Safe for Crackers: Robert Cass Edition

Written by Music, Safe for Crackers

What were you doing in 1986?

If you were a suburban kid with access to a radio or MTV, you were experiencing the dawn of rap as a commercial force to be reckoned with. The genre had been around for awhile, of course, but this was the year it really started to enter the wider marketplace; the year it was cool to wear Adidas, fight for your right to party, and understand that it really didn’t matter whether Johnny and Gina made it or not.

To celebrate suburban rap’s 21st birthday, a number of bloggers, writers, and friends will be sharing their memories of this era, and talking about the songs that acted as their gateway to rap — the music that, in Jason’s words, made it “safe for crackers.” Break out your Bugle Boys and get ready to rock the bells!

Today’s entry comes to us courtesy of longtime commenter, guest-poster, Chartburn member and all-around good guy Robert of Mulberry Panda 96, who took the time to serve up a detailed stroll down memory lane (and a whopping ten downloads besides). Thanks, Robert!

I wonder if my grandparents thought rock ‘n’ roll would be a flash in the pan. It probably looked/sounded like any other fad. But then the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, and there was no turning back. Recently my dad said he was surprised that rap is still around and that it’s become so hugely, undeniably popular. Someone who witnessed rock ‘n’ roll’s introduction to popular culture as a teenager seemed skeptical about this new genre of music when it began popping up on Top 40 radio in the mid-’80s.

When Run-D.M.C.’s version of “Walk This Way” went into regular rotation on MTV in the summer of ’86, I was ten years old. I loved “Walk This Way,” but I sometimes felt like I was the only person in fifth grade who didn’t own Raising Hell or the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill. It wasn’t until Yo! MTV Raps debuted in August 1988 that I began to get excited about rap, because now I had the chance to see what existed beyond the two most popular groups.

On Saturday mornings that fall I learned who MC Lyte, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, and Queen Latifah were; songs like Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” — a towering achievement in music, not just rap — proved that rap wasn’t a fad: it was an art form like any other musical genre and it deserved respect. After 15 years underground and on the fringes of popular music, rap had finally entered the mainstream and was only going to get bigger (if not always better). In 1990 Chicago Reader music critic Bill Wyman wrote, “Even if you’re one of the surprisingly large group of people who still think rap sucks, spin [Public Enemy’s] ‘Fight the Power’ three or four times, and then play your candidate for rockin’est song of all time. I’ve done it: everything else sounded tame.”

I remember consciously trying to memorize the lyrics of P.E.’s “Night of the Living Baseheads” (download) after seeing the video on Yo! so that I could impress some cool black girls in my seventh-grade art class. (They laughed. Draw your own conclusions.) However, the lyrics of Young MC’s “Bust a Move” and Biz Markie’s “Spring Again,” as well as Bobby Brown’s terrible mid-song raps in the otherwise excellent “Every Little Step” remix (download) and “On Our Own,” were seared into my brain with no effort whatsoever. For better or worse, they remain there to this day.

The mid-song rap was a curious trend in R&B in the late ’80s and early ’90s that was most likely borrowed from new jack swingers like Brown: a guest rap was inserted into an R&B track the same way rock bands would shove a guitar solo into the same spot. Off the top of my head, 2Pac’s half-brother Mocedes added about a half-minute to Tony! Toni! Toné!’s “Feels Good” in 1990, and Black Sheep’s Dres did the honors on Vanessa Williams’s cover of “Work to Do” in ’92. Just once I wanted a video to show the guest rapper grabbing his check from an off-camera flunky as soon as the singer jumped back into the song. Those cameos almost always reeked of desperation on both sides.

One other bone I had to pick with rappers in the early ’90s was … well, maybe I should’ve picked it with radio DJs in Macon, Ga., instead. Here was the problem — often I would hear a new song on the radio that I liked and then buy the cassingle or the artist’s album. But those didn’t always have the version of the song I’d heard on Foxy 100 or Magic 101. But … but … where is it?! I wanted the remix of Ice Cube’s “Check Yo Self” that sampled Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” or the version of LL Cool J’s “6 Minutes of Pleasure” that left out those cheesy synthesized horns. This is what I think iTunes’ secondary purpose should be — to collect all the B-sides and remixes you can’t find anywhere these days and make them widely available for the first time. Tracking down the “Hey Girl Remix” of LL Cool J’s “6 Minutes of Pleasure” (download) two years ago took much longer than six minutes.

