The introduction of MP3s and music streaming services have made it unquestionably easier for consumers to hear their favorite songs whenever they want. Billboard even tracks song streams as a metric for determining their weekly Hot 100 charts, a concept that would have been unfathomable even 10 years ago. Back in the 80s and 90s, it was a much simpler process. Physical sales of singles (45s on vinyl, cassette and CD singles) combined with radio play / radio requests provided us a pulse of what music listeners were most interested in week to week.
The vinyl record form of the single, the 45 (or 7″), was what I initially grew up with. My mother had a large stack of them from the 60s and my older sister had a nice collection of them from the early 80s. It was a great way to hear a well-liked song without having to wait for it to get played on the radio. Once cassette players, or Boom Boxes as they were informally known as, became popular, my sister and I would buy blank cassettes and simply record songs off the radio that we wanted to save for further listening. This was a cost effective way to “own” music without having to buy each of the singles separately. The easiest way to accomplish this was to listen to the weekly Top 40 countdown since you knew the most popular songs, and thus the songs that we wanted to record, could be found on this program that lasted several hours every Sunday morning.
As I grew older and reached my teenage years, my tastes in music began to evolve. I still enjoyed listening to pop radio, but by the time I turned 13 in 1988, MTV began playing songs from outside the pop genre and I was intrigued. I remember Metallica had garnered quite a bit of attention due to the fact they were finally releasing a music video for the first single off their fourth album, …And Justice for All. The song was “One”. The video was dark (naturally) yet I was intrigued and mesmerized. I had been listening to “hair metal” for a couple years up to this point. Bands like Poison, Ratt, White Lion, Guns n’ Roses, Whitesnake, Cinderella, Bon Jovi, Motely Crue, etc., were in heavy rotation and I had the cassettes to prove it. I had never experienced the sub genre of thrash metal and although I had heard bits and pieces of albums like Kill ’em All and Ride the Lightning from friends, Metallica wasn’t a band I sought out. That is, until I saw the video for “One”.
“One” was never a song I was going to hear on my local pop radio station. I didn’t live in a metropolitan part of the country that had other radio options either. There were no college or independent radio stations that would play anything beyond the most popular and widest reaching music. I had to consider my other options. Was I completely sold on buying the entire …And Justice For All album just for one song? I wasn’t so sure and I didn’t know anyone else that owned it so I could at least hear it myself before purchasing. So I waited until my family went to the nearest shopping mall, about a 30-40 minute drive away, and I veered off to the music stores, Sam Goody and Musicland. Yes, I now know that these two stores were run by the same corporation, the Musicland Group, but at the time, I assumed they were two entirely separate entities and thus, in direct competition with one another. Ha! Anyway, I saw the cassette single for “One” and knew this was the option for me. The song I wanted at an affordable price. This is how Metallica’s “One” became the very first cassette single, and very first single of any format, I ever bought. It would be far from the last.
Public Enemy – Welcome to the Terrordome
There was another genre of music that I was heavily into in the late 80s that wasn’t getting any love on mainstream radio, hip-hop/rap. Outside of the biggest of the big rap hits of the day such as “Walk This Way” by Run-D.M.C., “Parents Just Don’t Understand” by D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince or “Wild Thing” by Tone-Loc, this was a genre that was still up and coming in the mainstream. By 1989, I had been listening to hip-hop for a couple of years and Yo! MTV Raps was a must VCR record event every weekend. For the most part, I was just buying or dubbing full length hip-hop cassettes instead of trying to buy singles. However, in late 1989, my favorite rap group, Public Enemy, had released a teaser track from their forthcoming album, Fear of a Black Planet. The song was “Welcome to the Terrordome”, which had received some notoriety for its “controversial” lyrical content. To my dismay, “Terrordome” was released without an accompanying music video that would allow me to at least hear the song in preparation for the album. Fear of a Black Planet wasn’t due to come out for several more months, but I couldn’t wait that long. I had to hear this new P.E. song NOW! So that’s how “Welcome to the Terrordome” became my second ever cassette single purchase.
There was nothing particularly special about this cassette single release. It contained the full album version (as I would find out several months later), a brief Flavor Flav sample interlude and then the main song’s instrumental track. There was no real bonus content, no B-sides, no remixes. Nevertheless, I had no regrets purchasing as “Welcome to the Terrordome” instantly became and remains to this day my favorite Public Enemy song of all time.
After those two 1989 cassette single purchases, I wouldn’t buy another cassette single for over a year. I was buying full length tapes and dubbing my friend’s tapes to maximize the amount of music I could possess for only half the price. Then I discovered the remix.
Yo! MTV Raps introduced me to radio versions of songs that I wasn’t actually hearing on the radio, but would have if I lived in an urban location. Some of these “radio” versions were just shorter or censored versions of the album tracks. Some were variations or remixes of the original album recordings. These types of radio versions were the ones I was most interested in. If the song I grew to love from MTV did not sound like the album versions, I was usually disappointed. The easiest way to correct that misalignment was to snag the cassette singles of these songs that invariably contained the radio versions and if I was lucky, a bonus track or additional remix.
