The early 80s were a weird time for hip-hop. The genre was new, tons of people loved it, and there was a genuine sense that this was a new, radical artform that would help define the future. That hunch would prove to be true, certainly, but at the time nobody knew quite what that meant. Hell, nobody knew quite what rap music was.
Every hip-hop song that became a hit offered its own case study, but in this gestational stage, those case studies didn't add up to much. "Rapper's Delight" proved that the genre had commercial appeal; "The Message" suggested its potential to effect social change; "Planet Rock" established it could be weird as hell; Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'" showed that people seemed to enjoy novelty rap songs and that Christmas music, like pornography, was always going to be at the vanguard of culture. No one knew what a rap song should be about, what sort of music you were supposed to rap over, if you needed to put a chorus in it, how long it should be, or even what it actually meant to rap. Before artists like LL Cool J, Run-DMC, and Rakim helped set the loose formal templates for how rappers looked, acted, sounded, and even structured their songs, rap music was basically an exercise in throwing shit at the wall and seeing what stuck.
This means some extremely weird stuff was made, much of which has gone down in obscurity. Lately, because I am a nerd with too much time on my hands, I have made it my mission to rescue these songs from the dollar bin of my local record store. This has been a lot of fun, and not just because I enjoy walking out of record stores with a comically large amount of shit in my arms after having not spent very much money. There's an entire semi-lost history of hip-hop—one that as a longtime rap fan I'd always been aware of about but had never paid too much attention to—in which rap was truly "experimental" music. I don't mean "experimental music" in the same way one might describe a Philip Glass work; I mean that in the same way inventors in the 1800s were experimental. Just as it took them a long time to figure out how electricity worked, it would take a LOT of trial and error before rappers landed on any kind of formula for a song.
Much of the music that came out along the way would end up being way too weird to ever make any real impact. But looking back on that stuff is fascinating because it shows a genre in its fruitful incipiency, when people weren't afraid to make mistakes, be silly, and play with the idea of what rap actually could be. Which, when you think about it, is not unlike the place hip-hop is in now.
What follows is a list of goofy early rap songs that I've picked up recently and am completely fucking obsessed with. It is by no means comprehensive or canonical. It's just that I am the type of person who cannot come into contact with rap songs about vampires, yo-yos, the fundamentals of basketball, or extremely enthusiastic retellings of the bible and not tell people about them.
Jimmy Spicer – "Adventures of Super Rhyme" (1980)
Rhymes faster than a speeding bullet! Has more rhymes than a train has tracks! Able to leap sucka MCs in a single rhyme! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's Super Rhyme!!! While Jimmy Spicer's epic tale of mic superiority might start with the rapper traveling to earth on a meteorite and becoming the greatest rhymer the world has ever seen, this is a 15-minute song, and Jimmy Spicer knew that concept was going to wear out its welcome. This is probably the best story-rap of all time, and I am going to do my best to explain the plot.
After a meteorite holding Jimmy Spicer a.k.a. Super Rhyme crash-lands on earth, he becomes a superhero who gets to rap for Howard Cosell, only to turn into a vampire and fly away in bat form while rapping in a Transylvanian accent, only to re-transform into a vampire so he can breakdance. Jimmy Spicer/Super Rhyme/Vampire Jimmy Spicer then robs somebody, rides away in a Coupe DeVille, and somehow ends up retelling the story of Aladdin and the lamp. Except in this version, Aladdin uses his three wishes to time-travel to 1980, get a million dollars, and meet the freakiest girl in the club. That's a LOT to cram into a rap song, no matter the length, and I've only managed to cover the stuff that Spicer rapped about during the first ten minutes. I'll let you discover the rest of the song for yourself, but you should know that it involves Jimmy Spicer impersonating Cookie Monster for a few bars.
