Sunday, 4 September 2016

LINER NOTES: NATIONAL FRESH AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF HIP HOP [1986-1992]





Prompted by a friend’s interest in a specific aspect of my musical oeuvre, I compiled an anthology so he might share in its wonder. In fact, I’d put together a similar playlist some years earlier, for posterity and to collate lost fragments. I had wanted to impart a sense of cohesion and create a framework within which I could relate to the attitude I held towards this music the first time around, and my existing compendiums existed only on tapes, without the means to play them.
          The music is hip hop/rap, specifically the hip hop/rap I listened to from the moment I began attending to it in earnest – early 1988 – until such time my interest began to wane – late 1992 – the reasons being that Pete Tong started playing much less of it on his Big Beat Show (which had in turn subsumed Jeff Young’s National Fresh), and also because hip hop was beginning to get a little too uncouth for my liking.
This span was a prolific and innovative period for the genre, but not so fecund commercially. Although a fair few acts undoubtedly met with success – Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Beastie Boys, etc. – hip hop was a minority interest generally. [It’s hard to imagine now, but hip hop never truly proliferated until it became almost completely thug-like: let’s say with the release of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in late 1993.] In certain circles, this more various phase of the genre is referred to as ‘The Golden Age of Hip Hop’, and it left an approximate five year legacy of music that not too many people have been privy to (relatively), that can be hard to get hold of (legitimately), and is of a standard equal to anything that’s ever been committed to vinyl (or ‘wax’) before or since.
I was very much part of it, listening to the stuff on the radio every Friday night with an almost sublime fervour, and buying of it what I could. It was to Bristol I would often turn (Replay Records was an invaluable source), for my hometown, Plymouth, was rather backward in this respect. [I once visited Our Price record store on New George Street to enquire after Gang Starr’s latest release: “We’ve got Gang of Four and Gang Green, but no Gang Starr.” Incidentally, I’m now quite into Gang of Four.]
My fandom had been based initially on the fact that a lot of this stuff was actually fairly popular amongst my peer group, but prevailed merrily once the cool kids dropped hip hop for house, leaving me rather perplexed that a liking for a particular sort of music could be repudiated on an apparent whim. Indeed, some of these cooler kids, who maintained a lesser interest in parallel, would often come to me to borrow whatever album I was rocking at the time.
An appreciation of the ‘black arts’ stood me in good stead when I began moving in more ‘indie’ focused circles during my late teens; my knowledge of hip hop sort of excused an ignorance of indie that might have otherwise been perceived as an irritatingly naïve keenness. And when, come the mid-1990s, musical barriers began fragmenting, it exempted me from the charge of jumping onto bandwagons. I couldn’t be accused of listening to Orbital or Goldie merely because the NME or Melody Maker were taking note, or even because of some urge to be different, for I had an original imported copy of Cypress Hill’s eponymous debut album in my collection, an album that most owners of Black Sunday didn’t even know existed.
I make reference to all of this not because I wish to convey the idea that I was somehow ahead of the game: I allude to my familiarity with the Golden Age of Hip Hop simply because I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to appreciate it as it occurred – my own personal happening.

This digital playlist is 80-odd songs long and too protracted to be shared easily. What I have done, therefore, is broken it down into four units, and the splits have made inadvertently for smashing chapters. It’s not entirely indicative of its time for there are tracks and albums that I’ve never been able to get hold of, as well as artists conspicuous by their absence whom I simply didn’t take to very much. What I have tried to do is create a kind of ode to the medium that provided the substance with which I developed my taste: Jeff Young’s National Fresh initially and Pete Tong’s Big Beat Show later. I know for a fact that almost every song I have collated here was played by either one of these DJs during their stint hosting their respective shows, and the ones that I cannot honestly say were still may very well have been. In any case, this music is fairly representative of what they played and in the order mostly of when they would have played it. Check it out:




