Please Jam: There’ll Never Be An Era As Great As The ’90s

(Editors' note: Earlier this month, in honor of Black Music Month, EIC Vince Thomas and associate editor James Carr decided to flip thr script with Please Jam and, instead of James' sending Vince new tracks to listen to, Vince would dig in his crates and take his mate from the UK on a walk through black music history.

(Editors' note: Earlier this month, in honor of Black Music Month, EIC Vince Thomas and associate editor James Carr decided to flip thr script with Please Jam and, instead of James' sending Vince new tracks to listen to, Vince would dig in his crates and take his mate from the UK on a walk through black music history. We started in the '50s and ended here, in the glorious '90s. Word to Biz: "Now let me take a trip down Memory Lane.")

WEST COAST TAKEOVER

Ice-T — “O.G. Original Gangster” off his eponymous album, 1991

 

Ice Cube — “No Vaseline” off Death Certificate, 1991

 

Dr. Dre — “Let Me Ride” off of The Chronic, 1992



Dr.Dre-Let me ride by ibrqm

 

Tupac — “If My Homie Calls” off 2Pacalypse Now, 1991

 

VINCE: N.W.A. dropped Straight Outta Compton in the late-’80s and, before you knew it, a music that incubated and developed in the parks of New York City had been hijacked by our brothers out west. NYC was still dropping classic albums and songs in the early-’90s (see the section below), but the West Coast was making the most inroads in terms of turning hip-hop into more than just an urban-centric, regionally niche music and culture. Niggaz4Life went double-plat! Back then, for a rap group, that was like going diamond.

What is so compelling about the West-takeover is that it was engineered by a very small group of artists. If you contrast it with Atlanta’s recent coup — where it seems one city produces a new radio hit, by a new (often one-hit wonder) artist every hour — the West roster was lean and mean. What they cooked up was a unique brand of rap music, though. It was as hedonistic as the most violent, misogynistic music coming out of NYC — only x100. And they favored appropriations of funk over the East’s taste for jazz. George Clinton and P-Funk was more of a foundation than horn samples and James Brown breakbeats (although they still sampled plenty James). When writing an appreciation essay on Parliament Funkadelic for their inclusion in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists, Ice Cube recalled how Funkadelic’s “Knee Deep” started brawls at West Coast parties in the ’80s. In the early ’90s, this was probably happening when the DJ dropped “The Nigga You Love To Hate,” which sampled “Atomic Dog.” And it was that P-Funk synthesizer, like the one Dre snagged from the breakdown in “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” for “Let Me Ride,” that gave West Coast music such a chilled out vibe. It was misleading, though. In a lot of ways it mirrored the actual physical aesthetics of South Central Los Angeles. There were palm trees, homes with gates and lawns, but it was residence to a region so debauched by the crack game that you could have argued for Marshall Law. That’s “Let Me Ride.” Sonically, it’s cookout/bbq/family reunion music, except, Dre’s talkin’ about, “You wanna make noise? Make noise/I make a phone call, my niggas comin’ like the Gotti boys.”

A lot of East Coast rap was about partying and empowerment. West Coast created their lane via a much more amoral, bellicose version and depiction of black culture and street life. Ice-T starts off “O.G.” (I’m giving Ice credit for popularizing that phrase and, in terms of recent slang, that’s a top-20 phrase) by basically saying, “Screw my previous charade. I’m not with all this happy-go-lucky party rah-rah…I’m a street n***a.” If there is one song that exemplifies the West Coast ethos of the early-’90s, it’s “O.G.” Dre, in “Let Me Ride,” when he said he wasn’t messing with the black-fisted cliché of his eastern brethren…“mutha****a, I’m Dre!” These were young men who were keenly aware of their environment and all the social constructs that made life what it was. People got them twisted often. Like Ice said, “Fight for the streets when I’m on Oprah or Donahue…didn’t figure, my wits as quick as a hair trigger.”


