In his article “The Sound of Capitalism” (in this month’s Prospect), Steve Yates wrote that critics who focus on the “money, cars and glamour” in rap music only see a fraction of the story. Here he chooses his five top tracks and explains how they changed hip hop.
Although these tracks are all fairly well known, I’ve omitted some of hip hop’s biggest hits: tracks such as “The Message” or “Fight the Power” or “I Know You Got Soul,” which I figure anyone troubling to click this link will already know. This list could, of course, have gone on forever (in fact, I’m tempted to change one now I’ve noticed I left out Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story”), but these are all tracks I love now as much, if not more, than the first time I heard them. The keen-eyed may notice that the last track mentioned is almost a decade old, a reflection of my age, but more particularly of US hip hop’s relative stagnation in recent years.
KRS-One “Sound of da Police” (1993)
This four-minute invective, recorded a year after the LA riots, compares the police to slave masters (“officer, officer, officer, overseer”) and hinges on a breathless performance from KRS-One and a hook so simple a child could learn it. For a few syllables that say everything about defiance of authority, the “whoop whoop!” clarion call in “Sound of da Police” is as perfect and as ingrained on its culture as the stuttered “f-f-f-fade away” in “My Generation” or Johnny Rotten’s screamed “I wanna be an-ar-keeee.”
Missy Elliott “Work It” (2002)
For all the swinging dicks in hip hop, the best sex rap ever made is by an overweight, five-foot-nothing woman. The beat by super-producer Timbaland brilliantly blends old and new, while Missy mocks her own size (“take my thong off and my ass goes boom”) and details exactly what she plans to do with someone else’s man. The backwards rapping and substitution of an elephant’s trumpet for the male member on the chorus only add to the sense of bottomless smut.
Roots Manuva “Witness (1 Hope)” (2001)
The Stockwell rapper with the booming baritone is one of the best songwriters in hip hop, but his laidback manner and love of abstract beats rendered much of his work a little too offbeat for mainstream tastes. Not “Witness,” though. The modernist, squelchy production and powerful…