The Many Sounds of Hip-Hop's Golden Age | Features | MN2S

The Golden Age of Hip-Hop is widely seen as when the genre came of age. We take a look at the diverse range of sounds from this era.

The period from the late 80s to the early 90s is widely hailed as hip-hop’s Golden Age. Many of the genre’s biggest and most influential artists were active in this era. Alongside the wealth of great material that was released at this time, the most remarkable thing about the Golden Age is its diversity of sounds and styles. We take a look at the many sounds of hip-hop’s Golden Age.

Eric B for President


There is a saying in the hip-hop community that goes like this: “Rakim is your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper.” Rakim’s influence on the art of rapping is unparalleled. Nas, Eminem, Common, Lil’ Wayne, Kendrick Lamar – they’re all using techniques pioneered by the God MC. The complex worldplay, the sophisticated internal rhymes, the multisyllabic syncopation – these are all things we take for granted in great rappers, but they were all pioneered on the releases of Eric B. & Rakim in the Golden Age, starting with 1987’s legendary Paid in Full.

Rakim wasn’t the only MC pushing the boundaries of rap at this time. Big Daddy Kane, working frequently with producer Marley Marl, also pioneered the kind of lyricism that every rapper since has tried to emulate.

Fight the Power


As well as giving birth to a new way of rapping, hip-hop’s Golden Age saw an increase in tracks that took on serious subjects. Artists from the early days of hip-hop such as Grandmaster Flash paved the way for these songs with singles like ‘The Message’, but it was Public Enemy who would make conscious rap their trademark. Chuck D could go toe to toe with any Golden Era MC, but it was the group’s heavy subject matter, as exemplified on albums like Fear of a Black Planet that really set them apart, and influenced countless future artists to tackle difficult subjects head-on.

Gangsta’s Paradise


On the other side of the country, hip-hop began to take off in the LA neighbourhood of Compton. Hip-hop was born in New York city, but the West Coast sound would soon come to be just as important. NWA was one of the first hip-hop groups to make it big in the West. Led by MC Ice Cube and underpinned by producers Dr Dre and DJ Yella, NWA’s music was just as confrontational Public Enemy’s at times, and laid back at others.

The Art of Storytelling


The Golden Age was not completely dominated by verbal pyrotechnics. Back in New York, Slick Rick upheld the tradition of rap as a form of storytelling, and even took it to new heights. His album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick from 1988 is widely hailed as one of the genre’s best, and Slick Rick has influenced everyone from Outkast to Snoop Dogg, whose smooth flow owes a lot to rap’s greatest storyteller. Snoop acknowledged this influence on his track ‘Lodi Dodi’, which is an homage to Rick’s ‘La Di Da Di’.

Slick Rick’s popularity in an age of Chuck D’s and Rakim’s showed that there was room for more than one style of vocal delivery in hip-hop.

Summertime and Hammer Time


Though all of these artists saw considerable commercial success amongst hip-hop fans, the Golden Age is also the era when rap started cross over into the mainstream. Run-DMC’s songs like ‘King of Rock’ and ‘Walk This Way’ were some of the biggest hits of the 1980s. Similarly, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince proved that hip-hop provide the soundtrack to parties everywhere.

Leaders of the New School


As these artists topped the mainstream charts, a group of artists began to grow in popularity with an alternative audience. De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, The Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and Busta Rhymes created jazzy beats from wide-ranging samples, and rapped uplifting, Afrocentric lyrics over the top.

These artists were dubbed the Native Tongues, and along with the burgeoning Wu Tang Clan (featuring Raekwon and Ghostface Killah), they emerged at the end of the Golden Era. Their music is still first rate, and definitely reaches the heights of the artists before them, but pop culture history dictates that the era was over. Perhaps it is because these artists are of the next generation. After all, they had already started citing Golden Era artists as influences. Phife Dawg rapped ‘My favorite jam back in the day was Eric B for President’ on Tribe’s ‘Steve Biko’, and Ghostface Killah cites Slick Rick and Rakim as two of his biggest inspirations.

Though the Golden Age may be over, many of these artists are still going strong, and countless new generations are following in their footsteps, pushing the genre in new and daring directions.

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