- London; 1984
- Bronski Beat
Bronski Beat had the option to sign to ZTT and get the full treatment—Trevor Horn production and t-shirts screaming "QUEER" and "POOF"—that would be transferred to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but they said no. Instead, their subdued debut single radically normalized the idea that a young gay man might run away from the ostracization of his hometown—"the love that you need will never be found at home"—allowing for private revelations in front of the TV as your parents read Jeffrey Archer novels on the sofa. At a time when striking miners found allies in the queer community and Britain had its first openly gay politician, the domestic transgression of "Smalltown Boy" is an enduring emblem of the times. Its rain-beaten take on disco's enlightened metropolitan whirl retains its sense of subtle subversion—that Jimmy Somerville's rapture sounds a little parochial now is testament to the tides it helped turn. —Laura Snapes
- Glass/Taang!; 1988
- Spacemen 3
"Walkin' With Jesus"
When Spacemen 3 emerged from Rugby, England, in the early '80s, their Velvet Underground-influenced post-punk wasn’t completely unique; Jesus and Mary Chain, for one, were mining a similar territory. But few other bands were just as interested in the soar of gospel music as the drone of the Velvets, and certainly none grafted the dreamy intoxication of drugs onto the higher-ground spirituality of religion as powerfully as Spacemen 3. One of their first songs, "Walkin’ With Jesus", struck this God/dope fusion with remarkable simplicity. Over an unwavering two-chord organ swing that sounds like it was played while laying down, Jason Pierce hears Jesus promise an eternity in Hell as punishment for indulging in Heaven on Earth. It doesn’t exactly shake him from his drift; once he realizes he should probably take some action, he’s too blissed-out to do anything besides ask Jesus for an extension.
Pierce has since insisted the song wasn’t literally about religion, and certainly "walking with Jesus" could be taken as a euphemism for shooting heroin (recall how that drug made Lou Reed "feel just like Jesus’ son.") Either way, "Walkin’ With Jesus" is a sweetly beatific way to frame an addict’s internal struggle—as a gentle conversation with a higher power—and it’s a convincing one, especially because the music harnesses the intoxication of the blues (a later version converted the organ sway into a slow, almost raunchy-sounding guitar riff). Pierce would eventually take the tune into straight-up gospel territory with his chorus-laden group Spiritualized. But the hypnotic power of Spacemen 3’s original persists, the kind of fix you could spend a lifetime hoping to capture again. —Marc Masters
See also: Spacemen 3: "Revolution"
- Ace of Hearts; 1981
- Mission of Burma
"That's When I Reach for My Revolver"
Many of Mission of Burma’s heroic-but-pensive songs lived in the overlap between political anthem and self-reflection, and "That’s When I Reach for My Revolver" hangs on the precipice between slogan and introspection. Lines about heroes, dreams, and "the spirit fight[ing] to find its way" make it sound like a battle hymn, especially during its all-for-one-and-one-for-all chorus. But there’s also an undercurrent of bleakness running through the song, which ends with a resigned portrait of an "empty sky" whose "dead eyes...tell me we’re nothing but slaves."
