Hip-Hop 101: Downtown Sounds
by Mosi Reeves | June 15, 2015
Between 1981 and 1983, New York hipsters discovered hip-hop. And no moment symbolized their fascination like Blondie's "Rapture." The song's catalyst lay in Bronx and Harlem expeditions the band took under the guidance of graffiti writer and scenester Fred "Fab 5 Freddy" Brathwaite, who portrayed rapping, DJ'ing, breakdancing and aerosol art as a cumulative cultural output, according to Dan Charnas' 2012 history The Big Payback. Debbie Harry paid homage to her friend by rapping "Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody's fly/ DJs spinnin', I said, 'My, my'/ Flash is fast, Flash is cool."
As "Rapture" soared to No. 1 on the pop charts, other New Wave dalliances with rap emerged, like Tom Tom Club's "Wordy Rappinghood" and Detroit ensemble Was (Not Was)' "Out Come the Freaks." (Funk and soul artists toyed with the form, too, which we'll explore in a future post.) Rappers appropriated hits from the post-disco club scene, a confluence of garage, funk and post-punk sounds played in downtown New York clubs like Negril and Paradise Garage. Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat" led to the Treacherous Three's "Feel the Heart Beat" and T-Ski Valley's "Catch the Beat." Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" led to Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde's "Genius Rap" and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "It's Nasty." Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy 5 transformed Gwen McCrae's "Funky Sensation" into "Jazzy Sensation."
Stein and Fab 5 Freddy collaborated with underground filmmaker Charlie Ahearn on Wild Style, which was the first (and arguably still the best) hip-hop movie. Unintentionally, it has become a bittersweet valentine to the end of an era. The fabled summer park jams of yore that it celebrated in its climactic all-star finale slowly disappeared as its young performers graduated to 21-and-over nightclubs and concert venues. The crack scourge, only a few years away, hastened the process. And many of the movie's stars, like the Cold Crush Brothers, Double Trouble and the Fantastic Five, never fully transitioned from hip-hop's underground park jam era to the studio-bound, recorded rap era that had just begun.
Amidst hundreds of rap 12-inches flooding the market, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were one of two groups to consistently log Billboard chart action, and their evolution symbolizes the genre's artistic growth. (The other, The Sugarhill Gang, avoided "Rapper's Delight" novelty status with two more hits, the "8th Wonder" cover of 7th Wonder's "Daisy Lady," and a version of an old park jam breakbeat, the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache.") In 1981, Grandmaster Flash recorded "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," where he incorporated Blondie's shout-out into a brilliant collage of samples and turntable manipulations. The following year, Melle Mel of the Furious Five and Sugar Hill Records songwriter Duke Bootee wrote "The Message," a track that paired the slouching, synthesized rhythms of New Wave funk with a bleak tale of inner city desperation. It showed that rap music was capable of more than just providing a cheery party soundtrack.
By 1983, hip-hop's downtown era was drawing to a close. The music for Melle Mel's anti-cocaine message "White Lines (Don't Do It)" culled extensively from post-punk band Liquid Liquid's "Cavern," leading to a lawsuit from which Sugar Hill Records never recovered. British media prankster Malcolm McLaren exploited the hip-hop craze for his admittedly great single "Buffalo Gals," with cut-and-paste beats from Trevor Horn's production team and raps by personality jocks the World's Famous Supreme Team. Meanwhile, Afrika Bambaataa collated two Kraftwerk songs, "Trans-Europe Express" and "Numbers" into "Planet Rock." It was the dawn of electro-rap, a period best saved for a future chapter.