While we’re usually cruising down 8th Street in a cab, not an off-white Lexus, we know exactly where Jay-Z’s coming from in his new-school anthem, “Empire State of Mind.” From Brooklyn to the Bronx, and every borough in between, there’s no city like New York City when it comes to classic hip-hop records.
Here’s a quick, album-guided tour of the Big Apple…
Every rapper needs a creation myth — Illmatic opened with Nas and A.Z. counting money over snippets from Wild Style, the devil's sons redeemed by hip-hop. Biggie opened Ready to Die with a gripping audio collage of his first twenty-odd years, as though his rag-to-riches tale was one you needed to learn. Jay opened Reasonable Doubt with a heartbeat, but its quickening pace suggested it was the sound of fear — of moving your first package; of holding your first gun; of seeing a man die; of the moment when you realize you have grown up too fast. This wasn't an album deeply concerned with where Jay had been, since he had already built his name as a rather successful drug dealer. This album was about one man's rebirth, and as soon as that ticking heart gave way to the gloss and floss of "Can't Knock the Hustle," it was clear that Jay, too, had arrived.
"My pops knew exactly what he did when he made me/ Tried to get a nut and he got a nut," he bragged on that opening cut, as Mary J. Blige bellowed an achingly hopeful chorus borrowed from Mel'isa Morgan's "Fool's Paradise." But was Jay really a "nut," our "worst fear confirmed"? There is something cool and composed about Reasonable Doubt, as he plays straight man to Biggie's true nut on "Brooklyn's Finest" or earns his stripes on the icy "Dead Presidents II" — two of the finest songs of Jay's career. "We used to fight for building blocks/ Now we fight for blocks with buildings that make a killin'," he raps on the truly disturbing "D'evils." But even there he sounds chillingly assured against DJ Premier's spooked Allen Toussaint sample.
History recognizes Reasonable Doubt as evidence of Jay's genius, but it all could have ended up very differently. Reasonable Doubt arrived during a tumultuous turn in the history of hip-hop. Nas'disappointing It Was Written would come out a week later, and hip-hop's obsession with the Mafioso lifestyle would soon bloat to cartoonish extremes. The Wu-Tang Clan would spool out of control, and within the next year, Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. would ascend to martyrdom. Yet the culture's growth was still exceeding all expectations, and hip-hop would need new, larger, flashier heroes. And in Jay-Z, it found its pinnacle.
Straddling the very fissures where the old school gave way to the new, Gang Starr's 1992 masterpiece Step in the Arena was the sound that took rappers 15 years to perfect. In the few months that followed, New York would be scrambling to reinvent itself in the year Los Angeles broke, but Daily Operation was coolly classic-sounding; like Led Zep's Physical Graffiti, it's an unstoppable summary of everything that makes its genre great — the most rollicking breaks, the silkiest rhyme patterns, the most nimble cutwork, the most head-knocking snares.
For being the greatest MC/DJ duo in rap history, Gang Starr were never flashy, gaudy or showy. Guru and DJ Premier are jazz heads at heart, and they understand the idea of "being in the pocket" — note how Guru brags that his vocals "complement the slow phat groove" in "Stay Tuned." But don't mistake their smoothness for soft: The production (handled by the duo) cycles through some of the most harried samples around, always hiccupping with hums and tics and audience noise and hummingbird strings — peaking with a manic one-second loop of hard-funk footnote Sugar Billy Garner in "B.Y.S."
The magic is in the details — how Premier gently stretches and bends KRS-One's voice in "Ex Girl to the Next Girl"; the way Guru can makes something as devilishly simple as "You see the mic in my hand? Now watch me wreck it now" seem like liquid perfection; how "Take It Personal" adds extra bass drums hits to the iconic "Skull Snap" break to make it even more skull-snappy. Daily Operation is an uncluttered masterpiece by a group with a catalog full of them.
