The lovely folk at GIT asked me to do a top ten of the Wu’s best moments ahead of their release of new album next month. A top 100 would be easier to do than a top 10 for the WU, their shit is so good, so I made a few rules. No album could have more than one cut (so no ‘CREAM’, ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ and ‘Tearz’ – sigh), I’d include at least a couple of guest slots on non Wu albums and above all I’d tried a tell a story about what the breadth of Wu represents into my fleetingly short snapshot of the greatest mob hip hop has ever seen.
Obviously there’s close to 98787587567645 records missing, and even though I’ve tried to be varied there’s a lunge towards Rae and Ghost more than anyone else. The former has two solo cuts and the big guest verse on there, even though I omitted my favourite Wu cameo ever (Tash’s ‘Rap Life’, above) because his handful of bars alongside Outkast was a proper event in hip hop. He’s not the best rapper in Wu but Rae travels better than anyone else, just shading it from Meth. Tony Starks though is the finest in the clan, end of.
It also got me thinking about writing a story about the impact of RZA’s controlling attitude and the clan above all approach which ruled from Enter the 36 Chambers up to Wu Tang Forever. Raekwon and GZA did rather well out of that deal, U-God and Masta Killa definitely didn’t, and then if only that flood hadn’t scuppered all Inspektah Deck’s beats. One day…
Most importantly though, 1999 was the year hip-hop got good again. Really good. Slick Rick did what the likes of KRS-one and Rakim had been incapable of in recent years, return with a scintillating degree of relevancy, the dirty south started to get really hot with the help of Mannie Fresh and an upstart from Detroit proved being melatonin deficient wasn’t a guarantee of being poor. That rapper in question, a certain Eminem, also brought with him maybe the most important development in hip-hop’s post millenium popscape… the return to prominence of Dr Dre. But most of all the music was just fantastic.
I recently linked to the Czarface album as they heralded the year as a golden age for hip-hop and whilst there’s better points historically for sure, this definitely stands up as one of the finest 12 months the genre has ever seen. Here’s five of the choicest cuts from that time period, and apologies in advance for the andre heaviness.
Few rappers go onto live up to their earlier work a decade afterwards. Nas did so last year with ‘Life is Good’, his second best album after Illmatic, but 1999 was a time when two of the biggest forces in late eighties rap appeared from the doldrums to capture the critical consensus once more. The first was golden age icon Slick Rick, who’s ‘Adventures of Storytelling‘ is an absolute classic. Peppered with star turns from big hitters of the time such as Nas, Raekwon and Canibus, it brought his sinister sense of humour back to the forefront alongside that butter flow. One of the standout tunes was Big Boi returning the star turn Ricky gave on the remix of Outkast’s song of the same title, with the glorious Street Talkin. So, so good.
From 1993-1997 Wu Tang were flawless. Raekwon, GZA and Ghostface delivered classic debuts, whilst Method Man and ODB managed to put forward compelling visions of their personality which if not classic were still very good, not to mention a litany of guest appearances across albums from 2Pac, Mobb Deep and Biggie. Of that five only one managed to deliver on their sophomore, in fact he went better on it. Ghostface.
Supreme Clientele is the greatest non debut Wu solo album ever, no question, and I’d probably say it was the best solo joint full stop. RZA tearing through awesome beats, Ghostface’s patented gibberish and this record, an example of how to go R&B and stay grimy. U-God putting a ruff rider on his dick and busting right through them vying for Tony Starks and that dressing gown for the finest jaw dropping moment in the three minutes of bliss, as the Wu shows Bad Boy how to take an obvious disco sample and keep it street. Jiggy Y2K style.
Slick Rick was the hot rapper from the 80s to come full circle, but undeniably Dre was the producer. Part of the story of how he clambered back to the forefront comes in lieu of this record…
Slim Shady had caught the attention of the underground with a runners up slot at the rap Olympics, a slew of underground bangers with Rawkus and the catchy ‘Just Don’t give a Fuck‘, but he really blew up with what seemed like a novelty single in the shape of ‘My Name is’ in early 1999. Dre produced it and has since said the plan was to make it as annoying as possible to ensure the word was out and follow it up with Eminem showing his true class. It was a tactical masterclass Jose Mourinho would be proud of and this record, the two of them sparring together on record, was the first of a series of relentless OMG moments from Slim.