Mission of Burma’s blurred lyrical line between attack and retreat finds a perfect analog in the music, which seems to step back and regroup every time it crosses a hurdle. Clint Conley’s bass is the centerpiece—he even gets a solo in between verses—and its downbeat tone makes "That’s When I Reach for My Revolver" feel somber even as it rises. Such poignant ambivalence actually infused the story behind the song’s title: Conley found it in an essay by Henry Miller, only to discover later that it had origins in a Nazi play. But Mission of Burma never disowned the phrase—and they didn’t have to, because their music transformed it into something more ambiguous, and more powerful. —Marc Masters
See also: Wire: "Ahead" / Mission of Burma: "Academy Fight Song"
- Profile; 1988
- Rob Base / DJ E-Z Rock
"It Takes Two"
Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s "It Takes Two" went supernova in 1988: The song broke big in dance clubs, in rock clubs. It was popular with older, gay house audiences and with mainstream pop audiences. It sold a million copies, and entered the tiny rarefied circle of songs that regularly received name-checks on big MTV countdowns of Greatest Rock Songs. Predictably, it provoked suspicious glances in the hip-hop community, which only a few years away from the twin takeovers of Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. But "It Takes Two" endures where dated pop-house tracks from the era didn’t. It is rap crossover in its Platonic form —hardcore, quicksilver rhymes, up-to-the minute with the clean technicality and tricky rhythms, laid over a beat so universal that it felt like kid’s music. At the time, it felt like the last gasp of party rap, a song about nothing more than dancing, getting loose, and being fresh on the microphone as hip-hop grew increasingly militarized. Where hip-hop was being pulled into the crack wars, New Jack Swing was smooth, clean-cut, and full of smiles; it channeled an older generation Harlem, that of Frankie Crocker and WBLS. Rob Base’s brief mention of a "bulletproof vest" is his sole acknowledgement of the grim realities of the War on Drugs.
But the song was no kind of farewell, it was a template. Years later, Harlem rapper Ma$e would skate over colorful Saturday-morning-cartoon beats programmed by Puff Daddy, packing more ear-tickling wordplay into his verses than any fat pop hit requires. These songs would grudgingly impress heads; they would make everyone’s grandmas smile; they would endure for a generation’s worth of party soundtracks. He was balancing on an axis that few people had danced on so nimbly; it is impossible that Rob Base, mugging in the video for "It Takes Two" next to Biz Markie, was not in his mind. —Jayson Greene
See also: T La Rock: "It's Yours"
- Bronze; 1980
"Ace of Spades"
In the face of rock music’s gorgeous gods with their Jesus hair and bare chests, Lemmy’s greasy allure was clear. With his iconic handlebar mustache and facial warts, he was the underdog—the guy that got kicked out of Hawkwind because most of the band’s members flat-out didn’t like him. His excommunication was a blessing; he could start Motörhead in his own gnarly image. They got some traction on the charts with their 1978 cover of "Louie Louie", but "Ace of Spades" was an aesthetic-cementing moment. In 1979, Lemmy got an ace of spades tattooed on his forearm surrounded by the words "born to lose, live to win". That symbol became a mantra of sorts; Motörhead were bad luck incarnate—a trio of cackling hooligans up to no good. Lemmy insists there’s no allegory in the lyrics of "Ace of Spades", but even if it’s just a song about gambling, the emphasis is fearlessness. "You win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me," he sings in a throaty gargle over his dive-bombing bassline. The song packed a punch and made a huge impression on headbangers listening across the world (notably: Metallica, Slash, Dave Grohl, Triple H). Motörhead had punk’s ferocity and speed with metal’s guitar heroics and heft. On the album cover, they dressed up as gunslingers—a gig that requires staring down the threat of obliteration. "But that’s the way I like it, baby, I don’t want to live forever." —Evan Minsker
See also: Misfits: "Skulls"
- 4AD; 1988
The Pixies’ debut single cemented the loud-quiet-loud template that would characterize so many of their best songs. National treasure Kim Deal has gone on record saying that the song was inspired by a 1986 film adaptation of Beth Henley’s "Crimes of the Heart", in which a married Sissy Spacek falls in love with a black teenage boy. The taboo origin story is certainly interesting—"what a big black mess, what a hunk of love"—but it’s the song’s outrageous catchiness and joie de vivre that makes it unforgettable. "Gigantic" is a perfect marriage of iconic bassline, magnificently rendered vocals (Deal’s signature coo was made for the lines, "And this I know, his teeth as white as snow, what a gas it was to see him"), and a rip-roaring chorus that sounds as appropriately enormous as the song title implies. A perfect amalgam of loud guitars and euphoric lust, "Gigantic" is everything you want it to be—a big, big love. —T. Cole Rachel
See also: Pixies: "Vamos" / Throwing Muses: "Hate My Way"
- EMI/Elektra; 1981
- Queen & David Bowie
"This is our last dance!," David Bowie declares during the chandelier-rattling climax of "Under Pressure", and the man is nothing if not a master of faking his own imminent demise. If anything, "Under Pressure" was something of a victory lap for a pair of '70s glam-rock veterans coming off of successful incursions into the post-disco, new-waved landscape of '80s pop—Bowie with Scary Monsters, Queen with The Game. But while its foundational, Vanilla Ice-spawning bassline heeds the most valuable lesson of the latter album—i.e., that John Deacon is Queen’s secret weapon—"Under Pressure" feels all the more like a special, lightning-in-a-bottle moment for sounding very little like anything Bowie was producing at the time, nor like much else on Hot Space, the funk-influenced Queen album where this one-off single eventually took up residence.
