“You start with nothing and then you build/Follow your dream until it’s fulfilled” – Grandmaster Caz
“I take a phrase that’s rarely heard/Flip it, now it’s a daily word” – Rakim Allah
Like the proverbial rose sprouting through a crack in the sidewalk, hip-hop took root within the urban hell of the South Bronx during the 1970’s. While brutal gang violence had riddled much of the five boroughs throughout the first part of that decade, a series of gang truces during 1972 and ’73 allowed people to venture out to block parties to shake their thangs. Because the violence had been prolonged, many people were ready to let off considerable steam.
Into this breach stepped entrepreneurial souls like DJ Kool Herc – who played his first house party because his sister wanted to make some money for school clothes. Herc plugged into municipal light poles and literally rocked the block. He soon realized that the most hectic dancing was happening on the drum breaks, and began to search for records (like the Incredible Bongo Band, and James Brown) that prominently featured instrumental breaks. The records that Kool Herc spun at these parties became the bedrock of future hip-hop sound.
Watching Kool Herc and taking notes was a young wannabe DJ who would eventually become known as Grandmaster Flash. Flash took the idea of breaks to a new level by fading back and forth between two copies of the same record to loop and extend the break. DJ Grand Wizard Theodore added scratching, and the ability to drop a needle by sight in the exact place he wanted to start a break (as opposed to cueing up the break on headphones). At this point, the creative chase was joined and it was only a matter of time (and a few superstar acts like Run-DMC and Beastie Boys) before hip-hop found its way into the hearts and minds of people around the globe.
Author Jeff Chang’s remarkable book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History Of The Hip-Hop Generation” charts the origins, pioneers, and eventual rise of the genre. Chang’s book is so good that my thumbnail sketch of the genre withers in comparison. This is a book that rises above its inspired subject matter and will delight anyone who likes a good story.
The history of hip-hop rightfully inspires clichés like David & Goliath, making something out of nothing, and flowers sprouting through concrete. But what better underdog story is there than a group of people in most destitute part of this country creating a juggernaut industry from the broken rubble and found sounds around them? Look at pictures from this era and you see colorful people having a good time, entirely oblivious that they were about to change the fabric of modern culture.
And change it they did. Hip-Hop has become so entwined in the culture of America (beats are everywhere, pants be saggin’, etc.) that it’s hard to imagine what this country would be like if a bunch of New York gangs hadn’t called off the fight in 1973.
In spite of what some might think or hope, hip-hop is not dead, nor dying. Along with Blues, Jazz, and Rock, it’s one of the greatest musical innovations of the 20th century. And what lives on in the minds of the young is what lives on, period. Time is on the side of the kids in the street who’ve known nothing but a hip-hop culture, and it’s only a matter of time until you’ll be shopping to Muzak by Outkast. How dead is that?
Run-DMC – Raising Hell (1986)
#1 - Run DMC’s second full-length album took rap into the homes and hearts of everyone outside the big cities. Big hit ‘Walk This Way’ found heavy rotation on MTV, and ‘My Adidas’ foretold the era of cross-over promotion, but this album is loaded front to back: ‘Peter Piper’, ‘It’s Tricky’ and the title track are rap at its finest in the pre-gangsta era. And while it’s hard to find a dirty word or insult (even ‘You Be Illin’ is good-natured put-down of the yo’ mama variety) the intensity is still rampant throughout. Oh yeah, it might also be Rick Rubin’s finest non-Johnny Cash-related moment as producer.
Eric B. & Rakim – Paid In Full (1987)
#2 - Ask any full-time MC who his or her favorite rapper is (besides him or herself), and chances are the answer is Rakim Allah. Those props are earned right here. ‘Move The Crowd’, ‘I Know You Got Soul’ and ‘I Ain’t No Joke’ are Rakim at his best, with rhymes as smooth and solid as tempered glass and verbal wit that makes it seem he’s operating with an additional thesaurus of words and ideas unavailable to other rappers. And Eric B. plays Pippen to Rakim’s Jordan – filling in more than ably and doing the dirty work that allows the star to shine. This debut set a high mark they would meet time and again, on albums like Follow The Leader and Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em.
