There’s an itch that rap music scratches that no other kind of music does. For this reason, I have a longstanding love-hate relationship with the genre. But the fact remains; I always come back to it. Once I realized I was listening to it alone, when there was no one around to impress, I figured I enjoyed the form enough to jabber about it sincerely.
In the beginning, I useta hate rap music. That’s because of the following factors:
- The existence of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice
- Working in a music store with a burgeoning rap section, almost entirely populated by albums festooned with photos of scowling, rage-filled dudes brandishing weapons (there was a “Bloods & Crips” album, for fuck’s sake)
- The joy of having to card customers purchasing explicit rap (i.e. any of it)
That last one still stings. Put yourself in my shoes as a 21-year-old, 155-pound white kid in 1993. Twenty black teenagers enter the store from the mall, after school. All of them want to purchase rap CDs that I am forbidden to sell them, as per store policy. They all have money in hand. They are now clearly and loudly unhappy.
How would you handle that situation? (Remember; if you sold any recording with a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Rap” label to a minor and their parent complained, you lost your job.)
I’m doing my best to be even-handed here, but you have to understand the Everest of utter bullshit one must climb to get to the good stuff. And hey, sue me; no one ever threatened me with death over any other type of music. Not even death metal.
Simply put, I had to move to Atlanta to fully appreciate decent rap music. But that was 18 years ago, when the burg had actual taste and talent to speak of. If public transportation is anything to go by, the average Atlantian knows good music like a pig knows Parcheesi. I don’t know what the hell happened. After all, this is Outkast‘s turf.
On some long-dead Comedy Central anthology, the beauteous Kristen Wilson explained that rap music was “based on the rhythm of speech”. That is the key ingredient, succinctly put. In the best rap tracks, the MC doesn’t take the aural spotlight; he or she becomes another instrument in the ensemble, alongside the beat and the DJ. The best samples don’t draw attention to themselves, they meld with the overall atmosphere of the song.
The entire piece becomes much more than a sum of its parts, when it works. And good gravy, how freaking hot was Kristen Wilson in those awful Dr. Doolittle movies?
Another crucial factor in the enjoyment of good rap music: audio only. Avoid rap videos as you would the Coronavirus. Rap videos are straight buffoonery with almost no exceptions. Plus, I’m trying to keep things black here, so let’s leave out the Beastie Boys and Eminem. (They get more than enough accolades anyway.) Granted, I detest the music-video format as a whole, but much of the fault of that lies in the terrible, terrible rap videos that overwhelmed MTV like a plague of locusts in the 1990’s.
One more thing before we start; you can’t hold it against a rap track for creating a sound or technique that became annoyingly imitated afterwards. For example, the acutely Nineties, Sonic CD-style “YO YO YO” in Chubb Rock‘s finest tune, “Treat ‘Em Right”.
I could defend that song all day. It’s flawless. The best part is how it feels like Chubb gets up to exit, but the song refuses to let him leave. He goes to chat up some lady for the “sax” (synth) solo, and the song barges in to get another verse out of him. By the end the song is clearly bothering him, and he starts repeating himself perfunctorily before his final PEACE. Listen to the track and tell me I’m wrong!!!
You ever heard of Main Source? Wanna hear the greatest pre-breakup track ever recorded? Check this shit out:
The lyrics are concise, clever, and seriously identifiable for a lot of guys like myself. Main Source took a basic lovers’ quarrel and elevated it into art. The garbled tone of the expertly-placed samples heightens the heady drama of the occasion. Large Professor’s rapping is recorded without effects, making him sound like he’s a foot away from your ear and you can feel the heat of his breath. I’d call this one of the greatest rap tracks of all time.
Speaking of all-time greats; let me get this out of the way now. Rakim Allah is the GOAT as far as rappers go. He and KRS-One are like the Carlin and Pryor of rap. Undisputed legends that represent the height of the form. Here’s one of Rakim’s finest tracks with the equally-brilliant Eric B (his DJ, as well as the president):
That’s utter turntable mastery from Eric B, in 1987. He’s sampling “Pass The Peas” by the J.B.’s. You know, James Brown’s band. A funk outfit suitable for the Godfather of Soul, which you can literally set your watch by.
