Pop Rap superstars: Salt N Pepa, Heavy D, Coolio, Missy, Puffy, Nelly

What the Hell Is Pop-Rap and Why Is It A Bad Word?

It's interesting how things fall in and out of fashion.

It has been announced that St. Louis rap superstar Nelly is to be honored at the 2021 BET Hip-Hop Awards with the prestigious I Am Hip-Hop Award. The honor is given to legendary Hip-Hop artists who have moved the culture forward. Nelly enjoyed one of the genre's most successful commercial runs, a fixture at the top of the charts in the 2000s who furthered the rap game's mainstreaming while also helping to put the Midwest on the national Hip-Hop map. 

Nelly's run of hits also initiated a predictable backlash from certain "purist" rap corners. KRS-One called out Nelly on the song "Clear Em Out," resulting in a war of words between Hip-Hop's self-proclaimed "Teacha" and Nelly. That feud was always fairly lame, especially now when you recognize that artists like Nelly are a hugely important part of Hip-Hop's mainstream. 

Even if it seems to take us a while to appreciate them.

In the latest Verzuz, chart-toppers Fat Joe and Ja Rule showcased their respective catalogs, with fans seemingly surprised to be reminded of just how formidable Ja, in particular, was back in the early 00s. Ja Rule's Verzuz showing, as well as a subsequent IG debate between Jermaine Dupri and Diddy about who has the better body of work, has put artists who were once seen as (dismissed as?) pop-rap back in our cultural spotlight. 

So what the hell is "Pop-Rap?"

It's one of those distinctions that either makes a person go "What is that?" or it makes them cringe. 

For some music fans, "pop" is treated like a dirty word. "Pop". means manufactured and inauthentic, soulless and by-the-numbers. "Pop" means safe. In a lot of ways, "pop" means white--or, at the very least, created for the interests of white audiences. It's typically not that cool to be thought of as the "pop" version of anything, let alone a genre and culture born of an outsider's spirit. But what about "pop" as in "infectious and accessible?" 

In the late 80s, Hip-Hop was crashing the mainstream. Run-D.M.C. and the Def Jam acts like LL COOL J and the Beastie Boys had kicked down the commercial door, and rap was now selling big. But with that commercial success came some handwringing about where the genre was headed and whether or not it could survive mainstreaming. That conversation would linger for decades, but at the time, it manifest as some criticism of certain rap acts with major crossover audiences. 

The first real "wave" of pop-rappers arrived around the late 80s dawn of Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City; as artists like Heavy D & The Boyz, Salt-N-Pepa, MC Hammer, Kid 'n Play, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Tone Loc and Young MC enjoyed major chart success with a style of Hip-Hop built around infectious hooks, slick production and dance-friendly beats. As N.W.A. turned "gangsta rap" into a household term, and as Public Enemy became icons for politicized Hip-Hop; these were the acts who seemed "safe" for middle America. And as a result, many of them wound up being branded inauthentic. 

DJ Jazzy Jeff lamented the idea that he and partner Will Smith aka The Fresh Prince, were branded "suburban rap" by outside commentators. 

"Once we put out 'Parents Just Don't Understand, once Salt N Pepa put out 'Push It,' anything that got notoriety from the white audience or the pop audience, you were automatically put into this box [like] you weren't Hip-Hop," Jazzy Jeff says. "Like you were from the suburbs. It used to trip me out how people would say Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince are from the suburbs. Will grew up around the corner from Steady B!'"

Steady B is the Philly rap legend of Hilltop Hustlers fame who would be sentenced to life in prison for his role in a 1996 bank robbery that left a police officer dead. 

The kind of success DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince found was viewed with cynicism. 

"Pop success was frowned upon," Jeff says. 

But pop success usually means you're gifted at making widely accessible records, it means you're a hitmaker. And Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor is a hitmaker. The Queens-based producer crafted hits for Salt-N-Pepa, Kid 'n Play, Dana Dane and more; with a sound that incorporated go-go and dance; melded musicality with deft sampling, and gave the above groups some of the most infectious tracks of the late 1980s. 

With his high-profile appearances in videos like Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" and "Shake Your Thang," he was one of the first producers to not only unapologetically pursue pop appeal, he deserves some credit for being a catalyst for the highly visible Hip-Hop superproducer. But Azor definitely wasn't the only high-profile hitmaker leading Hip-Hop onto mainstream radio in the late 1980s.

With Teddy Riley's production sheen, and Eddie F's natural leaning towards catchy records, Heavy D & The Boyz were also seen as one of the more accessible rap acts for fans coming from R&B or pop. Heavy's new jack swing flourishes made him ripe for collaborations with everyone from LeVert to Michael and Janet Jackson; his Overweight Lover persona made him a perfect candidate for sitcom guest spots and soda commercials. 

Even with his crossover appeal, Heavy D maintained an undeniable credibility in most rap circles. The Mt. Vernon legend rarely had to endure the kind of criticisms some of his contemporaries faced. 

