A lawsuit pulled the rug from under New York and hasn’t found it’s identity since
Growing up, the only rap was rap from New York. The first rap records came out of New York and the style of dress and slang that accompanied it also came from New York.
Because of that, I was a New York rap snob for many years. Everything else was subpar. The scratching seemed off. The names of the rapper’s seemed corny. It just didn’t feel right.
But things have changed now. Now, when you listen to most rappers out of New York either they sound like a southern rapper or they sound like they are trying to recreate a bygone era.
In order to understand how this happened we have to look at the foundation of rap itself and how the subsequent industry developed and we have to juxtapose that with how the scenes grew in other regions, for this writing, we’ll use Los Angeles.
New York Rap (as it is known) or Hip-Hop was founded on that old boom bap; a music that finds it’s origins in combing classic songs for heavy percussive breaks — the moment in a song where the instruments drop out and the drummer ‘gets some,” or as musicians call it, “the pocket.”
From the time Kool Herc threw that first party for his sister back in ’73 and for the next 20 or so odd years, classic Hip-Hop was found in those vinyls and there were many ways to look for breaks. Of course damn near all things James Brown touched are foundation music with the 1969, “Give it Up Or Turnit A Loose,” being considered one of the first Hip-Hop songs before there was such a thing. Everyone should bow to Nate Jones, the drummer, for all of his great beats.
Of course there were many other songs (now known as breakbeats) and Google can help you there — we’re not trying to chronicle all of Hip-Hop history, we’re going somewhere. But suffice it to say, the youth of that time didn’t want the watered down music being fed to them over the radio. It was long before DJs emerged looking to find these breaks, preferably two records with the same song so they could extend that pocket five, sometimes ten minutes.
That part of the party — when the DJ played the b-beat — was when the dancers would go for theirs — dancing on that break — hence b-boys and b-girls. And that was Hip-Hop — for years, until eventually the DJ wanted the MC to say more words over those breaks; a little yes, yes, ya’ll, you don’t stop, rock on, to the break of dawn type business. Nothing major. But it advanced, and soon you have MCs beginning to make toasts like rhymes over these breaks.
(All of this is documented history in ways that I won’t discuss here. See: Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History Of Hip-hop’s First Decade or the classic: Hip Hop The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music, & Graffitti I’ve just provided quick background information. These books will at least earn you a Bachelor’s in Hip Hop)
If you don’t know the History of Rapper’s Delight, assuredly, it’s because you don’t care about that song, it’s significance, or where it fits in the pantheon of recorded music…so we won’t be hitting you over the head with it here. We will, however, talk about the music underneath the pedestrian rap of the Sugar Hill Gang.
June 4, 1979 a bomb was dropped on the radio. That bomb was Chic’s “Good Times.” I doubt that there’s a soul alive that can say that they don’t know that Bernard Edwards bass line. Monster hit; alongside McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” it was inescapable. When they coined the term, “summer song,” they meant, “Good Times.” Look it up in the dictionary.
What happened next would become the cornerstone of what recorded New York rap would sound like and consequently, the blueprint for West Coast rap well into the mid-90s. The mastermind — Sylvia Robinson.
Ms. Robinson, a musician in her own right, was highly observant, and obviously an astute business woman. Hearing rap everywhere around her New Jersey Studio via bootleg recordings of shows in Harlem and the Bronx, she realized that it needed to be recorded. Ms. Robinson’s introduction to Hip-Hop had come earlier that year (1979) for her birthday party at Harlem World. The Chief Rocker Busy Bee Starski had her enthralled. She asked if he would record for her.
Like many MCs after him, Busy Bee couldn’t see any use in doing that — he was already making what he considered ‘good money.’ Unable to get any credible New York MCs to record, she enlisted a trio of doppelgängers to do it. She wanted a hit. So what better way to do that than go cover band-ish and hire some musicians to replay THE anthem of the summer.
“Sylvia asked me to humor her and play this bass line for fifteen minutes. I said, “Sure!” I can remember there was a clock in the studio. I tried not to watch it, but couldn’t help it. Trying to stay connected and lock the tempo for fifteen minutes was a challenge, but we pulled it off, first take. Because there weren’t samplers in those days, it never crossed our minds what we were doing was special. Oddly, we never knew what it was being used for until after the session. I can remember Ms. Robinson telling us that she had three guys that were going to “talk real fast” over the track. They would rap. I remember almost saying, “Good luck with that!” Chip Shearin
This took place in September of 1979.
Of course, this whole activity of Ms. Robinson, piecing together a group, hiring a band and not telling them what their recording was going to be used for, not giving said musicians credit— and other shady actions are what Sugarhill Records would become infamous for. She wasn’t entirely dirty. Jiggs Chase’s Jigsaw Productions did get some credits. But Bobby Robinson (no relation) of Enjoy Records would take the other model and run with it — he took ALL the credits…but I digress.
