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The Race to Save Hip-Hop’s Lost Eras

Why are early rap recordings so hard to find, and what does the ideal historical archive look like?


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Photo illustration of 1986 Billy Jam KALX Bay Area rap contest tapes

Demo tapes from the 1986 Billy Jam KALX Bay Area rap contest, photos by Billy Jam/HipHopSlamArchives. Graphics by Callum Abbott.

Back in the mid ’80s, when Wu-Tang Clan first called themselves Force of the Imperial Master, RZA (then known as the Scientist) built a home studio set-up, replete with a four-track recorder and a borrowed Roland TR-909 drum machine. Wu member Inspectah Deck once described the group’s formative era as akin to “the Fat Albert kids out in the junkyard.” Out of those recording sessions came future classics like “Ra’s Ill,” “Stay Out of Bars,” and “Deadly Venoms.” Their early demo tapes helped turn a crew of fledgling rappers into neighborhood stars in the rough-and-tumble Stapleton Projects. “They were huge in Staten Island before anyone heard of them, and that was from their own mixtapes,” says S.H. “Skiz” Fernando Jr., who recounts the scene in his book From the Streets of Shaolin: The Wu-Tang Saga.

Yet much of Wu-Tang’s ’80s output remains virtually inaccessible. Their 1992 eight-song demo for Loud Records has circulated online for decades. Wu later repurposed a handful of ’80s titles like Method Man’s “Panty Raider,” and MP3s of those versions have appeared on fan sites like wutangcorp.com. But like countless other artifacts crucial to hip-hop’s development, there’s no way to hear the original early work of one of the most famed rap crews in history.

The scattershot nature of documenting early hip-hop is partly due to the genre’s beginnings as live performance routines in the ’70s, before it evolved into an underground movement that the music industry struggled to absorb. Now, as academics, museum archivists, and collectors play catch up, they’re facing an increasingly challenging obstacle: the ravages of time. Hip-hop is nearly 50 years old—older if you trace the culture’s roots beyond DJ Kool Herc and Cindy Campbell’s legendary Back to School Jam on August 11, 1973, in the Bronx. As the years pass, seminal moments recede from view. “Sadly, way too much material from what, in my opinion, is the most important cultural movement since WWII has disappeared,” says Brian “B+” Cross, who wrote the 1993 book It’s Not About a Salary...Rap, Race + Resistance in Los Angeles.

But unlike the mythical and Black-dominated Storyville “jass” (or jas) scene of the early 20th century, milestones from hip-hop’s early years exist in physical form. In recent years, these objects have begun to emerge for public consumption, whether it’s through research archives at Cornell, Harvard, and other universities; the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, which mounts exhibits at the Bronx Terminal Market; or a nostalgic post on social media accounts like @rapzines and @oldschoolflyers. Tracks from Toddy Tee’s fabled 1985 street tape—one of L.A. gangsta rap’s founding texts—resurfaced on YouTube in 2020, exposing the music to a potentially broader audience for the first time.

Music history is full of alternative narratives: acetate discs molding in someone’s basement, reel-to-reel tapes lost in a storage locker, outdated technology like floppy discs languishing in dusty boxes. It’s important to clarify between the usual studio errata and art that had a public impact—even if that impact is limited to a neighborhood or, in the case of Wu-Tang Clan, a housing community in Staten Island. But when that art ceases to exist in the public sphere, folklore surrounding its creation may be all that’s left.

Instead of framing the discussion around archiving as a competition to find things, Davey D wants to center the people who’ve preserved these objects for decades—often without understanding their historical value. A participant in hip-hop since he was a teenage MC in the ’70s, he co-wrote the YA edition of Jeff Chang’s 2005 classic Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Without folks like Davey D, today’s historians would have nothing to discover in the first place. “People have always archived things that are of value within hip-hop,” says Davey D. “Many people, including myself, were trying to get a hold of early rap tapes at the time they were coming out—party tapes, park jam tapes.”

With an abundance of missing history and more gatekeepers in the space than ever, certain questions arise. What would the ideal hip-hop archive look like? Could it bridge the gap between online accessibility and physical permanence, blend academic rigor with a fan’s ardor, and honor the pioneers who created and maintained them while finding a new audience? Demo tapes, after all, are more than just collectible recordings waiting to be popularized and monetized. They’re a musical representation of stories that need to be documented and shared before they disappear.

