“Hip-Hop started in the west”
(Ice Cube on Westside Connection’s “Westside Slaughterhouse” – ’95)
“‘My Adidas’ was a hit in ’86, it made me dollars
Stompin’ straight to Compton, niggas there was screamin’ ‘Hollis!'”
(Run on Run-D.M.C.’s “In the House” – ’93)
“Rappers talkin’ ’bout back to the old school
We never shoulda left in the first place, fool”
(J-Ro on Tha Alkaholiks’ “Can’t Tell Me Shit” – ’93)
The number of witnesses I’m calling to the stand illustrates how hard it is to get a handle on the topic at hand – rap and hip-hop on the American West Coast in the 1980s. In his 2007 song “I Was There,” Bronx rapper KRS-One challenges “rap historians” who according to him chronicle events they never witnessed first hand. Well, I wasn’t there either. (I was never anywhere near where things relevant to rap music happen, to be perfectly honest.) The following is mainly to make the reader aware of an often ignored part of hip-hop history and to draw some conclusions for myself and anyone interested. For more information on the early West Coast scene refer to, for instance, the website www.westcoastpioneers.com, selected books by/about specific artists (Ice-T, Dr. Dre), or more general overviews from ‘It’s Not About a Salary… Rap, Race and Resistance in Los Angeles’ (1993) to ‘6 ‘N the Morning: West Coast Hip-Hop Music 1987-1992 and the Transformation of Mainstream Culture’ (2013) – as well as anybody you might run into who was actually there.
“West Coast Rap: The First Dynasty,” a 1992 compilation series that gathered close to 40 relevant recordings, was released when the region was on the verge of being the dominant force in rap. Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” hadn’t seen the light of day just yet, but kids all over America hung on the words of Ice-T, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Quik, Cypress Hill, Paris and Too $hort. 1992 was a banner year for West Coast rap that began with Ice-T winning the ‘Artist of the Year Solo’ Source Award and ended with Ice Cube’s “The Predator.”
The time had come for a little history lesson, and with “The First Dynasty” compiler Lee ‘DJ Flash’ Johnson and journalist Billy Jam presented a convincing body of evidence for the existence of hip-hop pioneers far away from New York. The recordings cover the years 1980-88, the majority falling into the mid-’80s era. Revisiting the collection many years later, listening to all three volumes remains a mind-boggling experience. We might come across a couple of curiosities, but eventually come to the realization that they’re simply part of the peculiarities of the early West Coast rap scene. And a scene it definitely was, connecting a number of early exponents who would hold leading roles in the aforementioned heydays of L.A. rap.
As Bobby Jimmy, comedian and radio personality Russ Parr accompanied the music scene with biting parodies, but he worked with one-time N.W.A member Arabian Prince, plus one of his cohorts in his backing band The Critters, General Jeff, would later join famed duo Rodney-O & Joe Cooley, who debuted on Egyptian Lover’s label Egyptian Empire Records. Before he became a solo artist, the Egyptian Lover was a DJ and part of Uncle Jam’s Army, a collective of DJ’s and dance promoters that later would also include Bobcat, Battlecat and Pooh, who would all go on to leave their mark on West Coast rap as producers. One of Uncle Jam’s Army’s competitors was The World Class Wreckin’ Cru with KDAY DJ’s Dr. Dre and DJ Yella on turntables, soon-to-be musical masterminds behind N.W.A’s landmark gangsta rap album “Straight Outta Compton.” Emerging in the wake of N.W.A’s breakthrough, Comptons Most Wanted had been mentored by The Unknown DJ, who had been deejaying in the Wreckin’ Cru at their homebase Eve After Dark even before Dr. Dre and who like Egyptian Lover could look back on a catalog of influential electro records. After leaving N.W.A, Dr. Dre emerged as a successful solo artist, introducing the world to a slew of young talent such as Snoop Doggy Dogg, who joined him on the hit song “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” rapping over an interpolation of a ’70s tune recorded by soulman Leon Haywood, who also produced a classic ’80s rap song by Toddy Tee called “Batterram.” Toddy Tee would later join Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate and was a buddy of King T, who relied on DJ Pooh production, as did Snoop Doggy Dogg years later when Dr. Dre prepared the next steps of his long career.
The above is not the history of West Coast rap in a nutshell but a demonstration of how close-knit its cast especially in L.A. was. The compilation does not feature any early material by N.W.A, Comptons Most Wanted or King T, rather it provides insight into a scene that didn’t necessarily have to give birth to what would become known as gangsta rap – but did anyway, and understandably so.
