Logo for “Yo! MTV Raps”, debuted in August 1988.

Diving Into The Golden Age of Hip Hop (1988–1990)

In August of 1988, MTV debuted the pilot episode of “Yo! MTV Raps” with Eric B. & Rakim’s video for “Follow the Leader” from the album of the same name. Given that, at this point in time, MTV was the place to go for hearing new music, this was no small thing. Peter Dougherty, who co-created Yo! MTV Raps, tapped Fab 5 Freddy to host. While Run DMC hosted the pilot episode, Freddy became the face of Yo! MTV Raps after it formally debuted along with co-hosts Dr. Dré and Ed Lover who covered the weekday programming while Fab took the weekends.

Pilot episode of Yo! MTV Raps (1988).
Fab 5 Freddy, as featured on a Yo! MTV Raps trading card (which the author collected and probably still has somewhere).

Fab 5 Freddy was a prominent figure in New York Hip Hop in the early 1980s, and was a great choice to be an embassador for rap music as it pushed into the mainstream culture. Freddy figured heavily in the making of the classic film “Wild Style”, full of emceeing, DJing, graffiti art, breakdancing, core elements of the Hip Hop culture. He was perhaps the obvious choice to make rap music take over the airwaves during this crucial period.

Yo! MTV Raps enjoyed a good run as far as MTV programming goes, lasting until August 1995, making it to a seventh anniversary before being cancelled. The program brought rap music into millions of homes, expanding the reach of rap and hip hop and its attendant fashions and cultural elements across the globe.

Another breakout in 1988 was English-born emcee Slick Rick. In his early years, Slick Rick was affiliated with Dana Dane as part of the Kangol Crew, as well as with Doug E. Fresh’s Get Fresh Crew.

Slick Rick. Photo Credit: www.redbullmusicacademy.com

Ricky Walters is immediately recognizable to many due to his iconic eye patch and the amount of gold he adorns himself with. Fans of hip hop, however, recognize his unique voice and cadence. Slick Rick got his break on “La Di Da Di,” a B-side to a Doug E. Fresh track, “The Show.” Known as MC Ricky D in 1985, “La Di Da Di” is an iconic ‘story rap,’ covered by (among others) Snoop Doggy Dogg on his debut solo LP, Doggystyle.

It was The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (1988) that cemented Rick’s place in hip hop. “Children’s Story” is a perfect example of Slick Rick’s story raps, narratives with a beginning and an end, told with imitative voices as if to bring life to the characters of the tale. Slick Rick’s legacy was at best put on pause and, at worst, stunted irretrievably when he was jailed for a 1990 shooting. He plead guilty to shooting his cousin and took an attempted murder charge. It was this arrest that started an almost twenty-year long attempt by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to deport Slick Rick from the United States, as he is not a citizen and would not be eligible for citizenship after a conviction. That is, until 2008 when New York Governor David Paterson granted Rick a full pardon. Prior to that, however, Rick was jailed again (this time for seventeen months) in 2003 when ICE picked him up entering the United States through Florida after performing on a cruise ship. Rick managed to release several more albums between these run-ins, but only 1999's The Art of Storytelling managed to garner as much acclaim as The Great Adventures of Slick Rick did eleven years earlier.

Back to 1988, Big Daddy Kane figured prominently in that year, as well. While his single “Raw” from 1987 is one of the best examples of his style, it did not make it onto his albums. Produced by Marley Marl, “Raw” displayed his fast-rapping skill that truly set him apart from peers who rhymed more or less on the beat. Big Daddy Kane compressed lyrics so that his bars consisted of complex rhymes, compounding them with puns and double entendre.

Big Daddy Kane repping Cold Chillin’ and the dookie-rope chains that remain a staple in hip hop iconography.

Affiliated with Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, Kane also co-wrote songs with Biz Markie before releasing Long Live The Kane in 1988 on Cold Chillin’ Records. He followed that album up a year later with It’s A Big Daddy Thing which helped close out the 1980s on the charts. Kane’s lyricism remains widely respected and considered among the best to ever do it.

1988 was a year of several firsts: MC Lyte debuted with Lyte As A Rock. N.W.A released their first proper LP, Straight Outta Compton, which brought the West Coast into the rap conversation. The Jungle Brothers debut with Straight Out the Jungle, the first step into the hip hop foray by the collective Native Tongues.

The world and Boogie Down Productions lost Scott La Rock in 1988, and BDP was for all intents and purposes no more. KRS-One stepped forward as a more philosophical emcee, often referring to himself from this point on as “The Teacha.” He would go on to form the Stop the Violence movement, which resulted in two 1989 hip hop supergroup singles, one from the East Coast (“Self Destruction”) and one from the West (“We’re All In the Same Gang”).

