Hip hop was invented sometime around 1975 by a DJ in the South Bronx who called himself Kool Herc. His idea, like all brilliant ones, was essentially simple. He played mostly funk tunes at his gigs, and he noted that the bit of every song people seemed to like the most was the drum breaks. So he figured: why not just play drum breaks all the time, looped together? A form of music that has gone onto to sell billions of records was born.
I decided I would catalogue the five greatest hip hop acts of the 20th century, in other words using December 31, 1999 as my cut off point, partly because it was the century in which the art form was invented. But mostly because I’m a bit of an old fart, and if I tried to write an article on the five greatest hip hop acts ever someone would ask me why TJ Boo-shanks or whoever wasn’t on there, or why it featured no jungle crossovers. And frankly if that happened, as Walter Sobchak might say, I’d be out of my element.
5. Eric B & Rakim
Desperately underrated, these guys put out a sting of hip hop classics in the mid-to-late-80s: “Paid in Full”, “I Ain’t No Joke”, “Microphone Fiend”. But their masterpiece was “Follow the Leader”, utilising all that was best about the duo: a bass line that could restart a heart that had gone into cardiac arrest; lyrics of fury; but most of all, Rakim’s voice, a baritone rejoinder to anyone who ever tried to assert that “all rappers sound the same”.
They never really took off though, for reasons I can never fathom.
4. Beastie Boys
The Beasties on the other hand were terrifyingly huge at their commercial peak, the early-to-mid-90s, during which you took your life in your own hands attending one of their shows due to the crazed religious devotion the fans brought to them. Hell, you took your life into your own hands just trying to buy tickets to their shows (I was once in the midst of a mini-riot while standing in just such a queue).
They began as a quasi-joke group with Licensed to Ill in 1986, seemed to have disappeared after a bout of bizarre infamy, then re-appeared in 1989 with Paul’s Boutique, an instant classic made with the Dust Brothers help that remains perhaps the coolest album ever recorded. It was a commercial flop compared to their first record, but set the stage for their reclaiming by the hipster set that would soon make them megastars. Check Your Head broke the dam wide open.
A few months ago, I was in a London police station giving a witness statement after I’d watched my next-door neighbour racially abuse my other next-door neighbour (the joys of inner city life) when a lexiconic oddity faced me. I had been dictating the words my racist neighbour had used and noticed that the policewoman spelt it “Nigga”. I was about to protest but stopped myself; she would have thought I was weird, I recall thinking. But what I would have said had I had the bottle was: “That’s the reclaimed spelling. When racists use it, you have to spell it with an ‘er’.” As far as I’m aware, the first group to put the ‘ga’ spelling into common use was this hip hop act from L.A.
I can still remember exactly where I was when I first heard N.W.A. It was in a friend’s cellar that smelt of mildew and cat fur (his parent’s were elderly). “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge”. And boy, did I ever. As I sat and listened to things like “Fuck the Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta” for the first time, I felt like I was getting a view into a world very removed from my own, but with enough crossover for me to understand. Even though in middle age I lack the same anger needed to really get off on N.W.A., I still acknowledge their contribution to my anti-authoritarian world view.
2. Public Enemy
Looking back on P.E.’s output, I’m still struck by the brilliance of the sound patterns, merging what is basically noise with funk elements to create a whole; the sheer weight of Chuck D’s voice; the balance of Chuck with Flavor Flav. What I struggle with is their shout outs to and even sometimes sampling of racists like Khalid Abdul Muhammed, and even more with the idea that were this racism to be anything other than the flavour that it is, I’d find it intolerable (and with that the question of whether I am being racist myself by tolerating it).
But I don’t really believe that Public Enemy were racists (I’ll step aside from the whole Professor Griff thing for the sake of brevity). And besides, if I was going to take P.E. up on the whole Black Nationalist thing, then I’d have to take N.W.A. up on the promoting violence thing, and then it would be a downward spiral from there.
1. Wu-Tang Clan
The idea of nine guys from Staten Island forming a hip hop group based around the concept of combining gangsta rap and kung-fu films must not have seemed like the makings of a musical empire, but that only shows how the greatest things often emerge from the strangest of places.
Some will complain about the Wu getting the top spot here; sure they are great, but didn’t they really only have one brilliant album? Yes, Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers is their only classic released under the group banner, but that’s to disregard the “solo” albums like the GZA’s Liquid Swords or Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which are essentially group efforts anyhow. All of their great records have the battle of all those MCs, fighting for the supremacy that will ultimately go to Ol’ Dirty Bastard anyhow.