It has often been said that Jazz music is
one of the few truly American art forms, born and bred in the USA. This
held true until the 1980’s gave birth to one of the most compelling new
forms of music that few people seemed to realize was destined to take over
popular culture and work its way into the fabric of everyday life.
Rap music and hip hop created and codified a new language
that rose up from the
streets first as a cipher for the parties and good times that
were going down on every block, but eventually serving as what rap pioneer
Chuck D termed ‘The Black CNN’, reporting on conditions in the lives of
those traditionally shunted to the edges of mainstream America.
But before rap became politicized both in terms of lyrical content and
media hand wringing, it was moving dance floors in New York, where local
MC’s first began spewing rhymes out over
turntable beats in the late
1970’s. By the time the 80’s rolled around, artists like Grandmaster
Flash, the Furious Five and Afrika Bambaataa were routinely battling it
out at parties in the park and local clubs to see who could best move the
crowd with their unique verses. The first real indication that something
big was brewing that could possibly extend outside of the city’s black
community came when a group called the Sugarhill Gang released ‘Rapper’s
Delight’, a track which borrowed the bass line from the popular disco song
‘Good Times’ by Chic and which became an overnight sensation on the
Billboard charts. This recording success was quickly followed up by Kurtis
Blow’s ‘The Breaks’ as well as ‘The Adventures of Grand Master Flash on
the Wheels Of Steel’, albums which would sell in the millions and which
would portend the tidal wave of rap that would wash over not only New York
but the entire country.
By 1982, the gloves
were off. Record companies who had previously ignored the musical style
were scrambling to fill their rosters with rap acts, which led to the
signing of pretty much anyone holding a mic who claimed they could rhyme.
This led to a number of silly party records swamping the market but it
also helped launch the careers of heavyweights like
Run DMC and the
Beastie Boys. Rap was
also beginning to splinter off into various subgenres, and by 1986 there
were several regional sounds and socially conscious groups to complement
the straight-to-the-dance-floor philosophy of earlier records.
Public Enemy and KRS-One
would inject a serious tone of political and collective commentary on the
world around them into extremely popular records like ‘It Takes a Nation
of Millions to Hold Us Back’ and ‘Criminal Minded’, but the greatest
attention amount of attention would end up being focused on a sinister
swelling of songsters from the west coast.
‘Gangsta Rap’ evolved initially from the hardcore rhymes of Ice T, which
dealt with the violence and drug wars being waged in cities like Los
Angeles. It wasn’t long before rappers on both sides of the country caught
on to the concept that singing about guns and drugs could sell millions of
records and by 1988 the group
N.W.A. blew up with
their landmark release ‘Straight Outta Compton’. Rap music would never be
the same, and the era which had started out on the foundation of partying
and activism that 80’s hip hop would be remembered for quickly closed on a
coda of machine gun samples and misogyny that would color rap music for
many years to come.
Top 25 Rap Albums from the 80s
Site Reader Submitted List of 80s Rap