Beyoncé may have “woke up like this” but her husband spent the Eighties rapping in a Hawaiian shirt. Not every rapper can be Run-D.M.C., changing the world the first time they hit wax. In that spirit, here are 25 recording debuts from successful rappers, ranging from the legendary to the forgotten to the completely regrettable. By Christopher R. Weingarten
"Riot Fight" (1982)
Long before they were hip-hop pranksters, Michael Diamond and Adam Yauch were teenage goofballs who started a jokey hardcore band with what the latter called "the stupidest name possible." Their early run is either the stuff of legend or a standard tale of greasy kid antics: They played their first gig on Yauch's 17th birthday, broke-up because "it didn't seem funny anymore," signed to an indie label run out of a basement, reformed, recorded a 11-minute EP in two days, broke up a second time, reformed again, broke up again, and eventually traded guitarists for a playwright's son named Adam Horovitz. Their Polly Wog Stew EP and the scene-defining New York Thrash cassette comp were both released in 1982, and the 30-second tantrum "Riot Fight" was on both. Despite featuring two famous Beasties, the real star is drummer Kate Schellanbach, who plays a speedy proto-blastbeat that connects the Raincoats to Napalm Death.
"The Coldest Rap (Part 1)" (1983)
"Back then I was only rapping about fly clothes, jewelry, and rides," said Ice-T. "It was confident player shit, because we were living it!" Signed to the short-lived Saturn Records after producer Willy Strong heard him spitting rhymes in Good Fred Beauty Salon, Ice-T's list of sexual positions, "The Coldest Rap (Part 1)" was a far cry from the "street-level journalism" he would pioneer on 1986's "6 in tha Mornin'." But, nonetheless it was infectious enough to be a club hit in California, kickstarting one of the West Coast's greatest discographies. Long before Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis met Ms. Jackson, their beat was used for this blooping, bubbling, breakdance-ready synth explosion.
"Don't Stop Rappin'" (1983)
One of hip-hop's longest still-functioning careers begins on a cassette tape released somewhere between 1983 and 1985 (depending on who you ask) by a sex-obsessed teen. An Eighties sensation throughout rap-starved Northern California, Todd Smith's mix of pimp swagger, sing-songy beats and rhymes for days (the title track is nearly 10 minutes long), was already evident on the appropriately titled Don't Stop Rappin'. Though it wasn't the first Bay Area rap record (word to Motorcycle Mike), nor especially profitable for $hort or the tiny 75 Girls label (he says he was dropped before signing to Jive), it would define a regional sound that would influence everyone from E-40 to Sage the Gemini.
World Class Wreckin' Cru, "Surgery" (1984)
He produces, he raps, he runs record labels, he makes headphones – but in 1984 Dr. Dre was known for his scratching prowess. He spun at the upscale club Eve After Dark in the long-running Wreckin' Cru. Their first single, "Slice," one of the era's many odes to DJ excellence, focused on Dre's future N.W.A. parter DJ Yella; but the doctor got his own spotlight on the scratch-happy "Surgery." He even spit a quick rhyme – "I'm Dr. Dre, gorgeous hunk of a man/Doing tricks on the mix that no others can." Well, it's no shock that he would ultimately just get Jay Z to write rhymes for him…
Spectrum City, "Lies" (1984)
Spectrum City was a Long Island mobile DJ crew started by future Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee in 1975. They found an MC in a graphic designer named Chucky D in 1979; and ended up with a popular show on Adelphi University's radio station in 1982. There was no one in Strong Island more dedicated to playing rap records and they decided they would finally record their own. Chuck and Spectrum MC Butch Cassidy use the "It's Like That"/"Hard Times" flow of Run-D.M.C. (who they once invited to the station for their first interview) and the keys of James Brown's "Sex Machine." While their show remained popular, the single didn't exactly rocket them to stardom. Once acquiring fellow WBAU DJ Flavor Flav and signing to the nascent Def Jam, they would re-emerge as Public Enemy three years later.
"I Need a Beat" (1984)
And sometimes you do just knock it out of the park on your first try. Never exactly shy, 14-year-old Ladies Love Cool James kept cold-calling (and calling and calling) producer Rick Rubin's dorm room from the number listed on the back of a T-La Rock 12-inch — but Rick kept saying he didn’t get his demo. Soon, Beastie Boy King Adrock found young LL's demo from the pile of tapes in Rubin's room and played it — this time Rick called back. It was the first record for Rubin and Russell Simmons' new Def Jam label. Thirty years later, rap is a global phenomenon and LL Cool J hosts the Grammys.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" (7-inch version) (1986)
The long-deleted original version of Smith's debut on wax doesn't exactly glow with the same family-friendly aura of "Parents Just Don't Understand," "Gettin' Jiggy Wit it" and Shark Tale. As the teenaged Fresh Prince, Smith lyrically punches a "dumb broad" in the chin and hits her with a trash can. Mercifully, upon moving from Philadelphia indie Word Up to a major label, he re-recorded it, deleted most of the offending lyrics, and left its cheeky I Dream of Jeannie sample intact.
