Artists: Above the Law
Album: Livin’ Like Hustlers
Year Released: 1990
Group Members: KMG the Illustrator, Cold 187
Producers: Dr. Dre
Radio Singles: “Murder Rap,” “Untouchable”
Phattest Tracks: “Untouchable” is Above the Law’s single best song in their anthology and one of the illest in the Ruthless Records collection. The song shows the complexity of west coast hip-hop. And make no mistake, this is hip-hop music. Not merely rap, but hip-hop music. While the song undeniably celebrates hustling, at heart this is a battle rhyme as illustrated by the barbs traded between 187 and KMG in the song’s final verse.
“If I don’t hit you, you probably hit me
How could it be, I’m the illustrator KMG
And see, that’s just one thing that never happens
KMG, 187 – lose when we rappin
See, we slide on some suckers who be nappin
Grab the mic, put in the clip and commence to start cappin
Cause when we flow, we got dignity
And we’re givin the world an opportunity
That there’s a lesson to be taught when you come to our show
Cause we scratch on our table, and bust the rhyme flow
Plus our lyrics is steaks, and rhythms come clean
Do damage, break backs, if you know what I mean”
West-coast hip-hop is often portrayed as being as being overly violent, though it is no more so than rap music from New York or New Orleans or New Delhi. Hearing the title “Untouchable” from a group called Above the Law and one will immediately think that this is an ode to gangsterism. And the casual listener who is only listening to the dope ass beat may adopt this frame as well when they hear references to loading clips. But when Above the Law “commences to start cappin,” they are armed with lyrics that they say makes them untouchable when it comes to the art of rhyme. I, for one, ain’t gonna argue with them.
“Flow On” continues Above the Law’s penchant for prioritizing lyricism. There are few messages of redemption to be found on this cut as the L.A. duo invite you to a front row seat for a lecture coming straight out of U.S.C. – the University of South Central. In just over 3 minutes the pair enlighten listeners about how to effectively pimp, how to clock dough and you even learn new vocabulary words like chronic, one of the first recorded uses of the South Central term for marijuana, which has since been diffused all over the world. Still, Above the Law never lose sight of the fact that whether you’re talking about Crenshaw skeezers or the mark of the beast, your subject matter is immaterial if your rhymes are wack. While they aim to put as much substance in their content as possible, they also want to distinguish themselves from other MC’s in the skillful and entertaining manner in which they inform the public. They achieve both goals on “Flow On.”
“Just Kickin Lyrics.” Are you starting to notice a theme? A lot is made of the dramatic falloff in lyricism over the past decade compared to the Golden Era of hip-hop, and times prior. But at the time that Above the Law put out Livin’ Like Hustlers they knew full well that spitting substandard lyrics could end a rapper’s career. The buying public was extremely cynical. Your shit had to be tight and MC’s knew it. This was a time long before any rapper could imagine that they’d get rich from rapping, so cats like Above the Law were not getting into this game because it offered a lucrative career. Quite the contrary. So for niggas to put the kind of time in required to make dope product, they had to genuinely love rapping. And way, way worse than forgoing money, was being labeled as a sucker MC. So Above the Law pays due diligence to the value of raw lyricism. And they don’t disappoint on this song.
In the late 80s and early 1990s, hip-hop was blamed for all that is wrong with America. Particularly unsettling to many of the old folk was how the lyrics found in rap music were demeaning and vulgar. This caused hip-hop to be attacked on all fronts. By the Supreme Court. By Tipper Gore. By clergymen like the Rev. Calvin Butts. Even Bill Clinton piled on. All of these assaults only emboldened hip-hop more. And besides, who the fuck were these immoral, degenerate bastards to be lecturing us on morality any fucking way? Since the very beginning, MC’s have used their art to hold a large mirror up to America in order to reflect its rampant hypocrisy back at itself. Above the Law takes America to task for its convenient application of the Constitution on “Freedom of Speech.” The album’s most overtly political song is not the only time that Above the Law goes down this path. But their case is made most persuasively here as they indict several of America’s most cherished institutions in colluding against hip-hop culture.
“Now what’s really known as a radio cut?
When you can’s say (shit) and you can’t say (fuck)
I really think you wanna hear it
But the radio stations, you see, they still gonna fear it
Yo, I thought this country was based upon freedom of speech
Freedom of press, freedom of your own religion
To make your own decision,
now that’s baloney
Cause if I gotta play by your rules, I’m bein phoney
Yo, I got to cater to this person or that person
I got to rhyme for the white or the black person?
Why can’t it all be equal?
Music is a universal language for all people
I better get off the rebellious tip
Before somebody out there say I’m startin to slip
I ain’t trippin, I’m steadily flowin
Givin you a dope style
Keepin me on top of the pile
Cause ATL’ll soon take over the nation
And if you don’t wanna hear us, well, change the station
Boo! I sneak in your mind
Sink in your mind, creep from behind
So fast that you won’t have time
To deny a brother that’s from the streets
Tryin to teach,
hopin to reach
Yo, 187’s not one that’s known to preach
But I wish for each to have freedom of speech”
If their point has not been made enough in their provocative prose, they quote from the Constitution directly, inserting a white male (probably Ruthless Record CEO Jerry Heller) for a voiceover in the hook where he says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” That Above the Law could feel artistically comfortable dealing with subjects like these in such an intelligent manner says as much about the audience they were making music for as it does about them.
One of the first things you’ll notice after first hearing the “The Last Song” is that Ice Cube ain’t on it. I kept waiting with bated breath for his verse as it was customary for all the label members to grab the baton and it never came. Eazy, Dre and Ren still do their thing to be sure. And as always, Dre is on the top of his game on the boards. But even years later, my heart aches at thoughts of what an O’shea Jackson at the top of his game could have done to this track.
And I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t speak at length about the production throughout the album. Dr. Dre does some of his best work ever on Livin’ Like Hustlers, quiet is kept. Proof is in the pudding of how many producers and rhyme sayers brought back tracks that debuted on this album. “Flow On” utilized the same track that Nas’ beautifully resurrected on “Escobar 97.” “Another Execution” was taken to another level by MC Eiht and Scarface on “N2 Deep.” Third Bass and Dr. Dre would both make fine use of B.T. Express’ “This House is Smokin.” Lil’ Kim came hardcore when she updated “Message from a Soul Sisters” after I had first heard it nearly a decade earlier on “Freedom of Speech.” I feel confident in my contention that J-Dilla is the greatest hip-hop producer of all time, but when I dust off classics like this Doc Dre reminds me that there is room for heavy debate on the matter.
What Else Was Hot at the Time: Amerikka’s Most Wanted, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Fear of a Black Planet, Step in the Arena, Xodus, Business as Usual, Sex Packets, Let the Rhythm Hit Em. If you don’t know the artists behind those albums, you probably don’t deserve to.
Contribution To Hip-Hop: This album continued to solidify west coast rap as artistically sound. Above the Law would be far more celebrated in another era. But not only were they muffled by the genius of hip-hop’s Golden era, they were overshadowed on their own record label by legends like the D.O.C. and NWA. Today’s rap artists do much to box themselves in. You’re either a jiggy rapper, a gangsta, a hipster or conscious. But Above the Law gives something for all the listeners. For niggas whose main ambition in life is getting as much pussy as possible, Above the Law got you covered. The political militancy is unmistakable from the album’s first track when the group rails against America’s criminal (in)justice system. For heads who like to vibe out to beats, Dr. Dre does not leave you disappointed. And the attention they give to lyrics has been well documented. Overall, it’s one of the most complete albums in the history of the genre.
Social Contribution: The social contribution of this LP is limited beyond its contribution of many terms into the hip-hop lexicon.
Album Rating: 4.25 out of 5 lights-up
Why It’s 4.25: The beats on this album are off the meter. A fully self-assured Dr. Dre is at the absolute top of his game. Dre’s genius is not only in making dope beats, but making beats that are specifically suited for the artist rhyming over them; whether it’s Eminem, Snoop, The Game, Ice Cube, the Lady of Rage, Eazy E, the D.O.C. or Above the Law. Above the Law are in league with other classic duos like Big Boi and Dre, Tip and Phife, Run and DMC, Eric and Parrish. And like each of those artists, one of the things that make Above the Law dope is the contrasts in their voices. The high pitch of 187 and the deep, raspy, slightly above a whisper drawl of KMG compliments each other immaculately. But this album isn’t just style. These cats have a lot to say. The diversity of subject matter is something that a lot of MC’s could learn from. They talk about ballin, they deal with politics, they deal with sucker MC’s, they pay homage to hip-hop, they talk about street shit. It’s almost as if they live a three-dimensional life.
Why It’s Not a 5: Livin Like Hustlers is fresh but it’s not a transformative album. Some of the skits fall flat and there are no standout verses on the album that make your jaw drops to the floor.
Other Album Releases by This Artist: Vocally Pimpin 1991, Black Mafia Life 1993, Uncle Sam’s Curse 1994, Time Will Reveal 1996, Legends 1998, Forever: Rich Thugs, Book One 1999, Sex, Money, Music 2009
Where are They Now?: Sadly, our man KMG passed away last year from causes that are still unknown. No announcements have been made on whether the group will continue on now they are down a member.
Artists: Blu & Exile
From: Los Angeles
Album: Below the Heavens
Year Released: 2007
Group Members: Blu & Exile
Radio Singles: Yeah right. This is 2007. Shit like this doesn’t get played on the radio these days. Radio singles? How rich.
