Clap to this: The First (and very eclectic) Rap Singles Chart turns 30!

(February 16, 2019) It’s a long way from “Self Destruction” to “Thotiana.”

And what was once considered “dope” is now just “lit.”

Billboard magazine, the industry’s oldest trade publication, has been charting popular music in America for nearly a century.  Rappers have been dropping rhymes to dance and hip-hop beats for more than 40 years.

Thirty years ago, in March 1989, those two worlds collided when Billboard finally recognized rap – by then already more than a decade old – with its own chart, Hot Rap Singles.

And what a chart it was!

With rap styles ranging from traditional party rhymes to socially conscious fare, from early gangsta rap to pop song makeovers, and from neo-psychadelia to acid-house music, the whole spectrum of hip-hop was covered on that first list.   

Debuting in the March 11 issue, Hot Rap Singles was published once every two weeks for its first eight months – before being promoted to a weekly listing like Billboard’s other charts.  The then 30-position rap survey featured some of the biggest names in hip-hop during what’s been dubbed by historians as the genre’s “Golden Age.”

Billboard later changed the name of its rap singles chart to “Hot Rap Songs” and expanded it from 30 to 50 positions before cutting it back to 25 where it is today.

For its part, the rap chart’s inauguration was a case of Billboard being better late to the party than never, as the nascent list was able to capture one of hip-hop’s most innovative and most eclectic periods.  It was a time when a confluence of artists and styles, many still originating in New York – not only existed, but started to flourish thanks to national outlets like MTV  (and their flagship hip-hop show Yo! MTV Raps), which put rap into the households of previously unexposed suburban teenagers and young adults everywhere.  

Just check out the following names populating that very first list: Boogie Down Productions (w/ KRS One), Eric B. & Rakim, Slick Rick, Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock, N.W.A., Salt-N-Pepa, M.C. Hammer, Too Short, Kid ‘N Play, Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, Eazy-E,…

Billboard’ first rap singles chart turns 30 on March 11 this year.

It was seemingly the land before time, long before Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes and SoundCloud became the way to break new artists and consume music.  Back then, it was the 12” vinyl single that carried hip-hop on labels like Jive Records, Tommy Boy, Delicious Vinyl, Select, Ruthless, Profile and of course, Def Jam.  Deejays were still cutting, mixing and scratching vinyl records with turntables and needles, the sound of which was still being included in the recordings, before even compact disks rendered all of that obsolete.

And the first No. 1 song on the rap chart?

“Self Destruction” by Stop The Violence Movement on the Jive Records label.

It was hip-hop’s version of “We Are The World,” the genre’s first major superstar collaboration featuring the biggest names in rap.  They got together for a noble, stereotype-shattering, anti-violence message aimed at hip-hop’s biggest audience at the time – young black America – as well as the broader population who had mostly negative impressions of the genre.  

Taking part in the Stop The Violence Movement were some of the same emcees who had their own songs on the chart, including Boogie Down Productions’ KRS-One and D-Nice, plus the late Ms. Melodie, MC Delight, Kool Moe Dee, MC Lyte, Big Daddy Kane, Tone Loc,, Doug E. Fresh,, Just-Ice, the late Heavy D, and Public Enemy. 

No. 1 on the first Billboard Rap Singles chart: “Self Destruction” by Stop The Violence Movement.

”Self Destruction” would go on to spend ten weeks at the top before yielding to De La Soul’s “Me, Myself And I” – a classic that was not yet on that first chart, but one that debuted later that spring and would become a long-running No. 1 itself with eight weeks on top.

Alternative vs. Gangsta Rap…

“Me Myself and I” was the follow-up to the song De La Soul did have on that first list, the more obscure but still popular “Potholes In My Lawn” from their 3 Feet High and Rising album. “Potholes” was the eclectic trio’s first single and was noteworthy for its chorus, which featured a yodeling sample from an obscure Parliament song, “Little Ole Country Boy.” 

That fact, along with the vast array of other samples on their debut album plus their somewhat goofy rhymes and humor, made De La Soul a critic’s darling, with many considering the Long Island trio to be the future of hip-hop for the ensuing decade.

No. 25 on the first rap chart: “Potholes In My Lawn” by De La Soul.

De La Soul’s kinder, gentler approach to hip-hop, with their blend of jazz, funk and reggae musical backdrops, was indeed the alternative to the fast-growing, harder-edged gangsta rap coming from the likes of N.W.A., itself on that first chart with the single “Gangsta, Gangsta,” from their genre-defining first album, Straight Outta Compton.  That album changed hip-hop forever and eventually yielded the even bigger rap chart hit, “Express Yourself,” which peaked at No. 2 later that summer.

“Gangsta, Gangsta” was, in turn, the cultural opposite of the more socially conscious rap coming from KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, who were on the first list with “Jack of Spades” at No. 3.  Whereas “Gangsta” glorified the lifestyles of pimps and drug users, “Jack” denounced them.  “Jack” was the first single from BDP’s third album, Ghetto Music: the Blueprint of Hip-Hop, which would be certified gold later that year.

With all of the legends on that first chart, there were some left-field entries as well.

The Proverbial Elephant in the Hip-Hop Room…

In the early months of Milli Vanilli’s pop chart rise, Billboard didn’t quite know how to categorize the, um, “rap-singing” duo.  So, by way of its half-sung/half-rapped lyrics, “Girl You Know It’s True” graced that first rap chart at No. 5.  It amazingly rose to No. 2 a few weeks later, matching its pop chart peak as well as the rap chart peaks of other more legendary No. 2 hip-hop songs like the aforementioned “Gangsta, Gangsta” and Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” itself a month away from making its début.

