Big Daddy Kane’s Lyrical Legacy
Trymaine Lee: There's absolutely nothing like summer in Brooklyn, New York. There's the rhythm to it, a cultural syncopation that just doesn't seem to exist anywhere else. From Bed-Stuy to Brownsville, Fort Greene to East New York, Crown Heights to Coney Island, it's rhythm, it's familiar.
And even though COVID-19 continues to cramp life on the city streets this summer, and Black Brooklyn is, well, less Black these days. The unmistakable soundtrack of the Brooklyn that many of us know and love is still hip-hop. Hip-hop, as we know it, might have been born in the Boogie Down Bronx, but some of its greatest MCs came out of Brooklyn. Rappers like Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, MC Lyte and Lil' Kim, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, and of course, one of modern rap's architects, Big Daddy Kane.
Big Daddy Kane: As an MC, just beginnin' in 1982, everything I knew about rapping, I had learned from Brooklyn.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today on the show, I sat down with none other than Big Daddy Kane himself, who is returning to Brooklyn for a concert to close out summer. We talked about the evolution of rap music, the soon-to-open Universal Hip-Hop Museum in New York City, and the culture that birthed America's most popular artform. I caught up with Kane while he was in his home studio in North Carolina. Peace, good brother, how are you feeling today?
Kane: I'm great, I'm great.
Lee: I want to first give a shout out to my big brother, O, who put me onto your music when I was young young. Like, if you didn't have a brother with good taste in music, you missed out, so I appreciate my brother for puttin' me onto your music early in the game, man.
Kane: That's what's up. Thanks a lot, O.
Lee: Yeah, man, it's an honor to have you here. So paint a picture for us, though. So when you think about the summers of your youth, when you were comin' up, before hip-hop was hip-hop, talk to us about the way it smelled, the taste, the sounds. Your Brooklyn growing up, paint the picture for us.
Kane: You know, coming up in Brooklyn, like, as a little kid, everything was goin' to the block parties, and hearing the DJs play. Like, there was cats like Master D, Von Kay, and they would come out, you know, around in the Roosevelt Projects or sometimes mic'd music would be going on Lafayette Avenue, or Van Buren, Lexington, somewhere over there.
And they'd come out and the block party is rocking, you know, somebody's moms is cooking hotd ogs, and selling them to the kids, you know, that type of thing. And Brooklyn anthems back then was Love is the Message by MFSB, and Bra by Cymande.
And those were, like, the breaks that whenever they threw them on, you had some cats would form a mic line, and get up and want to rhyme. And you know, you had, like, a few gangs in the area that would come through every once in a blue moon. You had the Tomahawks, the Outlaws, the Jolly Stompers, you know, that was coming through.
Lee: When did you first become aware of hip-hop as an actual thing beyond the parties and the break beats and everything coming together? But when did you realize, like, yo, this is something different?
Kane: When I first became aware of it, I didn't really know what it was. I want to say that it was around, you know, like, '75, '76, when you would see cats out in the park jams, and everybody's partying, and then, like, you know, certain parts, they would be cutting up break beats.
Brooklyn was real heavy with the disco breaks. It wasn't really the soul and funk breaks, but disco breaks that really rocked the party. You started seeing cats get on the mic and rhyme. And it was crazy because, like, there might be ten MCs, and out of the ten MCs, six of them would probably say the same rhyme, you know? (LAUGHTER)
Lee: Were you aware at that early age that this was something special, or was it just something that was just happening?
Kane: What made me feel that hip-hop was special was to hear the older generation say that, you know, "They ain't doing nothing but talking on the microphone." (LAUGHTER) Or, "That bibbity-bobbity stuff, that's just a fade. It'll be gone in another year or two."
Like, to hear the older generation saying that, the first thing came to mind is rock 'n' roll, you know? I had seen movies on Buddy Holly, just understanding the views of rock 'n' roll when it first came out. I'm, like, yo, this is the same thing, and the older generation don't get it. So I'm, like, yeah, we're gonna have the same effect, you know?
Lee: So how did you first get pulled into rapping? Like, what was your first entry into it?
Kane: My cousin, Murdock, he started rapping. You know, when I heard him doing his thing, I was, like, oh, wow. I had wrote a rhyme for my cousin, Nicole before. I asked him, "Can I get down?" And he told me that I was too young, and then told me he was rapping with these other two dudes from around the corner.
I said, "Well, you know what? If I can write better rhymes than they can, he'll put me down." So I started off trying to write battle rhymes and real braggadocios free styles, and what not. And finally, I went and battled the two dudes down with him. And you know, after I beat both, when I say I beat both of them, I beat one, the other one refused to battle me, so I just started walking behind him, spitting bars. (LAUGHTER) You know?