The good/evil combination isn’t exactly original but the way it’s played out certainly is, Dre suddenly being reinvented as a paternal figure and then Eminem exposing the hypocrisy of ‘Mr NWA/Mr AK’ dishing out advice. If it had been a diss record it would of been a milestone, but for it to be something that he convinced Dre to do (and almost certainly ghost-wrote the lyrics that he responded with) it shows so much about the level of trust and respect Dre had gifted his protege at such an early stage, and the start of a glorious two years of shared creativity. It also shows as much as Em was a savagely humorous extortionist of questionable subject matter, he also utilised balance in his yarns, even if through the voice of overs. This would reach it’s staggering apex with Stan – incidentally introduced to the Slim Shady entertainment world in the second verse.
That subject matter was as disgusting as Eminem would become known for, advocating under-age rape, armed robbery and murder (even if done with delicious humour – the way he berates Dre’s explanation with ‘slipped, tripped, fell, landed on his dick’ a prime example), but at the time it was ridiculously exciting, unquestionably. Music fans very rarely get to live through super-stardom in real time (the percentage of Beatles fans on the planet around at their peak must be minuscule) but Eminem’s finest three years I lived through every step of the way and watched how the music only a few people in my school liked suddenly became omnipresent.
The Doctor again. Dre was ‘back’ through working with Eminem but he was doing so through the medium of a white trailer trash kid from Detroit and with a poppier focus; the next dawning of g-funk wasn’t hinted at yet. 1998 saw a blistering Dre production creep under the radar with the shape of old sparring partner Kurrupt on ‘Ask yourself a question‘ but one record snapped into focus and threw up the dubs. When ‘Bitch Please’ appeared on Snoop’s ‘No Limit Top Dogg‘ as one of three Dre productions, you knew this shit was back on.
Everything about this joint is perfect. When the beat kicks in with the drums and the low end rumbling it was seismic, I remember hearing this for the first time better than most milestones in my life. Xzibit, at that point an underground emcee with plenty of heat and no dodgy MTV show, drops the verse of his life which is littered with quotables, referencing his likwit connections, slick rick and Canibus in 24 breathless bars. He would go on to tread water for the majority of the rest of his career, but this was the reason why.
It was also the point where Snoop realised his future career, hot singles where the focus was on how he sounded over a ridiculous beat. His delivery here is this out there hybrid of crooner, pillow talk and street slang, completely alien to anything else and tailor made for the Dre sonics. And if that wasn’t enough Nate Dogg decides to turn up at the end and say ‘hey oh’ in the most amazing fashion. All four protagonists deliver resoundingly for what is a beyond brilliant masterpiece.
Pharoah Monche ‘Simon Says’
That riff. Those drums. The four note sample from Godzilla was inspired, and Pharaoh drifting brilliantly between his usual cerebral self and straight up club thug stance made the whole thing so much more accomplished. The added whut-whuts on the chorus deliver a broad chested swagger (that’s already evident in spades) and the lyrics flip between self-deprecating humour (“you sold platinum round the world, I sold wood in the hood”) and the clever way both verses end with 2if you holding up the wall then you missing the point” meant an emcee known for technical genius could dumb down with the best of them whilst still having that lyrical subtlety. This is a cat remember that no less an authority than The Alchemist cites as the greatest of all time.
The impact of the record was so much certain commentators even labelled it as the beginning of the end for Rawkus who suddenly saw a product rather than an artform, which is a delicious irony considering the impact it has when it sounds. It’s just brasher and louder than everything else going, M1 & Stic-Man aside. Big and clever? Only in the hands of the Pharoah. An anthem of epic proportions.
