When FACT first posted published part one of its most overlooked hip-hop LPs of the 90s selection, designed as a jumping-off point for more features of this type, it provoked some interesting conversations in the comments section and across the usual social channels.
After all, what exactly constitutes “underrated” in this day and age? Books like Oliver Wang’s Classic Material: The Hip Hop Album Guide, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop and Ego Trip’s Book Of Rap Lists are three of the authorities on the subject of what the definitive rap listener experience was back then, but the reality is fundamentally different for every collector now, with oceans of rap to wade through on YouTube, a complex diaspora of hip-hop music from every regional scene in every country in the world.
With the modern dominance of the 808, dancefloors have largely lost touch with the context of what hip-hop once sounded like, specifically the crackle and swing of the boom-bap era, and many of those songs now sound earthy and alien, opaque and distant objects. With consensus a long way off, and hip-hop swarm intelligence only a phonecall away, it seemed logical to reach out to a panel of DJs and producers who draw their energy from that time, who recall it from their youth, from the veterans to the up-and-comers, to ask them what they feel is overlooked, what is worth rediscovering and what merits sharing.
The result is an enjoyable ride through some hazy memories, from the East coast to the Wast and back again, as far north as Canada, and as far afield as France, as told by Kutmah, Mr Thing, Alexander Nut, Paul White, Kidkanevil, Monk One, Laurent Fintoni, Alex Chase, Jon Phonics and myself, Mr Beatnick. For those of you who like your metrics, ’97 and ’95 appear to be the winning years, so maybe ‘93 wasn’t infinity after all.
UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT
Mr Thing (ex-Scatch Perverts, DMC World Champion): “I think Camp Lo are very underrated, that whole Uptown Saturday Night album is crazy – a top of his game, fresh off Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt Ski on the boards for the bulk of production, very different sounding MCs with great chemistry and, most importantly, really solid tunes. I still play ‘Luchini’ out a lot in my sets even now, but at the time we played ‘Swing’ an awful lot, and the gem of theirs for me was the Paradise Mix of ‘Coolie High’ which doubtless ran into sample clearance issues with the big MJ loop – it took me a long time to track down a non-bootleg copy of that one!
(WILD WEST, 1995)
Kutmah (Sketchbook, NTS Radio, Dublab): “This was a toss-up with Blowout Comb by Digable Planets, but every real hip-hop head has that record. Pretty much no one outside of LA knows The Nonce. I blame the name for them not blowing up in the UK! They were our Tribe Called Quest, but with a way more laid-back flow, and hazy-ass beats with that California warmness to them.
“In 1995 a lot of amazing Hip hop records came out. Raekwon, Mobb Deep, O.D.B, Smif N Wessun, GZA, BIG L, The Alkaholiks and The Pharcyde all put out great records, so I can see why, in a pre-internet era, that an amazing record like this could be slept on. I also think that at that time if your record came from the West and it didn’t have any party joints on it, or any hardcore lyrics, it got no love. The Nonce make that after-club 4am music. I don’t give a fuck though. I’ll play ‘On the Air’ at primetime. Reeemooove YA!”
SEVEN EYES, SEVEN HORNS
(SUN LARGE MUSIC, 1998)
Kidkanevil (RBMA, Project Mooncircle, First Word): “Completely nuts album that blew my little teenage mind! Stupidly incredible flows, bananas lyrics, hard crazy rugged but weirdly tripped-out beats, magnificently surreal but super-street at the same time – ridiculous. ‘Wise as serpents, harmless as a dove, I show the force to bury masters…'”
Alex Chase (Stones Throw, One Handed Music): “The darkest and most claustrophobic of Organized Konfusion’s trio of brilliant LPs, The Equinox may be less immediate than its predecessors but if you want to hear Pharoahe Monch at his most electrifying then this is for you (for the record, Prince Po is no slouch on the mic either). It’s technically astoundin, high-concept hip-hop with ’97 beats from the likes of Diamond D, Buckwild and Rockwilder, as well as the underrated Monch on the boards. Plus you get songs written from the perspective of unborn babies and white supremacists. What’s not to like?”
REALMS AND REALITY
(LOUD RECORDS, 1996)
Jon Phonics (Prism): “For me this record was like the tip of the iceberg when I began searching deeper for 90s hip-hop that wasn’t Nas, Mobb Deep, Big L. Produced mostly by Cella Dwellas themselves, alongside one of my favourite 90s producers, Nick Wiz, it’s all hard beats with jazz samples. This record kind of highlighted to me the importance of everything being done in-house (with maybe one or two guest producers) to make a record that is consistently dope front to back.
“Like Gravediggaz meets The Pharcyde, this record has the perfect balance of street raps, nerd raps, rhymes about ‘shorties’, underdog motivational raps, bravado and masculinity issues, and a slight nod towards the more slapstick side of horror-core. Oh, and we can’t forget the impromptu Tim Westwood shout out at the end of ‘Wussdaplan’.
“‘If you need beats like these, come see us with 5 g’s…'”
Alexander Nut (Eglo, Rinse FM): “I think the vast majority of my favourite albums came in ’93-’94. You had records like 36 Chambers, 93 Till Infinity, Illmatic, Hard To Earn, Jazzmatazz and Midnight Marauders, all of which were fairly common LPs to find in people’s collections back then.
