Friday Five: Old Skool Rap 2

Here’s part two of my old skool memories, this time with a nod to the West Coast…

5. “The Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground (1990)
In the late 80s, MC Hammer and Digital Underground were probably the two biggest hip-hop acts out of Oakland. Both crossed over to the mainstream in 1990, Hammer with his massive hit “You Can’t Touch This” and Digital Underground with this humorous track that became their signature tune. Digital Underground had already had a hit with 1989’s “Doowutchyalike.” Their sound followed the sampling traditions of the West Coast but they added something of an alternative Bay Area kind of feel to everything, too. In 1990 one of my friends and I spent hours playing the song and memorizing the lyrics. To this day when we see each other we can get through the first half.

4. “It’s Funky Enough” by The D.O.C. (1989)
The members of N.W.A. were all a part of the debut album from The D.O.C., as both performers and producers. No One Can Do It Better, the debut album from The D.O.C.——a rapper from Texas who also contributed to N.W.A.’s recording career as well as Dre’s solo masterpiece The Chronic——was a West Coast game changer.

3. “Express Yourself” by N.W.A. (1988)
If you’re talking West Coast ra, you don’t get bigger 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, the debut album of this historic gangsta rap group. I could have chosen a host of tracks from the album (side one starts with “Straight Outta Compton” and the goes to “Fuck tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta”——perhaps the mightiest first three tracks on a rap album) but this one is close to my heart. Not only do they pick a rich funk song to sample (Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s song by the same name) but they use it to create a classic dance track that’s also hard-hitting lyrically. When I got to college I would try to request this song at every DJ dance. They never seemed to have the record. Figures.

2. “Posse on Broadway” by Sir Mix-a-Lot (1987)
Anthony Ray was from Seattle. The song, from his debut album, makes references to the Capitol Hill neighborhood he knew well. Since just about everybody comes from a place where there is a Broadway, I’m sure some of that specificity was lost on the listening public. Sir Mix-a-Lot became a big deal five years later with “Baby Got Back” but this, his first hit, was no slouch. While it never crossed over to the world of Top 40 pop, it was a hit in every sense of the word. I think just about everybody I knew could at least sing the chorus.

1. “The Gigolo Rapp” by Disco Daddy and Captain Rapp (1981)
Also known as “The Gigolo Groove,” this song is considered by many to be the first West Coast rap song. The song is by Larry “Captain Rapp” Glenn and DJ Michael “Disco Daddy” Khalfani, two well-known LA figures whose brief union made history but didn’t make much of a splash in the music world. History has been kinder to them than the charts. Glenn was inspired by the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” but their song goes further in lots of ways. The roots of West Coast rap——in particular its sampling of funkier and groovier sounds from the 70s——are all on display here.

Friday Five: 1990

It was a good year for me, a big year.

In 1990 I graduated high school and started college. For a young Chicano, who came from a family who didn’t have a lot but always had enough, that was probably one of the more important transitions in my life. College changed my world.

My world had already been one that contained transition, hybridity, and knowledge of the multiple. We were a family of both immigrants and US-born. We were spread throughout East LA, in Chicano suburban barrios in the San Gabriel Valley, and Mexico. Like the movements my grandparents made, my dad and mom and two sisters also made movements. We went from working class to middle class in my youth. We went from a family of 5 with no college graduates to one with one, and then another…until we were 5 bachelor’s degrees, 4 MA degrees, and 2 PhDs.

My world was dominated “minority” people, communities, and cultures. It was centered on the late-20th century US popular culture, but also on African American culture (especially West Coast black culture), on Chicano-LA culture, on Filipino second-generation culture. We gravitated to and drew identity from the strands of popular culture that were often not the mainstream, dance club music, funk and soul, hip-hop. As I participated in other cultural strands–notably hard rock and some heavy metal–I never stepped out of the shared culture I knew, I never ceased to be conversant in it or to draw identity from it.

This is the thing about not being part of the mainstream in the United States, when that mainstream negates your existence culturally, socially, and politically. You still are rooted to communities that operate in all those realms, you developed your own sense of “peopleness” as you do, but you also become expert at the culture that is simultaneously “yours” and “theirs.”