I fear that Cube doesn’t get his due as an emcee. He might be in my top 5 (and I was late to the party), but newer emcees get more love (3000, Eminem, etc.). Tupac gets the most love when it comes to deep, socially conscious and politically charged lyrics; but, for my dough, my top 3 are Chuck D, KRS-One and Cube. As an adult, when I went back and listened to early Cube, I was floored. He was definitely angry and absolutely hyper-antagonistic, but your boy was hip to every bit of the game. This intuition is why he left N.W.A. in the first place. He saw Eazy-E’s manager Jerry Heller shafting the rest of the group out of money, so he went “solo on that a&&” and turned in one of the greatest three-album runs in rap history. “No Vaseline” is not his best song. But it might be his most important. He systematically ethers the most popular group in rap for dolo. It’s probably the greatest battle rhyme of all time.

And, of course, I had to get some ’Pac in here, so I went with my favorite. “If My Homie Calls” is about as wistful as it gets. Those keys that producer Big D Impossible pulled from Keni Burke’s “Keep Risin’ to the Top” drip with so much nostalgia… This was early ’Pac, back when few people would have predicted he’d become a pop and urban culture immortal. At the time, he was more so a complex, rising star. But even “If My Homie Calls,” which is a classic but not his best work…the song was a word of caution, an extended hand and an ode to brotherhood all at once. That’s what made ’Pac so great.

The Chronic — West Coast rap’s high-water mark — dropped in December of 1992. By this time, Los Angeles had rap in a choke-hold. Not for long, though…

 

JAMES: I was about to make a joke about how long it takes the originator of OG to become a cop (SVU)… but he played a cop in New Jack City a year before “O.G.” dropped! That’s gotta be the definition of OG — flipping your styles around in a somewhat contradictory manner, and still putting out the definitive gangster rap record of the year (I suppose Rick Ross comes close in that department, as well).

“No Vaseline” is pretty damn raw and the point is well-received, but this is certainly a generation record. No way this would get made in this day and age after the gay rights movement, even though the sentiment of getting f*cked by the man is virtually omnipresent these days (NSA, we’re looking at you, looking at us. Wall St, we’re just giving you the finger and hiding the Vaseline).

Neither of these two rappers get the artistic respect they likely deserve in this day and age because they’ve both remained in pop culture as very different characters than they were when they started. Ice in SVU and that reality show he did (I’m not looking it up) and Cube as a pitchman who constantly gets punked by a Coors Light can. Think he would’ve gotten that sponsorship in 1991? Ha!

It’s also fascinating that Cube’s line about Dre sticking with producing comes into play right away in “Let Me Ride,” because it’s obvious from the first couple of lines that Snoop wrote the track. There’s nothing really wrong with ghostwriters, but it does serve to somewhat prove Cube’s point — except for the fact that this is a certified jam. Whoever wrote it, Dre killed it and completely changed hip-hop with the rest of his album.

As for ’Pac, it’s another classic, so what else are you really gonna say? The one thing that did make sense is when Snoop discussed ’Pac in Reincarnated and talked about how he went from a good rapper to a great rapper, which he essentially attributed to Suge Knight surrounding him with everything he needed and getting the lights to shine a bit brighter. That didn’t happen till 1995, putting this ’92 track right in that realm. Though I’m not sure that I agree with Snoop’s sentiments that ’Pac wasn’t great or destined to be great without Suge.

