Boogie Down Productions:South Bronx
From Criminal Minded (B-Boy, 1987)

3rd Bass: Portrait of The Artist As a Hood
From Derelicts of Dialect (Def Jam 1991)

Edan: Fumbling Over the Words That Rhyme
From Beauty and the Beat (Lewis 2005)

[Editor’s Note: This post comes to Soul Sides from Mal Ward, one of our readers, who approached me with an idea to write on songs that tell biographies and autobiographies. I’ll have a follow-up in a day or two with a pair of my own personal favorites within this theme.]


I’m in the middle of Jeff Chang’s remarkable Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, a tome of hip hop culture and history. It got me thinking about the collective history of this music, and how everyone has a template of “what happened when” and “how we got here”. While that is undoubtedly important in establishing a shared experience and point of reference, there is also the first-person history. For me it was being a kid in Long Island in the 1980’s and hearing those radio broadcasts on KISS FM of Chuck Chillout on Friday night. and Red Alert on Saturdays. I use to put my tapes in to record those shows like everyone else. At the time rap was still this foreign voice in the suburbs, so if you were a kid who wasn’t from the boroughs you didn’t know shit about what had come before and why. You relied on the music to tell you what was what; verbal transmissions breaking it down for you to decipher and yet make your own in some way. The choice of these 3 tracks were driven by the fact that they span almost 3 decades, each providing an original voice at very different times in the evolution of hip hop.

“South Bronx”: F—, the track is just ridiculous in its rawness and importance. It’s a history lesson, a call to arms, a neighborhood anthem for a place everyone was scared of. And of course, while not as direct as “The Bridge is Over,” it’s a reply to MC Shan and Queensbridge about which neighborhood really could lay claim as the birthplace of rap. The 2nd verse is a borough-crossing history lesson telling you how it is and why, delivered in a fresh-from-the-men’s shelter voice of KRS that you wouldn’t even question the knowledge or authenticity. He lived it, and was living it at that very moment.

I chose “Portrait of the Artist As a Hood” primarly for Serch’s verse. On first listen it’s just a night out but you soon realize it’s so much more then that: it’s an homage to the legendary New York spots where the hip hop renaissance was occurring on a nightly basis. In the early 1990’s, hip hop has its momentum. Serch is scared of going commercial, where as the decade before, that wasn’t even a reality. There’s this ambiguity going on: there’s fear about the death of real hip-hop “a parking lot where the Latin Quarter stood”, yet at the same time he can boast about performing in front of packed stadiums. The shout outs at the end show you how far the music has gone regionally. Outposts of a New York movement that is already being transformed and molded to regional flavors.

“Fumbling Over the Words That Rhyme” is a post 2000 track that just hits you over the head with a lyrical firestorm of whose who back in the day. A 3 minute timeline coming from, of all places, Boston. Edan has such respect for all that has come before him. The track is crafted with a psychedelic sound and sample that gives it this lost in time quality while still managing to be thoroughly modern.