It was not until 1989 when the first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance was awarded to DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The second award, in 1990, went to Young MC for “Bust A Move”. The very next year, the rap Grammys were split into Best Rap Solo Performance and Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Leave it to Quincy Jones to take the inaugural version of the latter, albeit with Big Daddy Kane, Ice-T, Kool Moe Dee, Melle Mel and Quincy Jones III for “Back on the Block” from Quincy’s album of the same name. To be fair, the album won seven awards that year including Album of the Year. The rap Grammys were awarded to each of solo and duo/group performances until 2012 when the duo/group award was eliminated (probably because duos and groups are less popular in contemporary rap music). Awards for Best Rap Album were added in 1996 (Naughty By Nature — Poverty’s Paradise) and Best Rap Song in 2004 (Eminem — “Lose Yourself”)

Hip Hop is not hip hop without controversy, however, and the Grammys have been no exception to inviting it or otherwise creating it. The 1990 award to Young MC demonstrated the Recording Academy’s failure to understand rap music and what makes it worthy of an award, and the television broadcast of the Grammys has historically and conspicuously failed to include the awards in its programming, awarding before the television broadcast or only televising one of the multiple awards being offered — this even though rap has become a dominant force in the popular music charts, controlling the Billboard Hot 100 and other non-genre-specific categories for years now. Other widely-agreed-upon flubs include awarding Macklemore & Ryan Lewis over Kendrick Lamar for Best Rap Album in 2014.

Album art for De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising.

Before the end of the 1980s, Hip Hop had plenty more to say, though others would try to silence it and the labels profiting from the music would not do much to protect hip hop artists. De La Soul released 3 Feet High and Rising on March 3, 1989. The album is critically acclaimed and the popular single “Me, Myself & I” stands as one of the best tracks of the decade. In fact, De La Soul may stand next to the sometimes-seen-as-3, sometimes-as-4 (if you count Jarobi) A Tribe Called Quest as one of the groups most emblematic of Golden Age hip hop.

Unfortunately, as mentioned in an earlier piece, De La Soul came into a great amount of legal trouble for 3 Feet High and Rising. Having sampled wide genres of music, including Johnny Cash, Hall & Oates, The Turtles (the ones bringing the legal troubles), and more, De La Soul had not cleared their samples (that is, obtained permission from the rights holder) before releasing the songs and the album. Upon gaining success, rights holders sought a payday. They got it.

As of the publication of this piece, you cannot buy De La Soul’s early work (pre-Stakes Is High) new or digital. Warner Music Group, which holds the rights to De La’s albums in question, has not made the effort (paid the money) to clear the samples.

House Party movie poster, 1990.

Hip Hop was not new to movie theatres in 1990 (see the aforementioned “Wild Style”), but when Kid ‘N Play’s House Party came out in 1990, it contained elements of comedy (Martin Lawrence was in it, after all, playing Bilal) and love interests (Sydney, played by Tisha Campbell who also played Gina on Martin when Lawrence got his TV show) and antagonists like Stab, Pee-Wee, Zilla and even Kid’s dad, Pop. House Party embraced the party element of hip hop, while Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing utilized hip hop in its soundtrack, most particularly Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Hip hop and rap music would play more and more significant roles in films into the early 1990s.

Good or bad, 1989 was the year that the hammer dropped on popular culture: MC Hammer, that is. Hammer had one album prior to Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, but it was this album that left his mark on popular culture indefinitely.

Album art, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em (1990).

Six months later, Vanilla Ice followed with To The Extreme and the infamous “Ice Ice Baby.” These two albums solidified the place of popular rap music on the charts and have combined for sales of 35-plus million records to date. The golden age of hip hop does not claim these albums, but the two albums may represent a “gilded age” of profitability for these two performers and many who slid onto the charts after them.

For all of the commercial success with no critical acclaim for Hammer or Vanilla Ice, 1990 did not come without a crucial album release: A Tribe Called Quest debuted on April 10 with People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythym. The same group later responsible for introducing the greater universe to Busta Rhymes from Leaders of the New School as a solo emcee (on The Low End Theory’s “Scenario”) introduced themselves with “Can I Kick It?”, “Bonita Applebum”, and “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”, all classic hip hop cuts. The group’s debut album did not enjoy the same commercial success as The Low End Theory would, but it did introduce them with much critical acclaim, including a “Five Mic” review from The Source.

Five Mic review of A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album from The Source, 1990.

Book-ending this time period, Public Enemy released two classic albums in 1988 and 1990: It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet, respectively. Political emcee Chuck D, hype man Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X, The Bomb Squad and other affiliates were surrounded in this period with controversy and, as the 1990 album’s title emotes, fear. Professor Griff was embroiled in accusations of anti-Semitism for comments he expressed, and Chuck D was (despite the ‘popular’ opinion framed of him in the media) fighting racism on the whole by promoting Afrocentrism. As he told SPIN Magazine, “The black man was taught racism and prejudice by the white man.” A cultural awakening of the black population could inform the white population by jarring their eyes open.

Public Enemy. Photo via Rolling Stone.

It Takes A Nation . . . peaked at #42 on the Billboard pop charts, while Fear Of A Black Planet made it to #10. Both albums were certified platinum, and both albums had multiple unforgettable, eternal tracks. Both have been lauded as some of the best hip hop albums of all time. In a sense, the music and the emotion surrounding Public Enemy defined the time period: a rising up of artists, mostly black, challenging a white status quo and making history in the process in a time period for a genre of music and artistry that is almost sure to not be replicated in the lifetimes of those who lived to witness it.

From here, hip hop seems to branch into — at its most basic — two groups: the conscious/experimental work and the oft-maligned but valuable culturally and commercially gangsta rap.

This series will next turn to the years 1991–1993 and the height of the Golden Age of Hip Hop. Follow the author on Twitter @anygiventues. I’d love your support to help me keep researching and writing: Show how much you loved this particular piece or maybe you want to support on a sustaining basis and get some perks?