Though hip hop had been around for a few years, it started to become a national phenomenon 30 years ago — a period that still resonates because of the way the music connected on several different levels.
Hip hop’s earliest breakout recordings had come with 1979′s “King Tim III” by Fatback Band and, in particular, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Kurtis Blow then knocked on the door with 1980′s “The Breaks,” which he memorably performed on “Soul Train,” while Blondie actually rapped on her pop hit “Rapture” (more on that in a minute). By 1982, the Funky Four had performed on Saturday Night Live — becoming the first hip hop group to appear in national television, and ABC’s “20/20″ had actually done a feature on the “The Rap Phenomenon.” The music was poised for a breakthrough — both commercially, and artistically in the form of game-changing singles from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Afrika Bambaataa.
That’s where we come in. In this special edition of our Featured Artist series, Something Else! Reviews delves into this then-emerging genre — recalling key embryonic moments, first experiences, and the way this music still challenges our intellect even while producing such ass-shaking joys …
“PLANET ROCK,” AFRIKA BAMBAATAA AND SOUL SONIC FORCE (1982): If you dig up the roots of the hip hop family tree, you’ll find Afrika Bambaataa, one of the originators of break-beat DJing — now affectionately known as The Grandfather — the one credited with coining the genre’s name, and the first to mount a national hip hop concert tour.
You could argue — and they did — that he also brought Kraftwerk to mainstream America.
All of that finds it synthesis here, within a track that combines street beats, some nasty funk, some snarky rock attitude, hip hop’s early party atmosphere (“You’ve gotta rock it, don’t stop it!”) and the strange Germanic atmospherics of Kraftwerk (in particular, it seemed, 1977′s “Trans Europe Express”; a court case would follow), Gary Numan and the Yellow Magic Orchestra — the last of whom were, themselves, early proponents of the programmable Roland TR-808 drum machine, which would soon engulf the MTV era.
From “Planet Rock,” you can draw a straight line to the electro style that produced Madonna and Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, and then subsequent modern-day variants like house, techno and trance. Afrika Bambaataa was bigger than hip hop, a genre he (literally) helped define. Cue up “Planet Rock,” and it quickly becomes clear: He’s one of the well springs of the 1980s sound. — Nick DeRiso
“FUNKY BEAT,” BERNARD WRIGHT (1983): Vocoder, check. Programmed breakdance beats, check. Awkward rhymes, check. In those ways, Bernard Wright’s “Funky Beat” was par for course for much of rap music in 1983. But as a fusion keyboardist, the 20-year-old Barnard Wright — who joined Lenny White’s touring band seven years earlier (that’s right folks, at age 13) — already understood a thing or two more than the average rapper about handmade music and composing around dance rhythms.
At the same time another, better known funk-jazzer named Herbie Hancock dove headlong into hip-hop with “Rock It,” so did Wright by way of the title tune from his Funky Beat album. With added percussion coming from White, a prescient piano solo by Wright inserted right in the middle, and a nasty vamp, Wright had something genuinely musical to offer than just good fodder for break dancers. — S. Victor Aaron
“RAPTURE,” BLONDIE (1980): In rural Maine in the late 1970s, there were absolutely no hints of hip-hop culture. Heck, I’m not even sure hints of it would have been welcome. We were still seething at disco, after all. I used to think that our attitudes at the time were the product of a kind of musical conservatism, where our collective rage would be unleashed at any style we considered unworthy: The Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” being prime examples. But it wasn’t the style alone that was the issue, it was the fact that some of our favorite artists had the audacity to explore other genres.
And so it was with Blondie. I was a huge fan of their punk/new wave-influenced music, but was confused when “Heart of Glass” arrived on the scene. When Autoamerican came out, the stylistic pile-up was almost too much to take. Strings? Reggae? Show tunes? Rap? What??!! My young mind just could not understand how a rock group could be interested in these things.
And yet I totally dug “Rapture.” It’s really just a tricked-out disco song, with funky rhythm guitar and horns laying down the party atmosphere. The rap itself made no sense to me but hey, this was Debbie Harry. She seemed to be having a blast and the guitar solo that followed really took things over the top. But who was this Fab Five Freddy guy? I had so much to learn. — Mark Saleski
“PLAY THAT BEAT MR. DJ,” G.L.O.B.E. AND WHIZ KID (1983): Although his name doesn’t come up nearly as often as, say, Grandmaster Flash or Afrika Bambaataa these days, serious students of old school hip-hop will tell you that Harold “Whiz Kid” McGuire is every bit the DJ pioneer as those much more famous names. Considered a classic among hip-hop purists today, Whiz Kid’s 1983 Tommy Boy 12-inch single with MC G.L.O.B.E., “Play That Beat Mr. DJ,” is a landmark event in the DJ art of scratching. This amazing record is as groundbreaking in its own way as more celebrated DJ showcases from the same period like Grandmaster Flash’s “Wheels Of Steel” or Grandmixer DSt’s work on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit’” — and all three were out at roughly about the same time.
While G.L.O.B.E.’s lyrics describe a party without musical boundaries, where “punk rock, new wave, and soul; pop music, salsa, rock ‘n’ roll; calypso, reggae, rhythm and blues” are equally celebrated, Whiz Kid “master mixes those number one tunes” and puts on a clinic in textbook scratching. Although the song was a big club hit at the time, Whiz Kid never quite duplicated it. Shortly after “Play That Beat’s” release, Whiz Kid moved with his family from New York to Tacoma, Washington, when his wife’s military career demanded it.
There were other records, of course, both for Tommy Boy (“He’s Got The Beat”) and the Seattle based hip-hop label Nastymix (a hip-hop update of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” with rapper YSL). But none of these scaled anywhere near the same heights as “Play That Beat Mr. DJ.” Sadly, Whiz Kid passed away from complications of a brain tumor in the early 1990s. Although he may not be as much of a household name as Grandmaster Flash, his status as a legend is no less significant to students of hip-hop history, and especially to DJs. — Glen Boyd
“THE MESSAGE,” GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE (1982): Before this song, hip hop was party music. After this song, it would never be the same.
In framing not just the day-to-day life of people living in dead-end impoverishment (all together now: “bum education, double-digit inflation”), but also their edgy sense of impending rage, “The Message” gave voice to a new inner-city generation in the same way that jazz, blues, soul and funk had previously. And it packed a whole lot in between its shuddering, oh-so-slow beats and Clifton “Jiggs” Chase’s ageless synthesizer squiggle. There was social commentary, righteous indignation, street-level griot truth — and a heaping helping of humor, too, as they diss on a sibling who’s constantly parked in front of the TV (“‘All My Children’ in the daytime, ‘Dallas’ a night; can’t even watch the game or the Sugar Ray fight”), crafting one of the more memorable moments from a track written (and then performed) by Sugar Hill session musician Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher and Furious Five MC Melle Mel.
See, even Grandmaster Flash and the other four members of his legendary Furious Five seemed to be unsure about the marketability of a “message” song at this point, so new was the concept. But its importance has since been confirmed in the way the lyrics have moved into the culture (most notably the signature line “don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge”) through songs, film and TV — not to mention Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s induction as the first-ever hip-hop act into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
“The Message” is now commonly referred to as the greatest hip hop track ever, and stands as the highest-ranking song from the 1980s — and the highest-ranking song from its genre, period — on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It’s no surprise, really. This tune’s got it all. — Nick DeRiso