Tuesday, January 05, 2010


As an awkward twelve year old in Lubbock, Texas, 1989 was the first of many defining years for me. Musically, I clutched to my cassette of He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, Raising Hell, Guns N Roses' Lies and Living Colour's Vivid on the strength of "Cult of Personality." MTV was still the only window that I had to the really cool music. And, with few exceptions, rap was still outlawed on the radio. Still too young to really attach myself personally to hip hop, I was largely still "just looking" in the world of music. I would sample here and there, but not one single album defined me. Not one artist was my favorite.

That was until I met Queens' finest...LL Cool J.

His delivery was chill. Low. Almost a whisper. He was cool'd out. Not like Eazy E or Rev Run. He had the posture of a hoodlum, but the strut of a ladies man. He didn't resort to the jokery or gimmicks of Fresh Prince. LL was the kinda rapper you wanted to be in real life. The video was "Goin' Back to Cali."

As I watched the video, LL's style, demeanor and delivery had me hypnotized. I had finally found that cat that rolled together what I liked about hip hop. I liked the cool confidence of rappers. I wasn't really into gangsta ish. I didn't know much about crime, shooting up buildings, killing cops and robbing banks. I knew absolutely nothing about drugs or women so much of the music that I was exposed to was much like listening to a foreign language. You can start piecing some of it together, but it still makes very little sense.

LL, however, delivered his lines with deliberate articulation in this bored and underwhelmed monotone. He didn't yell (anymore) or rap too fast. It was almost conversational and I heard every single word of that three and a half minute performance.

Her bikini: small. Heels: tall. She said...she like...the ocean.

He was like hip hop's Joe Camel. He was a character that was perfectly crafted to lure me in. His Kangol represented the street fashion I aspired to rock. His pimp-strut was the very posture of cool. The gold watch that dangled from his wrist was the easy money I wanted in on. And everywhere this dude went, there were hot white women girating. Hot damn. I found my first hero.

Finding LL in Lubbock felt like I had finally uncovered something that I could call my own. I knew nothing of his earlier career. I thought this cat was brand new. How would I have possibly known about Radio or Bigger and Deffer?

I barely had an allowance at this point. I could only afford one cassette probably every two months. The second I could afford the $11.99 price of a cassette, I walked into the Hastings on 19th street, went to the "L" section, picked up the only copy of Walking With a Panther, confirmed the song was on there and dropped my hard-earned cash (yeah, right) on the counter. Hip hop was mine.

Footnote: This was before the ruling which required the parental advisory sticker to be adhered to explicit recordings so, while explicit, there was nothing on the package to indicate to me, my parents or to store personnel that they were selling a 12-year old an explicit rap record.

It would be just the beginning for me. And while it was the year that I began to explore my life as a hip hop head, it was equally defining for hip hop itself. With '88, hip hop was vaulted to the forefront of the music landscape. While it's pioneers continued to fade into the backdrop, the new class was promising. The game was no longer restricted to the upper-East coast and LA. Philly was taking strength (again), Dallas, Houston, Miami and even Seattle. Communities no longer looked to the mecca to produce the next big thing, they were doing it themselves. This was driven by hip hop taking a greater stake in popular media. People wanted to hear it. People needed to hear it. And while radio was slower to the game as, still in most markets, there was no format solely dedicated to hip hop, MTV's "Yo!" debuted in 1989 providing a full-color, audio/video platform for artists to promote themselves and their records. For me, "Yo!" would have a bigger impact than anything radio would feed me. All the names had faces on "Yo!" They were no longer just voices in a box or on a small strip of magnetic tape. These dudes aboslutely jumped off the TV screen!

1989 would also mark the first of many mammoth controversies that hip hop would have to fend off when Miami's 2 Live Crew started bubbling under. Their shows were making waves for their shameless and unapologetic display of sexual cinematics and their recordings were likened to the most vile and obscene pornography. So much so that the American Family Association redefined "obscene" and set to shut down the Crew. What they did is, though, is took a relatively regional act and rocketed them to two-times Platinum status as retailers were yanking it from the shelves. Imagine if it had proper distribution and representation at retail during those court proceedings. Nasty would've sold 10 million. Like with NWA a year earlier, it once again proved that America couldn't stop what it itself had created. Hip hop was the voice of the populous and Nasty proved that there was little even the courts could do to shut down a train with the momentum of hip hop. The movement had already begun and there was little anyone could do to slow it down.

1989 also showed that hip hop had a charitable side with the release of two singles: "Self-Destruction" and "We're All in the Same Gang." The message-heavy singles were hoped to help curb gang violence nationwide as "black-on-black crime" became the buzzword. I had a cassette single of "We're All in the Same Gang." I remember someone spilled soda on it at church camp. Gimme my street cred.

It was also the year that MC Hammer blew up with "U Can't Touch This." How could I almost forget. Dude sold 10 million records in 1989. However, don't worry, he's not on this list.

And 1989 would be the first year that the Grammy Association would recognize a "Best Rap Song," DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince's "Parents Just Don't Understand." However, the Grammy Association couldn't find it in their heart to make history on television as the award was not publicized. The result was a public boycott of the event by hip hop's heavyweights. It was a shaky start to what is still a fractured relationship between hip hop and the so-called "authority."

1989! The number. Another summer. You wanted it. You got it. It's been 20 years in the making. Aged like a fine wine. The recordings herein represent the very finest in the genre. It is for that reason that we purposefully omitted Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em. C'mon, son. This is The Root Down. We have standards that we have to live up to. We did, however, include Tone Loc and Young MC because, well, let's be real here: they were dope as hell. Debate as you will but only amongst yourselves. The Root Down will not entertain such frivolous arguments.

