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Before Tidal, before Blue Ivy, before Yeezus, there was Roc-A-Fella Records.

Founded by Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter, Kareem ‘Biggs’ Burke and Damon ‘Dame’ Dash, the New York City rap powerhouse rose to dominate post-Bad Boy East Coast rap, fueled not only by its star founder but also a bleeding edge production team, a roster of street level emcees, and rap’s best A&Rs. Even more impressively, they did it during one of rap’s most competitive eras: Ruff Ryders and Murder Inc. were both at large, but track for track, no one balanced quality music, commercial success and street credibility like The Roc.

Ultimately the label was undone by personal differences between Jay-Z and his partners and by rap’s shift southwards, but their vision of a self-owned rap empire founded on hustling still stands as one of hip-hop’s ultimate creation myths, birthing a generation of rap moguls dreaming of dead presidents. More importantly, while the era’s purists were quick to wag their fingers at what they considered commercial compromise, the label’s albums and songs have stood the test of time better than most – whether backpacker-approved or MTV-ready.

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Jay-Z
‘In my Lifetime’ / ‘Dead Presidents’
(1995 / 1996)

At first glance, nothing distinguishes Jay-Z’s debut single from the glut of hardcore east coast rap flooding the streets in the mid 90s. In the video’s opening shot, a wire-thin Jay-Z dressed in shorts and a tank top looks like he’s barely eating, let alone balling. A closer look however hints at the canny aesthetic that would make Roc-A-Fella’s rap’s greatest empire in a few short years: the materialistic flash, the pop savvy R&B hook, and production balancing smooth soul and up to the minute trends in percussion in equal measure. Roc-A-Fella was just another indie with a dream – and Jay-Z hadn’t yet abandoned his tongue-twisting Fu-Shnickens flow – but they were already perfecting their vision.

By the time Jay-Z’s ‘Dead Presidents’ hit the streets in 1996, that vision was a little clearer: the video budget’s on point, the clothes fit the man, and Jay’s slower flow bridged the gap between Nas’ cerebral musings and Biggie’s jiggy crime sagas. The accompanying album, Reasonable Doubt, put the label on the map and remains Jay-Z’s finest full-length.

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Christion
‘Full of Smoke’
(1996)

Roc-A-Fella never really connected with the R&B market, which was strange since their brand of hip-hop relied on soul samples and sophistication far more heavily than your average late ’90s rap outfit. The truth is, their soul efforts always felt half-hearted – modern takes on the kind of classic R&B that Dame and Jay thought was worth sampling rather than music that was actually pushing the genre forward. Nevertheless, most of it was pretty good: maybe someone will sample one of these joints down the line after all.

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Sauce Money
‘Action…’
(1997)

Jay-Z’s mentor Sauce Money made the mistake of not signing with his protégé’s label at its peak, sticking with Priority Records instead. Needless to say, it didn’t work out for him, and a few years later, he started beef with The Roc. This didn’t lead to much, but it did give us the classic Freeway line: “You’re like the beer Caine dropped in Menace, 40 and broke.” That had to hurt.

‘Action…’, Sauce’s one early single with Roc-A-Fella, didn’t exactly light the world on fire, so it’s not like they were missing much – but to his credit, he did write Puffy’s ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ and I imagine whatever publishing Sting left over from that monster is still enough to keep him comfortable.

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Jay-Z / Various
Streets is Watching
(1998)

Streets is Watching was a direct to video musical tying together a bunch of Jay-Z’s early videos together through a loosely coherent plot. It’s absolutely terrible, but no rap fan worth his salt in the late ’90s didn’t spend at least one night with his boys watching it while rolling Swishas. The accompanying soundtrack is slightly better and is notable for featuring Murdagram, an aborted collaboration between Jay, DMX and Ja Rule that imploded as each member went multi-platinum.

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DJ Clue
The Professional
(1998)

Streets is Watching also launched the Roc’s association with DJ Clue, then New York’s hottest mixtape DJ. While major labels were still weary of mixtapes, which were considered little better than bootlegs, Roc-A-Fella were keen to exploit Clue’s street cred across the Tri-state area. For the next few years, he had first dibs on a slew of Roc-A-Fella tracks, boosting the label’s profile in the process.

