1. Stakes is High — De La Soul
De La Soul’s fourth album, released on the Tommy Boy label in 1996, is one of my favorite hip hop albums because of the combination of lyrics from alternating emcees and the samples and scratch skills on the turntables — a great all-around production from intro to the end, with Mos Def and Common making appearances. The album starts out with a funky collage of sound bites and a funny freestyle flow, then gets right to the point with Supa Emcees, which shows off their rapping and writing skills while they call out other emcees, keeping the continuity of the old-school boasting alive, which they do with a whole lot of rhythm and style and finesse, to borrow a page from A Tribe Called Quest. Speaking of borrowing, there’s some great samples on this track and throughout the album. James Brown is sampled often, as is some funky 60’s and 70’s jazz, similar to the music Tribe and the Beastie Boys sampled a few years earlier.
Wonce Again Long Island is a nice rhythmic and lyrical ditty about the fame they got largely from their 3 Feet High and Rising album. They also call out fake rappers and, to a lesser extent, the mainstream corporate game — both common themes on the album. Dinninit has some great samples and a 30-second instrumental interlude leading up nicely to Brakes, one of my favorites on the album, which laments the lack of quality hip hop, pays tribute to the old school with samples from Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks and Fantasy Three’s It’s Your Rock, and reminisces about their hip hop dreams. Long Island Degrees has a background of loungey jazz and a bit of vocal harmony along with poetic images and stories from alternating emcees. Big Brother Beat is good and features Mos Def, who throws out a line from Eric B and Rakim’s classic cut Eric B is President.
The last side ends strong with Down Syndrome, Pony Ride, Stakes is High (the title track which effectively reinforces their theme of lamenting the state of mainstream hip hop and its culture), and Sunshine.
2. Check Your Head — Beastie Boys
This 1992 Grand Royal release was the first hip hop album I really got into. Until that, when I was around 16, I had heard a little bit of rap on the radio in middle and high school, but I was mostly into rock from the 60’s and 70’s (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, etc.) This album opened me up to the world of hip hop as well as funk and jazz. When Beastie fans talk about which album is their best, usually it’s between Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head. To me, it’s Check Your Head hands down. I think Paul’s Boutique is certainly good, but was a transition to get them to the leveI they displayed on Check Your Head. I like the homage paid to Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On regarding the collage on the back cover. This album earned them more respect as hip hop artists and opened up hip hop not just to a wider (or whiter) or more suburban audience, but embodied the ideal of different races and different influences coming together to make something great. Mario Caldato contributed with various keyboards (Clavinet, D6, Wurlitzer), joining MCA (bass), Adrock (guitar), and Mike D (drums).
There are a total of 20 tracks on this double LP, equally divided into five per side.
Jimmy James leads off and immediately you hear a funky fusion of instruments creating a hard-groovin’ rhythm with the three New York MCs alternating vocals announcing they’re just trying to get down and enjoy the new day. This sets the tone for the eclectic sounds and messages to come. Funky Boss is alright, then Pass the Mic, Gratitude, and Lighten Up finish out Side A. Finger Lickin’ Good, So What’cha Want, and Something’s Got to Give are the strongest on Side B.
The Blue Nun is a great intro to Stand Together, Pow is a funky instrumental interlude before the hard hittin’ The Maestro, then Groove Holmes, the album’s best instrumental and a tribute to Hammond B-3 great Richard “Groove” Holmes, finishes Side C.
Side D opens up with Live at P. J.’s, which starts with a sample from the great comedian Richard Pryor, then a little old-school organ and wah-wah guitar lounge sound with a little mic intro from Mike D, followed by an all-out assault by Ad Rock and the rest of the band. It sounds like he’s on the mic the whole time. After a brief interlude with Mark On The Bus, Professor Booty starts off with a dialogue sample from Wild Style then another funky Hammond B-3 jazz great Jimmy Smith is sampled from his album Black Smith, doing his own interpolation of Barry White’s Never Gonna Give You Up. Like so many other Beastie songs, the music and lyrics are infectiously interesting with energy and fun. After that, another funky jazz instrumental reminiscent of the 70’s appears with In 3’s. The final track is the zen-like Namaste, a first-fruit sound of MCA’s Buddhist quest that appears more on their next album Ill Communication.
