A few weeks ago a ten-minute YouTube video titled “Chicago Hip House Documentary 1989,” posted in December, started popping up on all kinds of music blogs, including rap sites normally too orthodox to acknowledge anything as shamelessly danceable as hip-house. Today most laypersons recognize only one product of this short-lived hybrid of hip-hop and house music: “It Takes Two,” the 1988 hit by New York duo Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock. But the artists and managers in this 20-year-old video seem convinced that the genre is about to break out.
Now that we’ve seen hip-house fail to take over much more than a few years’ worth of middle-school dances before disappearing from the pop-cultural radar, their enthusiasm and confidence seem painfully misguided. Even as baby-faced MC Fast Eddie bragged to the camera that hip-house would “devastate” the world, N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton—released in 1988—was tilting the entire hip-hop landscape. Within a year or two, nonthreatening, upbeat performers like Eddie would be driven to extinction by grim, thuggish gangsta rappers.
Given all that dramatic irony, as well as the broad targets presented by the wardrobes on display, it’s surprising that “Chicago Hip House Documentary 1989” didn’t attract more snark when it propagated across the Internet. Chicago hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive, which covers nu-gangsta rap alongside relatively dance-friendly “hipster-hop,” posted it with the one-word commentary “Dope,” and the site’s pool of hard-line commenters—who can usually be counted on to savage anything that doesn’t meet their impossible standards—barely raised an eyebrow.
I credit this to the present-day crossover between hip-hop and dance music, which has blurred the distinction between the two—and against all odds redeemed the reputation of hip-house. What seemed corny just a couple years ago now looks prescient—maybe hip-house’s problem was that it arrived 20 years ahead of its time.
Disco was a major influence on rap during its formative years, even before the Sugarhill Gang borrowed a Chic instrumental for “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. But soon MCs evolved from glorified hype men for DJs into street-level realists in the “ghetto CNN” mold, and by the mid-80s the increasing emphasis on machismo had pushed disco—with all its gloss and gay-culture associations—out of the picture. Hip-house was an attempt to bridge the gap that had opened up between rap and dance, with energetic tempos—usually at or above 120 BPM, rather than the 80-90 BPM of most late-80s rap—and lyrics all about party starting.
Local DJ and producer Gant-Man admits that juke—the high-speed, hip-hop-inflected dance music he specializes in—is a direct descendent of hip-house. He started DJing around 1990, when he was ten, and as he remembers things the boundary between dance music and rap was still permeable in the late 80s. “We were into hip-hop and house music at the same time because that’s all the radio played,” he says. “You’d hear Eric B. & Rakim and then you’d hear Chicago house music.” Gant-Man says hip-house came about as a way for Chicago rappers to establish themselves, given that the majors didn’t have a big presence here and local labels weren’t releasing much hip-hop. House-music imprints, he says, “were like, ‘We’re not really trying to put out no hip-hop music,’ so these rappers were like, ‘Well, we’ll rap to house.’”
With its good-times vibe, hip-house didn’t stand a chance during the reign of gangsta rap, and it was during those years—when hybrids of hip-hop and dance were pushed out of the mainstream—that hip-house evolved into harder-edged regional variants like Chicago juke, Baltimore club music, and Detroit ghettotech.
But at the tail end of the 90s, the dope-slinging narrative dominating hip-hop began to show cracks—you started hearing lyrics about rolling in the club, and the massive popularity of Dirty South crunk brought the party back in a big way. Crunk’s decadent, synth-heavy aesthetic had a lot in common with 90s techno, an overlap that inspired a wave of rave-influenced hip-hop and R & B that reached its artistic peak in 2006 with Justin Timberlake’s “My Love.”
At the same time, dance DJs discovered juke and its relatives, and as they introduced that hip-hop-inflected material to mainstream dance-club audiences—to considerable notice, in the case of artists like Diplo—quite a few hip-hop musicians crossed over too.
“People from all over the world are saying, ‘This is our sound, this is something we made up,’” says Gant-Man. “Well, it just so happens that you all did something that we’ve done 20 years ago.”
The past year has seen hip-house become viable again, both artistically and commercially. The house flavor in Kid Cudi’s “Day ’n’ Nite”—arpeggiated synths and a kick-clap flourish in the beat that recalls the four-on-the-floor house style—helped Italian DJ/production duo Crookers turn it into a full-blown rave smash, which not only stormed the European pop charts but hit number three on Billboard’s Hot 100 in historically technophobic America. Blog-house heavies MSTRKRFT are poised for similar success with “Bounce,” their single with rapper N.O.R.E.; it made the rounds online last year but is only now getting an official release and attendant promo push. And even though Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak sounds like hip-house smashed to bits and only halfway reassembled, it seems to have helped the public warm up to the concept. Or at least that’s how I interpret the rash of house-influenced rap songs that’ve charted since “Love Lockdown,” Flo Rida’s “Right Round” being the biggest and worst.
Kid Sister has recently gone so far as to rerecord “I’ll House You,” the 1988 collaboration between New York rappers the Jungle Brothers and house producer Todd Terry that many believe to be the artistic pinnacle of first-generation hip-house. Her cover is part of Reebok’s Classic Remix promotion, which I mentioned in a recent column, and as such is supposed to be available only to people who buy some shoes first—but just like the Kidz in the Hall’s “I Got It Made,” it shouldn’t be hard to find online.
Kid Sister wasn’t trying to make an aesthetic statement with her choice of song, she says. For her it was simple nostalgia. She tells me that before I described it to her she didn’t even know what “hip-house” meant—in her experience with house music, no one ever separated the stuff with rapping over it from the stuff without. “I’m a child of Chicago,” she says. “That’s just what they played on the radio.