When asked to identify some hip-hop songs that were influential in my life, I chose to approach the subject matter not necessarily with those that were my favorite songs and cd’s/albums but the most influential. Music has always been a major part of my life; as a child my mother listened to The Isley’s, O’Jays, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Fatback Band, Parliament, etc. while cleaning, partying, and just chilling. She would let me pick out my own albums as I grew older and developed my own taste throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s; hence starting my taste for collecting the music that I like. Throughout my teen years and beyond, my music of choice became hip-hop; although I still maintained my liking for the sounds from my childhood …r & b, also including Jazz, some Reggae, and even a little rock (as early African-American Rock became known as soul music and rock was associated with White groups). What people generally recognize as early hip-hop, early to mid 80’s, had a profound impact on me as a whole and totally changed the way that I saw the world.
Many of these artists, songs, and even movies provided a voice for a group of people whom the world could not see. Whether it be Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 with “The Message,” NWA and Posse rhyming about “Boyz in the Hood,” Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince telling us why “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” or Sugarhill Gang talking about “Rappers Delight” with the female group Sequence (containing Angie Stone) on the B-side rhyming about “Funk You Up,” they all displayed a glimpse into the lives of African-American culture from a different point of view.
So the absence of many of these artists and albums is not negating the importance of these early contributions; in my opinion, it’s just understood and accepted that this era kind of stands alone. Please enjoy the following reading and I look forward to your thoughts and comments; and lastly understand these are my humble opinions and thoughts …meant to spark conversation.
Finished Product and Criteria
In compiling my list, I tried to make it simple so that I would not confuse things with “my favorites,” but stay focused on those items that were simply the most influential. Regarding criteria I considered these 3 things; message, music/overall song chemistry, and lyricism. With the original list(s) I developed, there were a great deal of items that I wanted to keep, but I had to cut it down and make some hard decisions. Considering these factors, here is what I came up with in no particular order:
“It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” by Public Enemy 1988
This cd/album was monumental in that it introduced certain kids in the streets to revolutionary thought. With songs like “Night of the Living Baseheads” telling us about the crack trade, hinted at government involvement, and made the streets look at itself; “She Watch Channel Zero” discussed the issue of how TV was portraying stories that contributed to stereotypes and general “mental immobility” in our culture. “Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos” told a story of a guy breaking out of prison whom had been a victim of the system itself. Overall the album presented me with a way of viewing the world that didn’t necessarily mesh with what I was learning in school and the “perfectness” of America. All throughout the album the production of the Bomb Squad and the clever lyricism of Chuck D began my change in thought pattern that continued through college.
“W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)” by Pharoah Monch 2011
This cd/album represented an MC that has grown and greatly enhanced his skills since his early years rhyming alongside Prince Po in Organized Konfusion. Although a respected MC in this group, I became a sincere fan of Pharoah when became a solo artists. This being his 2nd solo product, I find this the most complete based on the criteria I used. Whether it’s Pharoah, Styles P, and Phonte rhyming/singing (Phonte) about the injustices and inequalities of the “Black Hand Side,” the clever and witty lyricism of the Preacher as he rhymes about “Let[ting] My People Go,” or the story of the revolutionary “Assassins” in an apocalyptical world where he shares the mic with Detroit MC Royce Da 5’9” and the female hard hitter Jean Grae. There’s even the inspirational song “Still Standing” with the beautiful Jill Scott where Pharoah rhymes about overcoming throughout life …even sharing some of his personal childhood handicaps. The production is shared by some that definitely include talent but not a great deal of notoriety; people such M-Phazes, Lions Share Music Group, even Pharoah himself and the legendary Diamond D from the D.I.T.C. (Diggin’ In The Crates) Crew, put in work on the production board. Marco Polo also makes a production appearance. Overall, one of the best cd’s in recent years which let me know brothers are still out there with those inspirational and revolutionary thinking lyrics. Must also check out his latest cd P.TS.D., a concept album about a brother coming home from the Middle East with …PTSD.
“Death Certificate” by Ice Cube 1991
With this cd/album release you have Ice Cube’s 2nd solo album after leaving NWA and in my opinion his best complete body of work in 1 complete product. His “Kill At Will” EP was also lethal but Death Certificate was a complete album that covered many subject matters impacting America at the time …especially the world of African-Americans. Anyone that has followed Ice Cube throughout his career must recognize that he will go down as one of the best story tellers in American history. From the “Dopeman” hit off the Straight Outta Compton album to the “Are We There Yet?” or “Friday” movie series, we can assess that Ice Cube can assuredly paint a very vivid story in music and film. With his Death Certificate cd, he told us about “A Bird in The Hand” is better than 1 in the bush encouraging listeners in a round-about way to not give up and survive …even sometimes illegally. With “True to The Game” and “US,” Cube encouraged African-Americans to remain true to themselves and those they love along with taking a hard look at “Us” as a community and what we do to ourselves to cause strife and pain. Musically, the Boogiemen, Ice Cube, and more importantly his childhood friend Sir Jinx handled the production. The stories and mirror Cube placed in front of our community and America as a whole was priceless and forever implanted “Mr. Fuck the Police” to the psyche of American society.
