0404: “Paid in Full” by Eric B. & Rakim

The late ’80s represented an interesting fork in the road for rap music, as it had firmly (and finally) made its way from the Bronx to Manhattan largely because of Fab Five Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa. Up to this point there were primarily two schools of thought as far as the music went: go the Def Jam route and seek some levels of authenticity, or go the have-fun-and-party-all-night pop style of music—both of which had braggadocio as a connective tissue. To be clear, this happens to pretty much every genre of music over the last 100 years: the music begins as a creative output, then it gets molded into something entertaining, then it becomes about sex and women and love, then it gets serious, and then the circle repeats again. Rap was becoming a more serious art form and artists were now seeing producing an album as a longform statement (previous to this, doing shows was more preferable than recording an album). By 1987, rap was starting to grow into real poetry and journalism set to music and the two giants of this movement were Public Enemy, and Eric B. & Rakim.

Whereas Chuck D’s voice was unrivaled in its authority and professorial knowledge, Rakim fills in every other gap. He has a voice that cuts through the bullshit. He sounds wiser beyond his years. He modeled his vocal delivery and cadence in a way that was influenced by Coltrane’s syncopation. He was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers. You add all of this together with Eric B.’s DJ skills and Marley Marl’s production wizardry (Marl cracked the code with the 808 drum machine that indescribably changed hip hop’s sound) and the debut album Paid in Full became an instant landmark album. The title track is raw and catchy, and even though Rakim doesn’t rap for the full track, his presence and voice is simply powerful and demands one’s attention. It is fitting that Rakim’s influences come from jazz, as it and hip hop are the two genres that are distinctly American—the two genres that were made here, that changed our culture wholesale, and spread throughout the world like wildfire. Every artistic movement requires an artist to reflect a reality in such a way that it cuts across race and class lines, and Rakim helped craft hip hop into a sound and style that people far removed from the streets could understand. He helped shape language, as icons have the power to do.

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0403: “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” by Schoolly D

When Ice-T released “6 in the Mornin'” in 1986 as a B-side, it began the slow turn in the West Coast scene from disco- and techno-inspired and disco-looking hip hop to an entirely new genre, gangsta rap. “6 in the Mornin'” begat N.W.A. and the rest is pretty much history. What you may not know is what begat “6 in the Mornin'” and the answer is “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” by Schoolly D which was released a year prior, and came from the far-removed-from-California part of the world known as Philadelphia.

Ice-T openly borrowed Schoolly D’s cadence and vocal rhythm from “P.S.K.” to make “6 in the Mornin'”; he’s admitted as much in interviews over the years since. Schoolly D laid the blueprint down for how to write and rap about the streets and its drug dealers and gang leaders, but more importantly he created a sound on “P.S.K.” that was so ahead of its time that it seems utterly commonplace now. One can listen to this song now and it will sound like it’s about thirty years old, yet at the same time it still sounds unique. The record scratching, the drum beats, and the cymbals: they all sound almost… psychedelic. It definitely sounds street in a similar way to how Run-D.M.C. stripped down their sound, but also if you listen to this song loud enough you might feel kinda stoned (even if you’re not) in much the same way Pink Floyd’s “Pow R Toc H” or Eno’s “Blank Frank” can. Dust music is what Ice-T or Russell Simmons once referred to it as. If you heard “P.S.K.” back in 1985 you would be able to see what hip hop’s tea leaves were saying and pointing to. You probably would’ve never guessed that it would ultimately point to Los Angeles, but hip hop, like all great art, thrives on social commentary and reporting regardless of how it is fashioned. A track like “P.S.K.” took regional storytelling (it’s about the Park Side Killers in Philly) that could be applied to the entire U.S.—especially cities, where the police, and the policies that guide them, are often acting on purely racist impulses. This is a groundbreaking song that helped further mold the last musical genre our country has created.

0402: “Peter Piper” by Run-D.M.C.

Hip hop was born out of a creative desire to take soul and funk and package it into something new, namely by expanding break beats from tracks like “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band. When rapping began to gather influential steam the look and feel of the artists was still grounded in funk and even disco. The genius of Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin was to strip everything down to hard beats, put the focus on the rappers, and have the rappers look more authentically street; Run-D.M.C. was his proxy for this new mission statement and it changed the game for the hip hop/rap genre in a way that is analogous to how The Beatles changed pop music. Raising Hell was the fountainhead of mainstream rap and, while the collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” is the axis of the album for many people, it’s the opening track “Peter Piper” that best encapsulates the genius of the group, and of Def Jam’s philosophy. Starting with a back-and-forth that epitomizes ’80s rap, the track deftly shifts into a big beat surrounded by chimes, a sampled organ, and some scratches. Scores of white kids bought this album for “Walk This Way” but “Peter Piper” is the track that advanced the genre separate from white acceptance.

0110: “Our Lips Are Sealed” by Fun Boy Three

My personal opinion on cover songs is as follows: any cover is acceptable (which is not to be confused with good) if it involves the genre of the cover being different than the source material, or if the vocals on the cover are by the opposite sex. Rare are the covers done in the same genre and sung by the same sex that are truly great, or even above average—rarer still is when this happens when the source material was either A) really popular or well known or B) the artist was popular or well known. “With A Little Help From My Friends” by Joe Cocker is an example of the former and “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix is an example of the latter. Covers done in a similar genre or sung by the same sex are open to more scrutiny by default in my eyes because the burden of respectability on the artist to reinvent the sound of the original or outperform the original is way heavier, especially if the source material is a well known song or a deep cut produced by a well known artist. “Glad Tidings” isn’t a super well known Van Morrison song but I doubt any male rock artist could ever cover it with any success or redefining skill. It’s easier when the genre and/or the sex of the singer are opposites (see: “Respect” by Aretha Franklin or “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor). With Fun Boy Three’s cover of “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Go’s you not only have guys covering a track produced by women, you have British guys covering a song made by American women. This version exchanges American pop for British new wave at a wholesale clip. The synthesizer is replaced by a piano, the airiness and high notes replaced with mellower effects and almost tribal drum beats, and vocals that don’t really bother to reach the cheeriness and sorority posture of the original. Fun Boy Three consisted of 3 members that split off from The Specials and wound up making 2 albums before disbanding. Their small catalog contains some good early ’80s new wave pop but “Our Lips Are Sealed” is far and away my favorite song from. This is one of my favorite covers of all time.