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It’s black, it’s white — Perfect 10: Hip-hop hybrids

The BBC have reported that fifty years ago, on 11 August 1973 at a house party in the Bronx, hip-hop was born. Using two turntables and a microphone, Jamaican-born funk and soul DJ Kool Herc mixed two records together – isolating and extending the kick drum beats or “breaks” – while making a series of rhythmic announcements over the top. The rest, as they say, was history.

As is now legendary, DJs soon began showing off their versatility, releasing 12-inch records on which crews of MCs would rap over the beat. In reality, the roots of hip-hop were put down earlier by forerunners like the Last Poets and DJ Hollywood, but 11 August 1973 became the symbolic birth date, even though the very white and very German band credited with inadvertently inspiring, nay creating, the genre more than any other act had barely got going. 

Not that hip-hop had always been an easy sell. The rap records that reached radio in the early years had a tendency, ever since the Sugarhill Gang’s breakthrough, Rapper’s Delight, to exude a novelty flavour, while turntablism, in real life the beating heart of the culture, tended to manifest itself only as a cheesy wikki-wikki add-on

To the layman listener, Kraftwerk might seem like an odd choice to be cited as a longstanding influence on rap and everything that followed, but as one half of the surviving members of Run-DMC tells the NME: “Kraftwerk created hip-hop.” 

DMC – for that is him – may be adding a splash of hyperbole, but it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t have a pretty humungous point. After all, as he notes, Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force sampled the Teutonic electronic pioneers’ Trans-Europe Express on one of the earliest examples of hip-hop becoming hit pop – 1982’s electro classic Planet Rock.

There have been some clangers, but when it gels hip-hop combined with rock and pop go together great, as some recent late-night collaborations have reminded us (Run The Jewels tuned into TV On The Radio and Parquet Courts penetrating Bun B). So we dug back through the archives to line up some of the best black and white hip-hop hybrids of the past 30 years. Prepare yourself for a shock. 

Blondie — Rapture (1980)

The most successful American band in the history of the British charts, Blondie was a lot of things to a lot of people, including No Doubt before No Doubt. Possibly the greatest example of a crossover act, the New Yorkers spent the turn of the decade deftly blending prevailing styles like disco, punk, and new wave into a series of punchy, nearly perfect three-minute pop songs. As lead single from 1980’s Autoamerican album, the group’s cover of The Paragons rocksteady The Tide Is High saw them dabbling in reggae. So why not hip-hop as well?

Smack dab in the middle of Blondie’s most experimental period, Rapture was the first major hip-hop track to use original music, rather than samples. It was also first mainstream pop song to feature rapping, even if Debbie Harry’s rap is kind of wack. No, that’s unfair – her delivery is impeccable, it’s just that she’s verbalising utter gibberish. Yet, even without the sweetwise jam and Chic steals, Rapture is a gorgeous groove where Harry makes her sweetly infectious vocals an enticing instrument that’s about as seductive as anything from the 1980s. 

Props too for referencing their deckmeister friend Fab 5 Freddy, as well as Grandmaster Flash, though it’s Jean-Michel Basquiat that does a coquettish turn as a club DJ in the video, which depicted the four pillars of the new and rebellious ground-up movement: rapping, mixing, breakdancing, and graffiti. 

More: Lower East Side story: Blondie’s New York City Blues

Malcolm McLaren – Buffalo Gals (1982)

Former Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren got the idea for Buffalo Gals while in Manhattan in the sticky summer heat of August 1981, looking for a support act for his protégés Bow Wow Wow. Finding himself accompanying the artist Michael Holman to a Block Party in the South Bronx by Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation, he was exposed to hip-hop for the first time and discovered the scratching technique he would use on this revolutionary song.

In mid ’82, the self-styled Fagin of the entertainment industry teamed up with producer Trevor Horn (“He was somebody who could manipulate whatever machinery was necessary to get the satisfactory sound”), to embark upon the ambitious project. He wanted to bring back the original excitement of early rock’n’roll music by tracking it down to its source in Africa and through the music of other cultures, from Native American tribes to the black ghettos of New York. McLaren’s extraordinary results were premiered live on teatime telly, on the 19 November edition of The Tube.

