Chattanooga radio icon Eric Foster takes us back—and forward
Hip hop is now over 40 years old. The culture has fascinated me from the very beginning. I can remember being 9 years old and going into my oldest brother’s room to listen to his albums. He was a serious collector at the age of 19 and very meticulous when it came to his records.
I can remember riding with him to the store for my mom and picking up whatever was on the grocery list—and then circling around back to see if the milk truck had delivered. Why? Milk crates. He would collect and modify them to hold several records and stack them in his room. Everything was alphabetized and separated by genres. Pop music would be in the walk in closet, R&B and funk under the bunk beds and then there was a new category that was the talk of the house: rap. He knew I was enamored with music, which is why he wouldn’t kick me out when his friends came over to listen to his records.
I asked questions about the artists and why he liked one group better than another. I also wanted to know the words and who wrote them and why. I could tell he was proud I took initiative in learning all I could about music and helped me sign up for my first trumpet lesson. We would listen for hours on end and compare sounds and sometimes pretend to be radio disc jockeys.
One record in particular was pretty cool looking. This was the record he’d talked about for what seemed like weeks. One of his good friends was employed at the Record Bar and another at a store called Cat’s Records and Tapes. He would call them regularly to see when it would be shipped and when that call came, we were off to discover the new sound from a label called Sugar Hill Records.
“Rapper’s Delight” was the first single from the record performed by three guys: Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master G, and was my first introduction into what would be known today as hip hop. Steven Thomas Erlewine wrote a great review about the label. “Sugar Hill Records was the first rap and hip-hop label, giving many listeners their first exposure to the urban rhyming and scratching that transformed pop music during the ’80s. Like most indie labels, they had troubles with finances and distribution; eventually, that situation resulted in their records remaining out of print during the rise of the hip-hop during the late ’80s and ’90s.
The five-disc Sugar Hill Records Story remedies this situation by collecting all of the label’s classic A-sides, many in their full-length mixes, on one set. Tracks by the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, and the Treacherous Three are commonplace and remain excellent, but the true revelation of the box set is how strong largely forgotten cuts by Spoonie Gee, the Funky 4 + 1, Trouble Funk, the Sequence, Super Wolf, and West Street Mob are—these are supremely funky, infectious and inventive cuts, which have been made familiar through samples and quotations on modern rap records. Another surprise is how integrated this music is—male and female rappers trade lines without hesitation, and there is none of the misogyny or violence that characterized gangsta rap.
But that doesn’t mean the old-school rap on The Sugar Hill Records Story sounds dated—much of this bright, elastic electro-funk has provided the foundation for ’90s hits by the likes of the Beastie Boys and Dr. Dre. But the most surprising thing of all is how The Sugar Hill Records Story barely loses momentum over the course of five discs. There is the occasional dull spot or oddity (check out the bizarre B-52’s rip-off “At the Ice Arcade” by the Chilly Kids) that interrupts the flow, but the music is consistently strong, even on the fifth disc. It was inevitable that The Sugar Hill Records Story would be an important historical document, but what makes it truly essential is how rich, diverse, and timeless the music actually is.”
Hip hop was born in the west Bronx when a Jamaican transplant, Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc, and his sister put on a back-to-school jam in the rec room of their apartment at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. That party would go on to birth “B-boying” and breakdancing and the rest of hip hop culture. My friends and I here in good ol’ Chattanooga, Tennessee were star struck. Everything about New York and hip hop turned us into hip hop zombies.
What really intrigued me about hip hop is that it gave you a peek inside a world that fascinated me. New York was only a place that I experienced through the opening credits of TV shows like “The Jeffersons,” “Barney Miller,” and “Taxi.” Tall buildings, yellow taxis, gang wars, street-wise youth had me wanting to see this place. I would think to myself that I have to get there and experience the realness of New York—then I could understand the bravado of this new phenomena called hip hop.
I got that chance in 1982 when I was informed by my parents that we actually had relatives living in Queens and would be making the 12-hour drive to attend the funeral of my Great-aunt Alice.
This trip changed my life. It was everything that I thought it would be, larger than life, fast paced, extremely rude, but exciting. My cousin Warren and his family lived in a 23-story high-rise in the middle of a gang-infested neighborhood and dressed exactly like the guys that I would see in hip hop magazines. Warren wore spike-studded gloves, Adidas warm ups and sneakers, Kangol caps and yes, he was in a gang.
This guy was also one of the most captivating rappers I had ever heard that was not on a record. He told me that everyone on the block “spit,” which was cool New York vernacular for rapping. I couldn’t wait to get back to Chattanooga to let my friends know what I had experienced.
Let’s fast forward. One of the things I’ve watched during my career in radio is the movement of hip hop. It was not exclusive to New York, but why?
At its core, hip hop is about the youth. Across the country, youth everywhere wanted to contribute to the movement. From New York. it moved to LA, then to the Midwest, then followed up by the South. Hip hop had planted seeds and even dropped a few of them in Chattanooga. In the early ’90s, I was a part of a collective called the Vibe Tribe, a group of guys that made conscious hip hop. Then you had Down South Affiliated, who made a huge name for themselves winning a rap show and production deal with Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def Records in Atlanta.
A group that went by the name Mystic Clique was a rap quartet that was edgy and had a huge following and even had their tribute to the Tennessee Titans blasting through the speakers in the Tennessee Titan locker room.
And now? The future of hip hop in Chattanooga is looking great. Isaiah Rashad has planted the Chattanooga flag on the West Coast after being signed to the Los Angeles juggernaut TDE imprint. Others are right behind him grinding their way to the top. I have kind of become the official uncle to a lot of them since they have listened to me on air for the majority of their life.
Jeff Chang, author of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” said, “I’m not a purist or a nostalgist. But I believe in the values that have sustained hip hop from the beginning: inclusion, recognition, creativity, and transformation. In the end, hip hop is about teenagers, it’s about youth. And as long as they are taking those values forward, hip hop won’t die.”
I recently read a great article on education.com and it had an excellent comparison of hip hop and rock and roll. It stated, “Hip-Hop, like Rock ‘n’ Roll before it, is not only a genre of music, but also a complex system of ideas, values and concepts that reflect newly emerging and ever-changing creative correlative expressive mechanisms including but not limited to song, poetry, film and fashion. In the early days, Hip-Hop was primarily related to the rhyming, rhythmic spoken word art-form known as rapping. Rapping is, in fact, not a new method of creative expression. The ease with which young people can participate in this form of creativity seems to have helped the phenomenal growth of this genre of music and expression. It is good to see the youth take the torch and forge their own way. Hip hop is just not New York. It is wherever youth want to be.”