No Sell Out: Hip Hop's Golden Era

Hip Hop, despite being over 40, is still a relatively young art form... but has it's had it's Golden Era already? Or can artists of today reclaim those glory days of the '80s and '90s?
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Hip Hop, despite being over 40, is still a relatively young art form... but has it's had it's Golden Era already? Or can artists of today reclaim those glory days of the '80s and '90s?

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Hip hop was a toddler of the 70´s, child of the 80´s, stroppy-adolescent of the 90´s and by 2011 we discover that he hasn´t turned out exactly as his parents might have wished. Of course his character still shows flashes of that abundant poetic promise of youth, but one can´t help but feel that he could have used the talent and potential to achieve so many more good things.  Hip hop and I grew up together.

There was a time in the late 80´s to early 90´s, a magical period of seemingly unrestrained creativity and birth of movements-within-movements- that is referred to as the GOLDEN ERA. This mythical and wonderful time is often misunderstood- and in the same that way that hip hop has come to mean rap- this term has also been misappropriated to mean classic rap of yonder year. Well… This purist is not having it- let´s straighten this out here and now.

I´m now 38, so in the period 87-92 I was correspondingly aged 14-19 and deep in the clutches of an all-encompassing hip hop addiction. Tim Westwood, Geoff Young???, Hip Hop Connection, scouring magazine programs on BBC2 in the hope of a random LL COOL J feature. It wasn´t easy being a hip hop head back in ye golden days- especially living in the Sussex countryside- but whatever effort was required was it worth it to have been witness to these five golden years of dope musical expression.

LL Cool J is a great example of an artist kids know all about, but could not possibly appreciate how fresh-to-death this b-boy was. Don´t even try and talk to me about Mamma Said Knock You Out (XXXX), it´s not about that- I´m talking about, Bad, Jack the Ripper, Droppin Em- The prince of hip hop- Straight from Queens before the comeback (don´t call it that).

Golden Era acts searched for style in a less formulaic way than those who came later because the formula itself was still in conception. This lead to a plethora of amazingly varied and exciting  album releases, some of which achieved commercial success without any real publicity (by modern standards) in an age defined by the fact that stylistic commercial cross-over was termed SELL OUT- a phrase rarely heard in contemporary rap- buried in a tomb en-scribed, funky cold medina.

I can´t write this piece without a long-ass paragraph of name checks- so here they are, in alphabetical order- LP artists who defined the Golden Era- 87-92. 2 Live Crew, 3rd Bass, A Tribe Called Quest, BDP, Beastie Boys, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Black Sheep, Brand Nubian, Common Sense, Cypress Hill, Das FX, Del the Funky Homosapien, De La Soul, Digital Underground, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, EPMD, Eric B & Rakim, Freestyle Fellowship, Gang Starr, Ghetto Boys, Heavy D, Ice Cube, Ice T, Jungle Brothers, Just Ice, K Solo, K9 Posse, KMD, King Tee, Kool G Rap and Polo, Kool Moe Dee, Kwame, LL Cool J, LONS, Lord Finesse, Marley Marl, Master Ace, Main Source, Naughty By Nature, Nice and Smooth, Organized Konfusion, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Poor Righteous Teachers, Public Enemy, RUN DMC, Schoolly D, Shan, Show and AG, Slick Rick, Special Ed, Stetasonic, Stezo, Steady B, Too Short, UMC´s, Ultra Magnetics and X-Clan- not to mention Salt-N-Pepa,  Shante,  Lite, Latifah and the other mammas who gave birth to Missy and the rest of the female soul children.

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The UK was also beginning to find it´s voice in this period with crews like the Demon Boys, Katch 22, Hijack, Overlord X and the London Posse coming through, and yes…. Derek B. US Acts were beginning to come over and you can say what you like about Westwood in this day and age- although I believe his self-parody is coming full circle to good effect- but he was The Man for ´repping hip hop in the UK and from the UK even producing tracks on the legendary Music-of-Life label.

