John Morrison's Philly Top Five: Amazing but underrated hip-hop from the 215 for August - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Any history of hip-hop that excludes the city of Philadelphia, is at best, an incomplete history. A sincere and comprehensive tracing of hip-hop’s march out the Bronx on the way to becoming a global culture and industry would have to recognize that Philadelphia was the culture’s first major stronghold outside of New York. Graffiti art — the oldest of the four recognized elements of hip-hop — started here with Darryl “Cornbread” Mccray. When rap music made it onto record in 1979, the overwhelming majority of those early records were made in New York but Philadelphia’s nascent hip-hop scene was producing rap records at that time as well. Regional hits like Lady B’s “To the Beat Y’all” and Jocko Henderson’s “Rhythm Talk” and “Rocketship” can be counted amongst the small and elusive class of records in rap music’s inaugural class.

By 1981, many of the first wave of New York acts — Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Busy Bee, Jimmy Spicer — took hold on rap radio here before nearly anywhere else outside of New York, and at the same time our city’s DJs were creating new scratches and even changing the way DJs everywhere set up their turntables. Philly DJs were so influential that hip-hop DJs everywhere still set their turntables up sideways with the tonearms facing away from the mixer to make for easier, unobstructed  access to the mixer while playing (*this setup is known as “Philly style”). In short, Philadelphia is encoded in early hip-hop’s DNA and that presence should be recognized in any retelling of the culture’s history.

With all of the lovely pomp and regalia associated with the global Hip-Hop 50 initiative celebrating the 50th anniversary of DJ Kool Herc’s party at 1520 Sedgewick, I fear that Philadelphia has not been properly recognized. Chalk it up to recency bias or Philadelphia’s bad luck as a perpetual underdog, outside of the work of a few local writers, Philadelphia’s integral role in hip-hop history has largely been ignored. 2023 also marks my 24th(!) year writing about Philly hip-hop culture and music. It scares me to think that I’ve been doing this for nearly half the time that hip-hop has existed. This is a realization that conjures fears about my own mortality, fear of the viability of my career path, fear for my hands and eyes after countless hours spent typing in front of a screen. Despite this, I’m going to try to persevere and keep it pushing. Because I have to, and because our city deserves to have people who are dedicated to its history and culture.

There are others who came before me, there are many who will be here after me and some who stand alongside me as peers and colleagues. That thought is comforting at least. Regardless of what happens, someone will be working to tell Philly’s story. In the interest of uncovering the deep layers that Philly hip-hop has to offer, I want to celebrate Hip-Hop’s 50th and my hometown by talking about amazing but underrated Philly hip-hop records. 

Jocko Henderson – “Rocketship”

In my recent XPN interview with Philly-born MC, Frank Holiday, I asked Frank about some of the early rappers that inspired him to pick up the mic. The first record that he mentioned was Jocko Henderson’s “Rocketship.” Despite being born in Baltimore, Jocko would become a Philly radio legend, performing his slick rhymed routines live on the airwaves. An early influence to many, the records that Jocko made captured the style and charisma that the popular radio jock brought to the air. “Rocketship” is a brilliant and curious artifact from Philly hip-hop’s earliest days. Born in 1918, Henderson was roughly 61 when “Rocketship” was released, far too old to have been considered a hip-hopper in the late 70s. Despite this, Henderson clearly had his ears to the street as “Rocketship” combines a breezy, contemporary rhyme style with an up-to-the-minute disco groove that fit perfectly alongside the rap records of the day.

Jocko Henderson - "Rocketship"

Lightnin Rich / Big John & The Maniacs – “Roaches”

DJ Lightnin’ Rich was a beloved pioneer of Philly DJ culture. When he passed away in the summer of 2015, the outpouring of love, memories and deep sadness was felt throughout the city’s hip-hop community. 1986’s “Roaches” is a bugged out, quirky ode to infestation. The minimal, drum machine-anchored beat and humorous storytelling fit perfectly in the same universe as early DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. The tune opens with a dramatic, faux news broadcast proclaiming roaches to be a greater threat to mankind than germ and nuclear warfare. From there, we get a tale of roaches jumping out the cupboard, and even playing basketball(?). Such a fun and bizarre song from a fun and bizarre era.

Lightnin Rich-Big John & The Maniacs - Roaches (Slice-1985)

Robbie B & DJ Jazz – “I Chill At the Midnight”

Old school Philly hip-hop heads may know Robbie B from his days rocking alongside MC Caesar and DJ Grandmaster Nell. Robbie B also made some fantastic records with DJ Jazz that are among the best late 80s / early 90s Philly rap music. Taken from their 1990 full-length Comin’ Correct, “I Chill at the Midnight” is built on a smooth groove sampled from a funky block party classic. Rob addresses the haters and doubters who’ve been talking shit about him, before deciding to shrug it all off and go have fun hanging at legendary Philly hip–hop club, The After Midnight.

Robbie B. & DJ Jazz - I Chill at the Midnight

HanSoul feat. Bahamadia – “Imagination (Imagine Dat-Dis Mix)”

De La Soul didn’t invent the idea of the whimsical rap song, but their influence in bringing out the genre’s playful side is immeasurable. HanSoul’s “Imagination” pours this influence into a flowery love song in which the protagonist engages in a wholesome lyrical courtship. Hansoul explains to his paramour that even though he’s broke, he can still make her happy, using each verse to paint a picture of the beautiful life that they could create together. Future Philly rap legend Bahamadia shows up to wax poetic about love and relationships on the “Imagine Dat-Dis mix” in what would be one of her earliest appearances on record (maybe the first?). Also worth giving a spin is the “Philly Cheesesteak mix,” produced by Philly turntable legend DJ Ran.

HanSoul - Imagination (Imagine Dat-Dis Mix)

Lord Aaqil – “Check it Out”

You may remember Lord Aaqil’s name from The Roots’ 1993 cut “The Session (The Longest Posse Cut in History).” Featuring Shorty No Mass and various members of the Foreign Objects crew, “The Session” gives a clear look at the stylistic range of Philly rap in the early to mid 90s. Not only did Foreign Objects member Lord Aaqil have a standout verse, that year he’d release a solo single that further displayed his skill. “Check It Out” is a funky, uptempo jam that’s one of the best of its era. Over a energetic, piano-based beat, Aaqil uses the song to shout out his Foreign Objects comrades: Square Roots (aka The Roots), Manifest, Malik B, Rhythmic Freaks and more are all name-checked and show up in the song’s video.

Lord Aaqil - "Check It out"

BONUS: Ram Squad – “Unfortunate”

A few years ago, when we were doing our monthly Hip-Hop Quizzo event at The Saint, I was playing a pregame DJ set when an older dude requested to hear some Ram Squad. I smiled and responded “I got you.” Being from here, I knew “Unfortunate” was the cut to play. Despite its appearance on this list of underrated Philly rap tunes, “Unfortunate” is an anthem in Philly depending on who you ask/play it for. Tommy Hill delivers one of his best performances on wax and his vocal combined with the song’s throwback beat made it a sleeper hit on late night radio back when it came out. Like many Philly rap classics “Unfortunate” is beloved in the city despite rarely being mentioned elsewhere.

Ram Squad - Unfortunate
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