ALL: Hip-Hop 1980s

The 50 Best Rap Singles of 1981

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.

The 50 Best Rap Singles of 1982

The year brought classics like “Planet Rock” and “The Message,” and hip-hop seemed to grow out of its prepubescent phase overnight.