If you’re looking for the economic and social realities that inspired N.W.A and their immediate successors, they are discussed frequently here. Similarly to New York old school hip-hop, however, the very beginnings were nothing but happy days, the duo of Disco Daddy & Captain Rapp getting the party started with a flawless piece of old school paaartay rap, “Gigolo Rapp” (1981), trading boastful lines over a pulsating funk groove borrowed from Rick James. It is one of the many songs that were inspired by the first rap records out of New York and actually put out by two New York transplants, Jerry Hooks and his son Duffy Hooks, who hoped to establish a West Coast equivalent of Sugar Hill Records. They auditioned rap talent in Hollywood in 1981 and were able to assemble the Rappers Rapp Group, consisting of Lovin’ C (AKA Disko Carl), King MC, Mr. Ice, Mack-A-Moe, DJ Flash and MC Fosty. Their debut single “Rappin Partee Groove” (1982) featured still unpolished performances but is on par with lesser known rap records of the time.
The sixtet soon changed its name to Dark Star but pursued its romantic streak on “Sexy Baby” (1983), serenading the ladies in a way I cannot recall any East Coast rap record of that time doing it, opening with acapella crooning and then getting into the slapping bass groove taking steady turns with couplets that don’t shy away from physical contact but maintain the innocent charm of old school rap. The West Coast’s sensual inclinations soon got more passionate as the Egyptian Lover sprayed his musk over electro funk tracks and everybody professed their admiration for Prince. Dark Star members King MC & DJ Flash released “Erotic City Rapp” (1984), a replay of the “Purple Rain”-era b-side “Erotic City.” It starts out smoochy, the two harmonizing over sparse, intimate orchestration, but all of a sudden the daily hell of big city life breaks loose as they rap about acts of desperation, spousal abuse, prostitution and gang warfare.
A year before fellow Dark Star members MC Fosty & Lovin’ C went straight to the point on “Radio Activity Rapp” (1983, based on a Krafwerk adaptation by electro outfit RoyalCash from the same year), a “Message” of sorts for Los Angeles, a song dealing exclusively with the strife of city life. There’s the guy walking home after he just got robbed at a club, only to be stopped and searched by the police. Another one thinks he found himself an easy target in an elderly woman who just made a bank withdrawal and ends up getting shot by her. “Radio Activity Rapp” is likely the first rap song ever to mention the two infamous L.A. gangs, right at the beginning (a segment later quoted by Snoop in his “All Eyez on Me” duet with 2Pac, “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted”), and a second time when we are made witness to gang violence, a full five years before the movie ‘Colors’:
“A bullet went by, I didn’t know what it was
It was all about ‘Blood’ and it was all about ‘Cuz’
He was shot in the brain by a violent street gang
Died on the corner […]
His girlfriend ran fast as she could
Tried to get help while the others stood
just lookin’ around, sayin’, ‘Who’s on the ground?
Is there money in his pocket to be found?’
Kids smokin’ sherm or sniffin’ cocaine
kickin’ back waitin’ for fame
Insane in the brain what you will be
if cocaine you’re smokin’, you see?
Ha – ‘Believe’ in me like a ‘ABC’
Don’t live yo life in no mysery
Remember the days that we kept it live
with Temptations and the Jackson 5?”
Fast forward to 1993 and you have a very similar situation with rappers feeling nostalgic about music of times past (Dr. Dre about Parliament/Funkadelic, for instance) but feeling the need to talk about the reality of their neighborhoods. “Radio Activity Rapp” also came in a ‘Party Version’ with completely different lyrics, but ostensibly the ‘Street Version’ is the one that in retrospect can only be classified as one of the seminal tracks in West Coast rap history.
Also in 1983 Captain Rapp recorded “Bad Times (I Can’t Stand It),” another interesting find. The Captain’s performance is very precise but ultimately more old school than that of Fosty and Carl (who had begun to develop a vocal identity that was more local). Still in comparsion to “Radio Activity Rapp” his writing is more refined as he really goes into detail about these bad times, discussing unemployment, international politics, AIDS, world hunger, gangbanging, natural disasters, the death penalty, abortion, the drug trade, and so forth. He conjures up an almost apocalyptic vision of the world, something rap didn’t really devote itself to until the mid-’90s.
Further factoring in its sleek uptempo swing and prominently placed female hook, “Bad Times (I Can’t Stand It)” may have just been ahead of its time but it’s also musically more conventional and commercial/clubby than the now legendary New York songs that showed rap the way towards social realism and relevance. It’s almost a pop version of a Kurtis Blow joint that, paired with Rapp’s relentless stream of social commentary you imagine coming from behind a desk or a pulpit, lacks the tangibility of, for instance, Run-D.M.C.’s “Hard Times” or the pioneering tunes that preceded it.