Released just 16 days after his March 9 death by drive-by shooting, there's an eerie prescience to the Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death. Several things — that title, the hearse-featuring album cover, the crushing closing track, "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)" — gave Life After Death a bizarre resonance. But this is much more than paperwork from the morgue. In fact, rap stardom gave The Notorious B.I.G. a new lease; he attacks with testosterone-filled glee. The album's title is about second chances at money, fame and sex after a tumultuous youth; a true second life. The result, worth every second of its expansive double-LP running time, is actually more about light and wealth than its predecessor, which was defined by a grim fatalism. The hits say as much. Consider that old speedboat-riding chestnut of hip-hop opulence, "Hypnotize" or the Diana Ross-lifting exuberance of "Mo Money Mo Problems." The giddy, quite funny "I Got A Story To Tell" finds Biggie creeping with the lady friend of a New York Knicks player and then retelling the tale to his boys, embellishing like a grandfather serenading some awestruck tots. Biggie's desire to croon — really, croon — crops up repeatedly here, as on the goofy extended "Playa Hater" or the thudding Miami bass of "Another." Even "Ten Crack Commandments," a steely DJ Premier production and drug-dealing manifesto has a delightful service-y quality — memorable and useful! So many of his lyrics became sampled and repeated hip-hop aphorisms — "If you don't know, now you know"; "It was all a dream..."; "Went from ashy to classy"; and so on. This is a crucial part of the Biggie mythology, the stickiness of his writing.
After the success of Ready To Die Biggie used his follow-up to indulge his fantasies. Working mostly with Puff Daddy's in-house production crew, The Hitmen (Carlos "July Six" Broady, Nashiem Myrick, Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, Stevie J, Ron "Amen-Ra" Lawrence), it's surprising how many of the songs here are about sexual conquest; at times you may yearn for his debut's brutality. But over time, Life After Death reveals itself as a sensual work — the lyrics to the R. Kelly-featuring "Fuck You Tonight" are specific, attentive, lascivious in ways that might make Luther Campbell blush. Biggie is less rapid-fire throughout, whether rapping or singing, letting that charismatic, jowly burr traipse into Isaac Hayes territory. His reach is longer, too, featuring paeans to his beloved '80s R&B, production from distinguished contemporaries like Mobb Deep's Havoc and Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, and guest shots from stars old (DMC, Too $hort) and new (onetime paramour and protégé Lil' Kim, a young friend named Jay-Z, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony).
That collaboration with Bone Thugs, the whirring "Notorious Thugs," forced a flood light on rap's ever-expanding regional purview. Exposing — and paying homage by emulating their distinctive half-sung double-time flow — to Cleveland's own was just one more example of Biggie's almost perverse palm-reading — he simply knew where the genre needed to go. The song's reference to "So-called beef with you know who" anchors the album's more serious undertones. Biggie, of course, was feuding with ex-friend 2Pac for some time as he began recording the album. Pac was gunned down in Las Vegas six months before its release, but that didn't stop Big from including "Going Back To Cali," a perhaps too-braggadocious act of defiance in the service of an insatiable ego.
The backend of the second disc is the most tremulous and grandiose. The underrated single "Sky's The Limit," a defiant turn on "My Downfall," and RZA's "Long Kiss Goodnight" are all mythmaking songs that ultimately sting in light of Big's fate. And the closing track, "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)," is the hazy epilogue to a cinematic reconfiguration. That it all doesn't end in death is its own sort of optimism, tragically inaccurate though it was.
While Puff Daddy and his followers continued to dictate the direction hip-hop would take into the millennium, Mos Def and Talib Kweli surfaced from the underground to pull the sounds in the opposite direction. Their 13 rhyme fests on this superior, self-titled debut as Black Star show that old-school rap still sounds surprisingly fresh in the sea of overblown vanity productions. There's no slack evident in the tight wordplays of Def and Kweli as they twist and turn through sparse, jazz-rooted rhythms calling out for awareness and freedom of the mind. Their viewpoints stem directly from the teachings of Marcus Garvey, the legendary activist who fought for the rights of blacks all around the world in the first half of the 20th century. Def and Kweli's ideals are sure lofty; not only are they out to preach Garvey's words, but they also hope to purge rap music of its negativity and violence. For the most part, it works. Their wisdom-first philosophy hits hard when played off their lyrical intensity, a bass-first production, and stellar scratching. While these MCs don't have all of the vocal pizzazz of A Tribe Called Quest's Phife and Q-Tip at their best, flawless tracks like the cool bop of "K.O.S. (Determination)" and "Definition" hint that Black Star is only the first of many brilliantly executed positive statements for these two street poets.
