'80s Compilation Week 2: Priority's RAPMASTERS [1989]

Various Artists - Rap's Greatest Hits - Volume 2

Today's post was written by John "Dr. Intricate" Book - HERC started it, gave up and reached out and, as always, John came through.  Enjoy and don't forget to check John out on the web, Tumblr and Twitter.

In 1984, "Rock Box" by RUN-DMC became the first true rap video aired on MTV.  
Twenty-five years later, they became the second rap act inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

As rap music was slowly seeping into the national consciousness of the United States, record labels both major and independent were doing everything it could to make its music and artists known. For most of the 1980's, the focus was New York City, where hip-hop was born, but other locales wanted to show off their talents too. Philadelphia had DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and Three Times Dope, Los Angeles had Ice-T and N.W.A, while Seattle was represented by Sir Mix-A-Lot and Kid Sensation. Yet if you did not have a massive hit that managed to crossover into pop circles, you were limited with your circle of followers, which may have been quite big but it was most likely not "major label" big. Not everyone had a chance to be heard or known, but by 1989 it seemed things were changing for the better.

Priority Records would become known as the label that signed N.W.A and distributed their record label, Ruthless, and that lead to them having a very healthy hip-hop roster that included everyone from WC & The Maad Circle and Low Profile to Heltah Skeltah and Snoop Dogg. However, it is safe to say that N.W.A's output gave Priority their greatest profits. Priority started out as a label to release compilation albums, which made sense since their three founders were originally from K-Tel Records, the label known for their made-for-TV albums with 20 original hits by 20 original artists. They did their share of dance music compilations, but one of the first comps they released had to do with rap music, with the latest hit songs by Run-DMC, Whistle, the Fat Boys, and even The Chicago Bears Shuffin' Crew. Up until that point, rap music was still single based, which meant you either bought the 12" single (or 7" 45rpm records if you could find them) or did it the low-budget way: listened to your favorite rap radio show and waited for the song to come on. The only bad thing about that is that most cities didn't have rap radio shows and if they did, it was after midnight. As rap music was becoming more album oriented, Priority decided to cash in on this by releasing a small series of "best of"'s to fulfill the public's need to have what was hot, right now. 

Two songs from the Rap's Greatest Hts album that aren't in Spotify

One of the first successful rap compilations was 1986's Rap's Greatest Hits (at top of post with Vols. 2 and 3 that followed in 1987), which featured not only some of the top songs of the day (Whodini's "Friends", UTFO's "Roxanne, Roxanne", Run-DMC's "King Of Rock", Boogie Boys' "A Fly Girl") but the album led off with Timex Social Club's "Rumors".  It was not rap but since it was considered different for its time (or different from the R&B going on in the mid-80's), it was placed there. By 1986, some of the hottest names in music were not only making itself known, but were having genuine hits: Beastie Boys, Eric B. & Rakim, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. Not bad for a music that was pretty much ignored by MTV, save for Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, but there were outlets like Black Entertainment Television's Video Soul and Video Vibrations that were willing to give this music to its target national audience, one that was growing faster than expected.  By 1989, music critics were placing rap albums as their favorites of the year, and with the success of N.W.A that was only escalating with the controversy surrounding "Straight Outta Compton", Priority simply put together a compilation series that would not only cash in on their top group and others in their roster, but to keep doing what they had been successful at: being the K-Tel of rap music. 

Rapmasters was a 10 volume series released by Priority in 1989 that served not only as a way to get the top jams of the moment, but it also offered a few lessons for those who were being introduced to the music for the first time.  The first volume was called The Best Of The Jam, and a jam could be described as something that was mid to up-tempo and upon listening, you had to dance to it or nod your head in approval.  If anything, the selection showed the influence of MTV's YO! MTV Raps and BET's Rap City, shows of which had just started on their respective networks but were already making an impact on sales and accessibility.  Tracks like Salt-N-Pepa's "Get Up Everybody (Get Up)" and Kid 'N Play's "Gittin' Funky" were both songs that seemed to always have airplay on the two video shows, while The Real Roxanne was trying to get a bit of a reputation for herself outside of just being UTFO's video model, with her own song "Respect", taken from her first and eventually only album.  Of interest is a song that sparked a revolution of sorts in 1986, Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two".  Rap music had a certain sensibility, feel and vibe, but "It Takes Two" was faster, uptempo, and energetic.  Some had initially called this "alternative rap", while some heard it as something "other than" and started putting it in rotation.  It was undeniably a rap song, and while James Brown-related samples had already been in existence, this song helped to spark a few years of James Brown sample overkill on almost every rap album that was released.  For awhile, it almost seemed Lyn Collins' "Think" (the source of the infectious loop in "It Takes Two") was used by everyone who was anyone, including Janet Jackson, who used it for her Rhythm Nation 1814 hit, "Alright".
Volume Two was entitled The Best Of The Rhyme, and while it did have some top notch artists on there (Cash Money & Marvelous, Mantronix, UTFO), to call some of these the best rhymes would be pushing it. As great as the Disco 3 (b/k/a The Fat Boys) were on a humorous level, their "Fat Boys" song wasn't exactly poetic greatness, but it worked either way.

