Billboard charts don't lie: More than ever,
it's a hip-hop world. The scruffy music genre that
started in the parks and clubs of the Bronx in the
late 1970s has become the most important new pop music
of the end of the 20th century and a dominant influence
on modern youth culture. Rap is still not 25 years
old, but landmarks in its short history are taking
shape. If the late 1990s are rap's most prosperous
time yet—hip-hop artists are currently outselling
rock bands, and modern R & B is almost totally
in rap's shadow—the late 80s can now be acknowledged
as the most creative period in hip-hop up to this
point. Just as rock fans understand the impact of
the musicians of the mid-to-late '60s, to fully understand
the hip-hop of today, one must understand what was
happening in the late '80s.
our purposes, hip-hop's golden era stretches from
1986, the year of the release of Run-DMC's Raising
Hell, to 1990, the year that Ice Cube's
Amerikkka's Most Wanted was released.
In those four years, hip-hop went permanently from
a fad to something impossible to ignore by anyone
who wanted to claim some knowledge of popular music.
Thanks in no small part to developments in technology
(specifically, the advent of the Roland SP1200 drum
machine and sampler, which allowed producers to sample
chunks of records and work them into drum loops more
easily than ever before), the terrain covered by hip-hop
opened up dramatically.
following is an album-by-album breakdown of the major
albums of the period. Each one has echoes (often,
given sampling, quite literally) in the rap of today,
not to mention in rock, pop, dance and beyond.
Raising Hell (1986)
the relentless, chiming funk of "Peter Piper"
to the up-with-people anthem "Proud to Be Black,"
this was one of the first hip-hop albums fully realized
from start to finish. Rap has always primarily been
a singles-oriented art form, meant to be played by
DJs spinning 12-inch singles at clubs, park parties
and late-night mix shows. But with Raising Hell,
Run-DMC showed that rap groups could display rock
sensibilities without losing their edge. Produced
by the trio's DJ Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) and
lead rapper Run (Joseph Simmons), the album is also
one of the high points of the rap/rock fusion trend
of the '80s. Both "It's Tricky" (which makes
reference to Knack's "My Sharona") and the
cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" were
hit singles that appealed to white rock audiences.
Suddenly rap was the soundtrack on suburban hockey
team buses and summer pool parties.
Boys Licensed to Ill (1986)
crashing, echo-laden drums lifted from Led Zeppelin's
"When the Levee Breaks" could be the single
most jarring introduction to a hip-hop album ever.
On the release of License to Ill, a
Village Voice headline shouted "THREE
JERKS MAKE A MASTERPIECE," which was just about
right. Well, almost—there were four jerks, including
producer Rick Rubin, who goaded the band further and
further into their tongue-in-cheek fantasies of angel
dust, gunplay and sodomy with whiffleball bats. But
for all these whiteboys' lyrical debauchery, Rubin
made sure that the actual grooves had no wasted space.
Licensed to Ill was powered by jackhammer
grooves made up of spare drum machine-generated beats
and brittle rock guitar riffs. "She's Crafty,"
for instance, was just another Zeppelin riff with
a beat, some rhymes and a shouted chorus. This was
a wrecking ball of adolescent id, the likes of which
hadn't been seen since AC/DC's Back in Black.
When Licensed to Ill was released, it
was the best-selling rap album ever (a fact that some
credited to the Beasties' race, partially correctly).
To this day it remains on the Billboard charts, next
to Bob Marley's Legend and Pink Floyd's
Dark Side of the Moon, one of the albums that
keep selling in large numbers over the years.
Enemy Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987)
Long Island posse Public Enemy's debut first hit,
it was harder, darker and smarter than anything hip-hop
had heard before. Public Enemy were older than most
rappers when they got their start (Chuck D. was 26
in an industry full of rappers in their teens), and
the extra sophistication showed. On their first album,
PE mixed usual b-boy concerns—women, cars and
boasting—with hints of the black nationalist
awareness that would eventually dominate their music.
"Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)"
was the first truly politicized rap song. The production
hinted at the revolution that Public Enemy would soon
help spur in hip-hop; there was a steely edge to their
music that set it apart. Although many of producer
Hank Shocklee's and Chuck D.'s sample sources were
similar to other rappers', and James Brown, for example,
was a staple, they always managed to find the offbeat,
weirdly funky snippet. "Public Enemy No. 1"
took one long, bleating horn sound from Brown's "It's
the JB Monaurail" and let it run through the
song, giving it a powerfully dissonant feel. They
would cultivate this funky uneasiness in years to
B. & Rakim Paid in Full (1987)
is still recognized as one of the greatest rappers
of all time. He was the prototypical streetwise dreamer,
an abstract-minded MC with an eminently smooth, deadpan
rhyme flow. Paid in Full is the masterwork
created by him and DJ/producer Erik B.; it contains
austerely funky, bottom-thick, but often melodic tracks
that perfectly complement Rakim's serpentine lyrics.
The duo also arguably opened the floodgates of James
Brown sampling with the undeniable "I Know You
Got Soul" (which borrows from the James Brown
song of the same name). (When Public Enemy producer
Hank Shocklee first heard that single, he had to pull
his car over to the side of the road—the same
reaction, interestingly, that Beach Boy Brian Wilson
had when he first heard the Phil Spector production
"Be My Baby," sung by the Ronettes.) Erik
B. and Rakim made hip-hop that at the time epitomized
the new school and today sounds timeless.
Down Productions Criminal Minded
Minded introduced one of the great figures
in hip-hop, rapper KRS-One. With this album, KRS's
clear, cutting rapping style won him an immediate
following. The harsh narrative "9mm Goes Bang"
anticipated gangsta rap, but KRS was more complex
than that. "Poetry" made a convincing case
for him as a wordsmith; meanwhile "South Bronx,"
a simultaneous trashing of Queens-based rapper MC
Shan and history of the South Bronx's rap roots, was
one of the great dis records of all time. KRS was
not as skilled as Rakim or as politically aware as
Chuck D., but forthrightness and street savvy gave
him hip-hop's most prized quality: credibility. Criminal
Minded's talented DJ/producer Scott La
Rock was murdered after the album's release, and KRS-One
devoted himself even more to being rap's "teacher"
and spreading a message of nonviolence (one that he
often undercut with his own songs). But his debut
record established KRS as a b-boy's b-boy. Years later,
he claimed that he was hip-hop. Fans could understand
Tougher Than Leather (1988)
Run-DMC crossed over to white audiences and became
pop stars, their street credibility suffered among
their core audience of black hip-hop fans. Tougher
Than Leather's tough mission was to recapture
those fans without losing the group's new mainstream
audience. The album also shows Run-DMC responding
to newcomers like Public Enemy, who favored up-tempo
beats and smooth transitions between songs. The first
four songs—"Run's House," "Mary,
Mary," "Beats to the Rhyme" and "Radio
Station"—make up one of the most breathless
beginnings of any rap album ever. Things get a bit
spotty from there on; the group's do-wop track is
an experiment that should never have been. Run-DMC
were never to duplicate their past success.
Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us
Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
is more than just an album important to hip-hop; it's
a landmark in pop music. Musically, it took sampling
in rap to a new level of sophistication, making a
dense, funky pastiche out of everything from James
Brown grooves to air raid sirens—it picked up
the experimentation of albums like Brian Eno and David
Byrne's sample-collage My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
and melded it to the streets. Lyrically, Chuck
D. had taken a big political step: He was now dropping
references to jailed political activist Joanne Chesimard
and (to the dismay of many of the group's Jewish listeners)
Louis Farrakhan. The result was a thunderously funky
album that mixed a radical political message into
pop music perhaps more ably than anyone since Woody
Guthrie, from the call to arms "Bring the Noise"
to the prison jailbreak "Black Steel in the Hour
of Chaos." In the short term, Nation of Millions
helped spur a trend in "afrocentric" rap
(along with the Jungle Brothers' Straight Out the
Jungle), which, to many, amounted to rappers
wearing Africa medallions instead of gold chains.
In the long term, the album has been recognized as
one of the most important albums of the '80s, if not
of all time.
MC's Critical Beatdown (1988)
years, this independently released album was a litmus
test for a true rap fan—if you knew Critical
Beatdown, you were one. Led by the fantastically
offbeat Kool Keith, a nasal, staccato rapper who called
himself "the greatest MC in the whole world,"
Ultramagnetic MC's combined rock-hard, reverberating
beats and choice samples, mostly culled from the James
Brown catalog. Keith and fellow rapper Ced Gee might
make rhymes that were willfully bizarre or spacey,
but they were also from the Bronx and one step closer
to the street than many other rap stars of the '90s.