Following the rap chart successes of their early singles like "My Mic Sounds Nice," Salt-N-Pepa became major stars on the strength of "Push It," a monster hit single that featured relatively little actual rapping. The group's debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious would enjoy platinum success, setting the stage for a decade of hits for Salt-N-Pepa and producer Azor.

But their follow-up album was led by the single "Twist & Shout," a cover of the popular rock & roll standard and a Beatles-parodying video. The song and video led some to brand Salt-N-Pepa a novelty act, at a time when Hip-Hop credibility was a continuous talking point. The group disproved any dismissals with their third album, 1990s platinum-selling Blacks' Magic. The album saw the group maturing in sound and perspective, with Salt herself assuming some production and songwriting duties. 

The success of Salt-N-Pepa and Kid 'n Play should have affirmed Hurby Azor as a hitmaker of the highest order.

“I’ve always called him ‘The first Diddy,'" Salt said in 2020. 

Hurby crafted the kind of rap singles that got airplay in R&B and pop radio rotations, still a rarity for even the most noteworthy Hip-Hop artists of the late 1980s. But at a time when people were still superficially determine what passed for rap "authenticity," Azor rarely got acknowledged as a groundbreaker. His pop success was a liability, not an asset. But songs like "Push It," "Funhouse," "Let's Talk About Sex" and "Ain't Gonna Hurt Nobody" got airplay in areas where they were still avoiding rap on the radio. In Hip-Hop's bum rush of the mainstream, these hits were the ground troops. 

If he'd crafted hits from 1997 to 2007, you'd see lauds for Hurby "Luv Bug" as one of the greatest hitmakers of our time. But timing works against so many of the most accomplished producers of the so-called "Golden Age." They were some of the first consistent across-the-board hitmakers in Hip-Hop, but they came along at a time when purists felt they represented the genre being watered down for pop interests.

"Rap is not pop. If you call it that, then stop." - Q-Tip, 1991 ("Check The Rhime")

In the age of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, "pop-rap" became a more damning epitaph for artists who'd been deemed cookie cutter by Hip-Hop's more serious-minded corners. Acts like Kris Kross, with their backwards pants and preadolescent voices, were dismissed as novelty, but Jermaine Dupri established his production bonafides with that duo. Like, Hurby "Luv Bug," JD just had a skill for making ridiculously infectious records. And for artists like Kris Kross and Da Brat, he churned out bigass hits. 

Death Row's breakthrough circa late 1992/1993 changed mainstream rap's landscape significantly. The conventional wisdom is that Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre elbowed pop-rappers off the charts, but the truth is a bit more nuanced. The ripple effect of The Chronic was real; artists like Kris Kross and MC Hammer deliberately toughened their respective images to fit the "gangsta" trends. But it's also worth noting that artists like Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D saw their biggest commercial successes post-Chronic

The emergence of Sean "Puffy" Combs and Bad Boy Records in the mid-1990s led to East Coast street rap's embrace of pop rap slickness. Coming out of Uptown Records and working as manager for Heavy D, Combs saw firsthand just how powerful melding Hip-Hop lyricism to R&B accessibility could make for major radio exposure. When he launched Bad Boy, he brought that formula with him, and he fully realized its commercial potential in the second half of the 1990s, ushering the "Shiny Suit Era" on the strength of catchy songs with huge hooks and sparkly videos. 

Hitmakers like Combs and Dupri announced themselves much in the way Azor had: all in the videos, all on the records. They saw the fruits of their melodic approach almost immediately and seemed to be the natural next step after what Azor, Eddie F and Kay Gee had helped ignite. 

In a somewhat ironic twist, Death Row and Bad Boy's commercial wins directly influenced more street-oriented rappers to craft slick, more radio-accessible singles. If The Chronic led to pop rappers awkwardly attempting to prove they could go "gangsta," Puffy's formula led to street rappers now sometimes-uncomfortably attempting to score pop hits. 

But by the late 1990s, Hip-Hop superstardom didn't necessarily require backwards clothes or genie pants. A rapper as gritty as DMX could become a major star, so that era of pop rap wasn't met with exactly the same kind of backlash as those artists from a decade prior. Missy Elliott's catchy hooks and innovative videos made her a fixture across radio formats; and Nelly's unique brand of St. Louis singsongy rhyming also gave him a lot of pop hits in the early 00s. 

The idea of "pop-rap" doesn't have to mean hollow music driven by commerce or Black music designed explicitly for "crossover" appeal. If the term means anything it means the catchy rap that has always been played alongside R&B on major platforms. Those artists breaking through to R&B radio meant more to Hip-Hop than any pop crossover, because it gave Hip-Hop a foothold on Black radio in spaces that had been slow to embrace rap on the radio.

Ja Rule is cool again. Salt-N-Pepa have a Lifetime movie. Nelly is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award. It's great to see these hitmakers who defined the popular sounds of their times getting their due. Here's hoping we reach back to that wave of producers; back to the Azors, Eddie Fs, Kay Gees, etc. and salute them also for giving us so many hits. Pop-rap doesn't have to be a bad word, as long as it's not bad music.

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