This article deals with rap as a form of vocal expression. It also considers rap as something that is part of the cultural movement called hip-hop, yet strictly non-judgemental. As is long common knowledge, ‘rapping’ – as a counterpoint to singing that is rhythmically more pronounced and relies less on melody – has existed in various forms before it became a centerpiece of a youth subculture concentrating in 1970s New York City. But the popularity it gained beginning with the first commercially available hip-hop recordings of 1979 transported the vocal style well beyond the place where young people turned it into an artform in itself.
We try to trace some of the earliest adaptations of rap as pioneered by the kids in the Bronx and Harlem and popularized by the first wave of records on Sugar Hill and Enjoy – not in rap and hip-hop imitations, nor in related contemporary genres such as funk, disco and boogie, nor in the novelty records niche – but in pop and rock music of the 1980s. Individual posts will cover the United Kingdom, France, possibly Scandinavia, Italy and the German-speaking regions of Europe. And maybe down the line also the United States.
What immediately stands out in the United Kingdom is the often high-profile background of these occurrences of rapping. Iconic British acts, some with a global standing, have used rap in singles with accompanying videos in the 1980s. There’s no denying the novelty aspect these songs have in the respective discographies. Overall these examples (which remain exceptions in the larger context of ’80s pop) however are still an indication of the universal appeal of rapped song lyrics, and in some respect they present an early alternative to what later generations thought raps should sound like and be about.
1) Bow Wow Wow – “C·30 C·60 C·90 Go” (1980)
Put punk and rap together and you got yourself a potent dose of rebel attitude. Conceived by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, Bow Wow Wow was fronted by a youthful Annabella Lwin, who jogs around this ode to cassette tapes and their obvious advantages. She’s as feisty as the most infamous female rappers when she taunts:
“Policeman stopped me in my tracks
Said, ‘Hey you, you can’t tape that
You’re under arrest cause it’s illegal’
So I shoved him off and he blew his whistle
I’m a pirate and I keep my loot, so
I blew him out with my bazooka”
Quite possibly reacting to the industry’s ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’ campaign, Bow Wow Wow’s lead praises blank tapes A) for the possibility to acquire songs without having to buy them, B) for letting you carry at least a selection of your music collection with you, and C) for being able to manufacture copies of your own music in case the music business fails you. Doesn’t sound all that foreign 40 years later, now does it?
2) The Clash – “The Magnificent Seven” (1980)
Of all the punk rock bands in the late ’70s, the Clash had the most international aspirations and appeal. In New York, they became witness to the flourishing hip-hop scene, especially guitarist Mick Jones became intrigued by this ingenious street culture that made so much out of so little. New wave band Blondie‘s “Rapture”, the best known earliest milestone in the fusion of pop and rap, would not be released until six months later when in April ’81 the Clash released “The Magnificent Seven” as the third single off “Sandinista!” (’80). Containing both UK and US references, “The Magnificent Seven” (the title referring to the time to get out of bed and get ready for work) holds a mirror up to modern society stuck in a meaningless cycle of work and consumption with some jabs at the latest news and advertising. Dubbing as rapper, Joe Strummer manages to maintain his rock pose while delivering his sarcastic observations, but there’s also a freestyle (or slam poetry, if you will) vibe to it. (“Vacuum cleaner sucks up budgie!”, he parrots a tabloid headline.)
By 1980 punk was already dispersing into different succeeding styles. Mick Jones applied the broader musical approach of “Sandinista!” (influences included, according to Wikipedia, ‘funk, reggae, jazz, gospel, rockabilly, folk, dub, rhythm and blues, calypso, disco, and rap’) to his new project Big Audio Dynamite, which debuted in 1985 and is credited with making pioneering use – in pop – of the emerging methods of electronic music, including sampling.
