In this second installment from our history of hip-hop, author Miles Marshall Lewis delves into the first wave of rap recordings.

In 2019, I visited the Library of Congress in Culpeper, Virginia, home to an enormous audio-visual archive. A director was shooting a PBS pilot structured around screening a rare Tonight Show episode from 1968, with comedian Pigmeat Markham performing his Top 20 hit, “Here Come the Judge.” Explaining the song as a precursor to hip-hop, I labeled the single “proto-rap”—noting that Markham’s flow, delivery, and even the dusty drums of the track itself, had everything in common with hip-hop. Kool Herc and other rap historians cite “Here Come the Judge” as proof that hip-hop has always been here.

Back in 1937, gospel’s Golden Gate Quartet released the minstrel standard “Preacher and the Bear” with a syncopated style in their verses that has unmistakable hip-hop swagger. Afrika Bambaataa always gives credit to jazz great Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” the early-’70s spoken-word releases of The Last Poets and Gil-Scott Heron, and the boastful rhymes of Muhammad Ali for being hip-hop before hip-hop. Not to mention soulfully spoken lines in music by James Brown and Isaac Hayes. But a day would come in the summer of 1979 when rap music made its official debut on the radio as rap music.

The record, of course, is the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”

In the six years between Kool Herc’s Sedgwick Avenue party and Sugar Hill Records’ first release, several crews of prominence made solid reputations in the South Bronx. The Cold Crush BrothersGrandmaster Caz ghost-wrote the rhymes everyone knows as the opening bars of “Rapper’s Delight.”

Contemporaries like the Treacherous Three, the Fantastic Romantic 5 and the Funky Four Plus One crossed paths constantly. Solo MCs like Busy Bee and Lovebug Starski circulated at the same parties. But the ethos of hip-hop was only about making reputations and a percentage of the door take—until Sylvia Robinson.

Known for “Love Is Strange” (1957) and “Pillow Talk” (1973), singer Sylvia Robinson originally hailed from Harlem but relocated to New Jersey with her husband, Joseph. She’d abandoned her solo career to launch a fledgling independent music label, All Platinum Records. On the hunt for the next new thing, her interest was piqued by Lovebug Starski performing at a packed Harlem World birthday party for her niece. Starski rejected her proposal to record, and her offer extended to Henry Lee Jackson, aka Big Bank Hank: the maladroit manager of Grandmaster Caz who worked part-time in an Englewood, New Jersey, pizza parlor. Auditioning him alongside his homeboys Guy O’Brien (Master Gee) and Michael Wright (Wonder Mike), Robinson decided to choose all three for the studio session.

Recorded in a single take 15 minutes long, over an interpolation of “Good Times” (R&B outfit Chic’s #1  hit that same summer), “Rapper’s Delight” swiftly became the biggest-selling 12-inch single of all time.

At the Library of Congress, curators showed me an early rushed pressing of “Rapper’s Delight” with a red label in place of the iconic Sugar Hill Records candy cane logo. Already beaten to the airwaves that March by the Fatback Band’s less popular rap record “King Tim III (Personality Jock),” Sylvia Robinson wanted to release her product before hip-hop music’s shock of the new lost its novelty.

The New Rap Language

 Run-DMC frequently, justifiably get described as the Beatles of hip-hop. Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and their late DJ, Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, scored multiple firsts as a rap group, becoming the genre’s original international superstars. Run-DMC established rap as a platinum album medium with King of Rock (1985), Raising Hell (1986) and more.

The trio mastered branding by taking a page out of Johnny Cash’s book and dressing in all-black everything, complete with fedoras and shell-toe Adidas. They were the first rappers on the cover of Rolling Stone. They were the first rappers with a crossover hit, the Aerosmith cover/collab “Walk This Way,” which busted through walls, literally and figuratively, via MTV. They were the first rap act to carry their own A Hard Day’s Night-type film with Krush Groove. The story of ’80s pop, let alone ’80s hip-hop, is incomplete without Run-DMC.

But the timeline of rap music doesn’t jump directly from Sugarhill Gang to Run-DMC. Sugar Hill Records also signed Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who followed Sugarhill Gang onto European club dates on the strength of their own hits, notably “Freedom,” “Birthday Party” and the DJ showcase “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” Sugar Hill Records also pumped out the Treacherous Three, the Funky Four Plus One and The Sequence. (The Sequence was hip-hop’s first female rap trio; the Funky Four’s “plus one” was female rapper Sha-Rock.) Many were put off by Robinson’s bookkeeping practices in the end, but to a large degree the label normalized rap music on black radio.

