MIRST Competitors Release (12 of 13): Heavy Metal, Rap, & The Rise Of Alternative Rock, 1980-1989

Updated: It’s been brought to my attention that even as a rudimentary overview, there are some inaccuracies in the “metal” section. I definitely defer to the experts, as this isn’t my strong area of knowledge and I’m just trying to share what I’ve taken away from my course here. Please comment! 

Note: All information below is based on my notes from my History of Rock course. The songs found at the bottom will be competing in our “Most Influential Rock Song of all Time” (MIRST) tournament, which will begin here at LivingTheDream.org on Sunday, August 20th. 

 MTV was a launchpad for pop success, but there were many other scenes developing in the 80s off the main corporate radar. The growth of three distinct musical styles in this period is notable and important in the history of rock- heavy metal, rap, and alternative.

Heavy Metal

The early days of heavy metal begins as a separation from traditional blues-based rock at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s. Early prototypes for things to come include Iron Butterfly, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin. One might think of “Kashmir” particularly as a representative example of heavy metal’s predecessor roots. The image of heavy metal in the early 80s was one of an audience of blue collar, working class individuals possibly prone to violence- emergence of the phrase “headbangers.”

Metal’s geographic roots come out of two areas- London/North England and Los Angeles. In Britain, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWBHM) emerges. Preceding NWBHM was the music created by both Ozzy Osbourne as an independent artist as well as Black Sabbath with new singer Ronnie James Dio. Defined by heavy driving guitar and deep drum beats. Other Brits in this group include Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, and Motorhead. In LA, the metal style is characterized by high screams, loud assertive drumming, and anthem-like vocals; consider Van Halen, Quiet Riot, Ratt, and Motley Crue.

Simultaneous to the underground metal scene, there is a more mainstream-oriented metal that is hitting it big on the charts with more crossover popularity. Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet (1986) and Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction (1987) huge successes (AFD the Rumours of 80s metal.) This success leads to more popular acceptance of the metal market- MTV creates the show “Headbangers Ball.” In Los Angeles, hair bands emerge that are a bit more glam influenced and oriented toward make-up/spandex styles. Poison is the leader here, and its song “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” in 1988 might be thought of as the prototypical power ballad. Last, should note the rise of ambitious metal bands too- more of a progressive rock approach to the music, a combination of loud and soft sounds and a blend of speed and thrash metal styles. Metallica the market leader here, along with Megadeth, Antharax, and Slayer. Very dependent on virtuoso instrument playing as well as a focus on the song itself. These artists were deeply dedicated to rehearsals and perfection- in a way, carrying the torch of the “hippie aesthetic” from yesteryears, constant innovation in styles and playing.


Rap arises out of New York’s African-American and Latino communities and out of the Bronx specifically. The style begins as rising out of neighborhood parties done in the style of the Jamaican record parties mentioned in the reggae post. DJ Kool Herc had moved to the Bronx from Jamaica and began emulating with a mix of vinyl spinning and speaking on the microphone over the music. Develops the idea of the MC and standardizing breakdancing as the style of choice for hip hop parties. The technical innovation here is prolonged breaks in songs- with 2 turntables and identical records on each, can bring records back and extend breaks to encourage spoken word and/or dancing. Grandmaster Flash comes to the Bronx from Barbados and provides additional technological innovations including punch phrasing and scratching. Third key figure in late 70s rap was Afrika Bambaata, who starts the Universal Zulu Nation and focuses on using rap to keep kids out of gangs.

The first rap record was the brainchild of Sylvia Robinson, who overheard a group of kids chanting over an elongated break of Chic’s “Good Times.” Robinson had minor success in the R&B scene going back to 1958, decides to get group together to lay down a novelty record of sorts. The group names itself Sugar Hill Gang, and the song is 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Other early innovative vinyls include Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks (Part 1)” (1980) and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” (1982.) Proof that rap can in fact be transferred to vinyl with success and doesn’t have to just exist at block parties.

Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin

The cross-over of rap to a broader audience base can be credited to Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, and Def Jam Records. They had early success with LL Cool J, whose 1985 single “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” was featured in the cult classic movie Krush Groove. However, their big crossover success comes with the work of Run DMC. Their 1984 song “Rock Box” purposefully incorporates distorted guitar (taking a page from the “Beat It” guitar use.) However, the big success here is in 1986’s “Walk This Way” in collaboration with Aerosmith. Last, The Beastie Boys also have a lot to do with the crossover success of rap- Licensed To Ill (1986) was the first rap album to hit #1 on the charts.

In the late 80s, rap begins to foray into areas of social and political criticism both out of the East Coast and the West Coast. Ice-T, NWA, Boogie Down Productions, and Public Enemy (with varied levels of anger) all produce influential music addressing issues like urban blight and police brutality. Queen Latifah first popular female rapper with her album All Hail The Queen (1989.) MTV recognizes the popularity of rap and launches Yo! MTV Raps in August of 1988.

Alternative Rock

R.E.M., 1985

While punk did largely go new wave in the 80s, an element of underground punk remained that got more hardcore and continued with the D.I.Y. aesthetic and anti-establishment themes. Fear, Black Flag, Minutemen, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, The Replacements, and Husker Du. Also in the 80s was the rise of college rock, idea of developing an “alternative” to the industry music on FM rock stations. Mid-80s groups realizing great success through these avenues were R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies, Sonic Youth, and The Smiths (who were from UK but got great levels of radio play on college stations.)

About g-mo

The day I was born, Michael Jackson's Thriller album was at the top of the Billboard 200. I've been trying my best to live up to that expectation ever since.
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