Can We Kick It?

Old-school hip-hop is ready for revival

Apr 7, 2004 at 4:00 am
From a pop-culture standpoint, it's always an interesting sign when quality reissues trump current releases. Thing is, that's pretty much all the time.

Marvin Gaye deluxe editions soar miles above 99.9 percent of contemporary R&B material. Roots-reggae reissue specialists like Blood + Fire and Moll-Selekta have consistently outgunned any label trafficking in today's slick dancehall riddims. It's pointless to compare any recent rock release with, say, the reissues of Hendrix's Electric Ladyland or Are You Experienced? And given a choice between Miles Davis's remastered Bitches Brew and the latest by tapioca-pudding "smooth jazz" artists like Najee, only a complete and utter fool would choose the latter.

Yet while R&B, reggae, rock and jazz have all stuck around long enough to warrant reissues and "classic" status, hip-hop is still the new kid on the block, having existed in recorded form for "only" a quarter-century. Which means we've barely begun to scratch the surface of the rap-nostalgia game's awesome potential.

Okay, here's the situation: There's simply no classic hip-hop format to be found on the airwaves, which is a shame, a travesty and an outrage. Scan the radio dial right now and you can find classic rock, classic jazz and old-school R&B flashbacks in rotation like they ain't never left. We won't even get into classical music, a genre for which anything written after the 19th century is considered cutting-edge. When was the last time you saw a dude in a powdered wig rocking Rachmaninoff down Kingshighway?

C'mon, the hip-hop generation isn't limited to 16-to-24-year-olds. What about the early-'80s B-boys and B-girls who busted headspins on cardboard refrigerator boxes to Rockmaster Scott & the Dynamic Three? How about the pre-"Thug Life" gangsta-rap crowd, who swore by NWA, 415, Spice One and the Geto Boys?

In other words, don't discount all the folks who got hip-hop where it is today. Why shouldn't the radio offer something for the 25-to-40-year-old hip-hop lovers, the ones who tagged with a Pilot marker on mailboxes and bus stops before there was a "Graffiti" font for Palm Pilots?

While we wait, a batch of hip-hop reissues has quietly surfaced, starting in the '90s with Rhino Records adding Sugarhill Gang tracks to its nostalgia empire and briefly continuing with the now-defunct JCOR, which bought the Wild Pitch catalog in order to reissue albums by Chill Rob G, Gang Starr and the Coup before unceremoniously folding a couple of years back. Meanwhile, numerous U.K. indies like BBE and Mastercuts have reissued quality old-school music, often on collector-friendly double vinyl.

Sure, it's relatively easy to make a case for '80s hip-hop's classic designation, but what about the '90s, a time when hip-hop spread across America faster than a computer virus? Are there enough great albums from that era to really warrant the tag?

We're glad you asked.

Now stepping into the arena: Aceyalone's All Balls Don't Bounce (1995) and Paris' The Devil Made Me Do It (1990). Before Def Jux, Atmosphere, Madlib and the quote-unquote "West Coast Underground," there was Project Blowed, the GoodLife Cafe, Freestyle Fellowship and Aceyalone, a masterful MC with an abstract, jazz-influenced flow. His intellectual vocabulary and often-esoteric persona might've ushered in the term "backpack rapper."

But while rucksack hip-hop is often viewed with disdain, the two-disc Bounce reissue proves there's something to be said for a guy who combines the stream-of-consciousness ramble of a blunted Kerouac with a South Central LA B-boy mentality. For the first time, B-sides, outtakes and remixes appear alongside underappreciated-at-the-time tracks such as "Mic Check," "Headaches and Woes" and "B-Boy Kingdom." These songs provided a template for a whole generation of wordy, nerdy rappers -- even if most modern indie alt-hoppers' beats can't hold a candle to the work of Fat Jack, the Nonce and Vic Hop.

The Devil Made Me Do It, on the other hand, is easily the best of the three Paris reissues out now on his own Guerrilla Funk label. Sleeping with the Enemy and Guerrilla Funk both have their moments, but the rapper's first full-length will always be remembered as the album that not only put P-Dog on the map but firmly established West Coast hip-hop's rep for political consciousness. What's really shocking today is how little Devil's message has aged, suggesting perhaps that not much has changed since the first Bush administration. Of the eighteen tracks on the reissue -- including two remixes and the extended version of "Break the Grip of Shame" -- only a few sound dated. Moreover, songs like "Scarface Groove," "Wretched" and the title track in particular have lost none of their rumble in fourteen years. You could easily match up Devil with 2003's critically celebrated Sonic Jihad; you'd need a coin flip to decide which was more ominous.

Most hip-hop fans over the age of 25 could just as easily name ten other '90s albums whose reissues would sound just as dope (or doper) than they did upon initial release. For the record, here's our list: Gang Starr, Step into the Arena; De La Soul, De La Soul Is Dead; Organized Konfusion, Stress; the Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde; Del tha Funkee Homosapien, I Wish My Brother George Was Here; Ice Cube, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted; Poor Righteous Teachers, Holy Intellect; Jay-Z, Reasonable Doubt; and RBL Posse, Ruthless by Law. Feel free to cut out this list, tape it by your phone, program your local hot urban station on speed dial and request these artists early and often, until a classic hip-hop radio format finally becomes a reality.