Phattest Tracks: “I Am.” Some of the illest shit about hip-hop is how heads appropriate familiar things and make them new. This is true whether we’re making instruments from vinyl records, re-using cardboard to spin on or emptying out blunts of their original contents. Nowhere is this more vivid than in the art of sampling. Cats have freaked loops from the Isley Brothers or James Brown over the years, but it doesn’t take a herculean effort to make “The Big Payback” funky. Truly impressive are when producers are able to take obscure, no-regard songs and transform them into classics like this. Some of my favorite moments is when producers take something from TV. I was blown away when I first heard Pete Rock’s sample of music taken from the score of the “Fat Albert” cartoon to produce this banga. And MF Doom’s use of the fuckin ending to “Sesame Street” is some of the most amazing shit in hip-hop. Truly. Exile fishes from the same well in expropriating from “Sesame Street” on Below the Heavens’ standout song, “I Am.” The hook for this head-nodder is provided by my nigga, Cookie Monster, whose near-constant chants of “I am blue” are sure to make even the hardest of hardrocks sentimental about their childhood. Honestly, who the fuck thinks about sampling Cookie Monster? But our Caucasian brotha, Exile, pulls it off without a hitch. It would be a shame for such a dope beat and concept to be hampered by inadequate lyricism, but Blu meets the challenge laid down by Exile and then some, dropping his most ferocious bars on the album. The song closes out Below the Heavens but rates first in the entirety of Blu’s substantial catalogue.
One of the most vexing aspects of the mindset prevailing in our society today is that so many people want to avoid adversity at all costs. Blu is the rare Millennial who endorses not only enduring struggle, but actually embracing it. Seeing the value in struggle is the message on “Dancing in the Rain.” Exile is at his best on this song as the harp that he features in the sample provides the perfect backdrop to Blu’s poetics. Blu drops a descriptive, detailed first verse where he recalls a rainy day where just when it seemed like everything had gone wrong, he gets soaked as he waits for the bus. Rather than lament, Blu takes his shoes and socks off and dances in the rain, laughing all the way. But make no mistake, Blu is not immune to difficulty and self-doubt. And this is exhibited in the song’s second verse which, as a fellow writer, really struck a chord with me personally. But this verse is powerful for anyone who has experienced doubt and uncertainty, regardless of their craft:
Sometimes I hate takin’ trips to the lab
Got my pen and pad-
book and’ instrumentals and smash
Catch the bus regardless
Tryin’ hard to be an artist
But my A&R be callin’ me out my zone into his office
cause he don’t want my record to break
Askin’ me how I think my projects progressin’ and shit
I say cool but the truth is I’m stressin’ a grip
Cause it’s hard to make music when this depression exists
They say use it as inspiration, the best of them did
But as an MC I can’t handle this pressure for shit
And if you ask me, stress is a bitch
My girl needs more attention, And my record label is desperate for hits
Now I’m pissed cause I’m gettin’ out the zone again
Makes me start to dread when I see a microphone and
It ain’t supposed to be like that
I said I’ll be right back
I left the office, got a phone and called my partner Jack
And I asked him, remind me why I’m rappin’?
And right before he answered I remembered my passion
in the past, When I was scribblin’ in my tablet to box out my mom and dads scrappin’
To help me when my grandmother passed
Plus the many times I was homeless
And the times when I was broke, and this music made a way when I was hopeless
He told me to remember the rain,
it’ll diminish the pain
And he told me not to ask him again
cause I know…..
As a dude who definitely has had a rainy day or two, songs like this warm my spirit in the way that I imagine a Mahalia Jackson cut did for my grandma. The world would be a little bit better if songs like this were played on the radio routinely.
“The World Is…”gives spiritual closure to Below the Heavens as Blu talks about what helps him get through life’s struggles. Rather than imaging our world as hell on earth, Blu frames it as falling just “below the heavens,” suggesting that we’re a lot closer to our divine nature than our satanic one. This is a beautiful message in a world where it’s becoming more difficult by the minute to find God’s grace. Listening to songs like this lets you know that it’s still there.
Being a starving artist or an independent hustler of any stripe is a difficult existence. There are a lot of dues being paid that don’t always result in tangible benefits. This lifestyle can frequently make pursuits of the opposite sex challenging in an environment where many ballers use their immediate material gains to entice the fair sex. On “Blu Collar Workers” Blu lays out a scenario where he is imploring a young lady to be patient with him through his financial pitfalls. The song is refreshing in an era where most rappers lie about their material gains, which generally aren’t sustainable for an industry chop-full of one-hit wonders. Blu makes no pretense about how destitute he is, saying at one point in the song, “But see I’m underground so now I gotta find cheese/Just to take her out to dinner, just to eat/and get a kiss up on the cheek/But for me it’s even harder, cuz i aint got a car to pick them up in.” Hip-hop was riding the bus and the train when we were first introduced to her over 30 years ago. And while I am overjoyed that some of the culture’s most vital trailblazers are now able to travel in chariots fit for royalty, this is a reality that is far detached from most of the rank-and-file fan base. It is invigorating to see an MC who has the self-confidence to actually be himself on wax, even if such honesty might cost him some casual fans and casual ass alike.
What Else Was Hot at the Time: The next generation of super mc’s were providing the underground with hope in 2007. Joell Ortiz dropped The Brick. The Undisputed Truth was being disseminated to the masses by Brother Ali out of the Twin Cities. Even without 9th Wonder, Little Brother continued to bring the funk on Getback. Devin the Dude was Waiting to Exhale, but certainly not for very long. Kentucky triumphant, CunninLynguists’ released Dirty Acres, the group’s 4th album. And Lupe blew in from the Windy City with his instant classic, The Cool. Meanwhile, some of our old favorites were showing that they were still holding shit down as Talib Kweli released his best album, Eardrum, Common was Finding Forever and KRS One & Marley Marl showed that they hadn’t lost a step at all on Hip-Hop Lives. Pharoahe Monch put out Desire. And Sean Price was in the midst of his resurrection with the release of Jesus Price Superstar.
Contribution To Hip-Hop: If for some strange reason you still listen to the radio or watch BET, there is much to lament about the future of hip-hop. But after five minutes of listening to this album, you can rest well knowing that hip-hop music and culture is in great shape. At just age 24 at the time of Below the Heavens’ 2007 release, it was remarkable that an MC born in the 1980s could make an album that would fit perfectly in the genre’s golden era. But Below the Heavens puts listeners in the mindset of 1987 more than 2007. There are no auto tunes on this album. You won’t hear Blu brag about his bling or his whip. And Blu fails to murder anyone from the security of his California studio. Even more impressive is Blu’s intimate knowledge and reverence for those who paved the way for him. Most significantly, Blu’s very presence as an MC shows that hip-hop niggas like us will be here forever. Forever and ever and ever and ever.
Social Contribution: This album was a real shot in the arm for hip-hop. But maybe even more so for the public image of young black men. Blu avoids the self-constrained one-dimensionality of most modern rappers. He’s no punk, but he’s also not afraid to show you his vulnerability. Moreover, it is financially prudent to come out as a jiggy rapper these days. So for a cat to come out and be himself was a real powerful statement. For Blu to willingly choose the less glamorous path as an underground rapper is commendable. Additionally, Blu gives a mature spiritual vibe to this album without being preachy and attaching himself to religious spookery.
Album Rating: 4 out of 5 lights-up
Why It’s 4: For an album to truly have lasting value and staying power it needs to evoke something emotional in its listeners. And Below the Heavens does that to be sure. This album takes its listeners on a spiritual journey that deals honestly and humbly with trials of modern life such as economic insecurity, unresolved parental issues, broken faith in religion and broken faith in hip-hop. But through it all, Below the Heavens is life affirming. The struggle isn’t sugarcoated. It wouldn’t be hip-hop if reality weren’t given to you in its rawest form. But through it all, a message of hope resonates that life’s challenges will be met, and that there is a larger meaning to the beautiful struggle. And 24-year old Blu proves himself a bonafide MC who can demolish any of his contemporaries, that includes Wayne and Drake among them. And he can hold court with the all-time living legends as well. Finally, while Blu has gone on to work with a great deal many producers since 2007, none captures the sincerity of his rhymes quite like Exile does. Their chemistry is such to when the L.A. rhymesayer fashions the duo as “the new Pete Rock and CL,” it is not hyperbole. I have little doubt that Below the Heavens is an album that would receive the Mecca Don and the Chocolate Boy Wonder’s stamp of approval.
Why It’s Not a 5: By 2007 standards, this album may well rate as an 18.5 on a 5-point scale. But for what Blu and Exile would ultimately reveal themselves capable of, it can be argued that the 4 they are given here is a bit generous. There are several standouts songs on this album. But there are other moments where the rhymes fall short such as “Simply Amazing” and “No Greater Love.” The rhymes aren’t wack by any means. They just don’t move me as much as some other bars do. And on “Show me the Good Life” where Blu more than carries his weight, it is Exile who fails to rise to the occasion. Below the Heavens is classic material because of the statement it makes as art. And the album’s zeniths are spectacular. But it’s far too inconsistent overall to approach a 5.
Other Album Releases by This Artist: Give me My Flowers While I Can Smell Them. As much as I rave about Below the Heavens, Give Me My Flowers is a far superior album. It’s one of the top 20 hip-hop albums of the 21st century. These cats also dropped an ill mixtape that preceded Below The Heavens called C.O.R.E. That shit bangs too. Blu has released no fewer than 10 albums as a solo artist or in collaboration. His entire body of work is worth investigating thoroughly.
Where are They Now?: Both Blu and Exile continue to do their thing, with no end in sight. Blu is one hit away from Kendrick Lamar-like superstardom. He’s that dope. In fact, he’s doper. And I say that as a huge, huge Kendrick fan. So you’d be well-advised to get familiar if you’re not already.