Coming from two entities synonymous with outsized extravagance and conceptual grandeur, "Under Pressure" is surprisingly spartan. It’s an anthem designed for empty arenas, powered by handclaps and fingersnaps, a two-note piano chime and a dry, vacuum-sealed groove. Brian May assumes a respectful background presence, his glimmering guitar lines providing more candlelight than fireworks, while even Bowie and Freddie Mercury sound more humble and human than usual, descending from their godly realm to empathically address problems—domestic unrest, homelessness—that plague mere mortals. And despite the potential for two of the most flamboyant singers in rock to engage in histrionic warfare, they seem less interested in trying to overpower one another than provide mutual emotional support. Still, even with relatively modest means, Queen and Bowie erect a towering spiral staircase of a song, with each discrete melodic motif ratcheting up the song’s mounting intensity and thrusting the track to dizzying new heights. But its grand finale is ultimately a show of false optimism: as "Under Pressure" comes crashing down in its dying moments, that persistent bassline re-emerges from the rubble, underscoring the cruelly cyclical nature of anxiety and release, and hitting reset on the time-bomb that’s ticking inside us all. —Stuart Berman
See also: Queen: "Another One Bites the Dust" / Queen: "I Want to Break Free"
- Warner Bros.; 1987
- Fleetwood Mac
While Stevie Nicks might be the most widely known member of Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie, to many fans, is the hero. McVie penned many of the band’s biggest hits, and 1987’s "Everywhere" stands out, not only as one of the band’s most commercial singles, but also as one of McVie’s strongest. It’s is carefully crafted, spare, and meticulously produced. McVie approaches the vocals with a light touch, and the contrast between that lightness and the songs sweeping sentiment—not only does she want to be with her lover, but she wants "to be with [them] everywhere"—is reflective of the time in which it was written. In the '80s, bigness, whether it be of sound, or wealth, or hair, was a given, and didn’t have to mean anything serious; McVie tempered this outsized lyrical message with an arrangement that was refreshingly minimal for the time. "Everywhere" wasn’t the biggest hit on Tango in the Night—"Little Lies" and "Big Love" charted higher, reaching #4 and #5 respectively—but it’s one of the quintessential songs of the '80s, and an elegant example of Fleetwood Mac’s nimbleness and adaptability. —Maud Deitch
- Polydor; 1985
- Godley & Creme
If this list was about '80s music videos, the work of Kevin Godley and Lol Crème would surely dominate—the former pair of 10cc musicians worked on innovative promos for the Police, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Herbie Hancock’s "Rockit" among others. "Cry" had a similarly impressive (for the time) visual counterpart, highlighting how important music videos were to breaking songs in this era. Indeed, Godley & Creme’s words on the art of '80s video making in Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV form some of the most entertaining and outlandish anecdotes of the era.
