At the end of the Eighties, when hip hop was entrenched on the street but also showing signs it could make serious inroads into the suburbs, independent labels began to flex their baby muscles due to both affiliations with majors and a desire to go large.
Stateside R’nB was overcooked and blanded out – critically exhausted due to it being sold to within an inch of its (by then) polished and glamorous life. Rap however was the emerging force when it came to record and ticket sales, its brimming pot of credibility and an in-built glorious uncertainty of ‘what next?’ for fans and money makers alike.
So let’s go back… back into time therefore to when rap crews were hustled into a recording studio to capitalise and build on a track’s success. The ‘hustle’ here was the need to capitalise on what might have traditionally been termed a ‘fad’ (and not so much to the shabby machinations of Sylvia Robinson and the Sugar Hill company or to the era of simply collecting singles to put out what was a scraped-together compilation).
The time-honoured route of squeezing every cent and dime out of an artist’s fleeting fame was key, but just as important was said artists wanting to demonstrate their chops and prove that they demanded respect over sixty, not six, minutes.
Albums were a challenge to both critics and fans: could these rap long players hold their own in a rock-dominated field? Would ten tracks prove to be nine too much? Might filling both A and B sides be a bridge too far in terms of ideas, productions and excitement?
Over thirty years have passed since Raising Hell, A People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and Resurrection, to name but three classics, emerged to take up permanent residencies on music lovers’ decks and in taste-makers’ minds. These albums have become as iconic as any that came after and before and will outlast the development of posse cuts, triple 12” vinyl pressings, garish gatefold sleeves and lazily thrown together compilations.
Today – when Things Fall Apart celebrates its 20th anniversary as The Roots continue to step up to any and every broadcast challenge which Jimmy Fallon can lay down – it’s worth remembering that the nascent rap album (and the industry from whence it came from) was then a very different bea(s)t.
Beatboxers strolled over tracks (looking at you T. La Rock); James Brown loops and Bonham drums were ubiquitous and untreated; story-telling reigned supreme… and solo DJ tracks had the ability to blow minds not least because the era of samples under-pinning a track from start to finish – forming the carriage, suspension and wheels of the vehicle á lá Premo, Tribe – was a little way off in the distance.
These mini mashed DJ symphonies aped a live show where a pair of SL1200s would do the work of a hype man in ensuring a party atmosphere built and reminded listeners and dancers of the importance of staying true to the merry-go-round blueprint of Bambaattaa, Flash and Herc.
For those record buyers who were many miles away from stepping on the Staten Island ferry, this was a broadcast within a broadcast, a sizeable shock wave within an already notable Richter-sized occurrence. A chance to glean how good an Eric B. could be when allowed to weave his magic alone. Sure, they could be crude at times – perhaps lacking in musical breadth even – but that was perhaps to be expected (and perhaps should be celebrated for having spirit if not sensitivity).
Some of these cuts were seemingly made in a ‘party hearty’ ethos in order to help all that were involved to get their swerve on, but their effects were not diminished in any way because of that; others however shone a light on rap’s future be it the spin-off culture of turntablism and DJ battles; the journeys down challenging abstract avenues of sound, or the rise in ever more esoteric, rare sample drops.
These DJ ‘cameos’ on vinyl gradually faded from view – RIP Jam Master Jay, farewell to DJ Hurricane and hello to Mixmaster Mike – as producers began to wield their power and, perhaps, ‘work’ took over ‘play’ within studio culture and business practice. An album culture or state of mind had developed and taken hold.
But in 1986, the year of the number 1 in this highly subjective and entirely biased list of love, none of that had yet taken root. It was a simpler time, let us say… DJ Cheese was back-spinning whilst whupping the competition in the DMCs with his advanced needle drops on Trouble Funk‘s Pump Me Up despite being in a pair of handcuffs.
Here are ten solo DJ tracks to remember in today’s age when – for better or worse – rappers have crowded out the other three vital elements of Hip Hop. Silly, impressive, chilling, bizarre and affecting (but let’s not include passe as many of these still kick today), #Mellow salutes the kings of the Technics.
One that didn’t make the cut of cuts: L.L. Cool J‘s Go Cut Creator Go from Bigger and Deffer (Def Jam, 1987). ‘You didn’t think I could do it again… another album… the joke’s on you Jack!‘ is the last thing heard before the run-out groove comes around. And he’s right, as much as it pains to write that. This is a (sort of) homage to Cool James‘ then DJ, Cut Creator, right at the start to the B side of what is, in retrospect, a mess of an album. Story themes, styles and samples… they look to have come from a multitude of sources as the LP tries to be all things to all people, and end as a hotch-potch.. one thrilling to a then 15-year-old but not now.
