Hip to Hip-Hop
Sunday, February 19, 2006
Hip-hop music is ubiquitous. It's the sound of every other commercial, blares through arenas at NBA games and scoops up armfuls of Grammys. Its impact has been wide and deep, affecting everything from advertising, sports and fashion to film, television, religion and even politics. But the history of hip-hop -- where it really came from, its pioneers and visionaries, its evolution -- is less familiar, even to fans.
To understand the biggest popular music phenomenon of our times and put it into some context, you need to start by listening to hip-hop's high-impact songs. With only 30-odd years to consider, picking seminal tracks would seem like a manageable task -- but this is a genre that mutates faster than most flu bugs. Inside of hip-hop, a bewildering number of boundaries, regional and stylistic, segment the music. Gangsta rap, conscious hip-hop, "alternative" rap (has that term suffered its well-deserved death yet?), emo rap, indie/underground -- these are not just idle descriptors, they also are identifying lifestyle markers. Choosing between a Lil Jon or an Atmosphere CD is as loaded with meaning as deciding whether to buy a Hummer or a hybrid. And the regional differences -- the East Coast/West Coast/Dirty South styles -- are so pronounced because hip-hop is always about representing where you're from and demanding attention not only for yourself but for your community.
The percussive scratching of vinyl records, the distinct cadences of rap verse, the concept of collage as composition -- these are iconic now, but as musical conventions they took time to be accepted as valid. From Grandmaster Flash's "Superappin' " to Little Brother's "The Listening," this guide attempts to assess relevance in the hip-hop canon. Certain fans might read this and make a case for the inclusion of Too Short, Eminem, MF Doom or Redman. Others might argue for Big Daddy Kane, Salt 'n Pepa or Tupac. But this list can't be everything to everybody. Instead, think of it as a jumping off point for those who want to explore hip-hop's history and influences -- and even make guesses about where it will take us next.
Rhome Anderson, aka DJ Stylus, is a producer at washingtonpost.com who has rocked a hip-hop performance or two with the local group Poem-Cees. He's one of the hosts of the hour-long "Decipher" hip-hop show on WPFW (89.3 FM), where he can be heard Thursdays at 11 p.m. with his crew, the Soul Controllers. Here are his selections for 10 essential hip-hop songs:
SUPERAPPIN', Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (Enjoy, 1979). Once upon a time, hip-hop music was experienced primarily as a live phenomenon. In the minds of skeptical record execs, there was no possible way to sell recordings of random dudes talking over other people's music. But that changed when a few visionary labels came up with the idea of using house bands to accompany emcees. "Superappin' " -- with its nimble routines, infectious disco funk and quotables that still pop up in new songs today -- captured on wax a 12-minute slice of an authentic New York hip-hop party. A year after this record dropped, the Sugarhill Gang's rhymes on "Rappers' Delight" would expose this phenomenon to the world. (Available on the compilation "More Hits From Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Vol. 2.")
PLANET ROCK, Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force (Tommy Boy, 1982). As one third of the holy trinity of DJs (along with Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc) credited with creating hip-hop music, Bambaataa's philosophy was to cast as wide a net as possible when assembling his party-rocking weapons -- even if that net ensnared a weird German synth band called Kraftwerk. In his role as "Master of Records" he established a critical characteristic of hip-hop music: re-contextualizing any source material regardless of origin. "Planet Rock" is a universal b-boy anthem ("Rock it, don't stop it/Gotta rock it, don't stop!") and has a timeless ability to destroy dance floors. This seminal record also birthed hip-hop offshoots such as electro and Miami bass. (Available on "Hip Hop Essentials: Volume Seven.")
SUCKER M.C.'s, Run-D.M.C. (Profile, 1983). Run-D.M.C. completely redefined the aesthetic of hip-hop with one 12-inch single that was on the opposite side of the planet from a disco loop. "Sucker M.C.'s" broke down rap into a compound composed solely of two elements: a beat and a rhyme. The only accompaniment to the aggressive vocals is an electronic drum machine. After this, everything changed. (Available on "Run-D.M.C.")
