Uptown Saturday Night (1997)

As it’s been noted by many others, 1997 was a year for change in popular music. Radiohead’s OK Computer signified the end of Britpop dominance, and some will tell you ‘saved’ rock music altogether. The queen of alternative dance and quirky image, Björk, matured on her progressive electronic mission statement Homogenic, which left its mark on both the techno scene and pop music. And of course hip hop would not emerge through these transitive years unscathed, losing two of its brightest talents and lowering the bar for quality in the process. The biggest album of the year, in every sense of the word, was The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, an overstuffed double disc that sold ten times platinum after the slaying of its creator made the title sadly prophetic. While it was a very good album in its own right, it led hip hop right into the ‘shiny suit era’ of Puff Daddy dominance, as bland rappers made over long albums with even blander beats and forgettable hooks that still managed to sell ridiculous amounts (I’m looking at you Ma$e). While this shift in rap music was entirely regressive, it still fostered a reactionary movement of underground artists who pushed against the grain of the mainstream. We may have never gotten someone like El-P, brainchild of Company Flow and later the Def Jux record label, if there wasn’t enough shitty commercial rap to hold up a middle finger to.

All of this is well and good, though my own number one pick for the year fits squarely outside this neat little narrative I attempted to write for 1997. It’s true, Uptown Saturday Night is an anomaly, an album that would have sounded more at home in 93 than here. And even if it were released in 93, it would have sounded nostalgic for a past era of music that, while sadly long gone, is being celebrated nevertheless and not mourned. The cover art is a modernizing of the famous Sugar Shack painting that was used for the cover of Marvin Gaye’s impressionistic soul/ disco classic, I Want You. The music follows suit, with producer Ski Beatz (of Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt fame) gathering funk, jazz, disco, and soul samples to lace his party friendly boom bap with.

Uptown Saturday Night is probably the most underrated album I’ve awarded the number one slot out of any year. Maybe it slipped through the cracks because Camp Lo failed to follow it up with anything approaching quality. Underground heads may flock to the album, but frankly it’s probably just too weird to garner the attention of mainstream fans. The two rappers who make up Camp Lo, Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede, are just as hard to pin down as the album itself. They are not your typical underground rappers, eschewing typical battle raps and boasting for partying and dense 70’s slang. They’re even weirder than their early 90’s counterparts, the Native Tongues collective. De La Soul comes to mind a couple of times, especially when Trugoy the Dove appears on the excellent B-Side to Hollywood. Perhaps Souls of Mischief or even Pharcyde can account for their bizarre energy. Regardless, all you need to know is that Camp Lo are different, definitely by design, and their style is much more compelling than any ‘substance’ they can muster (there are a few Blaxploitation-inspired stories but even they are impossible to decipher).

Underneath all the jive talk and obscure posturing is some truly exquisite boom bap. Ski Beatz has never been a ‘greatest of all time’ candidate mentioned among the likes of Pete Rock or DJ Premier (or even Prince Paul, Q-Tip or the Digable Planets crew). But what he does here makes a pretty strong argument that he’s got the chops, just not the resume, of those legends. Listen to the way he weaves several horns into the chorus of Luchini (A.K.A. This is It), crafting an infectious jam besting any other 1997 single and proving why sampling is such an integral part in creating memorable hip hop. He does it again in Rockin It (A.K.A. Spanish Harlem), this time with a piano loop and disco breaks. Listen to the hard hitting drums offset with horn stabs on Krystal Karrington, or the “ooo ahhh” vocal sample running throughout Coolie High for further proof of his production mastery. This album full of enough goodies like that to make a true beat head salivate. If lyrical content isn’t as important to you as beats, than Uptown Saturday Night is your album, with the production doing the heavy lifting and the rapping riding shotgun.



The playlist is a reminder of all the quality hip hop being released in what is generally considered the genre’s weakest year. Most of it is underground (okay, all of it) and some of it has been sadly overlooked by even the hardcore heads, like the monster D.I.T.C. posse cut 5 Fingas of Death or the hilariously unnerving Armageddon. There’s also Rakim’s The Saga Begins, which is notable for pairing the world’s greatest emcee with the world’s greatest producer, Pete Rock. The result is great almost by default, but it is seriously an impressive song that meets expectations. Oh yeah and Triumph is the best song the Wu-Tang Clan  ever made. In the non hip hop world,  Björk returns with a vengeance and Radiohead make their first appearance on my yearly playlists with one of my favorite songs of theirs. Forget Paranoid Android or Let Down, Climbing Up The Walls is the true gem off OK Computer (runs for cover).


1997 Playlist

Aphex Twin- Film


Björk- Unravel

Camp Lo- Luchini (A.K.A. This Is It)

Camp Lo- Coolie High

Company Flow- Bad Touch Example

CRU- Armageddon

Diamond D featuring Big L, Lord Finesse, A.G. & Fat Joe- 5 Fingas of Death

Erykah Badu- On & On

The Notorious B.I.G.- Kick in the Door

O.C.- My World

Radiohead- Climbing Up The Walls

Rakim- The Saga Begins

Wu-Tang Clan- A Better Tomorrow

Wu-Tang Clan- Triumph


Illadelph Halflife (1996)

A little bit of list politicking occurred when I originally named UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty the best album of 1996. No other album from the dirty south, by which I mean Texas, would win a year or even come close to it. And Illadelph Halflife made sense as a number two pick since The Roots won in 1999 for Things Fall Apart in a much less crowded year, quality wise. But I had to follow my heart and give them the win in 96 as well, since Illadelph Halflife is really their shining moment, and just a better album than the still excellent Ridin’ Dirty.

