Hip-hop had broken through big by the mid-1980s.
Platinum-selling albums by acts like Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J had moved the genre from the pop culture fringes to center-stage. Rappers were selling out tours and landing major endorsement deals—and delivering albums that crushed the perception that this was a singles-driven genre that focused on party-friendly hits. Run-DMC, King of Rock, Raising Hell, Radio, Bigger and Deffer and Licensed To Ill had all been commercially successful releases, with the Beasties and LL putting the fledgling Def Jam label on the musical map. Other labels like Cold Chillin’ and Tommy Boy would soon rise to prominence in the wake of Def Jam’s mainstream success. It all set the table for one of the most significant years in hip-hop history: 1988.
Hip-hop’s ascension had been steady, but in 1988 the genre exploded into a diverse array of styles and sounds that forever restructured how the artform was perceived and how the music was marketed.
Def Jam was riding a major hot streak in the mid-‘80s but by 1988, cracks had begun to show. Label superstars the Beastie Boys were looking to jump ship after butting heads with Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin; in the wake of Licensed To Ill’s success, they were set to head in a new direction. But Def Jam would weather the Beasties’ subsequent departure with the signing of 3rd Bass—which featured two white MCs in Pete Nice and MC Serch. The label also had British-born Slick Rick. Rick had been an acclaimed wordsmith since his days as “MC Ricky D” with Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew. Rick rapped on Doug E.’s mid-‘80s classics “The Show” and “Ladi Dadi,” but it took three years for his debut to arrive. The Great Adventures of Slick Rick showcased the smooth rapper’s gifted wordplay, laid-back flow and peerless storytelling, and became a platinum-selling smash for Def Jam—without major musical contribution from the label’s resident hitmaker Rubin.
And Rick’s debut coincided with a renaissance in lyricism that would set the standard for emceeing in the years to come. Long Island’s Eric B. & Rakim had already cemented themselves as a formidable force in hip-hop with their 1987 classic Paid in Full, but their less-heralded 1988 follow-up, Follow the Leader, saw the “microphone fiend” Rakim take his rhyming to the next level. Much more intricate and elaborate, Ra’s bars combined emcee boasting with a cultural consciousness. Big Daddy Kane emerged as the closest rival to “The God MC,” with his debut album Long Live the Kane announcing the Brooklynite as a rhymer who was both suave and fierce—capable of delivering an R&B-friendly single or a scathing battle rap without breaking a sweat. Alongside Slick Rick, Boogie Down Productions’ KRS-One and Kane’s fellow Juice Crew alum Kool G Rap, these were the rappers who elevated emceeing to high art during hip-hop’s so-called Golden Age.
Elsewhere in NYC rap, Long Island duo EPMD (Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith) were managed by Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, but wouldn’t officially sign with Def Jam until 1990. Nonetheless, Erick and Parrish dropped one of hip-hop’s most acclaimed debuts with 1988’s Strictly Business—the first of several records that would make the duo mainstays in East Coast hip-hop’s more hardcore circles. And Stetsasonic dropped the stellar In Full Gear, a masterful showcase for producers Daddy-O and Prince Paul. Touted as the first hip-hop band, Stetsasonic’s melding of sampling and live instrumentation set a new sonic standard that would become more prominent in the ‘90s. Prince Paul, in particular, would use the acclaim of In Full Gear as a launch pad for what would become one of the most eclectic and influential production careers in hip-hop.
KRS-One, reeling from the August 1987 death of his Boogie Down Productions bandmate Scott La Rock, forged ahead under the BDP moniker and refocused his approach. BDP’s acclaimed debut Criminal Minded sent shockwaves through New York City’s hip-hop community, but KRS abandoned the street tales of crack dealing and gunplay on 1988’s By All Means Necessary. Now as “The Teacha,” KRS offered sociopolitical commentary from the perspective of a conscious B-boy—a reflection of hip-hop’s origins and a signpost for its future. Public Enemy had earned raves for their 1987 debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show, but it was only a primer for their uber-classic sophomore album. Chuck D, Flavor Flav and the crew would drop a sonic bomb with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a raging epic of a record that announced the group as the most important act on Def Jam and unlikely mainstream stars. These two albums put political rap at the forefront of black culture.
Rapper/producer Ced Gee helped co-produce much of BDP’s Criminal Minded, and he and his own crew would release their debut album in 1988. The Ultramagnetic MCs included Ced Gee, Moe Love, TR Love and legendary hip-hop eccentric Kool Keith, and Critical Beatdown featured Ced’s inventive production. Keith would become the breakout star of the group, with his distinctively off-kilter flow and knack for quirky wordplay. The Ultramags seemed to embrace a certain weirdness, even with the toasting and boasting on their tracks. Another collection of rap oddballs were the Jungle Brothers, a trio consisting of Mike Gee, Afrika Baby Bam and DJ Sammy B. Displaying a laid-back sense of humor while also celebrating Afrocentricity, the JB’s Straight Out the Jungle didn’t see very much commercial success, but would lay the foundation for the rise of the Native Tongues collective; a group of like-minded artsy rap acts out of New York City that included De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.
On the West Coast, a storm had been brewing for years in terms of a major hip-hop breakthrough. New York had been rap’s epicenter, but Too $hort, a Bay Area rhymer with a penchant for raunchy raps, had been hustling as an indie artist for years. $hort released his fourth album, Born To Mack, independently in 1987, but after he signed a major label deal with Jive Records in 1988, the album would see re-release on that label, putting “The Short Dog” alongside a new wave of West Coast rap acts gaining national attention. Among those artists was another Cali vet named Ice-T, who’d released Rhyme Pays in 1987.
