I was asked on Quora to give a list of my favorite hip-hop songs, because what better source is there than a forty-year-old white dad? (I am literally a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar.) I did grow up in New York City in the 80s, and I do love the music. But ultimately, I’m a tourist in this culture. For a more definitive survey, ask Questlove or someone. These are just songs that I like.
First, a little on my background. I’m not from the suburbs, I’m from New York City. My experience growing up was an odd blend of the city and the suburbs. I lived in a posh little corner of an otherwise pretty tough neighborhood. I attended a very fancy school, but traveled there by public bus and/or subway through other tough neighborhoods. My social circle included very suburban white kids and very urban nonwhite kids. As a younger kid, I loved hip-hop. As a teenager, I succumbed to rockism, probably due to social pressure from our racist society, and pretended not to like hip-hop anymore. As an adult, I’m more centered and confident, and have resumed loving it. So I think I have some pretty good insight into why white kids in the suburbs like hip-hop, especially of the gangsta variety. It boils down to the fact that the suburbs are lame, and hip-hop is cool.
Hip-hop is cool in general. So why is gangsta rap cooler than Will Smith or Drake? The big thing is that gangsta rap tends to be musically stronger and more creative. It has grittier beats, denser and more ambitious rhymes, more pointed political and social commentary, and darker humor. It’s also dramatically more offensive, but that’s part of the allure. If you’re a teenager wanting to annoy your parents, there’s no better method than to blast the Wu-Tang Clan, especially if your dad is a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar. I myself have been known to climb mountains and play the electric guitar, and the fact that GZA is directing his ire specifically at me makes listening to the Wu a complex experience. But listen I do, because why would I want to deprive myself of the music?
Music blogs, magazines and cable channels like to run lists of the best albums of all time. Certain albums get listed again and again: Sgt Pepper, Pet Sounds, Highway 61 Revisited.
If you were to compile the best albums as measured by how often they get sampled by hip-hop producers, the list would look very different. There would be some famous names on it — James Brown, Led Zeppelin, P-Funk — but it wouldn’t necessarily include their best-known songs. And you’d see a lot of names that would be totally unfamiliar, unless you were a really devoted crate-digger. In the top ten, alongside tunes by The Honey Drippers, The Soul Searchers and The Incredible Bongo Band, you’d find “The Champ” by The Mohawks.
Hip-hop fans will instantly recognize the organ riff that kicks off this song. It’s everywhere. Yet I had never heard of the Mohawks before looking into the source of the riff. They were an ad-hoc band of session musicians led by a British organist named Alan Hawkshaw, best known for his commercial jingles, library music and TV theme songs. He also played on records by Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton John. Not the likeliest source of inspiration for Big Daddy Kane and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, is he? But the album grooves hard.
Hip-hop sampling has a way of elevating obscure tracks into the cultural pantheon. “Impeach The President” by the Honey Drippers is a perfect example (the president in question is Nixon.) While the song itself isn’t well-known outside of sample geek circles, I can guarantee you’ve heard its opening few seconds. According to WhoSampled.com, it’s the most-sampled breakbeat in history.
Turntablists use record players to play records in ways they weren’t meant to be played. By speeding up, slowing down and reversing the record under the needle, a whole universe of new sounds becomes possible. The record player as musical instrument is still in its early stages of development. DJs already invented the instrumental sound of hip-hop. I wonder what else they have coming.