There is no shortage of online discourse around hip-hop’s “best” year. As the storied genre turns 50, plenty of articles are popping up online, encouraging spirited debate about the albums that shaped the world, their impact, and their place in the annals of time. If you’re brave enough to sift through the noise and take an objective look through the lens of time, one year stands out above the rest: 1988.
“Hip-Hop, it was ’88. Even at the age of 10, phrases levitate” Vast Aire rapped on Cannibal Ox’s “A B-boys Alpha.” A year that sticks out to young and old alike, lovers of the art form will return to it again and again. NWA, EPMD, Boogie Down Productions, MC Lyte, Eric B. and Rakim, and Public Enemy released massive albums. While gangsta rap was on the rise, another subtler movement was growing alongside it. The Native Tongues brought Afrocentrism, jazz-infused beats, and positivity together for a new brand of hip-hop, and it was spearheaded by a trio from NYC known as the Jungle Brothers.
Taking the lessons learned from the early years of hip-hop and forging their own path forward, Mike Gee, Afrika Baby Bam, and DJ Sammy B were an early crossover act, frequently balancing boom-bap aesthetics with house music stylings — 4-on-the-floor beats, danceable rhythms, and fun lyrics that elicit call-and-response shenanigans.
Their debut album, Straight out the Jungle, was released 35 years ago, and to celebrate, they stopped by World Cafe Live Tuesday night. The first thing that struck me was the diverse age range of the attendees. I went in fully expecting to see plenty of old heads bobbing to the beat, but the number of young fans dancing and singing was a pleasant surprise. The group themselves haven’t lost a step. We were bathing in high-energy renditions of seminal hits like “I’ll House You” (co-produced by the legendary Todd Terry). The funky bassline and fun lyrics of “What “U” Waitin’ “4” had the dancefloor packed and moving, while classic call-and-response adlibs kept the audience engaged. Of course, the night wouldn’t have been complete without a performance of the title track from Straight out the Jungle, which had us gleefully singing along.
Philadelphia legend and originator of the gangsta rap genre, Schoolly D, made a brief but high-energy appearance to kick things off. He got the crowd excited and played his most well-known song, “P.S.K. (What Does It Mean)” but at a scant 15 minutes, his set was short-lived. Hopefully, the Philly Music Fest fans will spend more time with him.
Opening up the night was another Philly icon, producer of Schoolly D’s hit mentioned above, and DJ extraordinaire: DJ Code Money, playing a healthy dose of Golden Age classics to get things moving. Songs like O.C.’s “Time’s Up” and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” had people on their feet singing along before any MC stepped on the stage.