Frankie Smith – "Yo-Yo Champ (From Mississippi)" (1982)
Frankie Smith is probably best known for (a) having invented the practice of appending "izzle" onto words, and (b) his song "Double Dutch Bus," which is a funk song whose first verse is rapped from the perspective of a guy telling people to get on a bus and whose second verse is rapped from the perspective of a guy who just missed the bus and has to walk 15 blocks to work. While these are equally vital additions to our cultural milieu, they pale in comparison to his single "Yo-Yo Champ (From Mississippi)." Smith, who in real life is apparently a master yo-yo trick guy (check out this video of him performing the song on TV with yo-yo tricks included), discusses veritable smorgasbord of stunts he can do with his trusty yo-yo in the first verse, only to, in a twist worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, start referring to his dick as a yo-yo in the second.
MC Sweet – "Jesus Christ (The Gospel Beat)" (1982)
I bought this off the strength of its name alone, only to go home, Google the song, and discover that it was actually the first ever Christian rap song––literally the genesis point for hip-hop that is super into the book of Genesis! Then I actually listened to it, and oh MAN is it great. It starts out almost sounding like a No Wave track before a full-on salsa beat kicks in as MC Sweet (who the internet sometimes calls Pete McSweet) straight up raps the story of Adam and Eve, calls Jesus Christ "the baddest brother you ever did see," and brags that he can beat a nonbeliever in every single sport including handball. It's ten minutes long, and every second of it is enthralling.
Hurt Em' Bad – "NBA Rap" (1982)
Three decades before Lil B put out his basketball-themed Hoop Life mixtape, there was Hurt Em' Bad, the world's first basketball-themed rapper. The Vegas-based MC put out five songs in his entire career, and three of them were about basketball. That is cool as hell, and the fact that "The Unbeatable Dream," his final song, actually featured Hakeem Olajuwon, is even cooler. His first was "NBA Rap," which found him rapping about how if you learn the fundamentals of basketball, work hard, capitalize on your opponent's mistakes, and never miss a jump shot, you, too can become a superstar in the NBA. Notably, the song's B-Side is its instrumental, titled "You Got the Ball."
Sweet G – "Games People Play" (1983)
Kurtis Blow lent his band to New York's Sweet G for what was essentially a hip-hop New Wave record. Right from the jump, you know that Sweet G is going to sing and then rap his story about the games people play––namely, because the song's first line is, "I'll sing, I'll rap, and then I'll say / 'Tis a story about the games people play." The song gets progressively funkier, until halfway through you get some crazy DJ scratching and some #BARS from Sweet G about why good people are winners and shitheads are losers.
The YouTube comments on this song are amazing, too. "I haven't heard this in years," a guy named Ivan Hampden Jr. commented two years ago, before adding that he actually played drums on the song. A year later, another person commented, "These young scalawags today can't even appreciate how dope your song had to be to get radio play. They play any ole shit on the radio today. This song still bangs in my house and car."
Fresh Gordon - "The Fresh Commandments" (1986)
Given that this song is from 1986, it's from a slightly different era than the rest of the stuff I'm writing about here (promo 12-inches of Fresh Gordon's "The Fresh Commandments" also feature the track "My Fila," meant to respond to/capitalize off of the success of Run-DMC's "My Adidas"), but once you read the Thirteen Fresh Commandments that Fresh Gordon laid down from upon high, you will understand why I am telling you about this song:
1. Thou shalt not perpetrate the frauds
2. Thou shalt not wear fake Gazelles/Fake Fila suits or you'll be sent to Hell
3. Thou shalt not try to play the role of a fake gigolo leaning up against the pole
4. Thou shall attend thy favorite club if not twice a week at least once a month
5. Pay your favorite respects to your favorite MC/DJ/beat programmer/computer professor
6. Thou shall acknowledge the words that I say
7. Thou shalt not discriminate
8. Thou must dance when the bass drum drops
9. If you thought Fresh Gordon couldn't rap, get it out your head
10. Thou must always have fresh batteries in thy boombox
11. Thou must always chill with a fly girl
12. Thou must always sport the freshest gear
13. Thou shalt not front on Fresh Gordon
In addition laying down the guiding tenets of a new religious order in which he was the Supreme Being, Fresh Gordon would go on to ghost-produce Salt N Pepa's "Push It" and do production work for one of the first artists Puff Daddy ever signed to Uptown Records.
Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.
Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.