VOLUME 1: 1986-90
  1. THE NEW STYLE – BEASTIE BOYS
  2. PETER PIPER – RUN-DMC
  3. PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1 – PUBLIC ENEMY
  4. IT TAKES TWO – ROB BASE AND DJ EZ ROCK
  5. STRONG ISLAND – J.V.C.F.O.R.C.E.
  6. SOMETHING FRESH TO SWING TO – LEVY 167
  7. FREEDOM OF SPEECH '88 – JUST-ICE
  8. SEE MORE – KOOL ROCK BROTHERS
  9. STRICTLY BUSINESS – EPMD
  10. TERMINATOR X TO THE EDGE OF PANIC – PUBLIC ENEMY
  11. I’M NOT GOING OUT LIKE THAT – RUN-DMC
  12. STYLE WARS – HIJACK
  13. FREE – MC DUKE
  14. NORTHSIDE – DEMON BOYZ
  15. EXPRESS YOURSELF – N.W.A
  16. EYE KNOW – DE LA SOUL
  17. WHAT U WAITIN' 4 (JUNGLE FEVER MIX) – JUNGLE BROTHERS
  18. FADE TO BLACK – L.A. STAR
  19. POLLYWANACRAKA – PUBLIC ENEMY
  20. BACK BY DOPE DEMAND – KING BEE
  21. UNDERWATER RIMES – DIGITAL UNDERGROUND
  22. PORTRAIT OF A MASTERPIECE (CJ'S ED-DID-IT MIX) – THE D.O.C.
  23. I COME OFF (SOUTHERN COMFORT MIX) – YOUNG MC

It was the Beastie Boys who introduced me to hip hop, figuratively speaking, so although I circumnavigate a whole host of rap artistes by introducing my canon with them, it is entirely appropriate. Moreover, The New Style kicks off the Beastie Boy’s debut album, Licensed to Ill, and it’s a great opener in any context. It also represents a sort of false start; I didn't think of the Beastie Boys of being emblematic of any particular scene, even if I was aware of acts such as RUN-DMC, LL Cool J, Doug E Fresh. I was simply too young to appreciate that music is quite often tribal, and so I didn't make any immediate effort to develop my interest.
            Which is why Public Enemy No. 1 pretty much passed me by the first time around; it was PE’s second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, that seized my interest. But this tune is so strange, so abstract, that I am incapable now of overlooking it – the track becomes part of the myth almost in retrospect, a case of history being rewritten. That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of it: Public Enemy's military posturing, Blank Panther attitude, and the fact that they conspired to write a tune entitled My Uzi Weighs a Ton demanded my attention. They also had Flavor Flav in their midst, whose clowning around provided a striking and savvy contrast to Chuck D’s weighty delivery. We take this for granted now, but how well would Public Enemy have been received back then without this jocular counterpoint?
           The next six tracks were all garnered from two Street Sounds compilations I owned at the time: Hip Hop 20 and Hip Hop 22, both released in 1988. Strong Island by JVC Force is considered something of a classic, EPMD’s Strictly Business also, and It Takes Two is well known to anyone who was alive at the time (and many more who weren’t). I found the graffiti clad covers to these compilations mesmerising, for it wasn’t just the music that drew me towards this scene but also the clothes and the subculture that accompanied it.
         Terminator X to the Edge of Panic is taken from the aforementioned Public Enemy album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, a body of work that Adam Domyslawski copied for me, and which I then played incessantly. Terminator X to the Edge of Panic is a strange, minimal fusion of staccato horn samples, sparse beats and looped ambient crowd noise. The more you listen to it the odder it seems, but it becomes no less impressive.
         Run-DMC’s Tougher than Leather was the first actual hip hop recording I actually owned, rather than had copied. By the time I acquired it the general consensus in my class was that Run-DMC were passed it, that it was all about Public Enemy and NWA. (Chuck D begged to differ and rated Run-DMC’s fourth album very highly.)