“It’s like reconstructing the debris of old pop paraphernalia… what’s exciting about it is that you no longer need to buy guitars. You can choose a friend up the road, put your decks together with a beatbox and make your own records, demoralising [sic] the pop myth and beginning to find a way of using material yourself.”

Writing warmly in his 2022 memoir, Adventures In Modern Recording: From ABC to ZTT, Trevor Horn had a remarkable amount of patience with McLaren’s unconventional schemes and exploits. Trev and Malc, in cahoots with engineer Gary Langan, followed their muse and their noses, and travelled the world (New York, South Africa, London) soaking up sounds, influences, and rhythms. 

What’s remarkable is that despite McLaren having “no sense of pitch or rhythm” the crack producer, now on a roll, came up with a way to fashion two UK hits – Buffalo Gals and Double Dutch – from the chaotic-sounding sessions, and the end result was an innovative hotchpotch and incredibly influential.

More: Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals introduces scratching to Britain 

New Order — Confusion (1983) 

With the mass appeal of hip-hop these days it’s worth pointing out that New Order dabbled in it during their transitional early ’80s period when, to British ears, at least, the follow-up to Blue Monday sounded like it had been beamed in from another world. 

This was the mardy Mancunians’ great 1983 New York experiment: co-writing and co-producing with dance music’s hippest producer, infusing the beats of the white-hot electro, hip-hop and breakdancing scene, and the DJ culture of Manhattan night spots like the Paradise Garage. 

An influential turntablist with a prescient pedigree, Arthur Baker was famous for world-shattering cuts like Planet Rock and IOU, and helmed NO’s adrenaline hit; its charmingly gauche embrace of electro illustrating the impact of New York’s nightlife on the band, as documented in its associated video which showcased the city’s vibrant early eighties club life. 

Techno-romantic and as hard-edged as anything above Harlem, the propulsive Confusion was twenty years before its time, as well as being unique for having both Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner playing bass on it. It’s also worth point out that all three luminaries of the NY scene; Baker, ‘Jellybean’ Benitez and John Robie all had a hand in the production and recording somewhere along the way.

More: 45 at 33: New Order go for gold with Blue Monday

Time Zone — World Destruction (1984) 

Following on from 1982’s Planet Rock, Afrika Bambaataa was already perceived as one of the godfathers of hip-hop when he started to piece together the band Time Zone the following year. For World Destruction, Bambaataa reportedly asked producer Bill Laswell to come up with a potential collaborator on the one-off single. The suggestion was the punk “legend” formerly known as Johnny Rotten, then on a slight PiL sabbatical:

“I was talking to Bill saying I need somebody who’s really crazy, man, and he thought of John Lydon. I knew he was perfect because I’d seen this movie that he’d made (Copkiller), I knew about all the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. stuff, so we got together and we did a smashing crazy version, and a version where he cussed the Queen something terrible, which was never released.”

Now regarded as a cross-genre classic, World Destruction is credited as one of the first 45s to effectively combine rap and rock music. Slightly behind the curve after Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes, the promotional video makes extensive use of clips of President Ronald Reagan banging on about nuclear war, because a point is all that you can score… probably. 

More: John Lydon: “Have I mellowed? Absolutely fucking not!” – a classic interview revisited

Pet Shop Boys — West End Girls (1985)

It’s a classic hip-hop story: Two young bucks inspired by old gangster movies and modern club culture go into a New York City studio to lay down a song about guns, sex, class, consumerism, and what it means to hail from the east and west sides of their city. One guy handles the music; the other raps over sampled drums in a regional oh-so-English accent, spitting a series of casually nihilistic lines that begins with this assertion

“Sometimes, you’re better off dead

There’s gun in your hand and it’s pointing at your head”

How’s that for an opening couplet?

At first glance one might be tempted to dismiss Pet Shop Boys as just another disposable duo writing meaningless pop….. and, sadly, some critics (at least in America) do. But a careful examination of Neil Tennant’s lyrics reveal far more than just a throw away pop act, and the wizardry of Chris Lowe’s musical arrangements are often sheer baffling brilliance. Likewise, Ver Boys’ hip-hop fandom is well documented and totally legitimate, going back to the early ’80s, when Tennant visited NYC while working for the music magazine Smash Hits. Indeed, nobody understands the history and soul of dance music or its intricate connection with pop as well as these two.