Nas – Illmatic (1994)
#3 - Illmatic is an album that lends much credence to the idea of hip-hop as urban documentary journalism. The grade school photo on the cover is just the first instance of autobiography, and the rhymes are well served by the inside-out view. Intentionally or not, Nas conveys the feeling of a young man playing at gangsta, all gesticulation and enthusiasm, much strut and little menace. If John Travolta had been a rapper in Saturday Night Fever he’d have been Nas on Illmatic.
Outkast – Speakerboxx/The Love Below (2003)
#4 - The rumors swirling around the release of this album were dire: it would be the last Outkast album, Andre 3000 and Big Boi had already split up, and they were simply packaging two solo albums together. The truth ran something more like this: after making the progressively epic albums Aquemini (1998), and Stankonia (2000), each member had a big idea (and enough songs) for an individual disc. Speakerboxx is a Boi-guided tour through 70’s funk and soul music (‘The Way You Move’ is homage to Earth Wind & Fire, and so on and so forth). The Love Below is the perfect antidote to its noisy, vibrant mate – all plush velvety hearts, big huggy teddy bears, and Dre’s cartoon lover persona. And who didn’t love the mega-crossover smash ‘Hey Ya’?
Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)
#5 - Chuck D. has a voice that commands respect, and on Nation Of Millions, he puts it to chillingly good use. The intense, claustrophobic sound is aided immensely by the Bomb Squad’s production, and Chuck spits and barks throughout, like a megaphone in a riot. The cinematic track ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’ – maybe the best militant rap song ever – is about a draft-dodger busting out of jail, and filled with radical logic like “I’m a black man/so I could never be a veteran”. ‘Bring The Noise’, ‘Louder Than A Bomb’ and ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ make this the full realization of PE’s (Black Panther Party respun for the 90’s) vision.
Wu Tang Clan – Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
#6 - Wu Tang Clan formed when nine struggling individual rappers decided they might have better luck as a crew. With talents like Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, and GZA, the Wu had superior parts that formed an even greater whole. Their debut drips with grease and grime in a way that only Exile On Main St. can match. Of course it made stars out of the whole lot, solo albums were made, and an empire ensued that stretched everyone so thin that this great height was never again reached. When ODB OD’d in 2004, it lent a morbid postscript to much of the music here, but Enter The Wu Tang remains one of the strongest – and yes, greezyest – albums of all-time.
Beastie Boys – Ill Communication (1994)
#7 - Beastie Boys have made nothing but solid albums in their career, but Ill Communication stands just a little bit taller than the rest. It found them distilling past sounds and lessons into a cohesive, entertaining, and entirely unique take on hip-hop. From party starter ‘Sure Shot’ to ‘Sabotage’ to the instrumental funk jams, it jumps from place to place without ever losing its center. ‘Bodhisattva Vow’ is the real lynch-pin, with Adam Yauch expounding a mature vision of the world and his place in it. It’s a song that simply couldn’t have existed on earlier Bboys albums, yet it pointed directly toward where their sound (& vision) was headed.
Missy Elliott – Under Construction (2002)
#8 – Missy Elliott claimed to be a work in progress on Under Construction, and then proceeded to roll out one of the most complete blueprints of the many facets of hip-hop (and its untapped possibilities) ever recorded. She harkens back to the pre-gangsta days, when the music was more about having fun than having beef. Missy: “I used to love them days. No tension.” As she proved here, it’s possible to have fun and run the table. Killer guest spots from Method Man, Jay Z, 50-Cent, and Ludacris don’t hurt, but this is Missy’s party, and she puts the good-natured block party vibe, her big league flow, and Timbaland’s production to excellent use, creating an album that is both sonically and intellectually perfect.
