Although hip-hop was in the midst of a global boom and the UK scene was pretty thriving, Roots Manuva’s ‘Witness’ aside there had been no mainstream acknowledgement that we could do something positive with the genre on our own terms since the early nineties. Mike Skinner aka The Streets changed all that.
Original Pirate Material is an absolute gem of an album that is so inherently British and brilliant you can’t but help fall in love with it. A gorgeous melting pot of garage, house, hip-hop and much more, it even manages to make you fall in love with Skinner’s at first grating delivery and voice as he showcases a rather deft lyrical ability and wicked observational humour, in the process creating something that was a truly unique manifestation of the UK take on hip-hop not seen since ‘Blue Lines’.
He attacks the contradictions of our alcohol focused culture in the brilliant ‘The Irony of it all’, explores the macabre influences that make mischief makers of men on ‘Geezers need excitement’ but better yet, gorgeously sums up the appeal of ecstasy and club culture on ‘Weak Become Heroes’, a record which would also brilliantly benefit from an Ashley Beedle re-rub.
The same formula would also be applied to his sophomore effort to devastating effect, particularly the way ‘Blinded by the Lights pre-dated the current pop-dubstep craze AND summarised the process of taking ecstasy in one of the finest drug observations ever made, but it was this début which still sounds perfect a decade on. Arguably one of the greatest British pop albums ever made.
Paid in Full is the only album on this list that is quite flawed. The production is at times dated, Eric B’s turntable skills weren’t even particularly impressive at the time let alone now and the sound is often amateur in feel and a relic of hip-hop supposed golden age. The reason it’s in here above complete masterpieces and other unsullied collections of music? The presence and lyrics of Rakim.
Even if you’ve never heard this album you have heard the lyrics. If James Brown’s breaks and funk licks are the most sampled backbones that make their way, Rakim’s lyrics are the ones scratched and sampled by DJs and producers and the one’s paraphrased by everyone from Nas, Jurassic 5 and Jay-Z. Even now, 25 years on, they are breathtaking. He brought the concept of internal rhymes to hip-hop (dropping a rhyme mid sentence), applying the freeform spirit of jazz to the way he constructed them with one of the most scientific flows and deliveries hiphop has ever seen.
Every other rapper let the words hang off the end of drum kicks, affecting each part of the rhyme and made sure you saw the process behind why it happened, working with the production. Rakim threw the rulebook out and created some of the deftest lyrical manoeuvres that subverted the very idea of hip-hop’s braggadocio. Everyone else told you how nice they were, with Rakim if you didn’t get it you were like everyone else, beneath him. And this is the way his lyrics made me feel when I really took time to listen to them in 2001. I can’t even fathom how jaw-dropping it would of been at the time.
So if anything, the skeletal and at times questionable production simply enhanced what Rakim was all about. Had he been riding shotgun over the frenetic energy of the Bomb Squad his innate subtlety could of been lost. And the production on the record wasn’t all bad, the title track was a gloriously languid shuffle for Rakim to again rip up the rulebook. The song is a classy break, a bit of a discussion about what to do and one verse. A single verse and not even a chorus! One of the most influential hip-hop records of all time is essentially a Dennis Edwards bassline and 24 bars; the ultimate exercise in hip-hop minimalism.
It’s a formula repeated on the rest of the album, not least ‘I know you got Soul’, ‘My melody’ and ‘Eric B is President’. It’s also, in my eyes, the first full length player hip-hop delivered that stands up as more than just a crucial moment in the history of the genre. Run DMC were important but their music, delivery and power seems at best quaint in 2012, where as Rakim’s crushing lyrical ability still stands up. He was an emcee who elevated the power of the rapper simply by the style and delivery they did, not based on look, subject matter or vibe, simply on how good you were. pretty much everyone has been playing catch-up since.