Clockwise from top left to center: Salt ‘N Pepa, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Slick Rick. Photo: VandieB.com

Stepping (but ain’t no half-steppin’) Into the Golden Age of Hip Hop (1986–1987)

Depending on the historian being asked, the Golden Age of Hip Hop ran from 1986/1987 to 1993, or as far as 1999. It is perhaps generally accepted that the Golden Age began when Run DMC stepped into the commercial spotlight in 1986 with the release of Raising Hell, which charted as high as #6 on the Billboard 200 and reached #1 on the Billboard R&B charts for 1986.

The Golden Age of Hip Hop is well known for being the period of time during which hip hop really entered its adolescence, breaking from the Old School of Hip Hop into new territory where the fundamental techniques were being explored, reshaped, broken and rebuilt and expanded upon. Also, and more importantly for artists hoping to make a living on this rap stuff, the Golden Age brought real commercial viability. MTV signed on, and even the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences at least made appearances to be signing on, if only to capitalize on attendance and viewers by having nominees perform on television broadcasts of the GRAMMY Awards.

Single cover for Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)”.

Many sources agree that the Golden Age ended with the ruling in Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc., 780 F. Supp. 182 (1991). The Grand Upright case involved Gilbert O’Sullivan, Irish singer/songwriter of a song called “Alone Again (Naturally)”, and Biz Markie, who sampled O’Sullivan’s work for “Alone Again” off his third album, I Need A Haircut.

It can be quite a tiresome discussion if you get yourself caught up with a Golden Age zealot. “Golden Agers” often back you into a corner and tell you how commercialism destroyed hip hop and how “it was all so pure before the majors started paying attention.” How easy it is to look at hip hop at a time when it was really coming into its own but before your little brother or sister was graduating from Kris Kross cassingles to your A Tribe Called Quest tapes and your Das EFX CDs.

For those who subscribe to the Golden Age as being demarcated on the back end by the commercial success of hip hop, the flaw in that boundary marker is that the Golden Age started when Run DMC crossed over into the mainstream, most memorably with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith breaking through the wall between practice spaces (oh, my, is that actually a stage?) in the “Walk This Way” video. This was a watershed moment in hip hop when one of the most popular bands of the day shared the stage with the banner carriers of a new genre.

Perhaps the beginning of the end of the Golden Age is the release of Biz Markie’s I Need A Haircut in 1991 and the aforementioned injunction granted Gilbert O’Sullivan against Biz and his label for the sample in “Alone Again.” Having seen The Turtles successfully sue De La Soul for a track on 3 Feet High and Rising, O’Sullivan and his team got a smaller payday ($250,000 for O’Sullivan as opposed to $1.7 million for The Turtles) but managed to change how hip hop was released by major labels henceforth. Now samples had to be cleared with the rights holder. This usually meant money. If the artist seeking clearance had a big name, then the rights holder wanted a big check. Conversely, if the rights holder wanted exposure from a big name, they might be willing to back off of the big check.

Original artwork for Biz Markie’s 1991 release, I Need A Haircut.
Album art for All Samples Cleared, 1993.

Even Biz Markie managed to have a little fun with his legal plight from 1991, releasing an album in 1993 called All Samples Cleared. Perhaps an oddity of The Biz, perhaps a consequence of lawyers still mastering the science of clearing samples, perhaps a reality of trying to pay for the samples in the first place, half of the tracks on the album sampled the same song, albeit five different versions of it.

We, however, are getting to the end without concentrating on the beginning.

Album artwork for landmark Eric B. & Rakim release, Paid In Full, 1987.

After Run DMC’s 1986 breakthrough (or Steven Tyler’s break through, depending on how you view it), in 1987 the Beastie Boys became the first rap act to reach #1 on the Billboard 200. There is, however, another arguable starting point for the Golden Age: the release of Eric B & Rakim’s Paid In Full on July 7, 1987 via an Island Records subsidiary. Charting five singles, this album is widely accepted as one of (if not the) greatest hip hop album releases of all time. Paid In Full peaked at #58 on the Billboard 200 and at #8 on the R&B charts. By mid-1987, then, the Golden Age of Hip Hop is in full swing and New York is in total control.

Where most rappers to this point follow simple rhythms and cut their teeth rocking a crowd and being hype on the microphone, Rakim elaborated complex polysyllable rhymes in a relaxed, thoughtful, almost narrative flow. Rakim is widely cited by other Golden Age and Modern Age emcees and rappers as an influence, and is a perennial contender for G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) recognition amongst hip hop critics and fans who argue things of this nature.

“My favorite song might be ‘The Punisher’ that I did. My favorite verse might be . . . “Go manufacture a mask show me after/A glass of a master that has to make musical massacres.”

Rakim himself has referenced “The Punisher” from 1992 Eric B. & Rakim release Don’t Sweat the Technique as his favorite song and containing his favorite verse of his career. This is a perfect example of verses that use internal rhyme, where the rhyme occurs in internal phrases across multiple lines (“bars”) of lyrics. Reaching back to debut Paid In Full again, “My Melody” contains the following example of internal rhyme, a new style that Rakim mastered, demanding greater lyrical mastery from golden age emcees:

My unusual style will confuse you a while/If I were water, I’d flow in the Nile/So many rhymes you won’t have time to go for yours/Just because of applause I have to pause/Right after tonight is when I prepare/To catch another sucker-duck emcee out there/My strategy has to be tragedy, catastrophe/And after this you’ll call me your majesty

Perhaps a more illustrative example of internal rhyme comes from “The 18th Letter (Always and Forever) from Rakim’s solo debut, The 18th Letter:

Shine permanently only my mind’s concernin me/Fire burns in me eternally time’s eternity/Followers turn on me they’ll be in a mental infirmary/
Determinedly advanced technology better than Germany…

In addition to the mastery of technique by emcees like Rakim, the Golden Age is known for highly political lyrics from the likes of KRS-One and Public Enemy’s Chuck D.