Year Released: 1996
Group Members: Big Boi, Andre
Producers: Organized Noize
Radio Singles: “Elevators,” “ATLiens,” “Jazzy Belle”
Phattest Tracks: The 1995 Source Awards was one of the more significant moments in hip-hop history. Most will remember it as the evening when Suge Knight single-handedly started the east-west beef that would ultimately claim the lives of two of our best soldiers after the Death Row CEO openly dissed Puffy while receiving a highly coveted Source award. But this was also the night when uppity New Yorkers booed both Outkast and the Geto Boys because they had the audacity to be born outside of the five boroughs. Andre of Outkast’ response to the crowd reaction is later sampled on “Chonkyfire” where he defiantly states that “the south got something to say.” Those who had been listening closely on Outkast’ debut album already knew that Big Boi and Dre had plenty to say that was worth listening to. Anyone who was still sleeping was awakened after the duo released ATLiens and shouted to the world that both Outkast and the South were here to stay. Contrary to what these New Yorkers (who would shortly let their sound be defined by the likes of Ja Rule, Camron and 50 Cent) may have thought, you won’t find a group more hip-hop than Outkast. And ATLiens was one of the first albums that let it be known that there were people who embodied the spirit of Kurtis Blow and Kool Herc who didn’t live near an ocean. In many ways, ATLiens represented Outkast firmly taking claim over hip-hop, making it clear that this was not a culture that New Yorkers were going to be able to hold onto selfishly all to themselves. But there’s nothing more un-hip hop than biting. So it would be wack for niggas in Oakland, in Chicago, in New Orleans, in Atlanta to express their hip-hop in the same way that the Gods and Earths of Gotham did.
The intro to “Wheelz of Steel” encapsulates this hybrid spirit when Big Boi begins the song saying, “As I sit in my b-boy stance….with flip-flops and socks, and sweatpants.” In adopting the language of the culture, they make it clear that they are fully immersed in hip-hop, and are not merely some southern rappers looking to make a quick buck in the rap industry. But Outkast also was unapologetically not just southern, but downright country. However, songs like “Wheelz of Steel” showed that this wasn’t the party rap of the 69 Boys, Luke or even their own breakthrough single, “Players Ball.” No sir, these were some introspective MC’s that had far more in common with Kool Keith and Posdnous than they did C Murder or Lil Scrappy.
“Two Dope Boys” embodies the southern funk that has distinguished the Organized Noize sound for nearly two decades. Outkast again appropriates the New York-originated term, dope, but they contextualize it for the south where you’re far more likely to find a Cadillac than the parking nightmare that is New York City. But they don’t only deal with the dichotomy between the south and the east with subtle strokes. In verse two, a rapidly maturing Andre speaks to this divergence head-on:
This ol’ sucka MC
stepped up to me
Challenged Andre to a battle and I stood there patiently
As he spit and stumbled over cliches, so called freestylin’
Whole purpose just to make me feel low, I guess you widin’
I say look boi, I ain’t for that fuck shit;
so fuck this
Let me explain only child style so you don’t miss
I grew up to myself not ’round, no park bench
Just a nigga bustin’ flows off in apartments
Outkast was going to represent hip-hop culture on their own terms, which when you think about it is really the most hip-hop thing you can do. “Two Dope Boys” is a classic battle rap that lets phony rappers know that Outkast could go toe to toe with any MC’s out there. But their reference to a Cadillac made clear that they weren’t going to leave any money on the table that they had coming to them.
And finally there was plenty money to be had. By 1995, rappers were really starting to get their money. No longer was hip-hop underground, relegated to the hour before primetime on the Grammy’s, mocked by radio pundits who not only refused to play the music, but openly derided it. But with the unprecedented success of Bad Boy and Death Row, rap music was a force to be reckoned with. But many rappers who didn’t fit into the gangsta formula preferred by corporations at the time could find little traction among the consuming public. The mainstreaming of rap caused many artists to box themselves in, as this made it easier for them to appeal to a wider fan base. Outkast had enjoyed almost unrivaled success with their debut album. Outkast could have easily just made a facsimile of their first album and maxed out their commercial success. People like Shawn Carter have made a career out of this. But Outkast chose to do otherwise. On their song’ Mainstream” Outakst and their collaborators from the Goodie MOB disparage rappers who go with the flow rather than against the current of public opinion as hip-hop originally intended. Theirs is a rare voice in a wilderness railing against selling out to corporate influences. But it was easier for someone like Jeru the Damaja or the Boogie Monsters to talk that shit. This theme resonates even more as it comes from cats who were multi-platinum.
“Jazzy Belle” is a spiritual and lyrically descriptive song that offers a powerful message without coming across as preachy.
What Else Was Hot at the Time: Reasonable Doubt came out this year from an up and coming rapper named Jay Z. It sounded like he had a future but I’m not sure what happened to him. Tupac released one of his best albums, Makiavelli, posthumously. Ironman from Ghostface dropped. There was Hell on Earth from Mobb Deep and Illadelph Halflife from the Roots, a truly phenomenal album. Ras Kas hit us with Soul on Ice. MOP released Firing Squad and UGK was Riding Dirty. And after torturing their fans, Tribe finally put out Beats, Rhymes and Life where they showcased a relatively unknown producer from Detroit named James Yancey.
Contribution To Hip-Hop: Without a doubt the most commercially viable region of the country for rap music today is the Dirty South. And it can be argued that like New York City, a generation ago or Los Angeles for a shorter span, that the south (and its capitol of Atlanta specifically) sets the trends in rap music, and black entertainment in general. With no disrespect to the Geto Boys or the Two Live Crew, it is Outkast that is most responsible for this seismic shift. Although several of the region’s artists had enjoyed commercial success, in the mid 1990s the South was not taken as seriously artistically as some of their northern neighbors. This changed with ATLiens. This was an album that the most ardent b-boy couldn’t front on when Dre was hitting you with bars like, “The Pope and his folks got us under a scope/But for unknown reasons cause we don’t sell dope/ That you distribute/We don’t contribute/ to your clandestine activity/my soliloquy/ may be hard for some to swallow, but so is cod liver oil/ You went behind my back like Bluto when he cut up Olive Oyl.” It was on this album that Andre (not yet 3000, but on his way to be sure) let it be known that he was a lyrical force to be reckoned with. No question, it was already understood that he could rhyme. But after ATLiens Dre was in discussions for being the coldest nigga out. With his mind-bending lyrics, flawless delivery, distinct voice and comical wit he instantly moved himself into everyone’s top 10 after this album. He has done nothing but solidify that reputation in every single verse since that album. Literally every single verse. Go check the record. And in a way that’s generally quite different from a rap album that leans so heavily on raw lyricism from Dre and Big Boi alike, ATLiens still had mass commercial appeal. You could play the shit in the club. Females would like it. The hooks were catchy enough for cats to rock out to who may not have given a fuck about the New World Order. It is damn, damn hard to satisfy both the underground and wack-ass niggas who listen to pop 40. But ATLiens pulls it off masterfully. And they do it in a way where it looks like they’re not even trying.
Social Contribution: I mock Dre for his turban that he is wearing both on the album cover and in the video for “Elevators.” And that shit did look crazy. But what I loved is his comfort in being himself, something that is found sparingly in rap music today. And more and more it seems in the black community in general. Hip-hop is different from America in that it once was a true meritocracy. What you look like matters in America, but in hip-hop it’s about where your skills at? I didn’t understand Dre’s style of fashion but I knew he was spitting bars like few others at that time. But beyond that, it made me personally rethink my own biases. When Outkast first came out, I judged a book by its cover. I thought they were some fake, wanna be-players that were simply trying to cash in on the corporate caricature that the rap industrial complex was peddling at the time. It didn’t take long for me to be exposed to Southernplayalistic before I changed my tune. Still, I had no idea that they had the kind of layers that they brought to the fray on ATLiens. And had I allowed my initial impression to rule the day, I may have never found out just how funky these dudes were. I would never make that mistake again. I learned that I had to get beneath the packaging and look for the substance inside. With music and with people. I think Outkast has made it a point to force others into this kind of self-examination throughout their career, as they continuously push the boundaries of our sensibilities.
Album Rating: 4.25
Why It’s 4.25: The lyrics are tight all the way through. There’s real growth in this area from the first album. The beats capture the era perfectly and sound like Atlanta in every way.
Why It’s Not a 5: Being one of the greatest groups of all time is like being a great athlete. Jordan lost out on numerous MVP’s because after a while his greatness was taken for granted and we didn’t highlight his achievements like we should. Many music groups have experienced something akin to this, where they have put out standards that have not received the kind of acclaim that they’re due at the time of their release. This happened with De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate which often gets overlooked in their unrivaled catalogue of consistency. The Source knew they really had no business giving Tribe anything less than 5 Mic’s for Midnight Marauders. But they had already given the niggas 5 for each of their first two LP’s. Motherfuckers might have cried conspiracy had they hit them with a third. In this tradition, the Outkast of 1996 are in many ways competing with the Outkast that they were eventually about to grow into. ATLiens is great. But a strong argument can be made that it’s their “worst” album. Aquemeni is superior without debate. And a pretty strong case can be made for Stankonia; a positively brilliant album, being better as well. I would rate it higher. And both Southernplayalistic and Love Below were transcendent albums that worked to take the entire industry in a new direction. Big Boi was no slouch at this stage but he was nowhere near capable of carrying an album on his own like he can nowadays. ATLiens is a great album but is not quite at the group’s creative peak. Even Organized Noize displayed more dexterity and growth going forward. Their sound on later albums was a lot more crisp and cutting-edge. A 4.25 seems about right.
Other Album Releases by This Artist: Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, 1994. Aquemini, 1998. (their best album) Stankonia, 2000. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2003. Idlewild, 2006.
Where are They Now?: Big Boi dropped Sir Lucious Left Foot in 2010 and that shit was dope and displayed Big Boi’s continued growth as an MC. His follow-up was the i’ight Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. And Dre continues to sparkle every time he shows up on a cameo, including this gem. That being said, I desperately, desperately need a new full-length Outkast album. Desperately. Come on, nigggas. Ain’t no more Tribe. Little Brother broke up. Give me something. I know the south still got something to say.
Artists: Smif n Wessun
From: Brooklyn, New York
Album: Dah Shinin
Year Released: 1995
Group Members: Tek, Steele
Producers: Da Beatminerz (Mr. Walt & DJ Evil Dee)
Radio Singles: “Wreckonize,” “Bucktown”
Phattest Tracks: Shit, this is a tough list to narrow. This album pretty much bangs all the way through, but I’ll try.
