The Perfect Beats: New York Electro Hip Hop and Underground Dance Classics 1980–85

Tommy Boy

At the onset of the era chronicled by The Perfect Beats, the mothership from the planet Funk hit New York City with a giant laser beam. It zapped a cheap-ass beatbox into every corner store and WKTU onto the air waves. The shit was mixed-up and crazy! Hip-hop didn’t know it wasn’t disco, but “dance music” was sure it wasn’t. Puerto Rican kids thought they were Shields and Yarnell. Keith Haring thought he was Grace Jones. Afrika Bambaataa quoted Shakespeare. Madonna dated Basquiat. Jewish NYU students invented rap labels in their dorm rooms. Lists of vowel sounds provided lyrical content. Fort Apache was the Bronx. Black kids took inspiration from German man-machines. Graffiti was art. White women from England sang like black men. There was a diet pill actually called AYDS. But everyone tried to act like nothing strange was going on. MTV was too busy breaking Adam and the Ants to notice.

Postmodernism being what it is, the cultural juggernaut of the early ’80s comes crashing back every day. The germs of everything on today’s charts, from Orlando hi-energy to hip-hop soul, can be gleaned from these tracks. To sample Sasha Frere-Jones, “Major labels cloned New York’s multitasking groove and used it to propel a generation of singles artists.” You can hear the origins of Paula Madonna Carey in jams as minor as Up front’s “Infatuation”; the Murk boys’ “Reach For Me” rips off ESG’s “Moody”; L.L. Cool J stole from Grandmaster Flash, who stole from Liquid Liquid. People might have dissed each other for biting, but the lawyers hadn’t gotten into the game yet—who could conceive of “Pack Jam” as intellectual property then? Nostalgia being even stronger than postmodernism, Perfect Beats’s re lease seems brilliantly timed for the 20-year style recycle. KTU is back on the air, and this month’s underground fad is called “electro.” Though it ar rived from outer space, nothing since has been as organic. Now the old guard has a comprehensive arsenal of CD-quality classics (with only passing nods to the mainstream) to pass to the next generation for higher-quality sampling. Think of it as a 401(k) plan for Arthur Baker.