Hip Hop Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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It Takes A Nation of Millions

Public Enemy

Public Enemy showed it was possible to wring revolution from two turntables and a microphone. And, oh yeah, a boatload of samples, too. The New York collective, built around rapper Chuck D and his idiot-savant comic foil Flavor Flav, brought social commentary to street rhyming, which had been mostly apolitical. That was one revolution. Then, the rappers and the producers who called themselves the Bomb Squad developed a completely original means of conveying those ideas. Starting with a massive menu of siren squalls and stray audio artifacts, they pumped up basic beats into a terrifying and unprecedented noise assault. While Chuck D, who once described hip-hop as “black America’s CNN,” was dispensing blunt and incisive attacks on hypocrisy, the Bomb Squad did whatever it took to make his words nuclear—often surrounding him with dense, nearly indecipherable torrents of sound.

Hank Shocklee, the founder of the Bomb Squad, told Musician magazine that creating this accompaniment was, in the pre–computer music age, incredibly time-consuming: He and his cohorts would put together short rhythm loops from various sources, and then juxtapose them. “You’ll hear three different kick drums, three snares, three high hats, and each has its own time frequency.” Atop those beat constructions the Bomb Squad added layers of staticky noise. More than once during the making of this album, the group’s equipment crashed, sending the entire production, which could involve sixty or seventy tiny slivers of audio, back to the drawing board.

It Takes a Nation features Chuck D fulminating (in the stentorian baritone he patterned after sportscaster Marv Albert) about conditions in urban America, and what he sees as veiled racist double-talk. And then it flips the script, on tracks that catch him and Flavor Flav riffing like a comedy team, softening the bitter missives with irreverent playground taunts. The blend of tactics—on this and the equally intense Fear of a Black Planet—is the miracle of Public Enemy. Though they see themselves as messengers, they love hip-hop too much to reduce everything to a lecture.

GENRE: Hip-Hop.
RELEASED: 1988, Def Jam.
KEY TRACKS: “Bring the Noise,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.”

Paul’s Boutique

The Beastie Boys

Chuck D of Public Enemy once said that after this album appeared in 1989, the unspoken consensus among the hip-hop elite was that the Beastie Boys, a trio of white rappers from Brooklyn, “had better beats” than just about anyone in the game.

To be sure, the rhythm beds of this record are astounding. Rather than punching out a simple beatbox rhythm or rejiggering sampled phrases, Beasties Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, Michael “Mike D” Diamond, and Adam “MCA” Yauch, along with the production team known as the Dust Brothers, break things down to an almost cellular level. On some tunes, each individual drum tone is drawn from a different source. Then, the group crams tons of information where the beats would ordinarily go, and drops in more sampled exclamations to punctuate the lyrics or provide ironic running commentary. Consider “Shake Your Rump”: A sizzling bit of high-energy funk, its drum tones are derived from recordings by the Sugar Hill Gang, Bob Marley (“Could You Be Loved”), jazz drummer Paul Humphrey, and a disco track by Harvey Scales called “Dancing Room Only,” not to forget one of the memorable drum fills, which comes from Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times.” The vocal interjections are culled from a similarly lengthy list that includes hip-hop’s favorite patron saint, James Brown.

These painstakingly assembled samples set Paul’s Boutique apart from just about everything else in popular music. They also hail from the very end of what might be called the “free” era of hip-hop: The Beasties used most of the material without permission from the original creators. Less than two years after this release, a landmark lawsuit changed common hip-hop practice about samples, making it prohibitively expensive to reference other recordings in the collage style heard here.

Paul’s Boutique is notable for other reasons. It documents the Beastie Boys’ substantial evolution as lyricists: Once known for chuckleheaded enthusiasms—their first hit was “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!),” and their debut, Licensed to Ill, was dismissed in some quarters as “frat-rap”—the trio became a machine-gunning quip dispenser, flattening rivals with wisecracks while shouting down all sorts of biases and double standards. A vivid diatribe, “Egg Man” encapsulates a bit of stereotype-busting Beastie ideology: “You made the mistake, you judged a man by his race, you go through life with egg on your face.”

GENRE: Hip-Hop.
RELEASED: 1989, Capitol.
KEY TRACKS: “Shake Your Rump,” “Hey Ladies,” “Egg Man,” “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun.”

Three Years, Five Months, and Two Days in the Life of . . .

Arrested Development

The title refers to the amount of time it took the idealistic Atlanta hip-hop group Arrested Development to find a record label willing to issue this, its first effort. That there were few executives who believed in the group’s life-affirming, socially aware messages is dismaying, especially considering this hit their desks before gangsta rap broke big. Even more incredible is the way rapper Speech and his counterparts handled the rejection: They pressed on, taking in feedback but retaining the basic ideology. Before anybody else did, they believed in this music.

The group’s persistence was rewarded: On the strength of its searching single “Tennessee” and several follow-ups, Arrested Development became a sensation. The album sold over four million copies and brought the group two Grammys including, in a first for hip-hop, Best New Artist.

It’s easy to hear why Arrested Development clicked—Three Years is the giddy utopianism of early Sly and the Family Stone grafted onto a hip-hop rhythmic frame. Many of the tracks aim to galvanize through messages of self-reliance and responsibility, with grabby chanted choruses reinforcing the slogans. Some talk of empowerment (“Give a Man a Fish”), while several of the medium-tempo tracks directly discuss race and faith, invoking Sly’s positivity more directly—“People Everyday” is a flip update of the 1969 hit “Everyday People.” Other alternative-minded rappers before and after Arrested Development (especially A Tribe Called Quest) offer more intricate musical foundations, and weightier messages. But these stirring and exuberant tracks endure: Cue this up whenever you need to be reminded that in hip-hop, inner strength can matter just as much as blustery street bravado.

GENRE: Hip-Hop.
RELEASED: 1992, Chrysalis.
KEY TRACKS: “Mama’s Always on Stage,” “Tennessee,” “Fishin’ 4 Religion.”