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AMC’s Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America is
a docu-series that will focus on six individual rap songs that changed
the genre. The latest episode took a close look at MC Shan’s “The
Bridge,” a hip-hop classic that provided the blueprint for battle rap
culture.

“A battle record is a staple in hip-hop.”
The voice of hip-hop griot KRS-ONE carries these words to viewers in the first five seconds of this week’s episode of Hip-Hop: Songs That Shook America. Focusing on MC Shan’s “The Bridge” classic from 1986,
KRS-ONE, Shan, Marley Marl, LL Cool J, Roxanne Shante, DJ Red Alert,
Funkmaster Flex, Nas and other legends spend 42 minutes using that
classic Queensbridge anthem as a deep dive into the history of hip-hop
battles, and how the world molds and shapes what we hear on wax.
Songs That Shook America
looks at “The Bridge” as more than a song in a rap battle. It was a
regional anthem in a turf war between New York City boroughs, making
this episode the first to explore how a song set off a chain reaction
that divided a city.

“The Bridge” was recorded by MC Shan and Marley Marl, but in STSA, its birth is a byproduct of
a series of preceding battles. Hip-Hop’s battle with mainstream radio’s
dismissal of the genre as a fad led to DJ Magic Mike and Marley Marl’s
Rap Attack being the first commercial radio show for hip-hop. Since that
was the primary hip-hop radio show at the time, DJ Red Alert at Kiss
98.7 FM studied Rap Attack and worked to best his predecessor. That
battle for radio supremacy led to Marley Marl deciding to produce his
own music in order to get an edge. One of those songs produced from
Marl’s desire to one-up Red Alert was Shan’s “The Bridge.”

When KRS and Boogie Down Productions
were ready to release the “South Bronx” response, there was a
battleground already established in radio between Marley Marl and Red
Alert. Alert premiering the MC Shan diss record wasn’t just a DJ
breaking a record. This episode makes it abundantly clear that actions
that seem innocuous and traditional nowadays was tantamount to
declarations of war during a time when people didn’t even say the name
of the person they were dissing on a record.

By the time Nas recollects on how
everyone in Queensbridge huddled around radios anticipating KRS’s “The
Bridge Is Over,” the song feels like a knockout punch from one part of
New York City to another. KRS-One didn’t represent the South Bronx
because he was born and raised there. The Brooklyn native is seen in a
1980s interview saying he chose to live in the Bronx because people had
abandoned the Bronx the way he felt people abandoned him for chasing his
dream. The idea of a battle that divided boroughs essentially was
predicated on an outsider of both of those areas identifying with one
over the other, and not solely because of a relatively harmless slight.
This is the crux of what makes this episode the finest of the series so
far.

There’s a sort of novelistic approach
to documenting this part of hip-hop history; opting for folklorish
descriptions than simple historical retellings. Marley Marl holds the
infamous tape of his drum sounds from 1985-1988 he alleges BDP stole in
order to make “The Bridge is Over” and “South Bronx.”
LL Cool J called DJ Magic Mike “Hip-Hop’s Moses” for having the first
hip-hop radio show. Nas refers to the impact of “The Bridge is Over” on
Queensbridge as “cataclysmic.” There’s even inclusion of a rare 1996
Sprite commercial of KRS and Shan playfully battling in a boxing ring,
showing how their feud crossed over into popular culture.

For such a jam-packed episode that
explores the subject from a multitude of angles, there were a few missed
opportunities that would have expanded its scope. Near the end, some of
the guests break down which elements from historic battles that
succeeded Shan and KRS’s lyrical joust were inspired by the ’80s war of
words. There were parallels drawn between 2Pac’s “Hit Em Up” and “The
Bridge is Over.” There were also parallels drawn between Jay-Z and Nas’
reconciliation and Shan and KRS doing the same. But, no one who had been
in a battle in roughly 20 years spoke on its lasting impact.

The only one who had — Nas — didn’t
share any insight into his own battle with Jay, even though Funkmaster
Flex proclaimed “‘Ether’ was Nas’ ‘The Bridge is Over.’” Nas being such a
vocal and enthusiastic participant in the episode centered around the
art of battling, and having no onscreen opinion of his own was a huge
missed opportunity that could’ve helped contextualize the magnitude of
the KRS and Shan battle during its time.

There was also a brief clip of
Muhammad Ali’s famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”
boastful speech, included to make the idea of viewing rap battles like
heavyweight fights. Yet, Ali, with his propensity for rhyming words to
denigrate his opponent, is often credited as one of the earliest
examples of battle rap. It wasn’t explored much after that short clip.

These missed opportunities are small
and practically unnoticeable because of just how much history is covered
in this episode. The art of battling has changed over the years, but
STSA’s episode on “The Bridge” is clear that no matter the era, a good rap battle can shake up America.


Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop,
technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt
Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire




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