3) The Slits – “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm” (1980)
The Slits took, by all accounts, the punk ethos as much to heart as any of the other bands. They were (initially) all-female, which may have amplified the jolts they shocked the establishment with, plus musically they had pretty much a mind of their own. They were punk, rather than punk rock, and since their ’79 debut doesn’t sound like neither it must be post-punk. Or how about we do away with that labeling nonsense? The Clash (who some say made rock, rather than punk rock, scnr) may have played a role in introducing the Slits to reggae (and ergo dub), and as it so happens the Clash themselves also ticked the ‘single w/rap’ box, but I’m not quite sure if the rap metrics of Cowboy and Lovebug Starski in particular are at the origin of lead vocalist Ari-Up‘s expressionist bursts on the topic of RHYTHEM! As Pitchfork noted on the occasion of the Soul Jazz Records compilation named after this song, music like that has deeper origins: ‘[T]his stuff is primal, made by people who were finding new ways to channel the brute instinct that first drove man to bang animal skins with sticks.’
And so the non-album cut “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm” is not intentionally experimental or avantgarde, even if it gives off a bit of a beatnik vibe. Even so it should give those wanting to monopolize rap (for hip-hop) something to think about. In a Peel Session from October ’81 Ari-Up’s vocal performance comes to the fore even more, plus she is, on an interesting sidenote, supported by a young Neneh Cherry, who would go on to make her own contributions to European rap history later in the decade.
4) Spandau Ballet – “Chant #1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On)” (1981)
From one of the flagships of the New Romantics, “Chant #1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On)” is a good example of the ’70s’ and ’80s’ unwavering sympathy for the funk. A wide range of musical trends from jazz fusion to disco, punk, hip-hop, boogie, new wave, synth-pop, post-punk, electro, house and so forth have made references to funk. It’s the agent that helps bring things back to square one – the dancefloor. Spandau Ballet began as the house band at Covent Garden club Blitz, which rolled out the red carpet for a colorful scene of clubbers looking to escape what Classic Pop magazine calls ‘a drab and depressing music scene in the first years of the 1980s’.
It’s hard to guess what inspired the lead single off Spandau’s sophomore effort in particular, but the funk is there, and the rapping is there, introducing the delirious chorus that expresses urban and adolescent dread that perhaps had been made more concrete by the first years of Thatcherism. The rap part is clearly an auxiliary to the propulsive music, which makes up the track’s legacy. As Shapers of the 80s notes, ‘For ten weeks in the charts, Chant No 1 confirmed its rhythm as the sound of the new pop: once-and-for-all the dominance of the rock guitar was shifting to the supremacy of bass and drum for pop generations to come.’
The same holds true for the tune that predates all those we list here, Ian Dury and The Blockheads‘ “Reasons to Be Cheerful (Part 3)” (’79), also a percussion-heavy stomper, only that Ian Dury‘s laconically yet leisurelly delivered lyrics (full of pop culture references, by the way) looked at the world in a decidedly more optimistic way.
5) Soft Cell featuring Cindy Ecstasy – “Memorabilia” (1981)
It has to be brought up at some point here. If you wanted to be (more or less) openly gay and a popstar, you couldn’t have picked a better place and time than ’80s Britain. There are probably more than a few ifs and buts about that statement, still let us contemplate that “Memorabilia”, the debut single by new wave/synth-pop duo Soft Cell, whose everlasting “Tainted Love” was just around the corner, features a soon-to-be gay pop icon and a female rap part. Marc Almond recounts that he wanted to be perceived as a pop artist first and that despite career opportunities in music it was still extremely difficult to live the way you wanted in the UK at the time. Just because you have a number of (open and hidden) homosexual popstars doesn’t mean regular members of the LGBTQ+ community weren’t ostracized by society. Rap then isn’t so completely out of place in that kind of environment, even though heteronormativity became a key element of rap music.
“Memorabilia” is an influential proto-house track with the ‘rap’ part not being as much as afterthought historically, still this is another example for how well you can combine all these things, this time the balance tipping towards the electronic side of things. And that was before “Planet Rock”.
6) Adam and the Ants – “Ant Rap” (1981)
Look, this guy said 40 years ago, “This gold on the teeth, no sense at all / It only matters when it’s on the wall.” A more dead-on diss directed at rap artists who fake it has never been flung from further away. And the camera points to a gallery of gold records as he says it! Tell me if I’m reading too much into it.