One of the most influential rap albums of all time, Eric B. & Rakim's Paid in Full only continues to grow in stature as the record that ushered in hip-hop's modern era. The stripped-down production might seem a little bare to modern ears, but Rakim's technique on the mic still sounds utterly contemporary, even state-of-the-art -- and that from a record released in 1987, just one year after Run-D.M.C. hit the mainstream. Rakim basically invents modern lyrical technique over the course of Paid in Full, with his complex internal rhymes, literate imagery, velvet-smooth flow, and unpredictable, off-the-beat rhythms. The key cuts here are some of the most legendary rap singles ever released, starting with the duo's debut sides, "Eric B. Is President" and "My Melody." "I Know You Got Soul" single-handedly kicked off hip-hop's infatuation with James Brown samples, and Eric B. & Rakim topped it with the similarly inclined "I Ain't No Joke," a stunning display of lyrical virtuosity. The title cut, meanwhile, planted the seeds of hip-hop's material obsessions over a monumental beat. There are also three DJ showcases for Eric B., who like Rakim was among the technical leaders in his field. If sampling is the sincerest form of admiration in hip-hop, Paid in Full is positively worshipped. Just to name a few: Rakim's tossed-off "pump up the volume," from "I Know You Got Soul," became the basis for M/A/R/R/S' groundbreaking dance track; Eminem, a devoted Rakim student, lifted lines from "As the Rhyme Goes On" for the chorus of his own "The Way I Am"; and the percussion track of "Paid in Full" has been sampled so many times it's almost impossible to believe it had a point of origin. Paid in Full is essential listening for anyone even remotely interested in the basic musical foundations of hip-hop -- this is the form in its purest essence.
There's no mistaking Run-DMC's loud-and-proud staccato flows for today's crop of mumbly-even-when-they-shout rappers; if one thing dates the trio's rhymes, it's that they sound like they're having fun lobbing lines back-and-forth, rather than monomaniacally droning through gangsta clichés. (Just listen to the way Run shouts "Ronald's!" to DMC's "Those burgers are..." set-up on the 27-second personal history lesson "Son of Byford.") It's no surprise why Raising Hell became one of the first hip-hop albums to truly break through to Middle America after a few years of post-"Rapper's Delight" woodshedding for the genre: that sense of play between the two MC's is infectious. With one of the best opening four-song runs of any old-school hip-hop album, these Hollis boys may not have expected to change pop, but they sure knew how to put their best foot forward.
That quartet is the core of Run-DMC's legacy: "Peter Piper" introduced many a non-New York resident to the sampled drum break, with its effervescent scratched-in segue from a terse, monochromatic drum machine beat to the funky, full-color bells of Bob James' "Take Me to the Mardi Gras." Future auctioneer-shaming fast-rappers may have made "It's Tricky" sound slow, but even if it's no longer the tongue-twister to beat, Russell Simmons' and Rick Rubin's cut-up of "My Sharona" makes it the funkiest, fuzziest rock-rap this side of Tone Loc's Delicious Vinyl classics. With some of Jam Master Jay's most vicious scratching and zilch in the way of ear-friendliness, "My Adidas" is one of the most counter-intuitive, and perversely catchy, examples of corporate name-dropping in rap history. And "Walk This Way," the culturally ingrained collab with a brink-of-extinction Aerosmith, is the model of raunchy, no-sell-out selling-out. Perhaps nothing, even near-numbing familiarity, can fully clean up Joe Perry's riff.