Now, 1996 was what many identify as the final year of the ‘golden age’ in hip hop, though it certainly went out with a bang. Quality poured in from east and west, north and south, mainstream and underground. It seems like artists displayed anxiety about the genre more so in this year than others, reacting to creeping trends of commercialism and violent lyrics. While this inner genre bitching has always been a staple in hip hop, 96 was rife with songs like What They Do, a blatant anti mainstream song from Illadelph Halflife despite being the most accessible song on the album with its seemingly endlessly repeating mantra hook. The Roots made clear what side they were on in the ever going battle between mainstream and underground, and Illadelph Halflife is one of the most convincing mission statements for the latter group.

The sound of the album is rooted (no pun intended) in dusty, jazzy boom bap. Despite their status as critical darlings because of their ‘live band’ pretenses, The Roots couldn’t be more ‘hip hop’ in their aesthetic, at least in 96 (they would grow more experimental later). The first track, Respond- React, sets the sound for the rest of the album, with a slow, simple drum roll and a side serving of background piano. It’s a righteous beat, plain and simple, and when you think it can’t get iller from there, the very next track, Section, ups the ante. And so it goes on Illadelph Halflife, with every beat slamming harder than the last up until Clones, which cranks the adrenaline higher than the rest of the album can sustain, even teasing the listener with end of verse beat breaks replacing a proper hook.

The rapping throughout is ferocious, yet intellectually tinged. Black Thought and Malik B share microphone duties, and frankly they’re a bit difficult to tell apart at first because their voces are similar and they are both on the same level lyrically. This was back when Black Thought went by the nickname of ‘the bad lieutenant’. His wordplay is dense, and both him and Malik B are infectious in bringing the classic emcee attitude to the proceedings. There is no bullshit when these guys take the mic- their economical dismantling of the beats here are truly impressive, the first place I would point to people who don’t believe rapping takes talent. The guests they snag are also fantastic, from Dice Raw (kind of an unofficially member, not sure) on several tracks, Common on Universe at War, D’Angelo on The Hypnotic, and Q-Tip on Ital (The Universal Side). There are also some left field guests, like beatboxer Rahzel on two interludes, jazz singer Cassandra Wilson on the beautiful One Shine, and beat poet Ursula Rucker on The Adventures in Wonderland.

The playlist for the year I was born is pretty much hip hop through and through, with Aphex Twin’s Girl,Boy Song being the only representation from an outside genre. This was also, apparently, the year for obnoxiously misspelled titles, with both offerings from the Boot Camp Clik and 2Pac seriously screwing with my spell check.

1996 Playlist

Aphex Twin- Girl,Boy Song

De La Soul- Sunshine

Ghostface Killah featuring Raekwon and Cappadonna- Daytona 500

Ghostface Killah- The Soul Controller

Heltah Skeltah featuring O.G.C- Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka

Jay-Z- Can I Live

Mobb Deep- G.O.D. Pt. III

Originoo Gunn Clappaz- Da Storm

OutKast- Elevators (Me & You)

Ras Kass- On Earth As It Is…

Redman- Whateva Man

The Roots- What They Do

The Roots- Clones

UGK- One Day

2Pac- Ambitionz Az A Ridah

Robin Williams, Depression and Suicide

First, a disclaimer. The content of this informal site will remain focused on movies and music. This will be the only personal essay I will post up here, unless I write about my personal relation to music and movies over the years, though I have no plans to do so in the near future. Anyways, I felt like something had to be said, and I’ve been inspired by many others to open up, so here goes.

If you’re living under a rock, Robin Williams has recently died by suspected suicide (it hasn’t been confirmed yet as of writing). Many people better equipped than me (and better writers in general) to write about his life and issues have already done so. He has struggled with depression and addiction for much of his life, but not knowing this about him, I was shocked cold when I heard the news. For someone of such immense talent, the kind of talent to reach millions of people, and generosity to spread humor to others, it seems incomprehensible that he would take his own life.  I won’t speculate on whatever demons he was dealing with, though it is proof positive that depression can affect anyone, regardless of their status. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recent heroin overdose, it is another scary indication that even celebrities succumb to these sometimes brushed over illnesses. All I can hope for is that this is a wake up call to people who still believe depression isn’t a real issue.

The best metaphor I can think of about having depression, and apologies if I’m inadvertently plagiarizing, is that it is like living in a haunted house. You might not see the ghost constantly, but just knowing it is there is scary enough. It appears when you are lonely and vulnerable, agonizing you for seemingly no reason.  No matter how many times you tell yourself it can’t hurt you and it isn’t real, it still controls your life. You learn what triggers its appearances, and you develop coping mechanisms, but you can never really destroy it. Your best hope is just accepting it as a part of your life and taking it in stride. Eventually it might leave you alone, or maybe it was never there in the first place.

