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Ready Class? Old School Hip-Hop's Back in Session

September 05, 1993|DENNIS ROMERO | Dennis Romero is a staff writer for the Charlotte Observer

"Old school" is back. That means you can feel safe making music with your mouth (like Biz Markie and the Fat Boys used to do), dusting off your Kangol fishing hats (made famous by LL Cool J), putting your fat laces back on the old steel-toe Adidas (a la Run-DMC circa 1984) and, brace yourself, break-dancing.

Old school is pre-1987 hip-hop culture--when rappers were still bad, Michael Jackson was still beating it and no one in their right mind would sample George Michael. Men were "fly guys," women were "freaks" and clapping was something done on a drum machine.

In a sort of hip-hop retro movement, a new generation of hip-hoppers is discovering the often-celebratory old-school vibe, perhaps as a retreat from rap's current heavy dose of reality and politics.

Old school flavor permeates such recent songs as Freestyle Fellowship's "Cornbread." There are odes to suede Pumas and Afro wigs on the Digable Planets' recent debut album. The Young Black Teenagers' latest, "Dead End Kids Doing Lifetime Bidz," enlists the studio work of none other than the father of old school, Grandmaster Flash. And Rhino Records released a collection of old school's best in a definitive series called "Street Jams."

For class to be truly in session, one must study the real thing. Here are five old school faves:

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (featuring Melle Mel and Duke Bootee), "The Message," Sugar Hill Records. With a freaky electro-funk melody, Grandmaster Flash et al. bring message music to rap: "It's like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under," goes the pioneering jam, which is available on Rhino's "Street Jams: Hip-Hop From the Top, Part 1."

Cybotron, "Clear," Fantasy Records. Inspired by Afrika Bambaataa's groundbreaking "electro" jam "Planet Rock," this 1983 Kraftwerk-sampling song takes listeners farther out in space with high-flying synthesizer loops, hard-driving beats and sparse, Chipmunk-style vocals--all elements that the dance-till-dawn techno sound would later pick up on. Also available on Rhino's "Street Jams: Electric Funk, Part 1."

Whodini, "Friends," Zomba Productions Ltd. The slow clap-beat might lull listeners into believing this is another monotone, '80s rap jam. But this 1984 song became an inner-city high school anthem with its warning about relationships: "Before we go any further, let's be friends." Also available on "Hip-Hop From the Top, Part 1."

Beastie Boys, "The New Style," Def Jam. In 1986, three white boys jumped on the scene with school rhymes worthy of "Louie, Louie." In "The New Style," the Beasties throw wonderfully irrelevant similes ("I got more juice than Picasso got paint") into a fat, funky polka-style beat. "The New Style" demonstrates old style well.

LL Cool J, "Rock the Bells," Def Jam. However shallow he might have been at times, the sheer bravura of LL Cool J grabbed listeners in this 1987, self-proclaimed "B-boy symphony complete with bells." Not to mention the song's inviting combination of go-go style percussion and classic hip-hop beats.

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