Playlist 10: Hip-Hop History

Finally taking the time to peek into the world of old-school hip-hop.

Last week I spoke about checking things off my to-do list, which got me thinking: a very close friend of mine had sent me some “hip-hop lessons” several years ago that I have not made time to delve into. I know very little about hip-hop and he happens to be a huge fan, so he wrote up some song and artist recommendations with a little background as a place for me to start. And now, I’m finally getting around to doing some research!

I like to consider myself very open-minded when it comes to different cultures, with a lot to learn at the same time. I think music is an incredible way to begin to understand a culture that is different than yours. Melodies and stories can give a listener an honest glimpse into that world and make the experience feel relatable to someone, even if they are totally unfamiliar. For this entire week, though, I’m not going to speak as if I’m knowledgeable about the culture behind this music, but I am going to offer my viewpoint on the music itself.

Released: Oct 18, 1993 ℗ 2004 Sugar Hill Records. Manufactured and Marketed by Warner Strategic Marketing


“The Message”
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five

I decided to go down my list and choose artists that I was unfamiliar with, and I hit Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five first. I actually feel like I’ve heard this song before; it may have been sampled in another song, the line “don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge” was definitely in some cartoon children’s movie, and the hook “it’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under” was familiar to me as well.

I found this song pretty heavy in terms of content. The upbeat tempo fooled me at first until I started hearing some ear-catching terms being used. I think the hook alone (“it’s like a jungle sometimes…”) is a nod to the overall theme of trying to keep your head afloat amongst a lot of challenging situations, most of which are well beyond the scope of my experiences. Knowing that some of what they rap about in this song represents everyday realities for some people puts things into perspective for me real quick.

Released: Aug 17, 1998 ℗ 2008 Essential Media Group LLC


“Planet Rock”
Afrika Bambaataa

Yesterday’s pick was over 6 minutes long, today’s is over 7 (I’m wondering if this is going to be a trend with old school hip-hop).

I’m not usually a fan of techno-synthesizer beats, but I was a little surprised to hear that featured in this song. When I think of techno beats, I think of dance music from the 90’s, certainly not hip-hop, so that was a fun little twist for me.

I’ll be honest, after about 5 minutes through the first listen I wasn’t sure what I was listening to anymore. I took another look at my friend’s lesson plans and I was reminded that he was a DJ, which makes this 7 minute creation make a lot more sense. I’m wondering if he utilized this beat and mixed other songs in with it, or layered them as part of a set.

Another moment of disclosure: I know very little about DJs and techno music, so this song exposed me to something new in more ways than one.

Released: Sep 15, 1989 ℗ 1989 Cold Chillin' Records/Warner Bros. Records. Marketed By Rhino Entertainment Company, a Warner Music Group Company


“Smooth Operator”
Big Daddy Kane

I’m 3-for-3 in picking songs that my friend described as having jazz influences. I love jazz so I was curious to hear how it was utilized in hip-hop music. It’s a lot more obvious in this song than the first two from this week, which makes me like it a whole bunch. The jazz elements pepper the background and give this song a quality that feels more familiar to me, which I guess is good but also may be cheating.

I really wanted to challenge myself to step out of my musical comfort zone and open myself up to something that I have not given much of my attention to. So, am I breaking the rules a little by gearing some picks towards jazz? Perhaps, but it’s so interesting to hear how genres that may seem so different can be enmeshed into a cohesive sound. I love jazz for what it is, but utilizing it within a hip-hop song gives it an entirely unique flavor.

Big Daddy Kane’s delivery is pretty smooth (no pun intended and I’m sure this was purposeful), like he’s just sitting around in his studio, throwing around rhymes and recording them so he’ll have it down when he lands on lyrical gold. This was easy for me to listen to and actually put me in a bit of a calmer mood. I found myself nodding along to it while typing and really getting into the groove. This one gets a solid A in my book.

Music video by Eric B. & Rakim performing Microphone Fiend. (C) 1988 Geffen Records


“Microphone Fiend”
Erik B. and Rakim

“Arguably the best pure lyricist of all time,” writes my hip-hop historian friend and guru, so obviously I needed to take a listen.

I was instantly down with the introduction and 10 seconds after Rakim came in, I was sold. This is one of those songs where I knew right off the bat that I’d like it. I really like his flow; his delivery is chill and a little irregular as he changes his tempo and rhyme pattern. Sometimes he sinks into the melody, other times his raps are a lot faster, and then there’d be this breakdown to mix everything up all over again.

This song also made me realize how much hip-hop has changed over the last several decades. I’m no aficionado but I have decent enough awareness of mainstream rap and hip-hop music to recognize a stark contrast. For me, this song has no gimmicks, no hooks to try and get people to jump on a bandwagon. It’s pure, to iterate my friend’s description, “straight forward, honest, and no-nonsense.” I have to admit that I do find some of today’s hip-hop hits pretty catchy, but it feels like a totally different world after listening to these older tracks, especially this one.

Music video by Slick Rick performing Children's Story. (C) 1988 The Island Def Jam Music Group


“Children’s Story”
Slick Rick

Confession: Technically, I knew of Slick Rick before this week, but the first song of his that I heard was only about a month ago so I’m deeming it acceptable as “new” to me. I have yet to rediscover which song it was that I first heard, but I have to say I’m a fan of this one as well.

There’s something so strange to me about Slick Rick. Here’s this British dude with an eye patch and a quirky sounding voice, who was also a pioneer of his time. I took it upon myself to do a bit of research and found a lot of notable names in the business singing his praises, Questlove (Roots drummer and The Tonight Show bandleader) for one. The quirkiness that I sensed upon first listen was apparently part of why he was so revered, as Questlove applauded his wit, punchlines, and cool cadence. [1]

Slick Rick has collaborated with a ton of musical icons, and his music has been sampled over 600 times, making him the most sampled hip-hop artist ever. I recognized three in “Children’s Story” alone. “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan samples the beat. “It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock uses the same “::gasp::-YEAH,” for lack of a better way of describing it, although I’m not sure which song came out first at both were released in 1988. And finally, Slick Rick repeats “knock ‘em out the box,” which LL Cool J later sampled in “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

Those who know me well know how much I love learning about the history of songs and artists and about connections in the musical world, so this song, in particular, was so exciting for me to delve into and learn about all of these intertwining elements.

Weekly Wrap-Up

This week has sparked a lot of interest in me to dig deeper into this old school world. I have a lot more work to do!

Stand-Out Song: “Children’s Story”

I was so tickled by how many other songs have used elements from “Children’s Story” to evolve and develop a new sound.

What are your favorite songs that sample melodies and elements from other songs?
Share your comments at the bottom of the page.

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