Photo illustration showing Wildstyle, Erykah Badu, and World Class Wreckin Cru

Wildstyle (AMC / LA of Wildstyle/courtesy Kevin Beacham), Erykah Badu circa 1997 (photo by Sue Schneider/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images), World Class Wreckin Cru circa 1985 (photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In the early ’80s, DJ Slick Leo held sway in New Orleans on WAIL-FM and at local club the Famous Disco. “You know how people say the Meters represent New Orleans funk? Well, in hip-hop culture, Slick Leo has to be a figure like that,” says music historian Melissa A. Weber aka DJ Soul Sister, making a distinction between old-school hip-hop and the ’90s bounce culture for which New Orleans is famous. On SoundCloud, you can find WBOK-AM DJ John “DJ Wick!” Wicker’s excerpts from cassette recordings of Leo’s radio broadcasts at the Famous Disco, which influenced local legends like Mannie Fresh. But when asked if any tapes exist of Slick Leo’s mythic battles with DJ Grandmaster Flash, Weber says she isn’t sure.

Early hip-hop is marked by these missing details. Who were DJ Slick Leo’s peers in the New Orleans electro world? What about Mannie Fresh’s ’80s crew New York Incorporated? Did they record anything? In Los Angeles, whatever happened to those pause tapes that Egyptian Lover and Mixmaster Spade produced? In Texas, did teenage rapper Erica “Apples” Wright record anything other than a modest B-side on a 1986 7-inch before she became Erykah Badu? Where are the early Too Short tapes—not the 75 Girls albums, but the homemade “special request” tapes?

The tension between memory and documentation is a subtext of Ava DuVernay’s 2008 film This Is the Life. It gathers dozens of participants in the Good Life Cafe, a health-food store in L.A.’s Crenshaw district where rapper Arcane Blaze and his mother B. Hall hosted weekly open-mic events from 1989 to 1997 for MCs including DuVernay, who performed as Eve in the duo Figures of Speech. Good Life’s most famed luminary, Freestyle Fellowship, released influential albums like To Whom It May Concern… and Innercity Griots. But industry machinations—bad major-label deals, under-promoted independent releases—muffled the scene’s impact. As a result, the panoply of voices in This Is the Life becomes an oral history, augmented by home video and demos, of a collective that missed a chance to truly flourish.

“There was a thing with the Good Life—everyone got signed in different directions,” says Medusa, who was a key member of the scene. Around 1994, her group S.I.N. signed to EastWest Records. The Warner subsidiary never released anything by the duo, but you can hear their fantastically sensuous “The Power of the P” in This Is the Life. More S.I.N. recordings emerged publicly later that decade during the indie hip-hop movement, after Medusa formed another group, Feline Science, and began selling mixtapes of past and present work. Meanwhile, Medusa adds, S.I.N.’s self-titled album is still “sitting in a closet on a reel-to-reel.”

Good Life Cafe is typical of ’80s and ’90s regional rap, which yielded fascinating artistic developments underappreciated by the music industry. Kevin Beacham has been documenting Midwest hip-hop since he formed the group Wildstyle in 1987. Back then, MCs focused on making demos to submit to record labels. This output resulted in a swelter of cassettes—some with printed artwork, others with handwritten or typed tracklists—usually distributed in low numbers. He says Wildstyle gave their demo—he estimates 10 to 15—to labels, local promoters, and friends. “I was in the same mindset: you just work until you get signed,” Beacham remembers, adding that Wildstyle nearly landed a deal with Atlantic Records. “I was paying for professional studio time, had songs on reel-to-reel tape. I was doing all the stuff that could have been professional releases.” As a result of a dearth of official releases, Chicago hip-hop in the ’80s is often overlooked: most fans think the scene didn’t truly begin until the arrival of Twista and Common in the early ’90s.