           The following three British hip hop tracks were taken from a wonderful Music of Life compilation (which I was to find a white label vinyl copy of more than 10 years later whilst wandering about Spitalfields Market with a monstrous hangover) entitled Hard as Hell Volume 3. It’s a good collection all round, but Hijack’s Style Wars is probably the stand-out track. The production is murky and the lyrics are untypically abstruse. It sounded hugely sophisticated to my ears – and is – but musically they weren’t doing anything that PE hadn’t done already. Style Wars even mines exactly the same sample as Public Enemy No. 1: Fred Wesley and The J.B.'s' Blow Your Head.
           De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers represented an emerging strain of rap that would begin to predicate itself towards the end of 1989 and into 1990, paving the way for groups like A Tribe Called Quest and a whole sub-genre of hip hop off-handedly referred to as Jazz Rap – affiliated works would come to permeate my record collection. Indeed, hip hop was granted something of a reprieve for a while, and The Native Tongues (a collective featuring all three groups just mentioned here) had everything to do with that.
        Fade to Black by L.A. Star was released as a single but also featured on the underrated album Poetess. It's at about this point in my compilation that I'm reminded of the build up to the 1990 World Cup and my burgeoning fondness for Serie A, and by this track in particular. That might seem an odd connotation, but Brighton dance act Beats International wore Serie A football kits on Top of the Pops and in a number of promotional shots, so I obviously wasn't the only one associating Italian football with electronic music. And this is even more true of the Public Enemy track I've inserted here, which is probably the strangest track the group have ever recorded.
King Bee was something of an oddity in that they/he hailed from The Netherlands. A lot of people have probably heard this tune without even knowing who it’s by or anything about the scene that spawned it, after it was picked up and played in clubs that might not ordinarily have played this sort of thing.
Digital Underground were mired in a different sort of funk to Public Enemy – P-Funk, which means anything associated with George Clinton and his twin acts, Parliament and Funkadelic (although Public Enemy certainly borrowed from this genre too). Digital Underground was an amusing, slightly saucy group that helped launch the career of Tupac Shakur (for which I remain indifferent). Ostensibly, they were a substantial collective. However, Shock G, the group’s de facto leader, would adopt a miscellany of personas, Humpty Hump being the most readily identifiable (due to the comedy Groucho nose-and-glasses set and the accompanying nasal delivery). Underwater Rimes features another Shock G alter-ego, the underutilised MC Blowfish.
Young MC’s original version of I Come Off was nothing special but CJ Mackintosh and Dave Dorrell’s Southern Comfort Remix was, utilising the bass line from Aaron Neville’s Hercules to potent effect.




VOLUME 2: 1990
  1. BROTHERS GONNA WORK IT OUT – PUBLIC ENEMY
  2. VERBS OF POWER – X CLAN
  3. FOOTPRINTS – A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
  4. BLACK AND PROUD – INTELLIGENT HOODLUM
  5. ONE TIME GAFFLED ‘EM UP – COMPTON’S MOST WANTED
  6. UNTOUCHABLE – ABOVE THE LAW
  7. COME ON LET’S MOVE IT – SPECIAL ED
  8. UNTITLED – HARDNOISE
  9. ROCK DIS FUNKY JOINT – POOR RIGHTEOUS TEACHERS
  10. UNTOUCHABLES – ERIC B & RAKIM
  11. LA RAZA – KID FROST
  12. CRUMBS ON THE TABLE – D-NICE
  13. MUSIC MAN – MASTA ACE
  14. PUT THE SQUEEZE ON EM' – THE JAZ
  15. MR SANDMAN – THREE TIMES DOPE
  16. STREETS OF NEW YORK – KOOL G RAP & POLO
  17. BLACK MAN IN EFFECT – BOOGIE DOWN PRODUCTIONS
  18. WE GO SUBSONIC (UNDERWATER MIX) – SUBSONIC 2
  19. WISDOM – THE SINDECUT

More Public Enemy: Brothers Gonna Work it Out, the first tune proper off their third album, Fear of a Black Planet. The guitar instrumental outro to Let’s Go Crazy by Prince is sampled way down in the mix, looped throughout, descending into a crescendo of white noise at the end of every bar. There’s a bit of George Clinton, James Brown and Otis Redding to be found in there too. Fantastic stuff.
