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Five songs which shaped hip hop

London-born MC Akala picks the most important tracks in rap history

‘A lot of documentaries start the story in 1970, as if a cultural accident happened,’ said a bemused Akala, when he was explaining the evolution of MC-ing in Salford last year. ‘Let’s not pretend there was no foundation to this art.’ In his ‘Hip Hop History’ show, the rapper, poet and director of The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company illustrates the development of hip hop in easily digestible and quick-witted chunks.

Born Kingslee Daley in Camden, Akala delves into the history of the genre in a lecture full of theatrics. There are bursts of rap, live music, videos and slides as the 29-year-old polymath takes the audience on a 3,000-year journey through time that starts with the griots in West Africa: musical storytellers who were able to recite five-hour-long poems from memory. Follow his leap forward to unexpected wordsmiths Muhammad Ali and Ella Fitzgerald, and you’ll find Akala opening your eyes to a genre you thought you already knew everything about.

We asked Akala to name five tracks which, in his opinion, had charted the course of hip hop history. Here they are, from Gil Scott-Heron in ’71 to Biggie in ’94…

1. Gil Scott-Heron – ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ (1971)

‘This is his most famous song and he’s someone I would consider – alongside The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets – the founding father of modern MC-ing. I feel like his impact and influence is very much still with us and that song laid the gauntlet for what the role of the MC could be at its best; in terms of speaking truths, participating actively in revolutionary struggle and change, and working in the sense of the community. I think that song summed it all up, with a healthy dose of political irony, satire, great lyrics… It’s just incredible.’

2. Eric B And Rakim – ‘Paid in Full’ (1987)

‘Rakim is someone who really altered the way rappers rapped forever. Before him, you had either spoken-word delivery like Gil Scott-Heron, or a kind of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ basic rhyme structure. Rakim was a scientist in the rhythm of MC-ing and level of metaphor used. Many people don’t know, but he’s a great saxophone player and I believe he brought this knowledge of music theory to MC-ing. Everyone who’s come since has been influenced by Rakim. Even if you’re influenced by Nas or Biggie, they’d have been inspired by Rakim.’

3. NWA – ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (1988)

‘For completely different reasons, this changed the course of hip hop. It was the first record to popularise violence in that way. Lyrically, you had rappers before with similar content, but they all remained underground. This was the first time that sort of content was pushed out to the world. There were stories from inner-city urban America that weren’t reaching the world, and it held a mirror of those communities up to the world. As with anything that becomes popular, people copy it and we’re living with a part of that legacy today.’

4. Public Enemy – ‘Fight the Power’ (1989)

‘You couldn’t compile a list about hip hop without this song. No other revolutionary statement has ever been so popular in hip hop, and there’s never been a song that’s been a worldwide hit with that kind of content again. I think with the powers that be in music and politics learnt the danger of allowing a group like Public Enemy to become the voice of the African American youth because their music was so danceable and innovative, and the delivery was incredible. They were very quickly marginalised, but that record will live forever.’

5. Notorious BIG – ‘Juicy’ (1994)

‘I think Biggie popularised a style of mass-appeal pop-hip hop while retaining his credibility as an MC, and was the first person to do that. He took hip hop and removed the dissonant sounds of NWA and the dissonant flow of Kool G Rap. Biggie made hip hop pop music. Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer came along and were incredibly popular, but they weren’t Biggie. He was an incredible MC, one of the greatest ever, yet managed to make pop songs. That was a new thing for hip hop and it’s given birth to a million Biggie derivatives.’

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