By contrast, Los Angeles hip-hop in the early to mid-’80s was self-sustaining. The city’s electro scene generated both official 12-inches like Ice Cube’s early group Stereo Crew’s “She’s a Skag,” as well as a plethora of mixtapes, pause tapes, and street tapes. The most famous of these, Dr. Dre’s frequently bootlegged “Roadium” tapes, is named after a swap meet in Torrance, where Dre mixed and cut def beats and electro-rap. “Those swap meets—particularly the Roadium in Torrance, a must-visit because of record dealer Steve Yano’s booth—were vital for DJs in the early ’80s. Swap meet record booths, with a turntable hooked up to a loudspeaker, could function as an open-air consumer focus group,” says Felicia Viator, who published To Live and Defy in L.A.: How Gangsta Rap Changed America last year. Other mobile crews who flourished back then, she adds, include Uncle Jamm’s Army, the Music Masters (later Ultra Wave Productions), the Knights of the Turntables, the Mixmasters, and the Electrobeat Crew.

Some recordings from this underground economy, like the Toddy Tee tape, have emerged. But most of it remains offline. Weber says, “Most of us do not know what archives are. As a personal collector, your thought is, ‘I have this stuff. It’s worthwhile to me, it might be worthwhile to my friends and family.’ You’re not necessarily thinking about the general community, or people you don’t know, or people 100 years after you pass away. It becomes a case of, ‘It exists in my house.’ What good is that for anyone if that’s where it lives and stays?”

As for the musicians themselves, many have begun selling their old demos on Bandcamp or contracting with small record labels, keen on establishing their legacy in hip-hop’s Golden Era. However, others no longer have copies of their tapes or refuse to distribute them. As Cross explains, artists—who tend to look forward, not backward—aren’t always the best archivists of their own work. “It’s not like Dilla was the best archivist of Dilla,” he says.

Beyond physical circumstances, there may be emotional reasons. “You have artists who don’t want to share their history because they’re embarrassed by it, or they think they’re better now,” says Beacham. “Some of it is just: ‘I’ve got to go back in my attic and pull that out, and that’s going to bring up all these memories of me not making it the way I wanted to make it in life.’ And they don’t want to do it.”

Photo illustration showing AMC of Wildstyle, SAAFIR demos, S.I.N.

Clockwise from top center: AMC of Wildstyle circa 1987 with the Sharp GF-575 Dual Cassette Deck (photo courtesy of Kevin Beacham), SAAFIR (The Saucy Nomad) demos (photo courtesy of Billy Jam), Wildstyle (Madd Maxx, LA, AMC) (photo courtesy of Kevin Beacham), SAAFIR (The Saucy Nomad) demos (photo courtesy of Billy Jam), S.I.N. (photo by Brian Cross), Wildstyle tape cover (photo courtesy of Kevin Beacham)

Visit Billy Jam’s Instagram and YouTube pages, and you’ll find hundreds of posts displaying ephemera from his decades as a hip-hop enthusiast, whether it’s an image of Hobo Junction rapper Plan Bee’s cassette demo or a DJ performance clip of the Coup’s Pam the Funkstress. “With all of these floods and fires, you know that collections are getting damaged. It’s important for people to digitize and post them online,” says Jam.

Jam’s internet presence is emblematic of a frontier where websites, social media accounts, and music streaming services yield a vast and unregulated museum of artifacts. Want to see vintage rap magazine covers, stickers, and posters? Visit Instagram accounts like Clarence Fanning’s @thejournalistsinseer; and Nakari Johnson’s @rapstylearcheology. Then there’s @chico.n.esco for ’90s hip-hop arcana, like signed photos and T-shirts.

On Beacham’s YouTube channel, RedefineHipHop, you can find demos by regional artists with essays describing their history. One clip spotlights “Deconstruct” from Kinetic Order’s 1992 demo, which he calls “one of the best demos I’ve ever heard.” He adds that he’s been in talks with Kinetic Order about reissuing it on vinyl.

The internet’s embarrassment of riches has expanded the public’s knowledge of hip-hop’s nooks and crannies beyond the Billboard charts, critics’ darlings, and hot regional scenes. But nearly everyone interviewed for this story identified demos that can’t be found online, whether it’s L.A. rapper Erule’s unreleased Pallas Records album or Chicago rappers Akbar and Mental Giants’ ’80s tapes. The magic of the internet, of course, is that these rarities may very well resurface shortly after this article is published.

“The internet is far from scientific, man,” says Cross. “It’s far from objective, it’s far from complete, and it’s mostly driven by the collecting kinks of the people who are down to putting in the kind of hours to upload things, catalog things, and make them available to others.”