My depression has been mild. I’ve never contemplated suicide, mostly out of Catholic guilt (it’s breaking a Ten Commandment, after all) but also out of fear of how it would affect my family and friends. No matter how badly I might let someone in my life down, or hurt them, I can always make penance with them while I’m still here, and by ending it all, I’d be hurting them more than I ever have. Still, I don’t quite buy suicide as the coward’s way out. Of course, it’s never an acceptable option, no matter what. But people who say suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness often don’t have the type of empathy that could get someone contemplating suicide to put the gun down. If someone is contemplating suicide, they probably have low self esteem to begin with, so calling them a coward is just piling on.

Though I have never thought about ending it all, I’ve still had ups and downs over the years. Maybe I just take things to heart too often. I often let single emotions, like sorrow, guilt, shame, regret, anxiety, confusion or fear manifest themselves into something more difficult to deal with. Addiction has felt like a minor part of my life at times, and this has led to harmful, self destructive behavior that I won’t go into detail about here. Even now, as I’ve been liberated from older vices for several months, depression swoops in at random, tempting me to throw away my future to do something stupid. My coping mechanisms have been extremely helpful though. Watching and discussing movies has offered genuine escapism. Music can provide spiritual comfort, as well as an outlet for my restless energy. Lifting weights is perhaps the best way to release pent up emotions. Family, friends, and religion help ground me in reality. With only one of these things, let alone all of them, I’m confident I have a sturdy center for when I spin away.  

I’ll end on this note- I’ve never admitted to anyone I am depressed, and no one has asked me or even suspected. It’s not something I’m ashamed of. Most people who know me closely know I have a generally positive outlook, although that is difficult to sustain all the time. I am an introvert as well, though most people see me as just mellow and laid back, or just really intense (i.e. when I’m in the gym). Depression does not define who I am. It didn’t define Robin Williams either, though sadly it got the best of him.

(More film and music content to come later, though I’d like to hear people’s reactions to this piece. Sorry for it being self serving and not really about Robin Williams. Any comments would be much appreciated.)

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995)

The following is a track by track review of Raekwon’s seminal 1995 album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… posted by me over at RateYourMusic. I figured that since it is my favorite album of all time, I would break it down by song, so as to avoid jumping to hyperbolic conclusions that would arise in a more straightforward review. Of course, this format led to hyperbolic leaps as well, but oh well. I cleaned up the review a bit for this blog, hoping to make it more accessible to non hip hop loving readers. In fact, if there’s one album within this number one album countdown that I would want people to seek out if they haven’t heard it, it would be this. Maybe this post could be helpful in that regard. Or it’s just me rambling. Here we go…


1. Striving for Perfection

On this cinematic intro, we are introduced to our hosts, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, and find them disusing their ambitions both within and outside of the drug game with which their lives are devoted to. They have their backs against the wall, and assert themselves they need to do something bigger and more important than dealing drugs for the rest of their lives. This builds up a lot of tension for the album, and it’s a perfect length, at only a minute and a half long. It recalls both the intro for Ready to Die and Illmatic, while taking the positives from both and leaving the negatives. From the former, it creates the cinematic atmosphere without dragging on for too long, and it serves as a nice dialogue segue into the first track proper, much like Illmatic’s intro did for N.Y. State of Mind, although on that intro I don’t think Nas and AZ are talking about anything at all, just kicking random shit. It’s hard not to feel excited about the rest of the album after hearing this, whether it’s your first or thirtieth time around.

2. Knuckleheadz

And then the piano loop kicks in… RZA’s beat here sounds like a Shimmy Shimmy Ya knock off, except it’s even better than that beat. Maybe nostalgia is clouding my vision, because this was the first track off of Cuban Linx that I really fell in love with, but it’s pretty hard to deny the awesomeness of the proceedings here. You have Rae, Ghost and even U-God dropping smooth mafioso lines over the infectious instrumental. This is exhibit A of RZA’s mastery of the piano loop, which on here is just a little four note jingle that repeats for a couple times, disappears, than reappears over the steady drum percussion. Rapping wise, this is a good microcosm of the album as a whole, with the three rappers dropping slang laced quotables faster than the listener can keep up, although half the time I’m not even trying because I’m so magnetized by that beat. Not as dark or intense as some of what would follow, but a perfect first track anyways.

3. Knowledge God

One of only three Raekwon solo tracks, and it’s probably the best. Raekwon weaves a story about a big time crime boss who “teaches his seed Wu-Tang karate” and names his pet piranha marijuana, among other things. This is just streamlined imagery that, depending on what you think of Cuban Linx, either adds up to the bigger picture or is just pointless information. Obviously I am in the first camp, and I find Rae’s second verse, which goes into detail about this Mike Lavonia character, one of the most fascinating on the album. This attention to detail and general avoidance of an overarching story line (a la one of Kool G Rap’s Mafioso bloodbaths) places this firmly in the post-Illmatic influence NYC rap. RZA’s beat doesn’t stand out as much as the first track, but how could it really. It’s still very good, with those cinematic strings adding a lot to the chorus. A bit more relaxed, perfectly sequenced with what would come next.

