Let’s go back in time children, back to the early days of hip hop. Well, early relative to my life. Let’s keep it East Coast this week…
5. “Flavor of the Month” by Black Sheep (1991)
Black Sheep was a duo with roots in Queens, New York. Dres and Mista Lawnge both relocated to North Carolina in their youth, which is where they met and got started. I’m sure this had something to do with their sound. This was their breakout single from their debut album, an irresistible hook with the jazz elements that were the calling card of the so-called “Native Tongues” hip hop collective. Black Sheep might not be remembered for much more than this song, but they were also the first hip hop group to appear on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
4. “Me, Myself, and I” by De La Soul (1989)
I can’t say enough about De La Soul. It sounds like an exaggeration, but this trio of rappers from Long Island, New York changed the world in 1989. They did. Pioneers of the “Native Tongues” collective, their sound was so distinctive when it hit the airwaves that you couldn’t not listen. As a teenager who just started going to parties the year they came out, De La Soul was one of those sounds that took a garage dance to another level. They were among a handful of music makers that were on everybody’s playlists.
3. “Mary, Mary” by Run-DMC (1988)
Run-DMC came from Queens, too. By 1988 they were at the top of their game and the top of the heap of the world of rap. Perhaps the most enduring hit from their underrated 1988 album Tougher Than Leather, this “cover” of Michael Nesmith’s (of the Monkees) song is a slice of everything that made Run-DMC so distinctive. The rock-tinged sound still felt new in 1988, even after they and producer Rick Rubin (not the last time he’s on this list) had made that historic combination two years earlier with their cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” Run-DMC’s lyricism had become something more by this time, and the skills of Jam Master J on the turntables is undeniable.
2. “I Ain’t No Joke” by Eric B. & Rakim (1987)
Eric B. & Rakim’s debut album Paid in Full was a “game changer in the world of hip hop. Most agree that the Long Island-based duo elevated lyricism and rhyming to a new level, and that made others up their game. That brilliance is all over the place in this, their second single release. Rakim is doing what nobody was doing and before you knew it, everybody was doing it. “I got a question, it’s serious as cancer / Who can keep the average dancer / Hyper as a heart attack nobody smiling / Cause you’re expressing the rhyme that I’m styling…”
1. “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” by LL Cool J (1985)
James Todd Smith from Queens became LL Cool J because the “Ladies Love Cool James.” Sounds about right. This track is from LL’s debut album Radio, which was also the first full-length album release by Def Jam records. Produced by Rick Rubin (who’s pretty influential in hip-hop history), this showcases LL’s talents while providing a stripped down sound with that defined so much of hip hop at the time. Easily one of the most influential rap songs ever. If you can put it into its context (1985!) and hear it with fresh ears, you might understand what a phenom LL was.