The artist that would bring L.A. rap really to life on a lyrical level was already a respected representative of rap and hip-hop before he did so. It’s always a blast to ponder Ice-T’s “Body Rock” (1984) because the first lecture about ‘hip-hop culture’ was given by a guy who later came to embody ‘gangsta rap’ and ‘West Coast rap’, two things certain hip-hop purists in the ’90s would avoid like the plague. Content aside, “Body Rock” is a well composed song, something that would also become the mark of Ice-T’s work. Ice was one of the few early rappers to reveal their influences, in his case pimp-turned-bestselling author Robert Beck, better known as Iceberg Slim. “The Coldest Rap” (1983) is both vintage and visionary, an homage to a pimp’s game and steeped in greater African-American oral tradition, but also the first in a long line of player raps with traces of battle rap and gangster bravado, an epic fully deserving of its name, establishing Ice-T as much more than just rap’s “Original Gangster” (a standing he’s always been aware of).
“The Coldest Rap” may be an unsung milestone, but “6 in the Mornin'” (1986) stands tall as a rap landmark. Suffice it to say that it’s the historically most important track appearing in this retrospective. There are others that were also significant to the coming-of-age of West Coast rap, for instance Toddy Tee’s “Batterram” (1985). The ‘battering ram’ was an actual tank equipped with a ram that the LAPD would use to knock down the doors of suspected crack houses. Taking a factual-comical approach, Toddy Tee doesn’t at all sympathize with the drug dealers and their customers, but he also questions the excessive force that could easily result in collateral damage, holding the city mayor and the police chief personally accountable for putting the hood under siege. Obviously the ‘Batterram’ was law enforcement’s answer to the suburban structure of South Central with its single-family homes, which makes the Toddy Tee track essentially L.A. – even though he warns New York and Detroit of the vehicle’s immediate invasion.
One of the most famous anecdotes in the genesis of West Coast rap goes like this: A young O’Shea Jackson, at the time already performing as Ice Cube but still as an aspiring local rapper, writes a song for a New York rap act who understandably turns it down because it is clearly set in Los Angeles. A certain Eric Wright ends up performing “Boyz-N-The Hood” as Eazy-E and the foundation for N.W.A’s success is laid. To develop an intrinsically West Coast identity was one very evident way for these artists to come into their own.
Although not a rap song by definition, “The First Dynasty” wouldn’t be complete without Ronnie Hudson’s “West Coast Poplock”, the street anthem that Roger Troutman would later bring back for 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love” (and that was based on his own “So Ruff, So Tuff”). The song was also recorded in an “East Coast Poplock” version that basically fell on deaf ears – not just because you can’t transplant the vibe of a place but specifically because poplocking (or popping) sort of symbolizes the difference of street art styles between the two coasts. There’d be no dancing without music to dance to, and especially L.A. has treasured electro funk/hip-hop (as conceived by Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker with “Planet Rock”) for far longer than New York. Examples here run the gamut from the sexually suggestive tunes of Uncle Jam’s Army and its breakout star Egyptian Lover to the turntable attack of DJ Matrix’ “Feel My Bass” (1988) and plenty in between, including the early works of Ice-T and Kid Frost. A peculiar phenomenon of West Coast electro is the ubiqutous heavy breathing. Somehow the producers had the urge to stimulate their computerized music with orgasmic human sounds and it became such a trend that there was moaning and groaning even when the songs were about something else altogether, see the L.A. Dream Team’s “Calling on the Dream Team” (1985) or The Unknown DJ’s “808 Beats (Eight Hundred and Eight Beats)” (1984) – which, as the subtitle suggests, has the exact duration of 808 ‘beats’ (126 BPM x 6.4 minutes) – while the presence of actual Roland TR-808 effects can not be confirmed. A little prank from the mysterious man who prefered to let his music speak for itself?