4. Criminology

The most abrasive song on the album, this is just a 3 and a half minute gut punch that never gets old no matter how many times I hear it (it’s probably my most listened to track on the album). The Scarface dialogue in the beginning is perfect (funny aside- when I saw Scarface for the first time, and Pacino dropped those very lines, my first thought was “Oh, that’s the line from Criminology!” Even though obviously the movie came first. That’s how much of an impact this song has had on me). Ghostface is not kidding when he says “RZA baked the track and it’s militant”, this beat is more visceral than anything RZA’s ever done before, in my humble opinion. I think this was a subliminal influence on Mobb Deep’s G.O.D. Pt. III, as that song extensively sampled the score of Scarface, and created a heart-pumping cinematic vibe similar to RZA’s creation here. The changes in tempo, from swirling string laden madness to another keyboard loop, all over the same drums, is pure genius. Ghost and Rae drop short, urgent verses before getting out the way of the beat, which they smartly let ride out for the rest of the track. But those verses are wonderful, Ghost’s especially, ending on a bit of a mindfuck- “Then analyze my soundtrack for satisfaction/You react like a flashback chain reaction”. Unbelievable.

5. Incarcerated Scarfaces

Opens with dialogue from The Killer, and although I haven’t seen that film yet, I know when I do I will quickly identify these lines with this song. The drum loop than kicks in, and we are treated to another Rae solo joint, this time more aggressive, beatwise, than the calculating Knowledge God. The hook is great (“We can trade places get lifted in the staircases”) and could be considered a homage to Rae’s people who are locked up, not unlike Nas’s One Love, but he doesn’t stick to the theme that closely. Plenty of memorable one offs here (“You rollin like Trump, you get your meat lumped”) and RZA’s beat, while not having the same depth of sampling and variety as the other tracks, knocks righteously. Another track I played a lot when I first discovered the album.

6. Rainy Dayz

And this one took a little longer for me to appreciate, though now I see it as one of the best songs on the album (aka, every other song on the album). The beat is seriously pumping, with dope drum breaks coupled with more cinematic strings to create a dark yet weirdly danceable concoction. The fact that this fits perfectly on a workout playlist with Radiohead’s Idioteque, Björk’s Hyperballad, and Burial’s Archangel makes me wonder how this song would fare on a dancefloor, albeit in a depressing ass club. It was an obvious influence on Mobb Deep’s Quiet Storm, whether Havoc heard this song or not, as both are moody adrenaline shots connected by the theme of bad weather. The sung chorus by Blue Raspberry is probably what kept me at arm’s length at first, though I’ve come around on it completely, and now think it’s the track’s most important element. I like to imagine she’s singing about Rae and Ghost, who have now become completely immersed in the street life. Their verses are unsurprisingly dope, I think Rae outshines Ghost on here, with a dope opening line- “What bring rain hail snow and earthquakes/The beat breaks, cause all my niggas to break, son”. Again, a perfect description of the beat.

7. Guillotine (Swordz)

The first true posse cut of the album, as it has more than 2 guest spots (if that’s how one defines a posse cut). Inspectah Deck gets the ball rolling, as he usually does, and murders shit, again how he usually does. Ghost is up next, and he follows suit. Raekwon has a lot to live up to with his verse, but he manages to not get overshadowed by his co-hosts, dropping my favorite line of the song, and a line that sums up a lot about what I like about Rae’s style of rapping- “Fake niggas don’t get turns”. Simple, straight to the point and doesn’t rely on other lines to bookend it or place it in context. Again, it’s kind of stream of conscious, the exact opposite of GZA, whose lines always sound calculated and delivered for maximum effectiveness. His verse on here is actually one of my favorites of his, even if it’s short. Ok now lets’ talk about RZA’s instrumental, maybe the true highlight of the song. Wu fans will recognize it as an intro beat on Method Man’s Tical, and all I can say is thank God RZA didn’t just throw it away. Those Eastern strings, with those drums, oh shit. Flawless beat, how he manages to cook up these masterpieces one after another without them sounding alike is beyond me, probably why he burnt out after Wu Tang Forever.

8. Can It Be All So Simple (Remix)

Full disclosure- I like this more than the original (which appeared on Enter the Wu Tang [36 Chambers]). The beat is basically the same, but just better. And Rae and Ghost drop more memorable verses, at least to my ears. With that being said, this is one of the weaker tracks on the album, though it’s far from filler and in fact it’s a nice breather after the assault of the previous two songs.

9. Shark Niggas (Biters)

Everyone gets upset about this little skit, since our hosts all but directly call out The Notorious B.I.G. for biting off of Nas’s Illmatic cover. On the surface.. it’s a realistic complaint, but this crosses into the murky waters of “who’s biting who”, and the finger could easily be pointed back at Rae and Ghost for biting Biggie. Regardless, I’ve never been to mad at this skit like some people seem to be, it’s just business as usual.

