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.
10. Nelson George
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."
This clothing store sat on 125th Street in Manhattan, and its storekeeper, Dapper Dan himself, designed many an outfit for many rappers in '88. To quote Dapper Dan, "the rappers wanted to look like the gangsters," and proof of this rests on the cover of the classic '88 album: Eric B. and Rakim's Follow the Leader. The cover art portrays the duo fully clad in ghetto-altered Gucci sweatsuits (a Dapper Dan signature) with their names weaved into their backs. Dapper Dan's gained more notoriety in '88 when Mike Tyson broke his hand after getting into an altercation with fellow heavyweight Mitch "Blood" Green outside the boutique. The champ was going in to purchase his custom-made jacket with the title of the '88 P.E. cut "Don't Believe the Hype" articulately sewn onto the back of it.
6. The Nike Air Jordan III
Fashion has always been a supreme element of hip-hop culture, and the sneaker, is a main ingredient. There has also always been a street-aesthetic intersection between hip-hop and basketball. Nike and Tinker Hatfield designed and marketed the Air Jordan III in '88 by creating the Jumpman logo (a staple in hip-hop fashion) to signify Michael Jordan's NBA Slam Dunk Contest victory. By pairing Mike with Mars Blackmon (from Spike Lee's 1986 film, She's Gotta Have It) in an ad campaign, the sneaker company laid a pop-culture foundation for the Air Jordan brand as well as the groundwork for a bourgeoning hip-hop consumerism.
5. The SOURCE
What would ultimately become the powerful voice for hip-hop began as a newsletter in '88. While students at Harvard University, David Mays and John Schecter began critically analyzing rap music with The SOURCE pamphlet and gained a growing group of admirers anxious for such scrutiny in hip-hop culture. The SOURCE magazine has spawned many imitators since its humble beginnings, and the brand continues to be a prominent player in hip-hop journalism and beyond.
Alas, Jesse Jackson never fully embraced hip-hop culture, but in his second stint as a presidential candidate in '88, the Reverend won 55 percent of the vote in the Michigan Democratic primary and bested all other candidates in total number of pledged delegates, guiding the belief that he was the front-runner for the nomination. Indirectly, this moment also introduced hip-hop to the political scene. The possibility of Jesse Jackson becoming the first black president helped to expand the conversation between rappers and listeners into the political realm. Jesse did not win the Democratic nomination in '88, but this conversation has clearly been resurrected 20 years later, as Barack Obama and a significant cadre of emcees speak openly and honestly about the future of our country.
Influential writer and intellectual Barry Michael Cooper is credited with identifying the definitive sound that marked the direction of black popular music in the late '80s as "New Jack Swing," but the production of this hybridized musical composition of hip-hop and R&B was attributed to a young artist named Teddy Riley. In '88, Riley molded an edgy sound that mixed between and mingled with various black musical genres (think Bobby Brown) and changed the face of black popular music forever.
Following the fatal stabbing of Julio Fuentes during the '88 Dope Jam concert at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, Jive Records exec Ann Carli and Billboard editor Nelson George brought together a cooperative of supreme New York rappers to respond to rampant urban violence and hip-hop's negative media attention. The collective included KRS-One, Public Enemy, Stetsasonic, MC Lyte and a host of others, and was called the Stop the Violence Movement. The movement would go on to record a vital cut in hip-hop (and popular music) history, "Self-Destruction," and donate all proceeds from the 12" single to the National Urban League.
1. Yo! MTV Raps
Thanks to the courage of the late director/producer Ted Demme and the cultural sense of Fab Five Freddy, hip-hop culture would be broadcast nationally for the first time on cable television's biggest music outlet, MTV. Many critics rightly consider "Yo!" the most revolutionary cultural moment in television history, as the Saturday afternoon, hour-long program brought hip-hop culture to living rooms worldwide, suburban and otherwise and truly changed the game, for better or worse, forever.
Nicholas James is an educational consultant for Hip Hop Scholars, Inc. and teaches cultural studies at The Philadelphia School.