As such, the idea of hearing "Cry" without seeing the video is vaguely unconscionable, even though an entire generation of gamers found the song via the Grand Theft Auto IV soundtrack. Perhaps it needs a visual medium in which to flourish. It wasn’t Godley & Creme’s most outlandish idea (see the magnificently deranged 1977 triple album Consequences for that), but its vaguely operatic leanings and strange, pitch-shifted vocals make it an '80s hit like no other. Godley & Creme were masters at pushing boundaries in music and video—their clip for Duran Duran’s "Girls on Film" was banned for its adult content—and "Cry" is their best example of both those worlds dovetailing in curious harmony. —Nick Neyland
See also: Spandau Ballet: "True" / Police: "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" / Split Enz: "I Got You"
- Greensleeves; 1984
"Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt"
The popularity of the Jamaican vocalist Yellowman helped signal the shift from roots reggae to dancehall, a shift almost as radical as the one that turned funk breaks into early rap. Roots was deep, spiritual music that compressed social ideals into grave, sometimes mystical ballads; dancehall was better known for sentiments that were "Icky All Over". Musical values were different, too: Where roots was lush and soulful, dancehall used stiff Casio presets and turned the vocalist into an MC—someone who doesn’t sing over the track so much as inhabit it with one-liners, nursery rhymes, and other bits of half-music.
Yellowman was an albino, an orphan, a social outcast—what in patois might be called dundus, a term not just for albinos but for someone who, in the words of F.G. Cassidy and Brock Le Page’s Dictionary of Jamaican English, "is not up to the mark of normality." In 1983 he was misdiagnosed with cancer and told he had three years to live; the following year he released "Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt", a spare but celebratory piece of music about getting pulled over in his new (yellow) BMW and generally not caring. "64-46, that’s a BMW!" he crows, a reference to Toots & the Maytals’ early reggae hit "54-46 Was My Number", about a guy who actually does end up in jail. Some people use music to explore their pain. Yellowman used it to set his pain aside for a while. —Mike Powell
See also: Benjamin Zephaniah: "Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me to Death" / Willie Williams: "Armagideon Time"
- Virgin/Atlantic; 1981
- Phil Collins
"In the Air Tonight"
Few cultural artifacts scream, "Ah yes, the 1980s," louder than Phil Collins’ "In the Air Tonight". It might as well be a demo of the trends that were to dominate popular music in the decade following its 1981 release, while managing to sound like no other extant piece of recorded music. People remember Collins’ breakout single for many different reasons: for the urban legend surrounding its writing (a brutal kiss-off to an ex-lover or an elegy to a dead friend?), for Collins’ washed-out face staring out from the hit video’s digital void, for its tortured, choked vocals, or for that incomparable drum fill. The ballad was also, of course, the bold announcement of Phil Collins the solo artist, who later would go on to have the most prolific run of UK Top 40 singles of any artist of that decade.
Perhaps more than anything else, though, "In the Air Tonight"—written around four space-age synth chords and a thin drip of a drum machine loop—documents Collins’ fervent love affair with the aspirational music technology of his time. The brutish drum sound in the song’s second half was created through a jerry-rigged prototype of the technique that would later become known as gated reverb—which, prior to current imitations, served as a reliable watermark to date pop recordings made between 1982—1991. Vocoder technology was used to create shadowy underarmor for Collins’ main vocal, which in itself was processed into a jagged shadow of itself, drowned in some futuristic outgrowth of the slap-back echo which once sheathed Elvis’ croon. On top of this there are harsh, distorted digital storm clouds—from a synthesizer? guitar? some Frankensteinian combination?—that loom, presaging doom. It’s an exercise in mood like no other: The rare song whose production overshadows (or perhaps exalts) how little there is going on in the songwriting. —Winston Cook-Wilson
See also: Peter Gabriel: "Games Without Frontiers"
- 4AD; 1983
- This Mortal Coil
"Song to the Siren"
Tim Buckley’s "Song to the Siren" is impossible to ruin—the folk ballad’s self-evidently beautiful melody and resonant extended metaphor transcend pretty much any arrangement (even if no one has figured out what "as puzzled as the oyster" is supposed to mean). But while there are many wonderful covers out there, let’s be real: This song was created so that it could be sung by Elizabeth Fraser over Robin Guthrie’s barely-there guitar strum. No other version can touch it.