NIGHT OF THE LIVING BASEHEADS, Public Enemy (Def Jam, 1988). This track is the crown jewel of one of the few albums that is universally considered one of the best in hip-hop history. The Bomb Squad's frenetic production style is in fine form here, as it simultaneously assaults the senses and charges the listener with adrenaline. Chuck D's characteristic booming vocals cut through this auditory riot to mourn the modern-day zombies that crack cocaine created in the '80s. (Available on "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.")
IT'S FUNKY ENOUGH, The D.O.C (Ruthless, 1989). Before helping to engineer the dominance of West Coast rap from behind the scenes, the D.O.C. released "No One Can Do It Better," an album that melded whirlwind lyricism with the gangsta beats that Dr. Dre had pioneered with N.W.A. With an implied lilt of a Jamaican dancehall toaster, he projects a hardcore ethos on this monster single without a single violent act appearing in his verses. After a car accident crushed the voice box of this raw Texas rapper, he became the ghostwriter who crafted the lyrics of the biggest hits in Dre's dynasty. (Available on "No One Can Do It Better.")
SCENARIO (REMIX), A Tribe Called Quest featuring Leaders of the New School (Jive, 1992). Why this version instead of the better-known original? Because hip-hop's canon would be greatly depleted without b-sides and remixes, and this list wouldn't be valid without at least one posse cut: The encore to the bombastic closer of Quest's classic LP "The Low End Theory" is one of the most outstanding examples. The only element that carries over from the original other than personnel is the name of the song. It's a tag-team rhyme fest in the purest form and foreshadows Busta Rhymes's future as a superstar. (Available on "The Love Movement.")
JUICY, The Notorious B.I.G. (Bad Boy, 1994). A hardcore Brooklyn rapper spins a triumphant tale about going from ashy to classy over a sweet, soulful interpretation of Mtume's '80s classic "Juicy Fruit." B.I.G. cemented the arrival of Puff Daddy and Bad Boy and put New York back into prominence. "Juicy" is simultaneously a commercial club anthem and a rare peek at the reflective side of a thug. Cue the ascent of Jay-Z's career here. (Available on "Ready to Die.")
VITAL NERVE, Company Flow (Official, 1995). As the '90s settled in, hip-hop had become big business and many dedicated adherents felt that the rapid commercialization was killing authenticity. A resistance movement was taking shape and Company Flow was its New York-based Paul Revere. The entire East Coast indie hip-hop scene can be traced back to Co-Flow's self-released debut EP, "Funcrusher." Over a dusty one-bar drum loop and minimalist three-note bass line, El-P and Bigg Jus crushedinferior MCs and issued the definitive underground manifesto: "When sales control stats I place no faith in the majority." (Available on "Funcrusher Plus.")
ACT TOO (LOVE OF MY LIFE), The Roots featuring Common (MCA, 1999). Hip-hop can be profane, clever, bracing and fun. On this gem from the Roots's breakout album, "Things Fall Apart," the prototype live hip-hop band shows that it can also be beautiful to the point of drawing tears. So many sublime elements come together that it would be a crime to listen to this for the first time on anything less than the finest system. The track opens with human beatbox Rahzel imitating the sounds of a muted trumpet and seamlessly blends into finger snaps and the aboriginal vocal ad libs of Marie Daulne from Zap Mama. Deep, milky bass, a filtered keyboard line and the crisp kit of Roots drummer ?uestlove carry the body of the arrangement as Black Thought and Common trade meditations on their life-long devotion to hip-hop music: "Besides God and family, you're my life's jewel." Once Philadelphia soul legend Larry Gold brings in his string ensemble, it's a wrap. (Available on "Things Fall Apart.")
THE LISTENING, Little Brother (Abb Records, 2002). In the 21st century, hip-hop is no longer a novelty. The barriers to entry have been lowered so much that the music is increasingly seen as disposable. Little Brother is an interesting group to comment on this phenomenon since its accelerated rise from obscurity was fueled by one of the greatest attention span reducers ever created: the Internet. On this song, Phonte and Big Pooh tackle what it means to make meaningful music in today's hip-hop landscape when consumers increasingly don't have the patience for anything deeper than flashy hyperbole. 9th Wonder's haunting track of echoing horns anchors the lyrical themes with emotional heft. (Available on "The Listening.")
Join Rhome Anderson for a live discussion Tuesday at 1 p.m. on http:/