Happy 30th Anniversary to Big Daddy Kane’s debut album Long Live The Kane, originally released June 28, 1988.
For “seasoned” heads like myself, there’s the prevailing thought that 1988 was the best year for hip-hop music. If nothing else, it’s regarded as the beginning of the music’s Golden Age. One of the reasons that this is accepted gospel is due to the quality of the lyrical performances on hip-hop albums that year. When you hear 40+ hip-hoppers complaining that “rappers ain’t what they used to be,” that’s often because they’re measuring them against the stick of the guys who got down for their crown in 1988.
Thirty years ago, artists we hold in such high regard like Rakim, Public Enemy, and Boogie Down Productions, released their sophomore albums. They were beginning to refine their styles and content, and becoming the legends that we regard them as today based on their improved lyrical ability. In the midst of this stepped Antonio “Big Daddy Kane” Hardy, a battle-tested Brooklyn emcee who had honed his skills throughout the ’80s at clubs and house parties across New York and New Jersey. In 1987, he began releasing acclaimed 12-inches, and in 1988, unleashed his debut album Long Live The Kane. Fully-formed lyrically, his inaugural LP immediately established Kane as one of the most skilled rappers at the time.
When Long Live The Kane dropped, Kane was sort of like a combination of Rakim and LL Cool J. He was an absolute top-tier lyricist with a unique style of crafting and delivering his rhymes, but he also possessed the charisma and good looks of a movie star. He would play to his sex appeal as his career progressed, but in 1988, his main aim on record was to demonstrate his lyrical domination. In a year full of masterful lyrical performances, Kane’s effort on this album is either #1 or #1A.
Kane may have morphed into the Smooth Operator, but early on he was a well-known hard rock. He was born and raised in pre-gentrification Bed-Stuy and built with O.G.s and street dudes like Ant Live, Melquan & Shabazz, and Shim Shom a.k.a. the guys that got shouted out by damn near every New York/Jersey based emcee during the golden era. Early on, he rapped as a member of the Debonair Three, who earned respect in their neighborhood but never released any music.
Kane got deeper into the scene the same way that many East Coast emcees from the ’80s did: through Biz Markie. The pair had known each other since the mid-’80s, battling each other and rocking the same parties. Biz had already linked up with the Juice Crew through Roxanne Shante, and he brought Kane on to help him write his lyrics. Not only did Kane write many of the Biz’s early hits, he also began writing for Shante, while often serving as her DJ.
Kane eventually met the super-producer Marley Marl through Biz, and the two began recording material together, with Kane joining the Juice Crew, one of hip-hop’s first real super-groups. Marley was, of course, one of hip-hop’s first super producers, and worked behind the boards for Long Live The Kane. There have been disputes after the fact about how much of the album Marley “produced” and how much of the production work was handled by Kane or other outside producers, but the often volatile in-studio relationship between the two yielded some great chemistry. From Kane’s first single “Get Into It,” released in 1987, it was clear that they were bringing out the best in each other. Kane also brought in Calvin “DJ Mister Cee” LeBrun to handle all the scratches and his presence bolsters each track where he appears.
In many ways, Long Live The Kane is defined by its stripped-down beats and lyrics approach to the album. It’s an album with very few frills, and “Raw” exemplifies that approach. Though “Get Into It” was Kane’s first single, it was “Raw” that really put him on the map. The song appeared on the Colors soundtrack two months before the album dropped, earning Kane more exposure.
The version of “Raw” that appears on Long Live The Kane is actually different than the version that appears on the single. Kane had recorded another version of the song featuring a verse from him and second verse from Juice Crew member and fellow lyrical titan Kool G Rap. So Marley took Kane’s verse on that later version and added it to the beginning of the single version and added some extra production tweaks. The resulting remix features Kane unleashing four verses and almost six minutes of lyrics over the drum track from Bobby Byrd’s version of “Hot Pants,” along with wailing stabs of horns from Lyn Collins’ “Mama Feelgood.” Kane is in masterful form here, rapping, “I go and flow and grow to let you know / I damage ya I'm not an amateur but a pro-fessional / Unquestionable, without doubt superb / So full of action, my name should be a verb / My voice will float on every note / When I clear my throat, that's all she wrote.”
Kane continues to excel at delivering uncut and pure lyric-based hip-hop with “Set It Off,” which Kane himself considers his favorite song that he ever recorded. It’s certainly one of the album’s brightest jewels, as Kane releases a flurry of lyrics over the high-speed opening drum break from Grady Tate’s “Be Black Baby” and stabs from the guitar solo on James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved.” According to Kane, the beat was actually produced by Mark the 45 King, who had initially intended to give it to Biz. After Biz passed on it, Kane took it for his own and created one of the definitive “fast rap” tracks. He executes with amazing precision with lines like, “Save the bass for the pipe and rearrange your tone / Or take a loss and be forced in the danger zone / ’Cause I get ill and kill at will / Teaching a skill that’s real, you’re no frill / So just stand still and chill as I build / Science I drill until my rhymes fill / Your head up… don’t even get up / The teacher is teaching, so just shut up!”