Their debut album was a NY-cum-Italo disco-influenced fountain of synth-pop goodness. West End Girls, its most famous 45, was first recorded in a brittle hi-NRG arrangement with Bobby Orlando at Manhattan’s Unique Studios, the session being notable for David Bowie’s long-time guitarist Carlos Alomar walking in unannounced. 

The slowed down re-recorded version, produced by Stephen Hague, was issued in 1985 and remains one of PSB’s most celebrated singles. It has energy, atmosphere, plus the moodily evocative video of a stick-thin Neil swishing around in his overcoat at a moment in time when London was edgy, arty and exciting. 

Both producers did right by the song, and neither version sounds like tea-drinking English lads pretending to be from the South Bronx. It eventually topped the charts on both sides of the pond in 1986, becoming the first rap song to do so. In fact, Pet Shop Boys steer so clear of cultural appropriation that many Americans still don’t hear West End Girls as hip-hop. Tennant’s middle class accent obviously has a lot to do with that. In Interview magazine in 2010, the singer copped to biting his West End Girls flow from Melle Mel’s rap on Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s 1982 hit The Message—a much grittier record PSB thankfully stopped short of fully emulating. 

“Yes, the rhythm of the rap is exactly the same—but I do it in an English accent. Originally all of West End Girls was going to be spoken, but I realised I needed to sing at least a bit of it. Still, we often boast it is the first No. 1 rap record in America, but nobody believes us.”

More: Oh Please: It’s the Pet Shop Boys’ first album review

Run-DMC & Aerosmith — Walk This Way (1986)

There has been no dearth of ink spilled about Run-DMC, Aerosmith or hip-hop’s rise to cultural domination. The mash-up merged two racial and spatial histories just as as such as it fused disparate sounds and scenes. 

The mission was to capture the genre’s live-show energy on record. The target? The transformation of a hoary old rock song released by Aerosmith in 1975 into a strange-bedfellows crossover duet. Though, like the scene depicted in the accompanying video, it was not without its tensions (Run called Steve Tyler’s lyrics “hillbilly gibberish”), and that promotional clip is both harbinger and metaphor for the rework’s legacy: Here were two warring sides literally breaking down the wall between them so they could rock out — rap out? — together. And the rest is hip-hop history.

Or is it? After the goldrush, Aerosmith’s ninth album sold five million copies and returned them to stadium status. While  Walk This Way became an instant new school classic, making Run-DMC hip-hop’s first truly global superstars, and spawning a carbon copy lite recreation from Girls Aloud and Sugababes in 2007. 

Beastie Boys — (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) (1987)

“Ah, your mum threw away your best porno mag!”

Girls, make some noise! Three friends from Brooklyn, Adam Horovitz, Michael Diamond and Adam Yauch bonded over a love of crass stupidity and street life. Now calling themselves Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA, they eventually emerged as Beastie Boys, landed on Def Jam, and proceeded to become the most obnoxious and best-selling rap group of the 1980s, while helping to establish hip-hop as the dominant force we know today with their emphatic 1986 debut Licensed To Ill. The album was a breath of fresh air peppered with a faint whiff of controversy; a hybrid of the underground New York hip-hop scene and the punk movement, with the trio channelling an anarchic attitude reminiscent of Joe Strummer among many others. 

But it would be the most played song from the LP that the Boys would be least proud of. As this was their first release, many observers didn’t quite grasp that a large chunk of everything Beastie Boys related was drenched in irony and poking fun at areas of society. When they released the visceral anthem (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!), most people took the song at face value, much to the trio’s irritation. 

With its masterful, blending of willfully obnoxious rhymes with the blunt force of metal riffs, it was the song that defined the Beastie Boys for so much of the 1980s. It’s an indelible image that’s both cringeworthy and iconic that it took them years to convince the media at large that they were more than just beer-guzzling party boys. Nonetheless, it’s a quintessential part of Beasties lore, one that helped launch them into the stratosphere.

More: Life in the Big Apple: assessing the Beastie Boys Story

Madonna — Justify My Love (1990)

Mother was such a slut. Probably the most radical single of her career, Justify My Love went so far against the pop establishment that it is a testament to Madonna’s then shapeshifting dominance that it still went No. 1 in her homeland. Playing like your dirtiest fantasy set to music, it also introduced the pop-diva alter ego: Before Mariah gave us Mimi and Beyoncé gave us Sasha Fierce, the Material Girl gave us the prototype Dita, though the seductress wouldn’t be named as such until the pseudo sequel, 1992’s Erotica.