Man. “Sound Bwoy Buriel.” Hmm, hmm, hmm. I love this damn song. It’s just so dope. God help the unsuspecting person going to the hip-hop spot for the first time when this comes on because they may well end up trampled. But the police would have to let niggas ride out after listening to this song, cause you can’t help but to get hyped when this comes on if you got any soul at all. First off, the beat is just bananas. The dopeness of this track is in its fundamental funkiness, relying on a thick 1-2-3 bass throughout. All music, and especially hip-hop music, starts with the drum. And the drum that’s at the core of this track is just pulsating. Hip-hop fans first were introduced to Steele and Tek on Black Moon’s “Black Smif n Wessun” on their own classic LP, Enta Da Stage. Smif n Wessun returns the favor for fellow label mates, Top Dog and Starang Wondah on “Sound Bwoy Buriel.” The duo join forces with two-thirds of Da Originoo Gunn Clappaz as the quartet trade verses throughout related to burying sucker-ass rappers. But as dope as the masters of ceremony are on this song, the best part of the track is when Da Beatminerz drop the drums out, and lets the Patwa-tinged prose that’s been littered throughout to stand alone, saying, “There is many sound that’s goin around, and goin on, and gwan like a clown but I’m tellin you..Clean up your act and come to de livestock ’cause you a deadstock from mornin to de evenin. Now everything changed.” I’m not really sure what most of that means. Nor am I sure that I’m intended to. But what I do know for sure is that shit sounds totally magnificent. Once the rasta is done with his speech, the Beatminerz masterfully bring the track back in for listeners to ride out to if your head hasn’t exploded by this point.
Dah Shinin is eargasmic at every turn for those who get their fix off of beats. Isaac Hayes’ “Look of Love” has been sampled many times, but none better than Evil Dee does on “Stand Strong.” Again the essence is captured in the drums as the shit just knocks on some classic head-nod shit. DJ Evil Dee’s layout of the drums separates his treatment of the classic Ike Hayes’ joint from other samples. And while too many contemporary rap songs rely on the hook to move the crowd, make no mistake, having a good one is a vital element to most any song in American music. And it is the composition of the hook that solidifies “Stand Strong” as a universal anthem for all of time. Tek begins, “I walk around town with the pound strapped down, that’s only because it’s mad real in Bucktown/It gets mad deep in the streets/when you gotta watch ya back for beasts/and it even means ya peeps/ I step to my business, stand strong on my own two/Do what I have to do to get true/If you for real/ then you know the deal/I do or die and I never ran, never will.” Clearly the Boot Camp Click is one of the most celebrated collectives in all of hip-hop music. But this song serves as a recognition that at the end of the day, -as men, as women- we must be prepared to face this world the same way in which we all will eventually leave it – on our own. “Stand Strong” fuels listeners with the courage to do that. Tek and Steele rhyme from the heart but have no trouble getting out of the way at the song’s conclusion, as they let the drums ride out in a manner that’s too sick for words. Such a beautifully composed hip-hop song.
“Cession at the Doghille” is one of the Boot Camp’s livest posse cuts. Only Buckshot fails to make an appearance. No MC fails to deliver.
“Bucktown.” If you’re a head, I don’t need to explain this one.
In spite of its ironic title, Dah Shinin is coming from a dark and grimy place. No song captures this more than “Next Shit.” The song uses a third person account to describe the warzone that all-too-many inner-city dwellers could relate to in the mid 1990s. While many rap artists were making millions at the time by glorifying these crises, Smif n Wessun provide a wider context that reveals the reluctant choices that are a product of the social conditions in which so many are forced to live. The song’s first verse captures this zeitgeist.
“Blaka! That’s my alarm clock, a-shot
Empty out the clip of a hooded kid’s glock
Out on a mission for the green, wit his team
Twistin up buds, puffin on blunts, knowwhat I mean
Always red eye wit an evil scheme in mind
Pullin off things wit his partners in crime
Not a care in the world, he’s seen plenty stiff bodies
Runnin up in spots wit the calico and shotties
Loungin on his strip wit his Tims and his meth
His right hand man’s on his side, to the left
Never leave the joint without packin the burner
Got the streets smart, either kill or be murdered
It’s no relaxin,
Stoned is the way of the walk when you black and
Supportin habits is gettin too hectic
Gotta kick it wit my son about some ol’ Next Shit”
These inner-city blues are documented for two more stanzas where Steele and Tek describe in intimate detail the many daily stressors that are associated with penitentiary choices. To weed through this madness, Smif n Wessun turn to the coping vessel of choice for the hip-hop generation, marijuana, as referenced through Tek’s observation in the first verse that “stoned is the way of the walk when you’re black.” One of the more noteworthy aspects of “Next Shit” is the absence of a traditional hook. Instead, the verses are bridged together by dialogue between Tek and Steele where they contemplate survival strategies to navigate through this concrete jungle. In a manner that differs dramatically from the formulaic format of many rap songs today, Smif n Wessun save the hook for the end of the song. “Next Shit” concludes with Buckshot singing in a more subdued manner than B-Real, “stoned is the way of the walk, stoned is the way of the walk.” It doesn’t hurt for you to be a weed head to dig this, but it’s not necessary. Sadly, however, the dopeness of the song’s climax can only be fully appreciated by a hip-hop head. If you can, you are best advised to play this song while listening through some old-school head phones that cover damn near your entire head.
What Else Was Hot at the Time: It was real easy for Dah Shinin to get lost in 1995. Real easy. Some of the greatest albums in the history of hip-hop music were still circulating at the time of its January release including Ready to Die and Resurrection. Goodie MOB released Soul Food. Unheralded bangers dropped that year from Das Efx and Onyx. Most rap fans were tuned into the West Coast as Tupac released his eagerly awaited Me Against the World and The Dogg Pound released Dogg Food as the Death Row empire was at the climax of its creative peak. West Coast pioneer, Too Short, released the severely underrated Cocktails that year. But for the hardcore hip-hop fan the Wu had shit on complete and total lock in a way that no crew had previously, or since. In some ways, it was almost like nothing else was out for a while except for shit from the Wu. Every single day, me and my people were bumping Return to the 36 Chambers, Only Built for Cuban Linx or Liquid Swords. Every day. And usually all three. The Infamous slid in there that summer, but even then, Mobb Deep featured Rae & Ghost. If hip-hop died, (which it hasn’t) it could be argued that it died this year. 1995. Never again has there been such consistent quality product put out in such a short amount of time.
Contribution To Hip-Hop: Dah Shinin’ is one of the unquestioned dopest contributions to the genre of hip-hop music. In spite of this, it still remains severely slept on. Dah Shinin effortlessly blends street culture, spirituality and political commentary with dope beats and rhymes in a manner that has few rivals. I think a strong case can be made for this being one of the best 25 albums ever made. It’s that hot.
Social Contribution: Hip-hop music was borne out of a desire to paint a slice of the lived black experience. In this tradition, Smif n Wessun paint a soundtrack of mid 1990s Brooklyn that is so vivid that you can smell the streets of Fort Greene when you listen to the album. There are tales of police corruption, homicides, fake gangsters and lots and lots of weed smoking. Much more significant, in using Dah Shinin as a platform in which to introduce OGC and Heltah Skeltath to the consuming public, Smif n Wessun (and the Boot Camp as a whole) contribute to the collective ethos captured in early hip-hop. This contrasts markedly with the self-indulged individualism of modern times. The Boot Camp Click not only represent all that is good in hip-hop, but represent all that is good in entrepreneurship. Whether most people know it or not, The BCC continues to stand strong, and blesses the world with dope rap music. And they’ve never wavered from this mission, showing that while Buckshot and Dru Ha may never be as rich as the executives at Cash Money or Roc Nation, there is a living to be made in making music for 1 million very loyal fans. Dah Shinin was the first album to be released after Black Moon’s sterling debut so this album was an important step in solidifying the movement that eventually brought us Sean Price, OGC, Rock, Skzyoo and Toure. Dah Shinin made clear that Boot Camp had a deep roster that is unrivaled in hip-hop. And yes that does include the Wu Tang Clan.
Album Rating: 4.85 lights up.
Why It’s 4.85: First off, let me say that in most things I’m a cynic. Part of this is attributed to my professional background as a journalist and a social scientist. Some of it might just be attributed to me being an asshole. Who knows? But like I often find myself when confronted by a thick redbone with nice perfume, my guards were quickly beaten back by Dah Shinin. There are some albums that I listen to that only become a classic over time. But from the very first moment I heard this album I was open wide. From the beats, the lyrics, the subject matter and the cameos; this album is as close to being a perfect album without quite making it.
Why It’s Not a 5: Tek and Steele are dope but there are several times on the album that they are outshined by their collaborators. This happens from time to time in rap music. Ghost and Rae brought the pain on “Verbal Intercourse” but Nas totally destroyed the mic. You had to throw it away after he was done with it. What the fuck are you gonna do? And after considerable heat had been brought on the first four verses of “Scenario,” Busta Rhymes totally engulfed the studio in flames when he closed out Tribe’s 2nd straight classic album. But this happens more than once on Dah Shinin. And only Dr. Dre can get away with something like this. And if Tek and Steele made beats like these, I’d give them more of a pass. But they aren’t the primary producers on Dah Shinin, and they made their name off of MC’ing, not behind the boards like Andre Young. And this is a small grouse, but at some point they’ll need to go back and re-master this album. It’s recorded too low and on some systems I can’t beat this as loudly as I’d like.
Other Album Releases by This Artist: The Rude Awakening in 1998, Smif n Wessun: Reloaded in 2005, Smif n wessun: The Album in 2007. Monumental (with Pete Rock) in 2011 – this shit is off the chain. Cop it immediately.
Where are They Now?: Smif n Wessun continue to do their thing on Duck Down Records, including the aforementioned Monumental produced by Pete Rock. That shit is dope with features from Freeway, Sean Price and Hurricane G. And Tek and (General) Steele have also released several solo projects including Tek’s 24k Smoke in 2010. Steele released Welcome to Bucktown and Amerikka’s Nightmare, pt 2 in ‘09 and ‘10. Their voices have changed up a little bit, which I don’t think is the greatest idea. I think their voices was what made them really dope back in the day. But it is now easier to distinguish them from one another, as well as from fellow Brooklynite, Buckshot. Their lyricism and subject matter has improved dramatically, however.
