That was until I met Queens' finest...LL Cool J.
His delivery was chill. Low. Almost a whisper. He was cool'd out. Not like Eazy E or Rev Run. He had the posture of a hoodlum, but the strut of a ladies man. He didn't resort to the jokery or gimmicks of Fresh Prince. LL was the kinda rapper you wanted to be in real life. The video was "Goin' Back to Cali."
As I watched the video, LL's style, demeanor and delivery had me hypnotized. I had finally found that cat that rolled together what I liked about hip hop. I liked the cool confidence of rappers. I wasn't really into gangsta ish. I didn't know much about crime, shooting up buildings, killing cops and robbing banks. I knew absolutely nothing about drugs or women so much of the music that I was exposed to was much like listening to a foreign language. You can start piecing some of it together, but it still makes very little sense.
LL, however, delivered his lines with deliberate articulation in this bored and underwhelmed monotone. He didn't yell (anymore) or rap too fast. It was almost conversational and I heard every single word of that three and a half minute performance.
Her bikini: small. Heels: tall. She said...she like...the ocean.
He was like hip hop's Joe Camel. He was a character that was perfectly crafted to lure me in. His Kangol represented the street fashion I aspired to rock. His pimp-strut was the very posture of cool. The gold watch that dangled from his wrist was the easy money I wanted in on. And everywhere this dude went, there were hot white women girating. Hot damn. I found my first hero.
Finding LL in Lubbock felt like I had finally uncovered something that I could call my own. I knew nothing of his earlier career. I thought this cat was brand new. How would I have possibly known about Radio or Bigger and Deffer?
I barely had an allowance at this point. I could only afford one cassette probably every two months. The second I could afford the $11.99 price of a cassette, I walked into the Hastings on 19th street, went to the "L" section, picked up the only copy of Walking With a Panther, confirmed the song was on there and dropped my hard-earned cash (yeah, right) on the counter. Hip hop was mine.
Footnote: This was before the ruling which required the parental advisory sticker to be adhered to explicit recordings so, while explicit, there was nothing on the package to indicate to me, my parents or to store personnel that they were selling a 12-year old an explicit rap record.
1989 would also mark the first of many mammoth controversies that hip hop would have to fend off when Miami's 2 Live Crew started bubbling under. Their shows were making waves for their shameless and unapologetic display of sexual cinematics and their recordings were likened to the most vile and obscene pornography. So much so that the American Family Association redefined "obscene" and set to shut down the Crew. What they did is, though, is took a relatively regional act and rocketed them to two-times Platinum status as retailers were yanking it from the shelves. Imagine if it had proper distribution and representation at retail during those court proceedings. Nasty would've sold 10 million. Like with NWA a year earlier, it once again proved that America couldn't stop what it itself had created. Hip hop was the voice of the populous and Nasty proved that there was little even the courts could do to shut down a train with the momentum of hip hop. The movement had already begun and there was little anyone could do to slow it down.
1989 also showed that hip hop had a charitable side with the release of two singles: "Self-Destruction" and "We're All in the Same Gang." The message-heavy singles were hoped to help curb gang violence nationwide as "black-on-black crime" became the buzzword. I had a cassette single of "We're All in the Same Gang." I remember someone spilled soda on it at church camp. Gimme my street cred.
It was also the year that MC Hammer blew up with "U Can't Touch This." How could I almost forget. Dude sold 10 million records in 1989. However, don't worry, he's not on this list.
And 1989 would be the first year that the Grammy Association would recognize a "Best Rap Song," DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince's "Parents Just Don't Understand." However, the Grammy Association couldn't find it in their heart to make history on television as the award was not publicized. The result was a public boycott of the event by hip hop's heavyweights. It was a shaky start to what is still a fractured relationship between hip hop and the so-called "authority."
1989! The number. Another summer. You wanted it. You got it. It's been 20 years in the making. Aged like a fine wine. The recordings herein represent the very finest in the genre. It is for that reason that we purposefully omitted Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em. C'mon, son. This is The Root Down. We have standards that we have to live up to. We did, however, include Tone Loc and Young MC because, well, let's be real here: they were dope as hell. Debate as you will but only amongst yourselves. The Root Down will not entertain such frivolous arguments.