X Clan was interested in the more mystical (5%) elements of Islam and musically anchored in jazz, funk and clipped lyrical delivery. They wore African tribal dress, liked to mention ‘the red, the black, and the green’ (the colours of Pan-Africanism) and made cryptic allusions to keys and crossroads.
Any of the first four tracks from a People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm could have justified a place amongst this collection. Where Public Enemy formed sound collages out of disparate snatches of funk, A Tribe Called Quest borrowed more melodious, often jazz-based, phrases, which lent itself to a warmer and more direct listening experience.
Black & Proud by the Intelligent Hoodlum relies heavily on UFO by New York post-punk group ESG. The weight of artists who’ve sampled this song is heavy, but I’m not sure if it’s ever been as pronounced as it is here.
Moving west, Compton’s Most Wanted probably sought to align themselves with N.W.A and the rest of the hard-bitten L.A. scene, from which they hailed. To my ears, they sound more like EPMD – no bad thing. One Time Gaffled Them Up is notable for incorporating censorial beeps into the actual rhythm of the track. This means MC Eiht would have to have timed his curses accordingly without disturbing the metre of his rhyme, maintaining the flow of the thing.
Above the Law is another West-Coast act, produced by Dr. Dre. I sometimes struggle to take this level or earnestness seriously in rap music, but the music’s first-rate in any case, especially in the case of Untouchable, which is built around a sample from Young-Holt Unlimited’s version of Light my Fire.
Special Ed hailed from Brooklyn but the track I’ve chosen has a jagged edge to the rhythm that could have come straight out of Compton. (Perhaps Special Ed and Compton’s Most Wanted were swapping notes?)
Hardnoise was a British act in a similar vein to Hijack: aloof, slightly sinister, very British, but they split up after two singles. Certain members then reformed as Son of Noise, but by this time the sun had started to set on the Golden Age and I’d pretty much stopped listening.
The Poor Righteous Teachers were another group who dug the Nation of Islam but, unlike the X Clan, they were more playful with it. File alongside A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian and Gang Starr. For some reason Eric B and Rakim almost passed me by completely. Rakim’s rapping was seen as something of a revelation, taking MCing to another, heavier, level. Follow the Leader is considered their seminal work, but I ended up digging Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em, which had a smoother feel to its predecessor.
Ex-BDP man D-Nice brings us Crumbs on the Table, a solid tune and a solid rap that exemplifies my leanings at the time: punchy, strong of bass, off-set with a left-of-field staccato sample of indeterminable origin. It’s hardly surprising that BDP’s almost Levantine sounding Black Man in Effect follows a similar formula. Masta Ace’s The Music Man typified my taste too: descending guitar riffs, various stringed instruments, atonal organs, stuff like that.
          Mr Sandman, by Philadelphian act Three Times Dope, conforms to such type, but Kool G Rap & Polo take a darker turn on Streets of New York – East-coast doing a doing West-coast thang: “A little kid says yo, I’ve got a colour TV, CD player and car stereo. All I want is a castle. I’ve also got a .38, don’t give me no hassle.”
       I finish this second installment with two obscure British tunes very different to the offerings of Hijack and Hardnoise featured earlier. Subsonic 2’s We go Subsonic is pure groove, and I recall Jeff Young describing it as one of the better ‘seven inches’ that he’d received that week, “in their thousands.” This was the mix he played and it’s a more focussed endeavour than the version found on their album, and almost impossible to get hold of.
        The Sindecut wasn’t an exclusively hip hop focussed act – Soul to Soul would be a half-decent reference point – but Wisdom is very much a rap track, and an underrated one.