Cool C

I Gotta Habit

Philly represent. Cool C, member of the short-lived Hilltop Hustler Records crew, dropped this gem following up his 1987 diss, "Juice Crew This." Led by the single, "Glamorous Life," Habit is cut from the same cloth as many of the 1989 records. It's one part party record ("Get Loose On") and one part street-talk ("Down to the Grissle") where the emcee prefers to explore the benefits of being both Fresh Prince and Ice Cube. Does it work? Rarely. In fact, here on Habit, the transition is clumsy, but the product altogether is meritable. Ironic of his beef prior Juice Crew beef that Cool C's delivery is almost directly derived from MC Shan's whine, but irregardless, Cool C carries his own on Habit. Twenty years don't show well on Habit as it sounds crazy aged, but even still for what it is, Habit is still one of the finer Philly hip hop recordings ever.

Mikey D and the LA Posse
Better Late Than Never
Sleeping Bag

A little unfair to reserve a place for Mikey D and the LA Posse because the record you see actually never came out in 1989. Mikey D, up to and through 1989, was a label-hopping fool recording only a handful of singles here and there, but never granted a proper full-length. Thank God for cats who know when records deserve their due because in 2006, the aptly-titled Better Late Than Never would be released to the masses. With legendary Paul C at the helm, Qwest as DJ and Mikey D handling the majority of the emcee duties, the output heard here is a ferocious assembly of b-boy breaks and partyrockers. Kid, they just don't make them like they used to. Every song is a bona fide banger that toprocks like Crazy Legs and kisses itself like James Brown. Later in 1989, Paul C be tragically shot and killed the same year in Queens. A few years later, Mikey D would go on to replace Large Pro in Main Source for their second record. However, as a group, we'll never know what Mikey D and the LA Posse's legacy could've been, but one could only imagine had this record received a proper release back in their heyday.

The Boy Genius

When 16 year-old Kwame signed to Atlantic Records and released his debut, the game was still really a man's game. With few exceptions, hip hop was reserved for those with cred, experience and a genuine narrative. Kwame's debut (while laughable if you're looking for true "genius") is an otherwise remarkable recording that proves age truly means nothing in this game if you deliver it with the gruff of a twenty-something and fortify your package with the best JB breaks that major label money can buy. Kwame's Kool Aid party lyrics are not going to put anyone on their ass, but his artful mimicry is accomplished. As I listened to this record for the first time in almost a decade, I'm amazed by how, now twenty years later, it's still charming and listenable. I suppose that's enough to land you the 28-spot in 1989.

Three Times Dope
Original Stylin'

It's quite possible that, had Three Times Dope blown up two years earlier, they might be reverred as one of the finest trios in the game. Technically a late-1988 release, the sun was already setting for the three-piece b-boy format. The market was beginning to shift toward the innovators, the street rappers and "dancability" and party-oriented hip hop had begun to lose its space in the game. Three Times Dope was ill, though. Their recordings, starting with Stylin', is texturally more achieved than most of its predecessors and its combinations of the true essence of b-boy recordings (Sly and Family Stone, James Brown or Melvin Bliss, a bassline, verse-break-verse-break-break-shoutout-break-fade) indicate that Three Times Dope knew exactly what they were doing, but got up too late. Had the same record released earlier in 1987, it might've found itself in the top ten, but the landscape was quickly shifting away from groups like Three Times Dope. That said, they'd go onto release one more full length a year later, but it would fall well short of their debut. For what it is, Three Times Dope was ill. Just a little late to the party.

Biz Markie
The Biz Never Sleeps
Cold Chillin'

It'd be impossible to sit here and try to convince anyone that Biz's sophomore record is any better than the two singles that were released off of it. Biz as a recording artist will always be defined by one song. It's unfortunate, but what's fantastically fortunate is that he has a single that defined his career. Most dudes work their lives to have that one hit. That being said, I don't know if anyone would've guessed that Biz would be that cat and "Just a Friend" would be that hit. But it was. The rest of the record is really just filler for "Just a Friend" and "Spring Again" (the undeniable upbeat party hit). I mean, there's the Biz dance track "Mudd Foot" in which Biz tries to teach America his dance. There's the col' lampin' "Check It Out" which is a perfect trunk-rattler. There's the anthemic beatbox track, "Me Versus Me." "I Hear Music" is as accomplished a song as you'll hear from Biz as he actually applies himself as an emcee and not just as Pee Wee Herman gimmick. But you don't wanna hear it. Never Sleeps is "Just a Friend." And, for that, Biz owns this spot on the list. Again, you can't blame the guy for having a hit. At least it's a dope hit that he can be proud of decades later unlike MC Hammer and Vanilla.

King Sun

After two years on the grind, Jersey's own King Sun dropped this gem thanks to Profile Records which was peaking after, as a label, the exploded following the slew of Run DMC they shifted early in the 80s. King Sun never blew the doors down creatively or lyrically, but he excelled in the gift of imitation. He's in the class of emcees who fell from the Rakim-Daddy Kane tree of tenor emcees who blended the streetwise verse with this coolness and sensitivity of a hip hop debonair. The majority of it, unfortunately, would just be an impersonation as it's easy to separate him lyrically from the Rakims and stylishly from the Kanes. He's neither nor, but what he is is a decently gifted emcee who took what he was given and turned out a solid record with XL.