3. Midnight Marauders — A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest’s third offering, released in 1993 on the Jive label, is widely regarded as their best album and one of the classics of hip hop. At this point in the game, true hip hop was becoming more and more commercialized. You had the cliche of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll for a long time. By the early 90’s hip hop reached the same level, with some frontin’ and stuntin’ and violence thrown in. As The Roots proclaimed in ’96, “The principles of true hip hop have been forsaken, it’s all contractual and about money-makin’.”
The intro is a work of art that remains unrivaled today, in part to its incongruity with the emerging mass market landscape. You’ve got a computerized white girl voice to make Apple’s Siri check herself, accompanied by lush strings and a loungey, elevator music jazz sound (from the fabulous album The Prophet by Cal Tjader) in the background, as she lets you know she’ll be around from time to time throughout the album to spread some knowledge and serve as a guide, which helps give this a concept album feel. The greatness of this album is due to the great jazzy funky samples (mostly from the 70’s) meshed with the group’s rhythm and lyrics.
After the intro is the track Steve Biko (Stir It Up), which is great on so many levels. For one you got the contrast between the aforementioned white girl computer voice and elevator/lounge jazz music vibe to the jazzy, old school hip hop vibe on a new school twist without being a commercial sell out. Stephen Biko himself, a black South African famous for his anti-apartheid movement, would have been proud. That in itself sets the tone, as the first track is given props to a righteous martyr instead of to one’s self. Yet the bravado is still there with a certain old school humility and craftsmanship. You get the alternating emcee effect over funky jazzy tracks, as they sample from a combination of 70’s jazz albums — Woody Shaw’s Blackstone Legacy and The Michael Urbaniak Group. The next track, Award Tour, is probably one of their most recognized, and like every song on here, contains some great jazz, funk, and old school hip hop samples. A few on here include Sly & The Family Stone, Malcolm McLaren, Weldon Irvine, and Charles Earland. Some of these names are not the household variety, which is cool that you can broaden your musical library through finding out these samples. A great resource is www.whosampled.com.
God Lives Through
8 Million Stories is next, followed by the infectious flow of Sucka Nigga, which samples a classic hip hop rhyme battle between Busy Bee and Rodney Cee from the Wild Style soundtrack from ’83, plus killer drum and guitar samples from albums by Cold Blood and Jack Wilkins, respectively, each from ’73. Q-Tip gives a brief history of the “N” word and defends his use of it as a term of endearment, and throws the word “Sucka” in front for those that front. Midnight comes next, reinforcing the theme of the album name by poetically setting the image of the typical nighttime landscape with the accompaniment of some more funky 70’s samples, this time from George Duke and the obscure Albino Gorilla. The last track on Side 1 is We Can Get Down, with samples the track Martin’s Funeral, laid down by none other than Bill Cosby and his jazz group.
Side 2 starts off with Electric Relaxation, another timeless classic with a funky intro thanks to 70’s samples from jazz greats Ronnie Foster and Ramsey Lewis, and a drum beat from the blues rock outfit Brethren. The brass tacks to this track is all about getting busy, if you know what I mean. All the tracks that follow are good, particularly Clap Your Hands, Oh My God, and God Lives Through.
4. Illadelph Halflife — The Roots
So far, each album on this list has been the third offering from the respective group. It continues with The Roots’ third album, released in 1996 on the DGC label (Geffen sub-label).
I’ve picked this album because there are three tracks on here that make it worthwhile. The first track Respond/React is one, in part because of the steady rhythm — intense and at the same time laid-back. Like so many others, the lyrics are great. The next favorite track of mine from this album is What They Do. The intro is a chill and funky sample of Barry White’s Your Love – So Good I Can Taste It with Raphael Saadiq’s smooth vocals leading up to some great emcee skills by Black Thought as he calls out the frauds in the game, proclaiming how they’re on a higher level and above trying to front like so many not only in the rap game, but in life. The third is Ital (The Universal Side) featuring Q-Tip. There are some other decent ones like Section, Episodes, Push Up Ya Lighter, and No Great Pretender.
What They Do
Other albums of theirs I seriously considered was The Tipping Point from 2004 and their 2005 compilation Home Grown! The Beginner’s Guide To Understanding The Roots, Vol. 2. The Tipping Point is shorter and solid from beginning to end, while Home Grown! Vol. 2 has some great instrumentals and a couple great vocal tracks in Sacrifice and Y’all Know Who.
