The Evolution Of The Rap Album

By Jay Quan

Though the full-length Rap album followed the first Rap singles by less than a year, the rap album did not start to take full form in format, content and promotion until well into the 1980s. The first full length rap album was the self-titled debut of the Sugar Hill Gang, released in February of 1980. This album was created out of necessity: to capitalize on the success on the gargantuan hit “Rappers Delight,” which was famously the first commercially successful rap record and the one responsible for bringing Rap music to those outside of the boroughs of New York and around the world.

“Rap was such a new format and 'Rappers Delight' had done so well that [Sugar Hill Records founder] Sylvia (Robinson wanted to capitalize off of its momentum and also legitimize the group by adding a few ballads and funk songs," explains Craig Derry of the Sugar Hill Band.

This legitimizing included the label telling radio program directors that the vocals on those ballads were the late Big Bank of the Sugar Hill Gang, when in actuality they were Derry and members of Harrisburg, PA funk band Positive Force who were also signed to the label. Because the music was so new and perceived to be a fad by so many adults at the time, a full album of Rap songs was inconceivable. The second full length Rap album landed in September of 1980 in the form of Kurtis Blow's self-titled debut album. Blow was Rap music’s first solo star and the first rapper signed to a major label (Mercury/Polygram). His first album rode the success of his hugely successful single “The Breaks” and followed the same format as his predecessors - a few up-tempo party songs combined with a few ballads and mid-tempo jams (all sang by Blow). Where the Sugar Hill Gang debut was more about partying, Blow’s album showed more maturity handling social issues on “Hard Times” (eventually becoming Rap’s first cover song when it was remade by Run-D.M.C. in 1984) and “Throughout Your Years."

The 12-inch single was the format that rap was born on and it thrived there throughout the first decade of recorded rap music. There was usually a long version on the A side and a short and/or instrumental version on side B. This served as the best format because the music was so new that most labels were simply testing the waters with it, because it wasn’t expected to last - even by those who were direct participants in it. Additionally, because of the limited amount of music that could fit on a 12-inch single, the audio was louder than a full-length album and perfect for club D.J.’s. Lastly the instrumental versions of these songs served as a sound bed for aspiring M.C.’s to write their rhymes to. Many M.C.’s and recording artists who became titans in the genre wrote their first rhymes to instrumentals from Sugar Hill Recordings and singles by Kurtis Blow.

Although Rap as a genre had proven it’s potential to sell records and Rap artists had proven that they could fill arenas and stadiums (Kurtis Blow toured extensively with The Commodores and Bob Marley and The Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 toured with Cameo, Rick James, The Gap Band, Parliament Funkadelic and The Barkays) Rap albums were still rarely produced. Even in cases where singles were certified as Gold or Platinum full albums rarely followed.

1982’s “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 featuring the late Duke Bootee was the single that changed Rap as a genre forever. Although a couple of artists had dabbled in a few lines of social commentary on previous Rap songs, The Message placed you right in the middle of the effects of Reaganomics on the poor and disenfranchised. The grittiness and realness of the song had never been realized in popular music. The success of the record demanded a full-length album. “We didn’t start on The Message album until a year after the single was released," says Rahiem of the Furious 5. "We didn’t have time to record material for an album prior to or in the process of making The Message. The album could have been much more successful had it been ready to go eight weeks after 'The Message' single was released."

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 and the Sugar Hill Gang were labelmates, and just as The Sugar Hill Gang’s debut album was a mixture of Rap & ballads two years earlier, so was The Message. Sylvia still had the goal of capturing the kids with Rap and the adults with R&B. The record cover for “The Message” captured the group in their element in the streets of New York, and for the first time we were starting to see a concept and theme take shape within the Rap album. The image on the album cover was consistent with the content of the title track. The group converted “It’s a Shame” by The Detroit Spinners – a song about heartbreak into a song about poverty, war and other world problems. “She’s Fresh” highlighted the singing and harmonizing abilities of The Furious 5 and was based on the “Sex” breakbeat by The Lovomaniacs. “Scorpio” was a huge song on the album. “We needed something that could knock 'Planet Rock' off," states Grandmaster Melle Mel. "Sylvia wanted something uptempo that could compete with 'Planet Rock' and Reggie Griffin produced and played all the instruments on 'Scorpio.'"