This Mortal Coil was an unusual endeavor, a loose collective that was ultimately a vehicle for 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell to turn his favorite obscure songs from the '60s and '70s into impossibly dark goth masterpieces. "Song to the Siren" defined the project, and most of that is due to Fraser. In Cocteau Twins, she was known for singing in an indecipherable language that nonetheless communicated; here she’s given real lyrics but she knows all the feeling is in the sound. The way she stretches the phrase "waiting to hold you" to its breaking point makes the sense of longing palpable beyond words. —Mark Richardson
See also: Felt: "Primitive Painters"
- I.R.S.; 1983
"Radio Free Europe"
It's hard to imagine R.E.M. existing as part of the American underground, given how long they've been embedded in the cultural mainstream. Think about "Losing My Religion" making every VH1 list of the Greatest Videos ever, or "Everybody Hurts" scoring every sensitive moment spent staring out of a moving car during some sappy melodrama. They made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on their first ballot, which is as establishment as it gets.
Before they were big, there was "Radio Free Europe". The first single off their first album, Murmur, is as sexy as the summer heat, as ominous as the kudzu creeping on the LP's cover. The music is sinewy, mysterious, entrancing; the lyrics, once deciphered, sound halfway improvised. It's a magnetic single, one that sounds like the invention of indie rock. They played "Radio Free Europe" on "Late Night With David Letterman" in 1983 and presented the whole package in one shot. Michael Stipe, chiseled face covered in flowing hair, broods over his microphone. Next to him, Peter Buck and Mike Mills are exuberantly dorky, garage rats playing at being rock stars. Afterwards, Stipe is too shy to talk to Letterman. The performance says: Come in, but don’t expect to learn much. It's enough to transport me to some imagined '80s dorm room, the TV on, wondering who these guys were. They'd become more successful, but they'd never sound as hypnotizing. —Jeremy Gordon
See also: R.E.M.: "The One I Love" / R.E.M.: "So. Central Rain"
- Epic/CBS; 1983
- Cyndi Lauper
"Girls Just Want to Have Fun"
A moment's reverence, please, for the once-proven dream of unproblematic female pop solidarity. When Lauper left her Queens home at age 17, she took with her a paper bag containing a toothbrush, clean underwear, an apple, and a copy of Yoko Ono's Grapefruit. Thirteen years later, one of Ono's gnomic instructions might have served as the ethos behind Lauper's solo career: "A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality." In 2015, Lauper's debut single feels like a fantasy: a globally famous, totally inclusive feminist anthem that preaches pleasure, recognition, and autonomy, and eschews societal expectations. Sure, it achieves that through defiantly simple lyrics that were originally written by a man—Robert Hazard demoed it, Springsteen-style, in '79—but Cyndi Lauper's neat tweaks skewed it from a song that trivialized female desire to one that runs and runs on it.
"Girls Just Want to Have Fun" is one of those songs you've heard so many times that the actual music is as invisible as the color of your front door, that insouciant riff as instantly recognizable as golden arches on a highway. Blanking out its brutally insistent dazzle—which, like a 24-hour charity cheerleading marathon, does not quit—may be an act of self-preservation. But that's the point: "Girls" digs in, stubborn as glitter, Lauper's piercing voice scoring your spine. She and her backing singers are bratty and full of want, refusing prettiness and permission. That pointillist synth that dots the mid-section might as well be a chorus of Dubble Bubble orbs popping in the faces of anyone who would deny them these simple, profound joys. —Laura Snapes
- A&M; 1986
- Janet Jackson
At this point, it seems as if Janet Jackson and her longtime studio accomplices Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were always the model for artist-producer synergy, twin forces forever meant to exist in tandem. Like most matters of pop, songwriting, and the industry, though, this theory appears to unravel with a bit with research. In fact, much of Janet’s breakthrough 1986 album Control was originally written for R&B singer Sharon Bryant, but she decided they were too "rambunctious." Yet Jackson, who was trying to put her bubblegum teenage years behind her, took charge of Control as no one else could. She wrote the toplines and arranged the complex vocals, which mix spoken-word, nonchalant rap-singing, and little iconic GIF-bursts of ad-libs. She helped with keyboards and synths. She reached into the Jam & Lewis machine and bent every part of it to her will, rearranging all the gears into a coat of armor. "Control" is the sound of Janet Jackson underlining her career moves, her decisions, her identity. —Katherine St. Asaph
See also: Janet Jackson: "What Have You Done for Me Lately" / Jody Watley: "Real Love"
- Sire; 1985
- The Replacements
"Bastards of Young"
In his entertaining 2007 oral history of the Replacements, All Over But the Shouting, writer Jim Walsh recounts one of the band’s early gigs at the Sons of Norway building in Minneapolis. Walsh suggests that it’s a short leap from there to imagine a young Paul Westerberg transforming the name of the fraternal organization Sons of Norway into the dispossessed "We are the sons of no one" chorus on the group’s raucous anti-generational anthem, "Bastards of Young". For people listening to the Replacements’ Tim on vinyl (or cassette) in 1985, "Bastards of Young" was the opening song of side two, arguably the single strongest album side in the group’s entire discography.
