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THE '80S: HIP-HOP'S ANSWER

Between 1979-82, Jersey-based WHBI-FM was the only non-college NYC-area station to program hip-hop regularly. With their highly interactive call-in audience, John “Mr. Magic” Rivas and DJ/producer “Marley Marl” Williams found a way for rap to enhance Frankie Crocker’s Urban Contemporary format. In 1982 they brought their Rap Attack show to WBLS. That same year, another hip-hop DJ, Zulu Nation member Red Alert, was hired by WRKS. A healthy rivalry ensued.

Everybody got airtime: Russell Simmons’s Rush Management stable; the Cold Chillin’ and Boogie Down Production crews; the Zulu Nation posse; Teddy Riley’s early hit productions for Kool Moe Dee and Doug E. Fresh. The foundation was being built for the proliferation of rap/soul hybrids that came to dominate the ’90s.

Movies like Wild Style (’81), BeatStreet (’84), Breakin’ (’84) and Krush Groove (’85), meanwhile, helped spread global awareness of hip-hop and spawned regional fandoms nationwide.

But despite the crossover success of singles like Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” or unexpected rock-rap hits like Blondie’s “Rapture,” rap still hadn’t had its breakthrough—these occasional rap hits were still largely viewed as novelties by the mainstream.

Interestingly, it was the tiny white-owned Select label and their release of the Full Force-produced “Roxanne, Roxanne” by rap group U.T.F.O. that would change this perception.

After Mr. Magic began airing the song—a tale of group members unsuccessfully hitting on the same girl—14-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden (aka Roxanne Shanté ) convinced Marley Marl to record her dismissive, proto-feminist response in his tiny home studio. He played the resulting raw cassette tape (titled “Roxanne’s Revenge”) on the air, and the phones lit up. More “answer records” elaborated on the tale. Listener requests exploded.

Stations that didn’t normally program rap were forced to play more of it. Ultimately, it was sassy humor that saved rap, a strategy that rapper Heavy D (and also Miami Bass mogul Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew) would use to great advantage.

Meanwhile, manager/promoters like Russell Simmons and Charles Stettler worked on refining the live presentation of hip-hop by organizing the multi-artist Swatch Watch-sponsored New York City Fresh Fest concerts of 1984-85. Nothing much had changed in the presentation of R&B concerts for decades, so there was room to experiment.

Until 1984, Simmons had been content placing his artists on any label that would take them, but after his kid brother’s group, Run-D.M.C., went gold on the indie label Profile, Simmons decided to partner with white DJ/producer Rick Rubin to launch a label of his own.

The first artists released on the Def Jam label included the punk-rock band Hose, followed by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. Simmons knew from experience that black music in the 1980s was steered by the eclectic tastes of club and radio DJs, and prior to its distribution deal with CBS Records in 1985, Def Jam’s signings were equally diverse.

But once he had major-label backing, Simmons set about to brand Def Jam more narrowly as a rap-focused label, so that promotion execs at the parent company could more easily understand and support it. LL Cool J’s records they understood as black music, but a white punk-rap group called the Beastie Boys? Run-D.M.C., who already combined rap and punk elements in their music, created a black audience for the Beastie Boys by bringing them on tour, giving the Beasties street cred that lasted long after they left Def Jam for Capitol.

 

 

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