Old School Hip Hop Greatest MCs
Back in the 80s when I turned on the radio looking for rap music, the sound was must different than it’s become today. The first problem was trying to find an FM station that played hip hop in their rotation.
I remember fondly the diversity of sounds, beats, lyrics, styles, and subjects expressed in hip hop music. If you wanted to hear a Malcolm X speech, just listen to a Public Enemy song. If you wanted to get your groove on at the club, Kid ‘N Play was tunes you wanted to hear.
If you were in a hippie, free love state of mind, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, and a Tribe called Quest would never let you down.
When it was time to get into a G mode frame of mind, pop in the N.W.A, Easy E, Ice T tape in the deck and take a hit of the verbal crack to get you fired up.
The mega stars of today’s Hip Hop will always be in debt to the pioneers of yesterday. No matter what beats they sample, lyrics they spit or trend they set. If it wasn’t for these powerful MC’s during the golden age of Hip Hop. Hip Hop wouldn’t be the cash cow it’s today.
The Most Influential Artists during the Golden Age of Hip Hop
Run D.M.C. was the genre’s first wildly popular group. Formed in 1983 in Hollis, Queens, the trio quickly became known for clever, aggressive lyrics and simple, speaker-busting beats. The group is also credited with creating the “hip hop look” by replacing the flashy disco-era clothes worn by other rappers with hats, sneakers, and “street” clothes – essentially the same uniform worn by today’s hip hop artists. Run D.M.C. is one of only two groups to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the other is Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five).
While Run hailed from Queens, the south Bronx is generally considered the birthplace of hip hop culture. The crew Boogie Down Productions took its name from the borough’s nickname, and released a slew of influential albums between 1987 and 1992. After the death of founding member DJ Scott La Rock in 1987, frontman KRS-One took the group in a more political direction. Songs like “Remix for P is Free” not only laid the foundation for gangsta rap, but also emphasized the importance of Jamaican reggae sampling within hip hop music. Today, KRS-One is considered one of the seminal artists of 80s hip hop. But his legacy is often overshadowed by that of the louder, showier Public Enemy.
Formed on Long Island in the early 80s, Public Enemy was fronted by Chuck D and included Flava Flav – who is better known to the younger generation as a reality TV star – Professor Griff, and Terminator X. PE’s 1988 album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” is heralded as not only one of the best rap albums of all time, but one of the greatest records released in any genre in the last few decades. The album is known for its sample-heavy beats and politically incendiary lyrics, showcased on songs like “Rebel Without a Pause” and “Bring the Noise”.
De La Soul
The trio De La Soul also hails from Long Island, and were crucial to the golden age as they introduced quirky lyrics and elements of jazz into hip hop. The group is still going strong, and has had a direct influence on younger artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and the Black Eyed Peas.
LL Cool J
Across the island, in the borough of Queens, a teenager who called himself LL Cool J – Ladies Love Cool James – was busy making the first rap records that unabashedly incorporated traditional pop structure into hip hop songs. He has released a slew of hits since 1985, including the timeless classic “Mama Said Knock You Out”, and has also had a high-profile acting career.
Eric B & Rakim
Not to be outdone, Long Islanders Eric B & Rakim have been just as influential, even if they aren’t household names like LL Cool J. While rapper/DJ duos have become common, Eric B & Rakim were among the first to deploy the strategy, and were regarded as hip hop’s premier team while they were active, from 1985 to 1992. Their sophomore album, “Follow the Leader”, is generally regarded as one of the best rap albums of the 80s.
Big Daddy Kane
Big Daddy Kane is another seminal artist who’s fame has never caught up with this talent. The Brooklyn rapper is considered one of the pioneers of fast rap, and his skills have gone largely unmatched to this day. Kane got his start as a member of the famed Juice Crew, but went on to release a handful of classic solo albums. He’s still active today.
Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith, known collectively as EPMD, are also still making music. Like many other golden age rappers, the duo hails from Long Island. On albums like “Strictly Business”, the group popularized the funky, sample-heavy beats that contrasted with disco-based old school hip hop. EPMD fronts the rap clique Hit Squad, which includes rappers Redman and Das EFX, among others.
But what about the West Coast?
While New York was the indisputable home of hip hop until the 2000s, when rappers from all over the south and Midwest took over, Los Angeles was almost as important as the Big Apple during the golden age.
NWA’s 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton” is recognized as the true beginning of gangsta rap, which remains one of hip hop’s most popular subgenres. The lyrics, which painted vivid pictures of life in Compton, one of L.A.’s toughest neighborhoods, were so explicit that the group’s albums were banned from stores and their songs were pulled from the radio. Every member of the group, including Ice Cube, MC Wren, DJ Yella and Eazy E, went on to release popular solo albums as well.
But one NWA member stands above the rest. Dr. Dre, who helped found the group, is arguably the most important figure in rap history. His work with NWA would’ve been enough to cement his place in the genre’s hall of fame, but it was his 1992 solo album “The Chronic” that took the world by storm.
With hits like “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” and “Let Me Ride”, the album not only set the standard for the next 20 years of gangsta rap, it was also the first rap album by a black artist that was fully embraced by young, white suburbanites. While Dre’s lyrics were often violent and reflected the perils of street life, his bouncy, bassy production and frequent collaborations with then-unknown rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg were irresistible to music fans of all stripes.
Dre’s second solo album, “The Chronic 2001”, is considered one of the best rap albums of the last decade. In the years between the release of the two albums, Dre saw his Death Row label, whose most popular artist was Tupac Shakur, rise and then quickly fall after Tupac was murdered. He later founded the Aftermath imprint and brought Eminem and 50 Cent, two of the most influential rappers of their generation, into the spotlight.
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