Probably the most innovative songs in the world: ‘8th Wonder’ by Sugarhill Gang

February 16, 2011 at 9:05 am 4 comments

Sugarhill Gang - cover of the 8th Wonder single

This is such a great album cover (image from Soulyourfunk)

by Alec Patton

My first submission to the ‘probably the most innovative songs in the world’ playlist was an early jazz track. For this entry, I’m advancing five decades to the beginning of hip hop. It’s not a short entry, but it covers a lot of ground and some controversial opinions, so if you think you can handle it, read on and let’s get serious about this.

The following is probably the least cool line I’ve written (and that’s saying a lot), but hip hop is radically efficient music (see the ‘Radical Efficiency’ model – developed by the Innovation Unit – below).

 

Hip hop is based on a single, brilliant insight: while musical instruments and musical training are expensive and hard to get, recorded music is ubiquitous. So a group of mostly-young, mostly-black, and mostly-New York-based musicians started using music to make music.

To refer to the Radical Efficiency model above, they were using new resources (records), new suppliers (DJs as musicians), new insights (drawing on the skills of record producers, who had traditionally been of secondary importance to musicians) and new customers (hip hop only requires two turntables and a microphone – or, failing that, a boom box and a microphone – so hip hop gigs went outside the nightclub circuit to just about any available space that performers could find, thereby reaching new audiences).

OK, that covers the music. Now, the lyrics: hip hop lyrics are the most significant thing to happen to poetry in a long time. If you’re thinking ‘hang on a minute, rap isn’t poetry’, you’re wrong. To understand why, here’s a brief history of the relationship between poetry and information technology:

Ancient Greek poets sang their poems accompanied by a lyre (yes, that’s how you’re ‘meant’ to experience the Iliad. The published versions are essentially liner notes). Medieval poets sang their poems too. Then, there was a massive innovation in information technology: the printing press. Up until this point, the best way to get your work out to a wide audience was to travel around singing it, and teach it to other performers. Now, you could achieve more reach than ever before just by getting your poems published. From then on, poetry became a primarily written medium – because publishing was the only means of mass communication. At the end of the nineteenth century, information technology made its next great leap forward: recorded sound.

Suddenly, you didn’t need to write something down in order to get it mass-produced: you could speak, sing, or play music, and send copies of what you’d done across the world. Once again, poets had an incentive to write their work for performance, accompanied by music. Only now they weren’t called ‘poets’, because of an elitist notion that ‘poetry’ was meant to be written, and if you were singing verse accompanied by instruments, you were engaged in a lesser pursuit (if Homer had been reincarnated in the 20th century and started touring with his lyre, then any academic with the temerity to declare him a ‘poet’ would have been laughed off the campus as a trend-chasing lightweight).

This distinction between verse that’s written and verse that’s performed with instrumental accompaniment is specious, elitist, and stupid. However, it’s absolutely true that the lyrics of most popular music are neither rhythmically nor lyrically sophisticated. Hip hop, on the other hand, is frequently both. More than almost any other popular music since Cole Porter, hip hop is about playing language in clever and surprising ways. ‘OK’, you may be saying, ‘but isn’t a great deal of hip hop morally repugnant, prone to violence, and wildly misogynistic?’ Yes. But does that set it apart from the last two millenia of poetry? Absolutely not. Nobody ever looks at an incredibly misogynistic piece of Jacobean verse and says ‘well, THAT clearly doesn’t qualify as poetry’ – it may be offensive poetry, it may in fact be lousy poetry, but it’s obviously poetry, because it’s written in verse. We shouldn’t hold hip hop to a different standard.

I’m glad we cleared that up. Now, on to my choice for the ‘probably the most innovative songs in the world’ playlist. The artist I’m choosing is the Sugarhill Gang, for two reasons. First of all, their single ‘Rappers Delight‘  was the breakout record that introduced hip hop to the mainstream (please note that I am not claiming that it was the first ‘hip hop record’, or even the first hit hip hop record). Second, my brother had a Sugarhill gang ‘greatest hits’ album, and we both really liked it.

