This batch of songs represents just a portion of our gigantic Black Music Month playlist, but it offers at least one song from each year of a pivotal decade for hip-hop, and documents the evolution of that genre, among others. Naturally, it's best enjoyed on a boombox.

Zapp, “More Bounce to the Ounce” (Warner Bros. Records, 1980)
Zapp’s funky style was being dutifully mentored by Parliament-Funkadelic members Bootsy Collins and George Clinton, but it was frontman Roger Troutman’s trademark vocoder box that ultimately set them apart as a group. The Ohio-bred Troutman brothers (Roger, Lester, Larry and Tony) were tight with Bootsy and big brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins, resulting in the P-Funk family connection. But it was Clinton who encouraged the band to present the demo for “More Bounce” to Warner, which inked the band in early 1979. “Bounce” was the opening track and lead single of their debut album, peaking at #2 on the R&B chart and Top 20 on the Dance chart in 1980. It would prove considerably more durable on club playlists and, more than a decade later, as one of the foundational beats for West Coast “G-Funk” hip-hop.

Luther Vandross, “Never Too Much” (Epic Records, 1981)
For many years before he stepped into the spotlight, Luther was an accomplished background and jingle vocalist; singer Roberta Flack encouraged him to pursue a solo career. Inspired, Luther wrote and recorded the demo for this fleet, percolating love letter, and one other. After some shine via a few hits as a guest vocalist for the group Change, Luther took his demos to Epic Records, and was signed on the spot to write and record his debut album. “Never Too Much” hit #1 on the R&B charts and Top 5 on the Dance chart in 1981 and powered his debut album to sell more than 2m copies.

Grandmaster Flash, “The Message” (Sugar Hill Records, 1982)
“Rats in the front room, roaches in the back/Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat…” This seminal joint was a stunning departure from the block-party, throw-your-hands-in-the-air vibe of first-wave hip-hop, bringing a grim verisimilitude to the mic. “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under,” goes the refrain, neatly summing up ghetto life in the age of Reagan and schooling the doubters that the burgeoning form could be powerful art. Critics raved, and a raft of incendiary, politicized hip-hop artists—including but not limited to Public Enemy, KRS-One and N.W.A.—would carry the track’s torch forward.

The backstory to this rap classic is a master class in diligent record-company A&R. Sugar Hill staff songwriter Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher wrote the original demo, influenced by the slower, funkier cadence of Zapp and Tom Tom Club. He brought it to label boss Sylvia Robinson, but she couldn’t convince Flash and his Furious Five to record it—in fact, the group clowned the song at first. So Robinson improvised, and got the group’s rapper Melle Mel to record it, trading verses with writer Fletcher. By the time Flash came around asking to be a part of the song, Sylvia refused. Yet the ultimate legacy of the track is its brutally truthful content. “The Message,” more than any other single cut, expanded the concept of the MC beyond mere playful party host or witty wordsmith—suddenly, the wielder of the mic could be a community thought leader and a resonant voice for change.

George Clinton, “Atomic Dog” (Capitol Records, 1982)

It was no secret that the progenitor of P-Funk loved to make music while tripping on acid, and during the creation of this 1982 smash hit, he was, he’d later recall, “blind as a bat and out of my head.” Perhaps that’s how he was able to so cleverly channel the primal sexual urges of men into “a story of a famous dog.” Aided by collaborators like musical director/axeman Garry Shider and keyboardist David Spradley, Clinton wove that inspiration into a riotous funk classic with the canine refrain, “Bow-wow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yay.” His “Dog” collared the #1 spot on the R&B chart and stayed for four weeks, even knocking out Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in the process, but never hit the pop chart. The irresistibly randy electro-jam’s legacy extends throughout the hip-hop genre, but it was perhaps most notably used by producer Dr. Dre, in a stroke of interpolation brilliance, on “What’s My Name,” the debut single from his protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Run-D.M.C., “It’s Like That”/“Sucker MCs” (Profile Records, 1983)
The influence of Run-D.M.C. on the entire genre of hip-hop cannot be overstated; they were a defining force in both the sonic and lyrical progressions of rap and the mainstream acceptance of the new art form. These two songs, first released on 12-inch and cassette before being collected on the group’s debut set the following year, were both strongly influential.

The stark, stomping beat for the A-side contained no samples, and was banged out on an Oberheim DMX synthesizer in a minimalist style that set it apart from the pack. The track was co-penned by founders Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels when they were still in their teens. Run said he came up with the idea after his brother Russell, then Kurtis Blow’s manager, suggested he tell accessible stories in his raps to widen their appeal. “It’s Like That” kept it real about the struggle of life growing up in Hollis, Queens, and beyond—taking on poverty, unemployment and war, and adding a no-nonsense message about taking your destiny into your own hands. Russell was so impressed with the song he agreed to work with the group, but wouldn’t let them record until they graduated high school. After teaming up with DJ Jam Master Jay, RUN-D.M.C. recorded with Russell’s Rush Productions with assistance from musical director Larry Smith. It went on to become a Top 15 hit on the R&B chart in 1983.