The label would also release a couple officially-sanctioned compilations bearing his name, all of which frustrated everyone within earshot thanks to his trademark “CLUEMINATIIIIIIII” drops. Remember, this was a decade and a half before the era of the NoDJ download. On the plus side, The Professional featured a clutch of good-to-great material and is as good a snapshot of late-’90s mixtape culture as anything available commercially. It’s also notable for ‘Fantastic 4’ – a blistering collaboration between Big Pun, Noreaga, lyrical miracle Canibus and a pre-Roc, fast-flowing Cam’ron.

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Jay-Z
Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life
(1998)

Reasonable Doubt may have been a street classic, but it didn’t achieve anywhere near the kind of numbers that earned more than a cursory glance in the late ’90s, a time when Bad Boy was regularly shipping Platinum plus. Worse, after bringing the label to Def Jam for In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, Jay-Z overcompensated with watered-down pop singles that did nothing to increase his standing. Nevertheless, The Notorious B.I.G’s tragic passing left a wide-open lane for a savvy rapper able to connect New York’s street culture to the pop charts and with Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z hit pay dirt.

The rapper’s highest selling album to this day, it’s full of hits as futuristic sounding as they were catchy. ‘Hard Knock Life’ was the crossover smash, using an Annie-sampling 45 King beat to bring struggle raps to the TRL crowd, but it’s ‘Jigga What Jigga Who’ that forced rap heads to pay attention. Over a jittery Timbaland beat, Jay abandoned both classic NY boom bap and Bad Boy era pop sampling in favor of an up-to-the-minute Southern style spiced with East Coast sophistication. It all makes for an album that still sounds fresher than current rappers’ attempts to “bring New York back.”

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Memphis Bleek
‘Memphis Bleek Is…’
(1999)

It’s easy to make fun of Memphis Bleek for being “one hit away his whole career” but the guy has four (!) gold albums and employment for life as Jay-Z’s hype man. You know you’d kill for that kind of job security. And while he’d never come close to his mentor’s pop success, Memph was always good for a catchy, whip-ready banger – you can’t really deny Swizz Beats’ pentatonic synth madness on ‘Memphis Bleek Is…’, and ‘I Get High’ is just as stoned as you’d expect from rap’s number one weed carrier. And even when the hits were drying up, Just Blaze, Bleek & Free featured a scratch solo on a major label rap album in 2003, that’s at least worth something.

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Jay-Z
‘Big Pimpin’ / ‘Girl’s Best Friend’
(1999)

After Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life and its accompanying Hard Knock Life Tour had positioned Jay-Z as the biggest rapper on Earth, he went on a tear of club-friendly hits over Swizz and Timbaland production, solidifying his King of New York status. ‘Big Pimpin’’, despite some truly questionable lyrical content, can still save a dance floor a decade-and-a-half after its release thanks to a banghra-inspired beat and virtuoso flows from Jay and guest stars UGK. It’s worth noting that Southern legends Bun B and Pimp C were then near-unknowns in New York, and it’s this kind of savvy outreach to rap’s expanding geography that kept Jay-Z on top in an era where the momentum was rapidly shifting below the Mason Dixon line.

‘Girl’s Best Friend’ is a more conventionally New York record by comparison, but the twinkling Korg beat incited more than just the one screwface among New York’s purist cognoscenti. It wouldn’t matter: the song was a smash and Jay would already be moving onto a new production team and a new sound by the time the heat died down.

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Beanie Sigel
The Truth
(1999)

Beanie Sigel was never going to be a crossover star. He’s an excellent rhymer with more real life experience than most, but he had no interest in spitting about anything except money, drugs and violence, and when it came time to dress drug dealers in The Wire, he was basically the template. Still, he’s another “underground” Roc artist with two gold albums to his name (though granted, it was a lot easier to sell rap records back then).