And then came college. In college I entered a space that was dominated by a specific kind of late-20th century cultural whiteness, a place that was brutally unaware that their way (of thinking, dressing, having fun, dancing, of hoping) was not the only way. It was an introduction to a new world for me, including new music, but also a long process of coming to terms with who I was/am. My main advantage was that I knew them and the content of their world when they did not know mine.

Part of my growth was a greater awareness and appreciation for the culture I came from. Songs I never liked all that much, styles of music that I knew but did not necessarily love, became more meaningful to me then. They were markers of my community, the one I had left to come to college. They were ways of embracing my difference, my special knowledge, a process that helped protect me from what could sometimes be a difficult adjustment. They were also declarations of my knowledge, my rootedness to a world that “they” never knew existed.

That happened at the same time parts of that people-of-color culture (we didn’t call it than then, not yet) were becoming fully intrenched in the mainstream, too.

Here are five songs from 1990 that represent that for me.* They are not songs unknown to anyone, certainly not to others of my generation. But what they meant for us was, I think, distinct than what they meant for the upper class white kids at my college.

5. “Mama Said Knock You Out” (LL Cool J)
“Don’t call it a comeback!” With that line LL Cool J begins a powerful and aggressive track that would become his biggest hit of all time. He was a very well-known person in my world well before 1990. He had been up and down already just in the period of my high school years. Songs like “I Need Love,” “Going Back to Cali,” and “I Need a Beat” were classics to my young mind. The punch of this chart-topper made it a favorite to dance to in those years at college. It was like a musical declaration of your oppositional strength.

4. “Poison” (Bel Biv Devoe)
You can’t get more mainstream than Bel Biv Devoe, the trio that spun off from 80s boy group New Edition. It was that history, though, that made them mean something more. We had grown up with them, they were “our” boy band. And when they became kinda crude (and sexist) and obvious with their breakout song “Poison”––reminding us “Never trust a big butt and smile”–it somehow seemed right, it seemed authentic. Their success made you, well, proud.

3. “U Can’t Touch This” (MC Hammer)
This might be the biggest song of the year, a commercial hit that made Oaktown rapper MC Hammer a household name, and his baggy pants a cultural phenomenon. But he wasn’t new to us. Hammer’s “Turn This Mutha Out” was played at every house party I ever went to, a track (like Rob Bases and DJ Eazy Rock’s “Joy and Pain”) that never failed to fill the dance floor. When “U Can’t Touch This” played at my senior prom, there was a humor and celebratory feel to it. It was both stupid and, strangely, ours.

2. “Humpty Dance” (Digital Underground)
“Alright, stop what ‘cha doin’, ’cause I’m about to ruin, the image and the style that you’re used to.” I want you to know that I typed those words without listening to the song or checking them online. I can go all the way to the end of the song that way, too. Digital Underground was a funny, creative, eclectic grouping. Known for being the starting point for the career of Tupac Shakur, their 1990 album Sex Packets spawned two hits, “Doowatchyalike” and this classic. Digital Underground’s album was pretty dirty, something that wasn’t in-line with the success of this single, but something that somehow made it more authentic. There’s no assimilative politeness or decorum here.

1. “Groove Is In the Heart” (Deee-Lite)
I remember being at a freshman orientation dance in college, an event that took place the week before classes started, a social held outside in the middle of a closed-off street. I was feeling it already, the feeling of being one of so very few of who you were, the feeling that was a stark contrast to the world I had know, to the world that made me. It comes with bursts of confidence, of fear, of self-doubt and, later, anger. When this song came on it seemed like, for a precious moment, there were only people of color dancing in the streets. I don’t have words to explain what that meant. Deee-Lite, the multiracial dance/funk/club group, who were clear precursors to acts like Black-Eyed Peas a generation later, never hit it bigger than with this song from their debut album. It featured funk legend Bootsy Collins, a man I thought was in the group until about a decade later. The song is a classic, both now and then.

*The word “classic” is going to be used a lot here.