But that's only four songs out of 12. The rest of Raising Hell may lack the first quarter's immediacy, but it's a reminder that, even as one of the groups that put hip-hop over the top from a pop standpoint, Run-DMC were first-and-foremost servicing a hardcore audience of rap fiends who'd stuck with the genre through its commercially lean years. "Is It Live" is as much a percussion workout as a flow showcase, the backing track little more than an agitated duet for drums and scratching. And "Hit It Run" subsists on just a steady thwacking rhythm, frenetic beat-boxing, and more amelodic turntable interjections. What sells the album's minimalist excursions into almost pure rhythm is that aforementioned vocal enthusiasm. Like those millions of fairweather pop fans tricked into picking up Raising Hell on the basis of its MTV-monopolizing hit, the rappers 'glee sells the album as "pop" even if it resembles the modern-day version even less than 1986's crop of Billboard hitmakers.
The very first thing you hear on Illmatic is the lonely sound of a subway train rolling over the tracks and disappearing into the distance. It's followed by the faint sound of young Nasir Jones's very first on-record appearance, on Main Source's "Live at the Barbeque." The "Barbeque" verse made clear that this kid was A) excitable, and B) very eager to make an impression: before his 32 bars are over, he has dubbed himself a "police murderer"; kidnapped the president's wife "without a plan,"; compared himself to the Ku Klux Klan; and confessed that he "went to hell for snuffing Jesus" (when he was twelve). As far as ear-grabbing first appearances go, it's pretty serious stuff, right up there with Busta Rhymes's jack-in-the-box verse on "Scenario."
But here it's just background music, prelude. Only two years have passed since "Live At the Barbeque," but from the first moments Nas's voice enters on "The Genesis," it's clear that it might as well have been a thousand. "Niggas don't listen, man," he sighs wearily while his crowing buddies count cash behind him. At 23, he had already become the oldest soul in the room, and Illmatic is a document of every single thing that soul has seen. In one long, deep breath, Nas unfolds all of 1980s New York City — "The ghetto is like a maze, full of black rats, trapped" — with himself rattling around inside, neither the hero nor the anti-hero, just the observer. Illmatic is a life's work — a life — in eleven songs, and it's no wonder Nas will never top it. It can't be topped. He can title his late-period albums as many controversial things that he wants, but Illmatic will reverberate forever beyond him, for it is a reinvention of New York rap, an unimpeachable poetic document, a timeless bildungsroman, and a source of more ill rhymes than almost all other rap albums ever recorded combined. You may recoil at gangsta rap's nihilism, it's zero-sum view of life, it's anger and darkness, but if you have any desire to know anything about hip-hop, than you must own this.
An album featuring "Shook Ones Pt. II" repeated 16 times probably would have been enough to secure Mobb Deep's legend. Their signature song — one of the 1990s' signature songs — remains haunting both musically and lyrically, a collection of moments wherein the listener is awestruck by how Prodigy and Havoc wrote, arranged or said that.
Luckily, The Infamous, the diminutive Queensbridge duo's 1995 follow-up to the patchy Juvenile Hell, is one of the greatest albums ever made. It feels as desperate, claustrophobic and exhausting as Havoc and Prodigy's rhymes, from the somber "Survival of the Fittest" or the nightmarish "Trife Life" to the depressingly upbeat "Drink Away the Pain" and the Queens anthem "Give Up the Goods." Even the carefree Crystal Johnson hook of "Temperature's Rising," their radio lunge, is neutralized by their weed-pushing lyrics and a bed of face-smack drums. It's a punishing, relentless hour of music — the sound of two kids who've grown up too fast, not wanting to forget a second of it. A personal favorite is "Right Back At You," a funeral march of a posse cut that features plucky Mobb disciple Big Noyd, Raekwon and Ghostface, back when they together ruled the food chain and took no orders, every stereo "bangin' Nas, Mobb Deep and Wu."