 

JAZZ AND HIP-HOP

Pete Rock & CL Smooth — “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” off Mecca and the Soul Brother, 1992

 

Main Source — “Fakin the Funk” off White Men Can’t Rap (EP), 1992

 

De La Soul — “Oodles of O’s” off De La Soul Is Dead, 1991

 

Diamond D — “Feel the Vibe” off Stunts, Blunts and Hip Hop, 1992

 

VINCE: As I’ve alluded to often in previous “Please Jams,” I grew up in a jazz household. I heard more Woody Shaw than Luther Vandross. I think that is the chief reason — aside from the obvious geographic reality — that I was always such a staunch and almost intractable East Coast hip-hop fan. I absolutely HATED West Coast rap when I was growing up (every blue moon, I’d OD on joints like “Doggy Dog World” or “Straight Up Menace” in private, like they were guilty pleasures). Part of that was jealousy: I didn’t like that NYC was no longer the epicenter of rap music. But it was often solely a sonic thing. Parliament Funkadelic is now my favorite band of the 1970s, but I didn’t hear a lot of Parliament Funkadelic growing up, outside of the classic jams periodically on the radio. So, the West Coast’s infatuation with P-Funk created a sonic distance between us. My favorite music — as a resident of the Thomas household — was J&J…jazz and James Brown (James Note: and Jameson). That is all that East Coast hip-hop was about.

The sonic contrast between West and East Coast rap in the early ’90s was extremely sharp. These days — other than regional drawls and some colloquialisms — there’s not a significant difference between French Montana, T.I. and The Game. Everybody aims for the sound du jour. Twenty years ago, this wasn’t the case, at all. Brand Nubian sounded absolutely nothing like The D.O.C. The gulf between a DJ Quik track and one from Large Professor was the size of an ocean. Even though a lot of the differences had to do with the West’s leaning toward P-Funk and the East’s ongoing reliance on James Brown, that’s only a portion of it, since, let’s be real, EVERYONE was ripping JB. At the crux of the sonic divergence was NYC rap’s love of jazz.

Check the four songs above. The cardinal attribute of all of them is the jazz element. Tom Scott’s sax from “Today” drives “Reminisce.” With all humbly due respect to Main Ingredient’s “bah-bah-bah-bah” (something we all used to hum on the playground when our homeboy Zai-D would break out the “Wesley Snipes White Men Can’t Jump” spin move from the “Fakin’ the Funk” video), that sax from Kool & The Gang’s “NT” is what does it for me, much like the horn sample from Earth Wind & Fire’s “Bad Tune” (EWF was sometimes jazzier than they were funky) is my favorite element of “Feel the Vibe.” And neither “Oodles of O’s” or Digable Planets’ classic “Rebirth of the Slick” would be what they are without Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers’ “Stretchin.” (Note: I would have included Tribe’s “Butter” if we weren’t getting to Tribe later. But that Gary Bartz sample might be my favorite jazz sample to-date.)

A lot of time, there seems to be this sentiment that the early-’90s was some sort of dark period for East Coast hop; like it laid in a fetal position, cowering under the ominous and onerous shadow of the growing West Coast juggernaut. The truth is that Mecca and the Soul Brother, Breaking Atoms (which is really the album we associate “Fakin’ the Funk” with), De La Soul Is Dead and Stunts, Blunts and Hip Hop are all unassailable classic albums. And they are not alone in that era. In fact, artistically speaking and in a sonic context, it might the East Coast’s best period.

It’s too bad L.A. was taking up both armrests. Things were about to change, though…

 

JAMES: ComplexTV recently spoke with Pete Rock and CL Smooth about the most ruthless horn in hip-hop. It’s a fascinating song, made legendary with the sax sample. I still can’t really believe Lupe had the balls to f*ck with it, but I don’t have “T.R.O.Y.” on one of my burned CDs in the car (yes, I still f*ck with burned CDs) so Lupe’s “Around My Way” gets a pass.

I’m not sure if it’s because I played both sax and trumpet (Vince note: I’d have guessed clarinet), but jazz samples are, by far, my favorite aspect of hip-hop. Kanye’s “Touch The Sky”? Maaan, you might not see me for three days if that comes on at the wrong (or right) time of night. “Fakin’ The Funk” is another dangerous one.

I also enjoyed “Feel The Vibe” and you gotta put Stunts, Blunts and Hip Hop in my dropbox for later this evening, because I happened to come across “Oodles of O’s.”

