Many people will not understand why somebody would want to present what they consider old and bad music without even attempting to ridicule it. Even worse when it concerns raps that most informed people nowadays would deem culturally illegitimate, deriding and exploitative. The thing is, I have never been someone to laugh at rap from whatever place or source unless the delusions of grandeur expressed in a song rise to intolerable levels.
When I search Discogs, YouTube, Soundcloud, Spotify (playlists), music blogs and the murky depths of my memory for obscure ‘rapping‘ my goal is not necessarily to elicit appreciation. It’s mainly about recognition. Realizing that rap can be and indeed has been a kind of universal thing. Whether you accept and appreciate that or not is up to you. To prove rap’s universality, I am paying attention to something very specific. ‘Rap’ in settings and places we, hip-hop fans old and young, often ignore. Or who knows, maybe down the line there will be a reaction video to any damn piece of music in the history of recorded music. But how well informed and reflective are those again?
Quite obviously what you come across is often strange. That is part of the charm. Don’t think it will be any different when decades from now young people will listen to today’s music. ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’, L.P. Hartley once noted. So imagine the potential for confusion when you’re considering the past of an actual foreign country. And just because I am researching the past for something familiar (rap), doesn’t mean it won’t be different to what we’re used to.
Let’s keep in mind that some people continue to view rap as a fad. Something that is not to be taken seriously. Something to be ridiculed. There’s also ridicule of rap coming from an allegedly higher ground in the name of the ‘right’ kind of rap. Many ‘rap fans’ paradoxically display a limited understanding of rap, that is part of the genre’s reception. If you’re a die-hard domestic hip-hop fan from Sweden, The Netherlands, France, etc. and you are irritated by our completely undue attention to these marginal, made-up early rap influences – part of me does this just to annoy you. Let’s hope you can at least find an ironic distance to these recordings. All others with a serious interest in all things rap, please accept this small contribution to the written history of rap.
1) M.C. Miker “G” & Deejay Sven – “Holiday Rap” (The Netherlands 1986)
Here we go. M.C. Miker “G” & Deejay Sven‘s “Holiday Rap” was Europe’s first rap hit (no need to put the term in quotation marks, it is what it is). It was, for far too long, Europe’s only rap hit. Contemporary hip-hop heads could not possibly approve of such a thing. Yet its existence raises the fundamental question how a better, more legitimate rap song with pan-European appeal could have sounded like. American hip-hop artists have created explosive, groundbreaking work in the ’80s, but that always grew out of a fertile local habitat – neighborhood spirit, peer competition, must-hear radio shows, the promise of success, the legacy passed down by the pioneers, recording facilities, connections and relationships gave us Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, etc. How could a European hip-hop scene compare? We would find out, but not in ’86.
Seen from this angle, something like “Holiday Rap” was probably the only possible option. A rap version of Madonna‘s first mainstream hit from ’83 (arriving by the time her third album was out – that there are worlds between “Madonna” and “True Blue” is common pop knowledge). Not particularly meaningful but somewhat efficient as a ‘rap’ about ‘holidays’. There’s an upbeat groove, two guys from Hilversum rapping with a melodical lilt (the hook inspired by a Cliff Richard song) and in a chipper back-and-forth that betrays their affection for old school rap (Miker “G” was an early adopter of hip-hop culture).
After an earlier demo version based on the original source material, the track was reconstructed by Dutchman Ben Liebrand, relentless mixer and remixer of all things ’80s. It wasn’t the first rap takeover of a pop song but it managed to escape the obscurity such ventures were usually condemned to, topping the Dutch, French, German and Swiss charts, as well as cracking the top ten in the UK and Canada and eventually charting – allegedly – in a total 34 countries.
When you want to research rap in 1980s Europe, “Holiday Rap” is a genuine nightmare too because with ‘rap’ in its title and countless licensings and placements on compilations it shows up at every turn. As with most one-hit wonders there’d be more to say on the topic of this rapping MC/DJ duo but the fact they didn’t get past their initial success (Miker “G” had solo ambitions and recorded an album with Howie Tee) yet that success was really remarkable, makes “Holiday Rap” the perfect specimen for rap popping up in popular music.
2) Centerfold – “R.A.P.” (The Netherlands 1986)
In what can only be considered an exploitative move characteristic of the ’80s, Centerfold showed more than a little leg on the cover of the Dutch edition of Playboy in May ’84 (and bared it all inside) to promote their debut single, the steamy “Bad Boy”. To say that their outfits remained revealing would be an understatement as they often performed in lingerie. One member had previously posed nude for men’s magazines and continued to do so while she was in the group, which was managed by John de Mol, who would become a TV mogul in the ’90s launching shows such as ‘Big Brother’, ‘Deal Or No Deal’ and ‘The Voice’.