10. Ice Water

Obviously, they’re talking about cocaine (Ghost even says on the intro “sniff your brains out, all my Al Capone/Al Pacino niggas). It should be noted here that if you don’t like music about drugs or dug dealing, this might not be a great album to listen to. Hell, we even hear Raekwon and Ghostface sniffing coke on the intro to Knowledge God (they most likely weren’t actually sniffing cocaine, but the affect it gives off is unsetting). Anyways, back to Ice Water- the beat is slamming, with a haunting vocal sample playing throughout, making an interesting parallel to the female vocal sample on Verbal Intercourse. Ghost sets it off with a mighty fine verse before handing it off to Cappadonna, making his first of two appearances on the album. This is the less memorable of the two, but he sounds pretty good over one of the best beats he’s ever been given the chance to rap over. Rae bats cleanup and drops this famous line- “Pulling bleach out, trying to throw it in my eyesight/ What the fuck is on your mind?” which The Notorious B.I.G. would reference later on Kick in the Door, a subliminal shot at the many New York rappers Biggie thought were jealous of his fame. I’ve always felt this track was underrated, tucked in the middle of the album surrounded by other classics.

11. Glaciers of Ice

This is another track that took a little while to grow on me though of course now I see it as another one of the album’s many crown jewels. RZA’s beat here is just magnificent, with a simple 1-1-2 drum loop played under a guitar sample, or something, with gunfire, string/harp snatches, and female vocals on the hook (possibly from Blue Raspberry, hard to tell) intertwining in the background to create a claustrophobic, high octane atmosphere. The beat aims high and sounds like it could fall apart at any second, hip hop’s equivalent of OK Computer schizophrenia madness. The skit at the beginning is also pretty funny, listen to Ghostface get genuinely excited talking about shoes. Finally, this song is off the charts lyrically, like most other songs on the album, but I’ve always really liked how Ghostface and Rae, Ghost especially, sound over a faster moving beat. But then I hear the next song and change my mind entirely…

12. Verbal Intercourse

The best word to describe this song is ethereal. Not exactly what you were expecting from a Wu-Tang album, huh? Well, that’s the effect the female vocal sample gives off, and while the constant moaning and mumbling sounded distracting to me at first, to the point where I couldn’t concentrate on the lyrics, I’ve come to love it as one of RZA’s most daring and brilliant samples. Nas shows up on here to drop a famous guest verse, as he’s the first non Wu member to appear on a Wu track, while Raekwon and Ghostface likewise are at the top of their games. Listen to Ghostface get abstract in a way only Ghost can with his sudden changes in direction- what starts off as a verse about the stress of the drug game turns into streamlined prison imagery, from vests made out of phonebooks, sharpened toothbrushes and clean-looking inmates getting “bashed trying to turn a dial”. And he ends with a roundabout statement that very well sums up the track- “Me Nas and Rae, got the best product on the block”. No doubt.

13. Wisdom Body

Here’s the only song on the album I never truly loved. Ghostface Killah’s solo track is not so bad as it is just plain lazy. Then again, on another album this wouldn’t be so terrible, and the fact that it doesn’t scale to the heights of the other tracks is hardly a complaint. It’s short enough. The pimp dialogue in the beginning perhaps makes the whole thing misogynistic, but Ghost avoids treading down the same path. The beat reminds me a bit of Scarface’s My Block for some reason.

14. Spot Rusherz

I always like how this was sequenced right after Ghost’s solo outing, reminds me of how Sucka Nigga directly followed 8 Million Stories on Midnight Marauders. This is one of the finest story telling tracks in all of hip hop history, and it’s a fairly simple story at that. What I’ve come to love about this song is that it’s relentlessly forward moving, detail after detail, and it comes to an unsatisfying conclusion, unlike one of Biggie’s mafioso tales or Kool G Rap’s high body count outings. You might not be able to follow it on first listening, and even after hearing it countless times, it still flies right past.

15. Ice Cream

Another beat that sounds outside of RZA’s comfort zone. With the piano loop, faint vocal sample and lack of grimy drums, this sounds more like a Pete Rock beat from The Main Ingredient than something out of the 36 Chambers. Like I’m even complaining though- it’s another perfect instrumental, plain and simple. It’s a song about the ladies, though perhaps it shouldn’t be for the ladies, considering some of the lines dropped on here. Ghost and Rae keep things PG for the most part, with Rae dropping more perfect Rae-esque one offs- “You looking good fly colored Asian”. Than Cappadonna shows up and steals the show with some hilariously vulgar lines- “Ice cream you got me falling out like a cripple/ I love you like I love my dick size” than fantasizes about getting a handjob, and to cap things off, ends with “I jism like a giant, break wombs out of the socket”. Classy. Method Man has hook duties but contributes a quasi verse at the end that’s about as dirty as Cappadonna’s, albeit not as funny. A perfect song.

16. Wu-Gambinos

The most expansive posse cut on the album, with Ghost, Masta Killa, Method Man and RZA all contributing verses alongside our host. The skit at the beginning is a little long, I can see someone getting frustrated by it on first listen, but at this point it’s become so engrained as a part of the track in my head that I couldn’t do without it. Plus I would take that over some silly Kung Fu dialogue a la Liquid Swords any day of the week. Anyways, yet another dope RZA beat (yawn) with particular emphasis on the piano this time around. Not much else I can say at this point, other than classic.

17. Heaven & Hell

And so slowly the album begins to wind down. This track is easily the most downbeat on the album, with Blue Raspberry showing up again to deliver some sad background vocals on the hook. The beat is slow rolling, with our hosts trading bars mid verse like they did on Mobb Deep’s Right Back at You. A continuation of sorts to Rainy Dayz, our hosts tackle the trials and tribulations of the drug game, and as things start to slow down, our stars begin to reflect a bit on the lives they lead. Reminds me a bit of The Soul Controller, the best track that wasn’t on Ghostface Killah’s Ironman (sample wars, SMH). Not a track I listen to often, but perfect in context of the album.

