By Philip Raffaele
Now, it can be argued that Hip-hop began as a variation from Jazz, or other musical groups, but that point becomes moot very quickly. Of course it was developed out of something else, but through its progress, Hip-hop has come into its own as a genre, and is now one of the most influential types of music that is constantly creating standards, and changing boundaries. Compared to other styles of music, Hip-hop is slowly emerging from its adolescent state. Countless influences, ranging from the electronic synth-sounds of Kraftwerk, to the progression of Dub and Reggae, even Disco; all of these helped to shape what the sound of the future would become.
But this isn't meant to be a history lesson. I'm not going to discuss the past, even though there is tremendous merit to artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Gil Scott Heron, and Herbie Hancock; the contributions of these performers should be evident. What I intend to focus on is the progression, as it is relevant now.
I'm writing this primarily for a pretty specific audience. I feel very strongly that my musical tastes have been cultivating from when I was very young. and now, at this point of my life, I feel content with the wide variety of things that I listen to. But I have never forgotten how different my listening tastes were in the past, and that reminds me to not judge too quickly new ventures that could be worthwhile. I mention this only to persuade those who have not already been convinced. Intelligence in music exists on many different levels, and let me assure you, it does exist. It is easy to question that, or to dismiss potentials because of other elements that don't really even seem that relevant.
Hip-hop has developed a stigma that it is ignorant music, written by ignorant people, for ignorant listeners. I believe that is an unfair opinion, that has been supported by many, until now. The commercialism of Hip-hop has reached an all time high; and a genre that was once entirely kept underground has now reached the realm of contemporary advertising. And that comes as no surprise. Popular music with quality production will always be in the forefront of successful advertising, especially when audiences become younger and younger, and much more impressionable.
What is this turning into? I have so much passion for speaking about music, things are flying out into different tangents all over the place. This forward is designed to steer you in the right directions, with no predjudice. The albums and artists discussed in this piece are among some of the most talented, and creative forces working within the contemporary recording system. They are not well known, the curse of the unique decrees so, but they do exist, and there is so much that can be taken from them. Hip-hop is an art form.
(Note: I know that Hip-hop represents more than just 'rapping', and the connotations of culture are essential to understanding it as a whole, but for the purposes of this article, I will discuss Hip-hop as directly relating to a genre of music, and it's artists.)
The blend of poetry, weaved intricately into something that speaks what you feel, in an entirely different way. Clever fusion with an instrumental beat, that can keep it's own time with the vocals, then spread out and be incredible on its own. I speak to you as a friend, an equal who shares your tastes. I would like to destroy the negative connotations that come with Hip-hop, and open minds to what lies out there, and what can change your mind. (and if your mind is already changed, than this will hopefully reinforce your thinking, and expand on it.) The following are the creme de la creme, the artists and albums that are challenging standards, and exploring realms of creativity. This music can have the same effect that other records have had, if you give it the chance.
P.S. It was easy for me to get carried away here, one act just led to another, so I've narrowed it down to a few that are really the new innovators, the ones who will have their place in the canon of contemporary Hip-hop.
P.P.S. This article is dedicated to the "Hardest working man in Hip-hop", Mr.'Kool' Keith Thornton. From the days of Ultramagnetic, to Sex Style, Dr. Octagon, and now Spankmaster, he is the one rapper that has been holding it down for so long, and continues to independently remain an underrated force in the Hip-hop community.
The significance of Company Flow (consisting of El-P, Big Jus, and Mr.Len) can be deciphered from a single line, featured in the track 'Collude / Intrude' off their debut album, 'Funcrusher Plus.'
"I was the first monkey to touch the monolith."
Standing on it's own, the '2001: A Space Odyssey' reference is commendable enough. A fine homage to a cinematic masterpiece, that is often overlooked. But it goes beyond that. Company Flow was the first of a new breed of Hip-hop, to be enlightened if you will. They touched the monolith that gave them the knowledge and the power to surpass the talent of any other group at the time, and to create a new kind of deep intelligence in Hip-hop. They began the progression, brought Rawkus Records to the top of the game in 1997.
