1988 was a colossal year for hip-hop. Soon-to-be-classic albums from Public Enemy, N.W.A., Run-D.M.C, Boogie Down Productions and more solidified the artform birthed from the Bronx as a viable and music industry-funded endeavor. Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia, who host NPR's What's Good podcast, remember the hip-hop revolution circa 1988.
"It's the last time there was truly a meritocracy where the best artists sold the most amount of records based on the fact that they were dope," Bobbito Garcia says, asserting that the top hip-hop artists of the '80s all had distinct sounds, aesthetics and points of view they expressed in their music.
Stretch Armstrong points out the styles of rap at the time — from the comedy of Biz Markie to the stoic seriousness of Rakim to the militancy of Chuck D and descriptive storytelling of Slick Rick — gave fans an "incredibly varied and really rich" experience. Garcia credits U.K.-born rapper Slick Rick, who released his debut album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick in 1988, with broadening hip-hop's horizons beyond New York.
"Slick Rick with his jewels, with his suits, with his eye patch, it just kind of breathed life into hip-hop in so many ways," Garcia says.
For all of hip-hop's confidence and swagger, some rappers were becoming known for their misogynistic lyrics. But in '88, female MCs answered with their own beats and points of view. Armstrong remembers that when Queen Latifah dropped her 1988 single, "Wrath of the Madness," she was immediately accepted. "That record was running it," he says. And MC Lyte's 1988 track "10% Dis" stands out as a competitive, grimy track communicating more than just being attractive to guys.
In 1988, the door was wide open. "The premium was to be original, unique and attempt to push the platform forward," Garcia says.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Let's take a moment now and listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY, MARY")
RUN-DMC: (Singing) Mary, Mary, why you bugging?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VAPORS")
MC LYTE: (Rapping) Radio, TV and even the press, they want the meaning of V-A-P-O-R-S.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPER THIN")
MC LYTE: (Rapping) Step off, grab your coat, and get lost. Wrap your scarf around your throat and go back and catch the rope and hit the road, Sam.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON")
NWA: (Rapping) Tell them where you're from. Straight out of Compton.
CORNISH: OK, I'm going to blow your mind right now because all these songs came out 30 years ago - 1988. It was a colossal year for hip-hop with albums from NWA, MC Lyte, Biz Markie, Run-DMC.
STRETCH ARMSTRONG, BYLINE: Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince.
BOBBITO GARCIA, BYLINE: Public Enemy - "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back."
ARMSTRONG: Boogie Down Productions.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WACK RAPPERS")
AFROMAN: (Rapping) But they all just whick (ph) whick wack.
CORNISH: And this playlist goes on and on. So who better to talk about the who and the why of 1988 - DJs Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia...
ARMSTRONG: Hey, Audie.
GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
CORNISH: ...Hosts of the NPR podcast What's Good With Stretch & Bobbito. Welcome back, guys.
GARCIA: Thank you.
ARMSTRONG: Awesome to be here.
CORNISH: OK, so what is going on in 1988 that is feeding all of this energy in hip-hop?
GARCIA: Well, I mean, '88 is a banner year. I mean, in me and Stretch's estimation, it's the last time there was truly a meritocracy where the best artists sold the most amount of records based on the fact that they were dope. We saw independent labels collaborating with major labels to get wider distribution but not compromising the music. And we saw a herald of black consciousness. We just saw a great variety of women and men. I mean, it was just like if you look at the top 10 artists of the era, none of them sounded the same. And they all talked about something different.
ARMSTRONG: You had comedians like Biz Markie. You had Rakim, who was very serious and pretty much made a career of rhyming about how dope he is. Yeah. You had Chuck D's militancy. You had more accessible hip-hop with Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. It was just incredibly varied and just really rich.
GARCIA: And then you had a storyteller like Slick Rick.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONA LISA")
SLICK RICK: Ladies and gentlemen and lowlifes. It is with outstanding pleasure that we are here to present tonight Slick Rick the ruler.
CORNISH: I want to talk more about that because his album "The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick" is one on your list, Bobbito Garcia, that you think we should talk a little bit more about.
GARCIA: Mmm hmm.
CORNISH: Slick Rick has, like, got an eyepatch and an attitude...
CORNISH: ...And (laughter) - and some lyrics.
ARMSTRONG: The kangol.
CORNISH: Yeah, the kangol and the lyrics that I can't even really discuss or play in front of my parents. What's his legacy?
ARMSTRONG: Well, I mean, he was a phenomenal storyteller. He kind of opens the door for hip-hop to be imagined beyond New York. He was born in the U.K. and did not shy away from his British accent. He also was a style icon. He wore jewelry. And not that Big Daddy Kane didn't as well, but because his album went platinum, because "Yo! MTV Raps" at the time was blasting imagery of rap music on national television and in a manner that was unprecedented...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONA LISA")
RICK: (Rapping) Excuse me, dear.
