VARIOUS The Hip Hop Years (Columbia)
This double CD is the companion to Channel 4's recent scholarly three part documentary on the history of hip hop, and, as the sleeve notes state "Instead of a "greatest hits" or "the best of", "The Hip Hop Years" delivers a set of chronological stepping stones that map out the music's development; these are the key tracks that mark its turning points". To an extent "The Hip Hop Years" achieves its remit astonishingly well. Here be stacks of fantastic early tracks that justify inclusion irrespective of genre or allegiance: ground-breaking Sugarhill sides such as Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's "The Message" rub steel wheels with Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force's Kraftwerk-baiting "Planet Rock", and possibly the compilation's most controversial inclusion, Blondie's "Rapture", an aberration to true b-boys but also arguably America's first #1 rap record. Truckloads of extra points are also earned for the inclusion of a smattering of the soul classics regularly pilfered by hip-hop producers which top and tail both of the CDs, including James Brown's sublime "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose", Babe Ruth's "The Mexican" and The Jimmy Castor Bunch's "It's Just Begun", a track I've been trying to identify for years since it cropped up on a third-generation tape of an Artlab mix session originally broadcast on Kiss FM at some ungodly hour of the morning. Other tracks that I'm delighted to welcome into my collection include The 45 King's basic but brilliant "The 900 Number" (later rather more famously reconstituted as Chad Jackson's "Hear The Drummer (Get Wicked)" and N.W.A.'s stunning "Express Yourself".
Where "The Hip Hop Years" loses direction somewhat is in the disparity between the tracks raved about in the booklet notes and discussed at length during the series and those that actually make it onto the CD. A hip hop history without a single Public Enemy track? Tragic but true. Run DMC are widely credited with introducing hip hop to a white rock audience with their Aerosmith-approved remake of "Walk This Way", but there's no Run DMC on here. To quote from the booklet notes again, "In 1989 Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" became the second biggest selling US pop single of all time - behind "We Are The World"", but evidently still not important enough for inclusion here. Nothing from the Death Row roster either - no Snoop Doggy Dog, solo Dr Dre or Tupac Shakur - and even The Notorious B.I.G. only gains admission by courtesy of a cameo appearance. Presumably licensing problems are the reason for most of these glaring omissions, but it still results in a historical document that, in filling the empty spaces with the lightweight, although admittedly enjoyable, froth of M.C. Hammer and Will Smith, appears somewhat lopsided. Added to which, the booklet notes are disappointingly sketchy - maybe they want you to buy the companion book instead.
Despite all these quibbles "The Hip Hop Years" is still the best hip hop starter package I've yet clapped ears on. It at least makes some attempt to place the music in its proper historical and social context, and if your record shelves are as sadly bereft of hip hop as mine are it practically recommends itself.