Whodini entered the recording industry in a way that was as unique as their sound. While their contemporaries signed to the handful of independent New York record labels that specialized in Rap music, Whodini reached the states as an import. The U.K. based Zomba/Jive Records was Whodini’s recording home for the first four of their six albums. Jalil of Whodini says proudly “Our label was in Europe. We set Jive Records off in the U.S. man! After us, there was Billy Ocean and other artists, but Whodini set them off in the Black market."

The success of their 1982 ode to the late Mr. Magic (the man responsible for putting Rap on the radio) titled “Magic’s Wand” created a buzz large enough to justify an entire album. Notably Whodini was one of the first Rap groups to have music videos accompany their songs which weren’t performance clips used by their label as most other music videos were at the time. Their label funded videos that contained a script and were created to promote their music. “Magic’s Wand” and “Rap Machine” were promoted with videos that looked like they had a budget behind them opposed to the few Rap videos that existed previously. In 1983 Whodini released their self-titled debut which contained Rap braggadocio combined with comedic songs like “Haunted House of Rock” and romantic songs like “Yours For A Night." For their debut, Whodini was using Thomas Dolby and the Willesden Dodgers as producers, so the album didn’t have the impact of their later Larry Smith-produced albums Escape, Back In Black and Open Sesame. But the Rap album would soon become a viable vehicle for the genre.

When speaking of the aftermath of Run-D.M.C.’s genre changing 1983 single “Its Like That/Sucker M.C.’s” Profile Records co-founder Cory Robbins recalls having to push for an LP. “I told Russell (Simmons, Run-D.M.C’s manager at the time) that we needed to make an album after the success of 'It’s Like That/Sucker M.C.’s' and 'Hard Times'/'Jam Master Jay.' I had to force them to release an album – they didn’t wanna do it!" shared Robbins. "Russell said that Rap albums don’t sell and there’s never been one that did anything. They had four songs that had received heavy radio play and I suggested that we add five more and release them as an album. I told him that if we sold 30 or 40 thousand, we’d be good and he still refused. I had to threaten him by reminding him that we had a contract with an option for an album. He finally gave in and we sold more than a million albums. Run D.M.C.’s Larry Smith produced debut album was the first Gold album in Rap music."

Run–D.M.C.’s 1984 self-titled debut was a game-changer in many ways. Just as their previous singles made the drum machine the dominant (and almost the only) instrument in the recordings, so did the additional five songs. Although Grandmaster Flash released "Adventures On The Wheels of Steel” in 1981 as a single (the first record to contain scratch mixing) no Rap album contained a song with a rapping dedication to the group's D.J. or a song that exclusively contained the D.J.s scratching. Run- D.M.C.’s self-titled debut was the first full length Rap album to highlight the D.J. with “Jay’s Game” an instrumental track which featured the turntable wizardry of the late Jam-Master Jay and the previously released “Jam Master Jay”. “Wake Up”, “Hard Times” and “Its Like That” covered social commentary, “Hollis Crew” and “Sucker M.C’s” spoke to the groups authenticity and street cred in Hip Hop, “Rock Box” was the commercial song that crossed over (and introduced Rap music to the still mostly White MTV) and “30 days” was clever and lyrically abstract. There were no ballads intended to cater to adults , there was no band and Run D.M.C’s dress code of Adidas sneakers and warm up suits on the back of the album cover was the icing on the cake -  taking the rap artist away from the Parliament Funkadelic/Earth, Wind & Fire inspired costumes embraced by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, The Soul Sonic Force and other first generation M.C’s who had become recording artists. The viable rap album had arrived; and simultaneously, the "new school" was birthed.

