Most of the best hip-hop of 1981 didn’t appear on rap records — with Grandmaster Flash’s “Wheels of Steel” a gloriously historic exception.
The opening intro of Wham!, a documentary about the early 80s boy band, kicks off with the sound of their first single, “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do).” As Andrew Ridgeley explains, the song — and the band’s name — was inspired by line-dancing at Le Beat Route (which he pronounces “lay bee-trow”). “Wham! Bam! I am the man!” he chanted as he danced. A scene depicts him, “Yog” Panos (aka George Michael), and their friends Dee C. Lee and Shirlie Holliman shimmying to the Funky Four + 1 More’s “That’s the Joint.” “We were fusing rap with disco, and then we added pop,” says Ridgeley. In short, “Wham Rap!” is suffused in Black American idioms. Modern-day commentators have noticed. Several reviews fault the doc’s filmmakers for avoiding issues surrounding white appropriation of Black culture. But it’s still a revealing look at how early rap penetrated the pop mainstream. Key genre codes and aesthetics didn’t exist when “Wham Rap!” debuted in June 1982. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” had only debuted two months earlier. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” wouldn’t hit until later that summer. Thanks to Ridgeley and Michael’s “social” lyrics about being “a soul boy” and “a dole boy” — teenage unemployment was at an all-time high — as well as shout-outs to Britain’s Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), their single actually drew good reviews. New Music Express gave it “single of the week” and put them on the cover. Given the way the duo subsequently conquered the planet, those months when “Wham Rap!” seemed like a canny blend of hip-hop idioms and pop flavor instead of a watered-down approximation are easy to forget.
In the opening credits of 1992 film Juice, Harlem DJ Quincy “Q” Powell mixes two records. The first appears to be a Def Jam release…maybe EPMD’s Business as Usual? (The group makes a cameo during a key robbery sequence.) The second is a copy of Sound Effects Vol. IV, an entry in Valentino, Inc’s Production Music Library. “Q” uses the same two records later in the film when he practices late at night in preparation for a morning audition with Queen Latifah, who’s hosting the “Ruffhouse Presents Mixx Master Massacre” contest. Italian-born, New York-based entrepreneur Thomas J. Valentino formed Valentino, Inc. in the 1930s, and specialized in library music, providing cues for Broadway productions, films, and television. It’s best known for an association with Walter Murphy, who composed “A Fifth of Beethoven,” a disco-fied update of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that became a 1976 chart-topping hit and part of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Judging from a cursory Google search, the company no longer seems to exist except for licensing purposes. Deliciously, and despite a burgeoning interest in golden-age artifacts, the presence of Valentino, Inc. in one of the most popular hip-hop films of the 90s has barely registered online. The edition of Sound Effects Vol. IV used in Juice isn’t even in the Discogs database.
New York rapper Roc Marciano is an underrated producer capable of making oddly hypnotic loops. On Jay Worthy’s Nothing Bigger Than the Program, he weaves a silent film score for “The Field,” and a drumless vocal aria on “The Plug.” His ideas don’t always work, but one must admire his audacity. Unfortunately, his collaborator, Compton rapper Jay Worthy, gives an unconvincing lyrical performance. Worthy can deliver an interesting crime narrative or two, like on “How?” But generally, his boilerplate verses about riding Bentleys, having sex with women, snorting cocaine, and claiming that “the pussy overrated” bore in their thematic familiarity. Worthy is frequently outclassed by his guests, particularly Port Arthur veteran Bun B, who dazzles on “Underground Legend”: “Don’t you be surprised when that throwaway leave you a hickey that won’t go away/It’s like you shaking a Coke, letting the soda spray.” Other guests include A$ton Matthews, Kokane, Ab-Soul, A$AP Ant, and Kurupt. The album was released on GDF Records and Marci Enterprises, with distribution by EMPIRE.
Champagne for Breakfast highlights the strengths and weaknesses of Meyhem Lauren, who’s best known for riding shotgun on Action Bronson’s various multimedia adventures. He’s got a decent po-faced style and a capacity to crack a few fly bars but lacks the conceptual savvy to elevate his street dreams into something more transcendent than a thug-rap excursion. Over the past several years, Muggs has made himself into the Gothic composer of the “drumless” era — he did excellent work on Westside Gunn’s Flygod Is an Awesome God — and his highlights include “OD Wilson” and “Evolution,” the latter on which Meyhem raps, “I specialize in aeronautics, got a fly team.” Meanwhile, Madlib interjects vocal loops on Muggs’ beats, and his “Triple M Airlines” is a nice, crackly instrumental. The beats attributed to Madlib alone seem aimless in comparison to Muggs, but he eventually achieves synergy with Meyhem on “Wild Salmon,” a light disco-boogie closer. Rap cameos include Action Bronson and Meyhem’s brother, Hologram. Muggs released Champagne for Breakfast on his Soul Assassin Records label.