Centerfold were sort of an adult edition of the Dutch meidengroepen (girl groups), and in case peers like Mai Tai or Risqué have dropped the odd rhyme, “R.A.P.” is likely the only full-fledged rap track from that corner. The b-side to single “Radar Love” plus included in the CD version of their debut album “Man’s Ruin” and “Best of Centerfold”, “R.A.P.” is inspired by bare-bone mid-’80s hip-hop, particularly reminiscent of the Boogie Boys‘ “A Fly Girl”.
The lyrics are performed by Centerfold member Rowan Moore (born in Israel and raised in England), who in 1990 also rapped an obscure acid house ska tribute named “Boom Ska”, is responsible for several short rap-like segments in Centerfold’s catalog and on the back of the “Dictator” single is nicknamed Big Mouth Moore. On “R.A.P.” she shares the writing credits with two men, but she takes command immediately, starting with the intent to succeed and persevere (“Gotta pick yourself up and go back for the kill / If not for success, then do it just for the thrill / You got what it takes, you go straight to the top / You know Centerfold’s got it and we’ll never give up”), seguing into showing off (“To look so good must be a decadent sin / Every millimeter is a masterpiece / We should be in the Louvre with Picasso or Matisse”), and finally striking the femme fatale pose as “bitches that will break your heart”…
After regrouping with Rowan Moore in a short-lived late ’80s project (Centerfold ceased to exist after a replacement for Cecilia de la Rie committed suicide), lead singer Laura Fygi established herself as a respected vocalist with an extensive solo discography.
If you can stomach the full-blown ’80s stereotypes, you might say that these ladies had it going on, with or without an r-a-p in their repertoire. They became less racy over time but maintained a certain edge, for instance with the scorned woman theme “Bitch When I See Red” written by the ABBA boys.
3) Lavvi Ebbel – “Give Me a Gun” (Belgium 1981)
Lavvi Ebbel was a short-lived Belgian post-punk/new-wave outfit with funk leanings (the kind we encountered in the UK and you’d also find in the US). The name was an intentional misspelling of ‘la vie est belle’ (‘life is beautiful’), perhaps a subtle hint at their Flemish origins. Characterizations of the band and their music found online include ‘hyper-nervous city funk’ and ‘one of the most debated and contradictory bands of the Belgian ’80s scene’ and its ‘slightly surreal sound’.
“Give Me a Gun” however is a very realistic complaint about the state of the world. With the threat of a nuclear war being dangerously present during the cold war, in the video the 8-piece holes up in a fallout shelter and tends to its arsenal. There’s even an interjection where the band’s ladies say something that sounds almost like “And make sure some f***ing bullets are in it!” Not that the song claims that the requested guns and knives are of any use against nuclear blasts and radiation, the arming is more of a desperate effort in view of the looming apocalypse. At the same time “Give Me a Gun” is a plea for compassion and intervention. Unlike some egomaniacal prepper, vocalist Luckas Vander Taelen, wearing the rapper/speaker hat, cares about the wellbeing of others of in, for instance, the global south. Things kind of add up when you learn that Lavvi Ebbel’s lead, who also worked as a TV producer and presenter and taught at the Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound in Bruxelles, went on to be a member of the European Parliament and a senator for the Flemish Green party.
4) Video Kids – “Woodpeckers From Space” (The Netherlands 1984)
There are always children in the audience. Always. And they are too often overlooked. The problematic sides of media consumption in general aside, even pop music does not offer enough content for children. An alien version of Woody Woodpecker interacting with two youngsters who looked like siblings in videos that combined animation with live action and a soundtrack that mixed singing and rapping – how could this not appeal to kids? Or at least to ’80s babies.
Video Kids‘ “Woodpeckers From Space” was realized by songwriting/production team Adams & Fleisner (also operating under the name Cat Music), who evolved out of ’70s glam rock group Catapult. They stacked up on electronic equipment, produced disco, Hi-NRG, synth-pop, a ’79 Dutch parody of “Rapper’s Delight”, dabbled in electric boogie with the studio project Master Genius, released a bunch of sound effect records (including “Modern Digital Recorded Drumcomputer Rhythm Tracks”) and then stumbled upon European success with “Woodpeckers From Space”, which cracked the top ten in 6 countries (interestingly only the top twenty in The Netherlands and Belgium). The second single off the album “The Invasion of the Spacepeckers”, “Do the Rap”, had a more congruent video clip with the animated mascot named Tico Tac (“See him dancin’ in the street / he’s rappin’ on the beat”) bringing the music to a scratchy halt when he bumps into the turntable’s tone arm.
Granted, “Woodpeckers From Space” and “Do the Rap” were a comical interpretation of breakdance and rap. At the same time they are so odd and silly it’s hard to give questions of appropriation even a second thought. Perhaps superficiality is to be expected when people who are interested in fun and commerce take on a new thing. That doesn’t mean these musicians don’t take their craft seriously. One half of the Video Kids, Peter Slaghuis, released LP-length dance mixes all through the ’80s, worked with Dutch rap pioneer Extince, brought Nu Shooz‘ “I Can’t Wait” (’86) to global success and produced early Dutch house records before losing his life in a car accident in ’91. This background aside, the Video Kids released two full albums and admittedly one would have been enough.
5) Europcar – “We Are the Super Service People” (Belgium 1983)
Sometimes good pop productions leave you guessing. This can’t be real. Can it? In the remotest recesses of our immense RapReviews.com expertise we are still not sure we’re not falling for a playful prank when we report our findings on “We Are the Super Service People”. This was, in its 12″ edition, a seven-and-a-half minute musical commercial for Europcar, a car rental company that was (and is) present in a number of countries. It was recorded in Belgium by, among others, musicians who played in local hard rock band Tormentor and after a promotional 7″ pressing in Belgium, licensed to an Italo Disco label. It features rapping in four languages – French, English, Spanish and Dutch – taking short terms to praise Europcar’s super service. The English part even hits us with a dose of pure ’80s machismo: “Come to us, man of action / We will give you satisfaction”.
Advertising has plenty of avenues nowadays. Consumers submit themselves to it voluntarily because they find it entertaining. In 1983 Europe however, where could something like this be broadcast? Europcar, partially owned by Renault at the time, also sponsored the car maker’s Formula One and Paris-Dakkar rally teams, arguably more costly but also more effective investments. Yet here we are talking about “We Are the Super Service People” because it might just be the first record to feature quadrilingual rapping.
6) Daimyô – “Electric Dance” (The Netherlands 1984)
At the height of Michael Jackson mania, Jacko impressionists – and there were many – could relatively easily conjure up their idol with some wardrobe items and a couple of signature moves and poses. Jackson doubles, however, had some extra challenges thrown their way, especially when they performed their act professionally and over an extended time. You know what I’m talking about. Daimyô, of Dutch nationality but born in Suriname, was one of Europe’s best known Jackson doubles, also booked in official capacity to represent or divert from the star. He has many stories to tell, for instance how he legally changed his last name to Jackson at the suggestion of Joe Jackson.
With the looks and the moves being essential, a Jackson double doesn’t necessarily have to sing, but suppose he wanted to sing, the voice is almost certainly going to be a problem. Already having the MJ thing going in ’84, Daimyô (a title borrowed from feudal Japan allegedly in reference to the… King of Pop) entered a recording studio, and frankly the fact that he was rapping instead of singing can only mean that his singing voice didn’t match the visuals. Or you could argue that a rapping, post-“Thriller”, pre-“Bad” Michael Jackson impersonator offers an interesting contrast. Anything else would likely be pointless imitation anyway.
Either way Daimyô, rapping in what you could call an old school pop rap style (not that any rap icons actually sounded like that) – even before mentioning Michael and offering to be the sixth Jackson – lets us know, “I spend my money on every rapper I hear in the national charts”. Which is an odd statement from a young man obsessively trying to mimic Michael Jackson, not to mention the fact that you had to dig a little bit deeper than that in order to get a feeling for rap because not even a handful of MC’s were charting nationally.
7) Red Zebra – “I Can’t Live in a Living Room” (Belgium 1980)
Vocals on early punk and post-punk records sometimes have this rapping quality, mostly in terms of their cadence. It probably has to do with wanting/having to perform vocals that are not very tuneful. This constraint gives them automatically more rhythmic drive. Rappers know all about it. We’ve heard some examples in previous episodes of Early Sightings of Rap in 1980s Pop, some have little to do with rapping as we know it, some are more pronouncedly inspired by early New York hip-hop.
“I Can’t Live in a Living Room” by Belgian new-wave band Red Zebra belongs in the former category. If you try to relate to the psychological pressure front man Peter Slabbynck attempts to express in this absurdist song (that begins with “Tranquilizers make me nervous”), you could come to the conclusion that punk and rap, at least in their more primal manifestations, are both so immediate forms of expression that they can’t be bothered with melodic embroidery. Which is pure generalization, of course, but still one of the many aspects surrounding rap.
