Prompted by a friend’s interest in a specific aspect of my musical oeuvre, I compiled an anthology so he might share in its wonder. In fact, I’d put together a similar playlist some years earlier, for posterity and to collate lost fragments. I had wanted to impart a sense of cohesion and create a framework within which I could relate to the attitude I held towards this music the first time around, and my existing compendiums existed only on tapes, without the means to play them.
The music is hip hop/rap, specifically the hip hop/rap I listened to from the moment I began attending to it in earnest – late 1988 – until such time my interest began to wane – late 1992. This span was a prolific and innovative period for the genre, but not so fecund commercially. Although a fair few acts undoubtedly met with success – Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, etc. – hip hop was a minority interest generally. In certain circles, this more various phase is referred to as ‘The Golden Age of Hip Hop’, and it left an approximate five year legacy of music that not too many people have been privy to (relatively), that can be hard to get hold of (legitimately), and is of a standard equal to anything that’s ever been committed to vinyl (or ‘wax’) before or since.
I was very much part of it, buying of it what I could. It was to Bristol I would often turn (Replay Records was an invaluable source), for my hometown, Plymouth, was rather backward in this respect. [I once visited Our Price record store on New George Street to enquire after Gang Starr’s latest release: “We’ve got Gang of Four and Gang Green, but no Gang Starr.” Incidentally, I’m now quite into Gang of Four.] My fandom had been based initially on the fact that a lot of this stuff was actually fairly popular amongst my peer group, but prevailed merrily once the cool kids dropped hip hop for house, leaving me rather perplexed that a liking for a particular sort of music could be repudiated on an apparent whim. Indeed, some of these lads, who maintained a lesser interest in parallel, ended up borrowing from my collection, rather than I from theirs.
Playlists should be of a manageable length, enabling the listener to enjoy them in their entirety, maybe on a commute into work or on a journey somewhere more auspicious. What I have done, then, is broken my compendium down into four easily digestible units comprised of 20 tracks apiece.
As an historical document, the first instalment is flawed; it traces my nascent interest in the genre as it was before I gained access to the fountainhead that was Jeff Young’s National Fresh, a subset of the Big Beat Show he presented on a Friday night. I didn’t get wind of Jeff’s weekly slot until late 1989, and my coverage of the genre prior to this is fairly thin – because of my limited financial resources, the aforementioned fickleness of my school colleagues, who stopped buying the stuff towards the end of the 1980s, and my own musical naivety. Nonetheless, the first 13 tunes are of a very high standard and work well together played consecutively; it is amazing how much of this music hasn’t dated all that much.
The second chapter is entirely Jeff Young’s doing. I’d have the family cassette player poised every Friday night and would then transfer across the sections I liked to make mix-tapes out of them. By the end of 1992 I had made about seven, which have since been lost in time’s midst. I wish I’d kept hold of these redundant cassettes so that I could have incorporated the jingles Jeff would insert in-between songs, although the constant recording from tape to tape meant that the sound quality was generally very poor.
By about halfway through my third compendium – early ‘91 – Jeff Young had left the BBC, his Big Beat Show superseded by Pete Tong’s Essential Selection. Fortunately, Tong was also partial to a bit of hip hop and continued the tradition of playing rap exclusively from nine o’clock through to ten. Or at least he did for a while before his other interests began to take precedence and dance music finally overwhelmed everything else. I don't know whether it was this that caused me to broaden my own musical palette, or whether the ‘hardening’ of hip hop was what prompted it – the ascendancy of ‘gangster rap’, which proliferates to this day – but by the end of 1992 I’d moved on to other things.
At any rate, I can be fairly sure that every track I have collated here was played by either one of these DJs during their stints hosting their respective shows, and the ones that I cannot honestly say were still may very well have been. Check it out.
1. The New Style – Beastie Boys
2. Public Enemy No. 1 – Public Enemy
3. It Takes Two – Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock
4. Strong Island – J.V.C. Force
5. Freedom of Speech ’88 – Just-Ice
6. See More – Kool Rock Brothers
7. Strictly Business – EPMD
8. Terminator X to the Edge of Panic – Public Enemy
9. Beats to the Rhyme – Run-DMC
10. Style Wars – Hijack
11. Free – MC Duke
12. Give it a Rest – She Rockers
13. Northside – Demon Boyz
14. Eye Know – De la Soul
15. What U Waitin’ 4 (Jungle Fever Mix) – Jungle Brothers
16. Fade to Black – L.A. Star
17. Back By Dope Demand – King Bee
18. Underwater Rimes – Digital Underground
19. Portrait of a Masterpiece (CJ's Ed-Did-It Mix) – The D.O.C.
20. I Come Off (Southern Comfort Mix) – Young MC
It was the Beastie Boys who introduced me to hip hop, figuratively speaking, so although I circumnavigate a whole host of rap artistes by introducing my canon with them, it is entirely appropriate. Moreover, The New Style kicks off the Beastie Boy’s debut album Licensed to Ill, and it’s a great opener in any context. It also represents a sort of false start. I didn't think of the Beastie Boys of being emblematic of any particular scene, even if I was aware of acts such as RUN DMC, LL Cool J, Doug E Fresh. I was simply too young to appreciate that music is often tribal in character – or at least used to be – and so I didn't make any immediate effort to develop my interest.