Kurtis Blow also arrived in 1979 with “Christmas Rappin’”—which was initially rejected by dozens of record labels despite the efforts of his manager, 22-year-old Hollis, Queens, native Russell Simmons. Harlem’s Kurtis Walker met Simmons at Manhattan’s City College, determined to use hip-hop to reach superstardom. Chasing the local nightclub success of Eddie Cheba, Simmons and Blow hustled their way into a contract with Mercury Records, the first for a solo rapper. The following year, “The Breaks” turned Blow into a star on the level of Sugarhill Gang. His club performances featured a teenage DJ Run, billed as “the Son of Kurtis Blow” before the rise of Run-DMC. (Run is, famously, Russell Simmons’s little brother.) Blow became a sex-symbol rapper with sung vocals on “Daydreamin’ ” four years before Drake was born.

Debbie Harry of NYC’s genre-hopping new-wave rockers Blondie rapped about the virtues of Grandmaster Flash and graf artist Fab 5 Freddy on mainstream pop radio with 1980’s “Rapture.” That same year, Rick James’ vanilla-soul protégée Teena Marie emceed her way through “Square Biz.” African-American block parties and adventurous black radio in the final days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency filled the air with tracks like “The New Rap Language,” “Funk You Up,” “The Body Rock,” “Apache” and “Feel the Heartbeat.”

“Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force dropped in the summer of 1982. With its synthesizers, Roland TR-808 beat machine and German electro influence, it was the sound of Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon landing smack dab in the South Bronx. Bam once explained to me: “The reason I made electro-funk hip-hop is because I looked around [and] there was no group nowhere whatsoever that was doing strictly electronic music like Kraftwerk, ELO and Gary Numan. And I said, ‘Well, we gonna be the first with this.’ So I took the idea of what they had with the techno-pop and adding that funk to it, the basis of James Brown, Sly and P-Funk. Put it to our stuff and took the style and dressing from Sly and P-Funk.”

On the other side of the spectrum, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five took street reportage to a stratospheric level, turning rap from party music into a sonic cinéma vérité. Flash, as a DJ, had nothing to do with the song and doesn’t even appear on it (in the most illustrative example of how, by 1982, MCs surmounted DJs as the face of rap music). Melle Mel, the most eloquent rapper of his generation next to Kool Moe Dee, warned: “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head. It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” As a vivid, brutal bulletin from the ghettos of America—full of roaches, broken glass, urine-soaked staircases, sex workers and the homeless—the song is still unparalleled.

Meanwhile, Russell Simmons had managed Kurtis Blow right into teenage living rooms on Saturday morning Soul Train, and soon came into contact with New York University undergrad Rick Rubin.

Frederick Jay Rubin grew up near suburban Long Island listening to punk and hardcore bands. The long-haired guitarist fell in love with rap music in college, stalking DJ Jazzy Jay’s weekly sets at Danceteria. In addition to fronting a garage-punk band called Hose, Rubin deejayed for a trio of fellow white boys who mixed rap and hardcore and were known as The Beastie Boys. From his NYU dorm, Rubin had already pressed and distributed a Hose single before Jazzy Jay introduced him to Russell Simmons. Envisioning success for hip-hop culture above and beyond what Sugar Hill had already achieved, Rubin and Simmons started brainstorming Def Jam Recordings as the ultimate rap label.

Run-DMC signed to Profile Records, not Def Jam. But in August 1983, the stripped-down sound of Run-DMC’s “Sucker MCs (Krush-Groove 1)” influenced an entire decade of rap music, Def Jam’s included.

Whereas Sugar Hill recordings featured live instrumentation from session musicians like bassist Doug Wimbish (later of rock band Living Colour), Run-DMC went bare-bones in order to more closely replicate the park jams that birthed hip-hop in the first place. Hip-hop wasn’t meant to be R&B. The upscale trappings of the latter genre’s radio playlists rejected the rap aesthetic. As far as Russell Simmons and Run-DMC were concerned, “Sucker MCs” and the Def Jam music to follow would flip the middle finger right back. The gauche, Funkadelic-like outfits of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were played out; so were the off-the-rack suits of Kurtis Blow. Run-DMC dressed like everyday rap fans from the boroughs of New York City and sounded like street jams from ’70s schoolyards. If the Cold Crush Brothers could have gone pop, it would have looked like the success of Run-DMC.

Def Jam launched with Hose and stepped into rap with T La Rock & Jazzy Jay’s classic “It’s Yours.” But its real beginning was “I Need a Beat” by 16-year-old Queens high schooler LL Cool J. With a beat programmed by Ad-Rock of The Beastie Boys and produced by Rick Rubin (the sleeve of LL’s Radio album said “reduced” instead), the single rocked the rap radio shows in October 1985. Still shunned by daytime radio programmers, and completely ignored by white radio stations, hip-hop found support from late-night and weekend DJs in New York City. WBLS, WHBI and Kiss-FM aired hours of rap from DJs like Red Alert, Chuck Chillout, Mr. Magic and The Awesome Two. Ironically, LL next released “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” in an era without hip-hop radio stations, when gatekeepers isolated rap music to the midnight hour.