Sigel’s debut full-length The Truth is packed from beginning to end with excellent street rap, but it’s most notable for launching Rocafella’s two star producers. The title track was produced by a young Kanye West, who ably flips prog rock band Chicago’s gothic organs. ‘Who Want What’, meanwhile, features an early example of Just Blaze’s bombast, back when he was still limited to the sounds produced by a single keyboard workstation. If you listen closely, it’s easy to imagine a young Wiley hearing tracks like this one and trying to make garage to match.

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Jay-Z
‘I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)’
(2000)

By 2000, Jay-Z wasn’t relying on superstar producers – he was creating them. The Neptunes may have already been on the rise in 2000, but it’s their beat for Jay-Z’s ‘I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)’ that sent their stock into the stratosphere, convincing every rapper, R&B singer and pop star on Earth to record over their jittery, minimal funk.

Pharell’s sweet boy falsetto proved the perfect foil for Jay’s word play and for the next three summers it was impossible to walk into a rap club without hearing their collaborations. Whether keeping it silky-smooth on ‘Frontin’’ and ‘Excuse Me Miss’ or edging into darkness on ‘La-La-La (Excuse Me Again)’, the rap world ate it up. They even made some great deep cuts like The Blueprint 2‘s closer, ‘A Ballad For the Fallen Soldier’.

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Amil
‘4 Da Fam’
(2000)

Amil’s voice made her a love-her-or-hate-her proposition, and to be honest I’ve yet to find a single real fan of hers. Plus there were also a lot of unsavory rumors about how she got signed to The Roc, but those are probably best left in the past. Ultimately, she proved “hard to work with” and got dropped after her first album, but if you’re willing to look past those vocal cords, there were a couple of jams on there, including this prime Roc La Familia-era posse cut.

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Memphis Bleek
‘My Mind Right’
(2000)

Weed carrying aside, the other thing Memphis Bleek was known for was sparking the legendary beef between Roc-A-Fella and Nas. After trading subliminal shots over a couple of tracks, ‘My Mind Right’ (from Bleek’s second album) was essentially an open declaration of war, the first volley in rap’s biggest major beef since the deaths of Biggie and Pac.

Then there was ‘Is That Your Bitch?’, a repurposed Jay-Z cut where Jay basically admits to sleeping with Nas’ baby moms. Aside from being utterly disrespectful, the track also featured a killer Timbaland beat, Missy on the hook and a verse that rescued Twista’s career. Not bad for a track that didn’t make Jay’s albums.

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Various Artists
Roc-A-Fella Hot 97 Takeover
(2001)

OK, so this isn’t really an official Roc-A-Fella release, but it’s worth including because this mixtape kept the streets on lock for months. Recorded live on Hot 97 with a bombastic Funkmaster Flex behind the decks, it’s a fantastic example of the long lost art of spitting live on radio. Jay-Z doesn’t really rap here, instead letting his up and comers prove themselves while he handles hosting duties. It’s probably the last time he sounded more excited about rap than making money.

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Jay-Z
The Blueprint
(2001)

In hindsight, The Blueprint is moment where Jay-Z peaked and began his slow decline. After a few years releasing commercial smash after commercial smash, in a keen act of legacy building, Jay recorded a celebratory, nostalgic full album statement built around classic soul samples and myth-making boasts. It was undoubtedly a victory lap, but what a victory lap: ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A.)’ was a summer jam par-excellence, ‘Girls Girls Girls’ was sugary sweet (and next to ‘Big Pimpin’’, comparatively benign), and tracks like ‘U Don’t Know’ and ‘Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)’ single-handedly convinced rap producers to dust off their MPCs and leave their Tritons, only a few years after Jay turned the game on its head by going digital.

It also featured ‘Takeover’, one of rap’s greatest diss records, where Jay-Z simultaneously sent Mobb Deep’s career into a tailspin, called out Nas’s shitty win/loss ratio and made Jim Morrison cool again. So while it marked the beginning of Jay’s smug, self-satisfied late period (and ‘Renegade’, with Eminem, may have aged poorly), it’s still one of the three best records in his catalogue along with Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life and Reasonable Doubt.

