The ’80s represent a very strange period in Bob Dylan’s back catalogue. It was unusual to see his timeless folk songwriting transposed onto the glossy and gaudy production of the period. Whilst it might not have been Dylan’s most glowing decade, it was an era with some unbelievable songs and groundbreaking movements.
One such movement was the rapid uptake in hip hop, which broke into the mainstream via an unlikely source in the form of Blondie when their 1981 single ‘Rapture’ became the first rap video ever broadcast on MTV. Whilst pop culture may be a palette whereby all genre’s rub off on each other to colour the canvas, Dylan was nevertheless an even more unlikely figure to sneak into the hip hop studio.
In 1986 he did just that, laying down the deeply confounding opening verse to the Kurtis Blow track ‘Street Rock Duet’, rapping out with caustic societal disdain, “Kids starve in Ethiopia / And we are gettin’ greedier / The rich are gettin’ richer / And the needy’s gettin’ needier.” Dylan agreed to be on the track after borrowing a couple of Blow’s backup singers for Empire Burlesque, but it was a collaboration that proved very impactful.
The track might not have reached the lofty heights of his era-defining works like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but it solidified much more than just another curious step in his most wayward decade, it aroused a love for hip hop within the songsmith and, in doing so, reinvigorated his resolve for the potential of song and the deliverance of music.
It was this galvanised passion stirred up by rap, that Bob waxed lyrical about in his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Volume One. The folk legend recounts celebrating his 1989 return to form record Oh Mercy and although it was his best record for years Bob speaks with a touch a lamentation about not being able to provide his friend and producer Daniel Lanois with the utmost spiritually profound music of old like ‘Masters of War’ or ‘Gates of Eden’. He explains that to reach such sagacious summits “you have to get power and dominion over the spirits. I had it once and once was enough.”
Nonetheless, Bob Dylan was not dismayed that such heights could never be achieved again, merely that it would take another artist to reach them. Owing to his brief period with Kurtis Blow, he was convinced that it would be a rapper to do it.
Kurtis Blow had familiarised Dylan with “Ice T, Run DMC, Public Enemy and NWA,” and their iconoclastic verses struck a note with the folk star dubbed ‘The Voice of a Generation’, because these guys “weren’t bullshitting,” they were, “poets who knew what was going on.”
The next voice of a generation, Dylan declared, would be a kid “with a chop top hairdo, who came from that world, who knew it,” and according to Dylan, these kids would change things in the same hard-hitting way that he had back in the ’60s. He regarded the music that he was making as worthy but archaic, he recognised that music would become increasingly urban and he did not bemoan this heralded fate one bit. Instead, he championed it as a necessary transition to modernise the way in which societies flaws are illuminated.
His love of rap seemingly endures to this day, stating recently: “I love rhyming for rhyme sake. I think it’s an incredible art form.” There is an argument that ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is a sort of folk rap song and that Dylan’s hero Woody Guthrie’s talking blues is a central cornerstone in the development of the movement, so who knows maybe it is where destiny was heading for Dylan all along.
Fortunately for us, Dylan was inspired enough by Hip Hip to keep evolving and rolling out records, and we have rap to thank for that. As he said himself, “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”