Sporting an arsenal of wit, contempt for major labels and corporations, and a finely honed vocabulary, Co Flow lace their tracks with poetic inference, memories, and predictions. Their production is an unbelievable array of sampling, high-tech beats.
Company Flow has recently disbanded, but are planning on releasing one last album, entitled 'Pain Cave.' They will never be forgotten, as their unique imprint on modern hip-hop has truly been remarkable. Here's a taste, from 'Collude / Intrude.'
"Enter the all city access and encounter the likes of these
Regionally no one relaxes actual
No wonder I'ma type to crush contenders with pure chewing satisfaction
Pervade your ultraharmonic with the back of your whole mediocre faction
Sonic boom head zoom contact off antaxion
Elbowed with a vacumn pure death MC's with closed captions
Wind up in the willows, catch the whirling dervish
Or the dead and dumb millennium is at your service
Flow the plaque, instigate lyrics then backfile another MC
who thought cause he was dipped in powder blue that he could rock pastel
Got your hip-hop essence out of the Cross Colours catalog
while I launch technology
Ask L. Ron Hubbard to break down my Scientology
Fuckin up to the chest I bucks the city us Bad Touchin
Boogie to break to bumrushin
Fresh start taming biofeed this track achieves
pain penicilin crack and AZT couldn't relieve
Being Sizzlean I will trim the fat like Susan Powders
Disrespectin burners like cap, lickin off shots from clocktowers
Play ring around the dead nation
The Deadhead situation, situated to see-saw creation
MC's are helpless like Gadzook keep faggot like RuPaul
troop to the new sensation fuck that whole wannabe gangster fascination
The illusion is broke, or cock albums mispoke
And got the El P rookie cards stuck in they bicycle spoke
For those VH-1 crystalized pseudo rip flows
Let the liquid talon soak into the seam of your coat
Meet the professional dead or alive politrick technician
Straight neck capital P for the deep throat dickin
I was that first monkey to touch the Monolith, delinquent
Up in that crack like white squaw for the weekend
and I sunk your Battleship
Parked in a hot zone, live to the E. Bola
Manifest brain tumors through the phone as you roam in your Motorolas."
Vast Aire and Vordul make up the duo of Cannibal Ox, coming correct in the style of Company Flow, complete with El-P production on the album. Vast and Vordul are also members of Atoms Family, where they apply their signature rap style to the group atmosphere. Cann Ox is the more experimental side of their operations, where they can mess around with the same kind of space age beats that put Company Flow on the map when they debuted with 'Funcrusher Plus.' El-P's influence on 'The Cold Vein' is huge, but the album comes across as a unique excerpt of a highly entertaining sub-genre of underground Hip-hop.
'The Cold Vein' is a monumental first outing, with tracks that defy all convention and really make the listener think. The phenomenal tracks that were collected on the early Def Jux Co Flow / Cann Ox split 12" are on the album in all their glory. 'Iron Galaxy' remains one of the most unbelievable tracks in recent years.
"Five digits, cock biddy, nine milli
One floor shine silly, spun city, one verse hit milly
Little girls spinnin' curls, three sixty
Livin' in in a world shitty
Yo, they spun young earth, now shitty"
"An' while 5 0 might shoot black head
Nigga, sorry I sold space suit to crack heads
D.T's operate mechanically, po' po' in slow mo'
Black kids, locked away
Attic key, plus one fourth pound of smoke flow"
"While, lock head Fabian, Ahmed Arabian
Layin' in Bodeg, holdin' drama A.K.
Spoke like, As salaam a opaque
Chokin' vodka mixed with O.J.
Wig splits, mad quick, spinnin' three six oh ways"
"C 4 blew the door, number eight
Summer fate, tank top wit a knot
Number nine said, Run the place
Took my girl, stereo, CD plus the tape"
Its like two prophets looking over an apocalyptic future, making notes to themselves about the destruction of man, the futuristic ghetto, and the strife that continues. All accompanied by alien scientists laying down the instrumentals. This is a must-own album. Already marked on countless top ten lists, Cannibal Ox are a profound duo that eats its young and spits it out as vernacular.