The New Style
Independent Leaders

Coming from Nowhere, New Jersey, the New Style disappeared as quickly as they arrived in 1989, but what they left behind was this hard-hitting, neck-breaking b-boy blitzkrieg. Starting with 130 BPM "Scuffin' Those Knees", the speedfreaky "Can't Win for Losing" and then climaxing with the colossal "Bring the Rock," Independent Leaders is a varied listen highlighting the machine-gun delivery of unknown rhymespitters Anthony Criss and Vinnie Brown. Production, solid. Emceeing, brilliant. Altogether as enjoyable of a debut as you would find back in 1989. But then, poof, the New Style expired and disappeared. But two years later, they'd re-emmerge under a new name, even newer style and, this time, they'd land a radio h-bomb with "O.P.P." as Naughty By Nature.

Black Rock & Ron
Stop the World

Two emcees and one DJ from Hollis Queens. You can't blame them for trying. I mean, it worked before. Two rough emcees strutting in front of a DJ in their matching jumpsuits. While they might have been more than half a decade late, Stop the World, their only full length output, still packs a wallop. Featuring production from the aforementioned Paul C, Stop the World is a blazing album that provides an encyclopedic perspective on the hip hop game. There's a few miscues, but if you're only given one chance to shine, get your licks in. Even the corniest tracks lyrically are still musically accomplished which is the redeeming element of records like Stop the World. If 1989 proved anything, it was that you didn't have to be the world's greatest emcee as long as the production was stacked. Unfortunately for Black Rock & Ron, there would only prove to be room for one great trio from Hollis and they vanished from the game. Member Lord Black was murdered only a few years later. It's amazing how many hip hop artists you don't know were killed. Murder is to hip hop artists in the 80s and 90s as heroin and cocaine was to jazz artists in the 60s.

MC Lyte
Eyes on This
East West

MC Lyte knew all eyes were on her in 1989 as she attempted to follow up her slammin' debut, Lyte as a Rock. What she proved on Eyes on This was not only was she no fluke, but that she'd improve from the first record returning as a lean and mean prizefighter. While her first record was predominantly filler but featured the hits, "10% Dis" and "Paper Thin," Eyes on This was a fully-developed longform masterpiece. It didn't rely as heavily on one or two tracks, but rather rocked with continuity. Standouts "Cha Cha Cha" and "Cappucino" would propell Lyte to supastar status, but even deep album tracks like "Rhyme Hangover" and "Please Understand" would showcase Lyte's effortless rhyming ability. Eyes on This is ill, kid.

Willie D

Willie D was an angry man in 1989. Rising out of Houston's 5th Ward with nothing to lose and a 1000-pound chip on his shoulder, Willie's debut is as scathing and seering rap record as anything released in years prior. Willie doesn't just rap, dude yells and Controversy is his manifesto as it helps shape the new gangsta rap record which not only exploits the hustle, but also injects sociopolitical themes into the record. From taking aim at the Ku Klux Klan to politicians, radio stations to the Grammy committee, Willie D comes out swinging with relentlessly explicit verse and he chokes, punches, bruises and maims anything in his way. Rap-a-Lot had much bigger plans, however, for Willie with the release of Controversy as it would pair him up with future Geto Boy brethren Scarface and Bushwick Bill on the lead song "Do It Like a G.O" (which would be better known as a Geto Boy track, not a Willie D track). Controversy is how gangsta rap records were meant to be made. B'lee dat.

Low Profile
We're in This Together

In the tall shadows of NWA, the West Coast became a hotbed for solid hip hop in the late-80s and early 90s. Consisting of one emcee (WC) and one DJ (Aladdin), Low Profile represented the symmetric beauty of the hip hop duo. Like Eric B and Rakim, Kool G Rap and Polo, Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince before them, the emcee/DJ format provided an opportunity for equal showcasing of the duo's individual talents. We're in This Together is no exception. WC, a newcomer and transplant to LA from Texas, flexes his lyrical fortitude and arsenal of battle rhymes. But what the record does for DJ Aladdin is places him among the top DJs on the west side of the Rockies as he spares no opporunity to show off his scratching abilities--an element that, on record, was still largely absent from Left Coast rap recordings. Dude was just sick. Together still remains one the finest representations of LA hip hop even two decades later.

Young MC
Stone Cold Rhymin'
Delicious Vinyl

What Young MC but no MC Hammer? Absolutely. Young MC was fresh. Even though he hailed from Queens, but was really born in the UK, it's alright...it worked for Slick Rick. Delicious Vinyl, which still only claimed Def Jef as the biggest name in their stable, was blowing up in 1989 with the success of another debut rapper lower on this list. Young MC's "Bust a Move," though a colossal radio hit, wouldn't be Delicious Vinyl's most successful single. As good as their luck had become with landing radio hits, their albums proved to be no fluke. Stone Cold Rhymin' is still one of the great Root Down "bargain bin classics" as, penny-for-penny, pound-for-pound provides some of the greater lyrical achievements and production of 1989 with the contributions from Matt Dike, Michael Ross and still relatively unknown production duo, the Dust Brothers (who would also have a huge year). And Young MC was no one-trick cronnie. Deeper album tracks like "Non-Stop" (which features a great Wes Montgomery sample), "Fastest Rhyme," "Know How," and "Got More Rhymes" solidify an album led by "Bust a Move" and "Principal's Office." Young MC wouldn't have more hits in him, unfortunately, try as he may, but it doesn't rob him of the accomplishment that is Stone Cold Rhymin'. Recognize, son.