VOLUME 3: 1990/91
  1. JUMP AROUND (NOMAD SOUL REMIX) – LONDON POSSE
  2. 100 MILES AND RUNNING – N.W.A
  3. THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT – PARIS
  4. ALL FOR ONE – BRAND NUBIAN
  5. CHECK THE TECHNIQUE – GANG STARR
  6. WELCOME TO THE STORY (PEACE GO WITH YOU MIX) – GALLIANO
  7. STEP RIGHT ON  (VOCAL DUB MIX) – YOUNG DISCIPLES
  8. BLACK WHIP - CHAPTER AND THE VERSE
  9. GREEN GRASS – CASH CREW
  10. I GOT TO HAVE IT – ED O.G. & DA BULLDOGS
  11. TREAT 'EM RIGHT – CHUBB ROCK
  12. SLOW DOWN (PETE ROCK REMIX) – BRAND NUBIAN
  13. PASS THE PLUGS – DE LA SOUL
  14. MR HOOD AT PIOCALLES JEWELRY/CRACKPOT – K.M.D.
  15. N-41 – SON OF BAZERK
  16. DERELICTS OF DIALECT – 3RD BASS
  17. GOOD LIFE – PETE ROCK & CL SMOOTH
  18. LOOKING AT THE FRONT DOOR – MAIN SOURCE
  19. FLAVOR OF THE MONTH – BLACK SHEEP

London Posse’s album Gangster Chronicle is regarded by some as the finest, most complete British album of its kind. It is not an unreasonable position, although I’ve gone for the Nomad Soul remix of Jump Around, which did not feature on the album itself. It is this single version that garnered the most airplay and that I am obliged to include in keeping with the criterion I have set myself.
           N.W.A weren’t accorded the airplay they probably deserved (depending on how you rate them) on account of the curses that permeated their records. There must have been a censored version of 100 Miles and Running sanitary enough to pass muster, or maybe Ice Cube’s departure from the group ushered in a more commercial outlook. [Note: 100 Miles and Running was actually the title track of an EP co-written with Above the Law’s Cold 187 um. The version I’ve included here isn’t censored, but for it to have ever been played on BBC Radio 1 it either must have been or Jeff Young/Peter Tong would have employed a technique whereby the offending word was distorted as to make it unidentifiable – although one could often guess.]
         In terms of delivery, Paris took his cue from Rakim. I like the minor chord organ sample here that haunts the chorus; the general sense of menace works towards that. The Planet of the Apes sample is a nice touch too.
          Brand Nubian was one of my favourite acts of the time and their debut album, One for All, remains one of my favourite albums from any epoch or genre. The title track features here if only for the line, “… and I give Trev a call, coz he works in the barbershop just behind the mall.” Not satisfied with that, I’ve worked a compromise wherein I’ve also included the Pete Rock remix of Brand Nubian’s Slow Down. This features the equally satisfying, “Now Woolie Willie’s got a pair of my sneakers. Wonder where he got 'em 'cause I hid 'em behind my speakers.”
If I didn’t know better (and I don’t) I’d say that Check the Technique took its lead from Fit and Working Again by The Fall. The notion that Gang Starr’s DJ Premier was a big Fall fan – and a Slates era Fall fan at that – is a delicious one, albeit shrouded in dubiety. Still, the similarity is striking in that the idea to echo and delay the staccato ‘riff’ is, as far as I know, un-replicated in modern music.
Are the Young Disciples and Galliano really hip hop acts? The UK gave birth to a strange slant of rap: part hip-hop, part soul, part acid jazz – it was no coincidence that New York rap artistes dug the Brand New Heavies. Galliano, Young Disciples and the Sindicut are all exemplars of this but once again I turn to non-album remixes that, for me, search out for a cooler, more hip hop orientated kind of sound than the ones found on either of these groups’ albums.
Ladbroke Grove’s Cash Crew was more straight-forward in this respect, straight up rap. The genius of the track Green Grass is not that they sampled Gwen McCrae’s 90% of Me is You but how they sampled it: like it’s being played through a set of headphones on a cheap 1980s Walkman, and just as you think the tape’s being chewed up the sound levels out again.
            I picked up my vinyl copy of Life of a Kid in the Ghetto for £3 in the HMV sale, a rare and strange opportunity in Plymouth. I Got to Have It was the stand-out track on an album fairly typical of its time in that are plenty of sampled horns on there, a few keys, mostly jazz based.