8) Taco – “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (The Netherlands/Germany 1982)
You’d be certainly right to point out that if anything has influenced the performance above, it’s the covered song, the Roaring Twenties portrait “Puttin’ on the Ritz” written by Irving Berlin in 1930. Like any standard from the Great American Songbook, the song has seen various interpretations. The first edition was inspired by Harlemites dressing up like the patrons of the famous hotel in Midtown Manhattan and taking their stylish outfits for a walk up and down Lenox Avenue. The song was rewritten in 1946 for Fred Astaire and his appearance in the movie ‘Blue Skies’, now taunting the actual Ritz-Carlton clientele but at the same time obscuring the song’s origins.
All the same ‘to put on the Ritz’ has become on American idiom, and ‘making an ostentatious show of one’s wealth’ is certainly a description that fits some rappers and their songs you might be familiar with. But ever so often such wealth is only purported in raps, and while status symbolism plays an important role in rap music, we also shouldn’t look past the personal fashion statements being made. It’s not always just about faking it until you’re making it. There is such a thing as street style, and sometimes it occurs across a reappropriation of a certain brand. Just ask Ralph Lauren. Which brings us to back to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” the way Irving Berlin first conceived it (see above).
So no, Taco‘s version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (based on the 1946 rewrite plus incorporating elements from other Berlin songs) doesn’t really feature rapping, but the singer’s performance is so markedly above it all it inevitably comes across cool. In 1982 American rap wasn’t yet under the rule of cool (if we consider Kool Moe Dee, L.L. Cool J, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane as the icons of ’80s rap coolness), but it goes without saying that being cool is a trait a great number of MC’s throughout the history of hip-hop have aspired to. The new-wave rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” moves along at a sluggish pace, almost like a slowed version. Even the tap break isn’t really an invitation to Fred Astaire types to put on their tap-dancing shoes. It grooves rather than swings and even features a somewhat improvisational funky breakdown in the second half. Overall it’s a well executed recording, which pushes it past the novelty status. The ‘Jazz Singer’ blackfacing in the original video clip was likely an homage to the twenties but is obviously judged differently nowadays.
We have encountered eccentric yet earnest tunes since we started this series. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is no different. And it takes us also back to the swing era, one of the formative phases of Black music. The master of ceremonies is truly not rap’s invention.
How does Taco Ockerse, an Indonesia-born Dutch entertainer who partially grew up in the US and studied music and theater in Germany fit into all this? He was, as a young man already, a global citizen who embodied the many possible metamorphoses of pop music, which rap and hip-hop themselves had been a product of and were simultaneously offering to other music styles. Taco was the proverbial one-hit wonder, and while he also wrote an “Opera Rap” (’84) – a sort of classical music medley with some talking in between – for his second album, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” captures the often stunning complexity of pop music and its intermediary role in a globalized world.
9) Wijk 7 – “Voor Je ‘t Weet, Ben Je Gek! (The Message)” (The Netherlands 1983)
This post partially owes credit to a contributor to the music database Discogs.com who compiled a number of these tracks in a list he called ‘Dutch [c]rap singles’. I respectfully disagree about the suggestion we’re dealing in any way with crap here (even without considering that [c]rap is a common racist code online). The sweeping dismissal of rapped tunes that don’t meet our expectations of rap displays a severe lack of understanding of the matter. That goes for every fan, every critic, every artist.
Now I may not understand Dutch, but this apparently faithful “Message” interpretation from ’83 makes a really good impression – as far as such an undertaking goes. If Discogs is to be believed, it is written/translated by the brothers Bolland, two South African-born Dutchmen who had moved to The Netherlands with their family in 1969 and have created an extensive body of work particularly behind the scenes as writers, producers and composers but also as artists. Bolland & Bolland helped write ’80s European pop history, and who knows, maybe they even rapped themselves on “Voor Je ‘t Weet, Ben Je Gek!” (‘Before You Know It, You’ve Gone Crazy’)? And you heard that far-out speculation here first.
10) Say When! – “Boys” (The Netherlands 1987)
Sampling-heydays hip-hop acts made use of “Girls” by The Moments & The Whatnauts at least twice, Diamond D for Ultimate Force in the late ’80s and Marley Marl for Craig G in the early ’90s. Two Dutch girls sort of beat them to it with a version of the song dedicated to the opposite sex correspondingly titled “Boys”. Say When!‘s most mentioned record is “Save Me” because parts of it ended up in Corona‘s Eurodance smash “The Rhythm of the Night”. Meanwhile “Boys” manages the intended update with ease, the daydreaming about boys spiced up by rap parts. A now classic pop/rap recipe.