2 Live Crew
As Nasty as They Wanna Be

Before Nasty, 2 Live Crew was going nowhere like most Miami hip hop. Well, third time would, again, prove charming behind Miami's signature 808 bass, more anatomy jokes than an Andrew Dice Clay set and just enough controversy to catapult the foursome to international notoriety (and into every strip club in America). In fact, there's no way this album would've sold what it did without the help of the Supreme Court...2 Live Crew's best A&R. There's no better proof that, in the hip hop game, bad rap is the best press. Because of the highest court in the land, radio knew what song to play and the end consumer knew the name of the record and what it looked like when they went into stores. And when retailers started pulling it from stores, the hunt was on. Everyone wanted this record. Truth be known, the explicit nature of the record is quite overstated. If you took out three songs and a few isolated verses, it's likely you wouldn't even know you were listening to what is still considered the most explicit album ever recorded. And even "Me So Horny" is pale in comparison to records that get hourly radio rotation twenty years later. The history of censorship is one that comes with some laughable permissions. The truth of the record itself is that it's more a comedy record than a rap record. When the Crew isn't rapping about women's bodies and their own midsection, it's probably the most uncomfortable and forced thing you'll ever hear on a rap record. However, when they're allowed to explore every exploit and talk like a varsity team on the way home from victory, they're like the greatest rappers ever to walk the earth. Musically, though, this record is a paramount release for Miami, a market never taken seriously on the main stage. It introduced what would become the region's greatest contribution to the rap game: 808 bass drum kicks. Those irritating minutes at the stop light would never be the same.

Nice & Smooth
Nice & Smooth
Sleeping Bag

Greg Nice and Smooth B were an unlikely hits in 1989. Not only were they putting the modern emcee into a state of perpetual reversion, their corny smugness was almost nauseating. The amazing aspect of Nice & Smooth, though, is that their corniness was so exhaustive and outdated by the time they arrived that it almost turned dope. Greg Nice was anything but "nice" on the mic and Smooth B reminded you of that cat at the party that thought he was twenty-times the ladies man he really was and would always leave in a grey Mercury Topaz. But, there's no frontin' on their debut. It is as hot as all hell. It's so freaking stupid that it becomes the most infinitely ill party record there ever was. Rare a recording that achieves such a status. Each song is undeniably danceable and wreaks of polyester Hammer pants. Smooth B just wants to get the ladies in the hot tub and Greg Nice cornballs every line like the mastery of "I'm Mr. Smurf and you're Smurfette" and "So I can get mellow, lay back and let my girl play cello. Hello! I hate Jello." Dude just didn't give a good damn what he was saying. But make no mistake, before there was "Rump Shaker," there was Nice & Smooth and their self-titled debut has all the breaks: "Synthetic Substitution," "Impeach the President" and "Hihache" with the bass turned up to trunk-demolishing levels. This is one fun-ass record. Makes me wanna throw a sweaty house party just to blast this record at deafening volumes. Shame on you for sleeping all these years.

Tuff Crew
Back to Wreck Shop

Just a year after dropping their debut, the gem Danger Zone, the Tuff Crew proved they had more tricks to spare with Back to Wreck Shop. The hip hop equivalent of getting your po' ass jumped into a gang of b-boys, Wreck Shop is a tireless and seamless assembly of the hardest breaks and some of the most insane cutting ever put to record. The Tuff Crew was truly one of the finest hip hop groups whereas none of the members could've made it on their own (with maybe DJ Too Tuff as the exception), but in their brief existence they accomplished some of the finest hip hop recordings that we'd ever know. In a year where breaking would continue to diminish to near-extinction, Wreck Shop doesn't surrender to the surging popularity of house influence or the funk-infused gangsta records of the late-80s. It's a poignant reminder of what was lost musically when dance crews disappeared at the dawning of a new age.

The D.O.C.
No One Can Do It Better

Long before Dr. Dre was introducing Snoop, Eminem or the Game to the world, he was putting on a little-known rapper from Dallas named the D.O.C. Originally put up on Straight Outta Compton and later Eazy Duz It, it would be a model that would later launch some of the biggest names in hip hop. For the D.O.C., however, the outcome would not be the same. No One Can Do It Better is a mindblowing recording which highlights D.O.C.'s prowess as an emcee...a quality that was becoming largely associated with East Coast recordings while West Coast recordings dwelled more heavily on gangsta imagery and relied less on emcee skill. For that reason, Better sounds so much less like a Dr. Dre production and more like the offspring of a Def Jam or Tommy Boy. Regardless though, Dre is in prime form as he hints at his affinity for the recordings of Isaac Hayes, Parliament and Funkadelic. In fact, it would be one of the earliest recordings in which Parliament and Funkadelic would be featured so prominently. Dre was honning in on that definitive West Coast sound which would explode in the aftermath of The Chronic here on Better. Only a year later, the D.O.C. would be involved in an traffic accident which would crush his larynx and his career would take a dramatic turn. He would never fully recognize the fame of his fellow Dre proteges that would come later. But Better is a beastly offering which comes at the helm of one of the most significant movements in West Coast music: G-funk.

Crazy Noise

If I had to take one rapping dancer from 1989 and put him in my arsenal, no doubt it'd be Stezo. While MC Hammer was conquering the airwaves with his readymade tyrannosauraus radio hits, Stezo was redefining his path from backup dancer to EPMD to frontman. Luckily for him, there'd be only room for one goofy rapper in shiny genie pants because, had Stezo blown up like Hammer, I don't know if this record would've aged as well. Crazy Noise is a brilliant and beautiful dance record which knows precisely what to do and how to do it. And, unlike Hammer, Stezo's sensibility as an emcee (or, at least, an aspiring emcee) gives the record the noticeable personality missing from popular recordings. Stezo was definitely invested even though it sounded like he was basically biting EPMD's style. And this record just drips with dance tracks. From "Bring the Horns" to "Girl Trouble," from "Getting Paid" to "It's My Turn" (which notably features the first ever use of the drum break from Skull Snaps' "It's a New Day"), Crazy Noise is pouring over with 1989 freshness. Only in the late 80s could a cat rock an outfit like that and still be taken seriously on record.