Snoop Doggy Dogg – Doggystyle (1993)
#9 – What’s cooler than inventing a new way to be cool? When Snoop Dogg came out of nowhere on Dr. Dre’s classic 1992 album The Chronic, his slow drawl and laid back delivery were much needed in a world full of hectic, hyped-up rappers. On his solo debut, Doggystyle, Snoop came through with an instant classic. ‘Gin & Juice’, ‘Tha Shiznit’, and ‘Lodi Dodi’ set a slow jam party vibe that made West Coast rap relevant and Snoop the crown prince of cool. While he’s had many fine moments since, his best album remains this first trip to tha Dogg pound.
Various Artists – Wild Style Soundtrack (1983)
#10 – The concept of the full-length album was simply antithetical to the hit-and-run nature of early hip-hop. It wasn’t really even considered, until 3 rappers were hastily assembled (under the moniker Sugarhill Gang) for the express purpose of making an album to cash in on rap’s nascent possibilities. Their first single, ‘Rappers Delight’ went multi-platinum, but it was already too late for many of rap’s true pioneers. Which brings us to the Wild Style Soundtrack – as close as you’ll come to true documentation of the people who gave the genre it’s early creative spark, including The Cold Crush Brothers, Busy Bee & DJ Starski, The Fantastic 5, Rahmelzhee, and many others. Even the spoken word segues with graffiti artists and b-boys (ie, break dancers) are entertaining and worthwhile. See if you can count the number of moments sampled into future music.
The Coup – Party Music (2001)
#11 - On Party Music, The Coup perfectly split the difference between the kill-em-all stylings of N.W.A and the Black Panther retro philosophy of Public Enemy – with a nice 70’s groove laid on top to make it all go down smooth-like. From the hip-shaker ‘5 Million Ways To Kill A CEO’ to the feminist facing ‘Wear Clean Draws’ to call-to-action ‘Ride The Fence’ and all points between, it’s all groovy and fully guerilla. The original artwork depicted group members Boots and Pam detonating the World Trade Center, but that artwork was pulled after September 11th, and before the album was released. In spite of that, this is the rare combination of hip-hop that’s really smart and real fun.
Ice Cube – The Predator (1992)
#12 - The Predator begins with a graphic re-creation of being processed into the prison system – and only gets more intense from there. Cube – and all African-Americans – had good reason to feel pissed and on edge in ’92. After the five policemen who beat Rodney King were acquitted of major charges, and L.A. went up in flames, sentiment like “the KKK wears 3 piece suits” was in step with the feelings of many Americans – black, white, and otherwise. Of course, this album has a lot more going for it than anger – ‘It Was A Good Day’ is the finest urban poetry this side of Langston Hughes. The fact that a slow rap about making it through another day in South Central could become a huge national hit is testament to the genius of this album, and its author.
2Pac – All Eyez On Me (1996)
#13 - Tupac Shakur’s first album for Death Row records was also the first double disc release of original songs in the history of hip-hop. All Eyez On Me would shoot to #1 and sell in excess of four million copies, but Shakur wouldn’t live to see the end of the year. In September of ’96, he was fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting on the Vegas strip. Unfortunately, it was the conclusion of a long string of trouble for him: with the law, with East Coast rappers, and with his own unpredictable temper. Nonetheless, All Eyez On Me is a masterwork that’s smothered in charisma, confidence, and California sunshine.
EPMD – Strictly Business (1988)
#14 - By not chopping their samples into indistinguishable fragments and keeping the beat sources fairly intact, EPMD’s sound perfectly anticipates the rock/rap mash-up craze of the 00’s. ‘I’m Housin’’, the title track, and ‘You Gots To Chill’ sound like they were posted on the Internet last week by the latest mash-up whiz. And while some found Erik Sermon and Parrish Smith’s vocal deliveries flat, their laid back flow has allowed the sound to age like fine wine. Unfortunately, they were relegated to underground buzz status and made four albums before breaking up in ’92. They’re absolutely right in rapping “this ain’t a blast from the past/it’s a boomer from the future.”
