The ridiculo-sublime idea of the “poseur” has got to be smashed. I can’t be the one to do it though — I think too much of my identity still requires it. But seriously, the standard narrative that a band like The Monkees somehow has less integrity than another LA band like, say, the Byrds, and even weirder, that their pre-fabness would somehow correlate to less musical quality, has been by this stage of the game definitively chucked, right? Then why hasn’t it been ditched across the board? Why do we need nerds and box sets to do our appreciating for us and then tell us it’s alright to like “sellouts”, now that what we could refer to as the Monkees Precedent has been established? To wit: all poseurs have as much chance of making amazing music as the coolest of the cools.
And it’s somehow even worse when the schism appears in old school rap. We all know the story: How the Sugarhill Gang was “invented” in an afternoon and had an immediate game-changing smash in Rapper’s Delight but were sheer lames compared with the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time, aka LL Cool J), the Grandmaster, the Master of Records (Afrikka Bambaataa, y’all), et al.
Doesn’t this fable, for starters, just reek of jealousy? Every retelling inserts its own proof of pretense: they cribbed lyrics from bla bla bla; bla bla from so-and-so guest-MC’d on it, they had no DJ so they weren’t real, and on and on. This was the atom-split moment for rap. Jeff Chang poetically describes the inversion it wrought: before the game was all about the DJ and the long, interactive live set; after Rapper’s Delight, the game focused on concision, production, fame, mad cheddar, and the MC. So in the gold rush that followed, it makes sense (to me at least) that there would be a lot of covert fox:grapes action goin’ on in the boroughs.
Beyond this is the elitist construction of producer-created entity (which they definitely were) as necessarily weaker than dues-payin’, trench-swimmin’ soljer. Every review that has ever been writ about the second (how dare they make a second record!) Sugarhill Gang album damns with faint praise. Every time you’ll read a sentence pointing out that the record coheres better than their first, there’s a subsequent slap with something about how they were no Furious Five, or that there’s still a ton of filler. Hey no one complains about the rampant filler on sophomore albs by integro-kings like The Kinks or Marvin Gaye. Come on! Every major label act is tainted with some degree of pre-fabness. It’s just that their narratives have carefully planted probity plot points: refusing to record what the label wanted, negotiating for creative control, anti-social interviews. Please … Gaye and the Kinks were shills, just like the rest. Forgive Wonder Mike, Master Gee and Big Bank Hank for wanting to earn and be popular, supposedly cardinal traits of the modern rapper.
Proof-Be-In-The-Grooves Dept.: the highlight of 8th Wonder, despite the presence of ultra-classics Apache and 8th Wonder, the giant Funkadelic stew of Funk Box, and the underrecognized might of the closer, Hot Hot Summer Day, perfectly showcases the non-differences between integro-rap and, um, non-integro-rap.
The track is called Showdown and features Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, rap legends from the other side of the cred spectrum, although if we’re applying the same cred formula to them, there are many, many holes in their story. The main thing to remember is they were both on the same label, Sugar Hill, whose band “interventions” are notorious. F5 were angrier about being on the label than SG, but they were both delivered to consumers via the same candycane conduit.
Showdown purports to be a rap battle, mimicking the live battles that were a common feature at the clubs then. Busy Bee and Kool Moe Dee had a legendary one a few months before Showdown was recorded, in which Kool Moe Dee changed the rules by viciously ridiculing Busy Bee directly instead of just discussing his own skills.
Showdown adopted this conceit, albeit with milder parries. But the reality’s been sucked out of it (there’s a key change for chrissakes) — in point of fact, it’s not a rap battle; it’s a show more than a showdown. The Allmusic guide to Old School Rap and Hip-hop gets it right when it characterizes this as “more of a posse track than a battle” — to think of this in terms of winners/losers (or really, any studio-made rap battle, e.g., Eminem’s attack as B-Rabbit on Papa Doc at the end of 8 Mile, since both sides are gettin paid by the same promoter, and as such are as complicit in the manufactured up/down-ness as any WOW wrestler) is to miss the point. The final line in the song admits as much, reminding us who the winning entity is, ultimately: “Cause you’re being possessed by the sounds of Sugar Hiiiiiiillll…” (meaning the rap label, not the rap group). The horns on Showdown have the same stridence as on F5’s White Lines (Don’t Do It), and that’s because they were played by the same session musicians.
