Sunday 5th July marked the fifth instalment of my Check the Rhime show. It was also RZA’s 51st birthday, so I decided to show some love by dedicating the show to the music of his epochal five-year plan, as well as making up five Wu-related top-fives with four other Liverpool music heads.
Technically, but admittedly tenuously, that’s five references to five which is my sly little nod to the mathematics that underpins Wu’s greatness. The five-year plan was something else, though. It concerns how RZA nudged himself and nine other emcees (counting Cappadonna cos he’s a god) from relative unknowns to worldwide superstars.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here, but the music released from the single of ‘Protect ya Neck’ up until the double album of ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ is as good as anything from any similar period from a group. And I include the eight LPs by the Beatles from ‘Help’ to ‘Let it Be’ in that conversation.
The Wu changed the landscape of music, not just in their sonic vision but so too in the way recording contracts were created, and merchandise could be an extension of the brand. And they stayed gutter while appearing with the likes of Mariah Carey, Jodeci and Texas. Things went a bit tits up 98 onwards mind, but that halcyon period cannot be overstated as far as I’m concerned.
Don’t just take my word for anyway; there’s an unreal documentary about them available on Sky at the minute called Of Mics and Men. Essential lockdown viewing.
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.
This weekend is a big bad dollop of 1997 for me. Tomorrow, 16 years ago to the very day, one of the greatest of all time was gunned down, and in Manchester I am off to see easily the best hip-hop album released that year performed live in it’s entirety, Camp Lo’s ‘Uptown Saturday Night’. And seeing as 1997 was the first full calender year where I was in love with the music from start to finish this week’s instalment of Five for the Funk simply had to celebrate the year.
Turns out thought that 1997, when peering beyond the sepia tinted memories, was a weak one for hip-hop and probably the worst in the decade. Even though I was enthralled by the genre at the time the lack of being on the money (I was 15 and living in a RAF base in the Midlands) meant it was mainly old albums (Doggystyle, All Eyez on Me, 36 Chambers) that I liked (Camp Lo aside), and a confirmation of a look at this list shows rappers were more about sales, quantity and that horrible beast in hip-hop; the double album.
That said there was still some decent music this year, and none of those pesky double albums were classics in my eyes but they did throw together some great tunes. Here’s five of the best hip-hop videos and tracks from 1997…
They didn’t quite nail it with ‘Wu Tang Forever‘, but you genuinely do have to admire the Wu for their balls. I can remember the hype on UK and European MTV for this album and in turn this single, which still wasn’t that in tuned to hip-hop compared to the way it was with rock, and to announce the return of the whole clan with a lead single that was straight up lyrical wordplay at six minutes long was insane. The closest thing it had to a chorus was ODB screaming out that ‘Wu Tang was here for ever mutherfuckers’, and this was the record they were taking over the world with at the very inception of the shiny suit era in hip-hop. I mean come on! Stateside it sold over 600k in the first week and smashed it to the top of the charts. Killer figures from the killer bees, and that opening verse from Insepktah Deck.
‘Triumph’ was just that, the Wu knocking the shit out of the rest of the world. One of ten or twelve very good records on the album, although it might not be as dynamic as the likes of ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’, it was still a relentless slab of stark hip-hop. And nothing on TV looked so gully at the time. A grimy as fuck two finger salute at the staunch sound of selling out.
Biggie knew he was the epitome of the best of both worlds. The ugly as fuck fat boy who was so silky smooth he made women forget his appearance as their panties fell to the floor. The rapper that could make an album that featured a rags to riches radio joint side by side with tributes to stick-up kids and paranoia soaked suicide notes. And an absolute club and radio banger that had some of the tightest flows ever on it. It shone of the real Biggie, braggadocio to the hilt but gloriously self aware.
A genuinely brilliant record, and although technically a 1996 joint an anthem both sides of the Atlantic throughout 1997. And every year since.
Boot Camp Clik ‘Headz R Ready’
Wu weren’t the only hoodies and timbs NYC hip-hop crew bringing that rugged and raw vibe in 1997, so too were Boot Camp Clik. The collective consisted of Black Moon’s Buckshot, Smif N Wessun, Originoo Gunn Clappaz and Louieville Sluggah, and this was a tight record that featured a lovely nineties era drenched video. If you were one of those teenagers, like me, who lived for that one or two hours a week in 97 when Yo MTV Raps rounded up the best videos of the time, this was more often than not what would greet you.