This is a period when hip hop had true creative diversity, an era that spawned music as conceptually varied as to encompass the Daisy Age and Public Enemy, the Humpty Dance and Gansta Rap. What it really produced what dope-as-fuck music and never-to-be-repeated hip hop moments.  Rap music is structured around a series of lynch-pin moments- Kool Moe Dee battling Busy Bee (and beginning the end of the old school), Dallas Police Dept. empounding copies of Me So Horny (and sending it global in the process), the death of Biggie (and hip hop becoming self-accountable for the first time)- to name but a few.

To see acts like a Tribe called Quest, Ice T, Master Ace, Public Enemy or EPMD live and in their prime is an experience so cool it is impossible to put into words. The hypnotic stage presence of Q-Tip or the Rhyme Syndicate(Ice T´s crew) picking girls out the crowd and fucking them backstage during a show, the Big Step dancers and Master Ace coming on stage and doing a choreographed dance to Other Side of Town- dressed as tramps, the  intimidation of the S1W´s in a PE show, the dexterity of DJ Scratch´s turntable skills at the EPMD show interval- these are all unrepeatable memories of the Golden Era that I will always cherish, moments where time stood still an the hairs on the back of my neck stood rigid.

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Hip hop (the culture) is about nothing if it is not about style. And stylistically the foundations were set in 87-92 for just about all that followed.  More than conceptually, physically too the golden era artists were bringing through the next generation. From Digital Underground came Tupac, From Big Daddy Kane came Jay-Z, from Doctor Dre came Snoop and Eminem and so on.

What followed the Golden Era, may-as-well be called the Platinum Era. It Might Blow Up- But It Won´t Go Pop rapped De La Soul, but hip hop was ready to go beyond pop and become a commercial musical phenomenon the likes of which planet Earth had never known. It was the arrival of the truly huge artists like Nas and Wu-Tang that defines the end of one era and the beginning of the next.

I was maturing too, into my mid-twenties and embibing the music more ravenously than ever (as mentioned previously, the other elements of the culture were all by now very much secondary concerns). The rewards were plenty- wassup- Wu-Tang, Biggie, Pac, Hiero, Pharycyde, Eminem, Jurassic, Beatnuts, Nas, Roots etc. and thanks for getting us over into the new millennium and beyond, but where is the new creative juice coming from in the two thousand and teens?

I´m still having to check artists like MF Doom or Busta to hear that true creative flex in it´s illest form-  and can y áll guess where they come from? KMD and Leaders Of The New School respectively…  two crews straight out the Golden Era.

I can spend as long as I like wishing that Tribe Called Quest would settle their beefs and re-form, or that Lewis Parker and Supa T would make another track together- but I guess we must accept that certain musical time frames produce a vibe of music that can´t be recreated- however much we might wish it were different.

Don´t get me wrong, KRS ONE for example is 20 albums strong and still fresh-like-baby-breath and there are some artists with mad skills still killing live shows all across the globe- but times have changed and moved on and only with the level of retrospective insight one has at my ripe old age can one reflect with true clarity on what a bloody ace time in music that was. I still love hip hop, but as with many things, life just fills up with too many distractions, and I by no means consider myself the hip hop head I once was. But those records can still move the hairs on the back of my neck just like they did twenty-odd years ago.

Maybe hip hop didn´t turn out as well as KRS ONE might have hoped when he rapped Twenty years down the line you can start this- coz we´ll be the old skool artists- but perhaps another KRS reference applies here- Self Destruction.

Perhaps as hip hop has it´s magic moments - they are naturally mirrored by its dark moments. The music seems to evolve through a series of deaths- be they physical or creative- and so each time it is forced back underground- to find its creative roots and counter-act commercial blandness- it comes back a little wiser and stronger.

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UK hip hop itself has experienced the life-through-death syndrome and is currently at its strongest ever point stylistically and commercially. Perhaps it is by looking away from hip hop´s country of birth that we can see it at its most healthy. In future years the cultural significance of hip hop will surely be its global impact as an art form, it took what rock started- to its ultimate conclusion in every way imaginable- and in this sense- in the opinion of some writers- announces the end of the creative world.

Hip hop is many things to many people, but for me, it is that special time in its- and my development that has left lyrics imprinted over my brain that can still hit me out of nowhere and put a grin on my face. And memories that define a certain style and swagger that will always embody the essence of hip hop cool- Golden Era Moments.