Even alongside other such signature gems as "Left of the Dial" and "Here Comes a Regular", however, "Bastards of Young" stands as perhaps the definitive Replacements track. It’s the song that best embodies the general character of Westerberg’s songwriting through its wry mixture of bemusement and exasperation. He sings as one unsure of where he’s headed, yet confident enough in his own instincts to recognize that the directions he’s been given are hopelessly flawed. In typical Westerberg fashion he’ll balance a line of casual brilliance ("The ones that love us least are the ones we’ll die to please") with another so fudged ("something something something beer tonight"?) that there’s never been total consensus about what he’s actually singing. As was often their habit at the time, the rest of Westerberg’s bandmates join him by speeding the song’s tempo slightly beyond they seem capable to sustain. The result is a song that seems destined to collapse in a heap at any moment, yet somehow manages to stagger a steady path between defiance and self-deprecation, shrugging resignation and pure raw-throated passion. —Matthew Murphy
See also: The Replacements: "Can't Hardly Wait" / The Replacements: "Kiss Me on the Bus"
- Tommy Boy; 1989
- De La Soul
One of the most innovative rap albums of all time, De La Soul's debut 3 Feet High and Rising changed the way hip-hop approached sampling, but the album wouldn't have resonated so widely if it were merely a playground for producer Prince Paul. De La Soul had the songs to back up their inventive production, and none of them better captured the trio’s good-natured disposition than "Eye Know". It's a straightforward love song, with rappers Posdnous and Trugoy the Dove each attempting to woo the objects of their affection with old-fashioned chivalry. "Sex is a mere molecule in this world of love that I have for you," Trugoy promises with geeky sincerity. Though the rappers sound too much like blushing teenagers to expect a return on their overtures, the song made it clear that women were welcome in their D.A.I.S.Y. revolution—a refreshing assurance at a time when sexism was beginning to sour rap music.
"Eye Know" also has the distinction of being the most feel-good song on what might be the most feel-good rap album of all time. Every sound seems to have been selected for maximum merriment, from the strutting guitar riff and horn licks piped in from "Peg", the one Steely Dan song you can play at a party, to the reassuring whistle from Otis Redding’s "Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay". From the start, De La Soul were fascinated by expression in its purest form, and it doesn’t get any purer than this expression of sheer happiness. —Evan Rytlewski
- Profile; 1984
"It's Like That"
You can divide hip-hop into before and after "It’s Like That". The old school died as soon as the drum machines kicked in. By the time Run roared about "unemployment at a record high," another 30 MCs filed for food stamps.
Larry Smith laid down the beat, an echoing ricochet of flying sparks, shrapnel, and meteor-slamming boom. Disco and electro-funk replays previously defined the genre. No more. Bambaataa and Busy Bee, Kurtis Blow and Cold Crush had ruled the "on and on to the break of dawn" era. But the new school suddenly made 24-year-old elders extinct as an Allosaurus. The newly anointed giants were a leather-clad Hollis trio managed by Russell Simmons, originally named Runde-MC.
