Rapper’s delight: back when hip-hop was fun

A savvy compilation traces the innocent early days of hip-hop in New York

 

Some cultural settings never fade from view – and some take on a surprising second life. In the 1970s, New York was gritty, far removed from the gentrified city of today. The Big Apple spent that decade in the headlines for crime, economic deprivation and social disorder.

Yet, popular culture seems to have taken a time machine back to that truculent era, from Garth Risk Hallberg’s novel City On Fire to Baz Luhrmann and Shawn Ryan’s forthcoming Netflix series The Get Down (about the birth of hip-hop and disco).

It’s easy to see why the period has such appeal. By placing your work in that setting and making use of easy shorthand and semiotics to signify a certain style and sound, it’s easy to convey a certain edge.

The sound is particularly important – and probably a key reason for the continued fascination. Influential artists such as Television, The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie were emerging from a scene around Hilly Kristal’s CBGB dive downtown on the Bowery.

Future icons Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith were beginning to use the city as a platform to take the world by storm. DJs David Mancuso, Larry Levan and Nicky Siano were transforming dancefloors and the club experience. Then there was the music happening uptown and in the boroughs. If anything says New York during those bold, bad, brassy years, when everything seemed to be on the verge of falling apart, it’s those early hip-hop tracks – the ones that still sound so innocent, giddy and bright today.

You’ll hear a bunch of them on Boombox, a new compilation on Soul Jazz, the London label with a great knack for putting together strong compilations that showcase influential music scenes. It’s a savvy collection of the early independent hip-hop, electro and disco rap records released from 1979 to 1982. The tracks which were blasting from the boomboxes of the title were heavily influenced by what was going down at New York’s early block parties and street jams.

Block parties

August 1973. An apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. A teenager named Cindy Campbell organises a dance to make some cash so she can buy new clothes for herself before she goes back to school. While Campell collects the entrance fee at the door (25 cents for ladies, 50 cents for fellas), her brother Clive, aka DJ Kool Herc, spins funk and soul, James Brown and dancehall, breaks and beats for seven hours. It is such a success that the siblings begin to plot more parties.

Just as we can date the start of hip-hop culture to that back-to-school jam, we can trace the start of hip-hop on record to the release of the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight in September 1979. There were records with rappers before producer Sylvia Robinson and her husband, Joe, brought those New Jersey kids together, but Rapper’s Delight put hip-hop in the mainstream. It would be followed by equally evergreen tunes such as The Message (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five), It’s Like That (Run DMC) and Planet Rock (Afrika Bambaataa).

But there was another side to the story, and Boombox seeks to bring this colourful narrative to the fore. Even though it took many years for the mainstream record industry to cop on to the commercial appeal of rap, producers and MCs who had caught the bug from going to block parties and jams wanted to make records. A clutch of independent labels were ready, able and willing to encourage, direct and guide the new rap wannabes from the start. Paul Winley, at Winley, and Bobby Robinson, at Enjoy, were record men who had kept ahead of the pack by keeping up with what their customers were listening to. When they spotted a gap in the market for what was happening uptown after hours, they went with their commercial nous.

The tracks on Boombox are, as the sleeve notes put it, from “the innocent time before crack” and are very much influenced by the party. When Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa were rocking the block, they were spinning a wide and deep spread of soul, jazz, funk, rock, pop, Latin and African tunes. They were looking for the perfect beat, the perfect break, the extended groove which would cause dancers to scream and shout.

Many of the early MCs simply rapped over versions or reworkings of big tunes such as Chic’s Good Times.

The re-recordings were the first sign that the street had come into contact with the suits. In a time before sampling became a big legal issue, those who were coming to the attention of the label bosses didn’t give a second thought to rhyming over the tracks as they had always done. But the label bosses took a different view and often hired session musicians to replay and emulate the breaks and beats and ensure legal niceties were maintained.

There was also a growing slew of producers keen to put their mark on wax. One of the most striking tunes on Boombox is Portable Patrol’s Cop Bop, the work of a Berklee School of Music-educated producer, Craig Boyd, who was working at the time as a traffic cop on Long Island. In-between directing traffic, Boyd would bop and move to his own groove, gaining infamy and – in time – a starring role in Burger King ads.

By the early 1980s, hip-hop releases were appearing left, right and centre. The sound, though, was about to change. In March 1982, Sugarhill released Grandmaster Flash’s The Message and this snapshot of life on the streets introduced a new reality of what could be achieved. Suddenly, hip-hop was more than just party music. Hard-hitting rhymes from Schoolly D, KRS One, Public Enemy and more would reposition hip-hop as music with a message. There would still be tunes for good times, but the macro focus had changed.

Boombox is a reminder of those sunny times when hip-hop was finding its feet and working out its flow. The tracks capture those intriguing years between what began as an informal and streetwise culture of parties to a global industry, now worth up to $10 billion a year.

  • Boombox is out on Soul Jazz Records
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