Rock The Bells features understandably, which no-one would object to, but the Johnny Be Goode guitar riff is a dated and prominent sign of an artist and label who’d hit worldwide with I Need Love but were equally aware that a full hardcore rap or bedroom schmooze set would not deliver dollars. It’s post-Raising Hell, it’s post-Licensed To Ill. It’s designed to make hits but instead comes off as bitty and unsubstantial. (Kanday and My Rhyme Ain’t Done still sound nice though.)
10. Grandmaster Flash‘s Adventures on the Wheels of Steel (1981, Sugar Hill) is here only as an acknowledgement that it can’t not be included. Much has been written about it and many more words are destined to flow over it. However it’s the Mona Lisa of the Louvre that over-shadows every other painting located nearby; by respectfully downplaying it – and with it the excellent 1999 remix by the Scratch Perverts – the aim is to do something similar to when the Invisible Scratch Pickles were retired by the DMCs in ’94 order to give their challengers a chance. Let’s make some noise for the other guys.
9. Ultramagnetic MCs Moe Love on the 1 and 2 from Funk Your Head Up (1991, Ffrr/Polygram)
In a 2013 Unkut interview, DJ Moe Love was asked how long he spent putting his ‘scratch records’ together. ‘I took my time doing that’ was his under-stated response.
He stands half-on, half-off to the right of the LP sleeve looking a little shyer than Kool Keith and the others, his Radio Raheem full knuckle rings just about on show. His tune selection is a Who’s Who of funk and soul glitterrati: Kool & the Gang, James Brown, the Parliaments.
The Nautilus break keeps peeking out as ‘Huh’s from James and Flav‘s ‘kick that shit’ punctuate the wall of noise. First ‘M-O-E’ then ‘L-O-V-E’ is spelt out but it’s that impenetrable bank of sound that pins the listener down. The Ultras already had form for funkiness (check out Funky from ’87 on Next Plateau), but this is step forwards into a dense post-Bomb Squad world, a plotted maelstrom where the turmoil is violent in its effect though not in its intentions.
8. Original Concept To The Beat Y’All from Straight From The Basement of Kooley High (Def Jam/CBS, 1988)
Like those latter crews The Afros, Pharcyde and Digital Underground, Original Concept had a light-hearted juvenile way about them, one where drugs, poonani and kicking back reigned supreme.
‘What are you people on dope?’ is the preface to the track, taken from a scene in Fast Times At Ridgemont High in which a teacher berates slacking students, fully in keeping with the goof-off high school vibe of the album. As an album it’s uneven, but Charlie Sez and Runnin’ Yo Mouth are still uproarious, chaotic and addictive.
To The Beat Y’All is not strictly speaking a DJ cut – and one can imagine it being a throwaway inclusion given the raps are a little lethargic and there’s a Batman-type background chorus of na-na-na-nas however the line ‘Easy G’ll take the cut and the beat will be steady’ ushers in a nice bit of transforming that easily stands out amongst the other elements of the track.
In decrepit yet still captivating footage DJ Easy G Rockwell can be seen battling Cash Money at the 1987 New Music Seminar semi-final. Man had crabs and flares as well as most at that time. Easy G and Original Concept currently reside in the ‘where are they now?’ drawer but they were once players.
7. Eric B. & Rakim Eric B Made My Day from Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em (MCA, 1990)
While Moe Love packed the full kerboodle into his workout, Eric B. always let it be known from the get-go that he was a man who came correct whilst only armed with a few battle weapons. With four descending blown blasts from Bustin’ Loose and then a backwards spin-back of Funky President, this has a slightly rickety, swaying style that adds to it appeal – like the old family car which you’ve grown to love for and not despite its faults. ‘Goddam that DJ made my day’!
6. Public Enemy Terminator X Speaks with His Hands from Yo! Bum Rush The Show (Def Jam/CBS, 1987)
There’s no cuts or scratches present so the title could be said to be a little misleading or disingenuous, but it figures that PE are hinting at a super-power or a man evolved from mere human status who stands within their masses. It’s a beat suite that simply stitches together two other tracks – M.P.E. and Timebomb – whilst that walking bass-line from The Meters’ Just Kissed My Baby just rides and rises. Flav bookends the track and it’s a neat encapsulation of PE taking care of business their way. A legendary way.