 

1993 to 1994: EAST COAST LEVELS the PLAYING FIELD

Wu-Tang Clan — “Da Mystery of Chessboxin” off Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 1993

 

A Tribe Called Quest — “Lyrics To Go” off Midnight Marauders, 1993

 

Black Moon — “How Many MC’s” off Enta Da Stage, 1993


 

Nas — “Life’s A Bitch” off of Illmatic, 1994

Biggie Smalls — “Unbelievable” off Ready To Die, 1994

 

VINCE: NYC hip-hop fans were such a salty bunch in the early-’90s. Eff the West Coast. It was a proprietary lot. So, it’s hard to understate the impact of 1993-94. It was like a scene from that Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling movie where one side looks to be about finished — knuckles about to knock on wood — and then, (boom!) he’s right back in it. The Chronic was still the most popular album of ’93 (it dropped in December of ’92) and Snoop was the biggest star of ’94; but, by sheer force of numbers and artistic supernovas, East Coast hip-hop regained control in the mid-’90s. I swell with pride just thinking about it (especially as a long-suffering music fan weathering this last decade of southern dominance).

It started in November of ’93, which is why ’94 was really the year. In November, Tribe dropped Midnight Marauders, KRS-One dropped Return of the Boom Bap, Wu dropped Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Black Moon dropped Enta Da Stage. That is beyond mind-boggling. In the span of one month, us hop-heads copped the last and most fully-realized album in a trio of jazz-hop classics from Tribe, a gutter street classic from Black Moon, KRS-One’s solo debut…produced by DJ Premier, and, uh, the Wu-Tang Clan.

Then, within six months of these releases, Nas drops Illmatic, followed a few months later by Biggie’s debut. The East was puttin’ numbers on the boards.

It’s hard to overstate the musical impact these albums had, but, you know me, James — I will try.

By 1993, Tribe had perfected their sound, with Tip and Phife making a considerable leap as emcees and Tip expanding his production. Tip saying he has “Lyrics To Go” wasn’t an empty boast by this time (that’s one of the dopest lugs I’ve heard). And when you watch a doc like Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest and watch/listen to Tip take you into the creation of some of these records, and then listen to cats that came after him (from Pete Rock to Dilla to Kanye to Pharrell to Black Milk to Tyler, The Creator), you start to become convinced that he might be the greatest producer in hop history. At minimum, he’s in the conversation with a small handful of others.

Meanwhile, The Beatminerz were lacing Buckshot with beats that were the prototype for that claustrophobic, diseased filth Marcberg has honed in on recently. What was dope about Buck is that he went from sounding like a member of Onyx to spitting a flow that was wholly unique. You can hear this played out in real time on the album. I interviewed Buck years ago and, the way he tells it, midway through recording the album, he went on tour with Kool G Rap and got in a cypher with G Rap and a young Nas and it made him chill on the hyper-manic energy and come with more nuance. He said he wanted to use his rhymes as another instrument, just float on top of the beats. It was ill to hear him articulate this, a revelation even…but, when you think back, we all kinda noticed. Early in ’93, when snow was still on the ground, Buck was wildin’ in “Who Got The Props?” Then months later, in the summer, we see him again and he’s spittin’ this measured, sophisticated flow on “How Many MC’s.” Cold-blooded. On the album, the change happens between “Make Munne” and “Slave.” To this day, his spitting in the mid-’90s remains the pinnacle of the rhythmic-flow.

“Chessboxin’” was typical Wu. Posse cuts were something crews did one time on an album (“Headbanger,” “The Symphony,” “Scenario”), but every Wu song was a doper posse cut than most crews’ posse cuts. And no crew had RZA on the boards. RZA changed the game with the sped up samples and the choppy, off-kilter rhythms. He is as responsible for Dilla and Kanye and Black Milk and Tyler as Tip. And he also was running laps around Dre in terms of leading a pack of All-Stars. Snoop, Daz and Kurupt ain’t Meth, Rae and Ghost.

