Hip Hop History and the Old School 80s
This article is the first part in a series on Hip Hop History. If you like Alternative Hip Hop, here's a review of the best Alternative Hip Hop artists.
Hip Hop Ya Don't Stop
That is to say, Hip Hop history from my perspective. And by Old School 80s, I mean the time when the pioneers of Hip Hop were bursting on, and staying strong on, the scene.
I began listening to Hip Hop back in 1983, first becoming infatuated with the Break-dance phenomenon of the 80s, then following the music that breakers were rockin' to: The stripped down beats, the bass-line, the percussive record scratches and sound effects, mixtures of unique sounds, the aggressive machine gun lyrics pumped out by performers wildly thrashing at air, words sinking straight into the heart and making the mind race. The performers of the music were called DJs and MCs (or rappers), and I was hooked.
I went down to the local theater to watch a movie called "Beat Street". It was about youngsters in the ghetto, creating their own art: Graffiti art, music, dance; making something out of the slums, using their hearts, minds, hands, voices, and ingenuity. It followed the story of a graffiti artist, running from the cops, and getting killed on the subway rails in the midst of contending with a tagger who was defacing graffiti art on the trains; his death ends up leaving a wife and child to struggle alone in his absence. But his friends, DJs, rappers, break dancers--the Hip Hop community--get together to pay tribute to their comrade with a grand finale featuring a great pioneer and legend of Hip Hop, Grandmaster Melle Mel. Mel's voice sounded like he was piercing into something, tearing it to shreds; he'd whirl on to the stage, with flamboyant costume, shooting lyrics like shells from a shotgun. The movie was idealistic and romantic, truly an artist's movie in this regard, with a sensibility about it that gets to the core of what it means to live life from your heart. Thus, was the essence of Hip Hop.
Melle Mel, indeed, was my first and foremost favorite among early Hip Hop artists. Melle Mel, along with another Hip Hop legend named Grandmaster Flash, an extraordinaire of DJ skills, formed the group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, which also included Scorpio, Raheim, Cowboy, and Kid Creole. Scorpio, also known as Mr. Ness, was one of the original Mack Daddies; Raheim's style was smooth like silk; Cowboy delivered lyrics with a striking, deep, powerful bass voice; and Kid Creole was Mel's older brother, whose style was more mellow than his younger brother yet just as effective and innovative. The mood of their tunes was mostly festive, but a landmark record of theirs hit hard in the hearts of those at all conscious of conditions in the slums. It was called "The Message", a record which Grandmaster Flash called "dark" and questioned whether anyone would ever want to hear it because of it's tone. The main chorus of the song is a warning: "Don't Push Me, Because I'm Close to the Edge". The song featured Melle Mel and Duke Bootee. The composition is eerie yet so striking in its honesty and imagery, that a person can't help but be gripped by it. After the opening chorus of "It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under", the opening verse strikes out with "Broken glass everywhere, people pissin' on the stairs, you know they just don't care". Quite a way to open a song, and sure to shock some people awake. It's similar to Mel's line in the song "New York, New York" in which Mel exclaims, "So you take to the streets, trying to exist in the trash and slime of a world like this!" Mel had a skill for stating what is obvious yet not given enough serious attention by your average citizen.And he very well expressed the essence of Hip Hop culture: Make something out of nothing, or even out of trash.
"The Message" goes on with the two rappers trading visuals and stories of horrors of ghetto life, finally ending with a child growing in the slums to be eventually found dead in a jail cell. It speaks straight to the waste of life which societal conditions bring about.
A group of three young men from Queens New York broke on to the Hip Hop scene, in the early to mid 80s, hot on the heels of the pioneering greats like Flash and Mel. They wore black fedora hats, track suits, and white Adidas sneakers with no laces. They screamed like rock stars and, in fact, represented the first rap crossover to rock hits. They were Run-DMC, and they hit big on the Hip Hop scene, and made rap music known to the masses.
For the second part in this series, see Hip Hop History Part Two.
These cats had some of the coolest routines, trading rhymes back and forth in quick succession. Every one knew they were cool.
So, this was the beginning of Hip Hop hitting the mainstream of America, though in isolated pockets. Next time, we will explore how Hip Hop music moved more and more into the mainstream, and changed forms but kept the beat goin'.