The Rise of Socially Conscious<br> Hip-Hop Music

The Rise of Socially Conscious
Hip-Hop Music

By the end of 1979 there were no less than a dozen rap recordings on the market. Records by artists such as The Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, Spoonie Gee, The Sequence, The Winley Sisters and The Funky 4 + 1 were sonically based on the disco and funk beats that still dominated Black music. The subject matter of these records was born from the same spirit as disco band Chic’s hit "Good Times," the summer anthem of 1979. Just as Chic celebrated clams on the half shell, roller skates and a new mindset for a new decade; the practitioners of this new music genre celebrated the excesses of materialism- cars, women, money and even color televisions. Sexual prowess also played a huge part in the subject matter of this primarily male-dominated new form of urban expression. Braggadocio regarding one’s rap skills played a major part in every one of the first rap recordings.

At the end of 1979 Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 released a record called "Superappin’" on Bobby Robinson’s Enjoy! Records. Clocking in at over 12 minutes, this opus showcased the Bronx crew who literally made 5 emcees sound like one, by splitting words between each other, sharing phrases, harmonizing, and crafting solo verses for each emcee. Tales of women, cars and rhyme skills filled the verses so masterfully crafted; but the last verse was totally different than the rest of the song. Melle Mel preached: “a child is born with no state of mind, blind to the ways of mankind, God is smilin’ on you but he’s frownin’ too because only God knows what you’ll go through”. The verse which literally prophesized the crack era and many other urban aspects of the upcoming decade would lay dormant as a great and largely unnoticed verse at the end of a great song that was drowned out by the gargantuan footprint of the Sugar Hill Gang’s "Rappers Delight."

In 1980, four rap recordings would boldly break the then cookie-cutter format and approach to writing a rap song. The first record was called "How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise?" by Brother D with Collective Effort. According to Steven Hager in his 1984 book Hip-Hop: The Illustrated History Of Break Dancing, Rap Music And Graffiti, Brother D aka Daryl Nubyahn was a school teacher in the South Bronx and a member of the New York Family of Black Science – a revolutionary organization dedicated to uplifting Black people in America. While teaching his students, Nubyahn noticed that many of the students were rapping, and emulating popular rappers, but there was no message in the music. Nubyahn stated “people are materially-centered and when something flashes on the television, they have to go get it. The rappers soup themselves up talking about big cars and women”. Brother D recorded “Black Nation” on Clappers Records. Over Cheryl Lynn's "Got To Be Real," D spat on the hook “you can dibby dibby dive and so-socialize, but how we gonna make the black nation rise”? D further warned: “The Ku Klux Klan is on the loose, training their kids in machine gun use”. The song was powerful but deemed too political and militant for radio and it was drowned out as well by Sylvia Robinson’s (no relation to Bobby Robinson) growing stable of Sugar Hill Records artists.

 

"The sky was cryin, rain and hail/ When you put yo' baby in the garbage pail/Then you kissed the kid and put down the lid/And you tried to forget what you just did/The muffled screams of a dyin baby/Was enough to drive the young mother crazy/So she ran in the rain tryin to ease the pain/And she drove herself insane..." - Melle Mel ("New York, New York")

Credited as the first rap artist to sign with a major label (Mercury/Polygram), Kurtis Blow released his full-length debut album in September of 1980. The album contained 2 songs penned by Blow’s childhood friend William Waring. "Throughout Your Years" and "Hard Times" were not nearly as political or militant as "...Black Nation," and the content was not as dark as Mel’s last verse of "Superappin,'" but his songs spoke to the social landscape of the time. Waring says that the motivation for "Throughout Your Years" was the fact that he’d grown tired of the repetitive content and uniform approach to writing rhymes.

"Hard Times" has the distinction of being rap music’s first remake; appearing on Run DMC’s second single "Hard Times/Jam Master Jay" in 1984 and on their self-titled debut album later that same year. “I wrote that during the Jimmy Carter and early (Ronald) Reagan years. People in the inner cities were really struggling and there wasn’t a lot of money available. I was inspired to write that by Marvin Gaye’s "Inner City Blues" and by Curtis Mayfield. I even used [Mayfield’s] term 'future shock' on 'Hard Times.'"

Waring, a respected emcee in his own right known as Billy Bill, says that his writing was so prolific that he was approached by Sylvia Robinson at the legendary Disco Fever nightclub in the Bronx and offered $50,000 to become an exclusive writer with Sugar Hill Records. Out of loyalty to his friend, Waring stayed with Kurtis, later penning "Basketball" and "8 Million Stories," two of Blow’s biggest songs.

