Can You Feel It: Why 1984 Is Hip-Hop’s Watershed Moment (Food For Thought)
Last year, Hip-Hop turned 40 years old—as far as we know. In truth, part of the culture’s beauty comes from the fact that there is no genesis moment. From the ancient cave-side hieroglyphics to the late ‘60s tags of TAKI 183, graffiti existed as a fascinating balance of expression and rebellion at once. Attention-grabbing dance moves persisted through the ages, long before cardboard or a safe distance was necessary, or Michael Jackson broke out The Robot alongside his brothers on “Soul Train” in 1973. Sound selectors testing the limitations of the phonograph needle is something that Dancehall and Dub fans experienced decades before Clive Campbell (a/k/a DJ Kool Herc) emigrated to the Bronx from Jamaica, with radio personalities across the United States fighting against format to give the people the bits and pieces of a record that excited them most. And in truth, from The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron’s candid poetry over production, to Muhammad Ali’s iconic banter, to Malcolm X (and a host of other social leaders) “rappin’” with the People, to James Brown’s own mastering of the ceremony, Rap was only a structured extension. All of the elements of Hip-Hop were there before there was a term for it, and long before mainstream media ever deemed it necessary and important enough for coverage.
However, in the contextual lens that we use (and we cannot downplay the benchmark moment when DJ Kool Herc shared his “merry-go-round” with BX partygoers, involving The Incredible Bongo Band, Babe Ruth, and the aforementioned “Godfather of Soul”), Hip-Hop’s biggest years are often misleading. Following the inaugural 1973, there is 1979, the year that The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became an organic movement, and for most people of the day, afforded an opportunity to own a Rap/Hip-Hop record, or hear one on radio. Nine years later, 1988, iconic voices like Public Enemy, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, N.W.A., and Ultramagnetic MC’s would elevate the MC artform to a pinnacle of rhyme complexity overtop enhanced, complementing production. Six years later, Common would seamlessly embrace its past and courageously embark on its future journey in 1994, a year that spawned the full introductions from Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., and OutKast, with additional hallmarks from Common, O.C., and Scarface. Three years later, Hip-Hop, reeling from the murder of Tupac Shakur, would lose Biggie Smalls to the hand of gunfire, amidst a stint of music marred by threats of violence, Pop-seeking choruses, and far less innovative production. However, as these years appear in books, conversations, and a host of reflective cultural coverage, there is often another year, another chain of events that is lost in the milieu. Thirty years ago right now—in 1984—Hip-Hop changed as we know it. Had the artistic, industry, and cultural movements of that year not transpired as they did, Heads would be nodding to a different beat, dressing differently, dancing differently, and Hip-Hop might have merely been the fad our forefathers fought so hard to disprove.
In its meantime and in-between time, Hip-Hop has always thrived on singles. From the tail-end of the 1970s, record-buying Heads were consuming Hip-Hop in the form of 12” records. No matter how far you were from the five boroughs, records were available (if only for the stores in the know). Picture covers were sparse, meaning that record junkies trusted labels, like Sugar Hill, Enjoy, Tuff City, and others. While Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, and Kurtis Blow had all dabbled in album-making, these packagings played out like K-Tel compilations—vehicles to sell singles for more money. The notion of a Hip-Hop album being studied as a sum of its parts was not a reality. With Hip-Hop mobilizing on two simple sides to 12” singles, one at a time, the movement felt volatile. Like Punk in its infancy, Hip-Hop was dependent on living, tangible moments—in the parks and clubs, with the creators transmitting the culture first-hand. Rap music desperately needed to prove its staying power, its range, and its art—not to a society, but to the media, who often confused the genre as an addendum to Disco, if not an ephemeral art-form dependent on stealing music, and throwaway rhyming couplets.
The savior, as it were, came from a Hollis, Queens trio. In order to knock Hip-Hop off its axis, Run-DMC needed to start with a clean-slate. While Run (now Rev Run) emerged from his place as one of Kurtis Blow’s two DJs, Run-DMC ignored convention. Rather than embrace the Disco-inspired style of dress, the plush, dance-friendly basslines, and saccharine choruses of many of the present-day stars, Run-DMC looked with one eye to the streets, and another to Rock & Roll. Leather jackets, Kangol hats, “dookie rope” chains, and unlaced Adidas made Run-DMC stand apart from the pack in the best way possible.
