- “Strangers” by Portishead
There’s no best song on “Dummy,” the epochal post-rap soundtrack to emotional devastation that expanded the possibilities of popular music in 1994. Their adaptation of classic hip-hop production methods to underpin whatever kind of music Beth Gibbons sings – folk? blues? ache? – was at once respectful of the form’s history, and iconoclastic to its destiny. I just happened to be as far as this song on a recent listen when I decided to use them as a starting point for my playlist this week.
- “New Jack Swing II (Hard Version)” by Wreckx-N-Effect
When “Rump Shaker” blew up, my rich friend Nicky got the tape. He got all the tapes! I used to dub off him all the time, it was a huge boost to my otherwise modest ability to dig into new hip-hop in my impressionable tween years. For the most part, the Wreckx-N-Effect tape didn’t move me. I liked the “Darkest Light” saxophone loop and the insistent tick of the drum machine on “Rump Shaker,” plus obviously the hooks were irresistable, but the Teddy Riley aesthetic was a little too dance and romance oriented for me. I was already becoming a snob for what I thought was hardcore hip-hop, and it was more about sounding tough and clever than getting down. THAT SAID, this song stood out to me, towering above the rest of the album. I don’t recall if they flexed rhymes as well anywhere else on the tape, but with the Joe Cocker sample already made a hip-hop staple by Ultramagnetic MCs, the beat was as tough as it was fun (in my perception), so I was able to stay open to enjoying the verses, which are great. This song is great.
- “Mainline” by Craig Mack
Poor fuckin Craig Mack. He was the flagship rapper of Bad Boy at that time, a veteran MC with a classic independent single to his credit (“Get Retarded,” by MC EZ & Troup. I’m sorry but that’s what it was called, I’m not comfortable with it either. Let’s move on.), a high profile feature on a Mary J. Blige single, and a single of his own to introduce his reinvented persona on wax, “Flava In Ya Ear,” that was riding its spacy but gritty Easy Mo Bee beat to great prominence… until the star-studded remix of that song, with its legendary appearances from his more successful contemporaries Busta Rhymes and LL Cool J, accidentally blew up the other guests, a new jack who was just starting to make noise. Not to take away from Biggie’s talent, but I always kind of thought it was a shame how thoroughly and swiftly he eclipsed Craig Mack’s whole career. Craig was making hardcore hip-hop, but he wasn’t a G or a hustler on record at all, just a rapper, and rap fans were moving swiftly toward prioritizing the grittiest storytelling and coldest allusions to violence over the wittiest, or even most charming, rhyme styles. He didn’t have a chance, he was done for. His second record is like a recording of a ghost – I owned it, but I’m not even sure it exists. THAT SAID, I think Project: Funk Da World is a great record. It’s extremely consistent to the point where the songs are almost interchangeable – not one of them is ABOUT anything but how dope it is to be Craig Mack, and how wack it is to be not Craig Mack. And for the duration, that’s all I need anything to be about.
- “Daaam!!” by Tha Alkaholiks
Too easy. Tha Liks were unassailable on those first two albums – the beats were PERFECT, and their attitude as MCs was let’s fuck shit up but only be super witty and individual the whole time. It’s like they put in a ton of care and diligence to get across how much they didn’t even give a fuck, and they made it so fun the whole time. There were only two parts that made putting a Liks joint on this playlist challenging – one was narrowing down the selection to just one representative song, and the other was how many times I didn’t wanna add the song I chose anymore after I refreshed my memory and came across a really sexist line that dampened my adult sense of fun. Believe it or not, this is one of the songs that trips my sexism resentment alerts the least, and it’s not perfect. Also it’s not perfect because the “DAAAMN!” sample isn’t Raphael losing his sai in the first Ninja Turtles movie – I thought it was for years but I checked and nope. But everything else about this joint is perfect.
- “Who Rotten ‘Em” by Slick Rick
OK first off I don’t understand where the title comes from at all. I don’t think the phrase is uttered once in the song and I don’t know how to parse “rotten” as a verb. Maybe that’s why I so rarely remember how good this song is? I have a churlish tendency to contradict the conventional consensus that Slick Rick is a great storyteller. I don’t really get why that’s the aspect of his many fine qualities as a MC that really stuck out to everyone hastening to bring him laud. I love his voice, his totally unique cadence (Dana Dane notwithstanding), his turn of phrase, pretty much everything about HOW he puts words across. But the stories that earned him his reputation – “Children’s Story,” “La Di Da Di,” “The Moment I Feared,” “Mona Lisa” – are really bad. Like incredible classic songs, but really bad as stories; the pacing is nonexistent, the characterization is painfully thin, there’s either no message or some total bunk moral. If they weren’t delivered in the greatest voice and flow of the entire golden era, like if you read them off a page? You would not like them. I say that as someone totally devoted to the early Slick Rick catalog, who knows Children’s Story backwards and forwards and who was scandalized as a child to notice they took the whole bar with the Beatles quote out of “La Di Da Di” on later pressings (side note: yesterday morning my friend Emma was bumping a Blake Shelton-themed Spotify playlist at work and some very current country song came on that featured the phrase “la di da di / we like to party” in the hook and OK I KNOW it was probably more influenced by Miley C than Ricky D but I still felt the whole world fold in upon itself like a turning kaleidoscope so that was cool). I love Rick, I just don’t think he’s as good of a storyteller as teenage Fresh Prince, for example. I say all that to say this – “Who Rotten ‘Em” from Rick’s underappreciated post-incarceration comeback album, “The Art of Storytelling,” is a GREAT story. The way it riffs on the parables of the Old Testament is more original than a romantic mishap or ill-fated criminal caper, the hushed and delicate tone of the delivery adds severity and sincerity to the nimble navigation of densely packed sentences, and even giving only a few words to characters outside of the first-person protagonist, the motivations are complex. Sure, it’s just a straightforward metaphor for being dope. I think that’s what all the parables are, essentially. This song is a high water mark for storytelling in rap to that point in time. I’m sorry I ever disparaged The Ruler’s alacrity – off with my head!
