How Do I Come Off?: Ten Neglected Hip Hop Classics

09.24.2004 | Alex Belth | Music, Unfairly Forgotten | 6 Comments

Though rap music has traditionally been a singles-driven medium, there are plenty of great albums to choose from as well, enough that you would be hard-pressed to condense the best of them to a top 20 list.  During hip hop’s golden age (1986-92) about ten drop-dead dope records were released every year.  Maybe a top 50 list would be more appropriate—after all, as the jazz critic Gary Giddins recently noted in the New Yorker, rap has been around longer than swing ever was.  With so many great discs, some were bound to fall though the cracks; it would take too long to list all the classics, so here are ten full-length records worth reconsidering.

Long Live the Kane, Big Daddy Kane. (1988) 

Kane’s debut record belongs right up there with The Great Adventures of Slick Rick and Paid in Full.  For some reason Kane isn’t mentioned as prominently as he should be when people talk about the greatest MCs of all time these days, but back in the late ’80s, the greatest MC discussion revolved around Kane, Rakim and KRS-ONE, with Kool G Rap, LL Cool J, Slick Rick, and Chuck D in the mix as well.  Produced by Marley Marl when James Brown loops were the rage, this record features some of Kane’s best work, including the classic track “Ain’t No Half-Steppin,” which is surely one of the greatest rap tunes ever.  How about the way Kane ends “Just Rhymin’ with the Biz:”

A rap pro, do a show, good to go, also
Cameo afro, Virgo, domino, I go Rambo
Gigolo, Romeo, Friday night spend money on a ho-tel,
To get a good night’s sleep
I’m keeping in step
Now do I come off?


Strictly Business, EPMD. (1988)

EPMD’s debut was a popular record when it was first released.  Like Kane’s first album it is just ten tracks deep, but they are all slamming.  EPMD brought the funk sound to hip hop years before Dr. Dre; this record still holds up, and it’s sure to get your head nodding.  Plus, I’ve always been a sucker for Erick Sermon’s mush mouthed rhymes. This one is about as good as it gets.

Done by the Forces of Nature, The Jungle Brothers. (1989)

How do you follow perfection?  The Jungle Brothers’ first record Straight Out the Jungle had a simple, straight forward production style that combined classic break beats with soulful samples.  Lyrically, they were socially conscious, playful, seductive and funny.  Their second record picks up where the first left off.  Sonically it is more dense; however, it isn’t busy for its own sake, but thoroughly musical.  This is one of those records that made you think, but also encouraged you to dance!  (What a concept.)  Though it may sound dated to a younger listener, I think this is beautifully representative of its time. 

Mecca and the Soul Brother, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. (1992)

Coming off their EP All Souled Out and Pete Rock’s burgeoning career as a remix producer, the album was one of the most highly-anticipated records of 1991-92, and it did not disappoint. Rock’s production is seeped in soul-jazz records; these tracks are layered with the horn riffs and vibe samples that became his trademark sound, and from a production viewpoint this album is considered one of the greatest hip hop records of all time.  C.L. Smooth is a decent MC, and doesn’t detract from the album’s strength.  An undeniable classic.

Daily Operation, Gangstarr. (1992)

Critically slept-on when it was released, Gangstarr’s third album was popular with hip hop’s burgeoning underground audience.  It features Guru, an MC with a gravelly, monotone delivery, at his very best, mixing a hard-nosed street style with political awareness.  The production by DJ Premier features a lot of sampling of jazz and soul records, but the result isn’t nearly as warm as Pete Rock’s sound.  Instead, it is far more abrasive and rough.  Premier is from Texas and Guru was raised in Boston, but they both ended up in Brooklyn and for what it’s worth, they are able to capture the sensibility of the borough perfectly in this record.  

Sex and Violence, Boogie Down Productions. (1992)

This was the last record KRS-ONE did as BDP.  It is probably the most slept-on BDP album as well.  But it’s a great New York record, ideally listened to on your Walkman as you troop throughout the city—any city. It features KRS-ONE at his best: didactic, enlightening, contradictory, and vicious.  He may call himself “the teacher,” but first and foremost, he’s a battle MC.  Infused with a Jamaican vibe, the beats by Pal Joey, Prince Paul, and Kenny Parker are bumping.  Sure to snap your neck. 