With their foot in the water a year to the month earlier in the form of breakthrough single “It’s Like That,” Run-DMC released their self-titled debut album on March 27, 1984. To match the trio of Run, DMC, and Jam Master Jay’s style of dress and confident visages, producer Larry Smith supplied the group with a tight-packed arrangement of hard 808 drums and guitars. Rather than a smooth delivery intended for the dancefloors or bodies in motion, Run-DMC syncopated their rhymes to the metre of nursery rhymes or limericks. However, the pair’s edgy cadences were gritty, making the music the perfect accompaniment to the sidewalk or just hanging out. The glitz and glam of Rap music was stripped away to a seemingly regular conversation between guys talking about hard times, sucker MCs, and a 30 day trial-offer. “Hard Times” took a page from some of the best Hip-Hop on wax to date–Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” as well as Rap’s first gold single, Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks.” Conversely, the two Krush Groove segments of the debut album honored the Wild Style presentation from Cold Crush Brothers and Busy Bee. Run-DMC bridged the gap in the Hip-Hop of the previous five years, and the Hip-Hop of the next 10 years. In 1984, a Damascus of fashion, pop culture, politics, and culture, the Hollis Crew was exactly what it took to make Hip-Hop and Rap music survive the times.
Run-DMC, the album, took itself seriously. Run and D never flinched in delivering their rhymes with a grimace. While Grand Mixer D.ST’s scratches alongside Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” a year prior revolutionized the turntables as a percussion instrument, J.M.J expanded those notions hugely. “Jam Master Jay” devoted all attentions to the DJ, like a drum solo routine in Jazz or a live Rock concert. “Jay’s Game” took the excitement of scratching, and overdosed. The way that Hair Metal of the era was leading with flashy guitar solos (and custom axes to accomplish them), Jay freaked the funk on his Technics in a way that complemented his band-mate’s rhymes. The two MCs also made it a point to involve the DJ on the Rap record as an equal.
The world responded. Run-DMC nearly cracked the Top 50 of the charts for Profile Records. The album peaked higher than Kurtis Blow, Rap’s resident album-maker of the time, had in five attempts. From a small, newer label, Run-DMC’s style and edge were reaching White America, and more than casually. This album proved to be more than a vessel to carry two singles. In a year when Wham’s “Wake Me Up…” and “Careless Whisper,” Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” were the five biggest hits, Run-DMC reminded the world that it wasn’t just a party. In the face of Reaganomics, there were “Hard Times,” and if you want to know why, “It’s Like That,” and that’s the way it is. Just as they had done within the fashion, production, and presentation in Hip-Hop, Run-DMC reminded the world that all was not sweet.
Although Run-DMC’s greatest hits would forever be recorded for Cory Robbins’ Profile Records, the trio’s success and formula afforded seed money for Def Jam Records. For Run’s brother Russell “Rush” Simmons, who was an early ‘80s manager for Kurtis Blow, Whodini, and others, watching his pet project skyrocket to stardom only made the fast-talking, uber-confident Rush believe even more in himself. Joining forces with Rick Rubin, a New York University student who was running around with Afrika Bambaataa’s right-hand-man and DJ, Jazzy Jay, Russ’ and Rick formed Def Jam Records. Around their 1984 inception (Def Jam is currently celebrating 30 years in business), the label took on developing acts like LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, and T La Rock—all of whom impacted the direction of Hip-Hop massively, in different ways.
While Def Jam truly dug its imprint into the soil in 1984, there was a vehicle to set the table for years to come: Fresh Fest 1984. Due to Run-DMC’s far-reaching success, the Hollis Crew—like any burgeoning stars—needed to hit the road. With Hip-Hop still living and breathing in hard-to-reach places (something that would change by year’s end), Russell Simmons sought to orchestrate the ultimate traveling exhibition. Fresh Fest ‘84 would be headlined by Run-DMC, and feature Whodini, The Fat Boys, and Kurtis Blow. Additionally, in a feat that may sound strange even by today’s festival standards, the tour also included The New York City Breakers (Beat Street), Turbo and Ozone (Breakin’), and the New York City Double Dutch Jump Rope Squad. Nine years removed from Hip-Hop’s inceptive year, the Fresh Fest still connected the dots to at least three of the four elements of culture. For many cities outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, these tour stops were the first tangible experiences of a culture previously received only on wax.