This weekend is a big bad dollop of 1997 for me. Tomorrow, 16 years ago to the very day, one of the greatest of all time was gunned down, and in Manchester I am off to see easily the best hip-hop album released that year performed live in it’s entirety, Camp Lo’s ‘Uptown Saturday Night’. And seeing as 1997 was the first full calender year where I was in love with the music from start to finish this week’s instalment of Five for the Funk simply had to celebrate the year.
Turns out thought that 1997, when peering beyond the sepia tinted memories, was a weak one for hip-hop and probably the worst in the decade. Even though I was enthralled by the genre at the time the lack of being on the money (I was 15 and living in a RAF base in the Midlands) meant it was mainly old albums (Doggystyle, All Eyez on Me, 36 Chambers) that I liked (Camp Lo aside), and a confirmation of a look at this list shows rappers were more about sales, quantity and that horrible beast in hip-hop; the double album.
That said there was still some decent music this year, and none of those pesky double albums were classics in my eyes but they did throw together some great tunes. Here’s five of the best hip-hop videos and tracks from 1997…
They didn’t quite nail it with ‘Wu Tang Forever‘, but you genuinely do have to admire the Wu for their balls. I can remember the hype on UK and European MTV for this album and in turn this single, which still wasn’t that in tuned to hip-hop compared to the way it was with rock, and to announce the return of the whole clan with a lead single that was straight up lyrical wordplay at six minutes long was insane. The closest thing it had to a chorus was ODB screaming out that ‘Wu Tang was here for ever mutherfuckers’, and this was the record they were taking over the world with at the very inception of the shiny suit era in hip-hop. I mean come on! Stateside it sold over 600k in the first week and smashed it to the top of the charts. Killer figures from the killer bees, and that opening verse from Insepktah Deck.
‘Triumph’ was just that, the Wu knocking the shit out of the rest of the world. One of ten or twelve very good records on the album, although it might not be as dynamic as the likes of ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’, it was still a relentless slab of stark hip-hop. And nothing on TV looked so gully at the time. A grimy as fuck two finger salute at the staunch sound of selling out.
Biggie knew he was the epitome of the best of both worlds. The ugly as fuck fat boy who was so silky smooth he made women forget his appearance as their panties fell to the floor. The rapper that could make an album that featured a rags to riches radio joint side by side with tributes to stick-up kids and paranoia soaked suicide notes. And an absolute club and radio banger that had some of the tightest flows ever on it. It shone of the real Biggie, braggadocio to the hilt but gloriously self aware.
A genuinely brilliant record, and although technically a 1996 joint an anthem both sides of the Atlantic throughout 1997. And every year since.
Boot Camp Clik ‘Headz R Ready’
Wu weren’t the only hoodies and timbs NYC hip-hop crew bringing that rugged and raw vibe in 1997, so too were Boot Camp Clik. The collective consisted of Black Moon’s Buckshot, Smif N Wessun, Originoo Gunn Clappaz and Louieville Sluggah, and this was a tight record that featured a lovely nineties era drenched video. If you were one of those teenagers, like me, who lived for that one or two hours a week in 97 when Yo MTV Raps rounded up the best videos of the time, this was more often than not what would greet you.
Tha Alkaholiks ‘Hip-Hop Drunkies’
The West coast was flatter than usual between 1996 and 1999, but in the midst of it all was an underground antidote to the chronic flavoured riddims of the G-funk sound. And one of the better crews repping it were tha Liks. Their 1997 album ‘Likwidation’ is an underrated beast, straight up beats and rhymes tomfoolery from J-Ro, E-Swift and Tash, and this video sums up their vibe brilliantly.
An inspired pairing of their alcohol focused swagger with hip-hop’s fav substance abuser ODB, it flips a sample of Marley Marl’s piano riff off ‘The Symphony‘ to create a posse cut for boozers. Like the video for ‘Triumph’ ODB’s role is played by an actor, laying the groundwork for his troubled years ahead. He rips it up on here though, particularly with the “no disrespect to any architect who tries to perfect, oh what the heck” lyric, riffing brilliantly on the production of the song and his own role in hip-hop with a flurry of densely packed inner rhymes. An absolute genius.