          Brand Nubian I’ve alluded to already but I suppose it’s worth mentioning that I don’t consider Pete Rock’s remix to be an improvement on the original necessarily – but I do love that tambourine!
          De La Soul’s second album didn’t sell quite like the first one did, which gave owning and liking it a satisfyingly seditious edge. The received wisdom is that it’s actually the better album, although I’m not sure I would agree with that entirely. I recall Pete Tong playing both A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturday and Pass the Plugs on his show. I favour the latter.
          1991 – which is where we’re at here – probably represented the zenith of what might be called ‘jazz rap’. Only Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest ever really sampled jazz extensively (but never exclusively), the rest sampled soul, funk, rhythm & blues, and rock & roll in equal measure. KMD could have been considered a jazz rap act regardless (Brand Nubian, Black Sheep and Main Source too), but Mr. Hood at Piocalles Jewelry / Crackpot is built around Eddie Floyd and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson samples, guys that played 1960s soul and 1970s blues respectively. What these acts probably more accurately shared was a more euphonic (‘mellow’ would be overstating it) approach to vocal delivery. A sense of humour also pervades.
The piece de résistance: N-41 by the archly delectable Son of Bazerk. Built around nothing more than a simple drum beat and a synthesised bassline (is it even sampled?) with the crew bickering in the background – much commotion – it’s not as sinister as that sounds. It’s rather humorous in fact, and a tune that demonstrates how little this type of music has dated, if it has at all; N-41 could have been recorded yesterday.
          3rd Bass’s Derelicts of Dialect is a lovely rare-groove infused number, illustrating how the musical ambiguity of rare-groove lent itself to sampling as readily as either funk or jazz ever did.
        Pete Rock & CL Smooth made waves with their debut EP All Souled Out, although Pete Rock had been producing and remixing other acts for a while. Their debut album, Mecca and the Soul Brother would follow and is considered to be one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time.
         As is Breaking Atoms by Main Source: I could’ve gone for Live at the Barbeque, Peace Is Not the Word to Play, Just Hangin' Out, but I settled for Looking at the Front Door.
          Act 3 finishes with Flavor of the Month by Black Sheep, which utilises the intro to Herb Alpert’s In a Little Spanish Town to startling effect. It’s a fitting climax to this chapter, because to my mind 1992 was to be the Golden Age Hip Hop’s final, creatively disparate fling.




VOLUME 4: 1991/92
  1. GUNS OF MIND ALONE – SILVER BULLET
  2. RISE ‘N’ SHINE – KOOL MOE DEE FEATURING KRS-ONE AND CHUCK D
  3. HOW I COULD JUST KILL A MAN – CYPRESS HILL
  4. I HAD TO SERVE YOU – HIJACK
  5. THE HANGMAN – II TONE COMMITTEE
  6. WHITE GREEN – FUNKYTOWN PROS
  7. DRESS CODE – WC & THE MAAD CIRCLE
  8. BUGGIN’ OUT – A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
  9. IT’S GONNA LAST – UMC’S
  10. SHUT ‘EM DOWN – PUBLIC ENEMY
  11. THE CHOICE IS YOURS (REVISITED) – BLACK SHEEP
  12. MISTADOBALINA – DEL THA FUNKEE HOMOSAPIEN
  13. THE PHUNKY FEEL ONE – CYPRESS HILL
  14. DUCK DOWN – BOOGIE DOWN PRODUCTIONS
  15. MAKE IT HAPPEN – ULTRAMAGNETIC MC’S
  16. IT'S A BOY – SLICK RICK
  17. GENERALS – FU-SCHNICKENS
  18. IT’S LIKE THAT – PETE ROCK & CL SMOOTH
  19. THE PLACE WHERE WE DWELL – GANG STARR
  20. FLIP THE SCRIPT – GANG STARR
  21. YA MAMA – THE PHARCYDE
  22. JIMMY JAMES (ORIGINAL VERSION) – BEASTIE BOYS

I didn’t want to like Silver Bullet’s debut album, but then I did. I can’t fully explain my reticence although it might have had something to with the singles 20 Seconds to Comply and Bring Forth the Guillotine, which were pretty hectic affairs, not to say overly melodramatic. The album, Bring Down the Walls No Limit Squad Returns, is a frenetic beast for sure, but it’s also a highly sophisticated piece of work: Raw Deal, Attitude Academy, Undercover Anarchist, Guns Of Mind Alone and Legions Of The Damned are all so distinct, so relentless in their sonic imposition, that one has to entertain the possibility that this may in fact be the best British hip hop album ever recorded.