Lee: "You'll get these bars."
Kane: Yeah, yeah, exactly, you dig? Yeah. After that, people around the way was telling me that I was good, so I stuck with it, and I just kept going from neighborhood to neighborhood, battling different rappers.
Lee: He wasn't just good, Kane was nice-nice. He started getting a reputation, but he found out very quickly that being the best on the block wasn't enough to make it big in hip-hop.
Kane: I don't remember my first rhyme, but I remember my last rhyme before I heard Grandmaster Caz. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: After that, everything changed?
Kane: Yeah, because once I heard Caz, that's when my whole style changed. It was, like, yeah, I'll never be successful if I'm not on this dude's level.
Lee: Grandmaster Caz is literally among the first rappers in history. And as you can hear on his song, Get Down, Grandmaster, his rhyming was a step above what most people were doing at the time.
Archival Recording: Please, ain't no one better than the rap veteran. And this year is just another feather in my cap because my rap is synced to the beat, just like a high hat. You can try your damnedest to understand this. Show time is at 2:00 to see the grandest. Get down.
Kane: With Brooklyn, we're real heavy on swag and being fly, and you know, being cocky and arrogant. And Caz was all of that, but in such a clever way, and he had unique flows that I hadn't heard. So I was, like, yeah, this dude is something else. Honestly, I really believe that Grandmaster Caz was like the blueprint of my rap style. After I heard him, not only did I throw the recent rhyme I wrote away, I threw my whole entire rap book away. I just started all over. It's like, nah, I've got to step my end game up.
Lee: As teenage Kane was stepping up his game, he met someone who would change the course of his life. Biz Markie was another young rapper from Brooklyn, a few years older, and more established on the scene. Biz, who sadly died earlier this summer, was the one who helped Kane go from the streets to the big leagues.
Kane: And once I got down with him, he started taking me to different parties. These promoters called Mike and Dave, they did parties like everywhere. And we was opening up for other hip-hop artists that were already out. You know, I'm out of Brooklyn now, I'm rocking a crowd in Harlem.
I'm rockin' a crowd in the Bronx. I'm rockin' a crowd up in Port Chester. I'm rockin' a crowd, you know, in Long Island. You know, I'm like, "Yo, this is crazy." You know, I'm going places I never even thought about going, and it's all in New York. You know what I'm saying?
It ain't even around the world. It's just other places in New York that I never even imagined going, thanks to Biz Markie. And then, you know, so I was, like, you know, "Yeah, I think this is really gonna happen." I think that, you know, this brother's gonna really be instrumental to my career.
Lee: Kane got another break. When he and Biz Markie were working on a song together called Nobody Beats the Biz, and got production help from Queens hip-hop legend, Marley Marl.
Kane: I think Kurtis Blow may have been the first person to use a sample on a hip-hop song, but Marley Marl was the one that perfected it, he's the one that perfected sampling.
Lee: But when Kane went over to Marley's house.
Kane: I guess Marley didn't, you know, remember me, and when I came to bring the rhymes for Nobody Beats the Biz, you know, Marley wasn't going to let me in. But he heard me rhyme, and then I came inside Marley's crib, and Marley wanted to work with me. And we started recording. And you know, that's where it all began, you know.
Lee: In the mid '80s, Marley Marl brought Biz Markie and Kane into the Juice Crew, a rap collective that had a relationship with the label, Cold Chillin. That's how Kane got his record deal. And not long after, he released his debut album, Long Live the Kane. Now, this was 1988. There's no SoundCloud, no iTunes, no Spotify, nothing. Radio was king. And in New York City, the show every rap fan listened to, and every rapper wanted to be on was Mr. Magic's Rap Attack on WBLS FM.
Kane: Like, I remember like the first time I heard Just Rhymin' with Biz, you know, my very first single.
Lee: Just Rhymin' with Biz was a perfect debut for Kane. It featured his friend, Biz Markie, for some name recognition, and Kane got to drop some fun, complex, swaggery bars.
Archival Recording: Just by picking up the mic to go solo. I cold turn a party on out. And, oh yo, I get physical, mystical, very artistical, giving party people something funky to listen to.
Kane: Like, I do remember the first night Mr. Magic played that, me and my boy, Mad Money Murph, was on the steps screaming like little girls, man. (LAUGHTER) And then ran to the corner store, and bought like, a whole bunch of 40s and what not, came back and we were just celebrating, drinking 40s at OE, you know.
