Man, my eyes wouldn’t see daylight until the early 90’s but in the decade that came before, hip-hop had been born, and it came rampaging into the 1980’s. With the commercial success of Run-D.M.C. in 1986, the Golden Age of Hip-Hop had begun, so now we pay tribute to them and the many other influential names that helped to establish a genre that many thought would be nothing more than a fad. (That’s an old word that means “trend”…I know right).
When it comes to the Godfathers of rap there is no bigger name than Run-D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay. They epitomised the bond between MC and DJ and were among the first to do…well…just about everything. First to get a Grammy nomination, first to grace the covers of Rolling Stone, not to mention the first to earn both gold and platinum records, plus a multiplatinum certification for their third record “Raising Hell”. But these greats didn’t walk alone. According to Rolling Stone, the 80’s was a time “when it seemed like every new single reinvented the genre” and that was exactly the case with the commercial dominance of gangsta rap.
Every artist’s sound back then was dictated by region or community and N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) brought the heart of the west coast out into the mainstream with their debut album “Straight Outta Compton” (which most of you know is the same name of the group’s biopic that was released in 2015). Groups were a staple during this time, with most of the breakout acts consisting of two or more members, but there was one artist able to cut through the noise and stand at the front as one of hip-hop’s “greatest of all time”.
I’m talking about none other than LL Cool J (yeah the guy from NCIS: Los Angeles…I’m serious!). In a world full of hardcore acts, Mr Smith became a forefather of pop-rap with romantic ballads like “I Need Love” that became a hit with the ladies (but I mean, his name was Ladies Love Cool James so like…). All these acts helped shape a new kind of sound that changed as quickly as it grew and will forever be known as legends in the hip-hop culture.
Around this time, MC’s were judged by the one thing that should truly matter in a rap song: the lyrics. The most prominent lyricists shone through with both inventive and complex wordplay. The kind of lyrical kung-fu that you rarely see today. This too was the heydey of sampling, giving way to an entirely new breed of producer that needed no formal or classical musical training. Just an uncanny ability to create collages from different pieces of music. Pieces were taken from genres like jazz and funk, even soul and rock & roll (especially that last one). The possibilities were endless as copyright lawmakers were still scrambling to reign in this emerging art form.
The biggest so-called culprits were none other than the Beastie Boys, who were known to put up to 25 samples on a single track, ripped from various songs including those of the Beatles. There are entire albums that would never see the light of day in the 21st Century market due to the blatant copyright infringement (what a time to be alive – sarcasm). With skeletal beats and a heavy focus on lyricism, many artists used the platform to spread a message of black activism and to shine a light on many of the issues faced by black Americans. Once the music found it’s stride as a viable form of social protest it became obvious that Rap would be here to stay.
But even before then, it was thanks to the likes of Russel Simmons and Rick Rubin, this innovative art form would find a long-standing home in the form of Def Jam Records.
Back in the 80’s the fashion made as big a statement as the music that it represented and nearly every artist of the time influenced the culture heavily with their edgy attire. Shell-toed Adidas were on the feet of every hip-hop cat back in the day and the sneaker’s cult status was cemented with the Run-D.M.C. single “My Adidas”. Acts like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (sh*t that’s a mouthful), as well as Kid ‘n Play, made the high-top fade the perfect choice for anybody not already rocking a fuzzy Kangol.
But of course you weren’t a true 80’s MC without a solid gold rope chain around hanging from your neck and while you’re at it, you should be rocking your full tracksuit too. Not just the top, not just the bottom, NO, the whole damn suit (like for real!). The rise of black activism too, brought on the paramilitary inspired all black outfits, starter jackets and baseball caps that were made famous by the group Public Enemy. Gone were the flashy days of disco so nobody still needed to be wearing the shiniest outfit on stage or just in general.
Even in the most basic jeans and tees, most rappers carried enough swag to keep the style bold and actually worth emulating (not like today. I mean, that’s a topic for another day). Red, green, yellow and black also became a common colour pattern in order to embellish hip-hop with a facet of reggae culture.
Truly, this was the decade that made the music industry wake up and say “Hey, maybe we’ve gotta start taking this whole ‘rap’ thing pretty seriously”. Every artist today owes a debt of gratitude to these and many other names that emerged during this glorious time but hip-hop is an ever evolving art and there’s no telling who the next innovators will be or which names we’ll be praising once this current decade comes to an end.