Divine Styler
Word Power

Word Power is the outsider on the list of great 1989 hip hop. It's that record that everyone liked, but no one heard. Released on Epic, Styler's debut was a dope little piece of weirdness. It's a record that could've annihilated almost any album out there with Styler's progressive rap style (see "Tongue of Labyrinth" and "Koxistin U4ria") and the sonically funky production provided by Bilal Bashir. Styler takes it to school as he serenades about black history, some scientific shit, universal mathematics and a bunch of other academia over "Superfly" instrumentals. Had it not come out the same year as Done By the Forces of Nature and Three Feet High and Rising, Styler might have had a chance, but sadly, he was overlooked and discarded getting bounced from Epic and hitting every branch on the way down from lending his prose to House of Pain's third record and finally ending up on the independent circuit and showing up on Quannum's trailblazing Spectrum project. But that'd be way in the future. Word Power is still a worthy release and superdope listen. Recognize.

Tone Loc
Loc'ed After Dark
Delicious Vinyl

I don't give give two shits what you think about Tone Loc, Loc'ed After Dark was ill. I didn't even know how slamming this record was until I listened to it back in college about ten years ago. Blew my mind. While the focus of the record rests on the strength of the two singles that would launch Tone into stratosphere ("Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina"), the album is strengthened on the filler tracks which, honestly, it would've been easy to just make Loc'ed After Dark a 12" because no one gave a good damn about the deep album tracks that, in the end, nestled it in at #12 on this list. Tracks like "On Fire," the title track "Loc'ed After Dark," "Cheeba Cheeba" and, my personal favorite "Cuttin' Rhythms" (which samples ESG, Barry White, dream weaver Gary Wright and Paul McCartney all in five minutes) solidify what would otherwise be another record of mainstream drivel. You can thank the Dust Brothers for that along with Matt Dike and Mike Ross (the production team also responsible for Young MC's debut...also on Delicious Vinyl). Proof that solid production can make even the weakest rapper sound like at least MC Shan. No offense, Shan.

Kool G Rap & DJ Polo
Road to Riches
Cold Chillin'

1989 was the year of incredible debuts. In fact, 20 of the records on this list are full length debuts. Almost none as poignant and important Road to Riches. Not only does Riches feature the marvelling emceeing of a young Kool G Rap who was still sharpening his Schoolly D-style with his ambitious street raps and DJ Polo's insane scratching abilities (gotta love the obligatory DJ cut, "Cold Cuts"), but it brings to the forefront a talented producer with a then-short but impressive resume...Marley Marl. It's hard to put in perspective in 2010 the impact of these three on one record simply because it's a stretch to find the greatest DJ, the illest rapper and the dopest producer all on one record. The closest we have today would be Eminem and Dr. Dre on one record, but that was years ago and there was no DJ rounding out the trifecta. Riches is a staple in any collection. From the legendary title track to "Trilogy of Terror," "Poison" to the bongo-infused "Men at Work," there's plenty to love with Riches. It's one of the definitive Golden Era recordings.

Big Daddy Kane
It's a Big Daddy Thing
Cold Chillin'

A year after dropping his debut record [presumptuously] titled Long Live the Kane, it would only make sense that his follow-up record take the egotism and his self-posturing to the next level. It's a Big Daddy Thing would do just that. Big Daddy Thing is a lick-lippin', honeydippin', mic-wreckin', champagne-poppin', headnoddin' anthology that pays homage to one of two things: slaying emcees or chasing tail. The album is like Kane's little black book as he lays down a how-to for picking up honeys on "Smooth Operator" or "To Be Your Man." Of course, it's offset by the irreverant and less tactful "Pimpin' Ain't Easy." Complicated is a record that can find a place for all three. But when it comes to emceeing, there'd be few better than the Kane who verses on "Mortal Combat," "Another Victory" and "Young, Gifted and Black." It might not be the prettiest, most consistant of packages, it'd prove to be Kane's most successful record and solidify his place as one of the greatest ever to touch the mic.

Boogie Down Productions
Ghetto Music:
The Blueprint of Hip Hop

Boogie Down Productions was hardcore prolific in the late 80s releasing four definably different records in four years--the third of them being Ghetto Music. When BDP's DJ Scott La Rock was murdered after the release of the classic Criminal Minded, KRS took the wheel of all operations including production which led BDP's sound down completely different avenues. A stark departure from the first two recordings, we find KRS venturing outward from standard boom-bap to dancehall reggae as the standard drum breaks are stripped and replaced with a hard low-end dub rhythms. What it accomplishes is a cohesively sonic blending of the rhythms of Kingston and the furious, politically-charged lyricism of KRS. His verses are one-part history lesson, one-part revolt and one-part party-your-ass-off all delivered with 100 years of anger. Classics like "You Must Learn," "Jack of Spades" and "Who Protects Us From You?" all reside on what is possibly KRS's most furious recording. Sometimes, yelling doesn't get the message across. Sometimes, you have to hit them over the head. Ghetto Music does just that.