And I remember the first time I heard Raw, because it was, like, you know, when I had Just Rhymin' with Biz out, everybody thought it was Biz's song, so I wasn't getting booked for no shows. And I really just wanted to have something with just me alone. So having that ability to have just a Kane song, you know, I'm sitting there waiting for Mr. Magic to play it, you dig? (LAUGHTER) So when he played it, you know, I'm like, "Yes."
Lee: Kane was pushing his label to let him record a song without a feature. And finally, they gave in. Raw became Kane's first hit without the help of a bigger star, like Biz. Lyrically, Kane flexed with energy and urgency. He rode the beat in what would become his early significant style. He didn't know it then, but he was changing the game forever. So when Mr. Magic played Raw on Rap Attack, it felt like the culmination of everything Kane had worked for.
Archival Recording: While you stand dazed and amazed, I bust a little rhyme with authority, superiority and captivate the whole crowd's majority. The rhymes I use definitely amuse, better than Dynasty or Hill Street Blues. I'm sure to score adored for more without a flaw cause I get raw. Everybody get up.
Kane: I think that when Raw came out, that's when I realized that I had something that no one else had, you know? Like, dudes was at the shows telling me, like, "Yo, I know you're man, such-and-such. Yo, I run with your people, such-and-such." (LAUGHTER) You know?
And women screaming and stuff, so I realized the change then. But then also, like, stage wise, with me, Scoob and Scrap go into the routines, it was like people would, you know, become hysterical, man. So we was doing something that no one in hip-hop was doing at that time, you know.
Lee: Scoob and Scrap Lover were Kane's dancers, and another reason Kane stood out. Lyrically, Kane was one of the best in the game, but his stage performance, with Scoob and Scrap dancing, with Kane rhyming onstage, the whole thing was next level.
Kane: When you put out a song, it's like, you know, okay, do you want to only sell this song to your boys in the hood? Do you want to only sell this song to the ladies, you know? It's like, understanding your audience, you know, you want to reach the masses. So you try to put in elements that cater to everyone. And that's what I was trying to do.
Lee: And it wasn't just the dancing. Kane was all about pushing the limits of how an MC could look or what they could do. In 1991, he posed nude for Playgirl Magazine. The next year, he posed nude again, this time alongside Madonna, for her infamous book, Sex. Maybe that doesn't sound so wild today, but in the early '90s, for a young Black rapper to be putting himself out there like that, that was pretty much unheard of.
Kane: I guess it was something that hip-hop wasn't quite ready for at the time. But hey, man, you know, I can't stay here. I'm always trying to elevate and go to the next level. When you look at the game right now, that's all you see really. You know, stuff that I've been doing since the late '80s, early '90s, you know? I think I was just a little ahead of my time, you know. I'm not gonna apologize for moving too fast. I'm gonna say that I understand and respect, you know, you all for not being able to keep up. Right. (LAUGHTER) You know?
Lee: We've gotta take a break, but when we come back, Big Daddy Kane gives his take on the evolution of hip-hop, and whether today's stars are doing enough in this moment. Don't touch that dial.
Lee: We're back with legendary rapper, Big Daddy Kane. The early '90s was definitely Kane's heyday, but he still performs, and every now and then, puts out new music. Thinking about Kane's music from more than 30 years ago, which, trust me, still sounds so good today. I know it makes me sound like an old head, but I can't help but think today's music, I don't know, it just can't compare. And I couldn't pass up the chance to ask an OG what he thinks of hip-hop's current sound.
Kane: The younger generation is doing today, is a lot different than what we did, you know? But as they bring something new into the game, I'm not gonna knock it because what we did back then was bring something new into the game that a older generation didn't understand and a lot couldn't appreciate.
So I'm not gonna knock it, I'm gonna wish them well. And if any of the younger cats want to holler at me and sit and chop it up, I mean, I've got game for days, you know? I can tell you what worked for me, what went wrong for me. I can tell you what to look out for, who to stay away from, you know?
I would love to support, you know, what the younger cats are doing and you know, try to guide them in the right direction in any way possible. You know, anything that you know can keep them out of jail, keep them alive, and keep their careers flowing, you know, so they can have longevity in the game.
Lee: Kane says he can pinpoint when hip-hop really started to change: when White Corporate America realized there was money to be made.
Kane: Back when we was doing it, it was still new. Even on up to the early '90s, hip-hop was still new. It wasn't new to us. By that point, you know, we had done been there, did it (BEEP) and wiped our (BEEP) with it. With White America and with Corporate America, it was new.
