Rap’s Reggae Roots

After a summer of rap artists sampling reggae, Wayne Marshall chronicles the way New York’s ragamuffin counterculture actually birthed hip-hop:

Growing in number since the late 60s, a wave of new immigrants from Jamaica, including ruthless footsoldiers of Kingston’s infamous gang coalitions, eventually reshaped New York’s party culture, organized crime, and the very meanings of Jamaicanness—not to mention the sound of New York. Although reggae offered a template for hip-hop, the sounds of Jamaica were slow to appear in rap recordings. The Fat Boys professed their love of “Hardcore Reggae” in 1984 and Yellowman accompanied Run DMC on an awkward outing called “Roots, Rap, Reggae” in ‘85, but the real turning point was registered—and amplified—by Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded in early 1987.

BDP refashioned the sound of hip-hop by delivering patois-laced lyrics about the ravages of the crack age over choppy, distorted, and stark backing tracks beckoning from the bleeding edge of audio culture. And while KRS-One’s street-level realism takes inevitable cues from precursors like Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 smash “The Message,” the narrator of tracks like “P Is Free” and “9mm Goes Bang” is a rather different character, less a wary observer or potential victim and more an eager participant, a ready reaper of Reagan-era spoils. Criminal Minded signaled a strong tonal shift in hip-hop’s representation of urban malaise and its effects on community relationships, and the album’s first-person “badman” perspective was deeply informed and inflected by dancehall reggae’s images of black, modern gangsters.