Tha Alkaholiks ‘Hip-Hop Drunkies’
The West coast was flatter than usual between 1996 and 1999, but in the midst of it all was an underground antidote to the chronic flavoured riddims of the G-funk sound. And one of the better crews repping it were tha Liks. Their 1997 album ‘Likwidation’ is an underrated beast, straight up beats and rhymes tomfoolery from J-Ro, E-Swift and Tash, and this video sums up their vibe brilliantly.
An inspired pairing of their alcohol focused swagger with hip-hop’s fav substance abuser ODB, it flips a sample of Marley Marl’s piano riff off ‘The Symphony‘ to create a posse cut for boozers. Like the video for ‘Triumph’ ODB’s role is played by an actor, laying the groundwork for his troubled years ahead. He rips it up on here though, particularly with the “no disrespect to any architect who tries to perfect, oh what the heck” lyric, riffing brilliantly on the production of the song and his own role in hip-hop with a flurry of densely packed inner rhymes. An absolute genius.
60 Minutes of Wu, mixed by Rinse FM’s Alexander Nut. The mix is designed to showcase the influence the monolithic hip-hop crew had on his musical upbringing in the mighty Wolverhampton, and is being delivered over on fashion emporium Oki-Ni’s great mixtape series. Amidst the consistent lyrical darts there’s the odd song the crew have sampled, such as Wendy Rene’s ‘After the laughter comes tears’, and lashings upon lashing of that off kilter bass heavy Wu production that makes you want to pull your hood over your head and delve into darkness. Great reminder about why Staten Island’s finest remain so relevant.
The next guest selector is Bido Lito scribe and Liverpool DJ the Mighty Mojo, a jock who was an institution in Bumper for a few years and now lays down beats in heebies on a Saturday and Santa Chupitos on a Sunday. I’ve chewed the fat with Mo about hip-hop at a ridiculously high amount of after-parties over the years so he was a natural choice to contribute… even if he took a bit more coaxing than I expected after he believed his choices would be too similar to the earlier ones made by Darren Williams.
Which was odd, because I didn’t consider Darren’s selections to subscribe that readily to the classic hip-hop canon (No PE, Dre, De la for example) and what Mo mustered equally only paid lip service to a few of them. Anyway; I’ll let the man himself breathe his voice, and be sure to check out his weekly discourse on his blog The View from the Booth.
To distill all of hip hop down to 10 albums is very tricky for me, and not just because I’m an indecisive bastard. A lot of my favourite hip hop artists never quite nailed it over a full album, hence the likes of Nas, Redman, NWA, Roots Manuva and A Tribe called quest aren’t represented. There are some obvious choices in here, but that’s because the main criteria is which albums have given me the most joy down the years. I accept that I could wake up tomorrow with a very different list, but right now, these are the pinnacle.
10. Labcabincalifornia – The Pharcyde
I discovered this off the back of the best video of all time (c) for Drop, and realised there was so much more to be had. Most people I know prefer the cartoon energy of Bizarre Ride, but to produce the difficult post-fame 2nd album they had to freshen up their style a bit. Songs like Something that means Something and the peerless Runnin’ are testament to how well they did it.
9. The Grey Album – Danger Mouse
Controversial! I know there are people who will never acknowledge the creativity necessary to produce an album like this, but as a man who has attempted to do something similar, I can tell you it takes a truly deft hand. The way he twists the Beatles’ work into a hip hop template while retaining a lot of the original melodies is remarkable. I like that I can still tell which Beatles song was used, and there isn’t one single track on which I prefer the original production. The Black Album is probably Jay’s most consistent set, but he could be singing nursery rhymes and I’d still love this album.
8. Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030
This was a straight toss up with Dr.Octagon, but due to consistency across the whole album Deltron takes it. Dan the Automater, Del tha Funkee Homosapien & Damon Albarn may have received more praise (and pounds) for their Gorillaz work, but this is their best collaboration. The murky atmospherics are the perfect background for Del’s flow as he weaves his way through complicated themes of space and oppression. For some they may take the space opera bit too far, and they probably didn’t need 9 skits, but when they set about making tunes, they don’t fuck around.
7. Blow your Headphones – The Herbaliser
Some may argue against The Herbaliser’s hip hop credentials, but even a cursory listen would knock those complaints into a cocked hat. The best example of female MCs outrhyming their male counterparts, even the idea fragments such as More Styles are fantastic. Had more plays than every album on this list bar the top three.