Electro would soon start a new life in Florida, turning into bass music. Miami bass’ premier group was The 2 Live Crew, who had formed in Riverside, CA and released its first record in 1984 on the West Coast, a split single with two solo performances. “The Revelation” is a conscious electro track in the Bambaataa/Soulsonic vein from Amazing Vee, who soon left the group, while “2 Live” sees Fresh Kid Ice emceeing for Treach DJ Mr. Mixx. The two soon left for Miami, replaced Amazing Vee with Brother Marquis, hooked up with Luther Campbell and made The 2 Live Crew one of the most successful rap acts of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
We find a similar story behind the Wreckin’ Cru’s debut “Slice” (1985) as DJ Yella made it into N.W.A, while the rapper praising his turntable skills, Cli-n-Tel (who also deejayed), didn’t. Kid Frost had been part of the same scene as Ice-T but didn’t break through until he emphasized his Latino roots with “La Raza” in 1990. Still his early efforts “Rough Cut” (1984) and “Terminator” (1985) are veritable rap science-fiction soundtracks, Frost matching the mood with his cold voice (without an excessive use of effects) and even inserting a nihilistic note unheard of in rap before:
“You’re tellin’ me shit about the friendly skies
but to me it’s all just a big pack of lies
Sit at your TV set, get all hypnotized
but it’s about time that you realize
It’s rough, it’s tough…”
As you can see, there’s quite a lot to glean from these three CD’s. Between leaving the The Time and winning Grammy’s with Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were contributors to the early L.A. hip-hop scene, playing on “The Coldest Rap” and “Bad Times.” Mack-A-Moe may have been the first rapper to model himself as a mack, spending his entire extended verse on “Rappin Partee Groove” advertising his macking abilities. L.A. was a hub for migrating artists hailing from Fresno (DJ Matrix), Sacramento (Triple Threat Three), Carson (Knights of the Turntables), Detroit (Unknown DJ), Cleveland (Rudy Pardee of L.A. Dream Team), Las Vegas (Hurt ‘Em Bad) and even Chicago (Casper – although his “Groovy Ghost Show Pt. I” was probably a West Coast release by pure chance). There were Christian undertones in rap before gospel rap (“The Revelation,” “Bad Times”). DJ Flash, member of L.A.’s first official rap crew the Rappers Rapp Group and active well into the ’80s with King MC (as The Future MC’s) or even solo, was, by his own account (and we have no reason to doubt him), the ‘first white rapper ever signed to a label’ and pursuing ‘rapping as a full time career.’ Too bad his group Dark Star couldn’t put out that album they recorded.
But “The First Dynasty” makes it also clear that West Coast rap scene had a much better shot at national and eventually worldwide recognition once it brought something radically new to the table. In L.A. it was gangsta rap, in the Bay Area it was pimp rap. You’re not going to make a career out of rap versions of Prince songs. Besides those already mentioned, there was even a “When Doves Cry Rapp,” and the Future MC’s “State of Shock Rapp” (1983) may feature noteworthy rock guitar riffs but the Michael Jackson impression is more like a parody. And of course there are times when the imitation of East Coast contemporaries such as Whodini, Run-D.M.C., Treacherous Three or UTFO is a little bit too obvious. But there’s also often wit at work, from Bobby Jimmy’s flat-out funny Whodini spoof “Big Butt” (1985) to the “Sucker MC’s” references of “Slice.”
In some way “The First Dynasty” was also a tribute to the other side of L.A. rap, the one before the ‘gangstas’ took over. Yet it doesn’t have a specific agenda but simply showcases a diverse scene that was evolving from being DJ-centered to including record labels, studio musicians, rapping storytellers and talented songwriters. Dr. Dre is in the mix, but he’s far from the most prominent figure at that point. Many tracks here are marked by professional production provided by the likes of Rich Cason, Daniel Sofer and Dave Storrs. The music leans towards a lighter, funkier, more melodical and comforting atmosphere and it highlights the roots of hip-hop as dance music, often featuring extended instrumental parts and sometimes even background singers. The smoothness extends into the dawning sampling era with Rodney-O & Joe Cooley’s “Everlasting Bass” (1986) and “Give Me the Mic” (1987).
By 1992 the international market had already seen countless compilations of old school rap, most of them recycling the same songs over and over. The three volumes of “West Coast Rap: The First Dynasty” challenged the common conception of the history of hip-hop, not in the provocative manner of Ice Cube’s “Hip-Hop started in the west,” but by supplying material that wasn’t easy to stomach for those whose hunger for hip-hop history had so far been stilled by a steady diet of Sugar Hill tunes. As L.A.’s other Iceman said on “Body Rock,” “Hip-Hop is makin’ history,” and it evidently made history on the West Coast as well. Chicago-based Casper says on the oldest track here, “Groovy Ghost Show Pt. I” (1980): “Now some folks think my rap is good and I should go to Hollywood / But I’m the number one MC, they should bring Hollywood to me”. Ice-T and Ice Cube were so good they eventually made Hollywood come to them, but before that they honed their skills during the formative years recalled by this outstanding compilation.