And, finally, Nas and Big. 1) They’ve been parsed over ad nauseum. 2) They deserve separate posts. So, I won’t go too deep. I’ll say this…those two shut it down. I selected “Life’s a Bitch” because it exemplified what Jay said best, “sh!t was so ahead, thought we was all dead.” KRS said that when Illmatic hit the streets, he thought Nas was 30 years ahead of everyone else. Maybe five years ago, I was listening to “Life’s A B” with one of my homeboys, a serious Nas fan, and he hipped me to how AZ’s verse was about street trappings and very tangible, literal ideas; but then Nas — about two years younger — comes on spitting the words of a sage. Meanwhile, Big was pulling Primo for gutter tracks to soundtrack all that obese charisma.

What you had was the most critically-acclaimed and mainstream hop act in Tribe (I guess the Beasties were there with them), Black Moon giving street-hop sophistication and nuance, Wu-Tang changing music, hip-hop’s most revered child prodigy’s debut and the beginning of the Puff & Biggie takeover.

As Jeru the Damaja — who also dropped a classic in ’94 (The Sun Rises In The East) — most famously spit: “ When the East is in the house/Oh my god/DANGER!

 

JAMES: For record, an ad for “Freaks” by French Montana and Nicki Minaj preceded “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”….quite the contrast.

This kinda shit is my jam, Vince. Fantastic in the car. Unleashes a confident snarl across the face. Money with a drink because it’ll get you moving and with a smoke because it’ll get your brain turning.

Appreciate the knowledge on Tip. A lot of credit for laying the concrete for the modern game.

Do you think this summer has the potential to be as fondly remembered by my generation as the winter of ‘93 was for you? (Kanye, Cole, Jay-Z, Pusha, Drake, ScHoolboy, Mac Miller, Joey Bada$$, MMG) Or is that kind of thing pretty much dead in the era of constant leaks, free mixtapes and singles? (Vince: That era is dead because people don’t make classic albums anymore — not at the ‘93-’94 clip. And this is not generational hate. Cats ten years older than me knew Wu, Nas, Big, etc. were dropping landmarks.)

 

CLUB BANGERS

Craig Mack (featuring Biggie Smalls, Rampage, Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J) — “Flava In Ya Ear (Remix)” off of Project Funk da World, 1994

 

Mobb Deep — “Give Up The Goods” off The Infamous, 1995

 

Busta Rhymes — “Put Ya Hands Where My Eyes Could See” off When Disaster Strikes, 1997

 

Jay-Z (featuring The Lox, Beanie Sigel, Sauce Money) — “Reservoir Dogs” off Hard Knock Life, 1998

 

VINCE: Remember back in the early-’90s when Ice (on “O.G.”) basically rapped that rhyming about parties and partying was for the birds and he was going to keep it street? In actuality, that was the mantra of 90 percent of rap music for the first half of the decade. Then Puff and Big changed all that. The Shiny Suit era was a real thing. The term came from the costumes (yeah, I called them costumes) that Puff and the Bad Boy family rocked in Big’s “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” video. “Mo’ Money” was one of the biggest club hits of the decade. Bad Boy was the leader of a new school of East Coast hop that was about fly girls, poppin’ champagne, VIP-stuntin’ and excess. It was a far cry from the “How About Some Hardcore” motif of prior years.

’Pac died in 1996, Snoop moved to No Limit in ’98 and Dre was busy with Nas, AZ, Foxy and The Firm in the last half of the ’90s, leaving Puff with outsized cultural influence. By the new millenium, you had the Wu dropping albums with lead singles like “Gravel Pit.”

You know what’s crazy, though — led by some hooligan, real-head NYC DJs, music similar to “How About Some Hardcore” actually started finding its way into clubs in the last half of the ’90s. By the time Puff and crew had straight-up overhauled hip-hop (and a lot of cats chose to follow for fear of being called a “hater,” a term I’m convinced Puff & Family popularized to prevent dudes from calling out their music and outlook), M.O.P.’s “Ante Up” was wrecking shop in new millenium clubs.

