This past Tuesday, to little fanfare and with minimal promotion, two hip-hop veterans dropped what may be the best album of 2009. Spanning seventeen skit- and guest-free tracks (produced by Show, Lord Finesse, and French affiliate E-Blaze) O.C. & A.G.’s Oasis is an excercise in songcraft and lyricism, boasting not only innumerable quotables but also a depth and maturity commensurate with the duo’s status as torchbearers of true-school, New York rap. The product of two years’ hard labor, Oasis benefits from the natural chemistry of O and A, who’ve shared both the stage and booth repeatedly throughout their long careers. Unforced, unrushed, and completely organic, it’s the kind of album that gets better with each listen; I found myself, after playing it through once, wanting to start all over at the beginning. While a few may not grab you on first listen, the beats are solid across the board, providing ample backing for some of the best performances of both emcees’ careers.
Given the competitive nature of rap, heads will argue about whether O.C. outraps A.G. or vice versa; I’d say that while that’s really a moot point, my vote goes to A.G. Omar more than holds his own, both alongside the Giant and on his two solo tracks, but Andre sounds so focused he had my jaw dropping repeatedly. Whether kicking bragaddocio with O or dropping serious knowledge on solos like “Reality Is” and “God’s Gift,” A.G. proves that great emcees can indeed age gracefully; after spinning Oasis these past few days I’ve got him in my top five, and I can’t think of many rappers who could match either his delivery or his lyrics. Case in point: this freestyle, so godamn hot O.C. declines to spit after hearing it.
As critics release their best-of lists for 2009, I can only hope that Oasis rates a few mentions. If not, expect O and A to keep grinding, like the rest of the Crates crew, putting out quality music for the few of us still checking for that real hip-hop.
A few nights ago, I read through the latest spat between veteran blogger Noz and his (perceived) critical nemesis Jeff Weiss with a great deal of interest, though not at all for the music in question. You see, I’m sure Pill and Freddie Gibbs are talented rappers, but the truth is I feel no desire whatsoever to explore their “catalog” by downloading one of the gazillion mixtapes they’ve released for free. That’s just not how I’ve grown up listening to music. In fact, every time I hear someone complain about how mixtapes aren’t afforded the same critical respect as albums, or suggest that rap critics spend eight hours a day keeping up with the constant flood of free internet music (seriously Noz, is that your life?), I want to smash my computer with a bat and curse the internet for irreversibly ruining rap music. You see, before purchasing music became the sole domain of collectors and altruists, the same “gritty” and “uncompromising” qualities so prized in Pill and Gibbs could be found on any number of major label releases, many of which sold incredibly well without making any mainstream concessions. It wasn’t necessary to flood the worldwide web to create a buzz; on the contrary, one could scan a lot of fucking records without looking much further than his own coast or region. Nowadays, however, that approach is extinct, and artists like Pill and Gibbs have no choice but to court national attention through the internet. Which upsets “street-minded” bloggers, who don’t want to share their artists with anyone as white as themselves (certainly not readers of The New Yorker and The Times), evokes ambivalence in the few of us who still prefer our music in concrete form, and only wins fans among people who, should an album ever be released, will surely download it for free anyway (a la most of The Passion‘s commenters.) All the while, we know that if a major label does take notice (which has to be these rappers’ end goal) it’ll erase any of the individuality that made them appealing in the first place, since the old stick-with-the-formula approach (think Too $hort and E-40 on Jive) is just no longer commercially viable.
So what’s an artist to do? Fuck if I know. The game is fucked up, in a real way. But let’s remember a time when it wasn’t. A time when an unapolagetically regional rapper—from Vallejo of all places—was able to move well over 400K copies of his sophomore album, all while remaining virtually unknown outside the Bay Area (and, apparently, Seattle.) No, I’m not talking about E-40, or even Mac Dre. In those fruitful days, even a tiny city like Vallejo could boast multiple major-label emcees, of which Celly Cel, signed to 40’s Sick Wid It/Jive imprint, was merely one.