6. Quality Control – Jurassic 5
A lot of people prefer the J5 LP, but to me that’s more of an EP, as there’s really only 6 songs on there. Plus Concrete & Clay is much better than Concrete Schoolyard. Quality Control is when they were at the top of their game, taking 4 MCs and making them sound like 1. Like Mos Def, the Jazz influence is integral to what makes them great – Jurass Finish 1st, Monkey Bars and Swing Set is the kind of hip hop your parents can tolerate, but isn’t Will Smith.
5. When Disaster Strikes – Busta Rhymes
I almost didn’t put this in once I’d seen Darren’s selection, but it would do a great disservice to a hitherto criminally underrated album. Despite greater chart success later on, this was when Busta was at his peak. The strength of Album tracks like Survival Hungry, There’s not a Problem my Squad can’t Fix and Rhymes Galore makes a mockery of the quality control of most modern LPs.
4. Doggystyle – Snoop Doggy Dogg
Over the course of my DJ career I have played every single track on this album, at least once. There is no other record I can say that for, of any genre. Probably in the collection of every single hip hop fan. Even those who detest what Snoop has become can’t deny the laid back genius at play here.
3. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan
There is nothing new to say about this album, except to tell you that it was the catalyst for my introduction to a whole new world of raw, abrasive, discordant hip hop. And for that I am eternally grateful. Oh yeah, and GZA’s verse on Protect ya neck is probably my favourite in hip hop history.
2. Black on Both Sides – Mos Def
One of the best records of all time regardless of genre. Mos Def comes on like a cross between Marvin Gaye & Chuck D, intelligently dissecting the troubles of today’s society in a way that makes you want to move. I even love the OTT thrash-out at the end of Rock’n’Roll, although I’d be interested to see if his stance on the Rolling Stones has changed since he worked with the Black Keys…..
1. Hello Nasty – Beastie Boys
I could have picked ill Communication and/or Check your head for this list, but for sheer blow-your-balls-off impact, on it’s release and since, it has to be Hello Nasty. The depth and variety is pretty stunning, and I have played this album in full at many parties without ever needing to reach for the skip button. Super Disco Breaking, Just a Test, The Negotiation Limerick File, Remote Control, 3 Mcs & 1 DJ – so many straight up bangers, which contrast brilliantly with the poignancy of I Don’t Know, or the Beasties Britpop of Song for the Man. This isn’t a sentimental vote in honour of MCA – no other hip hop album has given me as much joy as this one.
Honourable mentions also go out to Outkast’s ‘Stankonia’, A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘The Low end Theory’, Kool Keith dropping weird science with ‘Dr.Octagon’, West coast polar opposites in Cypress HIll’s ‘Black Sunday’ and Ugly Duckling’s ‘Taste the Secret’ and finally, UK hip-hop selections from Braintax & Skinnyman with ‘Panorama’ and ‘Council estate of Mind’ respectively.
To counter the indulgence currently being wacked out by my drawn out saga of releasing my top 25, I asked a few others to contribute their top ten. Darren flips the script not only in his choices, but also in our usual blogging techniques by offering a great selection brilliantly streamlined in comment.
10. 6 Feet Deep – Gravediggaz.
Perhaps the most surreal concept album ever conceived in Hip-Hop, but also one also producing some of it’s most highly creative beats.
9. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West.
Is he a member of The Illuminati? Why is the Album Art bizarre? Elton John’s on the record..!! Despite all these interesting questions, it will be remembered as one of the greatest artistic works in Hip-Hop history.
8. Illmatic – Nas.
Nas’ first ever long player has, due to the total brilliance, become something of a curse for his career as with each proceeding album leaves aficionados disappointed. Sort of how Wayne Rooney has never topped his début for Manchester United.
7. Midnight Marauders – A Tribe Called Quest.
Deliberately recorded from Midnight till 6am, the result was a unique sounding album that captures the collective at their zenith. Wide awake when the majority of their counterparts where sleeping.
6. When Disaster Strikes… – Busta Rhymes.
This album can only be described as perfect Saturday Night Warm-Up Music, ready for before the adventures begin. It’s just fun; something that’s sadly in very short supply within the genre & the lifestyle.
5. Doggystyle – Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Long before the Adidas contract & numerous other endorsements that he now promotes turned him into a brand, Snoop Doggy Dogg was a youngster with the aim of being the No. 1 on the Mic. When this came out he most definitely was.
