1983: RUN

CREDENTIALS: “It’s Like That” / “Sucker MCs”

It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Run-DMC on the trajectory of hip-hop. Put it like this: The release of the 12-inch single “It’s Like That” / “Sucker MCs” on Profile Records completely changed the game. The A side picked up where “The Message” left off, talking about real life struggles of real people. But where Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s story ended in tragedy, with a body used and abused and hanging dead in a cell—the artists themselves being harassed by cops—”It’s Like That” was defiant and resilient.

War, crime, poverty, prejudice, ignorance, the bum eating out of a garbage can who once was your man? Run’s response was as cold and hard as the streets of Hollis, Queens: “Don’t ask me because I don’t know why.” And what about a solution? “Money is the key to end all your woes your ups your downs your highs and your lows/Won’t you tell me last time love bought your clothes?”

These words defined rap’s new world order, a cold hard cash philosophy that would prevail through Puffy’s “All About the Benjamins” moment and remains unabated in this era of Young Money Cash Money Business. But Run-DMC also tempered this approach with advice to get educated, motivated, and avoid prejudice and bias. These were big ideas for a rap record, but side B of this epic single was arguably more significant.

“Sucker MCs (Krush Groove 1)” was a stylistic broadside against all forms of wackness. “Two years ago a friend of mine asked me to say some MC rhymes,” Joseph “Run” Simmons intoned and suddenly the entire old school was swept away. Before long he was enjoying “Champagne, caviar, and bubble bath” even though he’d prefer to “Cold chill at a party in a B-boy stance.” Run dispensed with all sucker MCs remorselessly: “So take that and move back catch a heart attack.” And while Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell were indisputably dope, there was also no disputing the fact that at the end of the day this was Run’s house.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Melle Mel, Jimmy Spicer, Rammellzee
Call him old school if you must, but Melle Mel was still handling his business in ’83. The Furious Five’s “New York New York” was a streetwise classic while “White Lines” remains the group’s most modern-sounding record. Spitting cautionary tales of cocaine addiction over the beat from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern,” Mel’s booming baritone made a powerful case for his continued relevance.

Meanwhile, as Run-DMC proclaimed the cash money gospel, another Rush Management client, BK’s own Jimmy Spicer rapped about the power of “Money (Dollar Bill Y’all)” and scored the biggest hit of his career, as well as one of the year’s freshest records.

Rammellzee was more of a graf legend than an MC, but in 1983 he and K-Rob created “the holy grail of rap records.” Rammellzee had a bone to pick with Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was a much more celebrated artist at the time. “Beat Bop” was originally planned to be cathartic a battle on wax, but in the end Basquiat did not rhyme on the record (although he did pay for the studio time and created the cover art). The far-out limited-edition single became an underground sensation and set the stage for the futuristic avant-garde expressions of hip-hop artists ranging from the Beastie Boys to Dr Octagon and MF Doom. —Rob Kenner

1984: RUN


CREDENTIALS: Run-DMC

If the “It’s Like That” / “Sucker MCs” single was the warning shot, the release of Run-DMC’s self-titled debut album emptied the full clip. The nine-track tour de force announced that these three teenagers from Hollis, Queens, were rewriting the rules of the rap game, stripping the music down to its elements: a pair of MCs who worked in perfect synch with one untouchable DJ.

Joseph “Run” Simmons got his start in hip-hop DJing for Kurtis Blow. He got the gig thanks to his older brother Russell, who managed Blow. Known as DJ Run, “Kurtis Blow’s Disco Son,” Run began to MC and honed his skills by battling with Blow. He would sometimes record the sessions and send them to his friend Darryl “DMC” McDaniels. Run later emerged as the leader of the group, although what made Run-DMC work was the way they all gelled into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

There were no outlandish get-ups or gimmicky routines, just rock hard beats (courtesy of Russell Simmons and Larry Smith, with electric guitars by Eddie Martinez) and rhymes that spoke clearly and distinctly about real life in a way that the new generation of rap fans had never heard blasting out of their radios before.