No. 5: Yes, Milli Vanilli’s first single was on the inaugural rap chart (on its way to No. 2).

Billboard, which historically has a dubious relationship with hip-hop, initially stood behind Milli Vanilli’s rap chart inclusion, with several of the magazine’s journalists even referring to Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan as rappers.  However, smarter chart heads later prevailed regarding the group’s subsequent releases, and none of their follow-up singles hit the rap chart during the year-and-a-half before the lip-sync scandal ended their chart career altogether.

Also from the pop crossover department was Tone Loc’s platinum-selling smash “Wild Thing,” the biggest-selling rap single up to that point with two million copies sold.  It was the first single of any genre to sell that many since “We Are The World” in 1985.  

In the pop remake department were two songs by big hip-hop names of the day…

Salt-N-Pepa spiced up the list with their somewhat lame interpolation of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” while also scoring a remake was Stetsasonic, the critically acclaimed, six-man Brooklyn group who had emerged on the scene a few years earlier.  The band’s lone rap chart entry – sadly – was a cheesy remake of the Floaters’ 1977 soul smash, “Float On.”  The chart had come too late to chronicle Stetsasonic’s much better songs like “Sally” – a hip-hop classic – and “Talkin’ All That Jazz,” both of which (like “Float On”) were from their 1988 album In Full Gear.  

Two Legends Not Listed Who Were Between Releases…

Notably absent from that first list were two of the biggest rap acts of the 1980s, LL Cool J and Run-DMC, both of whom were between albums.  The new rap chart came at a time both acts were on different career paths.  

Run-DMC had scored platinum success with three of its previous albums and had classic jams like “It’s Like That,” “Rock Box,” “King of Rock,” “My Adidas,” “Run’s House” and, of course, the crossover smash “Walk This Way,” all of which predated the first rap chart.

But their career was on a downward spiral in 1989.  They wouldn’t grace the rap chart until later that summer with the song “Pause,” the B-side to their contribution to the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack.  “Pause” peaked at No. 11 as the first of only five rap chart entries for the legendary trio out of Hollis, Queens, NY.  Their last chart single was their lone No. 1 – the minor comeback hit “Down With the King” in 1993.

LL Cool J on the other hand, would score four No. 1 songs on the rap chart in its first two years of existence (and eight No. 1s overall), beginning with his first release after the chart’s debut, “I’m That Type Of Guy” from his 1989 platinum album Walking With A Panther.

Girl, I’ll “Hip-House” You…

Early house music was represented on the first rap chart by Tyree Cooper, a Chicago-based DJ whose house mix of “Turn Up The Bass” anchored the chart at No. 30.  It was one of the earliest songs to mix house and rap and form the so-called hip-house sub-genre.  

Not far above it on the chart was the Jungle Brothers “I’ll House You,” from their  Straight Out The Jungle album.  The Jungle Brothers and their album were both instrumental in starting the “Native Tongues” collective that included popular artists such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Black Sheep.  “I’ll House You” would climb to its No. 16 peak on the rap chart in the weeks following the inaugural list. 

No. 19 on the list: “I’ll House You” by the Jungle Brothers.

What’s Old Is New Again, Unfortunately…

And finally, with all the current illegal immigration talk involving British rapper 21 Savage, it’s easy to forget the first rap artist from the U.K. who famously faced deportation from the U.S., the legendary Slick Rick, whose debut single “Teenage Love” was on the list at No. 9.  It was from his iconic first album The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick (which, btw, reached No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop album list).  That album contained follow-up singles “Children’s Story” and “Hey Young World,” both of which would hit the rap chart later in 1989.

Slick Rick, known for his legendary story-telling style of rap, would run into his legal troubles after that first album – both for an attempted murder conviction (for which he was later pardoned) and his immigration issues.  Ironically he served more time for illegal entering the U.S. (3 years) than he did for his attempt on another black man’s life (2 years), but that’s a topic for a different blog on a different day (stay tuned for it though).

1989 Not Such A Bad Year To Start The Chart…

Although hip-hop had been in full force for a decade by the time Billboard got hip, 1989 wasn’t such a bad year to begin chronicling the genre. 

Artists like Eric B. & Rakim and Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock were on that first list, although not with their best stuff (that had come the year before).  Some of hip-hop’s greatest legends would hit later that year, like Queen Latifah (her début album All Hail The Queen was released that fall) and Public Enemy, whose iconic “Fight The Power” (from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing motion picture) topped the rap chart that summer.

No. 26: Although Roxanne Shante, MC Lyte and Queen Latifah weren’t on the first rap chart, female rapper Sweet Tee repped the ladies (along with Salt-N-Pepa) with her “On The Smooth Tip.”

As hip-hop kept growing in popularity and mass acceptance, Billboard would expand the list from 30 positions to 50 during the 1990s.  The magazine would eventually rename its soul chart by incorporating hip-hop in its title and calling it the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.

Today, even with the current rap chart now cut back to 25 positions, the all-genre Hot 100 songs list practically resembles a hip-hop chart, with between 40 and 60 percent of the songs on that survey coming from hip-hop during any given week. 

But it was that first Hot Rap Singles chart in March 1989 that represented Billboard’s reluctant but eventual full-time commitment to the genre that is now the most consumed form of music for two years running, with no end in sight. 

Please enjoy this special playlist along with the other videos throughout this article of the songs that populated that oh so funky fresh first chart from so long ago.  


No. 23 on the list: Marley Marl’s “The Symphony”

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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