Celly Cel — “Remember Where You Came From”
Stylistically indebted to his mentor, Celly Cel nonetheless lacked much of E-40’s humor and personality, but on Killa Kali he benefits from some of the best straight-up mobb production of any Bay Area release I’ve heard. While Mike Mosley and Sam Bostic (of “Sprinkle Me” fame) are conspicuously absent, and Studio Ton contributes only one track, producer Ken Franklin follows their blueprint to great effect on the majority of the album’s tracks, with Tone Capone (The Luniz’ “I Got Five On It”) and Kevin Gardner and Redwine (40’s “Smoke ‘N Drank'”) taking care of the rest. The result is an aural snapshot of Bay Area rap circa 1996, blessed with a major label budget but free from the creative pressures that cripple artists on majors today. With the exceptions of fellow Bay Area rappers E-40 and B-Legit on “4 Tha Scrilla” and Spice 1 on “Redrum,” Killa Kali contains no features, while its single, the creeping “It’s Goin’ Down” would’ve been lucky to garner a single spin on New York radio. And yet Killa Kali, in all its mobbed-out, Bay Area glory, damn near went gold, a feat increasingly rare for any artist in this era of Nahright and Rapidshare links. So while I’m grateful to the internet for allowing me to share my opinions with the world, I also recognize the damage it’s done to the genre I love so much. Which is perhaps why I’d rather dig out a fully-realized, uncompromising album from 1996 than listen to whichever online mixtape is hot at the moment, or, even worse, the latest watered down mush to come out on a major label. The game done changed, I know, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna change with it.
Below are links to two typically hilarious (and disturbing) profiles of one of hip-hop’s most underrated players. Somehow I was less surprised to hear about R.A.’s army of bargaining hookers than the fact that he supported McCain/Palin in 2008. And here I thought Daddy Yankee was the only one.
I know I’ve been neglecting you lately: infrequent posts, little to no rotation in the home or whip, multiple days without even a glance at Nahright. I never thought I’d say this, but you just aren’t doing it for me lately. We’ve been together too long for me to beat around the bush, so let me put it to you bluntly: I’ve met another genre, and she’s incredible. Ever since discovering the classic salsa born in New York in the late 60s and nurtured on labels like Fania throughout the following two decades, I can’t bring myself to listen to anything else. To tell you the truth, it’s a lot like when we first met; I can’t believe I’ve lived this long without knowing about this music, and I have this insatiable desire to hear (and collect) as much of it as possible, in the least amount of time.
Don’t get me wrong; you still have a lot to recommend you. Sure, mainstream rap is shit, but this year alone you’ve given us dope releases by Cormega, Alchemist, Raekwon, U-God, The Jacka, Maino, and Kurupt and DJ Quik, (among others, I’m sure) even if they did share the shelves with Asher Roth, “Young Ju’ Man,” and Jay-Z’s worst album since The Blueprint 2. But it’s been a while since I’ve seen or heard anything hip-hop related that could fuck with the clip above, in which a bevy of salsa masters wile out for ten minutes straight on a Puerto Rican TV show in 1978. I’m certainly no expert on these people yet (although I’m working on it) but the group includes “El Gigante” Charlie Palmieri on keys, Patato Valdez (in the kangol) on percussion, Chocolate Armenteros on trumpet, and the great Johnny Pacheco (co-founder of Fania records and leader of the Fania all-stars) on flute. There’s also the great Machito (a pioneer of Latin Jazz) and vocals by Tito Cruz and Lalo Rodriguez. I guess the closest thing hip-hop-related to an assembly like this would be those much-hyped BET cyphers, but to be honest I haven’t even checked those out. I don’t think I could tolerate watching an Eminem freestyle in 2009, even with DJ Premier on the ones and twos.
Anyway, don’t take it too hard; I’m sure I’ll be back eventually. But you should know, you’re going to have to share me. Sure, the infatuation phase may wear off, but I don’t think my interest in salsa is going away anytime soon. So either get used to being my chick on the side, or do something exciting to win back my love. How about another D.I.T.C. album, this time with the whole crew? A Tribe Reunion? Perhaps a Nas LP with some decent production. I know: a Big Daddy Kane comeback! I could go on forever, but you get the idea. Three Gucci Mane mixtapes in one day may be enough for some people, but not for me. I think you can do better. And if you can’t, well fuck it. I’m getting plenty of stimulation as is. Now excuse me while I throw on a classic.
