My roommate Eddie Echeverria and I have a significant problem: we commit to our jokes beyond reason, sanity, and often human decency. One night while studying, we had an argument. I thought that “Ice Ice Baby,” by Vanilla Ice, began with the line
“Alright stop, collaborate, and listen,
Ice is back with a brand new edition.”
Eddie, however, was convinced that the couplet ended with
“Ice is back with a brand new invention.”
This sensible disagreement naturally brought us to the music video, full of over-sized sweatshirts, graffiti and questionable similes (what does it mean to flow like a harpoon?) Eddie was right. Robert Van Winkle (yeah, that’s his name) used the word invention in the first couplet. I was wrong, but was struck with a wild idea.
“Eddie, what if we let auto-play take us where it will?” I asked as Vanilla Ice strutted on the screen.
YouTube’s auto-play feature allows the website to choose a similar video to the one just watched to play next. It’s a great way to find new content or make bad decisions when you should be studying. Usually when you auto-play a video of a classic like “Ice Ice Baby, YouTube circles around between classic hits, eventually settling somewhere in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Expecting this cycle, we decided to not stop listening to YouTube’s selection until we heard the legend himself, Michael Jackson.
But after Vanilla Ice came MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” then Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” After Outkast, a Nelly song, and three miserable tracks from Akon (do people like Akon?), we realized that we were going away, rather than to, MJ. Then “Love the way you Lie,” by Eminem, launched us into a deep hole of anger. Track after track played, slowly making me hate society, Detroit, and especially Eminem’s mom. After four excruciating hours of anger, I was beginning to lose my patience. How long could Eminem keep up his internal rhymes? When was Youtube going to give us a break?
I lost hope once we started to hit fan-made videos pulling miserable drawings from Deviant-art. But in the height of my despair, some beautiful rap fan mashed-up Eminem’s fury with Tupac Shakur. After three songs by Shakur, Michael Jackson sailed through my speakers, mixed with the deep flow of Tupac, saving my night and sanity.
After four hours of Hip-Hop, I realized I wanted to get to know the genre. I never gave much attention to Hip-Hop—after all, I’m pretty far from the genre’s demographic. I’m a Nebraska-born millennial as white as my Norwegian blood can make me. I grew up in a comfortable, middle-class home with great parents. While I could have had any one of these characteristics and been well within the demographic, because I have all of them, the genre was nearly impossible for me to enter into. Except for a brief middle-school flirtation with TobyMac and a smattering of a few classic rap songs, I was functionally Hip-Hop-illiterate. I had always had a desire to know the genre better, and after a too-long encounter with Eminem, I was ready to finally give it a try.
Knowing little but having a lot of ambition, I started with Tupac and worked from there. As much as I have tried to branch out to Kanye, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, etc., my taste never wandered much past ‘95.
Today’s playlist features a selection of old-school and ‘90s jams that is by no means exhaustive. Remember, I’m new to this genre. Before talking about the music, let me establish a content warning. The art of rap is intensely lyrical and usually features discussion of pain and struggle. As a result, rap has some pretty intense language. I want as diverse an audience as possible, though, so I’ve kept the language as clean as I could. There is about as much cussing on this playlist as Star Wars: A New Hope, so we should be OK. Spotify labels a few of these tracks as explicit by association, but they are all PG.
And as with most older Hip-Hop, I’d recommend you look up as many music videos as you can for these songs. There was some quality work done during this time.
My playlist, called MCnC, increases in intensity as it goes on. “U Can’t Touch This,” by MC Hammer, is one of the most famous Hip-Hop songs. Calling to mind golden hammer pants and impressive dancing, it’s unforgettable, and I could not in good conscience leave it off of a playlist about the era.
My playlist moves on to “Me Myself and I,” by De La Soul and then “King of Rock” by Run–D.M.C., a group probably better known for their song “It’s Tricky.”
The next song, “Just a Friend,” by Biz Markie, describes a man who is, tragically, cheated on pretty severely. The devil is in the details for Biz Markie, as he leaves no small moment out of the story, describing asking for directions on a college campus, filling out a visitors form, and beat-boxing with his girl. The iconic chorus is decidedly outside the vocal range of Biz Markie, which is both alarming and endearing. The rhymes in this song are comically stretched. It features lines like
“Let me tell ya a story of my situation
I was talkin’ to this girl from the U.S. nation”
Next is “The Breaks,” by Kurtis Blow, which is a standard lament of when things don’t go well, like when the IRS wants to know why you’ve claimed your cat.
The next song is “Roxanne’s Revenge” by Roxanne Shante. This is a standard diss track born out of conflict. The Hip-Hop group UTFO wrote a song called “Roxanne, Roxanne,” where they diss on a girl who has refused each of the member’s advances. Roxanne Shante, then a 14-year-old, asked a radio station if she could write a response track against UTFO. This triggered what is known as the “Roxanne Wars,” a series of rap songs written either on Roxanne Shante or UTFO’s side. It’s a pretty heavy diss track, and she doesn’t pull a lot of punches.
Next is Supersonic by J.J. Fad, a female power trio.
If you’ve ever felt burdened by being short (I’ll be honest, I haven’t) “I Wish,” by Skee-Lo, will resonate with you. Here Skee-Lo raps about what he wishes he could have, in particular, height. The iconic line reads “I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller, I wish I had a girl who looked good, I would call her.” It’s one of my favorites.
Next Skee-Lo takes us to more serious matters with “Top Of The Stairs,” describing people as sycophantic and the world as power-driven. It’s a bleak but interesting look at the nature of power and loyalty.
Slick Rick, the eye-patched storyteller, tells a “Children’s Story” with the next song, describing a young man led astray by crime to a violent and perhaps undeserved death. It’s presented in a comic setting, but quickly gains gravity, becoming an examination of a tragic loss of life.
“The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, has many of the same themes of Slick Rick, but provides a more diverse set of examples. The world is a mess, and we have to try hard to fight against a broken system.
The famous “Gangsta’s Paradise,” by Coolio, is a compelling cry from the streets, as Coolio describes the violent and meaningless life of violence that many in crime-ridden areas face, ending with a haunting statement that if those in these situations cannot learn, how can they be taught? It’s a grim look at the world but an important perspective.
The next three songs are by 2Pac. Dear Mama is dedicated to, obviously, his mother. Alongside the themes of maternal love, this song also highlights the many social problems that Shakur faced growing up, including a “coward” father who left him, and the introduction of crack cocaine to his community. This song portrays a son’s devoted love to his mother in the midst of the despair-filled “Gangsta’s Paradise” of Coolio.
“Keep Ya Head Up” is an example of 2Pac using his art to encourage and promote virtue in his community, calling for perseverance and praising the women of his world.
The last song on the playlist, also by 2Pac, is “Changes.” This song is a sobering look at forces that Shakur describes as oppressing and harming the African American community. It is a both nuanced and emotional appeal for change in a world that seems to be calloused and blind.
What began as a sort of joke between me and my roommate led me to compelling narratives, perceptive societal critique, and a new genre. While Hip-Hop may seem primarily like a good way to pump up a party, I would encourage you to investigate the more foundational and compelling aspects of the genre. It’s a thoughtful world, and one that has important things to say.