Just as rap was becoming “jiggified” in the late nineties, Rawkus Records came out of left field to provide an alternative. Of the many dope Rawkus releases, Black Star has to be my favorite. Mos and Kweli created an album
that’s elegant, poetic, political, even intellectual, without ever coming across as preachy or lame. Kweli’s knowledge of black history paired with Mos’ tongue-in-cheek wit is a killer one-two punch.
I first encountered Pharcyde walking backwards in slow motion on MTV. The music video for “Drop” (Spike Jonze!) was radically different and a hell of a lot more creative than the videos other groups were putting out in the mid-90’s. The
same was true of Pharcyde’s music. To me Labcabin is one of the most unconventional and underrated rap albums of its era. Not least because it features some of Dilla’s finest productions!
My brother-in-law, who’s a real jazz-head, put me onto Digable Planets when he found out that I was getting into hip hop. I immediately found myself gravitating towards (see what I did there?) their positive, laid-back sound. To this
day I have no idea what Doodlebug and Mecca are talking about half the time (the time/space continuum?! Deep!), but the vibe created by the interplay of their voices is smooth like butter on warm toast.
I recently heard Robert Glasper describe this as “our generation’s Thriller” (before sharply criticizing Ms. Hill for her treatment of musicians). I must have had this one on repeat for 6 months straight when it came out. It
felt significant at the time and got a broad audience excited about hip hop, long before it was mainstream. In spite of the dubious headlines about Ms. Hill over the last 20 years, this one remains a masterpiece to me.
As a European kid living in Detroit I was kind of an outsider. The fact that I was listening to “jazz rap” when everybody else was into Puffy and DMX didn’t help. When I put on a Tribe album, none of that mattered any more. Listening to
Tip and Phife shoot rhymes back and forth made me feel less lonely. Fortunately I rarely feel lonely these days, but on the occasional bad day I still like to put on some Tribe and hang out with my friends Tip and Phife.
I’ve made a lot of good friends in life bonding over Tribe records, Midnight Marauders in particular. It’s just one of those things - when you meet a fellow ATCQ fan, chances are you’re gonna have shared values beyond the music.
Fortunately a bunch of my friends and I got to see them perform live in 2013 before Phife passed. Rapping along to “Electric Relaxation” in unison at the top of our lungs was a special moment.
When I was 8 years old my sister made me a mixtape. Wedged between songs by UB40 and Ace of Base was Snoop’s “Gin and Juice”. I had no idea what gin was and I was pretty sure the guy on the hook (Dre) was singing “with my mind on my
mommy, and my mommy on mind.” But there was something so infectious about that weird, swirling G-funk synth and Snoop’s laid-back voice. 25 years later it’s still one of my favorite songs.
One thing I love about Busta is his versatility - he switches up his style with such ease. “Sexy Busta” always made me cringe a little (the music video with Janet Jackson comes to mind). “Double-Time Busta” was cool. But to me Busta was
at his best when he was unleashing raw energy, grunting and whooping all over the track like a modern James Brown with a bad case of turrets! There’s plenty of that on When Disaster Strikes.
As a kid I consumed Nas albums on my discman as if they were audiobooks. It was rarely a “passive listening” experience - his stories of life in the projects were so vivid, they pulled me in and captivated me for hours. To me
Illmatic is probably the most complete hip hop album of all time - 10 classic tracks, no fillers, the best producers of the era, tons of quotables and Nas’ incredible knack for storytelling. Perfection.
I recorded my first rap joints when I was 15. My homies and I used to take turns recording in my bedroom: while one of us was spitting a verse, the other two would sit next door playing Soul Calibur or Mortal Combat. RZA’s beats
provided the perfect soundtrack. This album always takes me back to those first recording sessions. I love the raw energy and straight up hunger in each crew member’s voice.
If you ask me which MC I’d most love to be compared to, I would answer you with a resounding “Mighty Mos”! He just has it all: wit, authenticity, he’s laid back, at times political, never takes himself too seriously. And dude can sing!
I always found it fresh that he would rap AND sing the hook on his tracks. Black on Both Sides is a perfect showcase of his vocal talents - “Umi Says” being a perennial favorite of mine.
I was always drawn to misfits, probably because I was an outcast myself as a European growing up in the US. Andre 3000 was the ultimate misfit. I remember seeing him in his hockey goalie gear in the video for “Rosa Parks” and being
fascinated by his confidence and outlandish sense of fashion. I admire him greatly for never having conformed, and pushing boundaries on every single album Outkast have released. Aquemini was no exception!
Jay’s often said that his first album is his best, because he had 25 years worth of stories to tell. Back in 1996 I found his rags to riches story compelling, but more than anything it was his delivery that hooked me in. To this day, I
don’t know an MC who delivers punchlines as nonchalantly as Hov. That coolness is definitely on display here on tracks like “Feelin It”. Still hella fresh today.
In 9th grade English class we were asked to analyze a poem of our choice. Much to my teacher’s bewilderment I chose one of Guru’s verses from “Moment of Truth”. As a fourteen year old, Guru just seemed to ooze wisdom, street smarts and
eloquence. Delivered in his baritone voice over Preemo’s epic beat, his lyrics about dealing with hardships really hit home. Some of the lines still give me goosebumps today. I got a B+ for the assignment.
Back in 2000 when I started making beats, there were no YouTube tutorials that broke down how to layer drum sounds or chop samples. Fantastic Volume 2 was my beat-making Masterclass. I listened to the album obsessively,
dissecting Dilla’s beats, trying to emulate his signature groove, learning something new with every spin. Man, I miss hearing new Dilla beats.
My parents played a lot of jazz around the house while I was growing up. Jazzmatazz was one of the first rap albums my mom ever bought, and we both loved it. We even went to see him live on the Street Soul tour in 2000. When he
stepped off stage at the end of the gig, he walked past us. My mom gave him a thumbs up and said “good job man”. I was still a teen and almost died of embarrassment. But looking back now I think it was actually pretty cool of her to
I know a lot of people who are into boom bap but not into Common. Maybe it’s because he’s always placed lyrical content ahead of flow/technique. Or because he had the courage to express vulnerability when being tough and having street
credibility mattered more. “The Light” is an early example of an MC letting his shield down and showing his sentimental side - something that was far less common in the late 90’s than it is now.
At some point in Middle School I realised I could get attention from girls by memorising and reciting raps. Especially the explicit ones. “One More Chance” by Biggie (“When it comes to sex...”) always got their attention. At least for
45 seconds. Pretty much every one of Bigge’s verses on Ready to Die is an attention grabber. Simply one the most remarkable albums ever made by a young MC already at the top of his game.
I was never really into straight up gangsta rap, Mobb Deep possibly being the only exception. The beats on The Infamous were just too lush not to love. Those pitched down jazz samples created such a dark, gritty atmosphere —
the perfect bed of music for Prodigy and Havoc to establish their teenager-turned-bad-ass image. And let’s face it, no respectable 90’s hip hop playlist is complete without “Shook Ones”.
I love the fact that Things Fall Apart finally went platinum in 2013, 14 years after its release. For one, the fact that it was still selling copies all those years speaks for its timelessness. But more importantly it just
feels like poetic justice that the hardest working band in hip hop got their much deserved accolades in the end. Questlove’s Dilla-inspired drumming, Thought’s on-point delivery, and the amazing cameos make this one a certified classic.