Stress: The Extinction Agenda, Organized Konfusion. (1993)

This dark and powerful record is the second joint by Organized Konfusion.  The sound is often sinister and murky, but it has a warmth and spirituality too.  Lyrically, Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po helped innovate an abstract, tongue-twisting rhyme style.  But they aren’t just complicated to show off, and they aren’t merely being clever; their rhymes are soulful and agonizing.  This record of barely controlled aggression is as emotional as it is cerebral.  Before Nas wrote a rhyme from the point-of-view of a bullet in “I Gave You Power,” Organized did it here with “Stray Bullet.”    

Coast II Coast, Tha Alkaholiks. (1995)

Another popular underground record that never received the attention it deserved.  But when your name is “Tha Alkaholiks”—eventually shortened to “Tha Liks”—you have to know you’re limiting your audience. Musically, the album is dense and funky (E-Swift handles the production with some outside assistance from Diamond D and Madlib), and Tha Alkaholiks are without an ounce of pretense.  Incorrigibly adolescent, they rhyme almost strictly about getting drunk, getting high, chasing girls, rocking the mic and battling anyone who is wack.  Here’s a good bit from “Bottoms Up:”

I rock loaded, I never get promoted
But through the bullshit my crew stays devoted
While you be bustin lyrics bout the guns y’all niggaz toted
I’ll be standin like a b-boy with both arms folded

And one from “The Nexxt Level:”

Sendin’ kids back to the lab for more practice
The only way they’d win, if we battled to see who’s the wackest
Ten years later, still a hip-hop slave
A prehistoric b-boy making beats in my cave

Tha Alkaholiks were a throwback before it became chic.  For a good ol’ vulgar time, look no further. 

The Best Part, J-Live. (1988)

The long-awaited debut record from J-Live was bootlegged before it was ever officially released.  “Braggin Writes” was an underground smash single for Live cut in 1995, while he was still a student at SUNY Albany.  His first full-length album boasts production from such heavyweights as Prince Paul, Pete Rock, DJ Premier and DJ Spinna.  There is a running skit throughout the record where people on the street are asked, “What does it take to be a great MC?”  Live tackles the question seriously.  Each track on the record can be seen as a challenge for a rapper: Write a song with a dope hook, one without a hook, a love song, a battle rhyme, a narrative, etc.  There is a self-consciousness about the album, but that isn’t a detriment.  Live doesn’t have a commanding voice, but he’s amazingly agile and clever, and his lyrics grow on you with every listen.  He’s the kind of talent who brings to mind Plug One’s line from Stakes is High: “So when I ran a phrase in June you didn’t catch it ‘til December.”  J-Live is the gift that keeps giving.

The Unseen, Quasimoto. (2000)

Brought to you by Madlib, one of the most prolific producers on the underground scene, who has recently enjoyed great success with MF Doom on their collaborative record MadvillianThe Unseen was made as a personal mix tape and never intended to be released commercially.  But when Peanut Butter Wolf heard it, he knew it would find an audience.  Quasimoto is a helium-voiced rapper, and Madlib’s alter-ego of sorts (Madlib is Quasimoto, speeded up.)  This album is replete with rare soul-jazz records, dusty drum sounds made by the SP-1200 drum machine, and sampling.  It is a head record, an insular, personal effort best experienced with headphones.  The high-pitched voice of Lord Quas may put some people off.  I found that it becomes infectious after a few sessions, but Stones Throw also released an instrumental version of the album which is a good alternative.  This music is good enough even without the rhymes.

I used to kick Long Live the Kane at countless parties on cassette for god's sake (fast forward over the slow songs). What was interesting was just how popular it was with people who otherwise had no interest in hip-hop. Kane's record label fucked up, he could have been huge (I guess Kane also, considering what he ended up).

The OTHER album from 88 no one talks about is Stetsasonic In Full Gear. Great voices + Prince Paul. Damn, those cats could have been huge too, but they fucked it up.
09.24.2004 | Q Diddy
It's rap, not poetry. Just writing down

A rap pro, do a show, good to go, also
Cameo afro, Virgo, domino, I go Rambo

etc. sure don't a classic make. Which is not to knock Kane in the least, but be serious. That scans pretty much the same as aproximately a billion other verses.

