Wednesday, June 23, 2010

When SNL Was The Joint: 1981.

Who knew that when the Funky 4 + 1 appeared on this episode of Saturday Night Live in February of 1981 that Hip-Hop would soon be a regular fixture on network television. This episode was the harbinger of things to come. Sha Rock, Jazzy Jeff & crew were the first Hip-Hop act to appear on SNL. Invited by Blondie's own Debbie Harry, who was riding high on the shock waves of their own Hip-Hop inflected #1 hit single "Rapture" released a month prior to the airing of this episode, Funky 4 + 1 were definitely seen as a privileged brood to catapult from New Jersey-based seminal Hip-Hop indie label Sugar Hill Records to being the first Hip-Hop act (or "street rappers," as Harry puts it) to appear on a nationally televised program. Even their label mates the Sugar Hill Gang didn't get to Soul Train to perform their wildly successful and pivotal 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight" until May of that year...two full years after its release:

Unfortunately, the Funky 4 + 1's high would be short lived. Funky 4 would be no more less than two years later, leaving "That's The Joint" and this SNL appearance as their main claim to fame. Though their showmanship here is a bit lackluster, it exemplifies arguably the most freewheeling, earnest, effervescent period in Hip-Hop music. A fertile crescent, if you will. Two months after this performance, Rock Steady Crew alumnus Frosty Freeze (R.I.P.) would become the first B-Boy to appear on the cover of a periodical (the Village Voice). Hell, even ABC got in on the action that year, marking the first national coverage of this new "rap phenomenon":

(embedded YouTube video)

What instigated this fertile crescent, you ask? In my opinion, it was the crossbreeding of sounds and styles with the artsy downtown punk/ new wave/ no wave crowd. The unyielding support (in a theoretical matter of speaking) of indie labels. The accessible, yet dangerous performance venues like Disco Fever that were available to artists. The cautious, yet burgeoning interest from mainstream acts. A great city in the throes of decay, its denizens searching for new modes of self expression. All these variables lead to the advent of the "ghetto superstar" as it pertained to this new thing called Hip-Hop. These same variables set the template for artists to follow in the decades to come. And 29 years later, with recent noteworthy performances from the likes of Lil' Wayne & Jay-Z, SNL hasn't lost any steam on the Hip-Hop train in its 35 seasons to date. Where is Hip-Hop going in terms of mainstream appeal, you ask? Good question. But just looking back at this clip give a point of reference to the genesis of that appeal. Just think. It all started with this one performance.

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