Styles & Forms | Old School Hip Hop

It used to be easy to talk about rap or hip hop, because essentially everybody knew where they stood: the artists made 12-inch singles that didn’t get played on the radio; they dressed in acres of brightly coloured leather, with people break-dancing and body-popping around them; and nobody came from farther west than New Jersey.

Back in the day, The Sugarhill Gang was the group everybody had heard of, as their ‘Rappers’ Delight’ single stormed pop charts all over the world in late-1979, followed up almost immediately by Kurtis Blow’s ‘Christmas Rapping’. While the mainstream pop industry was quick to pass these records off as mere novelty, they were the tip of a hip hop iceberg that until then had been an underground, almost strictly live scenario, with sound-system-duplicated tapes being the only recordings available. The records were also splitting the hip hop community – was this recording success a sell-out, or was it the way forward? Thankfully, the latter camp won out and hip hop committed itself to wax with gusto.

Advancing The Cause

Understandably, with a start like that, the New Jersey-based Sugarhill Records led the way, and their early 1980s catalogue was a Who’s Who of hip hop: alongside The Sugarhill Gang were The Sequence, Lady B, The Treacherous Three, The Funky Four and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. These were all acts who had made their names at New York clubs such as the Roxy and Danceteria, and put an emphasis on performance (hence the leatherwear they tended to favour). It was the last group that did the most to advance hip hop’s cause. While the rappers rapped pretty much exclusively about their money, their sexual prowess or themselves, which quickly got tedious on record, Flash breathed life into the scene with the single ‘Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel’, a virtuoso display of turntable manipulation that introduced the world at large to scratching and quick-mixing. It changed the face of hip hop recordings, as artists now felt much freer to represent club culture instead of trying to sound as conventional as possible.

Meanwhile, in Sugarhill’s slipstream were acts like The Cold Crush Brothers, Double Trouble, The Fearless Four and The Force MDs, and New York record labels Enjoy, Tommy Boy and West End, all of whom expanded hip hop’s visions. It was in 1982 that Zulu Nation leader Afrika Bambaataa teamed up with producer Arthur Baker and rap crew Soul Sonic Force to create ‘Planet Rock’, one of the year’s biggest club hits and the vanguard of the electro style that was to take hip hop in a new, more accessible direction.

Evidence of these times and a mark of how, within a few years, hip hop had seeped into a far broader marketplace, can be found in the slew of rapping/break-dancing films that were released in the early 1980s; Wild Style, Breakdance and Beat Street being the most successful. By 1984, Def Jam Records had been launched by Russell...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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