But LL Cool J—with his lanky muscles, Le Tigre polo shirts and omnipresent Kangols—established a prototype: Def Jam rappers would be characters, like wrestlers or superheroes. Soon, The Beastie Boys appeared as the wild frat boys of “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party),” spraying beer onstage and practically parodying rap for a certain audience. America had never seen white rappers; Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D’s debut album, Licensed to Ill, held the title of all-time best-selling hip-hop album for years.

Public Enemy elevated “The Message” to another level as the Black Panthers of rap. Chuck D, Flavor Flav and DJ Terminator X espoused the maxims of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan onstage, flanked by shock troopers toting plastic machine guns. Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (critically praised as the best rap album of all time for decades) gave listeners ammunition against Reagan-era white supremacy, with the cacophonous production of the Bomb Squad amped up for the crack age. Slick Rick blended  Dolemite-level storytelling with hip-hop high style: Bally shoes, Gucci socks and more gold chains than Mr. T. Def Jam MCs forevermore married sound and image in hip-hop, selling millions of albums in the process.

Then came hip-hop’s Hendrix. Just as a black man from Seattle arrived to revolutionize the electric guitar in the mid-’60s, an 18-year-old MC from Wyandanch, Long Island, transformed rap music lyricism in 1986 with “Eric B Is President.” An adherent of the teachings of the Five Percent Nation (an offshoot of the Nation of Islam popular with African-American teenagers of the 1980s), Rakim threw in dog-whistle verses in his rhymes just to let it be known—if you heard, you heard. But his often-cosmic connections and John Coltrane-influenced delivery (Rakim was a jazz fan and former sax player) immediately ranked him above wordsmiths like Melle Mel or Kool Moe Dee. Though he was born William Michael Griffin Jr., all of hip-hop knew him by Rakim Allah through “I Ain’t No Joke,” “I Know You Got Soul,” and his 1987 debut, Paid in Full.

Rakim’s equal and opposite reaction came swiftly. Straight out of Brooklyn, 18-year-old Antonio Hardy made fast friends with the comical rapper Biz Markie, who’d already had connections with the hottest producer since Rick Rubin. Hardy picked the sobriquet Big Daddy Kane, ghostwriting lyrics for his clown-prince homie until earning his own spotlight. Queens DJ Marlon Williams, aka Marley Marl, quickly cultivated a reputation as one of rap’s greatest producers via tracks like Roxanne Shanté’s “Roxanne’s Revenge” and MC Shan’s “Marley Marl Scratch.” Marley’s production technique was built on sampling kick drums and snares from the funkiest records in his collection with a TR-808 beat machine. His innovation changed rap music forever. And the posse he assembled around that sound—the loosely knit Juice Crew of Kool G Rap, Craig G, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shanté and Big Daddy Kane—became instant rap royalty. Big Daddy Kane in particular could go toe-to-toe with Rakim, using multisyllabic rhyme schemes, punch lines and lover-man raps interchangeably on newly minted classics like “Raw” and “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’.”

The culture’s strongest advocates didn’t wait long to brand this era the golden age of hip-hop. Though a handful of acts managed to release multi-platinum albums, rap was still arguably a singles medium, and many MCs of the era were one-hit wonders of the dancefloor and late-night radio mastermixes who rarely make the history books.

Doug E. Fresh triumphed in the summer of 1985, going back and forth with Slick Rick on “The Show.” The Audio Two ruled ’87 with the insane beat pattern of “Top Billin’.” Bad Boys and K Love would never build on the promise of “Veronica,” an X-rated tale with a hook from Sesame Street’s “Mah Nà Mah Nà.” Like Chubby Checker in the late ’50s, Joeski Love (“Pee-Wee’s Dance”) and B. Fats (“Woppit”) popularized dance crazes. Ultramagnetic MCs took inscrutable rhyming to an apex on “Ego Trippin’.”

The agitprop of Public Enemy kicked off a wave of politically conscious hip-hop, including powerhouse rapper KRS-One, who posed like Malcolm X on the cover of By All Means Necessary.

But even for the best of the best, mainstream success was short-lived. Eric B. & Rakim released four albums, all of which went Top 10 R&B, between 1987 and ’92. But Rakim wouldn’t emerge as a solo act until 1997. Kane’s first two LPs for Cold Chillin’ went gold, but the third, 1990’s Taste of Chocolate, was his last to crack the Top 40. He stopped recording in 1998.

For over a decade, New York City rapped to the world. In rap’s golden age, the world rapped back.

Read The Get-Down Part in its entirety here.

Miles Marshall Lewis (@MMLunlimited) is the Harlem-based author of the upcoming Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar, and his writing has appeared in Billboard, Rolling Stone, GQ and elsewhere.


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