Artist: Nikka Costa
Album: Everybody Got Their Something
Released: May, 2001
Group Members: Solo artist
Producers: Mark Ronson, Justin Stanley, Nikka Costa
Singles: “Like A Feather”
Phattest Tracks: You can press play on this album and chill for a while as Nikka hits you with bangers that seem to get doper one after the other. The lead single, “Like a Feather,” offers listeners the simplistic accessibility required of a radio single without sacrificing a deeper, meaningful message. Costa encourages listeners to float through life like a feather, rolling with the currents of life as opposed to fighting against them. But even the most powerful messages can get lost in poor production so Mark Ronson rises to the occasion for the South American songbird as the album gets started.
“So I Have For You” is even more fresh. Costa continues to bring testimonies of positivity as the song celebrates both overcoming adversity in a general sense, as well as fighting against a music industry that far too often makes artists like Nikka Costa feel boxed in. In spite of this, Costa avoids becoming completely cynical as she sassily sings, “I am a woman with a mission and a past to outdo/ I don’t need a gun I’ve got a microphone and a melody or two/Just like the earth has spent a thousand years making up for what we do/So have I for you/Your seeds of misery have sprouted and they try to block my way/The worst gets the better of you and you try to disarm me with an embrace/ Just like the heart that’s spent a lifetime forgiving what is cruel/So have I for you/Well mama you can choose the rain but I choose the sun/That’s all I need to free myself.”
It ain’t all sunshine on Everybody’s Got Their Something. As with any great album, there are moments of internal conflict as well. On the album’s 3rd track, “Tug of War,” Costa takes on a topic that most of us can relate to where she’s in a relationship that seems wholly irrational but her heart just won’t let her pull away. As someone who could entirely relate to this song at the time of its release, it is most regrettable that Costa leaves listeners to draw their own conclusions on which way to pull. But otherwise, it can be argued that this is the illest song on the album. The production is top notch and Costa captures the emotions of the song beautifully.
The title track, “Everybody’s Got their Something,” is real phat. It’s some shit that you could shake your ass too in the club….if any DJ had the courage to play music like this. Or if anybody danced anymore, but instead all they do is this.
Nikka saves the best for last though with her ballad, “Corners of My Mind.” It is hard for a creative person not to be inspired by this song, though I think you can be an engineer, a clerk at Target or an accountant and find something here that taps into your spirit. The Mark Ronson track is off the chain, showcasing the British producer’s range and sensibility. For the track, Ronson uses the sample that Tribe used on “Footprints” of Jesse Jackson speaking on the intro of Cannonball Adderly’s “Walk Tall.” (the melody of which was turned into this. I had always loved the way Tip integrated that speech into “Footprints” so I damn near fell out of my chair when I heard it on “Corners of My Mind” for the first time. And Nikka spits from her soul as she fills yours.This song is some of my favorite shit to write to. It always quickly remedies any writer’s block and the lyrics speak to what I try and do with my prose as she sings: “Meet me in the stillness/ Away from all this madness/ I’ll give you a piece of me/ If you’ll give me a moment/ To let you into the corners of my mind.” This is a really introspective and soulful track that moved me emotionally from the first time I heard it. And it still does today, over a decade later.
What Else was Hot at the Time: 2001 was a very, very, very lean time musically. This was particularly true in regards to rap music as we were being subjected to the likes of Ja Rule and his release, Pain is Love and Bang or Ball by Mack 10. This jigaboo-ass-nigga, Lil Jon put out Put Yo Hood Up featuring himself draped in a fuckin Confederate flag on the cover. We also were graced with Jay-Z’s highly overrated Blueprint, which was still a major improvement on the other hot garbage that he had been putting out at the turn of the century.
R & B was even worse as the charts were topped by Ginuine, Bryan McKnight and Ray J. Ray J? Really?
But there were some bright moments. Ghost dropped Bulletproof Wallets and Boston’s 7L and Esoteric released The Soul Purpose. Nas came back real strong with Stillmatic, as the beef with Hov was at its peak. Immortal Technique put out his now classic, Revolutionary Vol. 1, to very little fanfare. Luda debuted with Word of Mouf. UGK put out Dirty Money. And Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross came back strong that summer with some solid releases after extended hiatuses for each. Alicia Keys dropped her first album a month before Aaliyah released her last.
Contribution To Hip-Hop: This isn’t a hip-hop album, per se, but it was one of the first major breaks for Mark Ronson who went on to produce for Consequence, The High and Mighty, Lily Allen, Estelle, Ghostface and Chicago’s own, Rhymefest. And of course Questlove is on the drums as he is contractually obligated to handle the percussion on every album recorded in the Western hemisphere. But not only is there heavy use of sampling on the album, Everybody’s Got Their Something embodies the spirit of hip-hop far more than many rap albums. Particularly, a lot of the rap music that was polluting the airwaves in 2001. Everybody’s Got Their Something doesn’t sound like anything else that was out at the time. It pays homage to classic funk while still sounding modern. And it avoids resorting to cliché, passing trends that are tailored to children, which allows the album to have a timeless sound that still resonates today.
Social Contribution: This isn’t an album that makes any pretense to change your life the way Black on Both Sides or Songs in the Keys of Life might. And frankly it didn’t receive enough dissemination to have too much of an impact. But there are life affirming messages throughout the album that can help listeners get through those inevitable tough times.
Album Rating: 4 lights up (out of 5)
Why It’s a 4: Everybody’s Got Their Something is dope, real dope. And like many of the albums listed here, it arrived at a poignant time in my life. Listening to it now takes me back to those times. But beyond my personal connection to the album, the musicianship is great throughout. Nikka can actually sing and is not hiding behind the engineers or her sexuality. This was one of the best albums of its era in any genre, and your collection is severely incomplete if you haven’t copped it.
Why It’s Not a 5: There’s nothing particularly wrong with songs like “Nothing” or “Just Because.” I’m sure that a great deal of people probably feel those particular tracks on the album. But they’re absent some of the soul and funk on display throughout most of the LP so I generally skip past those songs. And you can’t be better than a 4 if there are several songs that I feel aren’t worth a full-listen every time I pop in the CD. And yes, motherfuckers, I still listen to CD’s. Finally, Nikka can sing, but you aren’t blown away like you might be listening to Jilly from Philly or a pre-basing, Whitney Houston.
Other Album Releases by This Artist: can’tneverdidnothin’ in 2005, Pebble to a Pearl in 2008. (This album was hot too)
Where are They Now?: Though it’s been five years, Nikka continues to tour and collaborate with the likes of Eric Clapton and Lenny Gravitz. There is no definitive date for her 4th U.S. studio-album release.
Album: Accept Your Own and Be Yourself
Artist: No I.D.
From: Chicago, Illanoyze
Year Released: 1997
Group Members: Solo artist (although Dug Infinite is prominently featured)
Producers: No I.D., Dug Infinite
Singles: “Sky’s the Limit.” Both versions of this song on the album are straight, but I personally prefer the Infinite Mix featured early in the album.
Phattest Tracks: “Pray for the Sinners” serves almost as a melodic walk through Chicago music history as the record uses Minnie Ripperton’s “Take A Little Trip” to provide the rhythm. But if the beat itself wasn’t enough, your attention is definitely grabbed by Minister Farrakhan in full soldier mode as he drops pearls in the intro where he challenges listeners to not only hear the word, but to live it. However, “Pray for the Sinners” isn’t at all preachy as No I.D. and Dug Infinite are experiencing similar battles for their salvation. The song deals with the trials that people experience in deciding which spiritual path to go down in a world full of temptations. No I.D. rhymes in the first verse: “I was feeling like a fight/And feeling in my pocket, yo my money ain’t right/Just one of them nights/So I’m looking for the light/So I don’t left off in the pitch black/explode and wet guys like shaking up a six pack.” One of the reasons that I love hip-hop music so much is because of testimonies like these that let you know that you’re not going through life’s many tribulations by yourself. No one else may understand the stereotype of a black male misunderstood that Biggie rhymed about, but through timeless hip-hop songs like “Pray for the Sinners,” we are understood and shown empathy.
“The Real Weight” is too phat for words and this was actually the first track off the album that I heard after getting the maxi-single at a Nas’ show at the Congress. The beat just totally fucking knocks. As there is throughout the album, there’s a powerful message on “The Real Weight.” But rather than addressing spirituality and the saving of souls, they address an industry that has totally lost its way. Dug Infinite rants against the all-too-common practice in the 90s of using material excess as a measure of an MC’s worth. The real weight that No I.D. and Dug aspire to is the respect that comes from having substance in your music. While No I.D.’s current boss, Jay Z, was letting dead presidents represent him, No I.D. said that he was never letting “presidents take precedent.” No I.D. is from the Chi so he’s not opposed to getting that bread, he’s just echoing the sentiments of many b-boys at the time that he was not solely preoccupied with the paper chase. The prophetic chorus cautions phony rappers that the “good life and luxury comes naturally.” And it did for No I.D. He never had to sell out to this bitch-ass industry. He worked his ass off, kept it hip-hop the whole time and made the industry come to him.
“Jump on It” is a dopely underrated track on this album. The beat is real slick.
“Original Man” makes me real nostalgic. I used to keep this on heavy rotation. This is some real hip-hop shit right here. This song is how 1997 Chicago sounded.
“Sky’s the Limit” is one some real positive, black shit
“State to State” features a young, hungry Common in verse two, and uses the dope Run-DMC sample from “My Adidas” where DMC rhymes, “we slay all suckers who perpetrate and lay down law from state to state.” Dope hook.
