“Said a hip hop,
Hippie to the hippie, the hip, hip a hop,
and you don’t stop, a rock it out.”
Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang was released in 1980, and was the first rap song I ever heard. I was 14 years old, and growing up a white, Jewish kid in the suburbs of Chicago, rap music that was completely foreign to me. I found the song to be a satirical curiosity. I had never heard lyrics like this before, and the music was distilled down to a simple beat. Whenever I heard the song, it made me smile.
Rap music was made by people I didn’t know, and it came from places I didn’t visit. My friends and I easily dismissed rap music. “That’s not music.” “What’s the big deal, I could do that!” But over time, I recognized the necessity of rap. These were important stories that needed to be told. The songs were honest, sincere, angry, joyous and endlessly creative.
Rap music then began to contextualize their new songs by including samples of older songs, and it was through this sampling that I finally found my way to rap music I could identify with, understand and enjoy.
It is easy to dismiss music we don’t understand, or music that feels completely foreign to us. But, by including snippets of songs we know, rap songs become a little more familiar, they give the sampled songs a new life, and a new way for us to listen to the new songs, and the old songs.
1. “Express Yourself,” by NWA masterfully samples the horn riffs and bass lines of “Express Yourself” by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Written by Ice Cube and performed by Dr. Dre, it is the one song on the Straight Outta Compton album that does not use any profanity, and yet ironically demands an expectation of freedom of expression and action.
2. I first found “Ghetto Bastard,” by Naughty by Nature on MTV in the early 1990’s. The video was a sparse, honest document of life in the ghetto. Drugs, crime, abandoned children. And yet, an eternal optimism was offered in the chorus, which featured a brilliant sample from “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley. Yes, everything is going to be all right. Perhaps the finest sample in a rap song I have ever heard.
3. “Eye Know” by De La Soul is an immediately inviting, airy and open track off Three Feet High and Rising from 1989, regularly called one of the finest hip hop albums of all time. “Eye Know” features a sample of “Peg” by Steely Dan, with the familiar refrain of “I know I love you better.” Sing along!
4. The opening bass line from “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed, three simple notes fluidly sliding from one to the other, is so immediately recognizable that when you first hear the same bass line opening “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest you are surprised to hear a light, lively percussion track rather than the low, flat tones of Lou Reed singing about a girl named Holly, who was from “Miami F.L.A.”
5. The track begins with an old recording of a woman speaking. “Ladies and gentlemen, as you know we have something special down at here at Birdland this evening. A recording for Blue Note records.” “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” is the excellent first track off the excellent 1993 album Hand on the Torch by Us3. Blue Note records, the venerable jazz recording label that began in 1939, saw the value and legitimacy of rap music in the early 1990’s, and gave Us3 unlimited access to its vaults to include samples in their tracks. The lead track on the album is also their biggest hit, featuring a sample of “Cantaloupe Island” by Herbie Hancock.
6. “Walk this Way” by Run DMC represents of the earliest, and most successful intersections of rap and rock and roll music. Rather than simply sampling, Run DMC actually covered “Walk this Way” by 1970’s rock monsters Aerosmith. A song that already featured rapid fire lyrics, this was a natural choice for recording by just the right rap artists. Recorded over 30 years ago, it still sounds as fresh and vital today as the day it was recorded.
7. The group Arrested Development was part of a socially conscious group of artists, along with De La Soul, that ruled the airwaves in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s. Their track “People Everyday” is a plea for peace and equality amongst African Americans, and it features the wonderful chorus from “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone.
8. Kanye West is always challenging and controversial, but there few artists who are more creative or inventive. “Gold Digger” not only features lyrics from “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles, but the lyrics are sung by Jamie Foxx, who played Ray Charles in the brilliant biographical movie “Ray.” What a brilliant way to combine the present and the past.
9. Chicago rapper Rhymefest is a big Michael Jackson fan. While Michael was still alive, Rhymefest recorded an entire album of Jackson inspired rap songs. Unable to formally get permission to use the Jackson songs, Rhymefest made the entire available to fans for free. The last track on the album, titled “Man in the Mirror” perfectly echoes the message and tone of the original Michael Jackson song (personally, my favorite Michael Jackson song) while making it more personal and contemporary.
If you are unfamiliar with rap music, you think rap music isn’t for you, or you think that rap is not even a valid form of musical expression, give these songs a try. They are creative, they are accessible, and in many cases, they speak a truth that is important to hear.