“Flava In Ya Ear” wasn’t the song that started it all or anything, it’s just a favorite of mine and it typifies the newness of the club banger appeal. Yeah, Big and LL were on it for the star power. And, yeah, a pre-”Put Your Hands” Busta Buss closed out the posse cut like only he can (see: “Scenario”), but it was Craig Mack’s song and Rampage was on it. Yet, DJs let the whole joint bang. And bang it did.

Not too long ago, Cipha Sounds compiled a list for Complex.com of the 75 Greatest Tunnel Bangers. The Tunnel was a super-club on the westside of Manhattan. Every Sunday (from the last half of the ’90s through early-’00s), Funkmaster Flex would take over the wheels and hip-hop patrons would flood that section of Chelsea. We’re talking everyone from rap stars, to drug kingpins, to models, to video vixens, to hoodrats, to hoodlums, to hop-heads, to visiting college kids like me. The hallmark of the Tunnel was that, often, its club smash was a deep cut from a street rap album.

“Give Up The Goods” is an exceptional song. Few producers have created an album of soundscapes as lush and harsh as Havoc’s shenanigans on The Infamous. In this case, though, Q-Tip got in on the action. It’s a song that features butterfly-strings and a snare that’ll snap your spine in half. It’s also a stick-up kid anthem about robbing marks. It blows my mind that people use to “freak dance” to that. Or that “Reservoir Dogs” — a Roc-A-Fella/LOX posse cut — could get a bomb from Flex at 2 a.m. just the same as “Money Ain’t A Thang.” (FYI: Beans bodied EVERYONE on “Reservoir Dogs.” Jadakiss wanted no parts of that Beans gristle. And after Jay — in a valiant effort — got upstaged, he just decided to start rhyming like Beans for the next few years.)

I went to the Tunnel about a dozen times. And, although it was definitely a unique vibe and playlist, I could hear the Beatnutz, DMX and N.O.R.E. in D.C. and Toronto, too. And no one shut it down quite like Busta. Cipha chose “The Benjamins” as the greatest Tunnel Banger of all time and he’s almost surely right. But, “Put Ya Hands” made everyone, everywhere go coconuts. Bust’ had the ladies — whose ears would bleed listening to “Rhymes Galore” — spitting every rapid-fire bar of that joint verbatim.

Across the board, however, hip-hop as an artform began taking some crippling hits in the late-’90s and the club banger was a big culprit. But if you were a real ’head and listened close enough, you were hip to this underground subset of artists that were making some of the illest music to-date. They called it “backpack rap”…

 

JAMES: Hard Knock Life…Vol. 2 was the first album I ever listened to all the way through. I moved to the US about two months after it came out (I don’t ordinarily categorize time periods of my life by Jay-Z albums, but I may start). I was 8. I remember hearing “N*gga What” for the first time having never heard of the n-word before, let alone any concept of what it meant. I asked my friend some variation of, “Why would they call themselves that?” upon hearing that it was a racial term used during the era of slavery. I imagine your explanation might be better, though.

This era of hip-hop is what I first listened to growing up when we used to put rudimentary “samples” from South Park over a lot of these kind of tracks. Speaking of, that sounds like the sample Destiny’s Child borrowed for “Independent Women” on Busta’s “Put Ya Hands Where My Eyes Could See.”

I’m a big fan of Busta. Always dug his style of rapping and his music videos were usually crazy. This is another fine example.

This is one of my favorite eras of hip-hop in general, probably because it’s what I first got into, and I’m excited that it’s coming back. Your column from a year ago, shortly after Joey Bada$$ dropped 1999 and blew up the internet. Their roots stem from this time period (Joey was born in 1995) and the next section as well. They’ve got a ruthless blend and they’re just getting started. (Vince note: Joey and crew have a lot of ‘93-’94, too. In fact, ‘93-’94 and backpack rap probably influence their music more than the club banger era.)

