Recently a youth I hold in high esteem asked me about some hip hop to listen to. Kindly allow this not to be a comprehensive hip hop history, but rather, my hip hop history, from the remote island of Tristan da Cunha to here under the starry skies on the beach in Recife, Brazil. For an excellent – and incredibly comprehensive – hip hop history, please check out Jeff Chang’s masterwork Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation here. (Brief note: all links below lead to the tracks which open in separate windows, so you don’t have to be redirected from this awesome content while you listen to the classic tunes).
As a youth myself I hated all the music around me: from the heaviness of Black Sabbath (which I learned to LOVE in my twenties) to the dumb rock rifts of Def Leopard to the ultra-lame hair-dos of Flock of Seagulls, I was always left wondering “What’s WRONG with all the people around me?”
Then I heard hip hop.
My earliest recollections of hip hop in my consciousness are practicing back spins to Jam On It by Newcleus on cardboard boxes with Tony DiCarlo during the commercials on Sunday afternoon Kung-Fu matinees on channel 26. Whatever led up to those days is forever lost to the mystery of the unknown.
Then MTV happened, and I would run home from school to catch YO! MTV Raps with Fab 5 Freddy, and hold my Fischer Price tape recorder up to the TV to make my mix tapes. Hip Hop was the only thing that made sense to me. It took everything that I was so bored, disillusioned and nonplussed with, chopped it up, turned it on its ass and spit it back in your face in a language I could relate to. I had been lost but now was found: hip hop saved my life.
My man Franny D’Agata would have to go to NYC with his dad regularly and I’d give him blank tapes to tape the DJ Red Alert show for me. So I was listening to Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded, Jungle Brothers, Gang Starr, and LL Cool J’s Radio a lot. MC Lyte was there and of course RUN DMC. Biz Markie and the Fat Boys made us laugh and Erik B. and Rakim and Public Enemy made us wipe the grin off our faces. Then one day a graffiti writer friend of mine named Joe Bagan came back from the city with BDP’s By All Means Necessary. KRS-1 took it to the next level with seriously intelligent and conscious hip hop and I was even more inspired. I was also listening to a lot of Ice-T and loved a relatively unknown guy named Just-Ice. We listened to EPMD at basketball practice and on the late bus coming home on our awesome yellow Sony Walkmen. Everything was cool and kind of similar and then De La Soul happened. And then A Tribe Called Quest came out with I Left My Wallet in El Segundo and this was some different shit: very intentionally different. Elevated. Both musically and thematically. The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders remain all-time classics.
I vividly remember when Goose played me the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique: one of the finest hip hop albums ever made. I thought that the Beasties were still on their fun and knuckle-headed 2 Live Crew tip and was basically uninterested, but they had evolved and so had I: Paul’s Boutique remains a lyrical and sampling MASTERPIECE. I hear people say they love the Beatles because they grew up with the Beatles; well I grew up with the Beasties. They were idiot punks when I was an idiot punk, got conscious when I got conscious, got funky when I got funky, and started drinking smoothies and doing yoga when I got my Zen on as well. Pete Rock and CL Smooth were doing their thing. Then NAS’s ILLMATIC got things very very real once again.
N.W.A. had been happening and the West Coast scene was blowing up; it was a different vibe for me and took some getting used to but the whole East Coast-West Coast rivalry turned me off from hip hop for a while: something so pure and so necessary was being polluted by violence and infighting. It was the early/mid-90s and I remember listening to a lot of Craig Mack, Jeru the Damaja and – WHOA – the Wu Tang Clan. It would take me a few years before I could really digest everything that the RZA and his crew were doing, and they changed the game in their own enormous way. Sometimes today I sit down and listen to the Wu and the lyrics and attitude are more relevant than ever. Nuff respect. Anyway, Tupac and Biggie and ODB got swallowed up by the game and I was left shaking my head and took off to the Middle East on some spiritual questing of my own.
When I resurfaced at the dawn of the 21st Century Madlib helped me find my faith again: Quasimoto The Unseen is an absolute timeless masterpiece and Madlib’s profound creativity and genius remains, in my opinion, unchallenged to this day. Mos Def and Talib Kweli became Black Star and a new era of incredibly high quality hip hop was decidedly ushered-in. That was a special time, and I often go back to listen to cuts off of Rawkus Records’ Sound Bombing I and II compilations for some of the illest hip hop that has yet to be challenged.
Kool Keith stands out as one of the most entertaining and prolific artists of the past decades, Common is unafraid to sacrifice a bit of flow for heavyweight lyrical content and MF DOOM’s zany mental meanderings continue to leave me bobbing my head and feeling hopeful about the future.
Speaking of the future, in the past 20 or so years I’ve really explored music in other cultures, and have been consistently impressed and excited about the way hip hop has transmogrified across the globe. England, Spain, France, Brazil, Germany and the entire continent of Africa have slamming and deeply relevant hip hop scenes, from which we can all learn and grow. And most recently I’ve been made aware of the importance of Arabic hip hop artists and their messages in the revolutions of the “Arab spring” currently spreading across the Middle East. It’s important to check them out and listen to what they have to say today, just as it was back in the day when Grandmaster Flash was letting everyone outside the ghetto know what was going on in his neighborhood.
So thanks for reading. Check out some classic tracks below. And keep bobbing your head. PEACE