“Ant Rap” by new wave icon Adam Ant is an unlikely rap attack that takes you by surprise with its intense, purposeful rapping and chanting. When the Beastie Boys were still slogging away at their early mixture of punk, funk, hardcore, hip-hop and new wave, Adam Ant, who in his single “Prince Charming” let everybody know that “ridicule is nothing to be scared of”, pulls off rap not in the typically stiff rhythm of rock and pop musicians somewhere between robot and reciter but instead regiments his raps with a vocal punch that cuts through the theatralics that are expected from such a campy character.
7) Captain Sensible – “Wot!” (1982)
The Damned may have been too accomplished und ambitious for punk, but they were nevertheless among its pioneers in Britain, the band’s initial lineup of Rat Scabies (dr), Brian James (g), Captain Sensible (b) and Dave Vanian (voc) four of the most colorful characters ever gathering on a stage aside from the Electric Mayhem. Bassist Captain Sensible embarked on an intermittent solo career and sailed to the top of the charts with his ’82 album “Women and Captains First”. The single “Wot!” was more popular in continental Europe than at home (cracking the top 10 in six countries). Perhaps the Captain catered just too perfectly to the cliché of the eccentric Englishman, at least in the video (no need for the John Cleese-lookalike, really), which also (as the lyrics do) takes a jab at Adam Ant, another former punk rocker who made a foray into rap territory. According to the artist, “Wot!” was simultaneously a spoof on rap and the upper class who are easily disturbed by the working man, and while that exact combination is hard to grasp nowadays, it certainly suits the musical madhouse known as The Damned.
8) Malcolm McLaren and the World’s Famous Supreme Team: “Buffalo Gals” (1982)
This one goes considerably beyond the scope of this post’s topic. The main vocal track features a music manager repeating fragmentary square dance instructions. Just the same “Buffalo Gals” is part of the classic hip-hop canon. Which is far from the case for any of the other songs listed here.
After the Sex Pistols burned out, punk impresario Malcolm McLaren kidnapped Adam Ant‘s backing band to create Bow Wow Wow and while looking for an overseas supporting act for his new project he became aware of the art show taking place in the New York City streets. A mastermind versed in fashion, marketing and music, McLaren took the influence in and created something that went beyond hip-hop, but he connected those dots between the hip-hop elements so well (especially in the seminal video clip) that “Buffalo Gals” almost fully reflected what these kids were doing with respect for the originators. What’s missing are the raps.
The song and the accompanying album project “Duck Rock” have garnered praise across different eras, the most notable being Herbie Hancock citing its influence on the creation of “Rockit”. McLaren arranged the collaboration between producer Trevor Horn (who went on to be part of influential art pop group The Art of Noise) and Brooklyn-based radio hosts Supreme Team, whose See Divine did the actual scratches. DJ Rob Swift lets the track lead his personal ‘Top 5 Studio Scratches of All Time’. As far as the overall relevance of “Buffalo Gals” goes, let’s hear it from one of the locals, veteran Manchester DJ Greg Wilson:
‘As with Punk, Malcolm McLaren could clearly understand Hip Hop’s role as a force for social change, for when all’s said and done, these two major youth movements represent opposite sides of the same coin. Both Punk and Hip Hop made a lasting impact on popular culture in the UK and McLaren’s role was absolutely crucial in each case. To view him only in context with the Punk years is to miss the full scale of his role in music history (not to mention the related areas of dance, art and fashion).
It’s difficult to bring to mind another 80s release that had a greater impact, or longer-lasting effect, on the youth of this country than “Buffalo Gals”, and as such, McLaren can lay claim to another title to place alongside his Punk Rock plaudits, that of British ambassador for the Boogie Down Bronx. It’s about time that this fact was finally (and fully) recognised; the tributes are long overdue, for this was undoubtedly a monumental contribution to British popular culture and black British culture in particular.‘
(quoted from www.electrofunkroots.co.uk)
9) Wham! – “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)” (1982)
Look who’s rapping! It’s George Michael, sex symbol of the ’80s and the ’90s, a man with the voice of an angel who went from being just another pretty face in the pop crowd to a superstar singer in his own right. Without wanting to cast aside the tragedy behind George Michael’s life and the magnitude of his artistic achievements, Wham! were really something else.
