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A quick guide to rap history that all young rap fans should know

A history lesson courtesy of No Country for Old (Rap) Men

Posted by Robbie Ettelson

As a counterpoint to my previous argument about how young’uns can and should be able to enjoy rap without being able to recite the Kool Moe Dee vs. Busy Bee battle tape line for line, here’s an abridged reference guide for those who are actually interested in music that’s more than two weeks old (assuming you’re willing to be taunted, mocked and otherwise derided by your co-defendants for being “stuck in the past”).

Beyond the same old tales that get wheeled-out every time that VH-1, Netflix, or MTV air another supposed hip-hop documentary focusing on Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC, Tupac, and Eminem, there are a number of areas for those who wish to delve a little deeper to explore. First cab off the rank should be an exploration the sound of early DJ sets, back when the only use for the microphone was to shout out people in the crowd and occasionally warn the party people about a bad bag of dust that was circulating. These formative days of DJ sound clashes defined future staples for dancing, then breaking, and eventually rapping, as the likes of the leading DJ’s set the pace as no stone was left unturned in the search for the perfect beat. This meant that a mid-seventies hip-hop party might include everything from country and western, rock, blues, soul, jazz, disco, reggae and maybe even some TV theme tunes recorded onto cassette—as long as it had a funky break somewhere (although this wasn’t mandatory, as some of them worked on pure novelty value alone).

The next stage that can now be enjoyed more readily outside of the tape trading scene are live show recordings from the late seventies and early eighties, where flawlessly executed and tirelessly rehearsed routines were performed in front of staunch audiences who by comparison made the infamous Apollo crowd seem like a bunch of hormone-riddled teenyboppers. The sort of atmosphere where a poor performance resulted in being booed off stage at best, or getting your equipment taken and a chair broken over your head if you really raised the ire of the crowd. It’s fascinating to hear how rapping continued to develop as a live artform for for the first half of the eighties, until the point where the Fresh Fest stadium tours and music videos became the focus. Routines based around appropriating pop and rock songs were par for the course, while the park jam scene produced a long line of parody records which took existing rap hits and added 300% more swearing.

Another fascinating aspect of the early eighties was the development of the increasingly technical Vocabulary Rap scene, which was initially dominated by Kool Moe Dee, L.A. Sunshine, Special K (aka The Treacherous Three) and his brother T La Rock. These four pushed the limits of big words to the hilt without sacrificing content or plausibility, setting the pace for the Bronx’s specialisation in providing the second biggest (conceptual) Space Program outside of NASA. I can still recall having my young mind blown when I first heard Treacherous Three’s 1985 disc ‘Gotta Rock’/’Turn It Up’ and T La Rock’s Future Shock spectacular ‘It’s Yours’ in the space of the same week—two records which made the lyrics of apparently “cutting-edge” crews such as Run-DMC sound positively prehistoric by comparison. Def Jam’s rising star LL Cool J was directly influenced by this movement in his early work, as songs such as ‘I Need A Beat’ proved to be virtual reproductions of his influences, which goes a long way to explaining why Todd James Smith and KMD were later to become fierce rivals.

Elsewhere in Queensbridge, a young MC known as MC Jade aka Percy aka Tragedy was honing his own take on that very same Space Age flow, as he constructed intricate patterns of adjectives, pronouns and similes over park jam freestyles released by DJ Hot Day, eventually perfecting the Queensbridge Flow (on the second verse of Marley Marl’s 1988 track ‘Live Motivator’) which served as a blueprint for the likes of Mobb Deep to work from over the next two decades.

Back in the Bronx, Ced Gee was involved in the creation of the two of the greatest rap albums of all-time when he used his SP-12 to program both Boogie Down Production’s Criminal Minded and Ultramagnetic MC’s Critical Beatdown. KRS-One ushered in a whole new style of rhyming via ‘South Bronx’ and ‘Poetry’, while Ultra’s Kool Keith took rap technique further than Star Trek as he ushered in a new era of super subliminals and stream-of-consciousness rhyming which can still be heard in the work of Ghostface Killah, MF DOOM, and Roc Marciano to this day. Not to mention the involvement of the mysterious engineer all-star Paul C., who took Marley Marl’s drum-chopping science to another stratosphere altogether…to be continued.  

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