Otherwise a good list, though not much of an article, given that it doesn't say much that's new or interesting about the music.
09.24.2004 | Daniel
Yeah, I think "In Full Gear" is the best Stetsasonic record. Although one of my favorite cuts by them is the beat-box joint "Faye" which is on the first record. I think the Stet guys were envious of the attention Paul got once "Three Feet High and Rising" came out. Paul himself said that the group eventually got too caught up in their matching outfits and not music.
09.24.2004 | alex belth
Here's three more for the list:

1) DJ Krush's Meiso, a masterpiece of turntablist minimalism, with the most underrated (including by Belth) CL Smooth on Only the Strong Survive, the rightfully revered Roots on the title track, and some of the best instrumental hiphop ever laid on wax. Krush conveys more ambience and emotion in a single staggered drumbeat than most beatsmiths manage in an album. If you ever need to defend hiphop to, say, Stanley Crouch, this is the man to bring up. Also check out Krush's Ki-Oku, with Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, which is the closest we've ever gotten to true jazz-hiphop fusion. it's my belief that this and Donald Byrd's Blackbyrd are the soundtrack to my funky life, but no else seems to be moving in time to that. Black Thought has actually rhymed over a whole number of Krush Beats, the hottest being Zen Approach with its creepy twinkling synth loop, and Thought's killer opener --

You wasn't paying attention when henchmen hit the entrance
Trenchant was by no means an intervention
A dollar bill'll make a hundred ten yen son
How much you willing so sacrifice to win, huh?
I personally have paid mines and then some
Climbed up an inch at a time now who the zen one
If not self whom else can you depend on
Friends gonna swear it's a'ight
And probably been wrong
I got them battle field dents in my armor
A twitch from the trauma the trees and bad karma

2) The Last Emperor -- Not so much his long-delayed official release (signed w/ among other Dre and Rawkus, dropped by both),which is hot enough, but for the many mix tapes floating around with his scattered early singles and demos, which range from first rate to world class. Some might remember him from the very minor hit Secret Wars (MCs vs. superheroes -- an even better idea than it sounds -- "Yeah yeah it's Common Sense and the iceman tried to freeze me/ So I took him to Chicago and told him to take it easy," The first time I heard this six minute epic, I pulled the car over to listen, the first time a rap song had just stopped me in my tracks since I first heard "Life's a Bitch" at the West Fourth Street courts way back when.

Other Last Emp bangers include Echo Leader --

I'm from the city that left the Liberty Bell cracked,
The Constitution's release party was held at,
Matter of fact, tell your crew to get the hell back,
Or I'm a eat these cats like that alien from Melmac

and also Animalistics, Meditation, Monumental, Charlie Brown, and Bums. And the Emp knows his Marvel, with scattered rhymes -- "Hard rock like the Thing from the Fantastic Four" and, my favorite -- "I knew I'd break mikes that were well bolted and welded/ Cause I'm hard like taking off the juggernaut's helmet" He knows his hiphop, his Muppets (Hard enough for thugs yet capture children's attention/ Or better yet animated by the spirit of Jim Henson") and trust me the guy kicks rugged battle rhymes.

And before we stop with the Emp, let's mention his duet with the Rzarector as Frankenstein --

Nurse, increase the IV
(But doc that may kill him!)
Word, we got technology, we can rebuild him
Strength of the ox, slickness of the fox
Electrical brain waves being charged by the dreadlocks
Audio dynamic vocal box
Inside the black oval, won't be a beat that my son couldn't flow to
Call Prince Paul to inject De La Soulful

and the Emp as Adam --

A mysterious man with a mysterious past
Who came back from the dead to kick some serious ass...
Should you choose ta whip out the banger
This archaic warrior responds with anger
I stop fighter planes before they even leave their hangars
And I'm sick enough to pull a Kahn job like Genghis
I weave tales of war, legend and folklore
Things will never be as they were once before
Witness the second coming of the Last Emperor
For now and forever, cursed to walk the earth once more


3) But onward to Latyrx, made of Lyrics Born and Lateef, on DJ Shadow's Solesides (now renamed Quannum) label. This is way out there hiphop that unlike so much Def Jux-style self-indulgent and willfully underground garbage (RJD2 notably excluded), sounds great. Their self-titled debut, just re-issued, begins and ends with both men rapping at once, no beat, each using the other's flow as the beat for their own flow, the mix favoring first one set of lyrics and than the other. But you don't need headphones (or weed) to dig; somehow it just sounds dope. And so does everything else, from legitimately introspective cuts like Balcony Beach to the 70s soul of Lady Don't Tek No and Lost in the Feelin' straight through the apocalypse future of Storm Warnin and Bumpin Contraption and the two songs over one beat double solo cut, Aim for the Flickering Flame/ No. 1.
09.24.2004 | Harry
Good list.

TOP 3 Slippin' through da cracks -

1. Public Enemy - Fear Of A Black Planet
2. OutKast - southerplayacadillacmusic
3. LL Cool J - I'm Bad
09.27.2004 | So Ahead
masta ace... disposable arts, long hot summer best two albums dropped in the new millenium.
10.13.2004 | olde english 40's

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