Big Daddy Kane was a force of nature in the late 1980s. Women wanted him. Men wanted to be him. Cool, calm and confident, with a lyrical killer instinct, Kane was James Bond and Shaft all rolled into one. His first two albums are undisputed classics, but his career fizzled afterwards due to some bad choices with regard to his career direction (Playgirl???) and Hip-Hop’s aesthetic moving to a place where, frankly, BDK wasn’t comfortable.
Even so, Kane’s fingerprints are still all over the torch that he passed to the greats that followed him, and he remains one of the best emcees ever. The following are 10 of the best lyrical and vocal performances in Hip-Hop history, and the blueprint to understanding the greatness that is Brooklyn’s first king. Long live the Kane.
1. “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” – It’s hard from me to separate this song from its classic video. At age 7, I thought it was the coolest thing I would ever see. The sharkskin suit. The smartphone sized-four finger rings. The chunky gold chains. By the time I actually listened to the words, I knew I was hearing something that had never been done before. Over Marley Marl’s classic manipulation of The Emotions’ “Blind Alley,” one of the most charismatic emcees ever rhymed like he just got a fresh haircut and a huge paycheck.
2. “Raw” – The reason why Kane is so beloved in rap circles, and is the reason many of your favorite rappers decided to pick up a microphone, is his ability transition from the smooth production of “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” to sound just as comfortable on a song like “Raw.” As stripped down as its title, the bare bones track is packed with quotables and remains one of the single best performances in music history.
3. “Smooth Operator” – Not unlike “Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” Kane masters the delicate balance of his cool detached ladies’ man persona with whip smart lyricism on “Smooth Operator.” Ladies are loved, sucker emcees dissed, and all is right with the world.
4. “Wrath of Kane” – Kane was innovator in terms of flow and cadence, and “Wrath of Kane” finds Kane showing his full repertoire of skills. From bending words across bars like The Incredible Hulk might bend a steel beam over his knee, to percussive rhyme schemes that attacked (“The man/at hand/to rule/and school/and teach/and reach/the blind/to find/their way/from a/to z/And be/the most/and boast/the loud/and proud/to gain and reign your domain”) the beat like a barrage of punches, Kane had every skill an emcee could want at his disposal.
5. “Young, Gifted and Black” – Kane didn’t get enough credit for his commentary on social issues and issues affecting Hip-Hop. When he wasn’t destroying his competition, he was encouraging children to be great, imploring his listeners to seek knowledge of self and on “Young, Gifted and Black” fighting back against the increasingly frequent law suits artists were filing against Hip-Hop producers that sampled them.
6. “I Get The Job Done” – Seemingly every year there is a new “it” producer that shifts the sound of rap in another direction, eventually drawing the biggest names to their studios like moths to the Human Torch. In 1989, that producer was a young upstart named Teddy Riley. His new jack swing became the prominent sound in black music for a period of time, and “I Get The Job Done” was one of the better examples of that sound’s effect on Hip-Hop.
7. “Warm It Up Kane” – Kane was an underrated producer in his own right. He constructs a jazzy bassline and skittering snare on “Warm It Up Kane” only to destroy like a hyperactive kid would a sandcastle. Not to mention that few people have set off a song with a stronger set of lines than “Come get some/You little bum/I take the cake/but you can’t get a crumb.”
8. “Just Rhymin’ With Biz” – The court jester and king of the Juice Crew get together for a classic collaboration. The lo-fi, gritty, quality of the recording only adds to its charm. You can almost see Kane and Biz passing the mic in Marley Marl’s cramped Queens apartment as you listen to the classic vocal samples you’ve heard in hundreds of other songs (e.g. Kane’s “check it out y’all”) flow from the voices of the originators.
9. “Show and Prove” – The ’90s weren’t kind to Kane. His ladies’ man leaning toppled his short-lived empire, but his skill level remained high. Though he does sound little dated here, there are still flashes of his 1000 watt brilliance. Still, “Show and Prove” is important to Kane’s history less for his own contribution, and more for the other future Hip-Hop legends that contributed. In addition to the teenaged wunderkind Shyheim, and Sauce Money (I refuse to acknowledge Scoob’s verse), a pre-fame, rapid-fire, Jay-Z and unfiltered Ol’ Dirty Bastard steal the show over a bouncy DJ Premier beat.
10. “Nuff Respect” – Also known as “the song Q was cutting up in the DJ battle in Juice,” Kane’s tongue-twisting flow was perfect for the frenetic beat that marked one of better songs of the twilight of his too-short reign at the top.