GARCIA: ...Slick Rick with his jewels and with his suits, with his eyepatch - it just kind of breathed life into hip-hop in so many ways.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONA LISA")
RICK: (Rapping) The compliment showed she had a mind in her. And when I smiled, I almost blinded her. She said, great Scott, are you a thief? Seems like you have a mouth full of gold teeth. (Laughter) Had to find that funny, so I said, no, child, I work hard for the money. And calling me a thief - please, don't even try it. Sit down. Eat your slice of pizza, and be quiet. She almost got cut short, you know, scissors. She tried to disrespect who?
ARMSTRONG: Who - the grand wizard.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONA LISA")
RICK: (Rapping) What's your name, son?
ARMSTRONG: MC Ricky D.
CORNISH: Now, here's the thing. With the introduction of character and this swagger, you have a lot of misogyny, right? And you have a lot of lyrics that for women hip-hop fans we listened to (laughter) but we weren't loving. So how do the women MCs reply? Like, what is going on in 1988, and what is the music that we're hearing?
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, you know, it's funny. In '88 when NWA came out, one of the things that was so shocking about them was their sort of very free use of curse words. However, that's not to say that misogyny and kind of awful ideas and stories weren't conveyed without using curse words 'cause...
ARMSTRONG: ...They were.
GARCIA: Definitely women countered that. And by '88, we see a sophistication and a relevance of women in hip-hop that I don't think we saw prior on the level that it was.
CORNISH: Right. There's the release of Queen Latifah's song "Wrath Of My Madness."
ARMSTRONG: We love that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRATH OF MY MADNESS")
QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) You've been begging and dying for somebody's rhyming to set you free. For God so loved, the world he gave to me. I'm cooling teaching those needing schooling. And the mic - this mic in my hand I'm ruling. So prepare your mind for my lifeline, and meet the new queen of royal badness. Latifah has the spirit. So head for the water, and dive into the wrath of my madness.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) Cost of living getting higher 'cause them to run away. Queen Latifah...
CORNISH: As she arrived on the scene, it felt, like, fully formed. Like, I think people forget just how young she was especially now that she's this, like, CoverGirl (laughter) kind of award-winning...
GARCIA: Yeah. I mean, she's larger than life.
CORNISH: ...Jazz singer. I mean, yeah, she's had a talk show.
CORNISH: But back then, she was a kid, and she was striking.
ARMSTRONG: She is a phenomenal singer, and she was a phenomenal lyricist and MC. You know, despite the misogyny in hip-hop, when someone like Queen Latifah came out with a song like this, she was immediately accepted. When that record came out, you heard it everywhere - every mix show, every club. It was a - that record was running it.
CORNISH: The other person I want to bring up is MC Lyte because I think - while I think of Queen Latifah as someone who does the kind of, like, singing and rapping and feels very mainstream, I feel like MC Lyte went really hard (laughter). And we have her song here "10% Dis."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "10% DIS")
MC LYTE: (Rapping) And my word is bond like James, killing everybody in sight. The code's three-six. The name is Lyte. After this jam, I really don't give a damn 'cause I'm going to run and tell your whole damn clan that you're a...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) Beat biter, dope style taker - tell it to your face. You ain't nothing but a faker. Beat biter...
CORNISH: So with both of these artists, you have people who I think lyrically are very good. But also those lyrics are not just about being attractive (laughter)...
CORNISH: ...Or being about attractive to men. And it feels like that's something I'm going to remember from '88.
GARCIA: Well, I think overall in '88, the premium was to be original, unique and really attempt to push the platform forward. So what we see with MC Lyte, what we see with Antoinette, who was around that time as well, Queen Latifah - what we see with all the men who we - who we've already mentioned as well is that it was super competitive, and it was just like the door was wide open. And the possibilities were just endless.
ARMSTRONG: You also see artists having an eye on expanding that success. You see artists that had real street credibility start to make records that perhaps compromised the style that endeared them to fans. If you look at Salt-N-Pepper (ph) - excuse me - Salt-N-Pepa, they had a...
CORNISH: Don't play.
ARMSTRONG: They had a crossover hit in 1987 called "Push It," which you'll still hear in clubs today. MC Lyte on the other hand had no interest in crossing over. She was in the street and just kept it grimy.
CORNISH: Well, I'm just glad that we get to end now on Salt-N-Pepa because that's my whole...
CORNISH: That was my little kid jam. Very inappropriate, but there it was.
CORNISH: It was amazing. Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia, - check out their podcast What's Good With Stretch & Bobbito. Thanks so much, you guys.
ARMSTRONG: Thanks, Audie.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUSH IT")
SALT-N-PEPA: (Rapping) Boy, you really got me going. You got me so I don't know what I'm doing. Oh, push it. Oh, push it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.