This post was originally published as part of Hip-Hop 101, a series on early rap music published in 2014-2015.
This brief chapter in our ongoing history of early hip-hop focuses on how rappers responded to the crack plague of the mid-to-late 1980s.
The origins, causes and effects of the epidemic remain matters of historical debate, so we won’t try to unravel them here. But its impact is clear. In the 2014 documentary Time is Illmatic, Nas remembers how the annual summer park jams in New York’s urban enclaves ceased when rival dealers began staking out territory. Many early rap pioneers were seduced: In his book The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash, the pioneering DJ tells of falling into a cavern of drug dens and glass pipes for over two years. He wasn’t the only hip-hop hero turned crackhead.
Chuck D addressed tragedies like Grandmaster Flash’s in Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Bassheads”: “My man Daddy-O [from Stetsasonic] once said to me/He know a brother that stayed all day in the street/ And at night he went to sleep/ And in the morning all he had was sneakers on his feet/ The culprit used to jam and rock the mic/ Yo, he stripped the G to fill his pipe.”
“Night of the Living Bassheads” is one of the few irrefutable classics amidst the early reactions to crack, which date roughly from 1986 to 1987. (The 1988 date of the single pushes against our timeline.) These tracks should be compared to the wave of topical songs hip-hop often produces, such as last year’s homages to the Ferguson protests. Kool Moe Dee’s “Monster Crack” and MC Shan’s “Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing” (yes, it uses The Jetsons phrase in the chorus) are historical curios. Doug E. Fresh’s “Nuthin’” retains a haunting power, as does Just-Ice’s cautionary tale “Little Bad Johnny.”
Then there’s Boogie Down Productions, who referenced the crack age in two songs. The earliest, “Say No Brother (Crack Attack Don’t Do It),” found a young group clumsily trying to define their sound with a barrage of Mantronix-influenced cut-and-paste noise. The second, “P is Free,” is much better. As D-Nice lays out a pulsing beatbox rhythm, Blastmaster KRS-One talks about a woman eager to sell her sex in exchange for crack. He chants in a raggamuffin-inflected tone, “The pussy is free, ‘cause the crack costs money, oh yeah!” It’s a memorable song in spite of KRS-One’s cruel brutality against the “hoe” in question.
Much like Boogie Down Productions’ journey, the rap community’s firm anti-crack stance gave way to moral quandaries like N.W.A.’s “Dope Man.” Yes, the song venerates your neighborhood drug dealer, but don’t forget Ice Cube’s rhymes near the end: “You’re robbin’ and stealin’/ buggin’ and illin’ while the dope man’s dealin’/ What is healin’ your pain/ Cocaine, that shit’s insane.” He has no use for the drug, and no respect for the junkies who abuse it, either. And if someone offered you several hundred dollars to deal crack to someone desperate for it, what would you do?
- Public Enemy, “Night of the Living Bassheads”
- Boogie Down Productions, “P Is Free (12-inch version)”
- Just-Ice, “Little Bad Johnny”
- Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew, “Nuthin'”
- N.W.A., “Dope Man”
- MC Shan, “Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing”
- MC Lyte, “I Cram to Understand U (Sam)”
- Kool Moe Dee, “Monster Crack”
- Too Short, “Girl (Cocaine)”
- MC Shan, “Cocaine (12-inch version)”
- Boogie Down Productions, “Say No Brother (Crack Attack Don’t Do It)”
(Rhapsody – January 31, 2015)