With their black Lee jeans and matching jackets, unlaced adidas sneakers, and zero-fucks-given body language, Run-DMC looked as if they had just rolled off Linden Boulevard. No matter how successful they got, they never lost that attitude, taking it with them as they stepped on stages and broke down barriers for hip-hop culture all around the world.

Run put it best in “Rock Box,” which became the first rap video to air on MTV, “My name is Joseph Simmons, but my middle name’s Lord/And when I’m rockin’ on the mic, you should all applaud.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS: LL Cool J, Kurtis Blow, Roxanne Shante
When James Todd Smith said “I Need a Beat” anybody with ears could tell he meant business. This ground-breaking 12″ single on Def Jam Records, produced by NYU student Rick Rubin, announced the arrival of an urgent 16-year-old voice that would soon take over. Kurtis Blow was a veteran by this time, but singles like “8 Million Stories” proved that he was still very much a force to be reckoned with. And 15-year-old Lolita Shante Gooding from the Queensbridge projects caught the whole rap world napping with “Roxanne’s Revenge,” her freestyled response to UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne.” Her song brought battle rap to the radio, set new standards for female MCs, and set off a whole chapter of hip-hop history known as the “Roxanne Wars.” —Rob Kenner

1985: LL COOL J

CREDENTIALS: Radio

Def Jam’s first hip-hop superstar was a charismatic 17-year-old from Queens named James Todd Smith, better known as LL Cool J (shorthand for Ladies Love Cool James.) Ladies might have dug his debut album, Radio—it was an instant success, both critically and commercially, eventually selling well over a million copies—but at this stage his music was aimed mostly at a male audience. “LL Cool J is hard as hell,” he roared on “Rock the Bells,” adding (over Rick Rubin’s obnoxiously abrasive beat) that he’d “battle anybody I don’t care who you tell.” This was no idle boast, as he would engage in a long-running war of words with Kool Moe Dee, among others. Double L’s was the most urgent and authentic voice in hip-hop that year. Whatever his rhymes may have lacked in complexity they more than made up for with heaping portions of b-boy bravado.

A careful listen to the album’s title cut reveals that it’s about much more than just bigging up boom boxes. The song’s narrator starts out as a youth who enjoys the simple pleasure of “Walking down the street to a hardcore beat/While my JVC vibrates the concrete.” You’ve got to admire the kid’s spirit as he runs from the subway cops to avoid a summons and purchases fresh batteries when his tape will no longer rewind. We learn that his story is tough, his neighborhood is rough, yet he still sports gold and he’s “out to crush.”

Later on in this semi-autobiographical tune, LL makes the jump from fandom to fame, becoming the artist whose voice booms through the radio. His days of pounding the pavement are over as we see him riding in a Cadillac with the system kickin’ way past 10. “I drive up the Ave with my windows closed, and my bass is so loud it could rip your clothes.” By the next verse of this raps to riches story, he’s cold getting paid “Cause Rick said so.” When LL said “I’m the leader of the show, keeping you on the go” you’d best believe it, because in 1985 no rap fan could live without LL on their radio.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Run, Beastie Boys, Slick Rick
The title of Run-DMC’s sophomore LP, King of Rock, revealed this Queens trio’s grand ambitions. They dared to compare rap, an upstart ghetto music that many dismissed as a novelty or worse, with the exalted pop culture phenom that was rock and roll circa 1985. (At the same time they were reaching out to other subgenres, as on “Roots Rap Reggae,” featuring Jamaican dancehall star Yellowman.)

Meanwhile the Beastie Boys were starting to build momentum on the strength of 12″ singles like “Rock Hard” and “She’s on It.” Although the group’s breakthrough release “Hold It Now, Hit It” would not drop until the following year, their infectiously anarchic energy was winning new fans every day, and while the trio’s chemistry made them inseparable, Adam “MCA” Yauch was emerging as the group’s standout MC.

