There’s knowing something, and then there’s knowing something.
When you study history the artifacts you cherish can become intangible, alive only on paper. Hip-hop is no different. That song, that artist, that album becomes a statistic, the answer to a trivia question, instead of a real thing that really exists. In compiling our massive list of every platinum selling hip-hop album I became acutely aware of this phenomenon. I got lost in a sea of facts, numbers and data and albums became plot points on a graph, not works of art. I knew how many copies of these albums were sold, but I didn't know the actual album.
Case in point, Whodini’s 1984 album Escape. I knew it was the first hip-hop album to go platinum. I knew it was produced by the legendary Larry Smith and inspired “If I Ruled The World,” “Troublesome ‘96,” “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” and “Front, Back & Side to Side” among literally hundreds of others. I knew they were a trio out of New York City. And although I could rattle off twelve songs that sampled their work, I didn’t know their names - Jalil Hutchins, John "Ecstasy" Fletcher, and Drew "Grandmaster Dee" Carter - and perhaphs most importantly I couldn’t tell you what Escape sounded like. I'd heard the first big hit rap song, "Rappers Delight," I'd heard several of the first platinum albums (word to Run DMC) but I'd never heard the first platinum album, and I knew I wasn't alone. So I listened
Listening to old albums is often like visiting a museum. You see the artifact but there’s a thick plate of glass that prevents you from really getting to look at it, to touch it. I think music is often the same way. I’ve listened to plenty of older albums, but often it’s hard to get much out of that scholarly, historical approach and just let the music make you feel something. That wasn't the case with Escape, I had no trouble getting into it. I wasn’t listening to pass some sort of authenticity test or to gain superiority, I was listening because I was having fun. Though this album made its debut three decades ago it’s collected no dust. Escape is very much a fun, party record, and the fact that it’s soul still resonates in that way is a testament to Whodini’s craftsmanship.
My understanding of early hip-hop, of the breaks, the loops, and the samples, is that, though funky and danceable, they never really ebbed and flowed. The loop you heard was perfect for getting people on the dance floor, perfect for six minutes of straight rapping, but the song never deviated from that looped beat. What stood out about Escape was that though it was a danceable, dare I say “poppy” album, there is real artistry in the unique effects and experimental sounds, and that's where this album shines. Song’s like “Friends” and “Freaks Come Out At Night” had elements that resemble what we now know as hooks; the latter even used a robot voice which borders on Auto-Tune.
Take the title track, “Escape (I Need a Break).” The danceable beat and the struggle-driven lyrics make it the perfect song to cut loose to after a long day of slaving away at work, but what you might just miss is the “empty” space in between the verses, the bending synths, the sirens wailing in and out like cop cars whizzing down a Brooklyn block. It’s not hard to see why so many rappers have sampled Whodini (and why those samples stand out to us), because Escape has this freshness that defies deterioration. There was more color, more glamour and more vibrancy to these beats than much of the material I have heard from the '80s. The most amazing part, though, is that for the first platinum rap album, some of this stuff sounds more like the Breakfast Club than the Furious Five, with songs like “We Are Whodini” bordering on pop. Escape is catchy yet potent; the perfect combination for any album looking for commercial success. These beats stick in your brain and get you moving without a second thought. I was dancing to this album like I would any song today, I may have even thrown in a dab or two; different era, different dance, same reaction.
Listening to Whodini’s Escape was a history lesson, but it also gave me the kind of feelings I get when listening to new music. This is an album I want in my collection, not to prove I’m some authority on hip-hop or because it’s a must have but because I can really see myself listening to this album on a Friday afternoon as I finish work and get ready to go out. I set out with the goal to hear why this album was the first platinum album in history over other potentially deserving albums like Run-D.M.C's self titled masterpiece or Grandmaster Flash’s The Message and I heard it. Though my knowledge of the era is blurry at best (in ‘84 I was negative four years old) I can hear the crossover, mainstream power in Escape’s DNA. I hear the “it” missing when I research so many other classics.
Listening to Escape helped me see why it was the first platinum album in hip-hop, but it also made me think about the last album to go platinum too. It's ironic that the first hip-hop album to go platinum could be described as a colorful, party-friendly record with pop tendencies that is designed to make people go nuts because that’s exactly how you could describe Drake’s If You Are Reading This It’s Too Late.
I scoffed at Drake calling himself a legend and I attempted to poke holes in the album by calling it poppy, but what’s the difference between a packed dancefloor moving to “Friends” in 1985 and a club getting turnt to “Energy” now? How can I sit here and bemoan Drake for creating a marketable pop/R&B/hip-hop album and celebrate Whodini for the same thing? I’m not saying Drake is better or worse than Whodini, nor am I comparing the merits of Escape versus IFRYITL, but seeing the connections between the two has helped me see the aspects of hit music that truly are timeless, recognize some fundamental truths that have held over the course of decades. Maybe my perception of Drake was off, maybe in fifteen years, when If You're Reading It It’s Too Late is the last hip-hop album to go platinum, I’ll want to reconsider.
Platinum albums are representative of numbers, but more than just copies sold platinum albums are bodies of work that stand the test of time, that make us feel connected to the past but give us thoughts and emotions that feel very now, that change how we see things. That’s what makes Escape a platinum album more than any number or chart. Whodini was hip-hop's true first crossover stars, but they've been largley lost in the fog of history. What better way to find them again than by simply listening?