Three months had barely passed and now “Good Times” took on a new life — it was now the backing track for “Rapper’s Delight” and “Rapper’s Delight” scorched the earth making the closed-knit, New York rap community realize recorded music was the way of the future.
I took the time to explain that for this reason — over the next three years, most of recorded Hip-Hop was made with a backing band, oftentimes recreating current hits like Treacherous Three swiping Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” in 1981 and calling it “Feel the Heartbeat.” (The band that laid down the music, Pumpkin and Friends, goes uncredited on the album and little can be found on them with a simple Google search — look up Errol Bedward, the man, dubbed ‘King of the Beats’ — yet another great contributer to Hip-Hop that’s truly unsung) or GrandMaster Flash and The Furious Five gaffling Freedom’s “Get up and Dance” and aptly naming it “Freedom.”
This was the modus operandi until the man, ever the visionary, Afrika Bambaataa revolutionized Hip-Hop music by incorporating a fairly new, hardly utilized piece of equipment — the drum machine.
…please don’t tell me you need me to recount that history.
Google will help you in that endeavor as well, we’re trying to get somewhere. “Planet Rock,” aside from creating one of the first sub-genre’s of Hip-Hop (and I might be the first to coin it, but I’m here for that) electro-rap which later would be the basis of the Miami Sound, the song, with it’s use of the drum machine, the TR-808, also made the backing band in recorded rap (in New York) obsolete.
‘82–83 would be the years of electro rap and “Planet Rock” sounding songs. Songs were either set in space or based around the popular dance at the time, ‘the smurf’ (based on, you guessed it, the cartoon). Even acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, rap pioneers, got in on the electro-rap act dropping, “Scorpio” (which I love).
I have to take this aside to acknowledge one of the most unsung producers of Hip-Hop without whom, who knows, rap would still be a local phenomenon like Go-Go is to D.C. but it was something about what this man did that appealed to a broader audience than all the music that proceeded him. That man is Larry Smith.
Perhaps now in his absence, one can find out more about him (please read: The Truimphs and Tragedies of Larry Smith), but rarely do I hear him mentioned in the category of ‘the greats.’ It seems obvious now — everyone was in outer space and otherworldly — so Mr. Smith brought us down to earth. With the use of the Oberheim DMX drum machine, He stripped away all the artifice that made electro-rap so popular, left a hard knocking beat, dropped Run DMC’s debut “Sucker MCs” (83) and Hip-Hop’s first Megastars were born.
(Suffice it to say that — the only rap during this time was New York rap. There may have been singles by people here and there throughout America but no real movements.)
Enter Los Angeles.
I took the time to coin my own sub-genre, electro-rap, because there is no better way to make a distinction between that sound — TR-808 heavy, 120 bpm, robot-like voiced vocals that merely repeated the song title and perhaps a few catch phrases — and rap proper: Planet Rock was rap proper, Egyptian Lover’s “Egypt Egypt” — electro rap, Twilight 22's “Electric Kingdom” — electro-rap.
(Just googled it — it’s a known sub-genre)
Los Angeles, while it may have had groups like the Ice-T led Rhyme Syndicate that did rap proper (Yes, Ice T’s “The Coldest Rap” (83) is rap proper and had Jimmy Jam on the keyboards and Terry Lewis on the bass…pay attention), the city was primarily a place of electro-rap. And while I’m no Los Angeles Hip-Hop scholar (I’m working on it but it’s not necessary for this piece), Toddy Tee’s 1985 “Batterram” may be one of the first songs escaping that electro-sound all together. “Batterram” originally started off as a home production, but blew up so quick that it was rerecorded with production done by Leon “I Wan’a Do Something Freaky to You” Haywood (there’s a pattern going on here…) Dr. Dre’s World Class Wreckin Cru was also making non-electro rap but that bordered more on R&B-rap than Toddy Tee’s beat driven epic.
Back on the East Coast, rap music was still dominated by the sound that Larry Smith introduced with Run-DMC — a spare sound dominated by the DMX produced kick and snare, a scratch or two, and maybe a bassline — a sound that producer Marley Marl hated. He began to use the beat machine — the TR 808 specifically for more than simple beats — Marley Marl used it to sample.
