It's hard to imagine a better way to explain hip-hop to an alien culture. Covering the years between 1979, when "Rapper's Delight" introduced hip-hop to much of the nation, until 1991, the year before the music went mainstream and never looked back, these 144 songs offer an unparalleled crash course in hip-hop history. Think of an important hip-hop track from this era, and chances are it's on one of these CDs.
"Anyone who doesn't have this in their collection, their collection isn't complete. And I don't mean hip-hop collection, I mean music collection," declares Tom Silverman, the founder of pioneering hip-hop label Tommy Boy and the force behind this compilation, which began appearing late last year. (The final volumes are now in stores).
Forget explaining hip-hop to aliens. Silverman is faced with a tougher job: trying to explain it to today's young hip-hop fans, for whom "old school" may mean Nas, Jay-Z, and Snoop. Silverman says he undertook this project after becoming concerned that the media isn't doing much to keep the record straight about hip-hop's origins. "I'd been really worried, because I'd been going to these VH1 'Hip-Hop Presents' events," he says. "And it seems to me that they're rewriting hip-hop history in a different way than how it happened."
Silverman teamed with Stu Fine, the founder of influential hip-hop indie Wild Pitch, and together they set out to assemble a dream compilation of sides from the music's formative years. Licensing all the tracks took 18 months; Silverman, who sold Tommy Boy to Warner Brothers in 2002, even had to license back all the groundbreaking hip-hop hits his own label produced in the early '80s, like the work of Afrika Bambaataa, the Soul Sonic Force's electro anthems "Planet Rock" and "Looking for the Perfect Beat," and De La Soul's "Plug Tunin'."
They got almost everything they wanted, even if they had to go over the heads of label representatives. "I had to talk to a lot of artists myself, because the label was saying, 'No, we don't license that stuff,' and then the artists would say, 'What are they talking about? No one asked me.'"
Each album features a cross section of releases, so you'll find, for example, a No. 1 smash like Tone-Loc's "Wild Thing" alongside an obscure old-school classic like Masterdon Committee's '82 single, "Funk Box Party."
"We didn't just want the big crossover record. We wanted the ones that became important for other reasons," says Silverman. "Like Schoolly D. His records weren't gigantic, but he was the first guy out of Philly."
The cover of each volume features rare photos from throughout hip-hop's past, and the liner notes are penned by a parade of the music's top chroniclers, including authors Nelson George, Jeff Chang, Greg Tate, and Brian Coleman, whose introduction to Volume Five disdains clichés about the kinder, gentler hip-hop of the old days: "[W]hy should songs back then have been happy? The '80s sucked."
Which, he adds, made songs like Public Enemy's lacerating "Bring the Noise" the perfect antidote.
Coleman, an XXL columnist, has written the perfect companion to Hip-Hop Essentials. His book Rakim Told Me was created to serve as the missing liner notes for classic hip-hop albums, getting the "wax facts" about vintage recordings straight from the artists themselves. (Better make room for a copy on our imaginary space capsule.)
"This was a way to make a guidebook, but not by some bonehead writer who didn't care enough to check their facts," says Coleman, who appreciates that the same care went into assembling Hip-Hop Essentials. "It's not like no comps exist, but it's rare to find one with this much quality material. It's an embarrassment of riches."
Legendary hip-hop DJ Red Alert can appreciate the groundbreaking nature of the material on Hip-Hop Essentials better than most. Numerous singles across these 12 volumes were first played by Red Alert himself, on his show on New York's Kiss 98.
"It's overdue," says Red Alert of the compilation. "If people would take time to listen to the hip-hop of the past, they'd see where hip-hop today comes from."
One of the music's founding fathers, Red Alert can tell you stories about exactly where much of the music comes from. Listening to him reminisce about the origins of "Jimbrowski," by the Jungle Brothers (featuring his nephew, Mike G), or the facts behind the huge success of UTFO's "Roxanne, Roxanne" is like enrolling in Hip-Hop 101.
"I got to meet (UTFO producer) Fred Munao for the first time at Russell Simmons' office, and he said, 'Hey, man, thanks for playin' that UTFO record, but you're playin' the wrong side. The A-side is "Hangin Out," and you're playin' "Roxanne, Roxanne",'" recalls Red Alert. "And I said, 'Yeah, but the B-side sounds better.'"
Tastemaking in hip-hop has become a different game since major labels began to dominate the field in the early '90s. And Silverman has discovered that amid the flood of new product, trying to carve out a space for hip-hop's past with Hip-Hop Essentials is more difficult than he'd hoped.
"I was thinking we could [sell] 20,000 units per volume, but the numbers have been much smaller than that," he admits. "Maybe kids today are just interested in what's happening now and have no sense of discovery about the past."
If so, he thinks it's a shame. "I don't think it's a stretch to say that hip-hop is the most important musical genre birthed in America. More important than blues, more important than jazz. It's only been going for a quarter-century, and it's already bigger than jazz ever was at its peak. Rock and roll was really British and American . . . , but I don't even know if you could say it's more important than hip-hop," he contends.
It's an argument that Silverman, who serves on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has been trying to make for some time. And he now believes that snubs like Grandmaster Flash's failure to make it into the Hall may point to the need for a separate hip-hop hall of fame. "Maybe hip-hop is as big as rock and roll, and it shouldn't be absorbed as a subset," Silverman says. "It's too important. It demeans it."
"So maybe Cleveland will put up the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame," he adds with a chuckle. "There's another spot on the lake."