1998. David Batty missed a penalty, Titanic is the first ever film to gross a billion dollars, Hugo Chavez wins his first election in Venezuela and The Lighthouse Family are still a thing. In amongst these epochal moments for the history of a year where I took my GCSEs I discover that there is somewhere else other than MTV and prowling the import Cd section of HMV to find new hip hop – BBC Radio One.
I was completely oblivious to the presence of Tim Westwood on the nation’s biggest radio station for the best part of my first two years of obsession with hip hop, only discovering it by chance when I stayed in long enough to hear the end of (I think) Pete Tong’s show one Saturday night. There was basically an explosion, a rapper I had no idea of going “It’s Saturday, It’s Saturday, and what is this, it’s Timmy” before some genuinely legit (to my 16-year-old ears) patois launched into some absolute fire. From then on I was hooked.
It wasn’t always great listening – I can remember an episdoe with Noreaga the same year which confirmed my belief (at the time, since changed) he was horrendous – but it was one of the best ways to discover new music. It also helped me get better and deciphering music I’d heard about trying to figure out who it was (Tim wasn’t always the greatest at saying track names), so I’d read about music in The Source (also discovered in 1998) and then wait till Tim would play it.
One of these tracks was ‘My Name is’, the killer combo of Tim and The Source hyping me up to Eminem months before he released the track. Slim Shady was my first genuine real-time discovery of an emcee (something I’ve talked about on here before), having got only gotten properly into both Biggie and Tupac after they died and being far too young to experience Wu Tang, Snoop and countless others. Westwood was the only British bridge I had to these ridiculously exciting and exotic sounds from over the Atlantic, so to this day I’m hugely indebted for everything he helped me discover music too. People harp on about John Peel, Tim Dog was considerably more worthwhile to me.
So it was a genuine moment when I got to interview him as part of my day job at Skiddle. There are no real revelations in there, just a chat between two white blokes completely enamoured with this brilliant form of music. Read the Tim Westwood Skiddle interview.
Most importantly though, 1999 was the year hip-hop got good again. Really good. Slick Rick did what the likes of KRS-one and Rakim had been incapable of in recent years, return with a scintillating degree of relevancy, the dirty south started to get really hot with the help of Mannie Fresh and an upstart from Detroit proved being melatonin deficient wasn’t a guarantee of being poor. That rapper in question, a certain Eminem, also brought with him maybe the most important development in hip-hop’s post millenium popscape… the return to prominence of Dr Dre. But most of all the music was just fantastic.
I recently linked to the Czarface album as they heralded the year as a golden age for hip-hop and whilst there’s better points historically for sure, this definitely stands up as one of the finest 12 months the genre has ever seen. Here’s five of the choicest cuts from that time period, and apologies in advance for the andre heaviness.
Few rappers go onto live up to their earlier work a decade afterwards. Nas did so last year with ‘Life is Good’, his second best album after Illmatic, but 1999 was a time when two of the biggest forces in late eighties rap appeared from the doldrums to capture the critical consensus once more. The first was golden age icon Slick Rick, who’s ‘Adventures of Storytelling‘ is an absolute classic. Peppered with star turns from big hitters of the time such as Nas, Raekwon and Canibus, it brought his sinister sense of humour back to the forefront alongside that butter flow. One of the standout tunes was Big Boi returning the star turn Ricky gave on the remix of Outkast’s song of the same title, with the glorious Street Talkin. So, so good.
From 1993-1997 Wu Tang were flawless. Raekwon, GZA and Ghostface delivered classic debuts, whilst Method Man and ODB managed to put forward compelling visions of their personality which if not classic were still very good, not to mention a litany of guest appearances across albums from 2Pac, Mobb Deep and Biggie. Of that five only one managed to deliver on their sophomore, in fact he went better on it. Ghostface.
Supreme Clientele is the greatest non debut Wu solo album ever, no question, and I’d probably say it was the best solo joint full stop. RZA tearing through awesome beats, Ghostface’s patented gibberish and this record, an example of how to go R&B and stay grimy. U-God putting a ruff rider on his dick and busting right through them vying for Tony Starks and that dressing gown for the finest jaw dropping moment in the three minutes of bliss, as the Wu shows Bad Boy how to take an obvious disco sample and keep it street. Jiggy Y2K style.
Slick Rick was the hot rapper from the 80s to come full circle, but undeniably Dre was the producer. Part of the story of how he clambered back to the forefront comes in lieu of this record…
Slim Shady had caught the attention of the underground with a runners up slot at the rap Olympics, a slew of underground bangers with Rawkus and the catchy ‘Just Don’t give a Fuck‘, but he really blew up with what seemed like a novelty single in the shape of ‘My Name is’ in early 1999. Dre produced it and has since said the plan was to make it as annoying as possible to ensure the word was out and follow it up with Eminem showing his true class. It was a tactical masterclass Jose Mourinho would be proud of and this record, the two of them sparring together on record, was the first of a series of relentless OMG moments from Slim.