And figuring out ways to market it, and make it very profitable. You see what I'm saying? Once they figured out a way for it to be a lucrative genre, now it's not artists coming in with their creativity. Now you have record execs and radio stations telling you what they want it to sound like.
So now, you know, you're not operating like a culture no more, you're operating like a corporation. And anybody that knows anything about a corporation, whether it be fashion, cars, what-so-have-you, it's like, you know, once quantity comes in, quality goes out for the need for mass production.
Lee: Has the culture lost something? Now that rap music is America's pop music, and given that background, you said you had the record labels controlling what was being put out into the culture, what's been lost, and what has been gained? Is there something really lost now that we're here, where we are?
Kane: Absolutely. What's been gained is exactly what you said: money. Like, these young cats is gettin' that bag so crazy. Man, it is so beautiful to see. And to top it off, they're becoming young entrepreneurs. Like, back when we did it, we still was focused on being the dopest MC.
Like, we're getting bags, but it's still our mentality is like, "He can't mess with me." But now, we've got a young generation that, they get that bag, and the first thing they do is the making business decisions. So I love seeing that, man, I love seeing that, and I hope these young cats keep that energy, keep that mentality.
Because they're making money we never saw back in the '80s or early '90s. But is anything missing? Yes, I think that individuality is missing. Where, like, you can turn on the radio, and you hear "1990," I know that's Chubb Rock, "Bass." I know that's Chuck G. "Hallelujah." I know that's Slick Rick, you know? "Hot damn." I know that's Lyte. You know what I'm saying?
Like, everybody's sound is so different, everybody had their own style, everybody had their own swag. There was a few biters, there was a few biters, but there were so many people, the sound is so different, so many artists where it's, like, you know, it was just so much, you know, to take in.
Where like now, put on Spotify, or you know, Pandora, or whatever, it's like, you know, you might have to listen to the whole song to try to figure out, is that Little? No. No, I think that's Little. (LAUGHTER) No, it might be, because everybody damn near sound the same, you know?
And it's like, you know, because you was a part of that trend, you're gone because the trend is gone. You know what I'm saying? So it's like, when this is over, I think the Migos will still be standing, because they're the ones that pretty much started this trend.
And also, they're unique with it. There's a few, I think, that have that originality to them, but I mean, you know, hey, man, when this wave is gone, there's a lot that's gonna be gone. And you know, I just hope that they understand that, you know, and I hope that some of these artists try to just do something to make people identify with them personally.
Lee: The commodification of hip-hop didn't just change the sound. What rappers were talking about changed too. In the late '80s and the early '90s, there was a wave of socially conscious and pro-Black rap, from Public Enemy to X-Clan. Now, of course rap today isn't devoid of protest music. But I asked Kane if there was a moment when the genre started to lean away.
Kane: My opinion, and this is just my opinion, I think that everything changed drastically after Puffy did that Vote or Die thing.
Sean Combs: This is a matter of life or death. This election is life and death, which is why Citizen Change has come up with our campaign slogan, Vote or Die. See, when you vote for a president this November, you are putting your life and the lives of your family in the hands of someone else. If I'm scaring you, good, because that's how serious this is.
Lee: Vote or Die was a Get Out the Vote campaign aimed at young people in the 2004 election. From rapper and mogul, Sean "Puffy" Combs, aka "P. Diddy." And it seemed to work. Four and a half million more young people voted in 2004 than in 2000. Kane says the corporations that ran hip-hop labels took notice, and tried to tamp down the calls for change in rap music. The music and the artists had become too powerful.
Kane: After Puffy did Vote or Die, and so many young people came out to vote, it became the focus of controlling the narrative of hip-hop music, to keep it negative, like, conscious songs that were played on the radio, on the regular. Now conscious songs, you've got to find.
And I don't even just mean in my era, you know, even with like, Common, Talib Kweli, you know, I can hear them on the radio. Like, stuff like that, you don't hear no more. And I think that, like, right after that Vote or Die, that's when you really started really seeing the change. Like, now, so this hip-hop audience don't get involved in this, we've got to pollute them with some negativity and keep it right there.
Lee: Kane wasn't one of those so-called conscious MCs back in his day. But last year, he released a new track called Enough. He raps about the protests against police brutality, and uses parts of a speech from longtime activist, Tamika Mallory.
Archival Recording: This country is supposed to be about the land of the free for all. It has not been free for Black people, and we are tired. One question: (UNINTEL) serve who? To me, it seems that they just quick to observe you. And then they have the nerve to come and disturb you and force a curfew to physically hurt you. I heard the--
Lee: I know you released a song, Enough, right after the uprisings, and after George Floyd and everything that's been going on. And I wonder if you think that hip-hop and actual MCs are doing enough in this moment? We've got police violence, community violence, COVID-19, the racial wealth gap, is hip-hop doing enough to respond to this moment?