I’m not putting ‘Rapper’s Delight’ on the playlist, because most people know it already. Instead, I’m choosing ‘8th Wonder’. This is built on a fantastic sample, from the opening of soul song called ‘Daisy Lady’ by 7th Wonder. This is a particularly good example of the power of sampling, because while the hook is incredibly cool, the rest of ‘Daisy Lady’ is pretty forgettable. However,  ‘8th Wonder’ is classic. Enjoy:

To be fair, though, it’s not the finest example of lyrical sophistication in hip hop. For some really clever lyrics, here’s London’s own Sway, with this track from his first album:

Now it’s over to you – who are hip hop’s greatest innovators? Make a case for ’em in the comments section.

Listen to ‘8th Wonder’ on the ‘probably the most innovative songs in the world’ playlist and send us your suggestions or add them to the playlist as we’ve made it collaborative.

Advertisements

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Probably the most innovative song in the world: The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’ Greening Public Services in Yorkshire and Humber

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Matt K  |  February 16, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Cool post. OK, maybe not cool — maybe, if pressed for a verdict on coolness, I would go with ‘the opposite of cool’ — but I agree with your take, and enjoyed reading it.

    Re: the Rap as Poetry question, if you haven’t seen it, Yale has a new ‘Anthology of Rap’ out, edited by two poetry profs, and with an afterword by Chuck D. The poet Dan Chiasson reviews it favorably, with some additional interesting thoughts on the rap/poetry question, for the NYRB: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jan/13/rude-ludicrous-lucrative-rap/

    To be honest, though, I was more sympathetic to Kelefa Sanneh’s more skeptical take — he argues that viewing rap primarily as anthologizable poetry “gets the relationship backward,” and that the words will endure only because the music does. (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/12/06/101206crat_atlarge_sanneh?currentPage=4)

    Wow, think I just redoubled the anti-coolness of this post by appending two pompous NY review essays. Why don’t I put the pedal to the anti-cool metal, then, and admit that my favorite hip hop sampler of the modern era is none other than the ubiquitous Kanye West — his spin on Jon Anderson’s lyric in “Dark Fantasy” is truly epic.

    Reply
  • 2. alecpatton  |  February 16, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    I read Sanneh’s piece and really enjoyed it, though I was frustrated that he declared that Jay-Z’s new book is one of a small handful of must-have books for hip hop fans, and then didn’t say what the others were!

    I think the key word is ‘anthologizeable’ – a print anthology of poetry seems to me to fall into the basic trap of assuming that the best poetry is poetry that’s written down in books. Now, if Yale produced a boxed set, that’d be a different story.

    Reply
  • 3. JoeRuckus  |  February 16, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Hat in the ring, I’m with Wayne on this one:
    http://wayneandwax.com/?p=1752
    … that ‘rap-as-poetry’ is inadequate and insubstantial, even if true.

    [Wayne discusses an exchange on a radio chat show that appears in ‘Grime Killers’ by Durrty Goodz, you can hear it here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccY2yJJH_Ew ]

    Reply
  • 4. alecpatton  |  February 16, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    JoeRuckus – your comment (and Wayne’s post) reminded me how much I hate it when people call jazz ‘America’s classical music’, because a) how about some respect for Aaron Copland etc.? and b) it’s not classical music, it’s jazz, and that is sufficient unto itself.

    But I think this is a different issue – saying rap isn’t poetry is (I think – but closely-reasoned argument by analogy is more your department than mine) akin to saying hip hop isn’t music (which plenty of people say, goodness knows). And in fact, even this isn’t quite the point…

    The point, for me, is less about rap than about poetry, and my frustration that it has such a narrow, impoverished definition – because it forces it into ‘decline’ – because not all that many people are reading poetry, but lots of people are listening to verse. So I guess I write less as a fan of rap who wants it validated by the cultural elite than as a fan of poetry who wants people to recognise that (by the definition that worked for the Greeks) it’s thriving.

    Cheers for pointing me to wayneandwax – it’s going onto the google reader.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


The Innovation Unit website

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 29 other followers

Archives

Twitter Updates

Follow innovation_unit on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: