Hip-Hop's Magical Year

After 20 years, we celebrate the people, the politics and the art that made the movement.


Twenty years ago, hip-hop music was in its Golden Age. Recently Rolling Stone listed the "15 Albums that Made Rap Explode." All were works released in '88, and all laid the seeds for hip-hop's dominance of popular music years later. From the political and sonic boom of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to the sweet savvy of MC Lyte's Lyte as a Rock, the '88 albums pioneered fresh stylistic forms, rapped in unique regional flavors and delivered across the globe.

In his '88 Village Voice article "Nationwide: America Raps Back," Nelson George explained: "Rap spread out from New York to attract a loyal national audience. New York rapped and America listened and…is rhyming back." That's exactly what happened when West Coast pioneer Ice T released Power, legendary Oakland rapper Too Short dropped Life is…Too Short and Born to Mack, Philadelphia's DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince earned hip-hop's first Grammy with, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, and of course, the Compton-based crew, N.W.A., also released two albums in '88: Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-E's solo debut, Eazy-Duz-It.

Not only did the rap music industry swell in '88, but the collective culture forced its way into the social, political, economic and popular ethos across American soil. In the spirit of '88, I offer my Top 10 list, in freestyle form, of the moments, people, the politics and catalysts that made that year magical.

This acclaimed author, journalist and producer was one of the first critics who recognized the broad cultural significance of rap music during the '80s. Having written articles in the Village Voice and serving as black music editor of Billboard magazine, Nelson George used his journalistic savoir-faire to force literary and critical media to review rap as black popular music, in the same vein that R&B was being reviewed at the time.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, also known as SAMO by way of his early graffiti endeavors, joined, captivated and unequivocally changed the art world. With the assistance of pop-art luminary Andy Warhol, Basquiat made a healthy living as a painter and was en route to iconic status before dying of a heroin overdose in the summer of '88. His cultural influence can most readily be found in the lyrics (and hallways) of hip-hop artisans from Fab Five Freddy to Jay-Z.

Rarely regarded as hip-hop cinema, this '88 film was the first to offer an insightful perspective into the vicious world of gang violence in South Central Los Angeles between the infamous Bloods and Crips. Unfortunately, the film was not received well by critics, and in spite of the success of the soundtrack's title song by Ice T, Colors failed to soften the resounding blow of what was on the horizon in the form of West Coast hip-hop; otherwise referred to as "Gangsta Rap."