Saturday, January 29, 2011

Electro (Essay)

Before the rise of gangsta rap in the late '80s -- before N.W.A, Ice-T, Ice Cube and the late Eazy-E became international stars -- many Los Angeles rappers were known for a very different type of sound. Some have called that sound electro-hop, which is certainly as good a term as any. Electro-hop (or simply electro) was rap, but it wasn't hardcore rap and didn't appeal to rap purists any more than Shania Twain or Faith Hill appeal to country purists. Electro-hop was electronic pop-rap for the dance floor, and even though rap purists were vehemently critical of it (especially on the East Coast), the high-tech style did enjoy a small cult following on the West Coast in the '80s.

L.A.'s best known electro-hop artists included, among others, the Egyptian Lover, the Arabian Prince, the Unknown DJ, the World Class Wreckin' Cru and Uncle Jam's Army (whose name was inspired by Funkadelic's 1979 album Uncle Jam Wants You). Pop-rappers the L.A. Dream Team also made some contributions to electro-hop, although not everything they recorded was in that vein. All of those artists came along in the early to mid-'80s, a time when hip-hop was still dominated by the East Coast -- mostly New York, although Philadelphia was developing an increasingly healthy rap scene. Electro-hop didn't get much respect on the East Coast, where b-boys and rap purists liked to poke fun at the style. Some East Coast MCs called it "jheri curl music," a disparaging reference to the jheri curl hairstyle that was popular on the West Coast at the time. But as much as electro-hop was ridiculed in New York, Boston and Philly, the style was actually based on one of the hottest East Coast rap records of 1982: Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," which sampled Kraftwerk's 1977 hit "Trans-Europe Express". The same East Coast b-boys who dissed electro-hop had nothing but kind words for Bambaataa, who was among the masters of early New York hip-hop -- when one is talking about the history of old school rap in Harlem and the South Bronx, Bambaataa's name should be mentioned alongside Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, the Treacherous Three, Grandmaster Caz and Kool DJ Herc. Bambaataa was the among the true heavyweights of early East Coast rap, and his futuristic "Planet Rock" single sounds like the blueprint for so much of the West Coast electro-hop of the early to mid-'80s. In fact, you could say that artists like the Egyptian Lover, the Unknown DJ, the World Class Wreckin' Cru and the Arabian Prince were downright obsessed with "Planet Rock."

Electro-hop also owed a huge creative debt to Kraftwerk, the seminal German group that wrote the book on what is now called electronica. Without question, Kraftwerk were way ahead of their time; the innovators were into synthesizers and drum machines at a time when those things were still considered novelties in rock and R&B circles. The electronic pop and dance music that Kraftwerk started providing in the early '70s not only helped pave the way for electro-hop -- Kraftwerk also had a major impact on everything from techno to house music to trance. And Bambaataa knew exactly what he was doing when he sampled Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" on "Planet Rock."

Outside of Southern California, there were various hip-hop heads who had a "Planet Rock"-minded approach in the early to mid-'80s -- artists like Newcleus (best known for their 1984 hit "Jam On It") and the Boston-based Jonzun Crew. But people who were really into hip-hop in those days could tell Newcleus or the Jonzun Crew from West Coast artists like the Egyptian Lover and the Arabian Prince.

Not every rapper who was active in Los Angeles in the early to mid-'80s wanted to record electro-hop. In fact, there were some L.A.-based rappers who totally rejected it and preferred a more hardcore approach -- people who identified with the East Coast b-boy sounds of Run-D.M.C., the Fat Boys and L.L. Cool J instead of the electro-hop of the World Class Wreckin' Cru and Uncle Jam's Army. One of them was Toddy Lee, a talented but underexposed MC who is best known for his 1985 gem "Batter Ram" (a sociopolitical song that dealt with the drug epidemic in South-Central L.A. and the Los Angeles Police Department's use of the controversial battering ram). "Batter Ram" had nothing to do with electro-hop -- it was straight-up hardcore rap, and the song demonstrated that L.A. rap could be as gritty and hard-hitting as New York or Philly rap. Another important L.A. rapper from that period was King Tee, who like Toddy Tee, didn't receive the national fame he deserved but is still a historically important figure.

