There may be people who imagine that rap began with Hammer. But many other MCs had to look for the perfect beat before he could sell it to Pepsi.
At first, at the end of the ’70s, rap’s lively skeleton of booming beats, manic turntable maneuvers, and urgent voices — music as hard and real as a decaying city — was confined to New York, another subway rider stuck underground. But rappers found a way out and, despite lingering prejudice and reservations, much of mainstream culture, from MTV to advertising, rocks to their rhythmic rhymes. Now, as if to cement rap’s place in music history, Rhino Records — the golden-oldies label whose definitive reissues range from soul and British rock to the Monkees — is paying its own respects with Street Jams, a four-volume annotated compilation of vintage rap singles.
Two discs are devoted to rap itself and two to mostly instrumental ”electric funk,” raplike music dominated by the producers, keyboard players, and turntable masters who provided the rappers’ backing tracks. What emerges is a portrait of a musical revolution that began modestly but gained creative juice as newcomers rushed to out-innovate each other. Compared to the brutal roar of some current artists, Hip-Hop From the Top Part 1 comes in like a lamb. Beneath the boastful party banter of Sugarhill Gang’s ”Rapper’s Delight” (mild-mannered enough to reach Billboard’s Top 40 with lines like ”Guess what America — we love you!”) and Kurtis Blow’s wryly polite ”The Breaks” (1980), rap’s groundbreakers built their musical house on a familiar disco foundation.
But that wasn’t change enough for a restless generation; structures had to be stripped down to yield a stark, minimalist style that younger African- Americans could call their own. Rap outgrew the innocence of party music when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five delivered ”The Message,” a grim 1982 diary of life in the rotten Big Apple. Tinged with menace but poetic in its perception, the song contained the memorable refrain ”Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head.” In its realistic portrayal of an urban nightmare shared by many of its listeners, the song first suggested rap’s potential to unite and empower a generation.
Hip-Hop From the Top Part 2 captures the early growth of rap’s diversity, from Blow’s 1984 celebration ”Basketball” to the rock-hard syncopation of Run-D.M.C.’s momentous 1983 debut, ”It’s Like That.” The album also documents the vinyl fracas begun by UTFO’s 1984 single ”Roxanne, Roxanne,” a collection of frustrated pickup lines that provoked numerous salty reply records from women, one of which (”The Real Roxanne,” by Roxanne with UTFO) follows it here.
Meanwhile, back in the clubs, dancers began moving to music with the same punch as rap, but with fewer verbal distractions. Electric Funk Part 1 is a pulse-quickening document of what they heard, including the visionary Afrika Bambaataa, with his hugely influential 1982 ”Planet Rock” (which made dynamic street music out of arty German synthesists’ robotic disco), and keyboardist Herbie Hancock, who dropped in from the jazz-fusion world to sample hip-hop techniques, earning a 1983 Grammy for his wild break-dancing track ”Rockit.” Electric Funk Part 2 is the era’s hangover: a tedious hour of wretched disco singing, Darth Vader voices, drum programs, and other clichés of the electronic age.
Street Jams has other shortcomings. The songs are jammed together out of chronological sequence, with abrupt transitions; the absence of ”White Lines,” Melle Mel’s 1983 cocaine warning, is a serious omission. Crucial cuts (especially those on Hip-Hop Part 1) are surrounded by instrumentals, novelties, and mediocre cuts of dubious significance; three Funk appearances by Newcleus, whose label Rhino evidently owns, are at least one too many.
Still, Street Jams fulfills its cultural mission with more than enough early landmarks, most of them invigorating tracks that practically force you to dance. These in-depth retrospectives vividly convey how rap grew from a variation on existing dance music into a distinct force by stripping away the remnants of the past, leaving only the beats and rhymes needed to build a crucial musical future. B-