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Beanie Sigel & Freeway
‘Roc the Mic’
(2001)

With Memphis Bleek out of the studio for personal reasons and Jay-Z no longer hanging out with non-moguls, State Property was a way to group Roc-A-Fella’s remaining Philly-based roster under Beanie Sigel and mold them into a coherent group. As you might expect, this led to minimal crossover success, but plenty of excellent rap music. ‘Roc the Mic’ was one of the last hardcore East Coast club bangers, a 90BPM digital funk groove with plenty of gun talk, drug talk and threats to haters, blessed with an old school hook about – what else – rocking the mic. Even the backpackers could two-step to this.

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Jay-Z
Unplugged
(2001)

It’s impossible to convey how cool Jay-Z was to anyone who knows him principally as an ancient record exec desperately trying to keep his #brand relevant. At his peak, the guy could record an MTV Unplugged session with The Roots and not only make it work, but make it seem like a shrewd political coup, uniting rap’s bling and backpacker factions. Musically, the results are inessential, but as far as random obscurities go, it beats Collision Course by a long shot.

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Cam’ron
‘Oh Boy’ / ‘Hey Ma’
(2002)

I won’t even try to include all of Dipset’s great moments here – their early ’00s mixtape run deserves its own list and while they released on Roc-A-Fella, they always made an effort to stand apart and make their own waves. Early on however, a struggling Cam was smart enough to make use of the Roc’s resources to boost his commercial presence, having already dropped two albums on Sony to average results.

‘Oh Boy’ and ‘Hey Ma’ use the same kind of post-millennial soul sampling that Jay popularized a few months earlier, becoming Cam’s biggest hits to date. Conversely, ‘The Roc’ and ‘Welcome to NYC’ saw Cam going toe to toe with Roc-A-Fella’s principle roster, with the latter’s back-and-forth with Jay-Z becoming a hotly debated New York anthem thanks to the tension and competition.

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Dame Dash
‘I Am Dame Dash’
(2002)

I’m not saying Dame Dash proved to be a good businessman, or even a human being who operates in the same reality as the rest of us – but give the guy credit, he had a great ear for rap music. He’s also one of rap’s great sidemen, a PT Barnum figure invading your video while double fisting vodka bottles.

Thankfully, he was also smart enough to realize he couldn’t rap, but that didn’t stop him from yelling all over a couple of cuts on the Paid in Full soundtrack. ‘Champions’ turns Queen’s ubiquitous ‘We Are the Champions’ into an absolutely ridiculous chipmunk soul number that Kanye apparently cooked up in 15 minutes when Just Blaze couldn’t be bothered. It sounds exactly how you’d expect.

‘I Am Dame Dash’ is somehow even more ridiculous, with Jim Jones and Cam’ron narrating Dame’s life over a vocal sample exclaiming “Freeway!” Someone ended up in the wrong session for that one.

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Freeway
Philadelphia Freeway
(2003)

You know why major labels suck in 2015? Because today, at some point in the process of releasing Freeway’s debut Philadelphia Freeway, someone would say “Wait a minute! This portly, devout Muslim drug dealer making bare bones East Coast rap music has zero appeal to middle America!” Thankfully, Roc-A-Fella at its peak had the resources to release this stuff, and Philadelphia Freeway is one of the label’s forgotten gems by a vastly under-appreciated rapper.

Nearly half the album is produced by Just Blaze at his best, meaning it bridges the line between organic sampling and instrumentation and digital beats, and it also features plenty of guest verses from State Property, a crew up there with The Boot Camp Clique in terms of underrated East Coast groups. Finally, there’s Free – whose high-pitched wail and emotional lyrics brought an unexpected depth to what would have otherwise been generic thug rap. EARLY!

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The Diplomats
‘Dipset Anthem’
(2003)

State Property vs. Dipset wasn’t quite Beatles vs. Stones, but the side you landed on said everything worth knowing about your taste in rap. State Property were thug traditionalists, rapping about the struggle and hustle over oldschool beats. They were the guys doing this because otherwise, there’s a decent chance they’d end up in jail, and in fact, most of them did at one point or another.

Meanwhile The Diplomats were consummate stylists, twisting boasts into absurd new shapes while wearing American flag bandanas or all-pink mink. At one point, their extended family was known as “The Taliban” and Juelz Santana was known to shout out 9/11 bomber Mohammed Atta. Ultimately, both groups were great, but history was kinder to Dipset – they were just more fun to listen to, and The Heatmakerz’ beats were some of New York’s freshest before the city’s approach to production calcified.