The undisputed queen of salsa, Cuban diva Celia Cruz remained current throughout her 50+year career, winning awards and cranking out hits right up until her death in 2003. Recorded only a year prior, “La negra tiene tumbao” redefines the term “late-period,” as a seventy-seven year old Celia, in various wigs and sequined outfits, rides a reggaeton-influenced rhythm with the help of a couple of dreadlocked, Carribean rastas. Oh, and did I mention the full frontal nudity (starts at 2:40?) Talk about a hip old broad. The best part of it all is that Celia seems to be having the time of her life. She truly doesn’t seem to care about looking ridiculous or “selling out,” because, let’s face it, when you’re that popular at seventy-seven, you get a pass to do whatever the fuck you want. Which makes me wonder: Is this what the future holds for today’s (and yesterday’s) rappers? Can we look forward to an eighty-year old Ghostface struggling to support the massive gold eagle perched on his wrinkled arm? I sure hope so, but aging rappers are definitely gonna have it harder than their counterparts in virtually any other genre.
First there’s the question of content; once you hit sixty (and I’m being generous here) you really can’t continue trading in coke-boasts and threats of physical violence. Either you have to start talking about everything in the past tense, or, like Celia in the above song, tell your stories in the third person, creating younger characters who do the the things you once claimed to do yourself. Or, I suppose, you could talk about your current reality (eg. medicare, “technology these days,” and “those meddling kids” next door. Sounds like a hit!) Of course, even less likely than an emcee continuing to record well into his golden years (I think that’s inevitable, for better or for worse) is the prospect of any rapper maintaining the popularity (and profitability) of someone like Celia Cruz a full fifty years after his debut. Jay-Z probably has the greatest chance, although if his subject matter gets any more “mature” than it already has, I can’t imagine the kids will keep listening; he’s already this close to making an album about his stock portfolio.
Anyway, I guess we’ll have to wait and see. All I know is that if I live to see a seventy-five-year-old Kurupt ice-grilling and mumbling that “bitches ain’t shit,” I’ll die a very, very happy man.
Other than CL Smooth, Rob-O is probably the strongest rapper Pete Rock ever blessed with a full album of his productions. Of course, that’s small praise when the competition is Deda and the rest of the dudes from INI. Personally, I always found Rob pretty bland, but I’ll listen to pretty much anybody over a Pete Rock track (especially the mid-90’s shit INI was freaking.) After Center of Attention got shelved, I always figured Rob had found a new career; after all, I hadn’t heard anything from him since his last appearance with Pete, on 1998’s Soul Survivor. So imagine my surprise last week when, browsing the stacks at Rasputin, I stumbled upon Rhyme Pro. Less an album than a collection of singles and unreleased tracks, Rhyme Pro boasts uniformly solid production and, on songs like the biographical “Life I Live Part 2,” some surprisingly engaging performances from Rob himself. Elsewhere on the album he’s predictably boring, but at least he’s never irritating like Deda; at worst he kind of blends into the track and you just tune him out. Of course, the main reason I bought this album (well, aside from the $3.95 price tag) were the four tracks by the Chocolate Boy Wonder, none of which I’d heard before. Ostensibly recorded sometime between The Main Ingredient and Soul Survivor, these joints are smooth, laid-back, and jazzy—perfectly suited to Rob-O’s mellow flow (though he definitely gets overshadowed some by the production.) Surprisingly, they aren’t necessarily even the best songs here, as others allow Rob to acquit himself a bit better lyrically over equally solid, if different, production by a handful of lesser-knowns. Interestingly, the album includes two tracks previously released as part of INI’s Center of Attention, an album whose full production is always credited to Pete Rock. Here, however, “Don’t You Want It” and “Wunderlust” are credited to Spunk Bigga and Grap Luva, respectively. Hard to know about that one, I guess, without asking Pete. Anyway, peep the nineties-era Pete Rock tracks below, and if you like what you hear go ‘head and cop the album. Amazingly, it’s still in print.