            Kool Moe Dee was probably past it (no disrespect) when his pals Chuck D and KRS-ONE lent their vocal skills for this here tune, but it holds its own.
            How I Could Just Kill a Man was my introduction to Cypress Hill, and I was instantly smitten. Their eponymous debut album lived up to my, by now, heightened expectations, and was very different to what followed (the overrated and bass heavy Black Sunday). Their eponymously titled first album teems with samples in the way It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back does: ambient noise and people talking buried in deep amongst horns and percussion. The first 10 seconds of The Phunky Feel One represents one of the most exciting introductions to any rap tune: it’s as if they’ve sought to use the most poorly recorded sounds – or to re-record them poorly – to create a mise en scène that evokes the sounds of 1960s/70s Los Angeles. Funk, Latin music and (almost Northern) soul seem to be the main ingredients, The Village Callers, the Bar-Kays and the J.B.’s the main protagonists in this instance.
            British rap gained very little exposure in the US but for a moment it looked like Hijack might make some sort of impact. Ice T signed them to his Rhyme Syndicate imprint, but then that went belly up and Hijack were stuck with Warners, a record label that didn’t much like their sound. When Hijack finally released the The Horns of Jericho, I felt they’d lost much of the mystique that made them so appealing in the first instance. I Had to Serve You, though, harked back to the impenetrable image I had of Hijack (and The Badman is Robbin too). It’s an interesting track, not your usual verse-chorus type of thing, just Kamanchi Sly issuing forth a dense stanza, followed by some slick turntable action, a testament to what could have been.
            When Anthony Cambridge – a guy at school – lent me WC & the Maad Circle I was left mostly underwhelmed, but the track Dress Code blew me away. It’s a typical Wet Coast sort of thing that hints at the minimalism that would soon force itself upon the genre, as the lawyers closed in and groups could no longer afford to sample with such abandon.
            A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, The Low End Theory, is equally pared down – when listened to alongside their more colourful debut, at least – although there’s still plenty of jazz to be found here: Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Cannonball Aderly, Grant Green (who Cypress Hill sampled to great effect on Stoned is the Way of the Walk), Jack McDuff, and so on. The album was very well received.
            The UMCs arrived too late in the day to establish themselves in the way Gang Starr did, but they made their mark. Their early singles did well, the second – One to Grow On – especially so. I owned a very bad recording of Fruits of Nature, but listened to it repeatedly anyway. I’ve featured what I considered its highlight here.
            Public Enemy’s fourth album, Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black, is under-rated. The sheer barrage of noise that announces it is as powerful as anything the group did before, and they haven’t really bettered it since. I actually prefer the tracks Lost at Birth and Night Train to Shut ‘Em Down, but they don’t work so well in isolation: the opening three or four tracks segue into each other, to vigorous effect. I recall all of them being played on the radio one way or another.
            I took to the Black Sheep instantly. The Choice is Yours is such a good song they included it on their album twice. The more produced, bass heavy and in your face version features here.
            There were a few versions of Del the Funkee Homosapien’s Mistadobalina doing the rounds as well, although they were all more or less the same – edited for radio play maybe. The song almost charted, although the album it was taken from – I Wish My Brother George Was Here – was less commercial than this implies. Del was Ice Cube’s cousin (of NWA fame) after all.
            The Ultrumagnetic MCs were old hands but they’d been on something of a hiatus when Make it Happen was dropped in late ’91, although the single didn’t even feature on the following year’s album. It’s an abrasive tune but Kool Keith’s rapping is something else, and the Funkadelic sample that hangs throughout is inspired.
