This is a very exciting week for the music library, in which our modest hip hop collection gains some serious firepower with the addition of four excellent CDs (continuing a trend of re-imagining our collection which also resulted in the recent acquisition of the Wu’s first release). And now four other certified classics can join the ranks in a quickly-getting-awesome rap CD collection:
Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)
The first album of four (and the only ’80s rap album to make the cut) comes in the form of this 1988 landmark. On It Takes A Nation, this New York crew defined their sound and edified rap’s flirtation with noise music. The production, courtesy of the Bomb Squad, takes the funkified sound common in 1980s rap and takes it through some horrifying, traumatizing experiences, from which it emerges unsettled and unsettling. Layer upon layer of samples build on drum breaks and machines to build an atmosphere of chalkboard-scratching tension. Frontman Chuck D dominates these beats, aggressively spitting lyrics of distinctive radical politics, while idiosyncratic hype man Flavor Flav shouts ridiculous slogans. Between the two of them they fill the album with uncompromising lyrical content, paving the way for the hardcore rap of the 1990s.
Nas – Illmatic (1993)
If you know the bare minimum about rap and you saw the word “classic” in this post title, you probably assumed that Illmatic would be somewhere on this list. Widely considered the best rap record of all time, Nas’ debut was recorded when the Queens rapper was a mere 19 years old. But age mattereth not; on Illmatic Nas spits arguably the strongest verses of his career, verses that few if any rappers have matched. With effortless polysyllabic rhyme schemes and an unbroken flow that sounds fresh even today, Nas alternates a melange of cultural references with street stories of surreal, lurid detail. And with an all-star lineup of producers including Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Large Professor and Q-Tip, the entire album knocks with hard but musically ingenious beats. To many, this album is an endless source of musical and intellectual inspiration, the artistic high watermark of hip hop, and is something to which all should aspire.
Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Coming two years after Illmatic, Jay-Z’s debut was one of the only albums that could stand up to it in terms of near-perfect 90s hip hop. It’s hard to imagine a better introduction to a man who would become one of the biggest stars (if not the biggest) in rap in decades to come. This album, like its star, overflows with style, talent and personality, with Jay’s distinctive voice making an indelible impression. His rapping, polished for years before this release, emerges hot out of the gate, with a smooth but aggressive flow, stellar imagery and wordplay and uncompromising braggadocio applied to various mafioso fantasies and the occasional wise-hustler life lesson. The beats are a lush, sparkling take on the usual boom-bap mid-90s fare with producers such as DJ Premier, Clark Kent and Ski applying their nimble touch. While Jay-Z would evolve in many ways throughout his career and release several landmark albums, this was indeed a peak.
Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)
Lastly, this album has quite the soft spot in my heart, because it is the only L.A. album on this list (hometown pride). New York certainly has the lion’s share of ’90s rap classics (Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, 36 Chambers, Ready to Die, etc.) but L.A. has The Chronic, an album with possibly the greatest influence (for better or worse) of all previous mentioned. Coming early on in the 90s, The Chronic was a massive update of the genre from the decade preceding it. Influenced more by the smooth, lush funk of Parliament than the quick beats of James Brown, Dr. Dre forged his sonic stamp on this album. All the beats simply riiiiiide out, slow and with layer after layer of keyboard and sample. And with a distinctive, frosty synth sound (which came to characterize G-Funk as a rap subgenre), Dr. Dre dripped lazily beautiful melodies all over the place. Meanwhile, Dre and his 20 year-old sidekick (soon to become superstar) Snoop Doggy Dogg delivered flows that were the polar opposite of, say, Chuck D, taking the form of languid, laid-back menace rather than all-out bluster. Their lyrics, often ridiculously violent, explicit and offensive, have not aged well, but the sound remains gorgeous- the perfect album for cruising right after sunset on a warm summer night.