Back to the good ol’ days — in the summer of ’89 I got to see Yo! MTV Raps Today, hosted by Ed Lover and Doctor Dre, every weekday. The charismatic duo didn’t take themselves that seriously and as a result were far more entertaining than the flagship Yo!‘s host, Fab 5 Freddy. Ed and Dre’s show introduced me to Digital Underground’s “Doowutchyalike” (download) (“Just havin’ fun, y’all, and if you think that it’s wrong / You got to admit it’s a new type of song”) and Def Jef’s gleefully sexist “Give It Here” (download), which feels like it samples a dozen different songs in just over four minutes, and even finds time to squeeze in a snippet of a Richard Pryor routine. Another classic of the “no means yes” variety that’s thankfully more gleeful than sexist — not to mention sneakily subversive — is Positive K’s “I Got a Man,” for which K recorded the male vocals as well as the computer-processed female vocals. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing it.

Sampling may be my favorite aspect of rap (sorry, all you rhyme spitters). Stetsasonic defended the integrity of it in 1988’s “Talkin’ All That Jazz” (download): “You criticize our method of how we make records / You said it wasn’t art, so now we’re gonna rip you apart … / A sample is a tactic / A portion of my method, a tool / In fact, it’s only of importance when I make it a priority.” DJs and producers came up with an especially heady mix of samples in the days before copyright law was enforced so that rhythm pioneers like James Brown could get paid what they deserved. But there’s still something amazing even today about old records being plundered for beats and snatches of lyrics the way collage artists clip magazines and newspapers for their own work. The whole ends up being greater than the sum of its parts; it’s trippy to hear how all those individual parts are deployed.

In fact, my interest in rap and sampling during my teenage years indirectly led to my love of ’70s soul music and artists like Sly and the Family Stone in college and beyond. Looking back, I probably got a little too excited when I discovered that Sly’s “Trip to Your Heart” was the main sample used by producer Marley Marl on LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

Then there’s Main Source’s “Fakin’ the Funk” (download), which builds off a shimmering, echoing sample of the Main Ingredient’s 1971 tune “Magic Shoes” as the lyrics rail against rappers who lack credibility. One group that came under considerable fire in the early ’90s for their supposed lack of street cred was P.M. Dawn, who blended rap, soul, pop, and even soft rock into their laid-back sound. But on 1993’s “Plastic” (download), they shoot back at self-proclaimed rap legends like KRS-One for questioning their knowledge of and devotion to hip-hop. “Plastic” proves that Prince Be is no flower-power pushover: “So now I’m accused of spiking the punch / And I’ll be the scapegoat for faking the funk / But when they set up another prime time beef / What’s hard at first but melts in the heat / They call that plastic.”

The hip-hop producer whose soundscapes and ’70s soul samples interest me the most these days is 9th Wonder, who’s worked with Little Brother, Mary J. Blige, and Jay-Z, to name a few. He received equal billing with Murs on the L.A. rapper’s 2006 album Murray’s Revenge, which is one of the best discs I heard last year — only 32 minutes long, but every track is a winner. The William Bell sample used on “Yesterday & Today” (download) provides a solid foundation for Murs’s evocative storytelling: “9 to 5 to survive, there’s got to be a better way / Than waking up early to punching a clock / How I look, a grown man with my lunch in a box / But my kids need socks and shoes … / The past is the past / I gotta leave it behind, but maaaan / Back on the block I was a bona fide hustler.” Too many rappers these days come across as insecure li’l hothouse flowers, so I hope Murs maintains his sense of humor and self-deprecation in the years to come.

Speaking of insecure rappers, De La Soul followed up its landmark debut, 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), with one of the whiniest albums I’ve ever heard, 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead. Instead of complaining about being pigeonholed as psychedelic rappers, why not show us you’re capable of anything and everything, De La? Dead was a dud, but the more streamlined follow-up, 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate, is my favorite rap album of all time. It leaves out the usual skits and assorted filler for the most part and instead gives listeners one great song after another. The “mindstate” in question is that rap “might blow up but it won’t go pop,” and the slow-burning, jazz-inflected “Patti Dooke” (download) asks why black artists are expected to cross over to the white pop charts but never vice versa.

Of course, as I write this, it’s been years since rap and hip-hop took over the pop charts, MTV, and the world, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to fade away anytime soon. I can’t predict what the next seismic shift in music is going to be, the one that my nieces or my own future children will embrace, but I like to imagine that the new genre will be some sort of mutant hybrid that incorporates traces of easy listening or smooth jazz. Have you never been mellow, future rebellious teenagers? … Have you never tried?