 

 

BACKPACK RAP

 

The Roots — “What They Do” off Illadelph Halflife, 1996

Roots – What They Do from Uzi on Vimeo.

 

Slum Village — “Keep It On [This Beat]” off Fantastic Vol. 1, 1997

 

Black Star (featuring Common) — “Respiration” off Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, 1998

 

Black Eyed Peas — “Joints & Jams” off Behind the Front, 1998

 

Pharoahe Monch — “The Light” off Infernal Affairs, 1999

VINCE: While I enjoyed the club banger era, I really only enjoyed it in specific settings. If the crew and I were pre-gaming, then we would most definitely drop Lord Tariq and Peter Guns’ “We Will Ball” and get it poppin’. I loved hearing Cam’s “357” at the Tunnel or Drag-On’s “Down Bottom” at a house party in D.C. If we were stuck in traffic on the Myrtle Beach strip for spring break, we wouldn’t mind bumping Big Pun’s “Pina Colada” at some point. But that wasn’t my music of choice. When it was time to pull out the “discman” (you’re old enough to remember those right, James? JC: Yes.) during the club banger era, I was bumpin’ underground rap. That’s what we called it. The more dismissive, pejorative term was “backpack rap.” I’m actually having trouble remembering the genesis of this term, but the real serious heads used to walk around with backpacks full of rhymes. Rough House Survivors made a song about it. You know full well that Young Vince walked around with a back full of rhymes in notebooks, on loose-leaf paper, napkins, etc.

The underground contingent could often be a self-righteous contingent, like they were the keepers of hip-hop music and culture. Some of the judgements they passed on the shiny suits and champagne poppers and clear pandering to radio and clubs came from a seat of sincere concern for hip-hop. Sometimes it was spiked with a little jealousy, especially when cats like Puff and Jay-Z went out of their ways to make “I’m richer than you” music. The undergrounds response was “I’m better than you.” Sometimes they kept it to “I’m a better rapper.” Other times it went as far as “I’m a better person.” The late-’90s became a battle not between the East and West, but between mainstream and the underground. Rap stars were becoming pop stars and a critical mass of rappers weren’t feeling what they perceived as the music being hijacked by frivolity and wackness.

The Roots were the leaders of the underground militia. It’s tough to envision that now. These days, The Roots is the music version of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” idea. The Roots are loved by everyone. The Roots have played backing-band for everyone. If The Roots took a summer residency in Las Vegas next year and chose to play with a different artist every day, there’s a chance you’d hear them with anyone from Celine Deion, to Tony Bennett, to Nas, to Rihanna to Bon Iver, to Adele, to Mary J, to Kendrick Lamar, to Waka Flaka. That’s real talk. But back in the ‘90s, they were the stewards of the underground’s artistic highground.

“What They Do” was the underground/backpack rap manifesto. “Never do what they do.” “They” was people like Puff, Jay, Nas (by this time, Nasty Nas was Nas Escobar — two different dudes), Snoop — almost any popular rapper. Listen to Black Thought’s lyrics. It is a public censuring: “Lost generation, fast-pace nation/world population confront they frustration/the principles of true hip-hop have been forsaken/it’s all contractual and about money-makin.’” Or… “You want to be a man? Then stand your own/To emcee requires skill, I demand some shown.” (Years later, when The Roots agreed to back Jay-Z for his Unplugged album, it caused a civil war among hop-heads.)

