30 years later, 1988 still stands as rap’s greatest year. The lyrical molotovs of ‘Nation of Millions’ and ‘Straight Out of Compton,’ the post-modern (and pre-lawsuit) free-for-all of sampling, the national spotlight of a new show called Yo! MTV Raps and much more. To celebrate 30 years, Rolling Stone’s Best of ’88 explores the 10 greatest songs from those explosive 12 months.
Released in the summer of 1988, “It Takes Two” – by Harlem duo Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock – would have an impact on hip-hop, dance music and pop for decades. Borrowing a giddy snatch of drums and screams from the James Brown-produced 1972 single “Think (About It)” by Lyn Collins, the repeating “yeah … woo” in the 1988 tune remains the single greatest use of a looped drum break in rap history – the hip-hop equivalent the guitar solo in “Stairway to Heaven.”
The way MC Rob Base describes the song’s rapid composition (one night before going into to the studio), its inauspicious Englewood, New Jersey recording session (again, one night) and its modest goals (hopefully a hit in the tri-state area) reveal a quick and instinctual process that perhaps provides some clue to its immediacy. The song’s success was prompt. By the fall, it became the sixth of only seven rap songs to break the Top 40 in 1988. The following year, Spin magazine would call it the greatest single of all time.
Eventually, “It Takes Two” would be sampled, interpolated and covered, appearing in Chicago house tracks, Miami bass tunes like Luke’s “I Wanna Rock,” a Top Ten single by the Black Eyed Peas and a Target commercial starring Carly Rae Jepsen and Lil Yachty. Rob Base is still performing “It Takes Two” all over America on the unstoppable I Love the ’90s package tour and, nearly 30 years later, you can still hear it yeah-ing and woo-ing throughout the trailer to the summer blockbuster Ant-Man and the Wasp. (Rodney “DJ E-Z Rock” Bryce passed away in 2014 at the age of 46.)
Rolling Stone caught up with Rob Base to talk about the long legacy of a real funky concept.
So, you recorded “It Takes Two” before you were signed.
Yeah, we did it as a demo trying to get a deal. The guy that was managing us at the time, he told us, “Yo, we need to get in the studio, knock out a song or whatever.” So me and E-Z Rock, we just threw something together real quick and we went in the studio and knocked it out. It wasn’t even really planned. We just went in there and did it, basically.
And you wrote the rhymes the night before?
[Laughs]. Yeah, it was just, “Alright, let me throw something together.” It was just spontaneous. …
Who ended up picking the Lyn Collins sample?
I liked the Lyn Collins sample and E-Z Rock, I think he’d liked [something like electro group Strafe’s 1984 hit] “Set It Off” beat. We just put them two together. He liked one thing, I liked one thing, and we blend it together and just came out to be “It Takes Two.” The Lyn Collins part made a big impact on the song, the “woo, yeah” part. A lot of people said, “Oh too much ‘woo, yeah,’ you need to take it out at some point.” I had to fight and say, “Nah, we got to keep that in the whole record. That’s got to stay in there.” And people didn’t understand where I was coming from.
On Ultimate Breaks & Beats Volume 16, the Lyn Collins break and Galactic Force Band sample used in the intro are right next to each other on Side Two.
Basically, it’s just like, it was right there. The hit was right there in our face. And we just took it [laughs].
There’s a lot of conflicting information about who actually produced the track. A lot of places say Teddy Riley was involved.
Well, me, E-Z Rock and William Hamilton produced the track. No, Teddy was nowhere near that song. It was just us in there. So, I don’t know who else could say they’s there, ’cause it was just us.
There’s the line in there, “Don’t smoke Buddha/ Can’t stand sess.”
A lot of people get that mixed up. They thought I was saying “can’t stand sex.” I was like, uh, no, I’m not saying that, it’s sensimilla, talkin’ bout marijuana. It’s crazy, even til today people still coming up to me and ask me about that.
Do you still not smoke?
I never smoked marijuana. That was never my thing. So that’s why I threw that in there.
“It definitely was like what they say: “Overnight success.” We woke up and we were just different people.”
In the music video, you’re outside the Apollo, the landmark of your native Harlem
Definitely. I felt it was an independent video. I think the record company didn’t want to give us a video at the time, I think, so we just went out and put together our own money and shot it ourselves.
There was no Yo! MTV Raps until the middle of 1988. Where were you expecting to get it played?
I think it was only a few rappers out with videos at the time. We seen them and we said, ‘Hey man, we want to get a video.’ I guess at that time, we didn’t have any idea where it was gonna get played, but we just want to shoot one, you know?
And Biz Markie showed up unannounced?
Yes, Biz walked up, he was on 125th Street. He was across the street and we seen him and he came across, got in the video. Red Alert was walking down the street and he came in there. So, basically it just came together. It wasn’t like nothing was really planned. We just went out there and started shooting.
When was the first time you realized you had something huge?
Well, I was laying in my bed and I heard it on prime-time radio. It came on and I just jumped up. I was like, “All right, we made it.” ‘Cause back then, if you got a rap record on prime-time radio, you pretty much made it. As soon as I heard it, I knew right then.
“When we get into “It Takes Two” [today], people they respond like the record came out yesterday.”
All the rap radio shows at time were still late night at that point, correct?
Yeah, late night. And on the weekends, Fridays and Saturdays. That was the only time most rap records would get played. So if you got played during the weekdays, that was amazing.
How did your life change immediately after?
It happened so quick. One day, we doing little block parties and rockin’ outside for free, to doing big clubs and arenas and stuff like that. Once the song started to get played, next thing you know, we on the tour bus, getting on planes. Traveling all over. It definitely was like what they say: “Overnight success.” We woke up and we were just different people.
Do you have a favorite TV or movie use of the song?
It was one movie that came out with Sandra Bullock [2009’s The Proposal]. Yeah, that one. … She actually said that she used to listen Rob Base and E-Z Rock, one of her first rap concerts she went to. And I was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” That was a really good feeling.
Did you ever get to talk to Sandra Bullock?
Nope, never. One day.
And you’re still touring. The song still knocks them out even today?
When we get into “It Takes Two,” people they respond like the record came out yesterday.