Here are a few early hip-hop cassette singles I bought and what prompted me to buy them in the first place.
Yo Yo – You Can’t Play With My Yo Yo b/w Sisterland
West coast rapper and Ice Cube protege Yo Yo’s biggest hit had a funky west meets east style that really appealed to me in 1991. Produced by Ice Cube & Sir Jinx and featuring a guest vocal from Ice Cube himself, “You Can’t Play With My Yo Yo” garnered a lot of play on Yo! MTV Raps and elevated Yo Yo to the top of the Lench Mob heap for a brief period in the early 90s. The radio edit version was technically censored, but the song didn’t contain a lot of explicit lyrics to begin with so I wasn’t too concerned about that. What really drove me to purchase this single was the slight alteration of the music used for the single. The differences between the album and single cuts were pretty subtle looking back on them today, but I was sold on the video/radio version of the song and the version available on Yo Yo’s debut LP, Make Way For the Motherlode didn’t come off as hard hitting to me. “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo’s” B-side, “Sisterland”, was an album cut, thus nothing that couldn’t already be found elsewhere. Therefore, this purchase was all about the subtle remixed edit.
Get The Fist Movement – Get The Fist
Another west coast track that found its way into my cassette single collection about a year later was the Get the Fist Movements’ one and only collaboration, “Get the Fist”. The Get the Fist Movement was born out of the growing frustration and rage in the black community after video of motorist Rodney King being beaten by police in L.A. was plastered everywhere for the world to see. Whether the lyrics written for the song pre-date the ’92 L.A. riots or if they written as a reaction remains unclear to me. My memory of exactly when this song came out relative to the events that occurred that year are hazy after all this time, however
certain lines in Ice Cube’s verse (“not guilty, the filthy devils tried to kill me”) as well as footage from the riots clearly indicate this was written and recorded after. Once the jury found all of the police officers charged in King’s beating not guilty, the west coast hip-hop community had a lot to say and the best way to do that was through music.
Ice Cube’s The Predator album, released later that same year, is basically a concept album about the King beating, verdict and subsequent riots, but until that release, there needed to be an immediate response. Similar in concept to the Stop the Violence Movement that was spearheaded by KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions in the wake of their band member, DJ Scott La-Rock’s murder, the Get the Fist Movement appeared to be a means to gather west coast hip-hop talent and create a message to the community to stand up, take charge and address the concerns of institutional racism, racial profiling and excessive force used by police along with general economic distress. Proceeds towards sale of the single went to the Los Angeles Brotherhood Crusade Black United Fund as well as other unnamed inner-city charities.
The song itself if pure early 90s west coast featuring a beat by DJ Pooh and lyrics from King Tee, Yo-Yo, MC Eiht (of Compton’s Most Wanted, misspelled as MC Eight on the single), B-Real (of Cypress Hill), J-Dee (of Da Lench Mob), Kam, Threat and Ice Cube. Considering this was an all-star effort and I wasn’t sure if there would be a full length album to follow (there wasn’t), picking up this cassette single seemed like a no-brainer at the time. It’s still a funky song that’s emblematic of the angry, frustrated, and fed-up with the status quo lyrical content found on so many 80s/90s west coast hip-hop releases. The cassette single contained the unedited and edited versions of the track, no bonuses, no remixes.
In The Trunk – Too $hort
The last song I’ll cover in this post is from yet another west coast rapper, from just up the Pacific coastline. Oakland’s very own Too $hort was a veteran rapper with 6 albums (3 on a major label) to his name by the time he released Shorty the Pimp in 1992. I became aware of his songs thanks to Yo! MTV Raps airplay of 1988’s “Life Is…Too Short” from the album of the same name. I found his style of rapping and his story-based lyrics appealing. He looked and sounded different (my introduction to P-funk) from the mostly east coast videos I was seeing on the show up to that point and it was implied that most of his discography and lyrical content bordered on the obscene. Of course, that was exaggerated a bit, not only by Too $hort himself, but by my horny 13 year old ears.
“In the Trunk” was the lead single to his 7th album, Shorty the Pimp. An album which would ultimately prove to be my favorite Too $hort album of all time. Side 1 of the cassette single featured the full, uncensored album version as well as a “Radio Trunk Mix”, which was a remix done by Too $hort’s main producer, Ant Banks. It was the side 2 remix, subtitled “Glove Compartment Street Mix”, from Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, that interested me in picking up this single. Gang Starr was one of the best east coast groups out there at the time and this was largely due to DJ Premier’s groundbreaking production. He was being tapped for other artist’s remixes more and more frequently and seeing him lend his talents to such a quintessential west coast rapper, was literal music to my ears. I wasn’t disappointed. The song thumps in that grimy east coast style. DJ Premier’s trademark sound of repetitive loops mixed with drum machine and scratches made “In the Trunk” sound completely new. Definitely a worthy purchase. As a bonus, the single included another remix of an album track, “I Ain’t Nothin’ But a Dog” from Too $hort and Pee Wee.