Some of the most effective hip-hop tunes are tracks with elements so basic your brain would take off aiming to explain their reasoning: Take the unstoppable two-note guitar stab in Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear.” (I pestered the producer, Easy Mo Bee, for 17 years for the trick behind it– then wished to throw somebody out the window when I heard how standard it was.) Or the huge sound of the Roland 909 on Schoolly D’s “PSK”– an echo that appeared like it came from a church cathedral eight city obstructs wide.
I said a hip, hop, the hippy to the hippy/To the hip hop, you don’t stop.
The next night, I was prepared, with an ancient tape recorder in hand and a black-and-white composition notebook. My kid Aantar became my representative that week, scheduling performances of the song in exchange for treats or hand-holding with ladies in physical education. “Rap artist’s Pleasure” turned this future high school band geek into a super star for the month of October 1979.
Hip-hop provides listeners sets of rules that you follow like the law, just to see them change every five years. I’ve seen my reactions to hip-hop change from age nine (“What the hell was that?”) to age 14 (“That was unbelievable!”) to age 22 (“Wait. are they allowed to do that?”) to age 29 (“It was kinda different when I was a kid”) to now (“What the fuck was that?!”). I’ve seen Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” go from ruling the world to being a musical pariah to being a paradoxical statement in my DJ set that makes individuals smile.
I was eight years of ages when “Rapper’s Delight”made its world premiere on Philadelphia radio. It took place at 8:24 p.m. on a Thursday, after a dinner of porgies, string beans and creamed corn. Me and my sibling, Donn, were sneaking a listen of the local soul station while cleaning dishes when an army of percussion and a syncopated Latin piano line came out of my grandma’s JVC clock radio– exactly what appeared to be Chic’s “Success.” How was I to know that my world would come crashing down in a matter of 5, 4, 3, 2.
These noises had amazing power if you matured with hip-hop: There was the summertime I invested aiming to match the mix to “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” note for note, on 2 Fisher-Price turntables. (My daddy, not impressed, informed me, “There ain’t a living spinning other people’s music”– little did you understand, Daddy, little did you understand.) There were so many times when a song best could stop you in your tracks, then become a topic of discussion for the next 4 hours: in the high school lunchroom when me and Black Idea heard “Rage of Kane” for the very first time, or my very first listen to “Fight the Power”– it sounded like Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk had entered a knife battle.
The greatest hip-hop tunes have the power to pull energy and excitement and anger and concerns and insecurity and raw feeling from you. It could be a song that sets your neighborhood on fire (“Rebel Without a Time out”) or a song on your headphones that makes you rethink what hip-hop is (Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Ego Trippin'”). The typical thread is change. The very best hip-hop songs aren’t blueprints– they are calls to action, reminders that you can begin a transformation in three minutes. Just keep that clock radio on.