Within hip-hop, there has been an age-long debate about the term “golden age” and what period it encapsulates. Many would apply this label to the 1990s due to the sheer amount of music and excitement that decade provided fans of the genre. However, vast amounts of crucial figures are insistent that the phrase only be used when referring to the ’80s because it was the decade during which the culture first found its legs.
It’s fair to say that irrespective of your generational preference concerning hip-hop, nobody would or could apply the term golden age to the 2000s. Rap music had blossomed by the turn of the millennium, and for vast swathes of rappers, the “golden age” refers to a time when the genre’s rules were still unwritten. By 1999 hip-hop had an identity that has since remained relatively fixed.
Of course, it is natural that depending on your birth date, you are bound to have an affinity for specific eras and artists within the genre. That being said, from the perspective of a hip-hop purist, the “golden age” would undoubtedly stretch from 1979 to 1989. These were the culture’s formative years, so to speak. During this period, there was an abundance of experimentation and compelling material created through mere trial and error.
Although a fair amount of ground was broken in the ’90s, many of the decade’s pioneers had their career beginnings firmly in the ’80s, making 1979 to 1989 unequivocally the “golden age”. In this article, we will do a deep dive into the legendary era to see if we can find the five best songs from hip-hop’s golden age.
The five best songs from hip-hop’s first golden age:
5. ‘Boogie Down Bronx’ – Man Parrish ft The Freeze Force Crew, (1984)
Man Parrish (real name Manuel Parrish) was a legendary producer and integral part of East Coast hip-hop in the early 1980s. Parrish helped create, define and develop the electro of the ’80s and undeniably helped push it to the masses. Parrish, along with the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, was a kingpin concerning the popularisation of electro. One of his most epic productions was ‘Boogie Down Bronx’.
The 1984 track features vocals from Cool Johnski of the Freeze Force Crew. ‘Boogie Down Bronx’ became a hit. Derived from the song, ‘Boogie’ has become a famous turn of phrase and a way to refer to the Bronx.
4. ‘Rock The Bells’ – LL Cool J, (1985)
LL Cool J was an iconic figure of hip-hop’s golden age. Although he didn’t start as a solo artist and was, in fact, part of The Extravagant 3, for LL, that was merely a launchpad into the higher échelons of rap. LL Cool J (real name James Smith) is a certified New York legend and, along with other Queens acts such as Run-DMC, dominated the ’80s. As a solo act, Smith worked with many talented individuals. However, his collaboration with Rick Rubin is what really catapulted him to the top.
‘Rock The Bells’ was the third single from Smith’s platinum-certified debut album, Radio. Executively produced by Rick Rubin, Radio was one of the most impactful projects of the ’80s. The single had the impact of electro, utilised the scratch, yet had the bounce of the late ’70s. The track was not electro, yet it still managed to effectively use the electronic drum machine. The track was Rick Rubin’s take on the 1982 song ‘Breaking Bells’ by Crash Crew and has stood the test of time as a hip-hop classic.
3. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ – The Sugar Hill Gang, (1979)
This track was iconic when it was put out and is widely considered the first hip-hop record ever. The song was released in 1979, making it one of the only rap songs to be produced and recorded in the same year as DJ Cool Herc’s Sedgewick Avenue block party. The track samples ‘Good Times’ by Nile Rodger’ band Chic and was one of the first hip-hop to enter the US charts. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ entered the top 40 in America, reaching the top three in the United Kingdom and even number one in Canada.
Akin to Dr Dre’s The Chronic, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ has been archived in the Library of Congress and has been preserved as a culturally significant artefact. Although the single has received much critical acclaim, many take issue with the song as the group is somewhat of a façade. Many have declared that the name “Sugar Hill Gang” was purposefully misleading as (curated by Sylvia Robinson) not one individual from the group from the Sugar Hill area of Harlem. It has since become common knowledge that the collective is from Englewood, New Jersey. However, the song has still maintained its legendary status.
2. ‘The Message’ – Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, (1982)
This track had to be on the list because it was the first of its kind. Before the release of ‘The Message’, there had never been a politically charged hip-hop song. This single, rapped by Melle Mel and produced by Clifton “Jiggs” Chase of Sugarhill Records, was the track that sparked the idea of hip-hop as a vehicle for social change. If it was not for this 1982 record, there would have been no Public Enemy. Political hip-hop was non-existent in 1982, and ‘The Message’ was pioneering in every possible way.
Furious Five member Melle Mel has explained previously how, initially, ‘The Message’ was a track nobody wanted to record. The golden age artist explained that he only recorded the track because Sylvia Robinson of Sugarhill Records begged him to. He and his crew thought nothing of it and assumed it would go nowhere, but they were wrong. That summer, everybody in New York was blasting ‘The Message’, and it has been a cultural milestone ever since.
1. ‘Paid In Full (The Coldcut Remix)’ – Eric B & Rakim, (1987)
Eric B & Rakim completely changed the game with their 1987 album, Paid In Full. Rakim showed a level of complexity in his rapping that many had never heard before. En masse, lyricists cite Rakim as the first MC to break out of the genre’s rigid mould concerning rhyme schemes. In its early stages, hip-hop artists delivered basic raps and rhymes with funky intonations. However, the style was growing tired by the latter stages of the ’80s. Rakim is said to be a lyrical pioneer, and when this track was released, it set a precedent and effectively changed the course of lyricism in hip-hop.
However, Rakim was only one-half of the duo. The track itself was produced by Eric B and contained several samples. Still, the most famous and intriguing selection is his use of the Israeli singer Ofra Haza’s vocals from her track ‘Im Nin’alu’. Outside of the electro subgenre, hip-hop struggled to broaden its horizons concerning sampling. Mostly interpolating funk from the 1960s and ’70s, the culture was hesitant to let go of its funky origins and identify more abstract samples. Eric B successfully advanced the culture production-wise.