18. North Star (Jewels)

Labeled as a bonus track, it’s basically a continuation of Heaven & Hell, sans Ghostface. Instead, that guy from Ghost’s All That I Got is You shows up to reminisce about Raekwon’s childhood. It’s sweet, if kind of random, and eventually Rae decides he better start rapping before all the listeners tune out. And so, the album closes on a bit of a low note, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Like the end credits to a great film, you are still glued in your seat to watch them long after the action has ended.





The playlist this year is record breaking for me- the most non hip hop tracks so far, with five. Two of those are from my number two album of the year, Björk’s Post. Army of Me fits in with the muscular fatalism of the year’s best hip hop, making an especially interesting listening companion with Mobb Deep’s Shook Ones Pt. II, while Hyperballad is just the best song ever. D’Angelo gives neo-soul a huge boost with his debut album, which combines soul crooning with rap flavored beats and verse structure. Moby’s soaring God Moving Over the Face of the Waters gets on for its breathtaking use in the film Heat’s final moments, and PJ Harvey brings us her love, making us feel uncomfortable in the process. At the end of the day though, it was the year of the Wu-Tang Clan, with GZA/Genius and ODB representing with highlights off their finest albums.

1995 Playlist

Big L- Let ‘Em Have It “L”

Björk- Army of Me

Björk- Hyperballad

D’Angelo- Cruisin’

GZA/Genius featuring Ghosftace Killah, Killah Priest & RZA- 4th Chamber

Kool G Rap featuring MF Grimm- Take ‘Em To War

Mobb Deep- Shook Ones Pt. II

God Moving Over the Face of the Waters- Moby

Ol’ Dirty Bastard- Brooklyn Zoo

PJ Harvey- To Bring You My Love

Raekwon featuring Ghostface Killah- Criminology

Raekwon featuring Ghostface Killah, Method Man & Cappadonna- Ice Cream

The Roots- Mellow My Man

Smif-N-Wessun- Wrekonize

2Pac- So Many Tears


Illmatic (1994)

A strange thing happened in the hip hop world in 1994. A young upstart from Queensbridge, a high school dropout with a single from 1992 that generated modest buzz and a guest spot on Main Source’s posse cut Live at the Barbeque from 1991, was dropping a debut album. It was 10 tracks long, with a minute long intro, and only one guest spot, also a nobody from Queensbridge. But New York City’s finest producers of the time came together to give this kid some of the finest beats they have ever contributed to the hip hop world. DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip shaped the sounds of Illmatic, a lineup so tantalizing that even their weakest beats would have made for compulsive listening- the fact that this is some of their best work seems almost redundant. This was a time when one producer handled your entire album, and each producer on Illmatic had side projects or groups that they handled themselves. To hear them come together on Illmatic, it sounds and feels like an All Star team coming together. And then there’s Nas himself, going by the nickname Nasty Nas, spitting verses of unparalleled density and combining complex wordplay, up to date slang and minutiae attention to detail that set him firmly ahead of his time and raised the bar for lyricism in 1994. Even at its 20th anniversary, the album is genuinely unmatched in the lyrical department. There are no lines that date Illmatic, nor has there been a new rapper that has come out since that can top Nas’s performance. There have been more intellectual, abstract, hardcore, technical, endearing or accessible rappers, but nobody who can combine those traits as deftly as Nas on here.

Now I have to resort to the cliché “what more can I say about this album that hasn’t already been said?”, but on here it’s true. Illmatic is touted as the greatest hip hop album of all time, a reputation that is well earned as virtually every walk of hip hop head can agree on this album. Backpackers, old school dinosaurs, progressive Kanye loving teens, the hardcore Timberland boots and hoodies crowd, intellectual conscious listeners, and any other sub-thread of hip hop fans you can think of gather under Illmatic’s umbrella. For me, I may slightly prefer the number one of next year, or even the previous year, but as far as an objective number one, Illmatic is an inarguable choice.

The production is just too flawless throughout, and deserves an entire write up itself. DJ Premier kicks us off with a fatal baseline and even deadlier piano lick on N.Y. State of Mind, a candidate for the best Primo beat in a year flooded with great ones, from the transcendental Mass Appeal to the watery thump of Come Clean. Pete Rock arrives in top form with The World is Yours, with an insanely perfect piano loop and head bop inducing drums. The soul brother even sings the hook with that awesome deep voice, and creates one of hip hop’s most endearing mantras. His beat might not be as dense as some of his stuff on The Main Ingredient, also from 94, but it’s pretty much better than anything on that album anyways. Then there’s the underrated Large Professor, who contributes three beats here (Halftime, One Time 4 Your Mind, It Ain’t Hard to Tell). As the brainchild of Main Source (he was the rapper and producer, AKA, he WAS Main Source) he put Nas on Live at the Barbeque, and hooked up his first single, the sleigh bells driven Halftime. That beat, along with It Ain’t Hard to Tell, represent some of the finest fast paced boom bap of all time. The beat of the latter is especially iconic, with those looped vocal samples and ill drum programming. Extra P sadly never got the chance to produce an entire album himself in this time period (minus his shelved self titled 96 album). Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest) blesses his fellow Queens native with a hot beat on One Love, a laid back yet infectious jam that could have fit snugly in on Midnight Marauders.