MF Doom is formally Zev Luv X, from the group KMD, who back in 1993, could have been the next A Tribe Called Quest. Instead, Elektra dropped them when they tried to release 'Black Bastards' (which has recently been re-released) and didn't agree with the cover art. After Sub Roc's tragic death in a bus accident *, Zev Luv X retreated to the darkness and was subsequently gone from sight.
Until now. eight years later, he returns, with a new persona, and a new mask to cover the scars. Released on Bobbito's Fondle 'em label, which does no promotion or advertisement for it's releases, 'Operation: Doomsday' has already sold 10,000 copies, strictly on word of mouth. The reason why? It is phenomenal. Deeply intricate rhymes, interwoven on top of each other, all thrown on top of 80's hooks and breaks, none of the glamorous production of late. But that's what makes this a masterpiece. crudely constructed, this album destroys all competition. Here's a taste:
"I know about going paid to broke, to next day well-off
To bust a shell off, to dick-riders: 'Get the hell off'
Made a call to a client, he must've had his cell off
A show-off, he has the same bite but fell off"
The track 'Hey' flips the Scooby Doo beat of the criminals approaching, and Doom creeps in. One of the most brilliant tracks is 'Operation: Greenbacks.' You hear the groupings, but it doesn't hit you how ill it really is until you hear....
"Amen, it's funny how significance make a difference;
notice parables of three in every other inference."
I'm convinced that MF Doom is the greatest rapper of all time. On his new split 12" with MF Grimm, he raps "We wrote these rhymes in 3-D with red and blue Bic pens." Every track is simply amazing. An old Fantastic Four theme seams the record together, weaving in and out of the old breaks. After the initial pressing of 10,000, Subverse Recordings re-released the album, with a bonus track, 'I hear voices.' Do not sleep on this album, it will show you that Hip-hop lives, and there is a bright future to look forward to. Check out the track 'Blacklist' on the Prefuse 73 debut, 'Vocal studies and uprock narratives.' Doom rips the track with Aesop Rock in a grand back and forth verbal altercation. Also check out the re-release of the classic KMD album's 'Black bastards' and 'Mr. Hood.'
* For people in the know, on the Cage track '54'; the rhyme goes "Put two rocks in Kurt Loder's head for Sub." In reference to the MTV VJ's heartlessness when reporting Sub Roc's death.
KMD come correct. One of the most seminal Hip-hop groups, if things had gone differently, they would be as well known today, as A Tribe Called Quest is. Due to problems at Elektra when 'Black Bastards' was to originally be released in 1993 (with the controversial cover art), KMD was dropped, and the album was indefinitely shelved, With only a small number of bootlegs appearing throughout the years. But now, we have the definitive version of 'Black Bastards', and it still packs a tremendous punch, and perhaps is one of the most important releases of the year. KMD just represents a different time, and the intensity, and skill that comes across on the record is just something that can't be duplicated today. A no-holds-barred attack on everything standing in their way, that is raw and a lot of fun to listen to.
KMD consisted of Zev Luv X, (now known as MF Doom) and brother Sub-Roc, along with a plethora of guests, mostly members of the CM Crew (the originators of the Constipated Monkey Crew, now made more popular by Bobbito's CM Famalam radio program) until Sub-Roc was tragically killed in a automobile accident. The remainder of the group disbanded, and was unheard from until Zev Luv X resurfaced as MF Doom on a number of Fondle 'em 12"s a few years ago.
KMD's subject matter has to do with drinking wine, smoking weed, and just hanging around. But there is just a non-specific presence that the album has that is truly unmatched by contemporary artists. Raw beats, and steady tempos keep this album going strong instrumentally, but the lyricists are what bring it to life. Jazzy interludes accompany the percussion, and the samples are intelligently used. The album features an unmatched cadence that doesn't give a fuck where it comes in and goes out.
The Subverse edition of 'Black Bastards' includes a remix of 'What a Nigga Know' that features MF Grimm, and a ridiculously pleasurable sped up Gil Scott-Heron sample that works very well. "I saw the thunder and heard the lightening, and felt the burden of his shame."