The good/evil combination isn’t exactly original but the way it’s played out certainly is, Dre suddenly being reinvented as a paternal figure and then Eminem exposing the hypocrisy of ‘Mr NWA/Mr AK’ dishing out advice. If it had been a diss record it would of been a milestone, but for it to be something that he convinced Dre to do (and almost certainly ghost-wrote the lyrics that he responded with) it shows so much about the level of trust and respect Dre had gifted his protege at such an early stage, and the start of a glorious two years of shared creativity. It also shows as much as Em was a savagely humorous extortionist of questionable subject matter, he also utilised balance in his yarns, even if through the voice of overs. This would reach it’s staggering apex with Stan – incidentally introduced to the Slim Shady entertainment world in the second verse.
That subject matter was as disgusting as Eminem would become known for, advocating under-age rape, armed robbery and murder (even if done with delicious humour – the way he berates Dre’s explanation with ‘slipped, tripped, fell, landed on his dick’ a prime example), but at the time it was ridiculously exciting, unquestionably. Music fans very rarely get to live through super-stardom in real time (the percentage of Beatles fans on the planet around at their peak must be minuscule) but Eminem’s finest three years I lived through every step of the way and watched how the music only a few people in my school liked suddenly became omnipresent.
The Doctor again. Dre was ‘back’ through working with Eminem but he was doing so through the medium of a white trailer trash kid from Detroit and with a poppier focus; the next dawning of g-funk wasn’t hinted at yet. 1998 saw a blistering Dre production creep under the radar with the shape of old sparring partner Kurrupt on ‘Ask yourself a question‘ but one record snapped into focus and threw up the dubs. When ‘Bitch Please’ appeared on Snoop’s ‘No Limit Top Dogg‘ as one of three Dre productions, you knew this shit was back on.
Everything about this joint is perfect. When the beat kicks in with the drums and the low end rumbling it was seismic, I remember hearing this for the first time better than most milestones in my life. Xzibit, at that point an underground emcee with plenty of heat and no dodgy MTV show, drops the verse of his life which is littered with quotables, referencing his likwit connections, slick rick and Canibus in 24 breathless bars. He would go on to tread water for the majority of the rest of his career, but this was the reason why.
It was also the point where Snoop realised his future career, hot singles where the focus was on how he sounded over a ridiculous beat. His delivery here is this out there hybrid of crooner, pillow talk and street slang, completely alien to anything else and tailor made for the Dre sonics. And if that wasn’t enough Nate Dogg decides to turn up at the end and say ‘hey oh’ in the most amazing fashion. All four protagonists deliver resoundingly for what is a beyond brilliant masterpiece.
Pharoah Monche ‘Simon Says’
That riff. Those drums. The four note sample from Godzilla was inspired, and Pharaoh drifting brilliantly between his usual cerebral self and straight up club thug stance made the whole thing so much more accomplished. The added whut-whuts on the chorus deliver a broad chested swagger (that’s already evident in spades) and the lyrics flip between self-deprecating humour (“you sold platinum round the world, I sold wood in the hood”) and the clever way both verses end with 2if you holding up the wall then you missing the point” meant an emcee known for technical genius could dumb down with the best of them whilst still having that lyrical subtlety. This is a cat remember that no less an authority than The Alchemist cites as the greatest of all time.
The impact of the record was so much certain commentators even labelled it as the beginning of the end for Rawkus who suddenly saw a product rather than an artform, which is a delicious irony considering the impact it has when it sounds. It’s just brasher and louder than everything else going, M1 & Stic-Man aside. Big and clever? Only in the hands of the Pharoah. An anthem of epic proportions.
Can Kendrick get any better? Yes, yes he can. This remix delivers the storyline of rap’s new king coming up in four minutes and three verse, all set to the backdrop of the most palpable beat on ‘Good Kid Maad City‘. First up Kendrick delivers a verse about the ease at which he’s entered hip-hop’s high end stratosphere, notably the ‘upper echelons’ as he calls it. Then Jay-Z turns up, delivers a brilliant verse for this remix (even if he is following certain Kanye delivery techniques now) before Kendirck gets back on the mic and absolutely lets rip.
They keep lashing the hype on this young boy and he keeps rising to it at every juncture. The way he pays his dues as well, hooking in Mc Eiht, Dre’s ministerial overlording and now Jigga, it’s similar to the way Em did the rounds during the Slim Shady era on Rawkus and the mixtapes (back when they were really underground). Yet he knows it’s his time to go against them competitively, getting in the booth and cutting their head off, as he puts it in Acclaim Magazine. God knows how good his next album is going to be…
The utterly brilliant Complex Mag is pretty much an essential read for hip-hop fans, and in amongst the articles worth checking is this one from nearly 18 months ago which focuses on the 50 greatest beef songs in hip-hop. All the usual suspects are in here, 2Pac, KRS, LL, Eminem, 50 Cent and Dr Dre, and it’s difficult to agree with the top slot really for what is one of the greatest attacks of savagery on a career ever. Despite what popular opinion stateside may ahve attributed the winner of that beef to. Dig in here.
Nice one to Simon ‘Ladykiller’ Pursehouse for the Stool Pigeon hook-up on this, but this is some ill hip-hop from an emcee who you can draw a lot of parallels, in terms of flow and the animated way it drifts, to the late nineties heyday of a certain Marshall Mathers. Vitriolic but oozing class at the same time.