Wherein being a dickhead is an asset. Adam Horowitz, Mike Diamond, and Adam Yauch — three punk-y, pissant Jewish kids from New York's Lower East Side — took rap in its nascent years and predicted the future: lying. Or, at least, kidding. Before the Beasties came along rap had certainly been fun, and clever, too, but rarely this funny. And their debut, a colossal success that eventually sold 9 million copies, bridged a social gap with producer Rick Rubin's chest-caving classic-rock refixes that nicked Sabbath and Zeppelin and Steve Miller. Rubin's perfunctory drum programming and keen ear for mega-riffs makes these songs as pumped as ever. But it's the kids who kicked it.
What has traveled through the cycle of examination in the 20-plus years since its release, are the relative merits of cultural appropriation. When Licensed was released, many rap allegiants rejected the caustic and puerile punchlines of these three white boys. It's not hard to see why — rhyming about robbing, drinking, drugging, and girls. And the hits — particularly "Fight For Your Right" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" — have developed a kind of mustiness, used in one too many movies, championed by too many dunderheads. What early critics missed was the skill the Beasties brought with them. On songs like "The New Style" and fan favorite "Paul Revere," we hear three hip-hop loyalists doing their best Run DMC impression, rapping furiously, dropping their shrill voices hard on the one, and doing the mic-sharing routine as well as any of their contemporaries. That sort of lyric-writing, from line-to-line, rather than verse-to-verse is a complex process, but it sounds seamless here. And when it really sings, as on the booze-binge ode, "Brass Monkey," you can hear these nice boys completely redefining party music.
If you heard DJ Red Alert's Hot 97 radio show in the late '80s, the Jungle Brothers — MCs Afrika Baby Bam and Mike G, with DJ Sammy B — were familiar fixtures, and this record is a beautiful throwback to the so-called Golden Age.
The production on their debut, by the group, with some seasoning from Red Alert (who is, in fact, Mike G's uncle), is far from polished. And that's part of its allure. One listen to "Braggin'and Boastin'" and it's clear that Sammy B was cutting live as Mike and Bam threw loose rhymes back and forth.
"Jimbrowski" is equally sloppy, with a Funkadelic drum sample so amplified it almost feeds back. And the mock-tender "I'm Gonna Do You" let's you know that these guys love booty, but aren't going the LL "I Need Love" route to get it. And just when you think that all the JBs are about is goofin', they hit you with one of the more important "conscious" (before the word was ever bandied about) cuts of the decade, "Black Is Black."
Before releasing his first solo album, Puff Daddy (aka Sean "Puffy" Combs) was famous as the producer of the Notorious B.I.G., Junior Mafia, Craig Mack, Lil' Kim, and many other rappers. As he was making his solo debut, the Notorious B.I.G. was murdered, and that loss weighs heavily on Puff's mind throughout No Way Out. Even though the album has some funky party jams scattered throughout, the bulk of the album is filled with fear, sorrow, and anger, and it's not only evident on the tribute "I'll Be Missing You" (a duet with Faith Evans and 112 that is based on the Police's "Every Breath You Take") but also on gangsta anthems like "It's All About the Benjamins." That sense of loss makes No Way Out a more substantial album than most mid-'90s hip-hop releases, and even if it has flaws -- there's a bit too much filler and it runs a little long -- it is nevertheless a compelling, harrowing album that establishes Puff Daddy as a vital rapper in his own right.
While we're usually cruising down 8th Street in a cab, not an off-white Lexus, we know exactly where Jay-Z's coming from in his new-school anthem, "Empire State of Mind." From Brooklyn to the Bronx, and every borough in between, there's no city like New York City when it comes to classic hip-hop records.
Here's a quick, album-guided tour of the Big Apple...
Released in 1993, KRS-One's first official solo album opens with "KRS-One Attacks," a DJ Premier-hatched collage of the legendary rapper's most famous moments with his previous group, Boogie Down Productions. It was a bold gesture, especially for someone who had spent the previous seven years redefining the sound of hip-hop — but by the end of Return of the Boom Bap, KRS-One's old credentials no longer mattered. This was a fantastic, hard-hitting record, its creator's preexisting legacy notwithstanding.
