Barney Boom’s Top 5 90’s Hip-Hop Tunes (that you might not know…)
Everyone knows that early 90s hip-hop was the best music ever. By the venerated period of 1991-1996, rap music had evolved from its early 80’s roots in party electro into a an altogether more serious proposition, galvanised through the militant politicisation of Public Enemy, the street-level parables of Kool G Rap and the poetic, mercurial lyricism of Rakim. By 1991 hip-hop was ready to mature into its finest vintage on both coasts, with the East Coast project-street rhymes of Nas, Biggie, Gang Starr and Mobb Deep complementing the G-Funk, sun-drenched gangsta and smoked-out Soul Assassin rollers of the West Coast. By the time Jay-z dropped his debut classic ‘Reasonable Doubt’, Mafioso pretensions, a pre-occupation with ‘Benjamins’ and having Puff Daddy dancing in every video had pulled the music away from its natural street-corner setting. The rest of the decade was spent dancing to synthesised typewriter beats in front of light bulbs in Hype Williams videos or rapping on self-consciously low-fidelity production about kung-fu and chess. And I love a Wu-Tang spin-off project or Timbo beats as much as the next man, especially when you consider it next to most of what constitutes mainstream rap today, but it’s during 1991-1996 that hip-hop was at its most prolific, creative and pure.
The dearth of incredible material that dropped between 91 and 96 is such that there are likely to be some undiscovered gems in there for those that occupy the vast expanse between being ‘into rap’ and the bona fide ‘crate-digging hip-hop heads’, as the parlance goes. So strap on your Timberlands and your red and black lumberjack (with the hat to match) because here’s a few of my favourites you might have missed.
SHOWBIZ & A.G – SOUL CLAP
I chose this one to start with for a few reasons. Firstly, it might well be one of those tunes that you have heard at a club night and you dance to it, then shout at your mate with a finger in your ear ‘who is this’? To which they shrug and shout ‘I don’t know!’ Well, it’s none other than the right talented due of Showbiz and A.G! Secondly, I chose it because it’s a tune that pretty much lays out the blueprint of exactly what early 90s hip-hop consists of. Sampled Boom-Bap Drum Loop? Check. Prominent funk bass guitar line? Present. Call and response chorus shouts from the homies on the block? Right here. The sound of an old-school whistling kettle every four bars? Can do. It’s all there. Also worthy of comment is that it does that weird thing that only hip-hop videos do. Seeing as they are going to all that trouble of making a new video that people are going to watch and stuff, they put 30 seconds of another song of theirs at the start of the video. For no good reason at all. It’s a tradition that continues to this day (watch Azealia Banks’ new video for an unexpected reprise of ‘212’ at the start) and this particular one is remarkable for showcasing 30 seconds of a perky little beat with an alto sax as its main component. What with Macklemore’s recent success with sampling the very same instrument, I’ll leave you to watch the video on that thought, as if it was some kind of legitimate segue.
MILKBONE – KEEP ITREAL
If any of you have heard of Milkbone, it’s as likely as not to be from Eminem’s fleeting mention of him as he runs through the litany of every white rapper in history, before dissing them on his twisted anthem ‘I Just Don’t Give A Fuck’. While I don’t have any beef with dear old Slim taking issue with Vanilla Ice, and I’m not sure who Silicone is, or if that’s even a rapper, his knocking of Milkbone causes me more unease. And that’s because Milkbone is the white rapper behind this wonderfully chill slice of hip-hop, with a piano loop beat that you may have heard before on various freestyles and radio sessions by more famous rappers. So, even if his slightly over-enthusiastic dancing and ratty pencil moustache somewhat lend credence to the concept of completely burying evidence of the white race’s participation in early rap history, the strength of this tune and the perfect rhymes he spits are proof enough to ensure that Milkbone should be celebrated and not consigned to a footnote in a verse from his melanin-challenged successor.
GROUP HOME – LIVIN’ PROOF
Right, let’s get serious. Group Home is one of the best acts that no one outside circles of dedicated hip-hop heads has ever heard of. As with the fate of poor old Milkbone, a fleeting mention of them in Nas’s ‘Hip-Hop is Dead’ might be the nearest any casual listener might have got. Starting out as protégé’s of the greatest hip-hop producer who ever lived, DJ Premier, Group Home’s limitations as lyricists and emcees saw them overshadowed by their New York contemporaries. And while Group Home might lack the charisma of Guru, the distinctive character of Jeru The Damaja and the evocative street-poetry of Prodigy on early Mobb Deep, what they do have is a uniquely subterranean seriousness that pervades every inch of their LPs. For me, without a doubt their best moment is the stunning ‘Sacrifice’, in which each member earnestly pledges to dedicate their lives and souls hip-hop. Close second is ‘Livin Proof’, the title-cut from their debut album with an accompanying video every bit as sober and thugged-out as the tune. If you dig it, check out ‘Sacrifice’ next and take if from there.
THE WHOOLIGANZ – PUT YOUR HANDS UP
As with The Red Hot Chili Peppers appearance on BBC2’s Rapido, (which I caught when I must have been all of 5 years old) and seeing wrestler Kerry Von Erich remonstrating with a some fat baddie over the honour of a fan (on a TV in a cafe bar in Tenerife, no less), the next entry is something I accidentally saw on telly that left an deep-seated impression on my young mind. I saw a portion of this video, along with clips of Onyx and other hip-hop acts, on a Channel 4 TV series about US TV, which just happened to be reporting the influence of gangsta rap on suburban white kids. I guess it was supposed to be a cautionary tale, but I taped the damn thing and pretty much wore the VHS out to watch this video and Onyx’s ‘BacDaFucUp’ as much as my young mind would take. The Whooliganz were actually a teenage version of the hip-hop producer The Alchemist and his mate Scott (actor James Caan’s son) who were brought into the Soul Assassins fold alongside Cypress Hill and House of Pain. These guys were young white kids, doing the whole “teenage suburban rebel skater punk rapper” thing years and years before that yawnsome movie ‘Kids’. Because I was just about ready to do the whole “teenage suburban rebel skater punk rapper” thing, it provided a blueprint of sorts. ‘Put Your Hands Up’ showed me not only what clothes to wear and how to move my hands when I pretended to rap but it also provided explicit instructions of how to (hypothetically) behave towards the police and stagedive into another group of “teenage suburban rebel skater punk rappers”. I have no way to be even vaguely objective about this song; it’s such a part of my psyche that I’d be as at a loss to adjudicate the danceability of my own pulse. I still fucking love it. I hope you enjoy it, and failing that, I hope you can see why this looked a whole lot better to me than Cast and Man United at the time.
Even the most casual of hip-hop heads know who Redman is. And you very probably don’t need me to tell you how great Eric Sermon’s production is. But here we are at the end of the list and, while I had a list of other tunes as long as my arm, I feel it would be somehow untoward of me not to put Reggie in the list. Because while Big L, Wu-Tang, Big Pun and the rest of the East Coast masters get all the props and plaudits they deserve, I sometimes think that Redman gets forgotten from the Mount Rushmore of East Coast Hip-Hop. I was going to go for the phenomenal ‘Rated R’ off Redman’s stunning debut but there’s no video for that so you’re going to have to Spotify it. Instead, here’s ‘Whateva Man’, a complete and utter bona fide banger some casual rap fans might have missed. If you never missed this, and you full well know what a banger this is, here’s an excuse to rock it again. Turn the bass up a bit before you do.