(Note: I was tapped in one of those “10 Albums That Influenced You In 10 Days” Facebook challenges that I normally avoid, but since I was being asked by my dad, I opted in. I’m not presenting all of my picks here, but I liked this third entry enough – and it was long enough – that I thought it should get a seat at the table with my other writing in this vein. Enjoy, and go get this record stat. – sew)
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Hip hop did not come out the womb of New York whole. It slid a foot out in the Bronx in the 1970s, then a leg on the West Coast, then an arm in the Midwest. I point this out to say that the Midwest’s relationship to early rap is different than the one developed at its focal points. We were not yet creating hip hop at any noticeable level (Chicago, sure. Detroit, okay). By the time it got to the mixtapes, radios, and boomboxes in a place like Columbus, Ohio, it was already transforming into its now more recognizable non-party forms. For a generations-old test market city, Columbus was decidedly behind on the hip hop front.
But we stayed up all night.
The Fat Boys’ eponymous debut album dropped like a bomb, blowing fallout over my entire life. It was inescapable. “Jail House Rap” played on the school bus AM radio – back when radio deejays could still pick their playlists, back when a school bus could still play music if the driver were hip enough, back when Columbus still had a black station on AM, back when you had to listen to what everybody else listened to because Walkmans were still $150 ($300 adjusted). It was being played in every boombox. It was being locked to in the back of my Monroe Middle School classrooms. It was the subject of conversations in my Sunday School class. And when I finally had eight dollars, it was being played in my bedroom every night for a smooth month until I went to sleep.
A debut album overseen in the studio by rap legend Kurtis Blow (rap’s first indisputable superstar), Fat Boys had success coded into its DNA. “Jail House Rap” is 50% Blow’s smash hit “Basketball” and opens the album in an attempt to cash in early on the relationship. What was becoming mainstream hip hop was striving to prove itself as music first, and in the mid-80s wasn’t just a sample game. Blow was hiring musicians to come and lay bass lines and program drums. Prince hadn’t yet showed us that we could bend the pitch on rimshots and toms yet, so the drums were tracked to sound like real drums for the most part. “Can You Feel It?” and “Fat Boys” are just-shy-of-disco party jams firmly in the Kurtis Blow mold. “Fat Boys” is pretty much a Blow song that he decided not to turn his microphone on for.
The lyrics are delivered in New York party fashion, at the top of one’s lungs, said with your chest, and dropping out of the latter half of lines to allow for the team to come in and finish the thought, shoring up the union. Most of the verses were straight out of the New York playbook of storytelling. Contrary to their marketing, the range of their subject matter far exceeded food. Outside of the titular track, the group should have considered changing their name to Sex Boys, considering how often the subject of “jazzy ladies” comes up. And because their songs were so long (four of the seven songs here are over 5 minutes long), that’s a lot of not-food rap.
This album introduced something to mainstream hip hop that marks the form to this day: beatboxing. Nearly every black child through time immemorial has drummed out beats on cafeteria tables at lunch, or stomp/clapped a few bars out in the bleachers during a basketball game. But 19 seconds into the first song on the album, “Jail House Rap”, we are formally introduced to the non-rapper of the group – Darren Robinson a.k.a. Buff Love a.k.a. The Human Beat Box a.k.a. The Bass.
At the 3 minute mark of the song the crew makes great show of presenting Buff, dedicating numerous lines to building up his unique offering, the element that makes the crew special, a lyrical curtain unveiling some secret hip hop weapon, and boom: hip hop is forever changed. For the next 75 seconds Buff riffs alongside the programmed beat, introducing his now-trademark fills and musical gasping to the game. He’s not just a spitter or using clicks; he’s using all of the body parts a musician uses – diaphragm, embouchure, furious syncopation, double breathing. His body truly becomes an instrument.
The very next song on the album drives this point home so hard you have no home to return to.
“Stick ‘Em” is one of the greatest songs in hip hop, one of the best second songs on any album ever, and stands as one of few moments in which one can hear a thing never before produced in recorded music come to bloom. It begins with a playful jab at “My Country Tis of Thee”, which takes on a slick anarchist feel considering the anthem is being literally spit out of a black man’s mouth. Buff frequently answered the question of where his talent came from by stating that his family was too poor to afford instruments, so he made the music with his mouth. Consider the message of any American anthem performed this way and under such conditions. “You do not give me even the tools to praise you,” it suggests, “so I spit your dream.” Of thee I sing, indeed. The album also features another bow-down offering to Buff in the track “Human Beat Box” on the second half of the album, which is a fine showcase of his skills, especially his mouth-clapping. But with its expansive use of effects and pounding lyrics, “Stick ‘Em” is a clinic. It is what you listen to when you want to see what the tool that is your body is capable of.
“Stick ‘Em” also possesses the Kool Rock-Ski line, “Too hot to handle and too cold to hold”, which after three decades remains one of the best delivered lines of poetry that hip hop has ever produced. The Fat Boys may have been one of the earliest “funny” units in hip hop (you’re welcome, Will Smith) – which was another pioneering aspect of this album they would add to hip hop’s toolbox: range of presentation – but they had the chops to back it up.
On an album with only seven songs the Fat Boys added something to hip hop that it didn’t know it would soon need to survive: innovation. And it did it by doing what it has always done best, which is taking what it already has – not what it can acquire or steal or game or pimp, but what it is – and digging into it until a real and beautiful truth comes out.