Which is why Public Enemy No. 1 pretty much passed me by the first time around – it was PE’s second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, that seized my interest. But this tune is so strange, so abstract, that I am incapable now of overlooking it; the track becomes part of the myth almost in retrospect, a case of history being rewritten. That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of it: Public Enemy’s military posturing, Blank Panther attitude, and the fact that they conspired to write a tune entitled My Uzi Weighs a Ton demanded my attention. They also had Flavor Flav in their midst, whose clowning provided a striking and savvy contrast to Chuck D’s weighty delivery. We take this for granted now, but how well would Public Enemy have been received back then without this jocular counterpoint?
The next five tracks were all garnered from two ‘Street Sounds’ compilations I owned at the time: Hip Hop 20 and Hip Hop 22, both released in 1988. I was mesmerised by the graffiti-clad covers of these compilations, for it wasn’t just the music that drew me towards this scene but also the clothes and the subculture that accompanied it.
Whenever I hear the opening bars to Unhooked by Freda Payne I automatically expect Strong Island by J.V.C. Force to kick in. The sample in question is distinctive, as are the musical elements borrowed from Eric Clapton's version of I Shot the Sheriff that can be heard throughout Strictly Business by EPMD. In both instances, these sonic appropriations transcend their source material to create something completely unique. The same applies to It Takes Two by Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock. The sample in this instance, taken from the song (Think) About It by Lyn Collins, will be well known to anyone who was alive at the time and many more who weren’t.
Just-Ice had connections with KRS-One, as well as an aggressive delivery – ahead of the curve in some respects – and a moderately successful musical career. The Kool Rock Brothers are more obscure and don’t seem to have released much else beyond the track I've included here.
Terminator X to the Edge of Panic is taken from the Public Enemy album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back. I cannot emphasise enough the impact this record had on me, how it completely altered my perception of hip hop and of music generally. The track Terminator X to the Edge of Panic is a strange, minimal fusion of staccato horn samples, sparse beats and looped ambient crowd noise. The more you listen to it the odder it seems, but it becomes no less impressive.
Run-DMC’s Tougher than Leather was the first rap record I actually owned, rather than had copied, but by the time I acquired it the general consensus was that Run-DMC were passed it, that it was all about Public Enemy and NWA. Chuck D begged to differ and rated Run DMC’s fourth album very highly and it seems to have grown in stature since its relatively modest reception at the time.
The following four British hip hop tracks were taken from the same Music of Life compilation (which I was to find a white label vinyl copy of more than 10 years later whilst wandering about Spitalfields Market with a monstrous hangover) entitled Hard as Hell Volume 3. Hijack’s Style Wars is probably the stand-out track. It sounded hugely sophisticated to my ears – and is – but musically they weren’t doing anything that PE hadn’t done already. Style Wars even mines exactly the same sample as Public Enemy No. 1: Fred Wesley and The J.B.'s' Blow Your Head.
De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers represented an emerging strain of rap that would begin to predicate itself towards the end of 1989 and into 1990, paving the way for groups like A Tribe Called Quest and a whole sub-genre of hip hop offhandedly referred to as Jazz Rap – affiliated works would come to permeate my record collection. Indeed, hip hop was granted something of a reprieve for a while, and the Native Tongues (a collective featuring all three groups just mentioned here, plus Monie Love and Queen Latifah) had everything to do with that.
Fade to Black by L.A. Star was taken from her underrated album Poetess. It is at this point in my compilation that I'm reminded of the build up to the 1990 World Cup and my burgeoning fondness for Serie A. That might seem an odd connotation, but Brighton dance act Beats International wore various Serie A football kits on Top of the Pops, so I obviously wasn't the only one associating Italian football with electronic music. Anyway, the follow up single Wondrous Dream is also worth a listen, should you be so inclined.
King Bee hailed from The Netherlands. A lot of people have probably heard this tune without even knowing who it’s by or anything about the scene that spawned it, after it was picked up and played in clubs that might not ordinarily have played this sort of thing.
Digital Underground were mired in a different sort of funk to Public Enemy – P-Funk, which means anything associated with George Clinton and his twin acts, Parliament and Funkadelic (although Public Enemy certainly borrowed from this genre too). Digital Underground were an amusing, slightly saucy act that helped launch the career of Tupac Shakur (for which I remain indifferent). Ostensibly, they were a substantial collective. However, Shock G, the group’s de facto leader, would adopt a miscellany of personas, Humpty Hump being the most readily identifiable (due to the comedy Groucho nose-and-glasses set and the accompanying nasal delivery). Underwater Rimes features another Shock G alter-ego, the underutilised MC Blowfish.
The D.O.C. was an original member of Dallas act the Fila Fresh Crew. This credential brought him recognition, and he was soon penning tracks for N.W.A. before going it alone and releasing No One Can Do It Better in the summer of 1989. Although not initially released as a single, the album track Portrait of a Masterpiece was later remixed by the London-based house DJ CJ Mackintosh, acquiring the status of ‘hip-house’ classic in the process.
Young MC’s original version of I Come Off was nothing special but CJ Mackintosh and Dave Dorrell’s Southern Comfort Remix was. Despite the house music connection, this is pure hip hop, anticipating the trend for jazz-rap that was just around the corner…
[A partial Spotify playlist can be found here.]