What Else was Hot at the Time: Jewelz from O.C. came out a month before. That’s Them from Artifacts came out in April. Life After Death was released posthumously from Biggie that March. Camp Lo snuck in Uptown Saturday Night in January. Unheralded bangers were dropped by Diamond D (Hatred, Passions and Infidelity) and Chubb Rock (The Mind). When Disaster Strikes from Busta was on heavy blast all summer long. Killarmy’s classic Silent Weapons for Deadly Wars was overshadowed by Wu Tang Forever, the album that marked the official end of the Witty Unpredictable’s 5-year reign. Chi-Town was making Noyze as Twista rocked Adrenaline Rush and the artist formerly known as Sense released One Day It’ll All Make Sense.
Contribution To Hip-Hop: This LP was slept on commercially but the heads from coast-to-coast were up on this album. It allowed No I.D. to build a reputation that was independent of his classic work with Common Sense to where he would become one of the more important producers in hip-hop. And Accept Your Own and Do For Self helped to spark a wave of creativity in Chicago’s local hip-hop scene. This album was part of Chicago’s due-paying process as No I.D. helped to set the stage for what was to come from Kanye, Lupe, Mikey Rocks, Rhymefest, Mikkey Halsted and Naildege. In many ways, Chicago would become the soul of true school hip-hop at the turn of the century as a slew of frauds like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Fat Joe would break away from that old New York rap that we grew up with. But Chi Town has always kept it one hundred on wax. Accept Your Own and Be Yourself helped to lay the foundation for the high standards that all Chicago MC’s continue to be held to.
Social Contribution: The title alone speaks to where this album was coming from. Nowadays it’s commonplace for everybody to be a fake ass facsimile but there was still some slight hope for originality in 1997. For a young MC or producer looking to make it big in the industry, the jiggy strategy was the logical way to go. But No I.D. made a conscious decision to make a conscious album. From its name to the lyrics, Accept Your Own and Be Yourself invites listeners to be comfortable with who they are. No I.D. and Dug Infinite are two cats from around the way who weren’t rich like these broke ass rappers claimed to be. They weren’t posing like gangsters in a city full of gangsters that can spot a fake gangster a mile away. Or at least we could before Chief Keef. Over 15 years later, No I.D. isn’t a gangster, but he certainly is rich. Beyond this classic hip-hop album, the most valuable contribution may come from observing the evolution of No I.D.’s career. He could have very easily came out on some gimmicky shit in 1997, but he stayed the course as he patiently watched lesser talents rise up the charts. But No I.D. still has a lucrative career, something that a lot of other cats who were hot in 1997 can’t say. And more significantly, he still has credibility and respect among the core audience that was there in the beginning. That truly is the real weight.
Album Rating: 4.25 Lights Up (out of maximum 5)
Why It’s a 4.5: The subject matter is highly relevant. You can actually learn something from listening to it. The samples show a lot of musical range featuring work from the likes of David Axelrod and The Olympic Runners. The LP showcases some hot Chicago talent in a manner that dispels the “city of haters” mythology as not only is Common and Dug Infinite featured, but Syndicate drops some verses as well. No I.D. even samples Windy City legends Minnie Ripperton and Chicago on Accept Your Own. Honestly, I actually had given this album a 4 at first, but as I really listened to it, I had to bump it up. The beats bang throughout but the lyricism doesn’t blow you away at any point in the album. Even North America’s best MC, Common’s verse was just pedestrian. So absent that, it can’t be bumped all the way up to a 5. But Accept Your Own and Be Yourself has everything you’d want out of a good album.
Why It’s Not a 5: More than anything this shit was a product of a time where the bar was as high as Redman & B-Real combined. This shit would be album of the year if it came out in 2013. Again, the bar for a 5 is really high. 5’s are generally albums that I damn near play every day for like 2 years straight. I had this on heavy rotation, even featuring several uncensored tracks on my radio show at Chicago State University. But shit like Jewelz and That’s Them was getting more play at that time. A very good album, not an all-time great.
Other Album Releases by This Artist: None
Where are They Now?: No I.D. has hardly traded in the boards. He’s been behind many hits that you love from Kanye, T.I., Jay-Z, Rihanna, Usher, Toni Braxton, Melanie Fiona, and Janet. There’s virtually no one of any significance on the pop charts in the past decade that he hasn’t worked with. But he still continues to bless the underground, including carrying water for my favorite rapper with beats like these. Although I have no idea how Mikkey let No I.D. get this shit out of the studio. That’s a violation there, Mik. That track is just fucking earth-shattering. With some of these beats that No I.D. has dropped of late, and with some of the wack lyricism that we’re subjected to out here, I think it’s time to get from behind the boards for a minute and bless us with another solo album.
Welcome. This space has two primary purposes. For one, today’s music totally sucks. So it is vital that we don’t allow this drivel to set the bar of what music can be and what we should demand of our artists. This is especially important for hip-hop music as much of what passes for hip-hop today veers dramatically from its musical roots. I can’t take it for granted that anyone is going to formally document some of the greatness that once came from this genre so I’m going do it myself to guarantee it. Though hip-hop music will get the primary attention as this is a hip-hop site, it will not be the only genre we explore. We’ll also explore contributions from jazz, rock and soul that laid the foundation for America’s greatest musical contribution: hip-hop.
Secondly, a lot of this music didn’t get fully appreciated during its time. And “it’s time” ain’t always going to be 1988. There’s a lot of dope shit that has come out in the 21st century that has been severely slept on. But whether from the golden era or the bling era, we are going to not only give a musical overview but try and put some of this music in a larger social context.
Third, I hope that in dusting off some of this old shit I can acquaint a larger audience with some of this great work, particularly among young people who are largely deprived of good soul music.
It is these three core motivations which will influence this new edition of the Illanoyze Blog going forward. So on that note, let’s start the show.
Album: Straight Checkn ‘Em
Artist: Compton’s Most Wanted
From: Compton, California
Released: July 16, 1991
Group Members: The Unknown DJ, DJ Slip, Mike T, MC Eiht
Producers: The Unknown DJ, DJ Slip
Singles: “Growin’ Up in the Hood”
Phattest Tracks: “Growin’ Up in the Hood” beautifully captures inner city existence of the early 1990s. The song takes us through several years in the life of a young thug who eventually goes to prison as a juvenile. Considering the limited economic opportunities for ex-cons in America, it is not surprising that the narrators turn to the drug trade; which they find extremely lucrative in spite of the efforts of police and community activists to shut down their enterprises. But this is far from another glorification of the d-boy lifestyle as the song concludes with the narrator being murdered in cold blood by the police during a drug raid. This fate comes after his criminal activity had led to his mother and brother being targeted for murder in the song’s previous verse. “Growin Up in the Hood” reflects the choices available to many black youth, but also cautions that going the criminal route ultimately will lead to self-destruction. These messages in so-called gangsta rap frequently were lost on high-brow critics of the time, both inside and outside of the hip-hop community. But all the social commentary in the world can’t compensate for a wack song so it shouldn’t be obscured that MC Eiht and Mike T are at the top of their game with “Boyz in the Hood.” The production was top notch, as I thought it was particularly dope how they switched the beats between verses. Later, CMW duplicates this technique on “Can I Kill It,” towards the tail end of the album.
Straight Checkn ‘Em features several songs that freaked some classic hip-hop samples such as “Potbelly” by Lou Donaldson on “Drive by Miss Daisy,” which is just totally bananas. “Defwish” beautifully immortalizes “Wilford’s Gone” by the Blackbyrds. People loved Ice Cube’s “It was a Good Day,” and no doubt the shit was dope. But the sample for “Footsteps in the Dark” made its first appearance on the West Coast in “Can I Kill It,” my personal favorite song on the album. This is also true for Johnny Guitar Watson’s “Superman Lover” which Reggie Noble would make a hip-hop staple the following year. “Superman Lover” was used first on “Compton’s Lynchin” and I think I like CMW’s use of the sample a little better actually, although both are off the chain.
“Gangster Shoutout” is off the meter and check out how they freak this sample.
What Else was Hot at the Time: We got Quik’s the Name in January and De La Soul is Dead in May. We Can’t Be Stopped by the Geto Boys was in heavy rotation that summer. So was A Future Without a Past by LONS, featuring a really animated rapper named Busta Rhymes. Low End Theory dropped in September. Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black came out the next week. Black Sheep debuted in October with A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. It was the beginning of the end for Big Daddy as he dropped Prince of Darkness later that month on the same day that Death Certificate and Too Legit to Quit came out.
Contribution To Hip-Hop: This album laid the foundation for one of the more intense and underplayed hip-hop beefs ever, as the first shots were fired on wax when Eiht dropped “Def Wish,” a song that would become its own franchise of sorts. This would be far from the last salvo between MC Eight and DJ Quik as they traded barbs for the rest of the decade. Straight Checkn ‘Em also really displayed the artistry of west coast hip-hop as their samples and subject matter displayed a depth that was seeing few rivals on either coast at the time. They even pay homage to the DJ in the tradition of Rakim, the Fresh Prince, Tribe and countless others as they give Mike T his own track on the album. A lot of cats who grew up on Ultramagnetic MC’s and BDP missed groups like CMW because they often got boxed in as gangta rap, but Straight Checkn ‘Em is a hip-hop album through and through. Compton’s Most Wanted also helped to further solidify west coast hip-hop, making it clear that the L.A. scene in particular was not relegated to just NWA and satellites like Ice Cube or Above the Law.
Social Contribution: One of the dope things about great literature is that it informs the audience about the times in which the art was produced. This is certainly true of Straight Checkn ‘Em as MC Eiht paints a vivid picture of life for young black males in Southern California during the Reagan/Bush years. What John Singleton masterfully did in nearly two hours with his classic film, Boys in the Hood, CMW does in just over 4 minutes with the album’s lead single which also served as the lead for Singleton’s film soundtrack. Throughout Straight Checkn ‘Em, without making excuse or apology, Eiht documents the social conditions that inform the urban worldview of the time. MC’s like Eiht gave communities like Compton a voice. And moreover, CMW’s manuscript provided a sense of collective understanding with people who were growing up in similar hoods in Philadelphia, Houston, Detroit, New Orleans and Chicago. The kind of empathy and first-hand ethnography was found lacking when these communities were featured in the 10 o’clock news. Listeners are transported into Compton Most Wanted’s world where they feel in their gut the desperate poverty that influence their penitentiary choices, the loyalty and brotherhood that inspire the drive-by shootings, the heartbreak and bitterness that is masked by misogyny and sexism. And unlike some of their contemporaries, CMW records this social reality without coming across as preachy, allowing listeners to make their own choices while being thoroughly entertained.