5. Public Enemy Terminator X To The Edge of Panic from It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam/Columbia, 1988)
Bounce! ‘Bad by his damn self’… that’s Norman Rogers AKA Terminator X. The description of their DJ as an ‘Assault Technician’ is a fitting and obvious endorsement of the battle weapon PE had at the back of their stage when live. Queen‘s bassline to Flash throbs out with a glimpse of its now-shredded guitar before the familiar, still thrilling wailing horn of the JBs‘ Grunt blares out; Terminator X then takes the choruses as he cuts up a vocal snippet from Big Audio Dynamite amongst others. Then, as of now, ‘who gives a fuck about a Grammy?’ indeed…
4. Jungle Brothers Sounds of the Safari/Jimmy’s Bonus Beats from Straight Out The Jungle (Gee St/Warlock/Idlers, 1988)
‘Don’t front on the Jimmy’ has shed its pro-condom message since it was first unwrapped from its packet but both of these efforts by DJ Sammy B – and the whole of a great debut LP – have more than stood the test of time. The latter loops up Jimbrowski but Sounds of the Safari throws pet shop doves in with Jimmy Castor and a Salsoul homage to Ennio Morricone‘s spaghetti western scores into the mix, resulting in a balanced and not over-loaded production which still manages to be both sonically open and a delightful scratch fest.
3. DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff from Rock The House (Champion/Word Up, 1987)
In which our heroes adhere to the notion of the rapper introducing his DJ. Two verses come from Will Smith before the chorus opens up to devotes the whole shebang to boosting his ‘disc jockey’.
‘Destruct’ and ‘fresh!’ are transformed nicely by Jeff Townes aka Jazzy Jay with an ‘oh my God’ reminding us this is the era of Doug E. Fresh. There’s always a hint to be heard that this duo were going for broke when it came to including ‘novelty’ sounds.
‘It’s Jazzy, Jazzy, his name is Jeff’ doesn’t especially stand out any more out loud than on this screen, but it’s a part of a call-and-response with Smith before Townes goes on to roll out his bird song and chirrups. He then throws in Good Times and Ain’t It Funky but not before a JJ-turned-autobot delivers the triplets that Quincy Jones approvingly spoke of when Grandmaster DST cut up on Herbie Hancock‘s Rockit. A walk in the park for a DJ who has long gone under the radar regarding skills and vinyl gems.
2. Jurassic 5 React/Acetate Prophets from Power In Numbers (Interscope/UMG, 2002)
Four strong sides of vinyl are on show here and neither of these two Cut Chemist showcases let the vibe drop for a second. As with the No. 1 choice on this list, there’s a taster to the main course. React gives us ‘tunnel vision’ in the atypical CC/Shadow style of shoe-horning in B movie sci-fi lines, drawing our attention to this DJ’s need to start a narrative by hand alone.
As the majority of tracks on this nice album are produced by either CC or DJ Nu-Mark, it’s understandable that there’s barely a second between tracks – all of which are deftly constructed sums of their parts that match the lyricism of Charli 2na and company.
Acetate Prophets open with a peal of a steel pan drum before the listener is in the thick of what could be said to be a continuation of No. 4 on this list due to the heavy universal drums and backwards vocal chanting. A haunting wind-like sample from The Hump by Buster Williams pops in and out. There’s a blast of what sounds like Dorothy Ashby‘s harp – which would fit with the rare finds on show – but it’s Ray Manzarek from The Doors. There’s a lot of MPC work here and the whole kerboodle is as juicy, rare and full as a standard Kenny Dope mix tape. In other words, it’s all gold…
1. Eric B. & Rakim Eric B. Is on the Cut/Chinese Arithmetic from Paid In Full (4th & Broadway/Island, 1986)
Here are two fine exercises in minimalism, in bending wavering time parameters and showing how to derive as much as possible from one scratch and a punched-in percussive crash. Out of a trim ten tracks on this magnificent freshman debut, two are DJ tracks and one is an instrumental extended beat. Neither of Eric B‘s sole efforts are hidden away at the end of a side (and neither should they). These are front and centre.
Eric B Is… is the entree and Chinese… the main; the menacing yet enticing sparseness in both draws you in. These few elements are worked and worked until they’re bending backwards in supplication to their creator. These tracks should be situated in a direct continuation of Planet Rock, 19th Fleet‘s Star Raid, Fantasy 3‘s It’s Your Rock and Supreme Born Allah‘s Two, Three Break in their delicate Other-ly electronic melody and cyborgian beats and percussion.
What’s noticeable and clearly discernible is how we’re on 33 and not 45 rpm in terms of both playing speed and attitude. By slowing down proceedings, Eric B. works it and swings it from start to finish, taking his damn time over it. As Run-DMC once put it, perfection.