For one of those elements, Breakdancing, 1984 was also a watershed year. Beyond just its tour and promotional component, Beat Street also helped the unique form of Hip-Hop dance reach the masses. The film, an Orion Pictures-backed $16 million box office draw, dramatized the movement as it was happening, even if Rae Dawn Chong may have seemed like an atypical B-girl. The film featured Hip-Hop’s Godfather, DJ Kool Herc in a rare mainstream appearance, as well as incorporating Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force, Doug E. Fresh, Jazzy Jay, The Furious Five, Treacherous Three, and the Rocksteady Crew. Albeit Hollywood, the film towed the line of authenticity, at least affording the groundswell of new audiences to touch and feel Hip-Hop from its original source. By 2014 standards, would a film made today extend itself to involve the players from a decade ago? Doubtfully. On the opposite coast, Breakin’, also incorporated into Fresh Fest ‘84, showed Hip-Hop happening in Los Angeles. Featuring the first Ice-T mainstream appearance, this MGM film, showcased the competitive world of break-dancing. The film grossed nearly $40 million domestically, and in addition to Ice, featured involvement from prominent character actor Christopher McDonald as well as an early, uncredited appearance by Jean-Claude Van Damme. Both of these films presented Hip-Hop as a real thing, with lives—albeit dramatic—connected to the lifestyle.
While Run-DMC’s music legacy out of 1984 may have endured the most , there were two other significant albums that further make a case for ‘84’s indelibility. As Joseph, Darryl, and Jay axed Hip-Hop from Disco in sound and style, The Fat Boys challenged the conventions of what rappers should look and sound like. Existing stars like Kurtis Blow, Spoonie Gee, and Grandmaster Melle Mel were to some extent sex symbols of their time. Kurtis Blow had the trimmings of a Disco star, with a strong female appeal, while Spoonie Gee made one of the first “Love Raps,” as Mel showcased his muscles right beside his mic skills. The Brooklyn, New York trio of The Fat Boys were none of these things. Prince Markie Dee, Kool Rock-Ski, and the late Buff-Love were—well, fat. An easy target for the gimmick or novelty tag, the Fat Boys were none of these things. With early Sutra Records releases under the “Disco 3” moniker, this crew was among Hip-Hop’s first mainstream groups to employ beatboxing. While early raps made light of the trio’s love of junk-food and plus-sized tees, the members’ deft rapping abilities, aforementioned beat-boxing, and ability to not take themselves so seriously made them a fast favorite. While Krush Groove, released in 1985 would amplify the trio’s charm, May, 1984’s self-titled debut LP charted in the Top 50, despite a fledgling label. Moreover, songs like “Can You Feel It” were early East Coast Electro records, and “Fat Boys” served as perhaps the ultimate Rap introduction. Although the group would pander for mainstream appeal later, The Fat Boys, is a stone in the sand of great Hip-Hop from a group with the total package. In no small way did this entity pave the way for Beastie Boys, Bushwick Bill, and The Notorious B.I.G.
Producer/bassist Larry Smith, the musical genius behind early Run-DMC records and Fat Boys records, also was integral to Whodini. Prior to 1984, Whodini had already released a self-titled debut, through Jive Records. Whereas the ‘83 introduction would not prove to be a lasting introduction, October of 1984’s Escape remains one of the most important Rap albums, ever. Jalil, Ecstasy, and Grandmaster Dee hailed from Brooklyn, but made the kind of records that felt ahead of their time, and from no particular place. Within that Jive/Zomba LP, released just days before Halloween, were eight songs, many of which were hits. “Freaks Come Out At Night,” like their borough brothers the Fat Boys, fused Rap with Electro. “Friends” took a page from Kurtis Blow’s relatable raps, and became an anthem for an increasingly distrusting generation. Whodini would eventually work extensively with their former backup dancer, Jermaine Dupri, who would go on to become a music mogul.
In 1984, Hip-Hop was approaching its adolescence, as far as most of the elements were concerned. Those formative years, like with humans, can be defining. In this critical developmental stage, Hip-Hop made so many great decisions that year. The foundation was laid and cemented for the culture and industry that would grow into a multi-generational worldwide juggernaut. Not all of the art endured as it deserved–breakdancing would be subsumed as part of other forms of dance and graffiti would once again be relegated to a subculture. However, Hip-Hop, particularly MC’ing and DJ’ing, was out to build its next act and muffle the skeptics that dismissed the movement as merely a fad. In fact, with a profound respect for its young forefathers, Hip-Hop grew up to birth Pop Culture icons like Jay Z, Eminem and Kanye West. From a musical or commercial standpoint, other years may have been more bountiful, however, without the inflection point so well navigated in 1984, Hip-Hop might very well have become a footnote in the annals of cultural trivia.