“Sucker MCs” was initially built on a “bonus beat” referred to as “Krush-Groove 1” (having been furnished by Smith’s pioneering rap-rock group—and early Def Jam act—Orange Krush) and ultimately emerged as the more influential of the two cuts. The first true “diss record,” its takedown of would-be rappers “Tryin’ to rap but you can’t get down/You don’t even know your English, your verb or noun” launched a million rap battles and marked the start of hip-hop’s “new school” almost singlehandedly.

Prince and the Revolution, “Purple Rain” (Warner Bros. Records, 1984)
This signature power ballad prodigiously fuses rock, pop, R&B and gospel influences, culminating in one of the most exhilarating guitar solos ever recorded—and this was recorded live during a benefit show, at First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis on August 3, 1983. The title track of Prince’s monumental 1984 album of the same name (and the soundtrack to his debut motion picture) peaked at #2 at Pop, but it won Prince an Oscar for Best Original Song Score. It’s since become one of the most celebrated songs of the modern era; Rolling Stone ranked it number 144 on their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, Pitchfork named it the very best song of the 1980s and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lists it as one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock N Roll.” When Prince performed a stellar rendition during Super Bowl XLI’s halftime show in 2007, an actual downpour began in the stadium, further cementing the iconic status of both artist and song.  It was also the last number he ever performed live, wrapping up his show in Atlanta on April 14, 2016—just one week before he left us.

Doug E. Fresh, “The Show/La Di Da Di” (Reality Records, 1985)
Harlem native Doug E. Fresh, known the world over as the “Human Beat Box,” learned it all through careful study emulating instruments, while in music programs at Charles Evans Hughes High School in NYC. Fresh was known for impromptu lunchroom performances in high school, impressing classmate DJ Chill Will with his peculiar talents. The two teamed up and began collaborating on a mixtape hustle out of Will’s bedroom studio, selling the tapes for $25 each. With the addition of Get Fresh Crew members DJ Barry B and eye-patch-wearing Brit Slick Rick, the group’s distinctive flow powered some extremely lit live performances—and was quintessentially captured in the two-sided single “The Show”/“La Di Da Di” in 1985. Both songs became hits and catapulted the group into global success. “The Show” spent 21 weeks on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts and peaked at #4. Its more whimsical legacy however, is the enduring trend of rappers breaking into off-key song.

LL Cool J, “Rock the Bells” Def Jam Records (1985)
“Bells” was the third single from LL Cool J’s debut album, Radio, the first full-length album release by the Def Jam imprint—which had evolved from Def Jam Productions after Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons tapped LL as the label’s flagship artist. The track was produced and co-written by Rubin, who inserted the heavy-metal guitar stabs and DJ Cut Creator’s turntable scratches from an AC/DC song. The title came from an expression LL used to hear around the way in his neighborhood—one that’s since become synonymous with old-school rap. In 2004, the first Rock the Bells festival took place in San Bernardino, Ca.; it rang out annually until 2013 (and inspired a 2006 documentary).  In 2018, LL filed suit against the long-dormant festival for trademark-infringement, after he launched his classic hip-hop channel with the same name on SiriusXM.

Cameo, “Word Up” (Atlanta Artists/Mercury/Polygram Records 1986)
New York’s Cameo evolved from straight-up, horn-driven ’70s funk to a New Wave, synthesizer-driven sound that was au courant in the ’80s. This more electronic vibe was still thoroughly funky—and incorporated elements of the emerging hip-hop genre (and, on this indelible track, even a wink to Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). Written by member Larry Blackmon and Tomi Jenkins, the cut occupied the #1 spot on the R&B chart for weeks, was the #1 Dance single and zoomed to #6 at Pop; it would go on to become a perennial on funk and dance playlists and has been covered several times.

Public Enemy, “Bring the Noise” (Def Jam Records, 1987)
This single from PE’s second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, stands as one of the most potent missives about black power ever to pervade popular culture. In the searing verses, Chuck D fights for respect for his group, his people, his art form and black leaders while taking aim at American society’s pervasive, systemic racism. The song was initially created for the soundtrack of the 1987 film Less Than Zero, but PE held onto it, even though Rick Rubin discouraged them from putting it on the album, and Chuck himself admitted, “I hated that record. I practically threw it out the window.” But it was the berserk crowd reaction to the song during PE shows that turned everything around. This track was notable at the time for its banging tempo, a departure from the slower rap that was then dominant. It also contained a litany of samples (without legal repercussions; copyright lawsuits over uncleared “interpolations” didn’t gain momentum until the following decade). “Noise” includes elements from “Funky Drummer” by James Brown, “Get Off Your Ass and Jam” by Funkadelic and “Egg Man” by The Beastie Boys, to name a few—woven into a galvanizing, frenetic whole by the group’s inspired Bomb Squad production team.