“All For One” by Brand Nubian 1990
A blend of party, consciousness, and awareness, this cd presented hip-hop trying to educate the streets without them even knowing it. With tracks like “Slow Down” the hood had to look at the things they were doing in the streets to contribute to stereotypes and negative images within our community. “Who Can Get Busy Like This Man” found Grand Puba bragging on his sexual prowess but in a catchy, creative, and innovative way; “Feels So Good” represents a dance and party song with a good theme. The highlight of the cd in my personal opinion is the Wake Up (Reprise) with the thumping sample of “Sunshine” by Roy Ayers. Here Puba spews knowledge of the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths throughout the song in an effort to educate listeners with some truths, “Here’s some food for thought, many fought for the sport [boxing], and the Black Man still comes up short.” I always tell those close to me, that I want this to be the song they play at my funeral. This cd helped to shape and mold my thought process while attending college at Norfolk State University. With the “2nd Civil Rights Movement” as the late 80’s – early 90’s became known as, began to take shape, it was this cd at the center of my soul …along with a few other musical choices; and because of these factors I was jokingly dubbed “Puba-Farrakhan” by some because of my consciousness.
“Paid in Full” by Eric B. and Rakim 1987
What can I say about this album (out before cd’s hit the scene)? It is the ultimate classic in that Rakim changed the way people viewed mc’s in the game. With his Knowledge of Self or as with the Brand Nubians, the knowledge of the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths, Rakim cleverly constructs rhymes that had many a kid in the inner city rewinding the tape to really grasp what the god was saying. With production handled by Eric B. and Marley Marl, full of James Brown samples, this album is considered a classic in all circles. Whether it be the 7 MC theory …”I take 7 mc’s and put em in a line, I add 7 more brothers who think they can rhyme, it’ll take 7 more before I go for mine, and that’s 21 mc’s ate up at the same time,” or Rakim professing, “I’m god, g is the 7th letter made, reigning on rappers with no parade,” a person has to take notice of what this then 19 year old word master is saying. “I Ain’t No Joke” and “Move the Crowd” were the ultimate boasting tracks where Rakim made you listen and understand that he was taking the top mc crown and others needed to move out of his way. The ultimate argument of this era was who was the better Big Daddy Kane or Rakim, taking nothing from Kane – he is definitely one of the greats – but I was assuredly on the Rakim side. When I went to college and learned about the knowledge of the 5% Nation, his lyrics and prowess began to make more sense and truthfully validate Rakim as my favorite MC of all time ….HIS LYRICS WILL STAND THE TEST OF TIME!
****HONORABLE MENTION**** “Breaking Atoms” by Main Source 1991
Something new and fresh during an era when new acts began to roll out in large numbers, this cd presented a new producer that would have staying power and a song with a budding Queens MC who would have many a fan debating about one of the most controversial lines ever written. That MC was Nas, the song was “Live At the Barbecue” for which he was a guest along with other artists; and the line was about snuffing Jesus. …”verbal assassin, my architect pleases, when I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus,” the discussion was massive about this lyric; no one had said anything so clear, clever, and meaningful before in bragging about their mcing ability. Although an early appearance, some say his 1st appearance (debatable about 3rd Base’s Cactus Album) Nas was an MC that was here to stay. Not to overshadow the rest of the album which included classics like “A Friendly Game of Baseball” (also featured in the soundtrack for “Boyz in The Hood”) that discussed police brutality as a simile of baseball, is also important so the uniformed listener will not focus simply on the Nas featured track. “Peace is Not the Word” has the Large Professor rhyming about how the word Peace was thrown around so freely with no meaning during this era. “Just Hanging Out” and other tracks also brought highlights to the album, but it was “Looking At The Front Door” that displayed the lyrical talent of the Large Professor along with his production skills. In this song he cleverly tells a young lady how the stress she’s causing is forcing him to look at leaving her. “Your friends don’t understand your choice of man, they speak proper, while my speech is from a garbage can ….but regardless, you shouldn’t have to be so raw, I’m looking at the front door.” I must admit, I would often playfully rhyme this track to my then girlfriend and now wife in joking with her about early stress she might cause.
In conclusion, hip-hop has provided me with just as much knowledge, information, spark, and insight as my college education has. Whether my Bachelors in History or my pending Masters in Library Media Science, yeah library ….must collect the information to tell the story …they both fall in line with the street knowledge, family education, and “Hip-Hop Theory 101” that I was able to obtain through life. I am by far no expert on the culture of Hip Hop, however I do consider myself a professor of the culture and respecter of all of it’s elements – mcing, b-boying, breaking, graffiti, djing, and the unspoken knowledge of self. I look forward to the continuous and future fight to take it back to it’s original state/purpose and away from the commercialism that is destroying it and leaving it misunderstood.
Allen Young is high school social studies teacher, HBCU grad, Proud husband and father of 3, Hip Hop Enthusiast, avid reader, and sports fan.