It was important that KRS' solo debut didn't merely feel like another B.D.P. record, and his collaboration with producers like DJ Premier, Showbiz and Kid Capri helped move him toward a new, more stripped-down style. "Outta Here" is hip-hop history in less than five minutes, as KRS runs down his autobiography over a hammering Premier beat. The blunted escapades of "I Can't Wake Up" is a rare moment of levity, while the title track is exactly what you imagine "boom bap" should sound like. The most memorable moments are shout-outs to law enforcement: the furious "Black Cop" and the still-thrilling "Sound of Da Police." Return of the Boom Bap is a milestone in two regards: while it's a bracing update of the B.D.P. sound, it's also the beginning of a wholly new legend.
Those Other Two Islands
There are no words too hyperbolic, no expressions too excited to describe the tectonic impact Public Enemy's second album had on the world. It is that vital and that infecting. Nominally a rap album, It Takes A Nation... is more like a sound grenade, thanks to the Bomb Squad's quadruple-stacked sampling, hypeman par excellence Flavor Flav's sonorous squeal, and leader Chuck D's stentorian flow — dependent not so much on meter, like most rappers, but instead a kind of confident, formless roar.
"Chuck's a powerful rapper. We wanted to make something that could sonically stand up to him," The Bomb Squad's Hank Shocklee told the Daily News when the album was released. So drum maniacs Hank and his brother, Keith, along with the musical heart of P.E., Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, seized the challenge, creating songs, if you can call them that, that whinny and snarl and ping and clash, incorporating screeching saxophones, cross-cutting vocal samples, hissing teapots, hard-nosed breakbeats, and empty hallway pianos lines. It's a fast and new kind of electric blues — or, in places, a broken, discordant jazz — they stumbled upon. Chuck takes the music and uses its harshness to deliver unrepentant political jeremiads. "The follower of Farrakhan/ Don't tell me that you understand/ Until you hear the man/ The book of the new school rap game," he raps on "Don't Believe The Hype," the totemic single. Chuck's politics are confusing beyond calls for righteous Black Panther and Nation of Islam-inspired unity. But as The New York Times' Jon Pareles wrote at the time of the album's release, P.E. refracted the notion of "individualism" in rap, demanding a new "community," encouraging activism and cynicism in equal measure. Whether denouncing a rotting, rotten prison system and governmental authority on "Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos," or the locally debilitating crack epidemic on "Night Of the Living Baseheads," Chuck's fury is so persuasive, you may find yourself punching the sky during these songs without regret. It Takes A Nation... has aged remarkably well, as sonically arresting, and socially unforgiving as any album you're likely to hear. No one made being uncompromising so inspiring.
Along with Dr. Dre's The Chronic, the Wu-Tang Clan's debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was one of the most influential rap albums of the '90s. Its spare yet atmospheric production -- courtesy of RZA -- mapped out the sonic blueprint that countless other hardcore rappers would follow for years to come. It laid the groundwork for the rebirth of New York hip-hop in the hardcore age, paving the way for everybody from Biggie and Jay-Z to Nas and Mobb Deep. Moreover, it introduced a colorful cast of hugely talented MCs, some of whom ranked among the best and most unique individual rappers of the decade. Some were outsized, theatrical personalities, others were cerebral storytellers and lyrical technicians, but each had his own distinctive style, which made for an album of tremendous variety and consistency. Every track on Enter the Wu-Tang is packed with fresh, inventive rhymes, which are filled with martial arts metaphors, pop culture references (everything from Voltron to Lucky Charms cereal commercials to Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were"), bizarre threats of violence, and a truly twisted sense of humor. Their off-kilter menace is really brought to life, however, by the eerie, lo-fi production, which helped bring the raw sound of the underground into mainstream hip-hop. Starting with a foundation of hard, gritty beats and dialogue samples from kung fu movies, RZA kept things minimalistic, but added just enough minor-key piano, strings, or muted horns to create a background ambience that works like the soundtrack to a surreal nightmare. There was nothing like it in the hip-hop world at the time, and even after years of imitation, Enter the Wu-Tang still sounds fresh and original. Subsequent group and solo projects would refine and deepen this template, but collectively, the Wu have never been quite this tight again.