Album Rating: 4.5 Lights Up (out of maximum 5)
Why It’s a 4.5: This is a dope hip-hop album. To box it in as merely a gangta rap album would be to greatly misunderstand the larger culture that inspires this music that we love. MC Eiht’s voice and slang possess a distinct originality that is found lacking in today’s rapper that tries tirelessly to mimic Wayne, Drake or Jay-Z. Eiht is a masterful storyteller in league with the likes of Slick Rick, Big Boi and Ghostface. The skilled MC allows you to physically see their words and Eiht does that whether you’re sitting next to him in the car as you all sojourn to go smoke a fool, or you’re getting harassed by the police. And Guru reminds us that being a dope MC is mostly about the voice, and Eiht has one of the dopest and most unique in hip-hop music history. Plus he added much to our hip-hop lexicon, coining terms such as one time, late night hype, duck sick and gafflin. The beats are first-rate and the samples are amazing. For example, the appropriation of dialogue from the film Young Guns on CMW’s “Def Wish” is a fucking master stroke. “Def Wish” shows just how much hip-hop has changed in the past 20 years as there is no corny hook composed for this song. Instead, Mike T utilizes Billy the Kid’s (portrayed by Emilio Estevez) cold-blooded lines from the film to summarize the overall message of the song. “I’ll make you famous…I go for my gun and you start shooing, but I promise you will not make it.” “And you are dead,” replies Estevez’ antagonist in the film before Eiht gets back to work. I’m a huge fan of the movie so that certainly piques my affinity, but it’s dope in its own right even if you haven’t seen Young Guns for some strange reason. And what gangsta isn’t going to sample Brian De Palma’s classic Scarface? And Eiht doesn’t disappoint. But only a true fan of the film will recognize that the screaming at the end of “Driveby Miss Daisy” are the shrieks of Gina after Manolo was killed. Easier to detect is Bizmarkie’s line from “Da Vapors” that serves as the hook on “Raised in Compton.” “He would grow up to be nothing but a hoodlum/either in jail, or someone would shoot him,” the Biz rhymes. This kind of bi-coastal homage between artists was common in hip-hop before the media would create an east-west coast beef a few years later that severely undermined the culture. But CMW released Straight Checkn ‘Em in the heart of hip-hop’s golden era when there was little concern about where you were from, only if your music was dope. Straight Checkn ‘Em was and is.
Why It’s Not a 5: I understand the sentiment in “I Don’t Dance” but it’s kind of a wack song featuring an overdone funk sample from Zap that is lazily put together. Plus, perfect 5’s are generally reserved for albums that I can play all the way through from beginning to end like The Moment of Truth. Or they are game changers like The Chronic. Or they make a transcendent statement like Fear of a Black Planet. This album is dope but it doesn’t quite meet any of those criteria.
Other Album Releases by This Artist: Straight Checkn’ Em was sandwiched between two other certifiable classics. CMW”s debut It’s a Compton Thing features the classic anti-police anthem “One Time Gaffled Em Up.” And a strong case can be made that the group’s third album Music to Driveby is their best work. After that it gets a little dim with the underwhelming We Come Strapped that not even this dope ass song could save. The group released Represent in 2000 and Music to Gang Bang in 2006 to little fanfare.
Where are They Now?: MC Eiht still drops a cameo every now and then, including an appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s album, Good Kid, M.A.D.D. City (which incidentally is in the early running for best album of the century). Eiht is also rumored to be in the process of collaborating with Kurupt, King Tee, Jayo Felony and Sir Jinx to release an album under the name 1st Generation.
- February 2013
Album: Center of Attention
From: Mount Vernon, NY
Year Released: 2000 (sort of. The album was never officially released by Elektra, but has been disseminated far and wide nonetheless)
Group Members: Rob-O, Grap Luva, I Love H.I.M., Marco Polo, DJ Boodakhan
Producers: Pete Rock, Grap Luva
Singles: “Fakin Jax”
Phattest Tracks: “No More Words” wastes little time in setting the tone for Center of Attention. The classic Pete Rock sound is unmistakable and is as enduring as always. PR’s treatment of “No More Words” shows the beauty of hip-hop as Pete works from the same original sample that Buckwild used on O.C’s “What I Represent.” But while you can certainly hear the common root, all three tracks are very different songs. “No More Words” serves as a battle rap to sucker MC’s, of which there are no shortage at the turn of the century. And I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but there’s something about hearing Pete Rock’s off-key singing on a hook that makes me feel like all is right with the world. The universe sits in perfect alignment as the Chocolate Boy Wonder chants at the break “Check it out I got no more words/Frontin niggaz, tag ya name to the rest of the herbs.” This is one of my favorite joints on the album and hearing it always puts my soul at ease.
The good vibes don’t stop there though as “Step Up” will keep your head nodding where “No More Words” left off. The song is a rallying cry for the long-term thinking MC during an era where many of our heroes were selling out left and right. INI argues that while paying your dues by grinding away in the underground has its share of trials and tribulations, this strategy is better for building a career in rap music. Grap Luva cautions the MC looking to make the quick dollar, “You won’t get a harvest if you don’t sow seeds/ Ill-gained wealth brings stress from dirty deeds/ The choices that you make will fulfill your needs/ But the shit you go through will be hard to believe.” The pair’s laid-back lyricism blends seamlessly into the track which listeners could easily mistake for Pete Rock’s vintage sound before the Soul Brother announces that it is his baby brother, Grap Luva, on the beat.
When it’s at its best, hip-hop music is life affirming music and this spirit is beautifully captured on “Life I Live.” For the hook, the song utilizes Biggie’s concluding line from “Juicy” where the Black Frank White bellows, “damn right I like the life I live (cause I went from negative to positive and it’s all good).” Just like in Biggie’s original context, this song celebrates being comfortable in one’s own skin. This mainly is working from a hip-hop perspective as the boundaries of authentic hip-hop were becoming more and more blurry. But INI steadfastly refuse to be sucked into the matrix. It is a powerful message for all the unconventional thinkers out there, whether you’re a head or not.
“I Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes was always some of my favorite shit as a shorty when my parents would be playing their dusties on Sunday morning. This bias undoubtedly had some impact on how I heard INI’s “Kross Roads” but I’ll be surprised if you don’t find it as dope as I did even without the nostalgia. Pete doesn’t overdo the sample, the drums are laid impeccably and the story that ties it all together is phat and even kind of captures the spirit of the original, as both songs describe the longing that accompanies delayed romance.
As much as I dig my man Harold Melvin, his musical and social impact pales in comparison to the legacy that was laid out by Fela. Personally, I think he is one of the top 10 artists of all time in any genre of music. If you are not up on his catalogue, you need to go to school immediately. Immediately. Of the thousands of songs that Fela recorded, none send me into a trance quite like “Water No Get Enemy.” If you’re ever near me when a DJ plays that, you need to honestly back up about 10 feet. Maybe 20. That’s one of my favorite songs of all time. So Pete Rock was truly trekking on sacred ground when he sampled Fela’s vintage piece on “Grown Man Sport.” But as usual, Pete delivers and then some, giving Fela’s break new life. Rob O and Grap Luva match Pete’s energy as they give what I feel is their best performance on the album, riding the track flawlessly. And you can’t help but to break into a smile on the hook which simply involves Pete singing in the melody of Fela’s horn from the original, “La La, La La. La La La La.” A lot of these pop, bubble gum (w)rappers spend whole months trying to come up with clever hooks that they hope will obscure the despicable bars that bracket them. And yet Pete makes this science seem as effortless as the beat he made to back up the vocals. The phat beat and the history behind it indubitably factor into my high ranking of this particular song. But the subject matter on “Grown Man Sport” puts it over the top as my favorite cut on Center of Attention. Nowadays any idiot thinks he can get on the mic and rock, but INI states unequivocally that MCing is a gladiator sport that is not suited for the cowardly hearted and straight up shook ones.
“To Each His Own” is the only track that features big-name cameos, not counting honorary sixth member, Pete Rock. Q Tip and Large Professor venture up from Queens to drop verses, neither of which is a standout, but they don’t just mail shit in either like a modern-day version of Busta Rhymes or somebody. And any b-boy worth his salt is familiar with 1996’s “Fakin Jax,” the only song to actually be formally released from this album.
What Else was Hot at the Time: While most observers mark hip-hop’s golden era as being complete by 1995 at the latest, it can easily be argued that there is no creative period that rivals the time frame from 1998 through 2000 when a musical collective whose core included Jay Dilla, Questlove and James Poyser produced some of the most important works in the history of music. Not rap music. Music.
Above ground; in the mainstream in the year 2000, it was as dark of a period as we’d ever seen in hip-hop music. During these dark ages, the Soulquarians helped to keep shit afloat damn near all by themselves.
It really started in 1999 when the Roots dropped, Things Fall Apart. The Roots were fresh off of Illadelph Halflife and Do You Want More, both of which were fuckin’ amazing. So for them to drop some mind altering shit like Things Fall Apart was a major statement in hip-hop music. But the statement kept getting answered. Later that fall, Black Star member Mos Def, dropped his debut album Black on Both Sides. Black on Both Sides was one of those few albums that I knew instantly was a certifiable classic. I was listening to it in my car on the way home, and although I had a perfectly functioning sound system in the crib, I literally couldn’t get out of my car. That shit wouldn’t leave my rotation for like five years. Voodoo by D’Angelo came out that January and set a new standard in soul music. This is my favorite non-rap album of all time. The musicianship on Voodoo was just crazy. It’s so dope that it halfway makes me forgive D’Angelo for taking this damn long with a follow-up. I halfway understand. I mean, really, what can you possibly do after that? It is physically impossible for any human being to make a better album.
