For East Coast hip-hop between the years of 1987 and 1995, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. While the genre’s epicenter of New York became plagued by drug violence, arguably some of the greatest rap albums and artists were born. This DeJamz honors what is widely known as hip-hop’s “Golden Age” from the perspective of the better coast.
1. Boogie Down Productions – “The Bridge is Over” – Today we take rap beefs for granted, but many remain unaware of the original rap beef, arguably the most important one of them all: Where was rap invented, Queens or the Bronx? KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions had a thing or two to say about it, and he let it fly on this legendary single. The debate still persists to this day.
2. Public Enemy – “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” – Hip-hop has always had a revolutionary tinge to it, and Public Enemy expertly converted the vitriol of the black power movement into song form. While you may know PE thanks to the walking publicity stunt Flavor Flav, head MC Chuck D was a master of narrative rhyme, and production team The Bomb Squad arguably flipped the script on music production with their sample-splicing wizardry. This beat is one of their tamer offerings, but on the same LP you can also find Chuck rhyming over Slayer mixed with James Brown. And you thought Lex Luger was a decent producer.
3. Kool G Rap and DJ Polo – “Road to the Riches” – It took some time before MCs realized just what the medium of rap was capable of. If you listen to what is arguably the first recorded rap single, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” it sounds like a schoolyard jump rope rhyme compared to what MCs would create just 12 years later. In interviews you will still hear big names like Jay Z, Nas and others wax poetic about listening to rappers like Kool G Rap, Rakim or Big Daddy Kane and crediting all their success to them. Their rhyme styles were truly unheard of, mixing wild multisyllabic lines with impeccably precise rhythm and complex narratives.
4. Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.” – This may have been the single that changed everything. Before Wu-Tang, record labels had managed to keep a tight hold on rap artists’ success, including their overall image and, most importantly, their finances. Then a man from Staten Island named Robert Diggs (the RZA) recruited eight top-tier firespitters from around New York City, who then “formed like Voltron” and brought hip-hop’s underground to the airwaves. Thanks to RZA’s business acumen, they arranged perhaps the greatest takeover of the music industry yet.
5. Nas – “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” – Many derided Jay-Z as a Big Daddy Kane imposter upon his debut, and they could’ve said the same for Nas were it not for his absolute virtuosity on the mic. Even Nas himself, after nine albums in nearly 20 years, could not outdo what he did on “Illmatic,” the 1994 album that ends with “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” I still get chills listening to the Large Professor-made beat, which flips MJ’s “Human Nature” over a Mountain song, of all things.
6. Mobb Deep – “Up North Trip” – Perhaps the last album to be included in most “Golden Age” lists, Mobb Deep’s 1996 debut “The Infamous” was like a drop in the bucket amidst the last three years that had brought Biggie Smalls, Nas, Wu-Tang and so many more into the world. Still deserves credit for the artfully constructed hard-knock beats and stream-of-consciousness flow that everyone was trying to copy at this point. Mobb Deep told stories of a city held hostage. It’s oddly coincidental yet unfortunate that once crime in New York City went down, so too did the quality of hip-hop.