Thursday, December 22, 2005

Hip Hop Essentials: Volume Six

The 1980’s were a magical time for hip-hop. The musical gospel was being spread throughout the world by legions of disciples who had either been to the original Bronx parties or were directly influenced by the movement’s prime innovators.

One of the first people to take Kool Herc’s haphazardly spun break-beat formula from blueprint to fine tuned flesh and blood creation was Joseph “Grandmaster Flash” Saddler and his MC’s the Furious Five.

On a warm and sunny Oakland afternoon, along side my partners Davey D and Jeff Chang; I interviewed the hip-hop father himself: Kool Herc. As he spoke everyone in the room sat in awe of the man. The stories he told of the parties and of the early players thrilled us all. It was at that point that it dawned on me: Kool Herc is to hip-hop, what the Neanderthal man is to early Homo sapiens. He is the blueprint for the funk genetic code that would later be called hip-hop.

So I asked him, “Mr. Herc, I’m curious”, I said, “who were the first people that you saw rap as we know it today?’

Without a pause he said, “Mele Mel. It was Mele Mel and Kid Creole.” Looking down at his battle scarred hands and then out the window to Lake Merritt he continued, “they was at a boxing gym – as a matter of fact it was the last place that I saw Big Pun alive at. It was over in the Fort Apache area. In the middle of the ring, Mele and Kid Creole – as little as he is, with that big long Jackson Five afro, was in the middle of the ring rappin’ with Flash cuttin’ behind them.” It was at this point that a warm smile enveloped Herc’s face as he recalled watching them from the crowd. “I laughed to myself”, he said, “Cause I knew where they got it from – they got it from me. They took what we were doing to another level. I just laughed to myself. They knew where they got it from. As a matter of fact, Mele Mel saw me in the crowd and nodded at me. I laughed. I wasn’t mad at him”, the hip-hop father said.

Years later Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five would wow audiences all over the globe with records like ‘Freedom’, ‘It’s Nasty’, ‘The Message’ and the unforgettable ‘New York, New York’. On the song ‘New York, New York’ Mele Mel and Duke Bootee got deeper than Bob Dylan and painted a harsher picture of city life than the original rap poet from 125th and Lenox, Gil Scott-Heron ever did. It was at this point in recorded rap history when lyricists – real lyricists who had something truly profound to say, would awaken the minds of a generation to the poverty, desperation and confusion that still holds America in a death grip. The listener is taken on a sonic trip into the underbelly of the inner city where chaos and claustrophobia fuel confusion and rage.

Before Snoop and the Dogg Pound threw down the gauntlet in the so-called “East Coast/West Coast” beef, the real hook went:
“New York, New York big city of dreams, and everything in New York, ain’t always what it seems. You might get fooled if you come from out of town, but I’m down by law and I know my way around. Too much. Too many people. Too much.”

The verses that followed were testimonials to the hardships of dealing day to day with life in the ‘Rotten Apple’ during Reagan’s America. Complete with rock guitar squeals and keyboard sounds that could’ve been in the soundtrack to an 80’s thriller like ‘Escape From New York’, the MC’s take you on a sonic tour through the urban struggle. But in all honesty those verses could’ve applied to any big city in America.

If only I could sleep just ten more minutes,
I might find the strength to make another day.
If I didn’t have to get up and do my thing,
I’d probably sleep my whole life away…
Ran into a pothole,
Got into a car crash,
Should’ve been thinking and tried to fake whiplash.
A crowd gathers ‘round calling me fat,
Who you looking at with a face like that?

Or this…

A man’s on the ledge,
Says he’s gonna jump,
People gather round and say he won’t he’s just a chump.
Cause he lost his job,
Then he got robbed,
His mortgage is due and his marriage is through.
He said he ain’t gonna pay no child support,
Because the bitch left him without a second thought.”

80’s hip-hop artists gave their teen audiences glimpses in to real adult life situations. Anything from the disparity that comes from unemployment to the confusion and desperate decisions made from an unwanted pregnancy – it was all on the table. This was the age when there really was a message in the music.

One of the legendary acts of the early era – in fact he made what was probably the fifth or sixth rap record ever called ‘Spoonin’ Rap’, was a man who always did his own thing: Spoonie Gee. While every other MC was out to cold crush the competition, Spoonie dubbed himself the “Cold Crushing Lover” and kept his rap – as that a ‘rap’ strictly for the ladies. Before Too Short, LL, Kane, Rakim or any other cat ever picked up a mike and tried to spit some smooth shit at a girl, Spoonie was doin’ it. He was also one of the first guys to rap in a laid-back, conversational style.

In the mid 80’s when everyone went political and talked about how hard the streets were – Spoonie talked about a bad girl, a “Street Girl”. After years of being out of the spotlight, Spoonie returned in the late 80’s when his generation was on the wane and only a few were able to hang with the new crop of MC’s, and dropped the Marley Marl produced classic “The Godfather”. Over the frenetic funk of the ‘Godfather of Soul’ James Brown’s ‘Soul Power ‘74’, Spoonie, smoothed- out and laid- back declared in a conversational style:

“Let’s get this straight,
There’s no contest,
So now you people know and don’t have to guess.
I’m not the king of rap,
Not lord not prince,
I was a young kid rappin’
And I been rockin’ ever since….”

Spoonie didn’t have to be the greatest rapper ever – because he was the smoothest rapper ever.

Speaking of the smoothest rapper ever it’s a tie between two other guys: Guru of Gang Starr and Rakim Allah. For me, it’s Rakim – when RUN-DMC and everyone else were screaming their heads off, I’ll never forget Rakim sitting on the stage at the Henry J Kaiser Center rhyming, “I take 7 MC’s and put ‘em in a line, and take 7 more brothers who think they can rhyme. And it a take 7 more before I go for mine – and that is 21 MC’s ate up at the same time.” Those were the best rhymes for at least seven years.

Gang Starr made their debut on a little known label called Wild Pitch Records (before there was Rawkus Records – there was Wild Pitch, get up on it) with the classic “Words I Manifest” sometime around 1989, this was back when baggy jeans and sweatshirts first came into style.

Gang Starr’s first major label single was called “Just to Get a Rep”. This was when there were more guns and crack all over the streets than garbage. You didn’t really wanna bling back then unless you had it like that – cause if you didn’t: Stick up kids were out to tax. Over an obscure break that’s bass line bounced like jazz, but was more eclectic than anything else; Guru detailed the painful costs of street life at the height of the crack era.

The last great single by the Sugar Hill Gang was called “The Lover In You” – it was the first time I heard a rap record on Quiet Storm radio. From the smoothed out beat to the mellow background singing, this was a record earmarked for ‘soft and warm’ formats like Vaughn Harper’s show on WBLS or Leslie Stoval on KBLX. For real hip-hop you had to flip the dial to the left end of the spectrum to hear a song like ‘Funkbox Party’ by the Masterdon Committee.

According to many of his contemporaries, the late great D.J. Masterdon would’ve given Grandmaster Flash a run for his money anytime of the day. He is described as having been a sharp dresser who always kept a cool head, and could rhyme just as good as he deejayed. Like Flash, he was one of the first deejays to utilize the beat box. Master Don called his the ‘Funk Box”. Master P’s biggest single was called “Make ‘Em Say Ugggghhh”, which was taken from “Funk Box Party” a record that captured the soulful singing of group member Gangster Gee and high-powered raps by Keith K.C., Johnny D, Boo-Ski and Pebblee Poo.

Hip Hop Essentials are essential to anyone that calls themselves a true hip-hopper.

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