I will always rep for hip-hop, but I don’t do so without acknowledging some of the flaws inherent to the genre. One thing that can almost universally be agreed on is that a good deal of “original school” rap is a bit difficult to listen to. There are only a handful of pre-“golden era” hip-hop singles that I truly consider transcendent, and Whodini’s “Friends” is one of them.
Whodini was kind of the acceptable alternative to Run-DMC for people who didn’t mind hip-hop, but thought Run, D and Jay were a bit too “street” (and therefore scary). The trio of Ecstasy, Jalil and Grandmaster Dee had R&B choruses, they wore Cosby sweaters (and Ecstasy had a trademark Zorro hat), and they danced. Whodini was also famous for “message songs” a la their 1984 smash “Friends”, which was one of the first hip-hop singles to hit the top ten on what Billboard then called the Hot Black Singles chart.
“Friends” mixed hip-hop and R&B three years before new jack swing became a thing and a full decade before the seamless mixture of the genres became mainstream. Credit for that has to go to Larry Smith, one of hip-hop’s unsung heroes. Smith was an integral figure in the early success of rap music. As a matter of fact, Smith played a major part in the first three rap albums to ever go Gold; Run-DMC’s self-titled debut (which he co-produced), The Fat Boys’ debut album (on which he played bass), and Whodini’s Escape, which he produced solely.
The production on “Friends” is synth-based, with an insistent bass part (younger folks may know it as the instrumental that NaS lifted for his breakthrough hit “If I Ruled The World”). X and Jalil come across as older brothers trying to impart learned knowledge on to the listener: be careful of people you let in your circle, and make sure you get to know a person before getting physical with them. Good advice and a timeless message.
Interestingly (and perhaps this is a testament to Larry Smith’s production and the Whodini members’ lyrical maturity), “Friends” is the only old school hip-hop song that has successfully made the transition into a more traditionally sung piece, as these covers by singer/songwriters Alana Davis and Me’shell NdegeOcello attest to.