Public Enemy
"Fight the Power"

Few songs in hip hop's history are proudly proclaimed as anthems. Some songs are "popular," sure. Others are "groundbreaking" or "trailblazing." But how many are anthems? The moment Radio Raheem walked into Sal's wearing his Africa medallion and slammed his boom box down on the counter blasting "Fight the Power," no one would hear the song the same way again. And when Sal's took up arms with his baseball bat and destroyed the "jungle music," it was like the day the music died. "Fight the Power" became the pulse of a revolution. It came to represent anyone's "fight" and the "power" was anything that stood in your way of getting what you needed, wanted or deserved. I remember watching the video for the song before I ever saw or knew of Do the Right Thing and from the very beginning when Flav is dancing in front of large billboard with Malcolm X and the PE logo, I was hypnotized. The S1W's walking through the crowd with their black and red berets and Chuck in his black leather jacket, black denim and AIr Jordans pumping his clinched fist while Flav leads the crowd in a chant of "Don't believe the hype!" I would never be the same. It stands as one of the greatest single songs ever recorded in hip hop's history. What they did with one song, legions of artists spend a lifetime trying to achieve. Hip hop turned a corner that day. Public Enemy were thrown right into the middle of the fight and they'd no longer just be that little group of revolutionaries from Long Island.

Geto Boys
Grip It! On that Other Level

When Houston's Ghetto Boys released Making Trouble in 1988, the results were, luckily, forgettable. Rap-a-Lot acted quickly and replaced Prince and Sire with Scarface and labelmate Willie D. Immediately, the group was changed and they'd never look back. They dropped the mobster suits that graced the cover of Trouble and rocked plain tees, black denim, gold chains and white Nikes. And their verses were dramatically transformed from crimelord fantasties to the realness of street life. They shamelessly invited you into the Fifth Ward to experience the brutality and desperation of the impoverished life of the Houston ghetto. It's drenched in obscenities, accentuated with murder and rage and sprinkled with enough sexual imagery to make even 2 Live Crew blush. It took the Straight Outta Compton model of honesty and unfiltered and unglossed reality of the ghetto life to even stranger and more horrific levels. Grip It! makes Compton look like Disneyland. Willie D, who was coming off the success of Controversy, had the vocal explosiveness of Chuck D. Scarface is a crazed and maniacal force on each track as he takes lead and flexes his lyrical abilities at every opportunity. The result is that he'd go from relatively unknown Houston rapper to legend almost overnight. And, while it would be easy to reduce Bushwick's role to that of a Flava Flav offering comedic relief, Bushwick's legit and his freaky prose only amplifies the effectiveness of Grip It! What the album accomplished for Houston and, hell, Texas rap is immeasurable. It would be the first rap record out of Texas to garner national attention and would be the flag waved by inner-city Houston. And the Geto Boys were the delegates for the Fifth Ward. They were the voice for the forgotten and anonymous crime-ruled streets of the seediest corners of H-Town. Represent.


Unfinished Business

EPMD already had one classic record under the belt with Strictly Business when they released Unfinished Business and just as the name suggests, they didn't stop there. For what it Strictly represented on a popular level, Unfinished felt like a more substantial readymade popular hit as Erick and Parrish are lyrically improved from their earlier recording and the album has at least three obvious standouts as singles (even though, officially, only one single would be released). "So What Cha Sayin'" is the perfect hip hop single. Timed at just under five minutes, "Sayin'" showcases Erick and Parrish at their best over possibly the greatest single beat ever put to wax driven by a fragment of a guitar from BT Express' "If It Don't Turn You On." Another standout, "Get the Bozack," features a signature back-and-forth between the deliberately lazy Erick one-liners and the more urgent and aggressive Parrish posturing. Unfinished is an incredible recording that proves "if it ain't broke" better than almost any sophomore effort.

LL Cool J
Walking With a Panther
Def Jam

Criticized for trading in his "L-L-Cool-J is hawd as hell!" style for a slower and lower delivery and cooler demeanor, Walking With a Panther certainly had its haters. The flamboyance is still there. The Kangol. But now, instead of being eleven or twelve songs like his first records, Panther stretched out LL to 18 songs...probably pushing it for a rap record and the cohesiveness of the album would suffer, however, when he's on point, there's no denying that LL hadn't lost a step. For all of his experimentation and varied styles displayed on Panther, at the heart of it is a monster of a record anchored by the lead singles "Goin' Back to Cali," "I'm the Type of Guy," "Jingling Baby," and "Big Ole Butt" (which all feature a drastically slicker vocal style). The difference is in the filler which is leagues ahead of the filler on this first two records. Tracks like "Nitro" and "Fast Peg" recall that ol' Cool J sound while "Def Jam in the Motherland" and "Droppin' 'Em" exhibit the new cross-trained sound perfectly. It happens every year in hip hop. Someone sticks their neck out for the commercial hit and pisses off their jaded and hateful core fanbase, but garner the adoration of an entire nation. LL had to do it. Panther was the necessary evil to making sure that he was around for the long haul. It's like hip hop's Dylan going electric. And, for all of its criticisms, Panther is a ferocious album that is just six songs too long. Stop hating and just carve them out when you put Panther on your iPod, moron.