Jungle Brothers – Done By The Forces Of Nature (1989)
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
#15 & #16 - Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest are the Psilocybin and LSD of hip-hop. That is, their active ingredients are so similar that if you’ve built a tolerance for one, you’re guaranteed to have tolerance for the other. And, well, in hip-hop terms, they’re pretty trippy. For one, these are happy albums that sport jazzy time signatures (and samples) and leave you in a good mood. Both Done By The Forces, and Low End Theory track the day-to-day lives of people who are interested in having fun and finding truth. Loose-limbed yet virtuosic, these albums can still take you places that no other hip-hop approaches. Just be sure to take them in responsible doses.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 – The Message (1982)
#17 - Not just the first superstar of rap, Grandmaster Flash is a pioneer who developed many of the DJ techniques still in use today. The Furious Five were groundbreaking in their own right, as Melle Mel’s social realism and Cowboy’s party starting call-and-responses like “Throw your hands in the air/and wave ‘em like you just don’t care” (which are so pat now that it seems amazing anybody invented them) amply prove. All of that said, it’s pretty clear that this group’s best moments happened in front of live audiences and not in the studio (as they’ll readily admit). Still, if this is as close as we can get to the legend, I’ll take it.
Massive Attack – Blue Lines (1991)
#18 - Blue Lines was one of the first (and remains one of the most enduring) signs that hip-hop had matured beyond kangols and party anthems. Made more to move your soul than rock the house, it shifted the borders of what constituted hip-hop. Drop the needle anywhere and you’ll find 25mph gems like ‘Safe From Harm’, ‘Be Thankful For What You’ve Got’ and ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ that owe equal debts of inspiration to Smokey Robinson, Gregory Isaacs, and electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk. In fact, this is one of the very few hip-hop albums where the backing tracks sound more like Depeche Mode than Grandmaster Flash. Massive Attack’s debut was so revolutionary that a new genre – “trip-hop” – was coined to describe it.
Various Artists – How High Soundtrack (2001)
#19 - The soundtrack for How High is mainly a stage for Method Man and Redman, and they work it like a hip-hop version of Belushi and Ackroyd. The rhymes are never less than intense, but there’s a prevalent sense of fun that makes this a tried-and-true classic. The guest performances, from Toni Braxton to Cypress Hill’s B-Real to Ludacris to (believe it or not) Limp Bizkit, are all excellent. The haze of ganja smoke blowing out of your speakers won’t be the only reason you’ll wear a crooked smile while listening to this one.
Blackalicious – Nia (2000)
#20 - DJ Chief Xcel and MC Gift Of Gab are part of a larger collective of artists that operate under the Quannum banner, which includes groups like Maroons and Latyrx, and phenomenally talented MCs Lyrics Born and Lateef The Truth Speaker. Nia includes contributions from all of them, and is barely the best of the many releases from this tight knit gang of co-conspirators. Like all Quannum releases, it seems to have taken all the best parts of the history of hip-hop (the social consciousness, funky grooves, playful rhymes, female voices, good-natured bragging, etc) and left out all the garbage (blatant cursing, misogyny, violent fantasies and stupid skits, among many others), making it the perfect album to conclude a list highlighting hip-hop’s high points.