For any people who love the sound of early De La Soul, or other Native Tongue-like acts, you won't be disappointed with KMD. Copies of their first album 'Mr. Hood' can be found with a little work, and are worth tracking down. And after you hear the presence of KMD, you will no doubt want to check out the MF Doom material that is a brilliant progression from the earlier material into an unprecedented approach to modern Hip-hop. With strong roots, the tree will go very strong, and very tall.
"And you don't quit, 'till the last phillie is split
You get a buzzed bus driver off the contact blitt."
Raw, gritty rap coming from deep Brooklyn. Non-Phixion, consisting of Ill Bill, Goretex, Sabaac, and DJ Eclipse. The only Hip-hop group that I've ever heard to rhyme with 'Proleteriat.' Definitely a political group, with some intense lyrics that strike fast and hard. Most of the beats for their early work were delivered by tough-as-nails producer / rapper Necro, who just happens to be Ill Bill's younger brother. Early freestyles performed on Brooklyn College Radio are now rare gems traded on mixtapes around the world. Non-Phixion possesses a type of fluidity that just doesn't exist on many contemporary Hip-hop groups. They rapped about the ghetto, and tough times growing up, but they flipped it with governmental unfairness, and severe attacks on political factions and decisions. An intelligent collective that pushed the boundaries of clever thinking, and then fused them with unbelievable production, creating a deadly combination. This is the formula they used to sell over 70,000 copies of their early singles, entirely independently.
Early releases include 'Legacy B/W No Tomorrow' and the seminal 'I Shot Reagan B/W Refuse To Lose' singles, which prompted a signing by Matador records in 1998. The fans waited, and waited; Matador released one 12" single, 'Black helicopters B/W They got,' and one promotional mix entitled 'The Future Is Now: the past, present, and future.' The mix incorporated practically their entire back catalogue, and set the stage for a truly monumental album, one that would have a tremendous influence on the Hip-hop community. The fans waited some more, and early on in 2001, Matador issued this on their website....
"07/12/00 - The Future Is Later Than 'Now,' and it's not part of our future anyway.
We regret to announce that Matador will not be releasing Non Phixion's upcoming debut album 'The Future Is Now.' After months of preparations for the release of this album, the group have reached the conclusion that Matador is not the right label for them. While we wish they had made this decision prior to signing a contract or recording the album, we see no reason to stand in their way and we look forward to reaching an amicable settlement. We remain fans of Non Phixion's music and sincerely wish them all the success in their future endeavors."
A damn shame. There's obviously a little contempt on the part of Matador, which looks deserved. What really happened between the label and the group is unknown. Lately, things have been kept quiet for Non-Phixion, but the hiatus is just generating more demand for a full-length release. Last year Ill Bill had a single released on brother Necro's Psycho + Logical records, 'Gangsta Rap B/W How to kill a cop,' which generated some controversy. Rumors are abound that the album might be released on Psycho + Logical, but no official word on it. Other than that, a 12" of '2004' was released in conjunction with Obscure Disorder. Cross your fingers, and hope that this amazing album will eventually see the light of day. From 'I Shot Reagan'....
"We Elohim, alien brain in my cranium
They locked me in a sanitarium, behind walls of titanium
Fifty-One forbidden classified spy Area
Doctors from Nigeria, Lebanon and Syria
South Bronx, I walk through epochs and airlocks
Disengagin doorways into time, breakin cellblock number 13
The Earth's seen the first gleam of life beyond humanoid existence
from light-year distances
I navigate rip the fabric of space in this race against time
Transmit a message backwards through the phone lines
Control minds with fairly common alien technocracy
We laugh at your misguided principals and prophecies
My species shapeshift, take on the form of an Earthling
If I fail to return back home, alert the King
Bring the reinforcements, program the telport coordinates
My spatial origin's the starting point begin your voyage
into mystery, strange universes, strange history
Yeah I shot your fuckin President, you know my steez!
Not Public Enemy, except we non-fiction, Non-Phixion
Positive and negative because the world's a contradiction."
There are so many more. for those still hungry, check out the following, responsible for blown minds across the globe. Just a few that are responsible for countless hours of quality and should not be overlooked. Self-explanatory classics.
Dan 'The Automator' Nakumura
Del Tha Funky Homosapien
De La Soul
Jeru The Damaja
Kool G Rap