Finally, part of Illmatic’s mysticism these days is the fact that Nas couldn’t follow it up with another classic, and every album he released since then has paled in the shadow of his enormous debut. Truthfully, the problems with his later albums mostly deal with production, as his lyrics have stayed mostly strong, except when he strains too hard trying to be thoughtful or political, or when he just gets too egotistical. But then again, virtually everything he ever needed to say in his career is already said on Illmatic. This is the life of a ghetto youth, from the fatalistic crime fantasies, grim realities, rugged individualism (“Born alone, die alone”), cracked philosophies that read nihilistic but are more hopeful than anything, tight nit communities birthed out of a shared struggle, liquor, drugs, stress, religion, violence. Everything is conveyed here in tightly constructed verses and a hesitant detachment. Where Nas stumbled in subsequent albums portraying similar imagery, he does it so effortlessly on his debut. For better or for worse, if I want to listen to a Nas album, 90% of the time I’m going with Illmatic.



It should go without saying that the playlist for this year is overflowing with classics. The fact is that I could have made 5 or 6 more playlists of the same artists but with different songs off the same albums, and the quality would still be top notch. Aphex Twin and Portishead are the non hip hop picks, though both tracks have similarities to  hip hop beat structures, make of that what you will.

1994 Playlist

Aphex Twin- Hexagon

Digable Planets featuring Jazzy Joyce- 9th Wonder (Blackitolism)

Gang Starr- Mass Appeal

Jeru The Damaja- Come Clean

Nas- N.Y. State of Mind

Nas- The World Is Yours

The Notorious B.I.G.- Juicy

O.C.- Time’s Up

Organized Konfusion featuring Q-Tip & O.C.- Let’s Organize

Pete Rock & CL Smooth- All The Places

Pete Rock & CL Smooth- Get On The Mic

Portishead- Glory Box

Redman- Bobyahed2dis

Scarface- No Tears

UGK- Front, Back & Side to Side


Midnight Marauders (1993)

I spent longer than usual typing up these typically easy yearly best posts for 1993, trying to encapsulate the year in hip hop and write a clever narrative about the burgeoning creativity in both mainstream and underground, the east coast vs. west coast in terms of quality (have we ever seen another year so split down the middle? Even the dirty south starting to come into its own this year) and hardcore vs. bohemia trends. But in the words of Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, I think I ran my jibs enough. Frankly, 93 was just a dope year for hip hop no matter how you spin it. A classic here, a backpacker gem there, undeniable single over there. The goofy name of this blog derives from a 93 album (hint: it’s not the Wu-Tang one). The fact that my number one and number two choices were released on the same day is unfathomable. And yet 94 somehow managed to top 93 in number of classics. More on that later.

My selection of Midnight Marauders as number one here is somewhat arbitrary. I felt bad for snubbing the Tribe in 91, plus the Wu would be back on top in 95, and 06, and 09. Okay, so Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is undeniable, no arguments here, but Midnight Marauders goes down a bit easier. The beats here are pristine funk and jazz flavored boom bap, perfect for relaxing or partying to, while RZA’s grungy, lo-fi drums on the Wu’s debut are better suited for the gym or a dusty basement. Rappers Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are also more accessible and comfortable sounding together, while the 9 man Wu roster scramble to stand out while not getting the opportunity to expand their personas as they would on their solo joints. And I’ve never cared for the Wu’s abrasive cover art, (those white masks are kinda whack, sorry), while the Tribe’s artwork is all time classic. For those uninitiated, it contains headshots of a who’s-who in hip hop in 93, all with headphones on apparently listening to the very album they are featured on the cover of. There are three different versions of the cover with all different people. And than there’s that lady in the foreground, who also narrates the album. Perfection!

Midnight Marauders is simply one of the easiest albums to listen to. It’s the first album I would recommend to hip hop virgins unexposed to pre 97 stuff. As I alluded to earlier, the production is flawless and unlike anything else in hip hop to that point. I hear traces of it in Brand Nubian’s One For All, perhaps the Jungle Brothers’ Done By the Forces of Nature. But those influences are topped here. The looped up guitar on Award Tour, the horns on Steve Biko (Stir it Up), the live guitar playing from Raphael Saadiq on Midnight (which recalls a certain Untitled [How Does it Feel], nearly a decade later) to the chopped up Rakim sample laced perfectly with the drums on We Can Get Down- it’s all fun and accessible, making the album a huge commercial success as well as a critical one. If you can’t get down with the Tribe’s sound on here, you won’t have much luck with pretty much any of the Native Tongues albums that preceded it.