Jungle Brothers
Done By the Forces of Nature
Warner Bros

When I think of early records that quietly but definitely alter the path of hip hop, Forces of Nature is without doubt, one of probably five. While it's lyrical content was probably too heady and Afrocentric for mainstream audiences, what it accomplishes with illustrating what hip hop can be musically cannot be overstated. To this point, hip hop needed to either dance, party, revolt or gangbang. Hip hop artists still had yet to define the new direction for the artform where it didn't have to force itself to a mold or desperately stretch itself out for radio play. What Jungle Brothers did with their first record, Straight Out the Jungle and this, their sophomore record, was helped to create the new hip hop album. It's a landmark recording in its full development of record. It's naturally kaleidoscopic framework pulls together the best of funk, the best of R&B, the best of world rhythms and the best of hip hop's short past. And while "mainstream" was coming to mean clean and "independent" was coming to mean explicit or raw, here's a record that's truly independent at the heart of it that doesn't overwhelm the listener with alienating lyrics of violence, sexuality or perversion. It's honest to itself and was released on Warner Bros helping prove that hip hop artists don't have to compromise their style or perspective to play the major label game--that you can release truly imaginative and brilliant hip hop and have total control of the process and get that nice distribution. At the end of their run, no other recordings would match the impact of the first two and while you'd be lucky if 1 of 10 hip hop heads even know of the Jungle Brothers, their legacy is embedded in grooves of these two records, but most notably the Forces of Nature where the Brothers made the major leap and went fo' delf.

3rd Bass
The Cactus Album
Def Jam

Hard to believe that I sit here, twenty years later, listening to 3rd Bass and hear it with the same beauty as when it first hit my ears. It's the kinda record that doesn't rely on a gimmick or a dance. It didn't need a monstrous radio hit. It wasn't cleverly A&R'd and shopped as the "new white hype." The Cactus Album simply rocked heads. Like crazy it did. And still does. What's remarkable about the Cactus here's Def Jam dropping hits like crazy and here comes 3rd Bass outta Queens and Long Island and, from the get-go, it's plays like record not built for longevity. But by the time the second side comes around, it becomes abundantly clear that this thing is a monster. Side A is mostly rookie jokery. "The Gas Face," where Serch and Pete basically diss everyone from Hammer to personnel at the label is one of the few highlights on the first side (also features a young MF Doom as KMD's Zev Luv X) along with a not-so clever innuendo in "Oval Office." But when you flip it over and are rocked to your knees by the six-minute plus "Wordz of Wisdom." Pete Nice takes the lyrical helm and absolutely carries his own weight. While Serch is like hip hop's Fred Astaire with his exaggerated showmanship, his high-top fade, the tap dance. Pete Nice is more Humphrey Bogart, delivering his rhymes from a chair, walking with a cane, his pitch is low, too cool for school. His Hollywood-like persona oozes out on record and is the perfect match to Serch's teenage excitability. But the unsung hero of the record is producer and DJ Richie Rich who, on 11 of the album's album's 13 songs (which are partnered with eight sketches), creates the most perfect, headnodding hip hop. To this point largely unproven and unheard of, Rich's production on the Cactus represents some of 1989's greatest production and has stood the test of time in a game that makes it hellaciously difficult to make that claim. Guest producers Prince Paul and Public Enemy's Bomb Squad also appear on the Cactus, the dark horse of 1989.

De La Soul
3 Feet High and Rising
Tommy Boy

The two records that top 1989 are almost interchangable depending on what week you catch me. In many ways, they're almost the same record, but alas, The Root Down has to take one over the other because you force me to write this way. There's no tie in baseball (although Selig thinks so). Long Island's finest, De La Soul, redefinied hip hop in 1989 and beyond with their bona fide classic, 3 Feet High and Rising. Besides there not being any model for a hip hop recording of this style (except for maybe the Jungle Brothers' Forces of Nature), there seemingly was no market for a group of self-proclaimed "hippies" performing hip hop. It was a record that almost had too much going on for it to be enjoyable (or listenable, for that matter). Rappers named Trugoy, Posdonous and Maseo were far from household names and their prose was sometimes frantic, other times broken, but it was always unconventional and, to the listener who was used to being able to rhyme along with their favorite rappers as they cruised from intersection to intersection, it provided a challenge. What the hell were these dudes talking about? Potholes in the lawn? Plug one, two and three? Jenifa? De La Soul created this almost-Wonderland-like soundscape where lyrics only led to more mystery and inside jokes created on whim were like cryptic messages intended to confuse. And the smokescreen was Prince Paul's marvelous and, often times, beautiful production. His kitchen-sink approach was a departure from his accomplishments at Stetsasonic. De La Soul's creative approach matched perfectly with a producer of Paul's ambitions where he could flex creatively to almost boundless levels. Take "The Magic Number" for instance. Anchored by the child-like refrain of Bob Dorough's "Three is the Magic Number," Paul then adds drums from Led Zeppelin's "The Crunge," James Brown's "Funky Drummer," and quick samples of Johnny Cash, Eddie Murphy, Syl Johnson, Double Dee and Steinski, the Fatback Band and even 2 Live Crew. That's only in one song. Barely three minutes. Everything was game to Prince Paul and, not to discount De La as emcees, but it's the production that made this record. You can't put any other producer in the role of making this record. We wouldn't be talking about here twenty years later. The album boasted almost an unheralded seven singles with four of them charting proving that the mix had popular appeal. That this goofy, anti-gangsta, neon-green and pink hip hop record could actually drive people to the dance at the clubs, but also satisfy the more distinguished hip hop listener. It was immediately lauded by critics as a landmark recording in musical history. It was the record that the Village Voice would proclaim as the "Sgt. Pepper of hip hop." To that point in 1989, such claims hadn't really been made. No one was comparing hip hop recordings to Beatles records and critics weren't seeing their impact as larger than hip hop as a whole. 3 Feet destroyed that wall. Hip hop records were now being discussed by smug critics who were used to writing about rock acts. It bridged the gap between hip hop and those high-brow features in music mags and newspaper who dedicated columns to the new Pixies record, Coltrane reissues or another tired Springsteen interview. Hip hop finally had a classic.