However, L.A.'s most important hardcore rapper of the early to mid-'80s was Ice-T, who wrote the book on West Coast gangsta rap when he recorded "6'N the Mornin'" in 1986. Even before he embraced gangsta rap, he was a hardcore rapper -- Ice-T had a straight-up b-boy outlook as early as 1983, when he provided his first single, "The Coldest Rap". Although he didn't become nationally famous until 1987, Ice enjoyed a small West Coast following in the early to mid-'80s -- a time when hardcore rap was, as he put it, "real underground" in Southern California. You might say that Ice was on a mission in those days; he was determined to see Los Angeles become known as a bastion of hardcore rap, and eventually, he got his wish.

L.A.'s electro-hop era unofficially started coming to an end when Sire/Warner Bros. released Ice's debut album, Rhyme Pays, in 1987. Arguably, that album put the first nail in electro-hop's coffin. A major triumph for gangsta rap, Rhyme Pays made Ice a major name in rap and showed the hip-hop world that hardcore rap could, in fact, come from the West Coast. Thanks to Ice, more A&R people started to become comfortable with the idea of hardcore rap coming from California -- they started taking a closer look at West Coast rap and realized that not all of it was electro-hop. And if A&R people needed additional examples of hardcore rap coming from L.A., N.W.A gave it to them with N.W.A and the Posse in 1987 and Straight Outta Compton in 1988. The more popular Ice-T and N.W.A became, the more A&R people realized that gangsta rap could be a lot more profitable than electro-hop.

Not that Ice-T or N.W.A's first albums killed electro-hop immediately; female pop-rap trio J.J. Fad had an electro-hop hit in early 1988 with "Supersonic." Electro-hop continued to be recorded after the rise of gangsta rap in 1987 and 1988, but it became a lot less plentiful by the early '90s. Ironically, one of the people whose name became synonymous with gangsta rap had been an important figure in electro-hop: Dr. Dre. In his pre-N.W.A days, Dre was a member of producer Alonzo Williams' World Class Wreckin' Cru; Dre started out as an electro-hopper, not a gangsta rapper. But Dre grew tired of the electro-hop sound, and he reinvented himself in a major way when he became part of N.W.A along with Ice Cube, MC Ren, DJ Yella and the late Eazy-E. Dre was a cult figure during his years with the World Class Wreckin' Cru; he became a superstar after joining N.W.A.

N.W.A's first lineup also included the Arabian Prince, who Dre knew from the World Class Wreckin' Cru. Before N.W.A, the Arabian Prince focused on electro-hop and was both a solo artist and a member of the Wreckin' Cru. He was also down with Uncle Jam's Army, a collective of electro-hop-oriented DJs, producers and rappers that held huge dance parties in L.A. in the early to mid-'80s. In 1988, the Arabian Prince left N.W.A to concentrate on his solo career, and his post-N.W.A recordings of the '90s were gangsta rap -- in the '90s, electro-hop was a thing of the past for the Arabian Prince.

When hip-hop historians look back on the history of West Coast rap, electro-hop isn't the first thing that comes to mind. They think of N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton and Ice-T's innovative crime rhymes. They think of L.A.-based gangsta rappers like Above the Law, Cypress Hill, Compton's Most Wanted and DJ Quik, and they of artists who recorded for Delicious Vinyl Records (including Young MC and Tone-Loc). They think of Warren G's G-funk, and of course, they think of Dre's first solo album, The Chronic, and artists who recorded for Death Row Records in the '90s (including the distinctive Snoop Dogg and the late 2Pac Shakur). But they don't give much thought to electro-hop, especially if hardcore rap is their preference. Nonetheless, the electro-hop scene was an interesting footnote in the pre-gangsta rap, pre-Straight Outta Compton era of West Coast rap.

by Alex Henderson


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