Hip-hop sometimes sounds like a once future culture hung up on its past. Welcome back Izod Lacoste pastels and skinny jeans, cocaine binges and nuclear fears. But what once appeared effortless now seems premeditated. Missy’s Cybotron and Fergie’s Sexual
Harrassment samples are noise as capital, a guarantee against future earnings. Atlanta’s “snap” and “trap” allude to mid-’80s New York minimalism and late-’80s Los Angeles brutalism. These are noise-as-mask strategies, invoking battles already won to armor artists for the war ahead. What becomes pop in America must return as nostalgia and prophecy.
Yet the consensus around a “Golden Age of Hip-Hop”—a time when Reaganomics, Cold War foreign policy, real and representational apartheid, and the culture war provided a clear set of enemies—is counterproductive. Any hip-hop narrative beginning there maps a decline from aesthetic and political engagement to complete submission to the Matrix. The new golden age that escapists seek is, per Jamel Shabazz, a time before crack.
A fine new two-CD compilation lovingly curated and annotated by Swedish transplant Johan Kugelberg captures what happened after the unexpected success of “Rapper’s Delight.” The breadth of Big Apple Rappin’: The Early Days of Hip-Hop Culture in New York City, 1979–1982 should inspire. Brother D & the Collective Effort’s “How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise?” is a pre-“Message” reality rap bridging Pedro Pietro to Cheryl Lynn. There are key early club hits from the Cold Crush Brothers, T-Ski Valley, and the Masterdon Committee, and lost classics from Spoonie Gee, the Super 3, and T.J. Swann. It feels almost inevitable that casual geniuses like Spyder-D, photographer Joe Conzo, and flyer designer Buddy Esquire will change New York City and the world.
Of course, they didn’t. Hip-hop needed to lose its bodega quirkiness, gain a little chain-store accessibility to go pop. These early singles already sounded nostalgic—for 1977, the real peak of the old school, before most people thought it was a good idea to press Record. But the act of putting it on wax turbocharged the movement. By 1982, Wheels of Steel Futurism wasn’t just the zeitgeist. It was a survival strategy turned content generator and killer app.
Released the same year as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” was a tropic utopia of eclecticism and optimism. Global pop pioneer Tom Silverman embraced the Black electro, Latin freestyle, and British house collected on The Tommy Boy Story, Vol. 1. Information Society’s “Running” is now a staple of Rio’s Funk Carioca. Club Nouveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad” reveals the roots of the Bay Area’s hyphy scene. Before the end of the year, expect some of the less celebrated tracks here—maybe Jonzun Crew’s explosive “Pack Jam”—to show up on a hit or two.
Silverman aspired to reach the Black urban teen male. But the Celluloid label, formed by French journalist Bernard Zekri and business partner Jean Karacos with producer Bill Laswell and art-designed by Futura 2000, seemed tailor-made for hip-hop scholars. The Celluloid Years compilation combines thin, misleading notes with two CDs of dissertation-worthy singles. Except for “World Destruction,” the thunderous no-nuke summit between Bambaataa and John Lydon, and “Wildstyle,” the purest groove record Bam ever made, little here is likely to set off spasms of B-boying or slam-dancing. The action is mostly synaptic. And that’s enough.
Laswell was hell-bent on demonstrating the possibilities of hip-hop’s radical Afrodiasporic syncretism. He tied hip-hop to the Last Poets, Manu Dibango, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and Jimi Hendrix. He recorded Fab 5 Freddy with B-Side, Futura 2000 with the Clash, and championed the great unsung turntablist Grandmixer D.ST . On D.St.’s 1985 single “Home of Hip-Hop,” in a sharp critique that will resonate with today’s purists and aging hip-hop generationers, the Bronx-born Infinity Rappers decried greedy capitalists who exploited the culture and erased the originators. They sound like seers. “People despise it like it’s terror,” they rapped. “Today and tomorrow is the hip-hop era.”