High Potent, "H.P. Gets Busy" (1986)
Sure, Jay Z put pictures of Prodigy's ballet class wardrobe on the Summerjam screen, but his own past – rocking a Hawaiian shirt in a video with a pineapple on the turntable – wasn't always hardcore either. Way back in 1986, Jay and his mentor Jaz O were in a short-lived group called High Potent. Their single 12-inch, "H.P. Gets Busy" features Jay, around age 17, spitting a furious rhyme in a voice that sounds familiar, just a little higher.
3rd Bass, "Gas Face" (1989)
Before he was the masked supervillain who "came to destroy rap" Daniel Dumile was the politically minded teenager Zev Love X of Long Island's KMD. Though they would go on to record two albums on their own, his first appearance was in the Yo! MTV Raps staple "Gas Face" by 3rd Bass, showing off the internal rhyme schemes that would gain him critical acclaim decades later. (Peep it: "Is I'm talkin coffee or cocoa, is you loco?/Cash or credit for unleaded at Sunoco.") His bandmate and brother, Subroc, passed away in 1993, and Zev Love X would go into hiding, only to emerge four years later as the iconic masked villain.
Main Source, "Live at the Barbecue" (1991)
A teenager going by the name of Nasty Nas reached into his rhymebook for this Main Source posse cut alongside Fatal and Akinyele. When it dropped, says Nelson George, it "made him an instant Big Apple cult figure." MC Serch, who was moving from rapping into promotion, was trying to get him a record deal — and he imagines he wasn't the only one. But, as he says, "He was an enigma in hip-hop, no one knew how to get in touch with him." Nas appeared on two more songs — Serch's own "Back to the Grill" and the Nas original "Halftime — and the next thing we got was Illmatic.
Digital Underground, "Same Song" (1991)
Tupac did an admirable job graduating from Digital Underground's back-up dancer to a guest MC – dropping the most complex seven bars in a song that pits him against Shock G, Humpty Hump and Money B: "Gas me and when they pass me they used to diss me/Harrass me, but now they ask me if they can kiss me." It’s a total shame that one of hip-hop's most influential voices was debuted on a promotional song for Razzie-nominated Dan Aykroyd creep-comedy Nothing But Trouble.
Eazy-E, "Merry Muthaphuckkin' Xmas (1991)
Years before they were asking "Where is the Love," two of the Black Eyed Peas got their start on a dirty Christmas record, spitting swears alongside Eazy-E and Dolemite. Both will.i.am and apl.de.ap were L.A. high schoolers in conscious hip-hop group called Tribal Nation, who got the attention of the decidedly less conscious Eazy. They got a record deal on Ruthless: "To a 17-year old, $10,000…" marveled will. "Granted, it was, like, for life. Eazy-E had me signed like forever"). They dropped their first verses on Eazy's first post-N.W.A. EP, 5150 – Home 4 tha Sick, but their 1992 record was ultimately shelved. Three multi-platinum records for Interscope is a perfectly acceptable rebound, though.
Hi-Five, "Too Young" (1991)
With the help of his mother (who was in the Crystals, of "Da Doo Ron Ron" fame), a Queens high-schooler then going by the name Lord-T (the Golden Child) was out shopping for labels before getting a demo deal at Jive. As Prodigy wrote in his autobiography, "I flirted with the women at Jive and one of them, Kim, a good-looking heavyset black woman, got me on the soundtrack for a movie coming out that summer called Boyz N the Hood. They let me open the song "Too Young" by R&B group Hi-Five with 16 bars. After that first big break, Jive wanted to sign me up for a real contract." Soon after, he met his future partner, Havoc, and demanded that Jive sign them both as a duo — which they didn't agree to. "So I turned down the deal and never came back."
Heavy D. and the Boyz, "A Buncha Niggas" (1992)
Nothing illuminates the importance of The Source's Unsigned Hype column in the early Nineties than Notorious B.I.G.'s demo. After the column elevated his profile, his music fell into the hands of Uptown Records A&R Sean "Puffy" Combs and — well, "now we sip champagne when we thirsty." The first track that Combs hooked Biggie up with was this posse cut that closed Heavy D & the Boyz' fourth album, Blue Funk. With all the makings of a future rap hero, B.I.G. holds his own against hall-of-famers like Heavy D, Busta Rhymes and Guru.
"Don't Be Scared" (appx. 1992)
It's pretty amazing to think that Katy Perry's gunning for cool points recruiting a rapper who was making records when she was in elementary school, but that's just what happened. Although Juicy J is just experiencing his first round of solo success, he spent the early Nineties releasing muddy, moody, off-color cassettes into the streets of Memphis. From Vol. 5, the earliest tape that the internet has been able to unearth, "Don't be Scared" is one of the filthiest safe-sex songs you'll ever hear.