5. Black on Both Sides — Mos Def
Released in 1999 on Rawkus Records, this first solo offering from Mos Def has become an instant hip hop classic. This is great from first to last, with a variety of themes, thoughtful and honest lyrics, and some great samples.
The first track—Fear Not of Man—is an encouraging prophetic message to trust God despite all the negative stuff happening throughout the world, reminiscent of Public Enemy’s vibe a decade earlier. He has a way of coming across fresh with great rhythm without being stale and self-righteous, never relinquishing the mic and the quintessential emcee style. This flows fluidly into Hip Hop and you’re rewarded with one of the best hip hop tracks ever as he hits hard with staccato flow about hip hop and other truths while entertaining and rewarding your ears and soul. Love is another outstanding track and aptly named, which conveys his goal through his music, which is nothing short of fulfilling his goal on earth by being a servant of love and living “the now for the promise of the infinite.” This includes a line straight from Eric B. and Rakim’s old school classic I Know You Got Soul. Ms. Fat Booty, the fourth track, is an infectious dance floor track that samples multiple elements from Aretha Franklin’s soulful One Step Ahead. Speed Law is the epitome of intelligent lyrical battling with a constant energetic flow from beginning to end.
Do It Now has the same feel as De La Soul’s less popular Bionix albums (released around the same time), largely due to Busta Rhymes and the electronic staccato from the vocals and synthesizer. Got is a reminder to those who try to front that there are thugs out there, from the police and regular citizens, who will take what they got and “get” them. The message works on a practical and deeper level, one of being shrewd and humble (pure as a dove and wise as a serpent). Umi is a spiritual track imploring black people to shine their light and be free.
Water is a sobering reminder of how important water is, and laments about the corruption in politics and big business about how the bottom line is the dollar. Rock ‘n’ Roll lives up to its name by waxing on rock’s heritage being largely due to black musicians, and ends in a thrashing hardcore punk style. Know That is one of my favorites because of its great energy and great sampling of multiple elements of Dionne Warwick’s Anyone Who Had a Heart, although I could do without Talib Kweli’s presence on it. Nothing against him as an artist, but I feel like his rap part detracts from the song. Climb is an ethereal and poetic neo-soul track with great vocals from Vinia Mojica and strings from the late great Weldon Irvine, who is featured throughout the album. Brooklyn is appropriately about Brooklyn and has an intro that pays tribute to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under the Bridge and has three other segments with different tempos and feels, the last one leading into Habitat. Mr. Nigga is a lyrically-rich autobiographical account of his racial encounters throughout society and features an appearance from Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. Mathematics is a clever and insightful track with deft treatments of numbers featuring a variety of samples, including funky instrumentals from The Fatback Band’s Baby I’m a Want You and vocals from Erykah Badu’s On & On. The final track, May–December, is a great instrumental that I like to use as an interlude in certain playlists.
6. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back — Public Enemy
Practically any all-time rap album list you look at is gonna include this 1988 release from Public Enemy. The album cover says it all — their name, their symbol beside it, the larger composition, the title —a garish and unapologetic “black and proud,” pointing their finger not just politically at the White House at its current state, but to some degree at the fabric and foundation of American society. They combined the consciousness and poetry of The Last Poets and Gil Scot-Heron with hip hop and took that medium, along with their own poetry and flavor, to a whole new level, artistically and commercially. According to Chuck D, “rap music, as recorded work, was just eight years in. The music was ready to break nationally in album form as opposed to what it had been, which was a singles medium.” Public Enemy’s goal was “to be a social critic, a community voice. We wanted everyone to know, truly understand, that our music was from the people, not above the people.” As with most dynamic entities, their image was distorted and not true to reality.
Prophets of Rage
The album has four singles that reached the charts: Don’t Believe The Hype,
Night Of the Living Baseheads, Bring The Noise, and Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos. Along with those, practically each song is great. I’m particularly fond of Louder Than a Bomb, Cold Lampin’ with Flavor, Rebel Without a Pause, and Prophets of Rage, my favorite.
PE’s originality shines through with their lyrics, their DJ, and for the fact that their two main emcees, Chuck D and Flavor Flav, are so distinctly different, a perfect example of yin and yang. This album at the end of 2014 still remains fresh and relevant, and will live forever in hip hop’s pantheon.
7. Foundation — Brand Nubian
Up to this point, each album on this list is pretty universally celebrated (although Stakes is High and Check Your Head seem to be regarded as their respective group’s second or third best). Brand Nubian in general is slept on, and so is this album, the group’s fourth offering, released in 1998 on the Arista label. While on the slept on tip, Grand Puba, the lead emcee, is one of my favorites because of the combination of his unique voice, lyrics, and rhythm.