Songs like “Raw” and “Set It Off” may have put Kane on the map, but “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” remains his best known song. It’s one of the best tracks of its era, and honestly, it’s on that short list of best hip-hop songs ever recorded. Unlike the aforementioned tracks, the beat has a much mellower, deliberate feel, anchored by a loop of the Emotions’ “Blind Alley.” The song became a staple of hip-hop clubs and radio, and boasted a popular music video as well.
Kane may slow down his delivery, but he executes a complete lyrical clinic. His mastery of verbal structure and flow, particularly evident in the song’s second verse, could be taught in a university, as he rhymes, “Rap prime minister, some say sinister / Non-stopping the groove, until when it’s the / Climax, and I max, relax and chill /Have a break from a take of me acting ill / Brain cells are lit, ideas start to hit / Next the formation of words that fit / At the table I sit, making it legit / And when my pen hits the paper? Aw shit!”
Kane teams up with his cohort the Biz on the aptly named “Just Rhymin’ With Biz,” which was the B-side to “Get Into It.” As it appears on the album, the song sounds like an off-the-cuff studio session with Biz and Kane rhyming over the guitar breakdown from James Brown’s “The Big Payback.” Biz contributes a goofy yet memorable verse that sounds like it was freestyled, followed up by Kane with a classic verse detailing his lyrical skills and party rocking ability.
It took a bit to get to that point, as the song has a reasonably convoluted history. According to Marley, the song was originally intended as a duet with Frick & Frack, an obscure female duo also produced by Marley and loosely affiliated with the Juice Crew. Marley said the pair was removed from the song because they weren’t signed to Cold Chillin’, and then replaced with Biz (who gives them a shout-out in the song’s intro).
However, the “Get Into It” 12” also features “Something Funky,” which features Kane kicking a more conventional four verse track over the same James Brown sample. It’s never been clear whether “Something Funky” or “Just Rhyming…” was recorded first. Regardless, Kane originally intended for both songs to be included on Long Live The Kane.
“On the Bugged Tip” is the other lyrical team-up on the album, as Kane shares emceeing duties with Scoob Lover, one half of his back-up dancers (back when rappers had those) Scoob and Scrap. The old school influenced track features the two trading rhymes and doing old school routines as Mister Cee cuts up the beat to “Down By Law” from Wild Style like it was a park jam. The song is also on the goofy side, but still enjoyable. Kane ends the song with an a cappella verse that he also uses on “Just Rhymin’ With Biz.”
The album’s sole misstep is “Got Me Waiting.” It’s the exact type of trite ballad that sprung up on every hip-hop album during the late ’80s that I complain about whenever I write a tribute to an album from this time period. Sadly, Kane continued to make it a habit recording this syrupy, quiet storm fodder throughout his career. This certainly isn’t the worst hip-hop ballad recorded, or even the worst hip-hop ballad record by Kane during the late ’80s, but it’s really bad.
The subject matter on Long Live The Kane isn’t limited to dizzying lyrical displays and the occasional bland ballad. Kane does contribute a few “conscious” songs to the album. The first is “I’ll Take You There,” the album’s second single and actually the first song Kane recorded with Marley, pre-dating “Get Into It.” Over a sample of the Staple Singers’ song of the same name, Kane describes a utopia where “you can wear truck jewelry without being stuck,” “crack ain’t nothing but a hole in the wall,” and “war ain’t nothing but a game on Atari.”
It’s notable that Kane’s version of paradise doesn’t involve material wealth, but rather a place where everyone lives peaceful, fulfilling lives. Kane states his aim is to provide an alternative vision to a world “that’s operating so negative.” He raps, “I found a place designed especially for you / Where peace and harmony is everyone’s culture / So let's all gather around before this world corrupts / And we don't even need Scotty to beam us up.”
Kane closes Long Live The Kane with “Word to the Mother(Land),” his song about Black empowerment. He drops Nation of Islam influenced rhymes with aims to educate and uplift over the bassline from Le Pampelmousse’s “Gimme What You Got” and vocal samples from James Brown’s “Funky President.” The song ends with samples from speeches from Minister Louis Farrakhan, who had begun entering hip-hop’s collective lexicon during this period.
Kane would continue to grow in popularity. As the years progressed, he maintained some of his rough edges, but also put effort into smoothing out others. Whether things got a little too smooth is a whole other story. No matter what, his performance on Long Live the Kane cemented his legend as one of the best to ever hold a mic, and earned him a place in the hip-hop pantheon.