"Player's Ball" (A LaFace Family Christmas version) (1993)
A perennial piece of hip-hop trivia after appearing (with an exclamation point!) in ego trip's Book of Rap Lists: Outkast's breakthrough single was originally intended as a piece of holiday cheer. Originally written for A LaFace Family Christmas — appearing alongside Toni Braxton, TLC and Usher — the O.G. version has references to "Deck the Halls" "Silent Night" and even a chorus that name-checks "Christmas day" itself. They excised all that stuff for the 12-inch version, but still kept the some egg nog, a ho-ho-ho, a New Years Eve countdown and even the sleigh bells. Remixed but still jingling.
"Born Loser" (1993)
Written in a jail cell and self-released in a 500-copy run, DMX's "Born Loser" has none of the boasting style of future Ruff Ryders anthems, instead opting for a self-deprecating sadsack approach later perfected by Fatlip and Eminem. He raps: "They kicked me out the shelter because they said I smelt-a/Little like the living dead, and looked like Helter Skelter." Ruffhouse didn't think he was a total loser, because they picked it up and officially released it — though the single didn't exactly take off. "I felt that Ruffhouse didn't put enough marketing power behind it, so not enough people heard the song in the first place," X wrote in his autobiography. "Around the way in [Yonkers], I was my own hype, but I couldn't help get myself on the radio in Chicago or L.A… Within a few months of me having my own major-label single and a song on the radio, my professional recording career was over."
"Pass the Popcorn" (1993)
Before they were America's house band, the Square Roots were Philly kids setting up on South Street and annoying club owners — for every show they would bring 20 bags of popcorn and throw them at the audience. To build buzz during a European tour, they recorded Organix, featuring "Pass the Popcorn" loading the front. The verses are by Black Thought, ?uestlove and the briefly Root-ed Kid Crumbs. The buzz worked and soon the alterna-crew were labelmates with Beck and Nirvana.
B.G.'z, "From tha 13th to tha 17th" (1995)
Then a foul-mouthed 12-year-old named Baby D, Lil Wayne made his recording debut alongside a "Lil Doogie" on 1995 Cash Money EP as the B.G.'z, rapping about "smoking beaucoup spliffs and clockin' much, much dollars. Writes Andrew Noz, "Legend has it that Wayne's mom pulled him from the project after hearing the profanity, leaving the album – and by default the name – in the hands of Doogie, the man they now call B.G."
Soul Intent, "Fuckin' Backstabber" (1995)
Whether it's technically a "demo," or a very limited run cassette single, there's no question that the "M&M" rapping on Soul Intent's "Fuckin' Backstabber" is the Marshall we know today. Though he's since lost the the fast Das EFX-ian flow and the breathy jazz-rap voice. Bonus: This track features D-12's Proof on the chorus.
"Cloudy-Eyed Stroll" (1996)
Kansas City is in the middle of the country so it makes sense that the debut single from veteran Tech N9ne has the slow-rolling thump of California and the hyper-kinetic flows of New York – plus some spastic rhythms all his own.
Grav, "Line For Line" (1996)
Remembers Chicago rapper Grav: "I was either going to or coming out of a Fugees concert and this young kid runs up to me like, 'Yo, I heard you got a record deal. Yo, you should let me get some beats on your album. You should just come to the car and let me play some beats for you.'" Luckily Grav listened to the eager youngster, Kanye West, because, "The boy was a child prodigy way back then." West did a handful of beats on Grav's one and only album, Down to Earth and spit some gnashing bars on "Line for Line."
St. Lunatics, "Gimme What U Got" (1997)
Although he would later elevate his bandmates – Ali, Murphy Lee, Kyjuan, Slo Down and City Spud — Nelly really did steal the spotlight on the early St. Lunatics single "Gimme What U Got," a Number One hit at St. Louis radio station KATZ. The melodies hint back at Eighties hip-hop standards like Dennis Edwards' "Don't Look Any Further" and Tom-Tom Club's "Genius of Love" and the flows look forward to the sing-songy flow that would put St. Louis on the hip-hop map.
Hood$tars, "Don't Mess With" (2004)
Then known as Nicki Maraj, young Nicki was part of a quartet called Hood$tars, a group associated with Brooklyn rap pioneers Full Force – and featuring the son of Force's Bowlegged Lou. Lou remembers, "After a while we just focused on doing a solo project on Nicki. I took it to like every record company but record companies at the time wasn't really interested in any female rappers." Before that, Hood$tars got out a track called "Don't Mess With" which was used as entrance music for wrestler Victoria, and appears on ThemeAddict: WWE The Music, Vol. 6.