1988: A Ground-breaking Year In Hip Hop
The level playing field is a concept that has become foreign to the hip hop scene. The line of division has become clear: mainstream radio/video clearly wants nothing to do with anything that isn’t “trap music” or watered down, R&B influxed “pop rap”. Simply put there’s no diversity in the hip hop game anymore, at least as far as the mainstream is concerned. Originality has become a dinosaur, a lost concept as the only rap videos you can see on television now pretty much sound like they were all written and produced by the same person. How the times have changed.
Hip hop fans from the older generation fondly reflect on the glory years of hip hop……the 1980’s. Creativity was at an all time high as this still-somewhat new genre of music was being taken in all sorts of uncharted territory, both lyrically and sonically. Perhaps the greatest single year for this virtual explosion of future classics was 1988. It seemed as if a week did not go past where a groundbreaking album was being released that forever changed the game and loaded our vinyl and cassette collections with great music. No album sounded like anything else out there. It was one of those rare moments in history where all the proverbial and literal stars aligned in the hip hop universe to create a musical explosion and push the genre to heights and popularity previously unseen.
On the one hand, concious/political rap became a powerful force and one of the greatest offerings of that genre was released in the form of Public Enemy’s landmark sophomore effort It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. This was a clear statement of self conciousness, pride and unadulterated rage towards the injustices of the American system against minorities complete with a perfect sonic backdrop of frantic beats from the production team known as The Bomb Squad. In the same vein, Bronx hip hop collective Boogie Down Productions released their second effort By Any Means Neccesary. In the wake of the tragic and violent death of DJ and BDP co-founder Scott LaRock,the group took on a more political stance for this album than on their début, signified by the album cover…KRS-One leering out of a window while holding a semi-automatic weapon in a tribute photo to Malcolm X.
These brash, political statements were just one aspect of the many different subject matters being explored in hip hop that year. Perhaps the most shocking release of the year was the release of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. These five young guys from California basically reinvented the way rappers expressed themselves (no pun intended) with this shocking yet riveting look at life in poor West Coast neighborhoods,where gang violence was raging and kids were dying on a daily basis. This album was raw and unapologetic and broke new ground in so many ways. The group would continue their momentum the same year with the release of member Eazy E’s solo debut Eazy Duz It.
1988 was also a historic year for debut albums from legends of the game. Slick Rick dropped his long-awaited debut The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick. Two guys out of Long Island, NY by the name of EPMD released their influential debut Strictly Business. Marley Marl’s Juice Crew continued staking their claim as a hip hop powerhouse to be reckoned with Big Daddy Kane’s debut Long Live The Kane, Bizmarkie’s debut Nobody Beats The Biz and Marley’s own debut album In Control Vol. 1. We also saw the introduction of another great crew as The Jungle Brothers were the first group out of the Native Tongues collective to release an album, Straight Out The Jungle.
On the heels of their debut album one year prior that pretty much re-shaped lyricism in hip hop, Eric B. & Rakim released their follow-up…the appropriatedly titled Follow The Leader. Over in California, West Coast pioneers Ice T. and Too Short released their seminal albums Power and Life Is Too Short, respectively. Hip hop was just breaking all types of barriers as the hit single from Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince,Parents Just Don’t Understand from their sophomore album He’s The DJ,I’m The Rapper would go on to win the first ever Best Rap Performance award at the Grammys the following year. Not bad for a genre that just a few years prior had been dismissed by the music industry as “not real music” and “noise that was a fad and would soon die out”. Not to be outdone by the fellas,the ladies were also reppin’ in ’88 with the releases of Salt-N-Pepa’s A Salt With A Deadly Pepa and probably my personal all-time favorite female MC, MC Lyte’s Lyte As A Rock.
So, so many great albums. So many great moments all within the span of a 12 month period. And I still haven’t covered them all. This was the peak of the first full decade of hip hop and a great lead-in for the final year of the decade. These artists ended it with a bang, all bringing their A-game and laying the foundation for what many consider the last truly great era of hip hop, the 90’s. Here’s the thing though. Back in that era, all these different artists with different sounds and styles co-existed and received equal exposure to the masses, giving the fans a variety of music that guaranteed we wound never grow bored of our beloved hip hop. You could tune in to video shows such as Yo! MTV Raps, Rap City and The Video Music Box and see artists from opposite ends of the spectrum like N.W.A. and Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince in the same show. That’s the most glaring difference between hip hop then and now…there was a level playing field. A&R’s and radio/video programmers did not control the content of this music. Artists had that artistic freedom to experiment and create some of the most beautiful and memorable music ever. This is why all those classics were released in those years. Those who were there to witness it just feel fortunate to have been a part of history and newer generations can still go back and re-discover this great music. Indeed,this was the golden era.
What were the stand out albums for you in 88? Drop a comment below