The Harlem World Crew released a song in 1980 on Tayster Records called "Rappers Convention" and there aren’t many songs of any genre that serve as a more definitive marker for the times than this release. The late Andre Harrell’s partner in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Alonzo Brown says a rhyme that addresses the increasing price of gasoline, the Carter presidency, the Iran hostage situation, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. These rhymes were sandwiched between the kind of braggadocio that William Waring had grown tired of, but they were profound and well-executed.


In early 1982, Sugar Hill Records house band percussionist Ed Fletcher aka Duke Bootee was playing around with a lyric: “its like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under."

The lyric caught the attention of Sugar Hill founder and CEO Sylvia Robinson and she insisted that Fletcher complete the song, in hopes of giving it to one of the groups on her then-burgeoning label. To Sylvia’s dismay, no one wanted to record the song, saying that it was too dark, slow and depressing. Ultimately only Melle Mel agreed to record the song, trading the Fletcher-penned verses with the writer himself. Something was missing. Sylvia suggested that Mel add his rhymes from the end of "Superappin’" and the song that forever changed the genre was born.

"The Message," a 7-minute dissertation on the state of Ronald Reagan’s 1982 urban America, was an instant hit that has become a permanent part of popular culture. "The Message" been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, The Library of Congress Archives and is largely responsible for Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5’s inclusion in the prestigious Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Robert Hilburn of The Los Angeles Times called "The Message" the “most noteworthy single of 1982 – a brilliantly compact chronicle of the tension and despair of ghetto life”. The critical and commercial success of "The Message" proved that social commentary in rap music would not only be accepted by the masses, but it could also sell.

"The Message" is the record that is credited with influencing a generation of emcees and giving birth to a movement that would change the direction of the genre even further just a few years after the song was released. "The Message" would ultimately lead to a solo career for Melle Mel, simultaneously adding Grandmaster to his title. Songs like "Beat Street Breakdown," "New York New York" and "White Lines" would not only cement Mele Mel as the torchbearer for conscious rap, but it would also further establish him as one of the genre's greatest, long before such declarations were thrown around casually. The vivid imagery that Mel created in "Beat Street Breakdown" (also performed in the motion picture Beat Street) inspired legions of emcees to speak about their neighborhoods and later, the world. In the early 1980s future superproducers and former Time members Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis found themselves producing funk-laced rap tracks for L.A.-based Saturn records after being fired by Prince for producing artists outside of his camp. In addition to early Ice-T recordings, Jam & Lewis produced "Bad Times (I Can’t Stand It)" for Larry Glenn, performing as Captain Rapp. With a catchy hook sung by Kimberly Ball, "Bad Times" was West Coast-specific at the time with its tales of gangbanging, but universal in its discussion of unemployment, inflation, abortion, terrorism and AIDS -- an epidemic which was still only two years old. Even though the song was a cautionary tale, it became a dancefloor favorite with a musical backdrop that could have easily fit on a Janet Jackson album, which Jam and Lewis would later produce to enormous critical and commercial acclaim.

"The peoples in terror, the leaders made a error/And now they can't even look in the mirror/Cause we gotta suffer while things get rougher/And that's the reason why we got to get tougher/So learn from the past and work for the future/And don't be a slave to no computer/Cause the children of Man inherit the land/And the future of the world is in your hands" - Melle Mel ("Beat Street Breakdown")

Three years after "Beat Street Breakdown," a group representing Roosevelt, Long Island called Public Enemy entered the ears and psyche of Hip-Hop nation. Formed out of Spectrum City – a mobile D.J. Crew on the island – Public Enemy’s stated purpose was to raise 5000 potential Black leaders based on Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s philosophy that Black Americans should seek leadership from within and be leaders themselves. Public Enemy was militant in sound and visual and was social consciousness on steroids. Entering right at the beginning of what is affectionately known as the "Golden Era" of rap music, P.E.  burst through the doors with Eric B & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Ice T, Poor Righteous Teachers, KRS-One, King Sun, and later, 2Pac, X Clan, YZ, Lakim Shabazz, Paris and dozens of other artists who were taking Black nationalist teachings and speeches by Malcolm X and Khalid Muhammad and injecting them directly into the music.

Chuck D of Public Enemy would famously declare that rap music was "Black peoples' CNN." For almost four decades, rap music has spoken directly to both the ills and victories of the communities that its griots come from. In its most embryonic form it was The Last Poets, Gil-Scott Heron and The Watts Prophets reporting live from the front lines. In it’s current form artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Rapsody, Sa-Roc and J Cole exist because they stand on the shoulders of artists and largely-independent record labels who went against the grain before most of those artists were even born - bravely, unknowingly and literally changing the game.

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