“See, I was into electronic music. I was into triggering bass lines and making it sequence — I was a sequence head. That’s how I beat people in hip-hop early because I was already sequencing. I already knew what a trigger was. I knew how to trigger anything off of anything. The whole “Bridge” — my song I made with MC Shan — all that was trigger music, triggering samples from a 808 with separate samplers around the room. The pulse from the 808 would go into my sampler and make it react. Once I made that discovery at Unique, guess what I did? I went right around the corner to Sam Ash, bought myself three little cheap samplers. I went home and started experimenting, taking all my drum sounds. Matter of fact, what I would do at that point, I went to my reel-to-reel. I would have leader, snare, leader. Leader, kick, leader. Hi-hat, leader. On the reel.” Marley Marl, NPR Microphone Check, September 12, 2013
You want me to write a novel? I didn’t think so. Again, to go into a blow by blow of sampling would take a 300 page book (if done correctly) — so we’re going to touch on a few things then move towards the whole point of this writing. I apologize I’ve kept you this long. But we’re almost there.
Remember how we mentioned James Brown as being the foundation for early Hip-Hop? Well, the hardest working man in show business returns to Hip-Hop in a major way once sampling starts. The years 1986–1988 are damn near the James Brown years. Producers sampled them Nate Jones’ drums, Maceo’s horns, and just pillaged the James Brown catalog. The Bomb Squad, producer’s of the rap group Public Enemy, were also on a James Brown kick — “Funky Drummer” anyone — but broke that up with “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”
It’s likely that you grew up in a time where this album has no relevance to you at all. But if you were a cognizant being during the summer of 1988, this meant the world to you. The Bomb Squad had previously experimented with sonics on “Rebel Without a Pause” using the aforementioned “Funky Drummer” in ways most would have never thought to. It was different; the lead-off single to “Nations,” “Bring the Noise,” was otherworldly different. This was an introduction to what Hank Shocklee called musical collages.
If “Nations” isn’t the magnum opus of what sampling could be, another Long Island group’s debut album can arguably be up for consideration. That album was De La Soul’s “Three Feet High and Rising.” Up until “Three Feet,” the furthest producers strayed from Black artist was maybe Bob James or a rock drum break. Prince Paul and De La sampled every and anybody from the Turtles to Funkadelic. It was the former, however, that would get them in trouble and change the trajectory of New York rap forever.
I can only imagine what Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were doing when they heard “Transmitting From Mars” in 1991…two years after “Three Feet” had came out… a one minute and twelve (1:12) second song that loops four bars of the The Turtles, “You Showed Me.” Volmon and Kaylan, two members of The Turtles also known as Flo & Eddie, somehow came to own the rights of Turtles recordings. Anyhow, perhaps they were hanging out together at a Bat Mitvah of one of their daughters when the DJ spun the De La song. At first they made nothing of it, because like most people at the time, they made nothing of rap music. One of them inquired who the song was made by, they laughed at the name and then asked, “Did they make any money from this crap?” Cut to them looking at Billboard magazine on a microfilm projector in a Pal0 Alto library.
These fools would go on to clean up to the tune of $1.7 million dollars for twelve seconds of a song. Has an easier $850,000 ever been made?
That set the precedence. Soon old, (mostly white) artist were coming out the woodwork to get their share — Biz Markie was hit next for using Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again” — and the feast began. Hank Shocklee breaks down how this feast was assembled in a May 2004 Stay Free! Magazine article saying, “all the publishers and their lawyers started making moves. One big one was Bridgeport, the publishing house that owns all the George Clinton stuff. Once all the little guys started realizing you can get paid from rappers if they use your sample, it prompted the record companies to start investigating because now the people that they publish are getting paid.”
New York producers would continue to make sample-heavy records for the next three years, working at ways to disguise the sample: filtering it, changing the pitch, etc. but ultimately, to make this kind of album became expensive…too expensive…and they had to find another way to work.
We could stop there — because in my opinion, that was the end of New York’s creativity. The basis by which the music was founded was swiped from underneath the feet of many record loving producer and crews with names like Beatminerz, Diggin’ In The Crates Crew, etc — had to find a new way to produce their sounds…or pay up.
Now — let’s take a look back over at what was going on in Los Angeles.
Although this may be a faulty way of measuring the scene of an entire city — allow me the latitude to enter in Exhibit A — the Colors Soundtrack. Here we have a movie that is about the gang violence that was sweeping Los Angeles (what could be more Cali than that?) and yet of the soundtrack’s ten songs only two of the artist or groups were from LA (and technically they were East Coast transplants…so there’s that), Ice T’s “Colors” was the only topical song on the album and nothing else even remotely dealt with LA culture. (Who produced this record?) This was April of 1988.
Bringing it On Home
Around the time that Public Enemy was shocking America with “Nations” a group from the city of Compton was revving up to take the West (and subsequently, most of America) by storm — that group was N.W.A. and the album they released that fall (of 1988) was “Straight Out of Compton.”
