I can remember picking up box sets by big-band crooner Frank Sinatra and blues-legend Robert Johnson as a college student in the early '90s, not because I was such a huge fan, but because I felt obligated to.
At the time, Sinatra was living, breathing history and I knew he'd had a vast influence on contemporary music. Also, every rock critic on the planet was drooling over Johnson's collection, but I still had no idea where, or how these artists had left their mark.
I bought the box sets and used them like textbooks, enjoying the music even as I was learning its significance.
For a generation of hip-hop fans who don't know their Kraftwerk samples from Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, school is now in session.
Your text: the recently released Tommy Boy's Greatest Beats collection.
There's reason to celebrate anytime a label as influential as New York's Tommy Boy takes the time to put together a comprehensive collection. The '90s have been a boom time for such retrospectives, with educational and musically inspiring sets from pioneering rap labels Sugar Hill and Def Jam, and '60s R&B label Stax. But Tommy Boy's collection is less an assembly of great songs and more of a lesson in hip-hop history.
Subtitled The First Fifteen Years 1981-1996, the four-CD, 56-track set stretches from hip-hop's electro-dance beginnings in the late '70s/early '80s (Afrika Bambaataa + Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock"), through the beats-and-rhymes old school years (Stetsasonic's "Go Stetsa I"), up to its chart topping golden-era (Digital Underground's "The Humpty Dance") and onto the genre's current status as a pop success (Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise").
Along the way, techno-dance acts such as Information Society and cross-dressing dance-act RuPaul stick their heads in the mix to remind the listener what genres have been influenced by hip-hop, while the R&B of Force M.D.'s and Club Nouveau serves as a reminder of one of the sources from which hip-hop came to life.
As an added bonus, the set also comes with a fifth CD of remixes by such artists as techno-remixer Jason Nevins, up-and-coming Big Beat artist DeeJay Punk-Roc and electronica artist Dimitri From Paris, offering a taste of the diverse sounds the songs on the Greatest Beats collection have influenced.
Don't get me wrong, here -- this collection isn't for academics only.
If I go to a party, and someone puts all these CDs on random, I'm not going to complain. Only a fool would object to hearing Naughty By Nature's "O.P.P." (RealAudio excerpt) followed by De La Soul's "Me Myself and I", Ru Paul's "Supermodel (You Better Work)" and Coolio's "Fantastic Voyage" (RealAudio excerpt).
As a music fan, though, I can't help but be excited at the prospect of a collection that consistently offers songs that have been so important to the development of hip-hop.
Having a sonic document in my hands which offers the full-length version of De La Soul's "Buddy" (RealAudio excerpt), which introduced the world to the Native Tongues posse of A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and Monie Love and the Butch Vig rock re-mix of House of Pain's "Shamrocks and Shenanigans," is akin to a graduate course in hip-hop history.
That's before you even get to "Talkin' All That Jazz," the song by Stetsasonic, which first pulled no punches in the debate over sampling, and the Force M.D.'s "Tender Love" (RealAudio excerpt), hip-hop's official love song until LL Cool J came along a year later with "I Need Love" in 1987.
There's a nation of kids out there who know Queen Latifah has a powerful presence from her turns on the sitcom "Living Single" and the film "Set It Off," but if you're looking for the seed of her royalty, you need look no further than her lyrical spitting on "Ladies First," "Come Into My House" and "Latifah's Had It Up To Here."
These are more than just randomly assembled songs. These are cultural artifacts -- 54 of them, as a matter of fact -- packaged to form a sort of free-association, funky hip-hop encyclopedia.
College campuses are clogged with classes on the history of jazz and the blues, but why wait until you can get a credit toward graduation?
When hip-hop history classes start to join their ranks, those who have studied Tommy Boy's Greatest Beats will be able to skip their freshman year.