The 1980s were a golden age in hip-hop. On the East Coast, you had electro, Run-DMC and LL Cool J running things, and on the West Coast, you were getting the emergence of Gangsta Rap with Ice-T and N.W.A. However, there were others all over America, you had the Geto Boys running the South in Houston, and other Chicago rappers were on the rise.
The 1980s were exciting because rap finally started to generate its own sub-genres after a decade of existence. The New York ‘tri-state’ area was beginning to break away from funk and embrace a newer sound called electro. A self-explanatory term, electro saw hip-hop become more electronic, with producers relying less on old funk records and instead turning to electronic drum machines such as the Roland TR-808 to create brash, industrial-sounding records.
The emergence of electro on the Eastern Seaboard saw the warmness and soulfulness of funk taken out of hip-hop and replaced by a more aggressive, raw and rugged sound that reflected the streets of New York far better than its predecessor.
Electro tracks such as ‘I’m The Packman’ by The Packman and ‘King of The Beats’ by Mantronix were a far cry from a song such as ‘Rapper’s Delight’, which was more groovy. Electro, as a sound, also embraced the scratch far more as its emergence coincided with the invention of the technique popularised by Bronx DJ Grand Wizard Theodore.
Electro was and still is a fun and interesting sub-genre of hip-hop, so for this article, we sieved through the entire genre in order to present you with the five definitive electro hip-hop tracks. Take a look at our picks below.
The five definitive electro hip-hop tracks:
5. ‘The Roof Is On Fire’ – Rock Master Scott & The Dynamic Three, (1984)
This 1984 electro track is the origin of the lyrical phrase “The Roof Is On Fire”, which has been interpolated for decades in every genre. Similarly, this track also birthed another well-known musical colloquialism, “Throw your hands in the air and wave ’em like you just don’t care!”
One of the rappers featured in the song is the legendary Slick Rick, who would later go on to achieve worldwide fame. The track would peak at number five on the Billboard Hot Dance Singles chart but wouldn’t appear within the regular Hot 100.
4. ‘Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)’ – Hashim, (1983)
Hashim (born Gerald C. Calliste Jr.) is an artist who popped in and then out of hip-hop and managed to bag a classic along the way. As an African-American in New York, Calliste was so obsessed with electro that in 1982, aged 16, he bought himself a Casio keyboard in order to sequence and produce tracks like his peers.
A year later, with the help of Harold McGuire at Tommy Boy Records, Calliste wrote and co-produced the seminal ‘Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)’. The track debuted at number 43 on the Billboard Dance Disco Chart. Calliste began his hip-hop career as a graffiti artist.
3. ‘Just Say Stet’ – Stetsasonic, (1985)
Stetsasonic were a legendary electro ensemble. Comprised of Prince Paul, MC Delite, Wise, Daddy-O, Frukwan and DBC, the Brooklyn crew took New York by Storm when they first emerged on the scene. Stetsasonic, arguably, gets unfairly overlooked when it comes to groups that laid the foundation for hip-hop.
Released in 1986 by Tommy Boy Records, On Fire, the group’s debut album, built upon the pioneering sound that artists such as Man Parrish and Arthur Baker had developed years before. The lead single for the album was ‘Just Say Stet’. The track was co-produced by Eric Calvi and Robin Halpin and even features the crew member DBC playing live keyboards and horns.
2. ‘Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop)’ – Man Parrish, (1982)
Brooklyn native Man Parrish was a key figure in the development of electro in New York. As a songwriter, vocalist and producer, he worked with the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, Pete Rock and others to hone the electro sound during the early ’80s.
As a DJ, Parrish’s early shows in the Bronx were fairly glitzy and almost too polished. However, his aesthetics and sonics changed as he entered the world of electro. Parrish worked with all sorts of underground artists in New York, such as the Freeze Force Crew, with whom he released, ‘Boogie Down Bronx’, a track that had a profound impact on hip-hop, with KRS-One naming his crew Boogie Down Productions.
Man Parrish was an established artist, but ‘Hip Hop, Be Bop’ was his most impactful production. A timeless piece of music, the track has been featured in movies such as Shaun of the Dead and video games such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It was even sampled for Sway and King Tech’s 1991 song ‘Follow 4 Now’.
1. ‘Planet Rock’ – Afrika Bambaataa ft Soulsonic Force, (1982)
Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ is widely considered the best electro song of all time. It was a hit with New York City breakdancers and was an anthem DJs could play in the clubs. Released in 1982 by Tommy Boy Records, ‘Planet Rock’ was produced by Arthur Baker. Baker was a prolific electro producer and had worked with a multitude of artists, including Planet Patrol and Beastie Boys, before ‘Planet Rock’.
Speaking to Redbull Music Academy in 2017, Baker detailed what he wanted Planet Rock to be, his influences and what ultimately went into the track. In conversation with Frank Broughton, Baker explained, “I wanted it to be the first black electronic group. I always was into ‘Trans Europe Express’, and after Kraftwerk put ‘Numbers’ out, I said, ‘I wonder if I can combine them two into make something real funky with a hard bass and beat.’ So we combined them. But I didn’t want people to think it was just Kraftwerk, so we added a track called ‘Super Sperm,’ by Captain Sky. The breakdown as the synthesizers going up, that’s the ‘Super Sperm’ beat. And then we added ‘The Mexican’ by Babe Ruth, another rock group, and we speeded it up.”
A true melange of all kinds of music, Baker had no idea it would be as revolutionary as it was. Afrika Bambaataa, who added vocals along with Soul Sonic Force, was already a respected Bronx rapper before the single, but when he released ‘Planet Rock’ it took him to a new level of fame. A true classic, in 2012, Rolling Stone magazine placed it at number three on their list of ‘The 50 greatest hip-hop songs of all time’.