A little personal backstory. I can’t say exactly what month of my sophomore year in High School I heard the NWA and the Posse album — back then, a person’s headphones would rattle and any high noise would spill out and bring attention. This was often how music spread — a noise wouldn’t sound familiar and you would ask for a listen. It was either Leroy Grimes or Demond Shead that was bumping “Dope Man” (I’m leaning towards Demond) I inquired — a head nod and an outstretched hand was the universal gesture for musical inquiry — listened and immediately thought, “Trash.”
Eazy E’s voice was grating, the track bored me, and the subject matter was a far cry from the consciousness of a KRS or Public Enemy…but I was young and those songs became the neighborhood soundtrack — a soundtrack that I memorized, remarkably, because I didn’t own any of those cassettes, it wasn’t played on the radio, and I hated those songs.
We’re not going into all of the gangster rap talk and what not that people go into when they mention this album — it’s almost understood as far as this writer is concerned. But what can be said is this: Los Angeles and the West Coast was finally finding it’s voice. Up until then, like most places, Los Angeles developed along the lines of imitating New York….poorly, in my opinion. With “Straight Out of Compton,” content-wise, N.W.A (like Ice T before them) were speaking to their audience — the left coast. Sonically, however, that would take some years. The music on “Compton” and most releases in that era were still very similar to what was being released on the East Coast — perhaps with a little more funk influence, but still the music of someone like Compton’s King Tee, for example, was easily slid into a New York City playlist with nary a mention of him being from Cali.
Dr. Dre apologist would have my neck but to this writer’s memory (and support from the dates of album releases) the G-Funk sound — the sound that would transform the West Coast sonically very much in the way that Larry Smith’s sound had transformed New York eight years prior — came about upon the release of DJ Quik’s “Tonite.”
What was so different about this sound was that it wasn’t a straight sample — maybe to the ear at first it was, but it was too clean, and had changes that the original, Kleer’s “Tonight” didn’t have. It was years before I realized it — they were doing the same thing that Sugarhill did in the beginning — they were covering the song.
Listed in the credits of “Tonite” is a synth player Real Richie Rich (Richard Anthony an early Los Angeles rap pioneer of LA Dream Team fame) — one can discern what his roll is, there’s a whining synthesizer overtop the whole business that is the song’s signature but a song by song comparison shows that either Quik chopped out notes of the original song, filtered, and changed the pitch making the two unalike — or something else was at hand.
“Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” came out a year later in November of 1992 and G-Funk became easily identified as the West Coast sound.
Now, we will fast forward to the present — well, March of this year, 2015; the month that Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” would take flight and mesmerize most of the world.
“Butterfly” would be called, “groundbreaking,” “landmark,” “breathtaking.” I think they ran out of adjectives. Critics also salivated over what genre to call it, was it jazz, was it soul, what is it? While I found the album pleasurable, it didn’t seem too far off from what I came to expect from California production. Terrace Martin, a part of the production team responsible for the sound of “Butterfly” discounted most of the above in regards to genre. In a Revolt Interview, Martin states that the album isn’t jazz, rock, etc — that it it is just Black Music — music rooted in the traditions of gospel, blues, jazz, soul and funk.
While there may be a sample here and there, California rap has, for the past 24 years, been about the song — and when I say song I mean — music either recreated through live instrumentation (instead of a straight sample) or a band making an original song — not the cut and paste approach that was once the basis of Hip-Hop. The same can be said about Vincent Staples debut double album, or the highly anticipated Dr. Dre’s “Compton.” These albums don’t go far from what has become the convention of West Coast rap.
But what about New York?
When was the last time New York had a highly anticipated release? And what of the artist that are popular from the once capital of Hip-Hop? Most could be from anywhere geographically — there is no innovation music-wise with groups either sounding like retro-mid ‘90s Hip-Hop or an amalgamation of Drill and Trap music. Had New York rap turned back to the Jigsaw Productions, the Pumpkin and Friends, or any number of local musicians for instrumentation to accompany them, this might be a different story. Now New York and everyone else looks West for innovation. (and South but that’s another fifteen minute write up)
Los Angeles rap used to be a joke to New Yorkers; the Jheri curls, and simplistic raps never translated well. But now, I think it’s safe to say that pound for pound, Los Angeles is producing a wider variety of artist, has a more vibrant scene, is forward thinking, and most importantly — has their own identity. New York rap — the music that I grew up on will never exist again. Musicians that most people would have never heard of were it not for Hip Hop will see to it. So thank Bob James, thank Flo and Eddie of the Turtles, thank the countless others who stole and appropriated music to become famous — who, hypocritically now, feel it’s their right to sue anyone who uses their music. Thank them for ruining New York rap and making Los Angeles king. Westside!