The rapping is also an improvement from the Tribe’s past efforts, especially from Phife Dawg who embraces his goofball punchline rapper image and gets serious (8 Million Stories) at the same time. He has some of the best quotables of all time on this album, from this gem on the mouth watering posse cut Keep It Rollin’- “People love the Dawg like the kids love Barney/ I love you, you love me/ The shorty Phife Dawg is your favorite MC” and his cheeky shout out to EPMD, who he claims is his favorite rap group in the world (but his favorite solo rapper would be him, if he ever went solo). He is the ideal foil to the somewhat self serious Q-Tip, who only enters conscious mode once on this album (his solo joint Sucka Nigga, which is poignant enough). He’s mostly having fun on this album too, though, while staying true to his bohemia roots (“Street poetry is my everyday/ But yo I gotta stop when you trot my way” from Electric Relaxation). Not to mention he has one of the most distinctive voices in all of hip hop, making every word he says carry new meaning.



The playlist is littered with hip hop classics, rowdy anthems and laid back jazz tinged boom bap. There were a couple of difficult cuts, from Lords Of The Underground, Onyx, Spice 1 and Cypress Hill, but overall this is the tightest playlist yet. Björk and R. Kelly are the non hip hop selections, and Big Time Sensuality from the former is one of my most played songs from this year. I don’t understand how people prefer the remix to the sugary house bounce of the original (this is one of the most addictive beats Björk has ever sung over). There’s also the underrated Bullies Of The Block from the ahead-of-their-time Freestyle Fellowship. This opening track to their sophomore album is one of the best musical bloodrushes in a year full of muscular raps. I can even overlook the cringe inducing homophobia on Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down for that awesome hook.

1993 Playlist

Björk- Big Time Sensuality (Album version)

Black Moon- Son Get Wrec

Brand Nubian- Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down

Digable Planets- Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)

De La Soul- I Am I Be

Freestyle Fellowship- Bullies Of The Block

KRS-One- Outta Here

Naughty By Nature- Hip Hop Hooray

R. Kelly- Your Body’s Callin’

Snoop Doggy Dogg featuring Nate Dogg, Kurupt & Warren G- Ain’t No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None)

Souls Of Mischief- 93 ‘Till Infinity

A Tribe Called Quest- We Can Get Down

A Tribe Called Quest- Electric Relaxation

Wu-Tang Clan- Protect Ya Neck

Wu-Tang Clan- C.R.E.A.M.


Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)

If you thought my write up for last year’s winner was a bit shaky, than get ready for an even rougher review for my 92 pick, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92. While jazz writing clearly isn’t my forte, writing about electronic music might as well be writing in another language. And yet here I am, attempting to explain why this peculiar album, another left field number one pick that goes against numbers two through ten, keeps drawing me back, with each listen making it more clear than the last that this is indeed the best album of 1992. To spare those who actually know a thing or two about electronica, and myself from embarrassment, I’ll be brief. For starters, this doesn’t sound like ambient music, or at least my preconceived notion of ambient going into it. As opposed to part two (released in 94) which was all texture and subtle rhythms, this album is surprisingly engaging with bass in the forefront and recognizable, even danceable, melodies. Sure, it’s nowhere near the insanity of some of Aphex Twin’s more hectic later work, like the Richard D. James Album, but it still has a warm groovy vibe that really overtakes the listener on repeat visits. Xtal, Pulsewidth and Ageispolis are standouts in this regard, while the album takes a bit of a darker turn in the second half, though it ends on high notes.

The amazing thing about this record is its seeming lack of influences, and its subsequently huge influence on the genre of ambient techno over the next two decades. It reminds me a bit of Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid In Full, the seminal 1987 hip hop album that changed the way emcees rapped forever while sounding ever so slightly dated when listened to today. It’s hard for the album not to, because nearly everyone bit from Rakim’s internal rhyming, ain’t-no-joke style presented on Paid in Full that he only improved upon on his less influential but arguably better follow ups. Likewise, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 doesn’t sound jaw droppingly fresh today, but it’d be foolish to dismiss the album as dated simply because of changing technology allowing for electronic artists to make more modern sounding music today. If you’re new to techno, this is where you start. Give it some time and it’ll hook you, not to mention make everything else to follow from the genre seem irrelevant.



This year’s playlist is once again chock full of hip hop classics. It is also the most diverse playlist yet, with a whopping four non hip hop tracks. Aphex Twin, Julee Cruise (off the Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me soundtrack) and Madonna (yes) break through, and I was tempted to throw Tori Amos or Sade in there as well, but they need more listens to hang with the big boys. This playlist has the distinction of having the best hip hop song ever made (before you read on, see if you can guess…) Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s They Reminisce Over You, which is also the second best song of the decade. You’ll have to stay tuned to find out what number one is, though deductive reasoning should lead you to the conclusion that it is not a hip hop song (!).

1992 Playlist

Aphex Twin- Xtal

Aphex Twin- Pulsewidth

Diamond D- What You Seek

Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Doggy Dogg- Nuthin’ But a G Thang

EPMD featuring K-Solo & Redman- Headbanger

Eric B. & Rakim- What’s On Your Mind?

Ice Cube- It Was a Good Day

Julee Cruise- Questions in a World of Blue

Kool G Rap & DJ Polo- Ill Street Blues

Kool G Rap & DJ Polo featuring Scarface, Bushwick Bill & Ice Cube- Two to the Head

Madonna- Deeper and Deeper

Pete Rock & CL Smooth- They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)

Redman- Blow Your Mind

Showbiz & A.G. featuring Big L, Deshawn & Lord Finesse- Represent

UGK- Pocket Full of Stones