"It’s like that and that’s the way it is." A fatalist credo that became the "So It Goes" for the gestating hip-hop generation. Those lines stuck in Profile boss Cory Robbins’ head, immediately after Rush brought him the demo cassette. So he gave the group $2,000 to re-record it at Greene Street Studios in SoHo. It sold 250,000 copies. A slightly remixed Jason Nevins version came out in 1997. It felt timeless enough to snap the Spice Girls’ streak of consecutive number one UK Singles.
A half-dozen archetypes sprang from the torso of "It’s Like That" and its B-side ("Sucka MCs"). It’s simultaneously a complaint lodged at chronic joblessness, a love letter to getting money, a party record telling you to stay young and play, a rebuke to foreign policy war mongering, an existential lament, a Christian affirmation, and an aesthetic attack. It’s stripped down and minimalist punk, rawness as response and weapon. There was no way to go back and an entirely new path stretched forward. —Jeff Weiss
See also: Run-D.M.C.: "King of Rock" / Run-D.M.C.: "Peter Piper"
- Sugar Hill; 1984
- Grandmaster & Melle Mel
"White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)"
Hip-hop had been party music for most of its first few recorded years, but there's such a thing as too much partying, and "White Lines" is a snapshot of the moment when drug-fueled fun is just about to crash. (There was a lot of powder floating around at the time—1983 was also the year of Laid Back's "White Horse", for instance.) Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had made the first major political hip-hop single the year before with "The Message", but even by then they were already disintegrating. So "White Lines", more or less a solo record by the group's MC Melle Mel, was credited on release to "Grandmaster & Melle Mel". Flash, their original DJ, was the name everyone knew, but he was long since out of the group at that point; he first heard "White Lines" while on his way to buy coke.
"White Lines" is a record about an intractable problem, from which Melle Mel refused even to exonerate himself ("Now I'm broke and it's no joke/ It's hard as hell to fight it DON'T BUY IT!"; see also the sly double negative in the title). It's also a problematic record itself, not least because its music is lifted wholesale from the New York art-funk band Liquid Liquid's "Cavern", released earlier in 1983. (Even Melle Mel's "something like a phenomenon" is inspired by a half-audible line from Liquid Liquid vocalist Salvatore Principato.) But the "Cavern" grooves are crisped up by the Sugar Hill Records house band (who would soon go on to become Tackhead) and a little "Twist & Shout"-style vocal figure, and hurled over the top by the horn section that storms in for the song's bridge. And the masterstroke of Melle Mel's performance is that as bitter as it is—the way he sneers the word "baby" makes icicles drop every time—it's also funny and even playful: the party, he knows, is going to keep raging until everyone drops, no matter what, so he might as well keep it hopping. —Douglas Wolk
See also: Cash Crew: "On the Radio" / Funky 4+1: "That's the Joint"
- Reality; 1985
- Slick Rick / Doug E. Fresh
"La Di Da Di"
The line on Slick Rick is that he’s one of hip-hop’s great storytellers, a guy who realized the narrative possibilities of the medium and constructed songs with plots where one action followed from the next. And "La Di Da Di", his breakthrough song with human beatbox Doug E. Fresh, is without question a fine example of his writerly talent. He tells of a day in the life in which he wakes up, falls out of bed, puts his Kangol upon his head, and ultimately watches a mother beat the living crap out of her daughter because they’re both hopelessly in love with him. But while the blow-by-blow of the story and Rick’s running commentary have their charms, the real genius of "La Di Da Di" is in the delivery. With this song, he invented a kind of tuneful rapping in which a spoken phrase could become a melodic hook at any moment. The simple melodies found in "La Di Da Di" have become part of rap’s DNA, and the song has been repeatedly stripped for parts by the likes of Biggie, N.W.A, and Snoop. To listen to "La Di Da Di" now is to trace three decades of history in under five minutes, all of it leading back to Rick’s place. —Mark Richardson
See also: Audio Two: "Top Billin'" / Doug E. Fresh: "The Show" [ft. Slick Rick]