The Fu-Schnickens was an interesting group. Ring the Alarm – a kind of reworking of the Tenor Saw Jamaican Dancehall tune of the same name – initially drew them attention, and La Schmoove after that. The album F.U. Don't Take It Personal was produced by a Tribe Called Quest and was worthy of their name. Generals is indicative of the approach: sparse beats, trebly samples, not so much bass, ragga vocals.
I made reference to Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s first album earlier. It’s Like That is my favourite track on it.
I’ve included the first two tracks from Gang Starr’s excellent third album, Daily Operation, because they’re pretty much conjoined and it would diminish their impact to separate them. Besides, I wouldn’t know which to single out. Because it wasn’t available to buy in Plymouth, I ordered my vinyl copy of this album mail order (along with a pressing of Brand Nubian’s One For All, despite already owning it in its cassette form). I remember the morning it turned up, with about 15 minutes to spare before having to leave for school. I got as far as the end of Flip the Script and couldn’t wait to get home to repeat the play. There’s not really much to these tracks: jazz drums, ambient crowd noise, and in the case of Flip the Script, two looped organ stabs lifted from the Grover Washington tune Lock it in The Pocket (the keys come courtesy of James “Sid” Simmons).
I didn’t realise it at the time, but Bizarre Ride to the Pharcyde would be the last hip hop album I purchased for three of four years. Ya Mama was another tune that benefited from a minimal and slightly mysterious sample: Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills’ version of Season of the Witch. But rap like this was going out of style and more violently disposed artists – such as Da Lench Mob, Redman and the awful House of Pain – were a harbinger of things to come (Onyx, Snoop Doggy Dog, Tupac and a radicalised Brand Nubian were just around the corner). This sort stuff had been around for a while: thuggish, nihilistic and often misogynistic posturing that never really appealed to me. It’s just that it began to hold sway and the newer groups all seemed to be cut from the same rather unsophisticated cloth. Moreover, stricter laws on sampling encouraged a more minimal approach to the music, which in the hands of Gang Starr’s DJ Premier or Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad didn’t seem to matter, but in others it just made for uninteresting, bass laden music.
I finish as I started with The Beastie Boys, a group that produced music to a consistently high standard. Their third album, Check Your Head passed me by the first time around, but during my second year at university I had it on heavy rotation (recorded off of my brother, who was also furnishing me with techno, and drum and bass) along with the fourth album, Ill Communication. So it could be suggested that mopping up with Jimmy James is slightly disingenuous, but for the sake of completism, why not?

A lot of this music is actually better known now than I ever expected it would be, as if it’s been subject to some sort of musical revisionism. Or it could be that my own view was so insular – cosseted away in the Plymouth – that it was more popular nationally than I ever realised? Whatever, it pleases me that it now seems to be afforded the respect it deserves, because around the time it looked to me that it was perceived as little more than a passing fad: “Do you still think you’ll be listening to this when your older?” and, “It’s just talking over other people’s music,” were common accusations. Neither charge holds true. Rapping is obviously not just talking and actually requires a strong command of metre and diction so that it can coalesce with the beat.
Furthermore, sampling is a complicated process. Groups like Public Enemy, Gang Starr and Cypress Hill would layer samples, manipulate them, sometimes play them backwards, and piece them together in a way that made for a genuine abstraction of sound. Listen to Gang Starr’s Flip the Script and then Grover Washington’s Lock it in The Pocket and identify the organ sample – two notes, 4 minutes and 55 seconds in – and you might appreciate that the point to sampling is about extricating portions of sound and then reconfiguring them in a completely separate context.
On top of that, the production hasn’t really dated at all, which is an amazing feat given that this stuff is at least 25 years’ old. It’s only ignorance (or racism) that could possibly assert that Public Enemy, say, was any less talented, vital or experimental – or exciting – than the Beatles – or whatever other handed-down standard of excellence one chooses to gauge modern music by.

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