THE NEXT 20…
Notorious B.I.G. – Ready To Die
Lyrics Born – Same !@#$, Different Day
Kanye West – Late Registration
Spearhead – Home
Jurassic 5 – Quality Control
Cee-Lo Green… Is The Soul Machine
Cypress Hill – Cypress Hill
The Kleptones – A Night At The Hip-Hopera
The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde
Jay Z – MTV Unplugged
Stereo MC’s – Connected
Too $hort – Life Is… Too $hort
LL Cool J – Bigger And Deffer
Dr. Dre – The Chronic
Gang Starr – Daily Operation
Aceyalone – Book Of Human Language
Afrika Bambaataa – Looking For The Perfect Beat (1980–1985)
Danger Mouse – The Grey Album
NWA – Straight Outta Compton
Sugarhill Gang – Best Of
10 Dope Hip-Hop Compilations…
Next Friday Soundtrack
Tommy Boy presents… Hip-Hop Essentials 1979-1991
The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip-Hop 1979-1983
Old School Vs. New School (Volumes 1 & 2)
No More Prisons
The Neptunes present… Clones
Def Jam 20th Anniversary Box Set
Ego Trip presents The Big Playback
Judgment Night Soundtrack
15 Hip-Hop Forefathers…
Langston Hughes – Hughes’ poetry dealt with the harsh realities of black life in an insightful and honest way that foreshadowed the best of hip-hop.
Richard Pryor – His four-letter word fueled soliloquies on throwing dice, smoking crack and growing up funny were filled with humanity and heart, and ensured that no topic was ever again off limits.
Muhammad Ali – “Float like a butterfly/sting like a bee” was world class rapping 20 years before the category was invented. Ali also sported the charisma, heart, and awareness that have marked the best rappers.
DJ Kool Herc – The literal forefather of the genre, the records that Kool Herc played at his South Bronx block parties inspired early DJs like Grandmaster Flash to take up their trade.
Eldridge Cleaver – The Black Panther leader pushed for self-protection from over-eager police, and self-preservation of the welfare of his community. Cleaver and the Panthers lived the real life version of much rap fantasy.
Booker T. Washington – Invented an industry out of peanuts (the crop, not the cliché), displaying the same drive, ingenuity, and genius as the DJs and rappers in the South Bronx who gave birth to hip-hop in the late ‘70s.
Malcolm X – The onetime Malcolm Little was anything but. His presence and sheer belief in the ability of the black man are indispensable to the foundation – and lyrical content – of the genre.
Iceberg Slim – Author and one-time Pimp wrote unsparingly about his grim, jizz-stained, back-of-the-hand trade in an unflinching manner that anticipated gangsta rappers like NWA and Snoop Dogg.
Julius Erving – Dr. J’s slow motion, afro blowin’ ABA dunk reels are the 70’s version of Michaelangelo. The way he looks playing ball is how every rapper in the world wants to sound – straight butter.
Jack Johnson – Early 1900’s heavyweight boxing champion flaunted his blackness in a white dominated world, by driving flashy cars, wearing fur coats, and dating white women. A bad, bad man.
George Clinton – Clinton’s loony, over-the-top costumes and personas inspired a host of rappers to dress up and play pimp. He’s also behind many of the most wicked breaks ever sampled.
James Brown – Brown’s beats are the sonic foundation of hip-hop, providing the grooves and breaks behind countless rap songs. From a purely musical perspective, there is no higher influence on the sound of hip-hop than JB.
Gil Scott Heron – Heron’s spoken-word rants about the inherent brutality of the black experience in America anticipated the stark reality of modern hip-hop lyrics by nearly two decades.
Bruce Lee – Martial artist and movie actor Lee became a Hollywood legend by kicking ass and looking cool doing it. His influence on hip-hop (minimal throughout the 80’s) has grown during the last decade.
Tony Montana – Al Pacino’s title character in the movie Scarface has become the patron saint of badass hip-hop behavior and inspired scores of swaggering, tough-talking rappers.
5 Essential Books about Hip-Hop…
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation * Jeff Chang
EgoTrip’s Book Of Rap Lists * Edited by Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, et al
Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History Of Hip-Hop’s First Decade * Edited by Jim Fricke & Charlie Ahearn
Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide * Edited by Oliver Wang
And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism Of The Last 25 Years * Edited by Raquel Cepeda