Sylvia Robinson over at Sugar Hill was paying attention; as her four-year stranglehold on Rap music was rapidly weakening. She, too, saw the viability of the full-length Rap album, but instead on letting her groups record new and updated drum machine heavy material she took previously existing tracks and outdated photos of some of her groups and released albums that felt more like compilations. In 1984 albums by The Treacherous Three and The Crash Crew hit the market but with no new material contained within them. Most of the music was three years old, which constituted an "era" in Rap music at the time. The most attractive thing about these compilations was the fact that the public was finally given the opportunity to see what some of their favorite groups looked like, as the previously released singles only contained the Sugar Hill logo on the sleeve of the record. There was no theme within these compilations because it was preexisting material placed onto an album. There were no liner notes or special thanks. The photos contained nothing that defined the artists or developed an image for them and within a year Sugar Hill would fold and Russell Simmons would introduce a new label and way of promoting a Rap act.

Two defining principles are at the heart of Russell Simmons's philosophy of Rap music as it relates to recordings and artists: first, Simmons advocated that the rap artist deserves the same budget, promotion and airplay that their counter parts in other music genres are entitled to. Musically, he felt that the Rap records released in the era prior to the mid 1980’s contained too many instruments and were too much like the Funk, Disco and R&B that dominated that era. When Russell partnered with Rick Rubin and formed Def Jam Records in 1985, the credits read that the songs were “reduced” by Rick Rubin. While many saw that as a typo that should have read “produced”, “reduced” was correct. Def Jam was intentionally making Rap music more drum and scratch heavy in an effort to reproduce the energy that the first generation Rap artists exhibited in their live show which was based on only drums from existing records.

The first full length Rap album on Def Jam was L.L. Cool J’s “Radio”. Capitalizing off of the underground success of “I Need A Beat” and the huge success of “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” due to his breakout performance in the motion picture “Krush Groove”, the Rap world awaited L.L.’s album and it did not disappoint. “Rock The Bells” and “You’ll Rock” continued the energy from “I Need A Beat” and “Dangerous” solidifying him as one of the genre’s most lyrically clever. “You Can’t Dance” and “That’s A Lie” covered the element of humor. “Dear Yvette” was the story telling rhyme about the neighborhood promiscuous girl (these songs would soon become a staple), “I Can Give You More” and “I Want You” were Rap love songs (which would become a staple as well) and “El Shabazz” was one of the earliest skits on a Rap album and the skit would become a staple in the coming years making the Rap album play like a piece of art opposed to a compilation.

The image of the rap artist was synonymous with (and sometimes born out of) the Rap album. Listening to the first Beastie Boys Rap single “The Beastie Groove”/”Rock Hard” gave the listener a very small idea of what the group was about, but listening to their debut Def Jam album “License To Ill” painted the best picture of the group as partying frat boys that existed without a video and many hugely successful Rap songs didn’t have videos (there are no videos for any of the songs on L.L.’s first album).

Public Enemy’s sophomore album contained groundbreaking music, but of equal importance were the skits, excerpts from live performances and the sequencing of the album. The sequencing of an album is now a lost art in modern music because of the a la carte nature of how we stream, download and receive music, but an album like 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul has to be listened to in the order that it was sequenced to recognize the brilliance. 3 Feet High and Rising was also an early example of the Rap album increasing from eight or nine songs to well in the double digits. 3 Feet High and Rising as well as De La Soul Is Dead also push the limits of the skit and truly turn the album into a piece of sonic art. The choppy, computerized and robotic voice that acts as a tour guide on Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest takes the concept of the album as an experience to new levels and the skits, sequencing and sound effects on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic album put the streets directly into our ears.

There are many more examples of how far the Rap album has come since its humble inception which is indicative of how much the music has grown. The content and subject matter is as vast and diverse as the human experience. Even though technology has altered the way in which we receive the music, we still eagerly await the latest full length offerings from our favorite artists.