A dark and sultry spoken-word ode to releasing your inner freak that grinds to the sleaziest of hip-hop beats is not supposed to justify such mainstream love. But this Public Enemy-sampling song — co-written by Lenny Kravitz (and a credited-later-by-way-of-litigation Ingrid Chavez, the future Mrs David Sylvian), who also moans orgasmically in the background — was so hot that not even MTV’s video ban could stop it from climaxing.

More: She’s Madonna: Her 30 greatest singles

Teenage Fanclub & De La Soul — Fallin’ (1993)

The early-to-mid-1990s were a fertile period for experimentation in movies and especially movie music. Quentin Tarantino set a new bar for cinematic atmosphere; rising black filmmakers scored their stories with hip-hop; modern rock and electronica found new outlets. So it’s really no surprise that a forgettable Emilio Estevez action flick begat a contrived yet still groundbreaking soundtrack conjoining rappers with alt rock and metal acts. Welcome to Judgment Night.

Some pairings resulted in work that felt like two separate songs stitched together (Helmet on the end of House Of Pain), some created laughable sample-based caricatures (Sonic Youth up Cypress Hill). And some seamless tracks worked more than others (g’day Dinosaur Jr & Del The Funkee Homosapien). 

This loping deep cut, however, might be the album’s silent killer. The incongruity probably works best here because it’s a mash-up between a Scottish power pop band (the “Fannies”) and a Long Island hip-hop trio (De La Soul), its near-freestyle perfectly complementing Raymond McGinley’s whirling guitar psychedelia while riffing off of Tom Petty’s earnest eighties hit Free Fallin’. The Josh Taft-directed video features both acts wandering the hallways and classrooms of a high school while children dressed as angels dance around during a play. Outnumbered it ain’t. 

Prodigy — Smack My Bitch Up (1997) 

You can’t imagine a situation now where a track called Smack My Bitch Up would achieve anything like mainstream success. The ’90s was the ’90s, though, and the third 45 from The Fat Of The Land came at the tail end absolutely peak Prodigy, following a pair of 1996 chart-toppers in the shape of Breathe and the Art Of Noise-quoting Firestarter.

A brutally raw description of a drug-fuelled night out, the single’s harsh lyrics and vomitous video came under huge scrutiny. The group have always claimed the title has nothing to do with violence against women, instead saying the title refers to “doing anything intensely”. Electrifying and sizzling, Smack My Bitch Up confirmed Brentwood’s finest had become turbo-charged global dance legends.

The breathless intensity of the breaks and bassline form a formidable foundation, above which the monologue lyrics urging “Change my pitch up / Smack my bitch up” are repeated ad nauseam throughout the track. Performed by rapper Kool Keith, the vocals are manipulated from Give The Drummer Some, by the Bronx posse Ultramagnetic MCs. It went to number one in various European countries, and reached eighth spot in the UK chart, its sales achieving gold status. 

More: He’s the bitch who hated himself: The Prodigy’s Keith Flint and the shock of suicide

BONUS BEATS

One for the road then…

Eminem — Stan (2000/2001)

Rapper Marshall Bruce Mathers III, better known as Eminem, has pulled off no shortage of eye-opening musical alliances in his long and storied career, but few can match the surprise that greeted this legendary rendition of Stan alongside Elton John at the 2001 Grammy Awards. 

Originally a sampled collaboration with Dido, Stan was one of the chart-topping singles from his third studio album, The Marshall Mathers LP. The horror core video shows how a guy becomes obsessed with Eminem and ends up murdering his pregnant wife and himself after seeing that his idol neglected to answer the letters he wrote to him. In 2017 they added Stan’s name in the Oxford Dictionary to refer to an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity.

As celebrated for his dark-humoured, quickfire rhyming style as he is vilified for his seemingly homophobic lyrics, the stirring performance and Slim Shady’s post-song embrace with the portly piano player saw him answering his critics in inimitable style. Its inclusion on the deluxe edition of the greatest hits collection Curtain Call ensured its place among the best Eminem crossovers.

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