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Various Artists
State Property Presents The Chain Gang Vol. II
(2003)

The last couple of State Property releases couldn’t quite carry on the momentum that Beanie and Freeway’s releases did, and by 2004 it was becoming obvious that they’d never break past the rap middle ground. It’s a shame they broke up, because the group was making good music until the bitter end.

Vol. II added a new wrinkle to the now established Roc-A-Fella sound, referencing late ’80s golden age drum programming and updating it for contemporary ears. As for Tough Luv, the Young Gunz’ solo album, it was more of the same, but by the time it came out, Jay-Z had not only jacked Young Chris’s “whisper flow” but had also ground it into the ground. We’re still waiting on an Omilio Sparks album.

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Kanye West
‘Through the Wire’ / ‘Slow Jamz’
(2003)

I won’t rehash the Kanye West story – you’re a music fan with an Internet connection and are completely capable of looking up the guy’s Wikipedia page if you somehow spent the past 10 years in a coma and/or solitary confinement. But ahead of his debut album, Roc-A-Fella had absolutely no clue how to market the guy: this was a label that specialized in cross over street rap, not Polo-wearing Okayplayer dudes. Thankfully, Kanye was lucky in his misfortune – a 2003 car accident provided the narrative for a suburban flip on 50 Cent’s survivor angle, and a self-financed video for the resulting ‘Through the Wire’ gave Roc-A-Fella the confidence to push Kanye’s project.

How weird and borderline-corny was ‘Through the Wire’ though? Kanye was still a producer trying to rap who oversold his punchlines – and that’s before you get to the mush-mouthed delivery where he was literally spitting through the wire that kept his jaw shut. Incidentally, that was probably the last time Kanye was ever able to keep his jaw shut.

‘Slow Jamz’ is a much better College Dropout-era single. Originally meant for Twista’s album, Roc-A-Fella managed to get it placed on both when it blew up on urban radio. Zooming at 140+ BPM at a time when rap was still stuck in the ’90s (and 90s, in fact), it’s an early example of Kanye’s dedication to pushing musical boundaries.

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Ol’ Dirty Bastard
A Son Unique
(2004)

You know it’s the beginning of the end for a label once they start signing acts that don’t even remotely fit in with their overall game plan, and by 2003 Dame Dash was signing every other New York rapper that needed a deal. On paper, both M.O.P and Ol’ Dirty Bastard were the kind of hardcore New York rap that Roc-A-Fella specialized in, but with Jay-Z “retiring” and distancing himself from Dash, the funding for this kind of vanity signing dried up faster than either act could record an album. It’s just as well, ODB’s A Son Unique is floating around as a bootleg but remains an inessential afterthought, and M.O.P never came close to recapturing their ’90s magic.

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Jay-Z
’99 Problems’
(2004)

No longer content with being the biggest rapper in the world, Jay-Z released ’99 Problems’, which suddenly found him beloved by people who knew absolutely nothing about rap. By convincing Rick Rubin to record a throwback Def Jam track and co-opting an Ice T hook, Jay made an arena rap smash that may have accidentally taught millions of white kids about the reality of racial profiling. From here on out, Jay-Z didn’t belong to the rap world, he was a full on, capital P pop star, for better or for worse.

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Cam’ron
‘Down and Out’
(2004)

By late 2004, Jay-Z had bought out Dame and Biggs, Kanye West was on his way to superstardom, State Property were becoming an afterthought and Cam’ron’s Diplomats were on their way to Koch Records and diminishing returns. Before he left the Roc though, Cam dropped Purple Haze, a magnum opus of smart/dumb wordplay and bombastic beats that he hasn’t been able to top since.

‘Down and Out’ featured Kanye on production (plus Brian Miller) and acted as a swan-song for both his original soul-heavy production style and Roc-A-Fella as a label: it was calculated and commercial, but also undoubtedly warm and indebted to classic East Coast hip-hop, something the rap world would miss in the following years.

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