Michael Chadwick's Hip Hop Essentials

As I have written previously, rap music was very important to me in my formative, as it was for those contributing to this feature. Growing up in a musical family, rap was “my” music, a love I had cultivated on my own and fostered for most of my life. In these last few years, I don’t listen to the current scene as much, save for M.F. Doom and Jedi Mind Tricks, and that is only because they keep the spirit of the era of hip-hop I fell in love with.

Though I don’t have to opportunity to write as much as I want to for the site, I do keep up on the message boards, and when I read that we were doing a Hip Hop Essentials feature, I threw my hat into the ring to write down five albums I think are essential at least to my sensibilities. Growing up in New Hampshire, I didn’t buy much into the urban fantasy or romanticism of being a drug dealer and such, but I loved tight, fluid lyricism and great production. The five albums I picked have those two facets in spades, as well as being historically significant on some level to hip hop in general. Enjoy, and as always, I would love to hear feedback, because this feature is as much about discussion as it is about education.

The Genius – Liquid Swords
This was the last Wu-related album to drop in 1995, the self proclaimed “year of the WU.” 1995 saw the group’s profile rise considerably. After 94’s Tical by the Wu’s most popular member, Method Man, 95 started off with the release of Old Dirty Bastard‘s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, followed by the classic Only Built for Cuban Linx by Raekwon. But Liquid Swords captured the true essence of the Wu, the science, the mathematics, the mystery, in a compact sixty minutes of amazing lyricism from beginning to end.

It’s a little odd to know that last month was the tenth anniversary of Liquid Swords. I must admit I hadn’t listened to the album in quite some time, but when I put it in recently, I was as captured by the intro and opening schizophrenic sample as I was as a teenager. And it wasn’t out of nostalgia either; every track, every line (for the unitiated, the track “Labels” alone will convert you) still resonates. My all time favorite album.

Scarface – The Diary
-Scarface, in my opinion, is the most underrated rapper of all time. I say that because he is, in my opinion, one of the ten greatest rappers ever and he doesn’t get frequently sighted as such. Before Master P and the No Limit Soldiers helped put the south on a National map, hip-hop wise, it was Scarface and his group, The Geto Boys, that was repping the south. And who are we kidding, Master P was really only good for one, maybe two, great songs per album. Not so for Scarface.

Back to my point, The Diary is the best of his solo albums, though The Godfather is right behind it. Growing up in the northeast, I was begrudging of showing respect for any rapper who wasn’t from the era, I think because as a teen I bought into the whole marketing hype of the East coast/West coast feud.

Black Moon – Entah Dah Stage
The Wu-Tang Clan and the Boot Camp Click were the two groups that threw me head long into my backpacking phase in high school. The interesting facet of the Wu was that they were a collection of very able solo rappers, while the Boot Camp Click was a collection of very able groups. Comprised of Heltah Skeltah, O.G.C (who with Heltah Skeltah formed The Fab Five), Smif N Wessun, The Representativz and the group that brought them all together, Black Moon.

Made up of Buckshot, The 5Ft, and Evil Dee, they crafted the dank, cavernous sound that would become most associated with underground aficionados. Their original logo was actually one of a backpacker, helping to propagate the archetype. With production by Evil Dee (one part of the influential Beatminerz production crew), Black Moon eschewed the comic book, fantastic elements of the Wu and went straight for the jugular, focusing on the art form of rap in each and every song.

Gangstarr – Hard to Earn
-As with a couple of my other choices on this list, it was hard to point to one specific album, but this is the most well rounded of their collection. Overseers of the brain sick mob, made up of perpetually underrated rap groups (M.O.P, Jeru Da Damaja, and Group Home). The holy trinity of producers to many people (myself included) are Dr. Dre, The Rza, and Gangstarr’s DJ Premier. I have had obsessions with all of their work, but Primo has been the most consistent producer in terms of quality.

Hard to Earn also has my all time favorite rap song, “Mass Appeal.” The epitome of a Premier beat, minimalistic and addictive, it features six notes repeated in a loop that just keeps the listener hanging until the loop begins anew. Guru’s monotone style perfectly compliments Premier’s production and is the essence of what makes Gangstarr great; a combination of the classic rap style without losing the contemporary shifts that were taking place in the genre. “Code of the Planet” and “Brainstorm,” along with “DWYCK” are also definite gems in album that plays just as great now as it did eleven years ago.

Capone N Noreaga – The War Report
Now some people would look at this selection and ask the obvious question; why not pick Mobb Deep‘s The Infamous instead? They set the standard (along with Nas) for gritty realism in the early 90’s east coast scene. Their album is a classic and C.N.N. has been dogged as nothing more than Mobb Deep knockoffs. I choose this album for more personal reasons, and besides, if everyone writing these lists went with the true “essentials,” you would see the same 20-25 albums on the list.

The majority recorded while Capone was in prison, Noreaga keeps his running mate’s versatile rhyme skills upfront while N.O.R.E. helped reinvent the hype man (a couple of years later, he would light the rap world on fire with his constant calls of “What,What,What, What, What, What” on “Superthug”). C.N.N. were mix tapes staples and this was one of the few debuts at that time that lived up to the hype.