Before Nasty, 2 Live Crew was going nowhere like most Miami hip hop. Well, third time would, again, prove charming behind Miami's signature 808 bass, more anatomy jokes than an Andrew Dice Clay set and just enough controversy to catapult the foursome to international notoriety (and into every strip club in America). In fact, there's no way this album would've sold what it did without the help of the Supreme Court...2 Live Crew's best A&R. There's no better proof that, in the hip hop game, bad rap is the best press. Because of the highest court in the land, radio knew what song to play and the end consumer knew the name of the record and what it looked like when they went into stores. And when retailers started pulling it from stores, the hunt was on. Everyone wanted this record. Truth be known, the explicit nature of the record is quite overstated. If you took out three songs and a few isolated verses, it's likely you wouldn't even know you were listening to what is still considered the most explicit album ever recorded. And even "Me So Horny" is pale in comparison to records that get hourly radio rotation twenty years later. The history of censorship is one that comes with some laughable permissions. The truth of the record itself is that it's more a comedy record than a rap record. When the Crew isn't rapping about women's bodies and their own midsection, it's probably the most uncomfortable and forced thing you'll ever hear on a rap record. However, when they're allowed to explore every exploit and talk like a varsity team on the way home from victory, they're like the greatest rappers ever to walk the earth. Musically, though, this record is a paramount release for Miami, a market never taken seriously on the main stage. It introduced what would become the region's greatest contribution to the rap game: 808 bass drum kicks. Those irritating minutes at the stop light would never be the same.
The Cactus Album
De La Soul
3 Feet High and Rising
The two records that top 1989 are almost interchangable depending on what week you catch me. In many ways, they're almost the same record, but alas, The Root Down has to take one over the other because you force me to write this way. There's no tie in baseball (although Selig thinks so). Long Island's finest, De La Soul, redefinied hip hop in 1989 and beyond with their bona fide classic, 3 Feet High and Rising. Besides there not being any model for a hip hop recording of this style (except for maybe the Jungle Brothers' Forces of Nature), there seemingly was no market for a group of self-proclaimed "hippies" performing hip hop. It was a record that almost had too much going on for it to be enjoyable (or listenable, for that matter). Rappers named Trugoy, Posdonous and Maseo were far from household names and their prose was sometimes frantic, other times broken, but it was always unconventional and, to the listener who was used to being able to rhyme along with their favorite rappers as they cruised from intersection to intersection, it provided a challenge. What the hell were these dudes talking about? Potholes in the lawn? Plug one, two and three? Jenifa? De La Soul created this almost-Wonderland-like soundscape where lyrics only led to more mystery and inside jokes created on whim were like cryptic messages intended to confuse. And the smokescreen was Prince Paul's marvelous and, often times, beautiful production. His kitchen-sink approach was a departure from his accomplishments at Stetsasonic. De La Soul's creative approach matched perfectly with a producer of Paul's ambitions where he could flex creatively to almost boundless levels. Take "The Magic Number" for instance. Anchored by the child-like refrain of Bob Dorough's "Three is the Magic Number," Paul then adds drums from Led Zeppelin's "The Crunge," James Brown's "Funky Drummer," and quick samples of Johnny Cash, Eddie Murphy, Syl Johnson, Double Dee and Steinski, the Fatback Band and even 2 Live Crew. That's only in one song. Barely three minutes. Everything was game to Prince Paul and, not to discount De La as emcees, but it's the production that made this record. You can't put any other producer in the role of making this record. We wouldn't be talking about here twenty years later. The album boasted almost an unheralded seven singles with four of them charting proving that the mix had popular appeal. That this goofy, anti-gangsta, neon-green and pink hip hop record could actually drive people to the dance at the clubs, but also satisfy the more distinguished hip hop listener. It was immediately lauded by critics as a landmark recording in musical history. It was the record that the Village Voice would proclaim as the "Sgt. Pepper of hip hop." To that point in 1989, such claims hadn't really been made. No one was comparing hip hop recordings to Beatles records and critics weren't seeing their impact as larger than hip hop as a whole. 3 Feet destroyed that wall. Hip hop records were now being discussed by smug critics who were used to writing about rock acts. It bridged the gap between hip hop and those high-brow features in music mags and newspaper who dedicated columns to the new Pixies record, Coltrane reissues or another tired Springsteen interview. Hip hop finally had a classic.
And then there was...
Why is Paul’s Boutique the best hip hop recording of 1989? I suppose for many reasons, but probably none greater than this.
Because it shouldn’t have been and I’m a fan of the underdog.