And then there was...


Beastie Boys
Paul's Boutique

Why is Paul’s Boutique the best hip hop recording of 1989? I suppose for many reasons, but probably none greater than this.

Because it shouldn’t have been and I’m a fan of the underdog.

Let’s build a little context here. When we last saw the Beastie Boys, it was three years earlier as the beer-guzzling Jewish kids from the City who abandoned their punk roots and, essentially, snuck into the party through the back door, landed a spot on Def Jam and enjoyed short-lived popularity as those guys making party records for frat boys and white trash who enjoyed the rock sentiment of Licensed to Ill. They took a style that had already been rocked by Run DMC and repackaged it and sold it to a broader and paler audience. Hip hop had its Elvis…three of ‘em.

Licensed to Ill was a readymade party record. And, for what talent the Beasties were lacking, they accommodated by just doing everything bigger. The drums weighed a ton, the rock riffs were deafening and the managed to scream almost every verse on the record. As little as they had to work with, they more than made up for it with charisma and annoying boyish energy. From “Girls” to “Slow Ride,” “Brass Monkey” to the anthem “Fight For Your Right to Party,” Licensed to Ill defined the Beasties and still does today to many listeners. The failure in Licensed is that it wasn’t built for the long haul and as soon as the radio play ended and the opening slots on stadium tours dried up, the Beasties were discarded and given the dreaded “one-hit wonder” attachment. They disappeared and, largely, no one really cared. At the end of 1986, no one took them very seriously anyway. They were the flavor of the month. The pop machine had claimed another career.

With nothing to fall back on, the Beasties boldly jumped Def Jam, the most popular label hip hop had ever known and relocated on Capitol Records, who was somewhere between Crowded House singles and working the next Megadeth and Tina Turner records. They hadn’t yet successfully broken into hip hop. It really could’ve been any label, but it just happened to be Capitol. The benefit to the move was that allowed for the Beasties to sever their ties with Rick Rubin whose production influence dominated the first record. Moving to Capitol would allow them musically explore the next step in their career—what was left of it. They also geographically relocated to L.A. and bunkered up to work on their next album. They recruited two unknown DJs to head-up the production by the name of the Dust Brothers. Recorded in just over a year, Paul’s Boutique was set to release early in the summer of 1989. The Beasties were in it one for all and all for one. Refreshed and reborn.

It’s ominous sleeve which was a street shot of the clothing store in the Lower East Side by which it shared its name echoed the mystery and intrigue of Zeppelin’s Zoso. The inside bore no pictures of the Beasties except an unrecognizable image of the three underwater. Nowhere were their names printed. Only lyrics and unexplained images of different fish. You wouldn’t know you were holding a Beasties record had it not said it on the spine. For a group that hadn’t been heard of for three years, they certainly weren’t trying to spark any familiarity.

They abandoned the entire package of Licensed to Ill. And when the needle hit the wax, it was apparent it wasn’t the same Beasties that had left the scene. And this clearly wasn’t Licensed to Ill Part. II. If Licensed was sponsored by Budweiser, Paul’s Boutique was sponsored by your local coke dealer. They traded in their ripped denim for polyester pants and pimp suits. Their delivery was more polished. Still loud, but more varied. Gone were the first-person perspectives of grabbing asses and chugging Ol’ E. They were replaced by third person accounts of drifters like the Egg Man, Johnny Ryall and Shadrach. “Time to Get Ill” was now the violent Taxi Driver-like fantasy of “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”—which remains one of the hands-down greatest Beastie tracks ever. In fact, much of the record is a deliberate aversion to radio as the lyrics are inaccessible and unintelligible, the songs had no catchy hooks and some songs were just too damn long.

The samples laid the groundwork for the record. Rubin’s sparse production was replaced by a galaxy of drumbreaks, grunts, Tijuana horns, bongos and more funk than any one listener could handle. It included everything from the Beatles, Black Oak Arkansas and James Brown to Donny Hathaway, Sly and Family Stone and Pink Floyd. In fact, most sources quote around 110 individual samples that make up Paul’s Boutique. In fact, at some points in the album, you have three different drum breaks working simultaneously under the vocals. The complexities of the album set it far apart from any other album of its kind.

But, as history would prove, the greatest recordings are not always the most popular. Just a few months into the album and without another single to give radio (except for “Hey Ladies”), Capitol abandoned the project. Paul’s Boutique was just going to have to sell itself.

Ten years later, the album went double platinum. Twenty years later, the same album that Capitol bailed on was getting the 180-gram vinyl treatment and was remastered digitally. There are very few records from 1980s hip hop that are almost unanimously regarded as truly great musical achievements. Paul’s Boutique is one of them.


K-Fleet said...

Another list where a few entries had me scratching my head as to who the heck they were, but great to see the Geto Boys, Willie D, and D.O.C.. Those would be in the top 20 albums that influenced me in my early listening days. Good list, your hip-hop knowledge, whether already known, or gained by doing your homework, still amazes me.

Anonymous said...

Beasties deserved that # 1 spot, timeless album
3rd Bass debut heavily under-rated & DOC lyricism showed what a great loss he was after the accident

had both the Willie D & Geto boys lps...u were right, Willie was 1 angry yellin dude

great read


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Kevin said...

Great list - although I'm a bit stunned that you have Stezo and Divine Styler ahead of the D.O.C. No One Can Do It Better was not only one of the best albums of that year, it's one of the greatest of all time (was just listening to it for the past week). I do give you a ton of credit for rep'ing Philly though (especially considering that you lived in Texas). And you got the Philly order right too.