These objects are being shared by technology corporations that don’t necessarily have a vested interest in maintaining a virtual library. Cautionary tales like MySpace as well as an Instagram outage in October 2021 illustrate the dangers of entrusting creative output to social platforms. Laurent Fintoni, author of Bedroom Beats & B-Sides: Instrumental Hip-Hop & Electronic Music at the Turn of the Century, says, “There’s a tension between the accessibility that these social networks give to those archival items versus the fact that in giving this access, you’re also creating copies of [the items] that are owned by data-driven platforms like Facebook or Google, and they’re very easy to lose.”

Billy Jam argues that there are positives to curating items on the internet. “There is sort of that collector’s thing like baseball cards, where it’s like, ‘I have to have them all, and the rarer the better,’” he acknowledges, adding that while collectors from as far away as Russia have asked about buying the items he posts, he doesn’t sell his rarer items. “But I think a lot of it is based in a genuine interest, and the fact that you can share this information so readily.”

A growing number of universities are creating hip-hop archives, too. These institutions require funding that can run into the millions of dollars, not only to acquire objects but to also maintain them so they don’t mold or decay. There’s debate over what these institutions should look like, who should run them, and how they can strike a balance between reaching a curious public and exploiting the objects to their full monetary potential. How do you reconcile the issue between what an object is worth culturally and what it’s worth financially?

Historically, the relationship between accredited universities and museums, and communities that make cultural objects has been fraught. Davey D describes situations where institutions give grants to someone to buy up catalogs “for pennies on the dollar. From a business standpoint, it’s good. From a moral standpoint, it’s foul as hell.” Still, he acknowledges that these places have preservation techniques that non-academics may not know about. “I have a rhyme book of my old rhymes. Nobody told me to keep that in a plastic bag and cover the sheets up so the paper wouldn’t deteriorate,” he says. “I always knew it was valuable. I didn’t know it would deteriorate.”

Weber, who joined Tulane University Special Collections as curator for the Hogan Archive of New Orleans Music, agrees with Davey D about the friction between what she calls “formal spaces,” and the informal way that people keep things important to them. “Traditionally, the institutional repository is generally managed by, curated by, and gatekept by people [who aren’t of] color who make judgments and assessments on our culture, not being a part of it, and they may minimize it or not view it as worthy of inclusion,” she says. She wonders if these artifacts should even exist in those spaces. “I advocate for community archives, and for people telling our own stories,” Weber adds. She acknowledges that many of these institutions now have historians like herself and hopes to expand the kind of stories that the archive tells about the history of American popular music.

A story in American Libraries Magazine, “Chronicling the Black Experience,” discusses community-run projects like the Black Male Archives and groups like the Blackivists. These projects are managed by scholars who apply academic training to preserving cultural heritage, allowing historians to dream beyond the institutions that normally dominate these spaces. Cross imagines his ideal hip-hop archive as comparable to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.—“something that’s arranged for scholars by scholars, which is also available to the public, and it’s a place where you can really go and study,” he describes. “Not a tourist destination.” He references Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop, the book turned photo exhibit that toured museums around the country, beginning in 2019. “There’s a huge untapped audience for hip-hop and hip-hop-related material in this kind of environment,” says Cross. “There was a line around the block every day of that show [when it was in L.A.]. It was fucking mind-boggling.”

More generally, Davey D believes archiving issues can be solved through equity. Part of this would be done by explaining the histories behind these objects. “If I have a park jam tape from the ’70s, the story that needs to be included is: How did you get this tape? What was it like when you went to the park and recorded it? How much did it cost you to do that? All those questions are part of the larger story that needs to be told and shared. And the benefits and profits of that story also need to be shared.”

Ultimately, the debate surrounding hip-hop archives centers on sharing cultural information, which can be at odds with the financial and clout-driven motives of the music industry. When fresh insights on old-school processes emerge in the public sphere, it adds detail and complexity to this most American of art forms and evolves our perception of its past. This is the ideal that the search for early hip-hop recordings promises. As the late Greg Tate wrote in his 1993 poem “What Is Hip-Hop?”: “Hip-hop is not what it is today but what it could be tomorrow.”

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This post originally appeared on Pitchfork and was published January 10, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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