The week of my birthday that year, Common dropped Like Water for Chocolate, an album that moved me emotionally and spiritually more than anything I had ever heard. Part of this is attributed to the fact that Common is from the crib. Not only did this allow me to see many of his perspectives on the album first-hand, but with Common finally receiving his commercial and critical due, it was almost like Chicago’s entire hip-hop scene was legitimized. But more than that, Like Water for Chocolate legitimized real, soulful hip-hop. The album was a statement that it was still ok to be hip-hop. It was these other niggas that was wack, not us. It was real dope that somebody from Chicago had the balls to make that album at that time. Common said a lot of shit that needed to be said on there. Whether its 2000 or 2013, I can “give a fuck what you make in a week, nigga you wack. A soft nigga over a hard track.” Moreover, even if I had grown up in Anchorage, Like Water for Chocolate would have left an impression on me as it is the rare album that not only entertained me, but made me want to be a better person. It made me want to live my life better.
What’s unmistakable on this album is the magnetic chemistry between Common and the album’s primary producer, J Dilla. The buzz in the underground for J Dilla was deafening by the time he and his group Slum Village, released Fantastic Volume 2 later that summer. No matter where I’m at in life, or what kind of spirits I’m in, Fantastic instantly transports me back to the summer of 2000. I done had a lot of summer soundtracks through the years. Straight Outta Compton, The Purple Tape, Stakes is High. But nothing defined a summer like Fantastic. It served as the soundtrack to the last care-free days of my life in my summer before starting graduate school. In the summer before I lost myself to fall in love. Life was way more serious when Erykah Badu put a cherry on the top of this stew of creativity when she released Mama’s Gun just a month after Reflection Eternal dropped Train of Thought. All of these albums were recorded in New York City’s legendary Electric Lady Studio over a period of about 18 months and features various cameos and cross production between the collective that also includes Raphael Sadiq, Q Tip, and Bilal among others. The shit is like one long album if you listen closely enough. And the Soulquarians held it down for hip-hop in a manner that is only rivaled by the Wu and The Native Tongues. This still doesn’t sedate my anger that I was deprived of Center of Attention in 2000, but it makes it where I at least don’t have to go Radio Raheem on niggas.
Contribution To Hip-Hop: This isn’t an all-time classic on the level of Amerikkka’s Most Wanted or Unfinished Business by any means, but Center of Attention is a must-have for any serious hip-hop head. I listen to this album with more sorrow than anything else because it’s clear that INI was probably just warming up. It would have been dope to see how the crew developed as they gained more seasoning and musical maturity, especially considering how Grap Luva has evolved as an MC in the decade since. Center of Attention is an album that ain’t afraid to be hip-hop. Nowadays even the most underground MC feels compelled to have some soft ass R & B nigga singing a hook, or doing a throw away song for some wack DJ to play in a club. This album ain’t catering to none of that punk shit. If dope beats and rhymes ain’t enough for you, then it’s plenty of other bullshit that you had available to you in 2000. But Center of Attention is an album that’s unapologetically made for the heads.
Social Contribution: I had this shit on heavy rotation during grad school so it will forever be part of the backdrop during a very important time in my life. But since the album was shelved for reasons I still don’t quite fuckin’ understand, it was not able to have a more extensive reach. But no doubt, this jones got me through many a stressful day after the turn of the century.
Album Rating: 4 Lights Up (out of maximum 5)
Why It’s a 4: You can let this album beat from beginning to end. There is nothing wack on here at all. The artists give thought to each track both in terms of subject matter and overall production. But there is also little on here that will blow you away. Your head will nod, but there won’t be the kind of full body convulsions that one might experience if they unexpectedly hear “Tha Realness” by the Group Home or “Atak of Da Bal Headz” by Onyx, to give but a couple of examples. Center of Attention is a good album, but not a great one.
Why It’s Not a 5: The lyrics aren’t wack by any means but no one will be confusing Rob O or Grap Luva with Andre 3000. And one problem that legends like Pete Rock often have is that they’re competing with themselves more than anything else. The beats on Center of Attention are dope, but nowhere is the inspired genius of “Escape” “Skinz” or even this track that is one of the Chocolate Boy Wonder’s most underrated and slept on. Nor does Center of Attention offer the kind of musical diversity displayed in the unadulterated funk of “The Main Ingredient” in contrast with the smooth jazz featured on “In the Flesh.”
Other Album Releases by This Artist: None
Where are They Now?: Both Rob and Grap continue to do their things as solo artists, mainly featured on cameos. Grap has done some joints with Lone Catalyst, J-Live and of course his big brother, Pete Rock. And some of his dopest work has come working with The Sound Providers such as this banga here.
From: Newark, New Jersey
Album: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Year Released: October, 1994
Group Members: Tame One, El Da Sensei, DJ Kaos
Producers: Buckwild, Redman, T-Ray
Radio Singles: “Come On With The Come On”,” Wrong Side of the Da Tracks”
Phattest Tracks: “Comin Through Ya Fuckin’ Block” is on some oh-my-God-type shit as the track is just so ill. If your head isn’t nodding while you’re listening to this you’re probably a wack nigga and this isn’t for you.
“What Goes On”
“Heavy Ammunition” – this beat totally fuckin bangs but most of the tracks do all album long.
Hip-hop was starting to really lose its soul around ‘94 so more and more MC’s felt it necessary to plant a flag in hip-hop’s foundation of beats, rhymes and life. Artifacts contribution to this movement on this album is “Whayback” and is arguably the dopest song on the LP as it combines phat lyrics, thoughtful subject matter and a melodic track in the tradition of that old boom bap.
What Else was Hot at the Time: Ready to Die by Biggie Smalls dropped that September and pretty much owned the streets for the next few months. Blowout Comb, the heavily-anticipated sophomore effort, by Digable Planets came out a week before this. Resurrection from Common Sense (not Common) came out on the same day. That November was The Month of the Man as Dare iz a Darkside from Redman came out a week after Meth dropped Tical. Mary Blige also released her magnum opus, My Life that month. What the fuck! How spoiled were we? We don’t get this kind of quality in three years anymore, to say nothing of three months.
Contribution To Hip-Hop: Of all of hip-hop’s four elements, graffiti writing has received the least amount of exposure because corporations haven’t found as many ways to exploit it for profit in the way that they have breakdancing, DJing and of course rapping. Artifacts helps to fill this void as this album established them as the preeminent graf writers on the mic. Their song “Wrong Side of Da Tracks” is the standard in hip-hop in regard to the lyrical documentation of the graf writing experience. The song’s final verse begins:
I burn my name up quick like a Thai stick
As red as my eyes get
I still rocks the fly shit
Back with some ultra flat black catchin wreck
in a sec
paint, ain’t shit, when I’m on the set
I’m live like the third rail, on time like a fast train
alone got fame
so fuck a last name
when I drag
a fat sack of ism
Comin out with New Editions
like Mike Bivins.
Social Contribution: Marijuana had been a part of hip-hop from the beginning, but after having been fully liberated by Dr. Dre a couple of years earlier, MC’s felt totally emboldened to not only speak on their recreational use of the greeny-green, but also to politicize it as Artifacts does on “Lower the Boom.” Tame One was truly ahead of his time when he rhymed:
Ohh I hope I live to see the day they make it legal
To all the people
can’t see what I’m smokin ain’t evil
Stop callin me a pusher cause I take pulls and take tokes
Album Rating: 4 Lights Up (out of maximum 5)
Why It’s a 4: There is nothing on this album that’s wack. Artifacts make no efforts at all to make any radio friendly songs, which is a major plus in this blog. The gangsta rap of the West Coast was dominating rap music during this period, just before the No Limit-backed takeover from the South that would have East Coast hip-hop pushed fully underground for the most part. Artifacts get props for going against this current and making an album that would stand the test of time. Artifacts aims to make an album for the hardcore hip-hop fan, and not the casual rap listener. They succeed with flying colors on Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which is all the more impressive considering that this is their debut album. The beats are dope, their world-play is fly, the back and forth flow is always hot, and they produced some standards from this album, most notably “Wrong Side of Da Tracks.” Plus they get props for not having Redman (Tame One’s cousin) all over the album, choosing instead to try and strike their own path.
Why It’s Not a 5: To be a 5, an album has to be dope all the way through, from beginning to end. Albums that meet this criteria include Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, Illmatic by Nas, Moment of Truth by Gang Star, Niggaz4Life by NWA and The Purple Tape. While this album is dope, it doesn’t quite meet that criteria. There are one or two cuts that I skip through sometimes. Additionally, it doesn’t have the lasting social contribution of albums like Ready To Die which not only was musically genius but helped to define the times in which the listeners were living. Pop in Ready to Die and you’re transported back to 1994, this album doesn’t do that. In this vain there also isn’t enough of a social commentary beyond weed legalization and the valuable legacy of hip-hop. Police brutality isn’t dealt with, nor is black economics or black family life. We learn precious little about the everyday realities of inner-city Newark in the way that Scarface paints pictures of Houston or Common does the Chi. To be sure, not every album should save the world. Sometimes you just want to have a good time. The album is great in regards to escapism, but it falls short in the important criteria of social commentary. And while the lyrics and beats are dope to be sure, it doesn’t reach mind altering levels like the first time I heard Aquemini or something. There isn’t much bad to say about this album though. This album came out during hip-hop’s creative peak and got loss in the shuffle. It’s a must have for the collection of any serious hip-hop fan.
Other Album Releases by This Artist: That’s Them which dropped in 1997. This shit is actually doper than Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Cop both immediately if you slept.
Where are They Now?: Like some of the great groups, El and Tame experienced some creative differences after their second album, That’s Them. Recently, however, they have rocked some live shows together and are rumored to be working on a reunion album so check for that in the deep, deep underground sometime in 2013. Between group releases, each MC has released a slew of solo albums including Acid Tab Vocab from Tame One as well as a collaborative effort between he and Del the Funky Homosapien. The Unusual is arguably the best post-Artifact contribution from El Da Sensei.