Robert Davidson provides an introduction to the golden age of hop-hop with an essay and 29-track playlist from a period that transformed popular music forever
1520 Sedgwick Avenue, The Bronx. The deep summer of 1973.
Stood behind the two-turntable set-up inspired by downtown Manhattan’s discotheques, DJ Kool Herc was peering out into the future’s void. Two records lined-up. He warned the crowd that this would be something new. But yet it still came as a disjoint in time. An Akashic record skip. The idea itself was simple. He would play a funk record (James Brown to be precise) and when it hit the instrumental break, the point when Brown’s voice recedes and when the drums, bass, and bongos take hold and the crowd goes bananas, DJ Kool Herc simply wouldn’t let it end. He would sustain that emotional peak. Once an instrumental break finished, he would loop to the next one lined up on the other deck and repeat the process again and again. He called it the “Merry-Go-Round” and it birthed the “breakbeat”: the Higgs Boson at the centre of all hip-hop.
That unimaginably 21st century revelation took time for the 20th century to comprehend. The mid-1970s to mid-1980s were spent exploring the recognition that recorded sound wasn’t final – but just a temporary resting state. It could be collided, sampled, scratched, slowed, accelerated and who knows what else. Other hip-hop visionaries would emerge, in particular Grandmaster Flash and his scientific appreciation for sound, and Afrika Bambaataa and his cosmic thirst for union under hip-hop’s banner. They joined DJ Kool Herc’s genius for manipulating energies. These three hip-hop ideologues and their samples would appear time-and-time throughout hip-hop’s existence like background radiation, like black noise.
Everyone disputes when the golden age of hip-hop began and ended, but for my money it begins in 1987 in New York City with Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full and ends in 1991 in Los Angeles with Ice Cube’s Death Certificate.
If the first great hip-hop revelation was the magic of the instrumental after the voice recedes, then the second revelation lay in what happens when you put the voice back in. The fully-formed arrival of Paid in Full may not be as mythologised as that infamous night in The Bronx, but it’s every bit as instrumental. Rakim was the first true voice that was able to navigate the sonic spaces unlocked in the previous decade.
Rakim’s flows were preternaturally nimble, able to squeeze into the tightest of lyrical avenues. Simple couplets were replaced with intricate interior rhyming. All the while, his voice revelled in its own percussive possibility; with his plosives popping alongside the horns, scratches, and jazz-drum patterns. In the words of MTV, “Paid In Full left a mushroom cloud over the hip-hop community”.
However, while the technical leaps were ludicrous, Rakim’s bars were rooted in the new school of hip-hop (Run DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J etc.), still focused on disses and boasts rather than social commentary. To find one of the first voices to use hip-hop’s new sound as a tool to vocalise their struggles, we would have to head back to The Bronx.
KRS-One was one of the first to see the power of words as a conduit to vocalise and confront the world he lived within. One of crime, abandonment, and death. Seen as a bridge between Jamaican reggae sound and hip-hop (due to his use of zung-gu-zung melody), KRS-One also imported the revolutionary zeal of reggae into the genre.
On his largely solo 1988 album By All Means Necessary under the name ‘Boogie Down Production’ the album cover saw KRS-One flagrantly brandishing an Uzi. However, the album doesn’t begin with gun-fire or unrest, but an incredulous question: “So you’re a philosopher”? On that track, ‘My Philosophy’, KRS-One would deliver what was one of the first politically focused hip-hop tracks, taking the murder of his bandmate DJ Scott la Rock (the first murder of a major hip-hop star) as its subject. His lyrics are instructive and elucidating, almost a scholastic sermon. His flow lacked Rakim’s punch, but his words themselves were even heavier – sharper in their confrontation with the system’s oppressional force.
While KRS-One would craft hip-hop’s ability to be a revolutionary force, Public Enemy would take it mainstream. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back may be one of the few perfect realisations of a genre in existence. Across its near-hour long runtime, the alchemic mix of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and Terminator X were breaking down boundaries in almost every track, the accumulation that piled up as the needle skipped is incomprehensible. However, it would be ‘Fight The Power’, found at the end of their follow-up Fear of a Black Planet, that would be the apotheosis of the golden age’s message. That track takes the innovation of the 1970s as its base (a self-described ‘wall of noise’ that was led by James Brown samples) and puts its pro-Black message at the centre. Even now, there are few pioneers across any genre that were innovative as Public Enemy were in the golden age.
While all our focus so far has zeroed in on New York City, it was the developments on the other side of the country that ultimately pushed the genre forward towards its next phase. New York City was felt to be the authentic home of hip-hop, harnessing the true hip-hop sound. N.W.A. were doing much to change that, lacing Straight Outta Compton with tales from the streets of Los Angeles. There was just one problem – the extensive list of samples of their 1988 classic was stacked with predominantly East Coast sounds, influences or rappers (not mentioning an incongruent sample of 1970s Scottish funk group Average White Band). This was an authentic voice without a concrete sound to back it up.
It would only be after Ice Cube’s acrimonious departure from N.W.A. and the release of his second solo album Death Certificate that things would truly change (his first album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted would be produced by The Bomb Squad, the geniuses behind Public Enemy’s sound). On Death Certificate Ice Cube no longer strove to echo the crowded chaos of New York City, instead tapping into the arid stretches of suburbs that he had grown up in. His music didn’t tower up like a project, but instead roamed around like a humid Sunday evening joy-ride through the ghetto. It had verve. It had sun. It had funk. It leaned on the psychedelic groove of George Clinton over the in-your-face funk of James Brown. All this made the world Ice Cube described all the more hellish.
However, what would cationise Death Certificate as the end of the golden age for me is the track at the end of the album, ‘No Vaseline’. Despite his solo success, Ice Cube had not forgotten his animosity towards N.W.A. and put together this scathing diss track. By itself, it could be seen as a micro-event; however, a few months earlier, Tim Dog, a Bronx rapper, had released ‘Fuck Compton’ – the diss track that is seen as the genesis for the West-East Coast wars that would dominate much of hip-hop’s ‘narrative’ during the 1990s.
The centrality and importance of words had come to the forefront, but it had come full-circle and the big bang produced its own death spiral that would produce a ‘lost generation’ of rappers dead before 30. Media manipulation, over-blown egos, and affiliations would become the story, blighting the exponential growth of hip-hop’s continual innovation. Perhaps, at the end of the day, the golden age had less to do with music, and more to do with the relative peace.