It seems to surprise everyone that I have a not-so-secret love of hip-hop. I’ve only ever dabbled, really, and certainly was never part of the wider hip-hop culture. Some of the stuff that has been released from the hip-hop scene over the years, though, has been phenomenal. There has been stuff every bit as heavy as the metal of the time, every bit as influential, and every bit as political. And, yes, there have been some abominable throwaways. And there are all kinds of links between alternative music and hip-hop. Like rap metal (bands like Downset, Stuck Mojo, Senser, Rage Against The Machine, Clawfinger…) and nu-metal (let’s not go there), obviously, but also in the likes of the industrial/hip-hop fusions of Stromkern, Consolidated and SMP – and even Front Line Assembly, who dabbled in adding hip-hop vocals as long ago as 1994 (Victim of a Criminal on Millenium, since you ask).
I can’t say I’m all that bothered about a lot of newer hip-hop, though. I’m not sure why, just that not a great deal has grabbed me like some of the older stuff did, and still does. But there are some exceptions which I mention below.
Why has this list come about now? Well. For once for a C4 list show, How Hip-Hop Changed The World last week was actually fucking awesome. Actually involving people within the scene, rather than the public to select the moments, meant that a decent nod to the past was made, as well as acknowledging the present, and the real people who made the genre into what it was and is were actually honoured properly. So here are ten hip-hop acts I love. Others didn’t make the cut (including Beastie Boys, Company Flow, Run DMC, The X-Ecutioners, Outkast, to start with five). I’d love to hear about hip-hop acts that I may not have heard, too.
So, where to start? Let’s start with something new. An extraordinary, experimental hip-hop group that have happily bridged genres and worked outside of the usual hip-hop spheres – hell, one of the members of the band was originally in NJ shoegazers All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors, as well as having performed live with The Young Gods. But despite the sonic experimentation and the trailblazing, at the heart of it they frequently are just a shit-hot hip-hop act, eschewing guns and misogny for something rather more intelligent.
Talking of intelligent hip-hop, unencumbered by the need for bling and violence. Back before Flavor Flav was better known for his reality show antics, he and Chuck D were instead concentrating on making a difference, in political statements and in the music they created. And their late-80s/early-90s heyday was nothing short of revolution: both in their hyper-dense, blistering sample-filled music and their machine-gun paced rapping, Chuck D telling it as he saw the world. And that world was an angry one. But one where power could be taken back, without guns. And if you want to see just how trailblazing they were – how many other acts would even think of sampling Slayer and James Brown on one song? Even if they did hurry along the rap metal boom with their work with Anthrax… They might not be the force they were, but It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet are easily two of the greatest hip-hop albums ever released, and still hold up well over twenty years since release.
The rap act that frankly brought gangsta rap to the mainstream, their explosive, furious debut album all-but foretold the chaos that was to come in Los Angeles only a few years later in the wake of the Rodney King beating video and riots. Like many of the greatest and most influential hip-hop acts, they are very much a product of their surroundings. Quite literally straight out of Compton, their tales of violence, drugs, hatred and disdain for authority were borne of their daily lives as young black men in gangs. Some elements were a little unsavoury, but this was the reality – and in retrospect their fury was a warning of what was going to come.
Another south LA hip-hop act, they were a rap act that gained a lot of fans outside of the hip-hop community early-on, probably at least in part due to their love of getting very high indeed. The crossover potential was eventually made explicit in their Skull & Bones album, that even had a second CD of rap metal – and a monster hit in (Rock) Superstar. But Black Sunday remains their killer album – a coming together of stoned grooves and gangsta quasi-realism, with an added dose of queasy paranoia. The beats and effects sounded – and still do – sound like no-one else.
Moving back across to the other side of the US, the Wu-Tang are a seemingly endless collective who hit their stride very early on and never really seemed to hit the same heights again (even if some of the members – Method Man, GZA, Raekwon and ODB in particular – hit some astonishing heights of their own). No other group had such cohesion, and such an odd style – a weird, sparse sound, with crazy kung-fu samples all over the place and some fantastic, imaginative rhymes. Yeah, so Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is still the high-point – and is astonishingly eighteen years old. Picking one song from this for the playlist was really, really, really fucking hard.
It would be seriously amiss of me to be talking about East Coast (well, New York) hip-hop without mentioning the master MC (Rakim) and the master DJ (Eric B). A collaboration that was all-but perfect, and again eschewed violence and threats for simply boasting about how fucking awesome on the mic and turntables they were. Well, when you are the undisputed masters, who is going to argue? Certainly not me. More influential than commercially successful, they have a mass of classic tunes from their early albums, and were also pretty much single-handedly responsible for popularising the use of James Brown samples – and less better were at the (sampled) core of the monster single by M/A/R/R/S, Pump Up The Volume.
Another 80s East Coast hip-hop giant, I think it is fair to say that he took hip-hop into different realms to everyone else. He looked like he came from outer space, and his legendary single Planet Rock sounded like it did too. It remains the bridge between hip-hop and the electro that followed it, paving the way for inventive rhythms and a whole new world to sample from – i.e. not just sixties funk and soul, but early electronic music like Kraftwerk instead. Almost as great as that single, though, is the uplifting call-to-arms of Renegades of Funk (that Rage Against The Machine so thrillingly covered on Renegades – it was perhaps no accident that the best tracks on that album were the rap covers by far), even if it’s eighties breaks have dated pretty poorly.
A surprising location to discover a new, and interesting hip-hop artist was at a Nine Inch Nails gig. No, really. Saul Williams had already worked with NIN around this time, and his self-titled second album made me realise that he was worth following a bit more. Beat poetry for the 21st century, with a world-aware sound and lyrics that takes in the Iraq War, poverty, the state of hip-hop at the time of its release, and indeed his own identity, and happily moves outside of hip-hop into other sounds when it feels right. I wasn’t quite as keen on Niggy Tardust or anything since, but that second album is one of my favourite hip-hops albums full stop.
British hip-hop/rap does occasionally have some items of interest, I have to admit – and here is one of them. Someone I first heard guesting on the cracking Leftfield track Dusted. Where he introduced a different rapping technique, perhaps, and a different lexicon too. Super-con-dupa indeed. Too many British hip-hop artists up to this point had done their best to sound like their US forebears, and Roots Manuva was one of the first I’d heard to turn his back on this idea…and sound like his own damned self. And you know what? I’m glad he did.
Finally…one artist I love for one particular song. Michael Franti has plugged away under a number of guises over the years, but he has never topped the peak of Television The Drug Of The Nation, a track that has continued to ring true, and in particular in the US has pretty much predicted the media takeover of society and even it’s way of framing political debate and even election results (the influence of Fox News, of course). Hip-hop – part of the time prophets, part of the time gangstas. Yin and yang. Which perhaps suggests why it has grown to be bigger than almost any other genre of music. Something for just about anyone, if you are willing to look for it.