The Best Of The Cut was how Volume 3 was described, meant to be a way to highlight the works of the DJ, the cutmaster or mixmaster that was once the part of every rap group. While Jam Master Jay's role in Run-DMC's "Rock Box" was limited, the song is honored here, while Mixmaster Ice gets to cut it up on the one and two's in the two tracks featuring UTFO. Mantronix's classic club hit "Fresh Is The Word" gets noticed here, which featured DJ work from not only Mantronix himself, but DJ Louie Lou. Word Of Mouth's "King Tut" became an underground favorite, partly due to one DJ Cheese.
The Best Of Hip Hop was a title that might have seemed curious at first, since it was "rap music" that was the popular term. Hip-hop represented the movement and the vibe, and no one had said "I'm listening to hip-hop music" as we do today, so was this title a way to separate what was considered hip-hop and what was considered "rap", or like some of us (including myself), was it one and the same? Nonetheless, a few of the tracks here are reused from previous Priority comps but also includes Mantronix's "Needle To The Groove" and Just-Ice's "Cold Gettin' Dumb" to catch a bit of the underground dollar. As for Worse 'Em (b/k/a Eric Griffin), his one single from 1986 ("Triple M Bass") is here but while he did release a small handful of singles after this, his audience would be limited to admirers of Miami bass.
Rap music was of course not just about the music, but very much about the vocals and the lyrics it presented, thus The Best Of The Word that is honored with volume five. While not a perfect selection of awesome wordsmiths, the album does feature some quality material to choose from, including UTFO's "Ya Cold Wanna Be With Me", EPMD's "Strictly Business", Eric B. & Rakim's "I Ain't No Joke", Run-DMC's "It's Tricky", and Ultramagnetic MC's "Ego Trippin'", all of which were genuine classics by the time they were compiled here. What makes this album interesting is the introduction of British rapper/DJ, Derek B., who would find a small bit of success in the United States with "Bad Young Brother". The mystery artist of this volume is Cheba B, whose sole release seems to be the song used for this album, "Pushin' Too Hard". Perhaps the idea from Priority was that if buyers were to play this tape over and over, they would eventually get into Cheba B. Maybe.
The Best Of The Beat was not quite what I would call the true best of beat making in the mid to late 1980's. While the song selection here is honorable ("You Gots To Chill", Doug E Fresh's "All The Way To Heaven", and N.W.A's awesome "Dopeman"), there are still a few things that leave a lot to be desired. It was good, which perhaps meant it was good enough for them to release.
If there's one side of rap music that is often forgotten or ignored, it's the comedic qualities of the rapper and their lyrics. Rapmasters 7: The Best Of The Laughs features some genuine gems that are not only very funny, but certified hip-hop classics. Doug E Fresh & MC Ricky D (a/k/a Slick Rick) give up the great "La Di Da Di" while the Fat Boys deliver a pizza and verbal meals in "All you Can Eat".  T La Rock has "Tudy Fruity", the good ol' Rappin' Duke salutes Aretha Franklin in his self-titled track, and Chubb Rock, arguably the most witty rapper on the album, tells everyone why he's "Caught Up" in his situation. You probably could find funnier songs from the era, but this is a great primer for the humor that existed in the music back then.