Kane: Nah. Much respect to Tamika Mallory and her movement, because that young lady and her team, man, they keep both feet on the ground, and they've been dedicated, you know, going hard, all day, every day. But I mean, how dedicated are you to that movement? I would love to see a network or some of these hip-hop joints that, you know, had a page, or a section, or something on their site, that's dedicated to what she's got going on.
Everything that's going on with police brutality, all these cameras just running around snitching. Okay, yo, you see this here? You know what we're gonna do, my people, you know what I'm saying? I would love to see some of these other hip-hop publications, and so on, do the same thing to support what Tamika Mallory is doing.
Lee: I do want to ask you: In New York City, there was ground broken recently for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum. What are your thoughts on that? What's your role in it? Is this a wonderful marker for the impact that hip-hop has had on the culture? Even though I've heard some arguments saying that it's gentrification, and it speaks to the co-modification of hip-hop. Where do you fall in this? And obviously, it's gonna be wonderful to visit, but what are your thoughts on it?
Kane: I think that it's a beautiful thing. Number one, when you look at people that's upset with The Grammys, it's like, every time I look, you all are complaining about The Grammys not supporting Black artists, not supporting hip-hop. But we, as a people, didn't fully support The Soul Train Awards, you know?
I mean, it fell off, and BET had to bring it back. It's like, why are you worried and concerned about someone else's thing not supporting us, and not instead creating your own? Soul Train Awards could have, should have been our Grammys, you know what I'm saying?
Look at Tyler Perry. He said, "(BEEP) Hollywood," and made his own. He got his own Hollywood. You know what I'm saying? And to me, that's what it's all about. So if you're sitting there and you're, like, "They should've had LL Cool J in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame."
Yo, how come Big Daddy Kane ain't in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame? Okay, listen, stop worrying about the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Let's create the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame, support it, build it, and make it worth something of value. To see that they're doing a Hip-Hop Museum, I think is beautiful.
But to me, the even more beautiful thing about it is not only you're gonna go in there and hear about Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur. You're gonna go in there and hear about MC Sha-Rock, from the Funky Four Plus One More. You're gonna go in there and hear about Spoonie Gee.
You're gonna go in there and hear about Kool Herc, you know? You're gonna go in there and hear about Disco King Mario, and know the importance of these people, these forefathers that did so much for the culture before it even really became a thing. I support it 100%, and I can't wait to see it open, and I would love to be one of those dudes that's showing people around, yeah, I'll do that for them for two weeks, for free. You dig?
Lee: Man, listen, I want to be there on that day. That's the day I want to be there, man. (LAUGHTER) You know, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about this summer concert series in New York, you're about to headline. And I want to ask, how does it feel to be coming back to Brooklyn? You're Brooklyn born and bred, how does it feel to come back here and perform for people who love you, respect you and love your music?
Kane: I mean, it's always an honor to perform in Brooklyn. You know, because I mean, I feel like, you know, as an MC, just beginning, in 1982, everything I knew about rapping, I had learned from Brooklyn, you know? From watching, you know, the hustlers that come on the corner and, you know, give you a $20 bill to run to the store to get them a Lucy Cigarette, or a Michelob, or something, and tell you to keep the change, you know?
Listen to the cats in the barbershop talking in slick rhymes, you know, saying a little stuff, you know, while they're arguing with each other, and stuff like that. You know, seeing cats in their gator shoes, and their three, four, five piece suits, and what not, you know. So to come back home is always an honor. Always an honor and I always want to do my best when I'm onstage in Brooklyn.
Lee: Big Daddy Kane, thank you for everything you've given to the culture, and thank you for your time today, man, we really appreciate it. Thank you, brother.
Kane: All right, man, you all have a great one.
Lee: That was hip-hop legend, Big Daddy Kane. He's back in Brooklyn today, Thursday, August 19th, to headline a free show for New York City's Homecoming Week. You can stream it online, and we'll drop a link in our show notes. You can tweet me @TrymaineLee (that's at-TrymaineLee, my full name) or write to us at IntoAmerica@NBCUNI.com.
That was IntoAmerica@NBC, and the letters U-N-I-dot-com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Bryson Barnes, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Shaka Tafari, Aisha Turner and Luchic Waba. Original music is by Hannis Brown. I'm Trymaine Lee. Catch you next Thursday.