4. Cypress Hill – Cypress Hill.
This entire album was in-fact intended to be the demo version, yet it was decided that it’s rough gritty sound perfectly suited the lyrics. At times, the imperfections are better.
3. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan.
It simply should work having that many members then including tooo many samples from badly dubbed 1970’s English Kung-Fu Films.
An Aggressive but also silly combination, yet one executed perfectly.
2. Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde – The Pharcyde.
A group of four very young 20yr old stoners from Southern California that have concerns about women, marriage & weed make a masterpiece without realizing. It doesn’t matter it you’re from Los Angeles or Leeds, you’ll instantly connect with this album as it’s about the Human Experience.
1. The Score – The Fugees.
Inspired by the later work on Bob Marley, it impressed both the ghettos & the suburbs across the globe.
According to urban-myth, for some reason the album directed connected with the Chinese Population making it currently the most bootlegged album in history.
Agree or Disagree with my selections? Send me a Tweet at @DazAltTheory using hashtag #GJHH25
01 The Black Keys & RZA – “The Baddest Man Alive”
02 Ghostface Killah, M.O.P & Pharoahe Monch – “Black Out”
03 Kanye West – “White Dress”
04 The Revelations feat. Tre Williams – “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”
05 Talib Kweli & RES – “Get Your Way (Sex as a Weapon)”
06 Raekwon, Ghostface Killah & Kool G. Rap – “Rivers of Blood”
07 Method Man, Freddie Gibbs & StreetLife – “Built for This”
08 24 Carat Black – “Poverty’s Paradise”
09 Killa Sin – “The Archer”
10 RZA & Flatbush Zombies – “Just Blowin’ In The Wind”
11 Corrine Bailey Rae – “Chains”
12. Pusha T & Raekwon – “Tick Tock”
13. Frances Yip – “Green is the Mountain”
14. The Wu-Tang Clan – “Six Directions of Boxing”
15. Mabel John – “Your Good Thing Is About To End”
Somewhere between the ideas of guilty pleasure and full on hero worship, I reckon there’s a part of your musical tastes where favouritism completely swings your judgement. You know when you know full well the Beatles are the better band but you just kind of like the Kinks that little bit more? Or knowing Carl Cox is a superior DJ but really, you’d much rather go and see someone like Reboot? It’s when for whatever reason someone who is actually very good at music has a characteristic or quality that elevates their talent in your eyes to near mythical proportions. This is how I feel when I hear Nate Dogg’s voice.
Aside from the odd exception (the above being a standout example) Nate was very rarely much kop by himself, instead the kind of aural butter that drenched the bread of others beautifully. But by god did his presence completely lift a record. The amount of times he completely outshone rappers on wax is monumental, from the moment he announced his voice to the mainstream on ‘Regulate’ to the his scene stealing moments on ‘The Chronic‘ and ‘Doggystyle‘. He stood toe to toe with the west coast brethren he grew up with, added a honey coated zeal to ‘proper’ emcees like Ghostface Killah, Mos Def and Pharaohe Monch and made misogyny sound so sweet even Emmeline Pankhurst would have had a wide-on. Peep the below for an example.
I’ve djed on an amateur and professional basis now for just shy of a decade, and the only time I’ve ever come close to the emotion I experienced during a mini-tribute after Nate passed last year was at a memorial night for a close friend. It’s unnerving to a degree how much the death of someone I never knew can affect me, especially considering that his input on the music I love is really a footnote. The talent of Biggie and Big L still makes the hair stand on the back of my neck but I never get actually emotional about him no longer being here. Yet the fact this rotund hoe-hating troubadour is no longer with us actually makes me sad. It’s ridiculous but in a way quite endearing.
There’s other ways in which he provokes a smile really, check out this footage below of him chasing someone with a golf club (with a beyond awesome cameo from Method Man and Wu). Which pretty much sums up Nate, who turned the frankly ridiculous into something beyond sublime. Just like namesake and brother from another mother Snoop, he brought a fun loving freestyle sheen to hip-hop which made borderline disgusting themes humorous and amiable. The P.I.M.P. soccermums could dig. We’ll never have a voice quite like it again in music.
Oh yes. Kanye has the summer mixtape/ album ‘Cruel Summer’ due soon and recorded this track with Clipse crime spitter Pusha T. Now they’ve recruited the Wally Champ to add some weight to the track. What more do you want, one of those ridiculously dramatic beats Kanye gets together and two of the most slang serious rappers fronting too (and doing a better job than they did on this). Soundcloud does the damage below.