Even commentaries on Showdown that acknowledge its falsity can’t help but retreat instinctively to a win/lose (cool/wack) paradigm. Like JohnG:
“I don’t think any serious fan of hip hop thinks that a showdown between these two groups would ever happen in the first place and if it did Flash and the boys would dominate and humiliate.”
Like Spin (from Dope Records by Wack Rappers):
“‘Showdown’ is funky fun even if our hosts get ethered.”
So what’s the real point? Simple, sheer enjoyment. And actually the other point of these affairs, especially Showdown, is to feel appreciation for and even uplifted by the sense of camaraderie there. Yes, fraternal camaraderie. Both groups are obviously having a blast — after each verse, both teams lock arms for the chorus. I would say sweaty, fonky fun is actually the hallmark of the whole album. Musically, this vibe gets conveyed by what Dan Hagerty called a “sound [that]… straddles two decades: the dancefloor-filling 1970s and the progressive sound that would go on to define much of the 1980s.” In this sense the idealized vision of rap as a party (now lost to time) is perfectly transferred from stage to studio.
Harry Allen said SG’s problem wasn’t cred, it was skills, which he said SG basically lacked entirely, that they were in the habit of stealing their rhymes and ideas. But in the next breath he says “Rapper’s Delight” is the single most important song in rap history? How can both things be (at least completely) true?
Allen and the rest are right about the F5’s skill set. On Showdown’s final verse, the single most excellent moment on 8th Wonder, they drop science with jaw-dropping fluidity and bravado. It’s prefaced by their “enemies” The Sugarhill Gang literally (politely, happily) inviting the Furious Five onto the stage:
Let’s ship this party into overdrive
We’re The Sugarhill Gang
Here’s The Furious Five
At which point the Five open with these HK-91 blasts:
Hey we’re bonafide and qualified
To hypnotize, tranquilize
Keep ’em wack and off the track
Pulsatin’, inflatin’, climactin’, show-stoppin’
24 hour rockin’ and shockin’
We’re The Furious Five
And we’re the best!
Lightning speed! The palpable sense of a gang bum rushing the listener. And that staccato spelling of “furious” and, a minute later, the smooth slow croon of Master G retroactively make that initial salvo seem even wilder.
(The next two sentences should be read as if Big Bank Hank is rapping them): But can’t people see that the fix is in? The group performing second always wins! Theatrical productions about war always pan out like that. Yes, F5 are “better” at rapping: who cares. The question is whether Showdown is a stone jam or not. And the answer is yes, it’s an all-out classic.
And now, with the help of time’s march, we can see that, in terms of party down vibe, in terms of actual words, in terms of Sugar Hill-style, both crews’ performances are essentially equivalent. Compare these lyrics from both sides of the barricade:
Got the voice that stops you in your tracks
Put the wiggles up and down your back
We’re the prize in your cracker jack
Sugarhill with the funk attack
We got style, finesse, and savior faire
All the ladies think that we’re debonair.
We don’t take no jive, we don’t take no mess
We’re the sugarhill gang and we’re the best!
We got a rhythm with a twist
That ya can’t resist
We got the lips that the ladies
Just love to kiss
We got the class, pizzazz, razzamatazz
We got the rhyme master, DJ Flash
So if you wanna hear the best
Of this here town,
Is either of these really better/worse? They both share a good-naturedness that its hip listeners would do well to adopt.
Allen, H. (1994-1995, Dec. & Jan.). Time Bomb: Clocking the History of Hip Hop 15 Years After “Rapper’s Delight”. Vibe, 2(10), 71.
Chang, J. (2005). Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History Of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
C.W. (2013, May 23). 20 Dope Albums By Wack Rappers: The Sugarhill Gang, 8th Wonder. Spin.
Hagerty, D. (2016). Buried Treasure Volume 2: Overlooked, Forgotten and Uncrowned Albums. Ireland: Liberties Press.
JDGiggles. (2015, December 31). Battle w/Busy Bee (Harlem World, 1981). Genius.
JohnG. (2010, January 7). The Showdown: The Sugarhill Gang vs. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. OldSchoolHipHop.Com.
Woodstra, C., Bush, J., & Erlewine, S. T. (Eds.). (2008). AllMusic Guide: Old School Rap and Hip-Hop. New York, NY: Hal Leonard Corporation.