The Legacy of Golden Age Hip-Hop


In 1990, hip-hop group Public Enemy released their third album, Fear of a Black Planet. The album contained everything that mainstream listeners expect when it comes to hip-hop: complex and addicting beats, layers of professional sampling, powerful lyricism, and, most of all, a transcultural aura for which it achieved mainstream commercial and critical success. Despite these achievements, the album’s significance does not sprout from its content, but the context from which it sprouted from: this album was nothing short of revolutionary. Just twenty years before this album, hip-hop was quite literally non-existent, and when it began to emerge, it was simply turntablism with banal lyrics, used to fuel block parties that emerged in the South Bronx of New York City in the early 1970s. So that begs the question: what happened in those 20 years? How did a genre invented from thin air begin to achieve mainstream success in only two decades? The Golden Age of Hip-Hop in the 1980s proved to be, without a doubt, one of the most monumental eras in music history, primarily due to the incredible wealth of creativity among its founders and participants and their ability to innovate both lyrically and rhythmically. It’s difficult to think of a genre which had more of a grassroots beginning than hip-hop. Hip-hop’s boom started in the mid-1970s, when the Bronx experienced a city-wide blackout. Looting became widespread, and many young African-American looters stole DJ equipment from electronics stores. This new access to music making, combined with the creativity of a generation, caused hip-hop to explode as more than simply a party genre. Grandmaster Flash is widely regarded as one of the primary founders of hip-hop experimentalism, primarily for his track “The Message”. This track marked the beginning of socially conscious hip-hop, an attribute that would carry into hardcore and gang rap in the 1990s. It is hard to overplay this track’s importance: the year is 1982, and party tracks dominate hip-hop culture, with street parties ruining neighborhoods and the culture itself. This song decided to tackle the notion of block parties, marking both the beginning of conscious lyricism and a symbolic ending to block parties as a whole.

Hip-hop also became notorious for its use of sampling, or taking sound bits from other songs, remixing them, and reusing them as a beat to rap over.  It is a staple to today’s conception of the genre; Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 release To Pimp a Butterfly contains samples of over 20 different artists, but this doesn’t even compare to DJ Premier, who has sampled over 1,458 tracks. The Beastie Boys’ debut album, Licensed to Ill, popularized layering samples and creating complex beats from simple melodies and rhythms; for example, listening to the track “Rhymin & Stealin”, one can hear Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” and just a touch of the Clash’s cover of “I Fought the Law.” This album demonstrated the creative power that came with recycling and tinkering with songs of the past, along with the importance of reimagining that which exists, one of the key ideas of hip-hop as a genre.

Despite the fact that social consciousness was becoming an increasingly popular subject among artists, their delivery was often awkward and clunky. This vastly differs from today’s lyricism, which contains internal rhymes, combinations of consonance and assonance, and more clearly demonstrates a stronger feel for the English language; in other words, it flows. It’s arguable that this quality didn’t simply evolve over time, but can be traced back to one man: Rakim, popularly known from rap duo Eric B. & Rakim. With respect to their innovations, Grandmaster Flash and the Beastie Boys simply sparked the flames while other artists kindled the fire; Rakim, on the other hand, single-handedly burned the old lyrical style to the ground. Their debut album, Paid in Full, was years ahead of its time; compare opening track “I Ain’t No Joke” to another song released in the same year, Ice-T’s “6‘n The Mornin’”; compare Rakim’s lyrics (“I ain’t no joke, I used to let the mic smoke/Now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke…Another enemy, not even a friend of me/Cause you’ll get fried in the end if you pretend to be”), to Ice-T’s (“6’n the mornin’ police at my door/Fresh Adidas squerk across the bathroom floor/Out the back window I make an escape/Don’t even get a change to grab my old school tape.”) The difference was astounding and beyond monumental; aspiring hip-hop artists quickly adopted the new style, and in no time it was the status quo when it came to lyricism.

Hip-hop’s roots are grounded in the ideas of free thought and expression, and in its youthful age, it has grown to be one of the leading popular genres in music today. Hip-hop as we know it today has been heavily influenced by a group of folks in the 1980s whose primary goals were to have fun and experiment with music. And who knows what the future holds: the internet has made it possible for youth all over the world to experiment with their own styles and genres; just maybe we’ll enter another golden age of music.

image source: Kevin Andre Elliott