While The Roots were championing “the cause,” there was this dude in Detroit that was taking ingredients Primo, Tip and RZA and cooking up a sound all his own. Dilla is a legend. Few people outside of Detroit heard Fantastic Vol. 1 until the early-’00s, but Slum actually recorded the album in 1997, which makes it one of the most forward-thinking, game-changing albums of its generation. Dilla is the most influential hip-hop beatmaker since the RZA (yeah, that includes Kanye). If you listen to the beats Kanye supplied Jay for The Blueprint and kept for himself on College Dropout and then listen to Dilla’s production on both volumes of Fantastic, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Q-Tip’s Amplified Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia, Ye’s work sounds like child’s play. Dilla produced Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” in 1995, when Kanye was still in high school. There is no Kanye without Dilla. Questlove once described hearing Vol. 1 for the first time and said he used to sleep with it on auto-reverse “praying to god I could make something this inspired.” He’s often said “this is when the revolution began,” since Dilla and Quest’s production was the sound of the Soulquarians, the most sonically artistic collective of the early 21st century.

Dilla displayed a knack for crafting beats that sounded like canned improvisation on live instruments. It’s like cold bucket of water to the face. The way the rim shots crack and melodious piano chords fit right over the basslines is almost alarming. Sampling is a hallmark of hip-hop, part of its genius; but what we never heard from Dilla was beat-jacking. And, when you couple the records Dilla chose to sample with the way he chopped the samples into new nuggets, you arrive at a new piece of art. He was so fresh.

So, while you had The Roots leading the underground mission and Dilla expanding hip-hops sound pallete, you also had these ill emcees. That’s where cats like Common and Mos and Pharoahe and others came. Mos was artistically complex like Posdonus, a street-sage like Nas and esoteric like Pharoahe. Kweli had that rapper’s rapper swag and an activist’s approach. And, in the late-’90s, no one could rap better than Common. His peak was as high as Nas or Black Thought or Jay-Z. Time and space didn’t allow me to include a solo joint for all three, but these three cats were the underground champions of this era. From One Day It’ll Make Sense to Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star to Black on Both Sides to Reflection Eternal these three weren’t just keeping hip-hop thriving, they were pushing it forward. “Respiration” was sonically as sophisticated as anything Tribe ever offered, with elite-level emceeing and the social insight of KRS mixed with Cornel West. These churned out this type of content for three or four years straight, many times together. It was a glorious period.

And I bet you didn’t know, James, that when the Black Eyed Peas (the poppiest of all current pop groups) first came out, they were bigtime underground/backpack.

I really miss the ‘90s…

 

JAMES: Is that Black Star what Em’ sampled on that nasty Slaughterhouse BET Cypher? Yes! (Hi Rihanna). (Vince note: not sure, but I don’t think so. I believe Primo produced that.)

I’m a fan of BEP’s “Joints and Jams” partly because I really dug the remix “That’s The Joint” on The E.N.D. in 2009, with a modern keyboard riff. I think they did the 90s version justice. And no, I wasn't aware of their origin.

The Roots are incredible, and I’m eager to read Quest’s “Mo Betta Blues” which literally just arrived in the mail. He just went on The Daily Show where my fellow Brit has staged a takeover (hint) and discussed a moment on The Cosby Show that changed hip-hop forever.

Essentially, he’s talking about the beginning of sampling, and it’s incredible how that moment opened the eyes of young kids to become producers/engineers like Dilla.

Speaking of, I wasn’t aware Dilla produced Common’s LWRC, which is one of my favorites. His voice provides distinct clarity that is so effective and evident on his track with Black Star.

It’s interesting that the battle you’re talking about clearly carried over into the early 00s when Nas eventually declared hip-hop dead, yet only now the rappers who were seen as mainstream have now become cultural establishments to allow young kids to maintain creative control while still making money. That might not be giving enough credit to the Internet, though.

Still, Puffy and Jay are worth massive dollar figures compared to what they were making in the ‘90s, have their own TV channels, sports arenas, fashion lines and impact culture in many different ways. Is it “better” to remain underground and stay within your lane or to become huge and craft society in your image? Much more difficult to answer on a long-term basis. (Vince note: That debate was settled. The answer is, “Do you.”) Luckily, artists can now make money by releasing tapes and touring, meaning the industry will remain healthy and and blend the mainstream with the underground as opposed to pitting the styles against one another.