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Remembering the golden age of hip-hop

Flying under radar of mainstream, rappers were able to experiment and innovate in the '80s. By Tony Green
/ Source: contributor

At a time when rap’s creative center has shifted south off the Mason Dixon line, the Beastie Boys’ “The Five Boroughs” seems like an anachronism. There’s its title, — a paean to the music’s New York roots. Then there’s the album’s distinctively old-school sound — a far cry from the futuristic sounds of the Neptunes, or the tectonic boom of Lil Jon and the Eastsiide Boyz “crunk” style.

But as hip-hop music moves into its 25th year, its 40-something followers are starting to wax nostalgic about what many feel was the “Golden Age” of hip-hop music: The ’80s.

“I hate to haul out this cliché,” said critic Jon Caramanica , “but there was a lot more freedom, and a lot less of the notion of hip-hop as a commodity, which you see a lot of now. That sound you hear on the new Beasties album is the same kind of sound they had on their classic ‘Paul’s Boutique’ (released in 1989). They are putting out the idea that it’s time to return to that era.”

What was so great about the ’80s? There were no cookie cutter strip club videos with rappers sliding credit cards through women’s backsides (Nelly), for one. Radio hadn’t blared corporate play lists into fans’ home furniture. And rappers had an individual sound that was dictated by their region and their communities, not by a marketing strategist.

“Nowadays everybody tries to copy what the hot style is. There are guys out there that are like Frankensteins, this kind of ghoulish pastiche of Jay-Z and Biggie and Naps and whoever else they feel they need to sound like to get paid,” said writer/historian Brian Coleman. “In the ’80s you’d get laughed off the stage for copying someone else’s style. That was considered heresy.”

All this seems like good old-fashioned generational jingoism, until you look closely at the facts. Namely, that the Reagan years produced a huge amount of terrific hip-hop music.

“All you have to do is look at the albums that came out then,” said Coleman. “Just take the year 1988, for example. You had Public Enemy’s ‘Nation of Millions’ (regarded as one of the greatest pop albums ever), Ultramagnetic MCs ‘Critical Beatdown,’ Boogie Down Productions’ ‘By All Means Necessary,’ ‘The Great Adventures of Slick Rick.’ Eric B. and Rakim’s ‘Follow the Leader,’ Too Short, NWA … and that’s just one year.”

Big money kills creative spiritIf pro ’80s hip-hoppers sound like Woodstock-era boomers (you know, the ones who think no good music happened after “Exile on Main Street”), it’s because they’re making basically the same argument. They, like boomer rockers, claim that big money and corporate greed killed their music’s creative spirit. And, like boomers, their music of choice was the soundtrack to a decade of reactionary change — in their case, Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution. And naysayers can point out the same holes in their argument: Like the promoters of the original Woodstock, rappers were as mercenary as their contemporary counterparts. Rap wasn’t commercial because no one knew what to do with it, not because of rappers high-minded aesthetic values.

On the other hand, pop culture’s general shunning of rap allowed the music to flower in all kinds of directions. The all-request video show “The Box” was like CNN for those interested in keeping up with the newest hits. Arists adopted a potpourri of styles. There was the politically charged music of Public Enemy, KRS-One and X-Clan, the dance pop styles of Salt-n-Pepa and Heavy D. and the verbal gamesmanship of Eric B and Rakim, L.L. Cool J,  Run-DMC and proto-gangster Kool G. Rap.

“Artists were allowed to pick and choose the style they wanted to express,” said Caramanica. “Over time that changed. Not necessarily for the worse, but it changed.”

The sound of the music was changing, too. For most of its existence, rap had churned out brilliant material while existing below the pop radar. That allowed artists to develop what was then a radical new approach to music: Sampling, or using digitally reproduced snippets of prerecorded music in a new context. By the time the music industry started attaching royalty dues to snippets of music, sampling had been part of the hip-hop fabric for a decade. The Beasties’ “Paul’s Boutique” which reputedly used over 200 different samples, is considered one of the best examples of the technique’s creative potential.

Sampling gets expensive“Once rap started getting recognition,” said Caramanica, “people started to realize that it was great art. And that meant that someone had to get compensated for contributing to it.”

After a series of legal blows (most notably, Gilbert O’ Sullivan’s lawsuit against Biz Markie for his use of the song “Alone Again Naturally”) rappers started cutting back on the wholesale sampling and moving into live instruments (notably on Dr. Dre’s landmark “The Chronic”).

“That whole episode marked the end of the kind of avant garde chaotic pastiche you got on PE or Beastie Boy albums. You aren’t going to see albums like ‘Paul’s Boutique’ or ‘Nation of Millions’ anymore, because the cost of royalties is too prohibitive,” Caramanica said. “It is still used by a lot of under-the-radar artists, but other than that, the only people who can make an album that samples extensively are the ones who can afford it, like Jay-Z. A new artist would have to give up so much of his publishing rights it wouldn’t be worth it.”

But even more than the sound, the ’80s had a distinctive spirit, said Coleman. “I was talking to Ced Gee of the Ultramagnetic Mcs,” he said. “And he said that the one thing that distinguished the ’80s was the element of competition. Whenever you stepped on stage, put out a single or put out an album, you were issuing a challenge to your peers … to come out stronger than this next time. That is what the ’80s were really about.”