They (along with the Juice Crew) helped create the
template for much of '90s hardcore East Coast hip-hop;
a lot of what you hear on New York rap radio sounds
like Ultramagnetic more than any other artist on this
list. Keith has gone on to become an underground rap
icon and has enjoyed recent acclaim for his Dr. Octagon
Strictly Business (1988)
Business is a lesson in how much you can
do with straight sampling. EPMD would just find a
groove they liked and let it run. Rappers Erick Sermon
and Parrish Smith were Long Island b-boys who took
after Rakim in their style and held their subject
matter to the meat-and-potatoes themes of sexual prowess
and hanging out with boys. This was deceptively simple
hip-hop, satiny smooth but with an everyman appeal.
EPMD would eventually become a cottage
industry, churning out follow-ups such as Unfinished
Business (1989), Business as Usual (1991)
and Businesss Never Personal (1992) before
they split up in the mid-nineties and then reunited
for Back in Business (1997).
Brothers Straight Out the Jungle
Jungle Brothers helped popularize "afrocentricity"—the
celebration of black history and culture—in
rap music with this simple, sublimely funky debut.
Songs like "Black is Black" forwarded the
Jungle Brothers' vague pro-black agenda, while "I'll
House You" was a risque triumph that melded house
music with rap (and was a big hit in England, inspiring
a legion of hip-hop/dance fusions). At the root of
the Jungle Brothers' appeal was their charismatic
call-and-response tag-team rhyme style, displayed
to great effect on tracks such as "Sammy B.'s
on the Cut." Though they received little mainstream
attention, the Jungle Brothers helped set the
stage for De La Soul's highly acclaimed
Three Feet High and Rising.
Straight Outta Compton (1988)
was the beginning of the gangsta rap era in hip-hop.
NWA weren't the first rappers to describe the street
in violent, explicit terms (KRS-One, Schoolly D. and
Ice-T all have claims on being the first gangsta rapper),
but NWA were more over-the-top and foul-mouthed than
any of their predecessors. On record, at least, they
were bitch-slapping, AK-47-toting street thugs. But
what put the record over the top was Dr. Dre's chunky,
full-bodied grooves; production-wise, NWA were Public
Enemy's smoothed out, dope-slinging cousins. So-called
reality rap (as NWA themselves called their music)
has become the norm for hip-hop in the '90s, but we
haven't yet reached the point where the group's harsh
lyrics sound tame—they do sound purposefully
over-the-top, though. At the time, however, no one
believed that NWA could possibly have a sense of humor.
White listeners in particular thought that, unlike
the Beastie Boys, NWA were dead serious.
Boys Paul's Boutique (1989)
Erik B. was recently quoted saying that he could make
15 albums out of Paul's Boutique. This
album was the new Beasties: a little overripe, maxing
and relaxing in Los Angeles, with their new friends
the Dust Brothers unloading a latticework of old funk
and rock into their songs. Clichés run thick
in rap criticism about brilliant sampling, but Paul's
Boutique is the real thing: On "Egg
Man," for instance, the delicious groove from
Curtis Mayfield's '70s funk classic "Superfly"
is paired with the theme from "Psycho" and
tidbits lifted from Public Enemy and Cheech and Chong;
elsewhere, bouncing ping-pong balls, the Eagles, the
Ramones, the Beatles and car skids that become turntable
scratches are filtered in and out of the album. The
Beasties were still bratty, but a little less so,
and they showed a knack for linear storytelling—"Jonny
Ryall" is the nicely detailed, well laid-out
story of a bum on their block. At the time, Paul's
Boutique sold in paltry numbers and was
a disaster for the Beasties' new label, Capitol. But
the album received favorable reviews and has come
to be acknowledged as the Beasties' finest record.
It sells more copies these days than it sold six months
after its release.
La Soul Three Feet High and Rising
the reports of some music critics, De La Soul were
not hippies (although their debut's album cover did
feature day-glo flowers, and they promoted something
called the "D.A.I.S.Y. Age," the acronym
standing for "Da Inner Sound Y'all," whatever
that means). They were, however, something totally
new to hip-hop in 1989 and stand as perhaps the quirkiest
group ever to gain acceptance from hip-hop's core
audience of black urban youths—kind of a high-water
mark for unadulterated goofiness in rap. The songs
on Three Feet High and Rising were framed
by silly skits involving a fake game show, and one
of the tracks was a French 101 instructional tape
set to music. The between-song chatter gets boring
after repeated listening, but at the heart of the
album are solid grooves and creative, able rhyming.