- “Can You Dig It?” by MC Lyte
Lyte is one of the most solid MCs of her generation. She has a lot of classic singles, and this isn’t one of them, but the way it’s produced by Freddie “The King of Chill” Byrd makes it stand out to me on Act Like You Know, which is otherwise far from my favourite MC Lyte album. Not that it’s a wack record – Lyte is one of the most solid MCs of her generation, remember? – but it’s crowded, and she was more better at other times. Anyway this is great get off my back.
- “One Louder Solex” by Solex
I’m so curious about the details of how Elizabeth Esselink made the music on her early Solex records. She’s one of the best to ever incorporate serious, multi-layered, chopped & filtered, hip-hop-style phrase sampling into non-rap paradigms of music, and all I know about it is the sort of apocryphal-sounding story that she owned a used record store and would entertain herself by flipping beats out of the wax that wouldn’t move. I like the story a lot, but it doesn’t sound complete! This is my favourite song from my favourite of her albums. It makes her sound like the Cypress Hill of twee Dutch indie pop, which she was. Elizabeth if you’re reading this please produce my next album thank you.
- “The Regiments of Steel” by Chubb Rock
The title is kinda pretentious for a tribute to hip-hop history and contemporary greatness, but if there’s two things that I love, it would be pretentious titles and tributes to hip-hop history and contemporary greatness. Chubb Rock was one of the first to push that West-Indian rhythmic complexity into straightforward rap styles, the way Busta would really take to another level later. Chubbs was more subtle with it (he wasn’t “animated, like say, a Busta Rhymes” – Jay-Z), but even being understated it made his style stand out. This song isn’t really a example of that, it’s just fun to hear a great rapper shout out the greatness of great rappers.
- “Kick A Dope Verse” by The Cenobites, featuring Bobbito Garcia AKA Cucumber Slice
Fondle Em Records was a independent underground rap label run by Bobbito Garcia, the colourful cohost with Stretch Armstrong of the late night hardcore hip-hop mix show you needed to be on to break through with heads in the early 90s. Fondle Em released 12″s and LPs that moved mountains and changed magnetic north in underground rap, including Dan Dumile’s first MF Doom material, the untitled Juggaknots EP that got known as Clear Blue Skies, and early singles from Cage and The Arsonists. Next to Rawkus and Solesides, they were reshaping rap from the ground down. The Cenobites was a extremely raw duo record that paired Kool Keith with Godfather Don, the year before Keith went astro on Dan the Automator’s Dr Octagon record. Keith was already a legend from being in Ultramagnetic MCs, but he was just starting to make noise again after a couple years missing, and this is a hungry version of his alternative angles on how a rhyme can go together. I wish the whole Cenobites EP/LP was on streaming, because then I probably would have put the Keith solo joint “Mommy” on here instead, but I’m glad this one has Bobbito rapping on it, because he’s a fuckin prince. Amen.
- “Wack MCs” by Del Tha Funkee Homosapien
My favourite Del album is No Need For Alarm, and it’s also not on streaming services, but this joint among a few others made it onto some bootleg-looking greatest hits that Elektra put out (shout out to labels pushing a compilation out for their artists that only ever got to drop two records), and it has the fat and bouncy upright bass samples that make those early 90s Hiero beats so perfect for the relentless and densely packed rhymes that those early 90s Hiero MCs couldn’t seem to not kick. The kernel of truth around which this song is organized resonates to this day: “I cannot stand a wack MC, so stand back, if you please, and don’t test me. You’re history!”
- “Recognized Thresholds of Negative Stress” by Boogiemonsters
I remember getting chills from this song when I first saw the video on Much Music. The weird & piercing hook, the beat thumped and swelled, the intermittent use of distortion on the verse vocals, the contrast of the different MCs, the EXTREMELY pretentious title (remember what I said before?), and the sophisticated b-boy lyrics. I rewound my homemade Beta tape of the video over and over. The rest of the record is not as good, with a few moments (whenever I’m on the number 11 bus and it announces the stop at Somerset & Bronson, I hear it to the tune of “Honeydips in Gotham”), but their masterpiece as a group was the totally overlooked sophomore jammy called “GODSOUND.” This is their most distinct song though, and it fits the vibe.
- “Blind Wid Da Science” by Rascalz
My favourite tracks from the Rascalz were all on their debut record, Really Livin, but that’s not available to stream, so here is one of the joints I really liked off their… only other record I acknowledge as existing. The MCs Misfit & Red1 do their thing, but the real star of every good Rascalz joint is production by Kemo, who was truly the DJ Muggs of British Columbia. I can’t think of a Kemo beat that isn’t ill. He elevated the extremely medium quality of Swollen Members to where they could stand next to the prestigious west coast underground all-stars on their debut. Now that was a feat, those guys were just… SUPER ok.
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