“Tread Water” (1989), by De La Soul. A crocodile, a squirrel, and others encourage De La Soul—high school chums Kelvin Mercer (nicknamed Posdnuos), David Jude Jolicoeur (Trugoy), and Vincent Mason (Mase)—to maintain a positive attitude. Mr. Fish says: “As for me, I'm in tip-top shape today,/ ’Cause my water's clean and no-one's menu says ‘Fresh Fish Filet.’ ”
“Television, the Drug of the Nation” (1992), by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Your kids don’t agree that TV rots the brain? They’ll listen when Michael Franti raps, “TV is the reason/why less than 10 percent of our nation reads books daily/why most people think/Central America means Kansas, Socialism means un-American, and Apartheid is a new headache remedy.” The only question is: Are you ready for your kids to become militants?
“I Know You Got Soul” (1987), by Eric B. and Rakim. Rakim raps, “It's a four-letter word when it's heard, it control your body to dance ...” But no need to dive for the volume control—the four-letter word to which he is referring is soul. During the so-called golden age of hip-hop (let’s call it 1984-93), DJ Eric B. and MC Rakim were regarded as the most talented combo around.
“120 Seconds” (1991), by Freestyle Fellowship. The four members of this pioneering jazz-rap group—Aceyalone, Myka 9, P.E.A.C.E., and Self Jupiter—became friends when they attended the same schools in Los Angeles. Their wordplay and pop-culture references are dizzying.
“Kick, Push” (2006), by Lupe Fiasco. This Grammy-nominated song is a love story about a skateboarder who tells the girl he loves that, “I would marry you/But I'm engaged to these aerials and varials/And I don't think this board is strong enough to carry two.” What a sexist! His love interest, who turns out to be an even more experienced skater than he is, sets him straight.
“Monie in the Middle” (1990), by Monie Love. Via complex rhymes, a high school girl proclaims her right to decide what she wants out of a romantic relationship, and life. “I made my decision, precisely, precision is a must/ For me to solve another riddle/ Step into a brand-new rhythm, ism schisms/ Nope, I'm not with 'em.”
“Bridging the Gap” (2004), by Nas. Nas is widely considered to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. On this song, which features a guest appearance by his father, the jazz cornetist Olu Dara, he attempts to bridge the generation gap between rappers and older musicians.
“Ham’N’Eggs” (1990), by A Tribe Called Quest. Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White celebrate soul food while promoting vegetarianism and healthy eating at the same time: “Asparagus tips look yummy, yummy, yummy/ candied yams inside my tummy/ a collage of good eats, some snacks or nice treats/ applesauce and some nice red beets.”