De La Soul proved able storytellers on tracks like
the anti-drug "Say No Go"; meanwhile, songs
like "The Magic Number" (which sampled an
old Schoolhouse Rock tune) showed off Prince Paul's
ear for hooks. De La Soul began their career with
a war against crass materialism and played-out fashions
(specifically shell-toe Adidas sneakers and gold chains)
in hip-hop. Since the release of Three Feet High
and Rising, the clock has been rolled back—shell-toes
are a youth footwear staple, and conspicuous
consumption is as popular as ever—but De La
Soul still inspire rap's stylistic left bank.
Brothers Done by the Forces of Nature
by the Forces of Nature is the great underrated
album of this period. It tied together the experimental
spirit of De La Soul with the Jungle Brothers' ever-more-serious
afrocentricity. The result was deeply felt and deeply
funky. "Beyond this World" is a mesmerizing,
uptempo introduction to the album; "Sunshine"
leads from an everyday tragedy on a ghetto street
to an expansive, spiritual ending. Elsewhere there
are odes to black womanhood ("Black Woman"),
woolly instrumentals ("Good News Coming")
and calls to unity ("Tribe Vibes"). Unfortunately,
the album wasn't accepted by the hip-hop community.
The Brothers' biggest hits so far had been their most
down to earth, for instance, their bawdy hit "Jimbrowski,"
and those were gone now. Done by the Forces of
Nature's lukewarm reception became a warning to
experimental, spiritual rappers: Don't go too far.
Tribe Called Quest People's Instinctive Travels
and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)
album was something of a swan song for the boho rap
of the Native Tongues collective (De La Soul, the
Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and A Tribe Called
Quest). It's also an unusually unabrasive rap album,
powered by mellow grooves on tracks like the mariachi-flavored
"I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" and the
sexy "Bonita Applebum." There is some filler
on Travels, though. At its worst, it
came off as a poor man's Three Feet High and Rising.
On their next album, the classic Low End Theory,
the Tribe would back away from the overt boho flavor
of their debut and reposition themselves as jazz-inspired
Cube Amerikkka's Most Wanted
his solo debut, former NWA rapper Ice Cube teamed
up with Public Enemy's production team, the Bomb Squad.
The result was an album that still stands as the ultimate
East Coast-West Coast rap collaboration. Hank Shocklee
and company produced sample-heavy, electrifying grooves
to lie under Ice Cube's raw lyrics. Tracks like "Once
upon a Time in the Projects" and "Nigga
You Love to Hate" could be as violent and misogynistic
as NWA's most evil moments, but there was usually
some redeeming wit or even a moral to Ice Cube's tales.
At the same time, Amerikkka's Most Wanted
changed hip-hop. It was becoming increasingly accepted
that much of the innovation in the genre would happen
within the framework of gangsta rap. And even though
"gangsta rap" has become an outdated term,
that remains true to this day.
gangsta‑isms of NWA and Ice Cube would come
to pervade the hip‑hop mainstream. Strong scenes
in cities such as Oakland, Houston and Seattle—all
slinging the same kind of guns‑and‑hos
hip‑hop as Los Angeles—would challenge
New York as the creative center of the music. Authenticity,
or "realness," the premium quality for any
rapper, became synonymous with being a roughneck.
In 1992, KRS‑One, the self‑styled teacher
who had preached "Stop the Violence" in
1988, attacked Prince Be of the pacifistic, Spandau‑Ballet‑sampling
duo PM Dawn onstage at a party. Word of the incident
spread quickly through hip‑hop circles; it was
a powerful symbol that the positive‑minded,
anything‑goes era of De La Soul and Public Enemy
today there is a wide sprectrum of rap‑inspired
music, stretching from drum 'n' bass in the United
Kingdom to the San Francisco Bay area's "turntablist"
scene, which could not have happened without the flowering
of the mid- to late '80s hip‑hop. Chuck D.'s
complaint that "radio suckers never play me"
seems positively quaint now—every major city
in the nation has a station that plays hip‑hop
24 hours a day. Similarly, the "Fear of a Black
Planet" that Public Enemy noticed in the white
mainstream seems well founded: The malls and high
schools of middle America are overrun with suburban
homeboys who can recite Jay‑Z and Wu‑Tang
Clan lyrics by heart. Never mind that Chuck D. himself
has had to moonlight as a VH‑1 deejay to make
ends meet. He and his peers brought the noise, and