The golden age of hip hop… as I remember it. New York City, sometime around 1989-92, pre-Giuliani era. I was a skater and attending Jr. High School 141 in the Bronx. I grew up in a fairly white middle class neighbourhood, but skaters are cross pollinators. We went further afield than most people ever would. We swarmed into packs of kids from all over the place at the best skate spots. We were naturally open minded and curious.
I remember one afternoon sitting on some steps by my school. An older kid named Alex had all the big names of Hip Hop written all over his board like patches on a punk’s leather jacket. I was studying them, “I’ve heard this, I haven’t heard of this one yet, I have to look out for that.” That was my entry point and soon I was hooked.
Every night when I washed the dishes at home after dinner I put on my head phones and listened to Kool DJ Red Alert on 98.7 KISS FM. Yo MTV Raps! was in full effect on television when I got home from school. Fear of a Black Planet was one of the first tapes I personally owned. One of the first and only times I was in a car full of teenagers, a rare occurrence in NYC life, we drove to a block party near the Grand Concourse.
I was listening to a lot of punk music at the time also, but Hip Hop was positively infectious. It was undeniably flourishing, especially in New York. The top producers at the time were mavericks like Pete Rock, Prince Paul, DJ Premier, Marley Marl, Erick Sermon! This was the height! These guys were at the peak of their prowess in the fine art of piecing together tracks almost wholly constructed of sampled beats and hooks from old vinyl records. They were pumping out hit after hit, and any one of those tracks you could listen to all day without getting tired of it. This was before copyright infringement laws got so out of hand as to make it too cost prohibitive for the average producer to make this music at all.
This was also before protools, computer editing and any kind of quantising of beats beyond what a rudimentary sampler could do. So as tight as these guys were making beats, the music could still breathe. There is an analogue warmth to this music. You could still feel the human element… in the original music be played on the vinyl that was being sampled, in sound of the vinyl it was sampled from, in the funk of the MPC chops on those samples, and in the skill of the DJs scratching records over top of it all.
It was fairly good natured too. The MC’s weren’t talking about all that much, but their bravado hadn’t yet escalated to being exclusively about death threats, money hoarding and drug dealing. It was all a bit lighter and mostly about rocking the party. I definitely have some respect for Wu Tang Clan and Biggie Smalls but for me that was pretty much the end of the era for me. That was about when I dropped out and tuned into sixties psychedelic music.
Anyway, it seems to me like there has almost been some kind of conspiratorial coverup of this era of music history. Where has that music gone? Why is it never played anywhere anymore? Do younger generations have any access to it? Have they ever even heard it? This was a revolution in popular music. A thriving epoch of creativity. The beginnings of hip hop’s domination of the music market. This is bonafide music history. There should be at least one radio station on the dial playing this stuff on repeat forever.
Is it just because that was the music of a key moment in my teenage years that I think it was so important, and so distorted my perspective that I cannot see that in reality it was rather disposable and didn’t age well, didn’t quite deserve entry into the canon of American music history?
Spotify just opened up their free service in the UK. I don’t want to get into the politics of Spotify right this moment, and because I didn’t feel I could budget the paid subscription, I’ve managed to avoid thinking about it until now. But I just signed up a week or so ago and I am pretty amazed by it right now. Anyway, the first thing I did when I got it was make this playlist of all the hip hop I have missed and haven’t heard in so long. I think it still holds up pretty well. What do you think?
And also, what songs did I forget?