Let’s build a little context here. When we last saw the Beastie Boys, it was three years earlier as the beer-guzzling Jewish kids from the City who abandoned their punk roots and, essentially, snuck into the party through the back door, landed a spot on Def Jam and enjoyed short-lived popularity as those guys making party records for frat boys and white trash who enjoyed the rock sentiment of Licensed to Ill. They took a style that had already been rocked by Run DMC and repackaged it and sold it to a broader and paler audience. Hip hop had its Elvis…three of ‘em.
Licensed to Ill was a readymade party record. And, for what talent the Beasties were lacking, they accommodated by just doing everything bigger. The drums weighed a ton, the rock riffs were deafening and the managed to scream almost every verse on the record. As little as they had to work with, they more than made up for it with charisma and annoying boyish energy. From “Girls” to “Slow Ride,” “Brass Monkey” to the anthem “Fight For Your Right to Party,” Licensed to Ill defined the Beasties and still does today to many listeners. The failure in Licensed is that it wasn’t built for the long haul and as soon as the radio play ended and the opening slots on stadium tours dried up, the Beasties were discarded and given the dreaded “one-hit wonder” attachment. They disappeared and, largely, no one really cared. At the end of 1986, no one took them very seriously anyway. They were the flavor of the month. The pop machine had claimed another career.
With nothing to fall back on, the Beasties boldly jumped Def Jam, the most popular label hip hop had ever known and relocated on Capitol Records, who was somewhere between Crowded House singles and working the next Megadeth and Tina Turner records. They hadn’t yet successfully broken into hip hop. It really could’ve been any label, but it just happened to be Capitol. The benefit to the move was that allowed for the Beasties to sever their ties with Rick Rubin whose production influence dominated the first record. Moving to Capitol would allow them musically explore the next step in their career—what was left of it. They also geographically relocated to L.A. and bunkered up to work on their next album. They recruited two unknown DJs to head-up the production by the name of the Dust Brothers. Recorded in just over a year, Paul’s Boutique was set to release early in the summer of 1989. The Beasties were in it one for all and all for one. Refreshed and reborn.
It’s ominous sleeve which was a street shot of the clothing store in the Lower East Side by which it shared its name echoed the mystery and intrigue of Zeppelin’s Zoso. The inside bore no pictures of the Beasties except an unrecognizable image of the three underwater. Nowhere were their names printed. Only lyrics and unexplained images of different fish. You wouldn’t know you were holding a Beasties record had it not said it on the spine. For a group that hadn’t been heard of for three years, they certainly weren’t trying to spark any familiarity.
They abandoned the entire package of Licensed to Ill. And when the needle hit the wax, it was apparent it wasn’t the same Beasties that had left the scene. And this clearly wasn’t Licensed to Ill Part. II. If Licensed was sponsored by Budweiser, Paul’s Boutique was sponsored by your local coke dealer. They traded in their ripped denim for polyester pants and pimp suits. Their delivery was more polished. Still loud, but more varied. Gone were the first-person perspectives of grabbing asses and chugging Ol’ E. They were replaced by third person accounts of drifters like the Egg Man, Johnny Ryall and Shadrach. “Time to Get Ill” was now the violent Taxi Driver-like fantasy of “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”—which remains one of the hands-down greatest Beastie tracks ever. In fact, much of the record is a deliberate aversion to radio as the lyrics are inaccessible and unintelligible, the songs had no catchy hooks and some songs were just too damn long.
The samples laid the groundwork for the record. Rubin’s sparse production was replaced by a galaxy of drumbreaks, grunts, Tijuana horns, bongos and more funk than any one listener could handle. It included everything from the Beatles, Black Oak Arkansas and James Brown to Donny Hathaway, Sly and Family Stone and Pink Floyd. In fact, most sources quote around 110 individual samples that make up Paul’s Boutique. In fact, at some points in the album, you have three different drum breaks working simultaneously under the vocals. The complexities of the album set it far apart from any other album of its kind.
But, as history would prove, the greatest recordings are not always the most popular. Just a few months into the album and without another single to give radio (except for “Hey Ladies”), Capitol abandoned the project. Paul’s Boutique was just going to have to sell itself.
Ten years later, the album went double platinum. Twenty years later, the same album that Capitol bailed on was getting the 180-gram vinyl treatment and was remastered digitally. There are very few records from 1980s hip hop that are almost unanimously regarded as truly great musical achievements. Paul’s Boutique is one of them.