Album cover for Boogie Down Productions’ “Edutainment”, 1990.

KRS-One is the sole constant member of Boogie Down Productions, an essential player in the history of hip hop as a whole, not just the Golden Age. Along with DJ Scott LaRock (who was murdered within months of the release of BDP’s debut release) and D-Nice, KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions famously got into a beef with Queensbridge hip hop collective the Juice Crew (of whom Biz Markie was an affiliate) about whether hip hop originated in the Boogie Down Bronx or Queensbridge.

Video for “The Bridge Is Over”.

“The Bridge Is Over” is the quintessential diss track, credited for the single-handed destruction of the career of Juice Crew member MC Shan. The BDP/Juice Crew beef began with the release of Shan’s 1985 B-side “The Bridge” (the A-Side was MC Shan’s single “Beat Biter,” an LL Cool J diss track). MC Shan rhymes on “The Bridge”:

You love to hear the story, again and again/Of how it all got started way back when/ . . . /The Bridge, Queensbridge

BDP responded in 1986 with “South Bronx”, which resulted in 1987's Juice Crew cut “Kill That Noise”, and hip hop has declared the war won, Bronx and BDP taking the title with “The Bridge Is Over.” Queens was not outdone in the end, as another of the best to ever take the mic, Nasir “Nas” Jones, relased his dominant classic Illmatic in 1994, at the tail end of the Golden Age.

The early days of the Golden Age also saw the first show of rap strength by women in the hip hop arena. Roxanne Shanté, associated with the Juice Crew, was not afraid to step into the diss/response record ring with “Roxanne’s Revenge,” a song which pilfered the beat from Full Force’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” and directly responded with great force. Many artists jumped in and went after Shanté.

Album art for Salt ‘N Pepa’s “Hot Cool & Vicious”, 1986.

Salt ‘N Pepa debuted in 1986 with Hot, Cool & Vicious, which included their own response record, “The Showstopper,” which was a diss record answering Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show”, which appeared on Fresh’s 1986 LP, Oh My God!

Hot, Cool & Vicious is, of course, most well known for “Push It,” the song that put the trio (with DJ Spinderella) on the map, charting at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1987. “Push It” was not on the 1986 pressings of the album, but was added to later pressings after the single caught fire in 1987.

If one is inclined to argue that 1987 marks the true beginning of the Golden Age, an excellent case can be made. This is a year that saw many crucial releases, including the breakout of West Coast gangsta rap via Ice-T and Rhyme Pays.

“6 in the morning, police at my door/Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor . . .” the opening bars of Ice T’s “6 ‘N The Mornin’” are memorable lyrics, and have the same cadence and rhythm as Eazy-E’s rhymes on “Boyz-N-The-Hood”, another classic track with introductory bars that are instantly recognizable.

Album art for “N.W.A. and The Posse” released in 1987.

1987 also saw the debut of N.W.A. and the Posse (as they were originally called) and the original mixes of many classic N.W.A cuts including “Boyz-N-The-Hood.” Many of these songs ended up on the group’s proper debut, Straight Outta Compton, and by that time both the period after the “A” and the Posse were gone from N.W.A’s work.

Straight Outta Compton album art.

Along with Paid In Full, undeniably a classic release debuted in the summer of 1987, that year brought us Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded, the debuts of Public Enemy with Yo! Bum Rush the Show and Philadelphia’s DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince in Rock the House, as well as LL Cool J’s second LP, BAD: Bigger and Deffer (with the lyrical proof that Ladies do, indeed, Love Cool James in “I Need Love”).

LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” video, the lead track on BAD: Bigger and Deffer.
Video for “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” lead single from the debut album of DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince.

Fans of DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince celebrated Jazzy Jeff’s cuts and scratches as well as Fresh Prince’s story raps. The two met in 1985 as the story goes, and Smith played the role of hype man when Jazzy Jeff’s regular stand-in failed to show up on time for a set at a house party. All was well in the end, as the duo won the first ever Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance in 1989 with “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, further demonstrating their knack for graffiti-strewn video sets and story raps that young listeners all over could relate to. Finally getting a category at the Grammys could arguably be proof positive that hip hop was being recognized in the mainstream awards arena, but that year (and every other since) has not been without controversy as the award is rarely, if ever, televised as part of the television broadcast of the Grammys. More on the controversy of the hip hop awards, and various awards shows, later.

So, by the end of 1987, hip hop was beyond entrenched in the vast landscape of New York City, but had made its mark in Compton and L.A. as well as Philadelphia, with more cities soon to follow. Many of the greatest rappers to ever grab a mic came from the mid-80s stretch. KRS-One, Rakim, LL Cool J, and more left an indelible mark on the legacy of the genre as it long passed crawling, had learned to walk, and was now jogging heartily into the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.


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