Ice’s music focused on tales of dope-dealing and violence, gritty street raps that typically hid social commentary in plain sight. With the release of 1988’s Power, Ice got his first gold-seller and became notorious as an outspoken and unapologetic proponent of what the media would soon dub “gangsta rap.” That subgenre would become infamous thanks to another seminal West Coast rap album of 1988: Straight Outta Compton, the debut LP from a five-man crew out of Los Angeles called Niggaz With Attitudes. N.W.A dubbed themselves “The World’s Most Dangerous Group,” and the quintet of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella would become platinum-selling superstars as the album’s success (and Eazy’s solo debut Eazy-Duz-It) proved that mainstream rap music was now a fully bicoastal phenomenon.
But there was lighter fare also making major waves in 1988.
Like Ice-T, Public Enemy and BDP, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince debuted in 1987. The two friends from Philadelphia specialized in fun, catchy story-songs that capitalized on the charm and charisma of The Fresh Prince (a then-teenaged Will Smith) and Jeff’s knack for hooks and beats. Their 2nd album would drop in spring of 1988, and He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper would eventually go triple-platinum and win the first Rap Album of the Year award at the 1989 Grammys. Oakland rapper MC Hammer would release his second album in 1988, a platinum-selling collection of party raps called Let’s Get It Started. Essentially a revamped version of his debut Feel My Power, it set the fleet-footed rapper on the road to the megastardom he would attain in the early 1990s after the release of his blockbuster third album, 1990’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. The trio of Salt-N-Pepa (with DJ Spinderella) had broken big with their smash hit “Push It” in 1987 and followed the platinum-selling Hot, Cool & Vicious with 1988’s A Salt with a Deadly Pepa. The album would come to be something of a stopgap between …Vicious and 1990’s successful Blacks’ Magic, but it arrived at a prime time to raise women’s visibility in rap.
Female artists had been present in hip-hop from the very beginning. Rappers like Sha Rock of the Funky 4+1, The Sequence, Lady B and Roxanne Shante had been earning respect for years. But it was the 1988 debut album by a teenager named MC Lyte that brought women in hip-hop to mainstream visibility. Lyte was a brash battle rapper with a distinctive voice and no-nonsense demeanor, and her debut, Lyte as a Rock, established her as the young leader of a new vanguard that would include Queen Latifah, Monie Love and Yo-Yo—a new generation of female MCs who would redefine hip-hop gender roles in the 1990s.
Southern hip-hop’s mainstream breakthrough was still a few years away, but the South’s rap foundations were already being laid in the 1980s.
In 1988, Atlanta’s MC Shy-D released his sophomore album Comin’ Correct in ’88 on Luther Campbell’s Luke Skyywalker Records. And out in Houston, a quartet called Ghetto Boys dropped their debut album, Makin’ Trouble, on J Prince’s Rap-A-Lot Records. This version of Ghetto Boys wouldn’t garner a lot of buzz, so the group was reshuffled with new members Willie D and Scarface joining after the departures of Sir Jukebox and Johnny C. Renamed “Geto Boys,” the second version of the group would become one of the most influential acts in southern hip-hop.
Sonically, producers like Marley Marl, Dr. Dre of N.W.A, P.E.’s Bomb Squad and Erick Sermon of EPMD would push hip-hop away from the digitized boom-bap that characterized mid-‘80s rap hits by bringing samples to prominence and using them in inventive ways. The Bomb Squad built aggressive sound collages, Dre added laid-back funk grooves and Sermon streamlined the sound with infectious loops—it all made hip-hop’s sound broader and predicted how the genre would continue to sonically diversify in the ‘90s. Following the success of Stetsasonic’s In Full Gear, Prince Paul’s approach to unusual sampling would lay the sonic groundwork for Native Tongues stars De La Soul’s first three albums. Sermon’s approach would prove to be just as influential; in the 1990s, his sound would bolster the careers of rappers like Redman and Keith Murray, and the use of familiar loops would lead to chart-topping success in the glossier hands of producers like Trackmasters and Jermaine Dupri.
One of hip-hop’s most important debuts in 1988 wasn’t a great album or a new production style—it was the launch of a TV show.
Developed by Ted Demme and Peter Dougherty, Yo! MTV Raps premiered on August 6, 1988, a show dedicated to showcasing rap music videos for a mainstream audience. For the first time, hip-hop fans outside of places like New York and Los Angeles could see hip-hop music and culture in full color. Rural America got a wider lens into this world than ever before, and rappers got a platform for the kind of visibility that had previously only been granted to the biggest rap acts in music. It somewhat decentered rap radio as the place to discover music, and for fans outside of urban locales, that was significant to their being exposed to seminal artists their local radio stations were ignoring entirely.
1988 was one of the greatest years in hip-hop. However you rank it alongside other pivotal years like 1994 and 2001, it should be clear that this was the year that broadened the scope. After 1988, hip-hop couldn’t be put in a box—and neither could rap fans. You could find a bevy of styles and sounds right there on MTV or on rap radio stations, and it was all getting the same platform and exposure. Whether you liked to keep it gangsta or quirky, wanted music to make you dance or to make you think, it was all good. It was all right there. And it was all hip-hop.