“I was 13 years old and already quite heavily into hip-hop. For whatever reason my brother brought me Black Sheep’s Non Fiction on CD for Christmas, I knew of Black Sheep from ‘Choice Is Yours’ but I didn’t know anything about this album. I fell in love with it from the first track, ‘Autobiographical’. I still listen to it all the time. It didn’t change the sound of hip-hop, it didn’t influence a particular style or anything like that, but I just thought it was an amazing album. The production uses a lot of jazz samples, and it’s all quite loose and bouncy, very New York. I never see this this record on anyone’s shelf and I never hear any one talk about it, and the only reason I have it is because my brother gave it to me. It’s a great LP, it should’ve been getting a lot more love and attention.
“If there’s one hip-hop record that was was ahead of its time though, it was Low End Theory, I still can’t believe that was made in ’91. People talk about Nas, Biggie and Raekwon slowing down the flow, but Tribe were a few years ahead of that. However, it’s not like Low End Theory is slept on… so I’m choosing Non Fiction.”
L’ECOLE DE MICRO D’ARGENT
Laurent Fintoni (Original Culture, Rhythm Incursions): “Let’s get one thing out of the way first – IAM’s L’école du Micro d’Argent is certainly not overlooked or underrated in its home country. What set IAM from most other French rap groups in the 90s was the mythology they built through their rhymes, productions and releases. Renaming their home city of Marseille to Planete Mars, they drew from their immigrant heritage and pulled in Egyptian, Asian and European myths and religion into their work, creating something unlike anything that existed in French hip-hop at the time. While many Parisian rappers were focused on hip-hop’s American origins and thus ‘kept it real’, IAM simply used hip-hop to create their own world and draw listeners in.
“With L’école this process reached its apex. Their third album in 10 years, it drew heavily from Asian myths and philosophy alongside the Egyptian mythos which they used from the start (the main MC is called Akhenaton, and the producers Kheops and Imhotep) and re-appropriated it all within a hip-hop context, shaping characters that were fascinating by virtue of being equal parts imaginary and, in terms of the subject matter of the rhymes, real.
“The production – handled as always by Kheops and Imhotep – is in hindsight at time painfully simple, relying heavily on loops and American production signifiers, yet again the Asian influence bled into the sample sourcing and usage, creating the perfect backdrop for the words and stories. This was a world that any 17-year-old wanted to lose themselves in. Or, to put it more simply, ‘Un bon son brut pour les truands.'”
(KNOWLEDGE OF SELF, 1995)
Andrew ‘Monk One’ Mason (NYCTrust , Waxpoetics, full-time crate-digger): “A menacing, claustrophobic beat with moody lyrics to match and an impossible to ignore hook made this a perfect subway soundtrack in the home of headphone music, New York City. But this flawless slice of underground rap came not from the Rotten Apple but from 350 miles north, in Toronto.
“Frankenstein was part of the second wave of Canadian rap talent to make an impact in the States (the first was spearheaded in the late ’80s by Maestro Fresh Wes, whose LP title Naaah, Dis Kid Can’t Be From Canada?!! summed up most New Yorkers’ attitudes toward north-of-the-border rap). With strong singles from other T-Dot local heroes like Choclair, Kardinall Offishall and Saukrates, it seemed like Canadian rap was finally getting its due, but 15+ years later very few recall this record or the other killers that sprang from the same scene. Frankenstein is still making music, and an extremely limited run of ‘Frankenstein’s Pain’ has just been re-pressed on 2×7″.
LIKE IT SHOULD BE
Paul White (Stones Throw, One Handed Music): “It’s an album not too many people talk about anymore, that I often recommend to friends. The track ‘Cash Money’ is my favourite – even though it’s literally only 1 minute, 28 seconds long and cuts off suddenly…That beat is ridiculous, a total banger. I love this record.”
Y’ALL SO STUPID
VAN FULL OF PAKISTANS
(ROWDY RECORDS, 1993)
Mr Beatnick: “If history has taught us anything, it’s this – including the words ‘my record label dropped the deal’ as a lyric in your attempted hit single is never a particularly good move. Surprising then, that Y’All So Stupid were ceremonially dumped by their label Rowdy Records shortly after this warped opus hit the streets, which seems a real shame as they truly deserved better. Had they come out 20 years later they’d probably be interpreted as a cloud rap phenomenon, dropping Odd Future-beating peculiarities over hazy beats, whilst their skate-rap fashion aesthetic remains contemporary too (check out the album cover for some ‘proto-Tyler’).
“From the Richard Pryor-referencing ‘Super N****’, to the autobiographical ‘Family Tree’, the wide range of moods in their material recalls the crackling abstract complexity of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. And yet, their group name also speaks volumes – all these years later and still, no one can decipher exactly what this lot were on about, especially that bizarre album title (let’s fact it, you can’t even fit one Pakistan in a van.) This is a rap album that was widely rediscovered in the early 2000s and began changing hands for impressive sums, perhaps because it’s a perfect teleportation device to a period when the music was about having fun and experimenting, but unlike Black Sheep, Pharcyde or Fu Schnickens, this rap classic was never tattooed on your mind and memories. Especially the refrain, ‘You gotta get the monkey from off my back.'”