What’s interesting in our context is that Wham!’s first two singles were rapped before any other material was known. They weren’t perceived in any special way by the press and the public because of it. They were seen as young chaps eager to have some fun and speak on behalf of their generation. There certainly weren’t scores of aspiring MC’s in the UK disheartened to see two loafing lads from Watford try to build a career on rap. People’s minds were on electro funk and whatever came over from Jamaica, and most record enthusiasts at the time failed to make any reasonable connection between rapping, spinning breaks and some underlying subculture, until those films came along. From the point of hip-hop history, when looking at something like “Wham Rap!”, there is no use in putting any blame on anybody because outside of the USA credible rap didn’t start to take hold until circa 1986, and that happened strictly underground.
Even more interestingly, “Wham Rap!” is a very explicit and specific song about being unemployed and loving it or at least not being ashamed of it. Whereas the most famous rap on the subject, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony‘s “1st of Tha Month” primarily celebrates the arrival of the welfare check, Wham!’s debut single covers a broader spectrum when they defend their bohemian lifestyle towards their parents (“Get yourself a job or get out of this house”, dad says) and encourage others in the dole queue (“Make the most of every day / Don’t let hard times stand in your way”). They promote personal fulfillment instead of living to work: “Wham! Bam! / I am a man / Job or no job, you can’t tell me that I’m not / Do you enjoy what you do? If not, just stop”.
Just as interesting is their breakout hit “Young Guns (Go For It)” (also ’82). In it, George Michael warns his buddy of committing too early to one woman and reminds him of the fun they had as bachelors. The rapping and the singing are more evenly distributed than on “Wham Rap!”, and even Andrew Ridgeley, who had a largely undefined role in the duo, rapped a few lines (together with background singer Shirlie Holliman playing his fiancée). In an interview at the time George said of the rapping, “I just think white English rap voices sound stupid. If I did it any other way it would sound like a Barron Knights comedy record. We’re trying to be satiric, not comic. American accents are more rhythmic — English accents just sound blunt to English ears”. This just a heads-up that George Michael was earnestly concerned with how he (or any other Brit, for that matter) would sound rapping. Around 1982. Think about it. And again, like “Wham Rap!”, “Young Guns (Go For It)” meets certain songwriting standards. But, ultimately, as refreshing as they might have been at the time, the unusual attention these two songs get here should not detract from the fact that Wham! and George Michael are remembered for other songs.
10) The Style Council featuring Dizzi Heights – “A Gospel” (1984)
Paul Weller and Mick Talbot are well known figures in British popular music. Before Weller became a reference for the budding Brit pop movement and Talbot strolled into the acid jazz scene, they collaborated in The Style Council, a departure from their origins in ’70s mod revival bands towards a smoother, slicker, soulful sound. Which is to say they consciously kept their fingers on the pulse of modern music. One rap feature for The Style Council is credited to The Dynamic Three, yet those weren’t the Dynamic Three with The Bronx’ Rock Master Scott but a British trio also going by Dynamic 3 MC’s. More substantial was “A Gospel”, a sermon with religious imagery and a political bent (allegedly written by Weller) set to a bare-bone rhythm (horns make a surprise appearance) in the mold of the early rap twelves put out by Peter Brown and Patrick Adams. Dizzi Heights (name spelling varies), responsible for what some credit as the UK’s first rap release with the obligatory ’tis-the-season “Christmas Rapping” in 1982, re-recorded the song under his own name a year later as “The Gospel” but like many of his American colleagues never gained any real footing as a recording artist. European pop may have been open to experimentation with rap in the ’80s, but real career opportunities for MC’s were non-existent.