Before you ask, of course I’m gonna get into Public Enemy. Whatever negatives you’re planning to bring up about Flavor Flav or Professor Griff are meaningless. They don’t matter. Public Enemy is legitimately historic. They changed the world.
The best Public Enemy songs literally sound as though they were recorded in the midst of a full-blown riot. They used to perform onstage flanked by uniformed soldiers (“Security of the First World”) with rifles. Public Enemy is the cream of the crop, without question.
I used to roll around Buckhead in 2004 blasting that so loudly the bass rattled the tailpipe of my old BMW. I was a proper ugly American. That’s the level of commitment I have to this genre into which I could never, ever be accepted, nor convincingly enjoy in public without looking like a poseur. The good stuff is just that good.
Another lasting example; The Pharcyde. Their debut album, 1992’s Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, is a gold-certified masterpiece loaded with gems. You just can’t play it at work like you can the previous examples I’ve posted.
Even after The Pharcyde shed original members Fatlip and Slimkid3, they still cut brilliant shit. There’s a track on their last album (2004’s Humboldt Beginnings) that’s so hot I have to include it here. (“The Bomb” is almost as excellent.)
Here’s an unpopular opinion for you; Eazy-E did his best work when he and Dr. Dre wanted to murder each other. They both worked twice as hard spiting each other than they ever did recording together.
Want proof? The following track was produced by Cold 187um, also known as the nephew of R&B great Willie Hutch (and the leader of Above The Law). This is the best Eazy-E ever sounded; it also doesn’t hurt that Kokane provides the distinctive ragga exclamations that electrify the chorus. (DO NOT PLAY AT WORK OR AROUND WEAK-MINDED PERSONS.)
Alright, now that we’re into the murdery stuff, let me introduce you to Masta Ace, from the typically-dependable label Delicious Vinyl. See kids*, there useta be this thing called “murdercore”, or “horrorcore”, and look… just don’t play any songs from this point on in front of anyone else, okay? I don’t want anybody getting the wrong idea.
*You better not actually be kids. It was a figure of speech.
The rap music of 2020 is pretty much all prefabricated and worthless. What you hear from radio and BET is harmless pablum constructed by risk-averse companies. You have to go back decades if you want real legitimacy and actual edge. I guarantee that there are a hundred excellent rap acts out there right now that get no rotation. It’s meant to be an underground medium, not mainstream. Mainstream rap- what the fuck is that, Will Smith?
- N.W.A. is an all-too-brief combination of some of the best rappers in music history: Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and the D.O.C., before his tragic accident. MC Ren is on par with Rakim Allah, easily. (We all know how good Dre and Cube are.)
- Snoop Doggy Dogg‘s flow is absolutely fucking nuts. It’s practically alien, and he was that good from day one.
- Those crazy motherfuckers Gravediggaz. Pretty much invented horrorcore.
- Cypress Hill, in particular “Insane In The Membrane“. It’s the perfect realization of the band’s abilities, and I swear to God that’s a sample of a horse whinnying. Genius plain and simple.
- “Move”, by Ludacris. It’s impossible to hate this song. One of the few tracks I memorized well enough to attempt in jail.
- A Tribe Called Quest definitely gets special mention, but it’s not like they’re unknown.
- Of course I love the Geto Boys, but thanks to Office Space, they’re also well appreciated (RIP Bushwick Bill). Scarface’s solo work is fantastic.
- Three 6 Mafia is some of the best rap I’ve ever heard. As I’ve said before, “Poppin’ My Collar” is a personal anthem of mine. If you’ve never been to jail, you won’t understand the way certain rap songs sustain you there.
- Mr. Lif did his best track with Cut Chemist (“Storm“).
- I know there’s shit I’m forgetting, I’ll just write a sequel later. I’ll probably subtitle it “Remix” or something appropriately corny like that.
This has been a selection of Rap To Which I Do Listen. I hope you enjoyed it, and remember folks; 911 is a joke.