The 1st track is a very brief intro signifying the return of all four of the original members with the appropriately named soulful sample from The Isley Brothers. The second track, The Return, is my favorite on here and best represents this album by identifying the members and excelling at lyrical bravado with some nice cutting and mixing from DJ Alamo and DJ Premier.
The first LP as a whole is stronger than the second, with Shinin’ Star, The Beat Change, Don’t Let It Go To Your Head, Brand Nubian, and Maybe One Day (featuring Buckwild and Common). Tracks on the second record that stand out include the R&B-sounding Sincerely, Probable Cause, a great number on racial profiling at the hands of cops, and Love Vs. Hate.
8. Be — Common
This album, released in 2005 on the Geffen label, starts strong with the title track Be and finishes strong with It’s Your World. It had been three years since his last album Electric Circus graced my ears, and this is more solid beginning to end.
It’s Your World
After Be is the infectious track The Corner, a nice contrast to the first track with The Last Poets and Kanye West on backing vocals. There’s really not a bad track on here, in large part to the presence of talented musicians who collaborated with Common. In addition to the aforementioned Last Poets and Kanye, they include John Legend, J Dilla, James Poyser, and Bob Power. Another contributing factor to the greatness of this LP is the sampling from 70’s funk, soul, and jazz — a common ingredient shared by many of the albums listed here.
9. Street Beat Vol. 2
Not to be confused with Beat Street, Street Beat Vol. 2 is a double LP compilation released on Sugar Hill Records in 1984. This is an all-star lineup of old school classics from some of the most well-known acts like Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Melle Mel and The Furious Five, along with Treacherous Three, West Street Mob, Sylvia Robinson’s female trio Sequence, Crash Crew, Trouble Funk, and The Mean Machine.
Side 1 starts with the hip hop classic The Message, which became the first hip hop song added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2002. Grandmaster Melle Mel was an original member of Grandmaster Flash & The 3 MCs, which later added two more MCs to become Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five.
This particular album credits Grandmaster Melle Mel, not Grandmaster Flash, for The Message and Freedom. In either case it’s the same song that is most commonly associated with Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, especially considering Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five released albums with those songs on them. On Side C The Furious Five (with Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel) collaborate on a simulated battle with The Sugar Hill Gang on Showdown.
Funk You Up — The Sequence
Sugar Hill’s classic Rapper’s Delight joins another classic — The Message — on Side A, along with Let’s Dance by West Street Mob, another nice track with vocoder and female vocals. Funk You Up, Feel the Heartbeat, and 8th Wonder comprise Side B, making this another great side.
Side C has the aforementioned Freedom and Showdown, with Sugar Hill’s great wedding reception dance favorite Apache in between, yet again another strong side. Side D contains Crash Crew’s classic On The Radio from 1983, which Jurassic 5 pays homage to on their 2006 album Feedback. The other two tracks are Trouble Funk’s 1982 go-go hit Hey Fellas and The Mean Machine’s Disco Dream, which was significant because it was one of the earliest rap recordings in English and Spanish, opening up the genre to a wider audience.
10. Wild Style Soundtrack
Wild Style is a classic old school hip hop movie, and the corresponding soundtrack was originally released in 1983 on Animal/Chrysalis. This particular version is a 1998 re-release which includes six previously unreleased tracks. I consider this the best old school hip hop movie to my knowledge, in part because it features hip hop in its four complete elements: the MC, DJ, break dancers, and graffiti artists.
Subway Theme — Grand Wizard Theodore
The Beastie Boys sampled a dialogue from the movie in their intro to Professor Booty that helped open up the old school flavor to me and many others. Several pioneers appear on the album: Grand Wizard Theodore and Fantastic Five, Cold Crush Four, Grandmaster Flash, Rammellzee, Shockdel, Busy Bee, Double Trouble (Rodney Cee & KK Rockwell), and Fab 5 Freddy. Some of my favorite tracks are: Subway Theme and Gangbusters, both instrumentals from Grand Wizard Theodore; MC Battle (Busy Bee vs Rodney Cee); Cold Crush Brothers at the Dixie; and Rammellzee & Shockdell at The Amphitheatre.
MC Battle — Busy Bee vs. Rodney Cee