Salt-N-Pepa, “Push It” (Next Plateau Records, 1987)
Producer/svengali Hurby Azor (aka Hurby Luv Bug) wrote and produced this, but shares writing credit with The KinksRay Davies because of a quote from the band’s “You Really Got Me.” Luv Bug was going for a club banger, using the lyrics mostly as punctuation for sections of the beat that needed emphasis, like the “oooh baby baby” in the hook. Salt-N- Pepa initially hated this song’s apparent sexual overtones, though they insisted subsequently it was just about dancing.

“Push It” was originally released as the B-side but became its own release in 1988, after KMEL San Francisco DJ Cameron Paul remixed it into the hit radio version heard today. In 1989, the track was nominated for the first-ever Grammy award for Best Rap Performance; but Salt-N -Pepa, along with their fellow rap nominees, elected to boycott the event after it was revealed the award would not be given out during the live broadcast. How times have changed.

Eric B. & Rakim, “Eric B Is President” (Zakia Records, 1987)
The duo’s debut single is a seminal recording for several reasons; it’s still one of the most frequently quoted songs in rap, and was the first popular rap record to sample James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.” Hundreds would follow. Intriguingly, Rakim was inspired to write the rap after being angered by the sentiment in Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” but didn’t make it an official, old-school answer record, as those were out of fashion at the time. There’s also dispute over who exactly produced this record, with early credit going to Marley Marl, while Eric contested that in later years.

N.W.A, “Straight Outta Compton” (Ruthless Records, 1988)
An unflinching, authentic and defiantly explicit account of life on the perilous streets of South Central Los Angeles, the title track of N.W.A’s debut studio album became a rallying cry for an entire generation in the black community, who were struggling with drug addiction, police brutality and the gun violence pervasive in their neighborhoods. While critics accused them of glorifying a “gangsta” lifestyle, Ice Cube insisted early on that the intention was to be a mirror for what was really happening. “The parents, the police and the people of the local community are scared of what we say,” he declared in a 1989 interview. “We use the same kind of language kids use every day. In the black community, the ministers and teachers don’t deny that the problems we rap about exist, but they’d rather sweep it under the rug.” 

Despite little radio or video airplay, the album went triple-platinum, and the group redefined the direction of rap by pioneering Ice Cube, MC Ren and The D.O.C.’s narrative of a “gangsta” lifestyle, delivered with intensity and even some humor, over the rebellious beats of Dr. Dre—in his debut effort as a producer. Straight Outta Compton was also one of the first albums to feature a Parental Advisory sticker, and the track “Fuck tha Police” earned them the sobriquet “the World’s Most Dangerous Group.” Now legendary, the album subsequently made countless lists of top rap albums, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2016, becoming the first rap album so honored.

Janet Jackson, “Rhythm Nation” (A&M Records, 1989)
After seeing news of school shootings and other tragedies, Jackson had an epiphany and began exploring the socially conscious themes developed here, calling for a new community of “like-minded individuals, sharing a common vision, pushing toward a world rid of color lines.” 

That message was manifested over a stomping, industrial-dance banger that co-producer Jimmy Jam said was powered by a sample from his favorite song—a distinctive guitar riff from Sly & The Family Stone’s “Thank You” expertly woven into the beat. The song marched to #1 on the R&B and Dance charts and peaked at #2 on the Pop chart. But it will be remembered best for its black-and-white, apocalyptic music video, with those military-precision dance moves and army-battalion costumes that were so contrary to modern pop. The clip was key to Jackson’s reinvention in the popular imagination; she instantly transitioned from the maturing young adult of Control to a mythic champion of justice. Janet’s iconic outfit from the video was inducted into the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and its handwritten lyrics are used in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum’s class on female songwriters.

De La Soul, “Me Myself & I” (Tommy Boy Records, 1989)
The lead track from this Long Island hip-hop trio’s critically acclaimed debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, featured an eclectic mix of what would become their trademark flow—social commentary laced with dry humor. DJ Prince Paul’s masterfully assembled beat of Funkadelic, Loose Ends, Ohio Players, Doug E. Fresh and Edwin Birdsong samples sailed right to #1 on the U.S. R&B chart, topping the dance chart as well. Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer), Trugoy (David Jude Jolicoeur) and Maseo (Vincent Lamont Mason Jr.) formed in 1987 and are, after The Jungle Brothers, the second-longest-standing group in the Native Tongues—a forward-looking, Bohemian collective that also included A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep and Queen Latifah


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