Slick Rick was going by the name MC Ricky D when he joined forces with human beatbox Doug E. Fresh on a madcap live recording called “La-Di-Da-Di,” which was released on the flip side of a single called “The Show.” The record went on to become one of the most sampled in rap history, establishing Rick as a phenomenal lyricist who would neither cause trouble nor bother anybody. He and Doug were “just some men that’s on the mic,” but as the song both showed and proved, “when we rock the microphone we rock the mic right.” —Rob Kenner

1986: KRS-ONE


CREDENTIALS: “South Bronx”

What MC wouldn’t want to be dubbed the “Best Rapper Alive”? But pinning that title on Kris Parker, a.k.a. KRS-One (an acronym for Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone), seems like damning him with faint praise. KRS was never just a rapper—right from the start he was a renegade teacher and scholar, a satirist, polemicist, and most of all, the Blastmaster. As such, his lyrics were tools of war, which he kept sharpened to a lethal edge.

KRS was living at a Bronx homeless shelter when he met Scott Sterling, a.k.a. DJ Scott LaRock, who worked there as a counselor. KRS was also an MC and graf writer known for battling other residents at the shelter. Scott was so sufficiently impressed that he would slide the 20-year-old passes that allowed him to go out and catch live rap shows from time to time. Before they collaborated on their monumental 1987 debut album, Criminal Minded, with beats supervised by Ced Gee of Ultramagnetic MCs, KRS and Scott LaRock dropped a 12” single called “South Bronx” (“Fresh for ’86, you suckers!”). This song was provocative enough to set off an epic inter-borough musical conflict known as “The Bridge Wars,” and also set KRS above and beyond all lyrical competition in that particular year.

It all started with MC Shan’s song “The Bridge,” which big upped the borough of Queens, specifically the Queensbridge housing projects. Filled with local pride, Shan asserted that the Bridge played a vital role in the birth and evolution of hip-hop—and he had a point, since it was home to Marley Marl and the mighty Juice Crew. Nevertheless, the song provoked KRS, who proudly repped for the Bronx in a hip-hop masterpiece set to a shrill, staccato beat and raps that hit home like blunt force trauma. “Party people in the place to be KRS-One attacks…” he rhymed in the first verse before going in for the kill: “So you think that hip-hop got its start out in Queensbridge?/If you popped that junk up in the Bronx you might not live.”

Vacillating between Blastmaster and teacher mode, KRS worked a lengthy hip-hop history lesson into the second verse, shouting out such luminaries as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash—among others—and evoking memories of jams in Cedar Park and Bronx River where the amps were powered by electricity jacked from lamp posts. But before long KRS brought it back to the battle. “As odd as it looked, as wild as it seemed/I didn’t hear a peep from a place called Queens.”

Shan had no choice but to respond to KRS’s devastating attack, releasing a song called “Kill That Noise,” but he was only falling further into BDP’s trap. Soon thereafter Scott and Kris returned fire with a reggae-flavored war chant called “The Bridge Is Over” that was an undisputed lyrical TKO. KRS remains a hip-hop icon to this day, but in 1986 there was simply no denying the fact that he was the best rapper alive.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Run, Too $hort, Schoolly D
The mighty Run-DMC movement continued unabated with the Queens trio’s third and best-selling album, Raising Hell, which contained “Walk This Way,” a historic collaboration with the rock band Aerosmith. At the end of the day Run’s raps still led the way.

After flooding the streets of Oakland with singles on the independent 75 Girls label, Too $hort inked a deal with Jive Records and released Born to Mack, which was eventually certified gold, proving that regional pimp rap could move big numbers nationwide. (Jive elected to leave its logo off the album for years. See industry Rule #4080.)

Meanwhile in Philadelphia Schoolly D revealed a whole new world with a sinister jam called “PSK What Does It Mean?” (dedicated to Philly’s Park Side Killers) released on a 12″ backed with “Gucci Time.” Though “gangsta rap” is usually considered a West Coast thing, Schoolly’s pioneering crime narratives developed in parallel with BDP’s, proving that brothers were getting paid by all means necessary all over the country. —Rob Kenner