The first volume in this series that I bought was Rapmasters 8: The Best Of The Street, because it featured what I felt was the true music, the real hip-hop, with Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, The Sugarhill Gang, Melle Mel, and Afrika Bambaataa & The Jazzy Five.  In terms of where the music came from and where it was about to head to after their original releases, you can hear it here. The street represented for the most part where you may have heard these songs: at a block party, at the park, in a car. The street, for many, was the first sense of rap music airwaves, blasting out of a bedroom window as a calling of sorts.
Before it became known as gangsta, the explicit rap music was called hardcore, because it wasn't afraid to talk smack or say vulgarities.  The Best Of The Hardcore also didn't have to swear to be considered hardcore, if it was rough in spirit, that was great, thus the reason why you could hear N.W.A's "Gangsta Gangsta" alongside 7A3's "7A3 Will Rock You", 2 Live Crew's "What I Like" next to Stetsasonic's "Freedom Or Death", or Too $hort getting rough with "Playboy Short" while Ice-T told everyone why "Ya Don't Quit". You even have Bambaataa & James Brown's "Unity" to show the generational gap that, for a brief moment, had been closed.
While the last volume in the series is called The Best Of Scratchin', some of the tunes have absolutely no DJ work whatsoever.  Newcleus' "Jam On It" is probably on here more for its onomatopoeia "wiki-wiki-wiki" than the actual DJ'ing that's in the song. You can't deny that these songs have a party vibe to them, and you can't go wrong with two songs by The Treacherous Three (the group that featured Kool Moe Dee). Along with Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Source's "Planet Rock" and Funky 4 Plus 1's "That's The Joint", these were songs that would stop people in their tracks when heard, and fortunately they still do that today.

The perhaps-surprise success of the initial ten volumes of the Rapmasters series made Priority release they could repeat that level of success. The quality was top notch, and while created for the budget minded (most of the comps had no more than 10 songs each, and the lack of liner notes was perfect for those who just wanted to listen and not read), the first series of Rapmasters would suffice. The label ended up putting together another series of five discs - Volumes 11-15 - a year later.

One thing of note about this compilation is that while there were specific boundaries set, as shown with each title, the selection is almost a free for all. Rap music was not limited to New York or Los Angeles, but those are the primary cities that are cited. The mentality in some circles was that New York dictated what passed as quality music and what didn't, and if it didn't get a lot of radio airplay in the Tri-State area or was ignored by MTV, you were over. Regional tastes did matter, but only in the regions represented, so if you happened to be from Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Raleigh, or Norfolk, you had to accept that you weren't going to get national attention, no matter hard you tried. It's not that the public didn't want it, but they weren't made aware of anything other than what being made available. Imagine how artists from Canada, England, and (West) Germany felt when they wanted to bust a rhyme but were occasionally considered a novelty before they could build up an audience in the U.S. It couldn't happen, and that's not to say people didn't try. It would be another four to six years before hip-hop's first audience were introduced to the internet, so in terms of the type of networking and promotion we do today, that was unheard of in 1989. If you wanted a radio show from the other coast, you had to have a cousin in that city to record it, and also deal with them not knowing how to record a radio show in the first place.

Another thing of note: musical freedom. Sampling wasn't considered an artform, as much as it was just "ooh, I recognize that song" or "I have that beat".  People liked the songs partly because of the familiarity and how it sometimes sounded a bit like what was heard before.  The best songs were the ones where the sample sources were unknown at first, but maybe the strangeness and unfamiliarity of those sounds is why LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys, or in truth any Def Jam artist, are not represented in the first ten volumes of the Rapmasters series.  Anything and everything could be thrown into the pot, and that was just part of the norm, even though some producers have since admitted that they knew it was a matter of time before some legalities would present itself to the artists and record labels.  In 2013, most artists will sample maybe one or two other tracks in one of their own songs, or perhaps the whole album.

The spirit of the Rapmasters series no longer exists, it now serves as a time capsule of the fun and creativity that was the 1980's. We grow older, we experience new things, think differently, and yet they will revive the memories we had when we first heard them. Rap music eventually became something people did, and hip-hop was something you lived, as if it was a secret code meant to be honored 24/7. That in itself separated things which lead to even more separation, as the 90's paved the way for the East Coast/West Coast battle, and perhaps more importantly, mainstream vs. underground. Things have changed for the better in the digital age, despite the fact that there are more outlets to find and hear new music, from as many locations as possible. It's overwhelming, far from the ten songs you had a chance to listen to in each volume of Rapmasters, and as a title, Priority Records were already saying who they felt the best was. The albums had no liner notes or means of information on their backgrounds, you just had the music and the listener had to figure things out with repeat listens. Maybe at a time when we listen to music as snippet tapes (i.e. 15 to 30 second excerpts) before turning it off and trying to find something else, we need to start listening again, not only to the old school, but also the new. I think at times we've lost a need to listen, and we only want to hear the music without caring what's being created. Back then it was important, and it remains important today. There will be rapmasters tomorrow, but they have to know what brought them to get to that point.

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