Run-D.M.C. were starting to rise coming off the release of many notable singles, and their 1984 released debut self-titled album which was a compilation of these singles in one sitting. However, in 1985 they released their sophomore album King of Rock.

Unlike their earlier work Russell Simmons and producer extraordinaire Larry Smith (RIP and Z’L) veered the trio on a more rock-based core to their sound. Run-D.M.C. were used to the break beats so it took some convincing, like their band name, but they veered in that direction. This shows how brilliant Russell Rush was, how amazing Smith was, and how adapt Run-D.M.C. were to see the true potential for rap’s commercial appeal. In the present the appeal and distribution of rap is unprecedented. Run-D.M.C. were using Rush Management, but they were signed to Profile Records, started by two Jewish entrepreneurs by the names of Cory Robbins and Steve Plotnicki,

Profile also took interest in a duo who dropped the famous record “Genius Rap” by the name of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde (legally known as Alonzo Brown and Andre Harrell). In 1985 they dropped their only album titled Champagne of Rap, and boy was it bubbly.

This is one example of the many artists represented by the first real mogul of Hip-Hop, Russel Simmons. Of course we can’t speak of the man without linking him to the mythical music label, or the first and still remaining, lion’s share of rap classics, Def Jam Records.

Def Jam is the first real rap super label that propelled the art itself into the musical stratosphere. Created by the Jewish Rick Rubin and partnered with Russell Simmons, this label began in 1984 with the release of the critically acclaimed single “It’s Yourz” by Jazzy Jay and T La Rock. However, the first real full length was not released until 1985, by a teenage phenom from Queen by the name of Todd Smith, or better known to the universe as LL Cool J.

Legend has it that Adrock of the Beastie Boys found LL Cool J’s demo tape in the Def Jam mail heap. After playing it for Rick Rubin, Rick decided to the make the call as we can view so well thanks to Ed Piskor above.

LL’s debut album titled Radio was his screed of magnum force fueled by his fierce aggression and precision in his lyricism. Not only was he in full control and focus, he was aided by the bombastic production of Rick Rubin on the entire album. The album has many classics including “I Can’t Live Without my Radio,” “Dangerous,” “Rock the Bells,” “I Need a Beat,” and of course the lovely “Dear Yvette.” Two things should catch us and that is that,1. He started young, and like many of the present rappers such as Drake and Kendrick, he started young and fierce catching his fans by giving them an amazing show. Also, 2. We can all criticize him for his illustrious career and call it his weakness, including much of his work, but he has such staying power. He, like Cube, Dre, Jay Z, Puffy/Diddy, Will Smith, and many more are cultural fixtures with immense influence who all started out as rappers from the bottom of society’s socio-economic strata.

The Fat Boys, who unfortunately have at times been relegated as a side-show rather than a force to be reckoned with, dropped their sophomore LP twenty years ago titled Fat Boys Are Back. This album has some of their best bangers including “Fat Boys Are Back,” one of the dopest beatboxing track “Human Beat Box,” and one of the best cross-over tracks using a blend of rap and reggae titled “Hard Core Reggae,”

No sophomore slump here, as we can relate in the modern era. The other releases are perfect examples of how the multi-faceted rap became, and how it has expanded so broadly in the present day.

This would be the year in California where a young man by the name of Too Short dropped his full length cassette tape Raw, Uncut & X-Rated. Too Short influenced the way you can sell your tapes like drugs, which would be adapted and used time and time again by several artists. He also brought in that gangsta swagger while telling these sordid tales of Cali living, which again would be used many times since, thanks to his innovation.

1985 was also the year we were all blessed to hear the first album by the always forward thinking, and outer space living group known as Mantronix, The duo of DJ Kurtis Mantronik and rapper MC Tee, took Planet Rock to the outer space level dropping it all on their debut, and captured in future recordings. The album contains such gems as the jumpy “Bassline,” the singy-songy “Fresh is the Word,” and the extra bounce sampled by both Beck and the Beastie Boys titled “Needle to the Groove,”

The last album release to be discussed was a compilation titled Def Mix Volume 1, and this is where one of the greatest female MC’s dropped it like it’s hard. Roxanne Shante is known for getting her start as a dis track again UTFO’s song “Roxanne, Roxanne.” However, like some who saw this as a novelty she was a full-fledged battle rhymer, and four of her tracks stand out from the rest. She brutalized her competition, calling some of them by name while others are relegated to unknown status. All her songs pack a punch, and these particular songs are some her best. “Roxanne’s Revenge” grapples the competition while wiping out the suckas!!!

This all leads to the last song on the compilation, which is one of her sharpest swipes at the suckas, and it’s titled “Bite This,”

This is a perfect end because the track is a perfect example of the minimalism in rap recordings by the mid-1980’s. Rap music’s genesis was full of crews and artists who emulated and imitated the past. These artists began to add the gruff, rugged, and raw expressions before any of these sounds were captured on wax. What does this all mean? It shows how diverse, eclectic, and adaptive rap music was, and remains. You have many examples of where the art will go, while some didn’t age well over time. Still, this shows that twenty years later as we close the door on 2015, the rap universe will keep getting bigger and better.

Stay tuned for post #2 where we go ten years ago,

Peace

#1985 #LLCoolJ #DefJamRecords #TheFatBoys #RoxanneShante #TooShort #Run-D.M.C. #Hip-HopFamilyTree