Top Ten Underrated Rap Albums of 1996
o last year the discourse shifted to Houston and everyone loved UGK's album Ridin' Dirty, which actually came out a decade ago. Not that I've been down with UGK since Too Hard to Swallow or anything, but its sudden rise in the rap ranks seemed, while not undeserved, a tad arbitrary. So now that it's 2006 and 1996 seems like eons ago (junior high for me), what OTHER 1996 rap records deserve critical reevaluation from the mainstream music press? A bunch of them! Some of these aren't exactly obscure, some are more so, but all of them are, for the most part, underappreciated by fans of any genre.
1996 was a weird time for rap music; it was certainly a transitional one. 2Pac died after releasing a double-album opus, the west coast continued to "rise," and New York was at the tail end of a creative explosion. Rap had been coming from every direction for a while, but the press preferred to cover a bi-coastal war that surely made more sense (giving them the benefit of the doubt here) at the time than it does in retrospect. This was the year of Jay-Z's arrival, along with a wave of other future-stars, from Lil’ Kim to Mos Def (who appeared on Da Bush Babee's Gravity). The next year would be B.I.G.: Along with the Notorious one, Puffy's string of #1 singles defined rap, pop, and gangsta all it once; Wu-Tang released their biggest album, and the country seemed to explode with the bubbling of crews from Memphis to Miami to New Orleans to the Bay to the original home of rap music, New York. 1996 could be seen as a hinge; a moment at which rap music threatened, for the final time, to tear apart at the seams, a tug-of-war between the heights of the pop charts to the tunnel-bangers of the underground that, upon release, would make the Hammer disses seem quaint; with Pac, a much more complicated set of issues were introduced: class, race and culture; above all, the question of authenticity, of realness, what it meant to the artist, the audience, the critic.
These ten albums are hardly representative of rap in '96, and do not provide a nearly adequate cross section. Don't consider this a history, consider this a list of some great albums that are worth your time to investigate.
10. Edo G - Dedicated EP
Sorta cheating I guess, since it isn't an LP, but Edo G (alternately "Ed O.G.") released a beautiful and underappreciated recording in 1996. His work with the Bulldogs is hailed (rightly so) for Life of a Kid in the Ghetto, and his subsequent “comeback” in the 00s are worth a listen. It is very dark, "'dedicated' to the killers and the hundred dollar billas," post-Mobb Deep mid-90s goth-rap; sparse, dry, claustrophobic. Regardless, this is a great classicist NYC release, a midpoint between his early successes and his recent conservatism.
09. Foxy Brown - Ill Na Na
Yeah, Jay-Z wrote some of these verses, it’s too heavily influenced by the now-quaint Firm mythology, and it's not even her best album (that would be 2001's Broken Silence). But Ill Na Na was a release that announced the arrival of a significant voice in rap, one that would be consistently underrated. Overshadowed by Lil’ Kim (who is a better rapper, although not particularly similar), Foxy Brown's deep, fierce vocals graced one of the more underrated production teams in NY hip-hop: Poke and Tone of the Trackmasters. Sure, their beats were “mercenary,” “generic” even, compared to the dusty auteur's form pioneered by Premier and Large Pro, but it was foresight: Ill Na Na was an omen of the future, a time where “real rap” would no longer exist to counter pop, but to engage it in creative dialogue.
08. Do Or Die - Picture This
It was this or Crucial Conflict. Signed to Rap-A-Lot on the strength of singles like "No Love" and the perfect "Po Pimp," Do or Die dropped this mid-90s Chi-town gangsta classic to solid sales. Critical reception was a bit lukewarm, but hey, it was the Fugees’ year, right? Do or Die were extremely consistent in their careers, but they never sounded this volatile, never this hard, this real, this harsh. The dark, mob-style production, handled primarily by the Legendary Traxter, is on an apocalyptic G thang. The incredible centerpiece is "Po Pimp," with its smooth crooned hook and Twista's ecstatic double-time, a slow rolling classic.
07. Dayton Family - F.B.I.
Flint, MI residents Dayton Family dropped some of the darkest, most paranoid mid-90s rap music. Released concurrently with 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me, F.B.I. has a similar outlook: a lonely, angry, affecting attack on a harsh existence. Nothing hits as hard as the last track, "Ghetto," which is not 'sad rap' but profoundly, intensely tragic hip-hop. I've developed a distaste for the casual condescension of "ghetto"-as-adjective, and hearing this track intensifies this feeling. More effectively than most assaults on poverty and racism, "Ghetto" transcends sadness to capture better than any other rap song from this era a sense of utter hopelessness.
06. Master P - Ice Cream Man
One of the last No Limit albums recorded while P remained in California—he would soon depart for his hometown of New Orleans, and bring his rising record label with him—Ice Cream Man is also one of the last CDs he recorded that reveled in G-funk as a musical vehicle. Beats by the Pound soon shifted, developing a wildly schizophrenic and exciting (if inconsistent) style, but here the mood is classicist by gangsta standards. No one producer quite harnesses P's growl like KLC, however, whose "Back Up Off Me" sounds like the kind of beat Duke Ellington would have made had he been born 80 years later, shuffling and rumbling horn blats, G-jungle-funk.
05. E-40 - Hall of Game
This was E-40's big one, the first major label release and one of his best. His eccentric, highly-enunciated style was on full display with a variety of guests that list like a who's who of west coast history: Spice 1, Tupac, Keak Da Sneak, etc. Oh, and Too $hort of course, who joins the Bay area superstar on the slamming funk of "Rapper's Ball," a K-Ci assisted single that lets the Cali MCs stretch in style, idiosyncratic as it may be. "I'm not a freestyler, don't rap for free, mane." The production is polished, although a tad dull in retrospect, but certainly serviceable, and with an MC as consistently inspired as E-40 the production works for him rather than the other way around. Oh and one more thing: before "Nextel Chirp" there was "Ring It." Recognize.
04. Various Artists - So So Def Bass All Stars
This may seem a bit tokenistic, but seriously—one of the greatest albums of that year, if for super-smash "My Boo" alone. Subsequent So So Def releases are definitely worth checking as well, and I may prefer them for the emphasis post-"My Boo" on R&B jams. Executive produced by Lil Jon!
03. Smoothe Da Hustler - Once Upon a Time In America
If you hear one track on this, make it "Broken Language," one of the hardest braggadocious cuts ever released over banging piano tones. The album, though, stretches out content-wise, with scrappy vocals that work just as well over smooth introspective R&B like "Only Human" as they do on fierce bangers.
02. Heather B - Takin Mine
Oh yeah she was on The Real World, but in a year with Smif-n-Wessun and OGC dropping classics it was DA HEARTBREAKER who released the hardest boot camp clik record not actually made by a member of the boot camp clik. Dark, certified underground hard-ass ruffneck take no prisoners east-coast rap, "classic like coca-cola!" Oh indeed.
01. Juggaknots - Clear Blue Skies EP
I'm going to sort of cheat with this one; the Clear Blue Skies EP was released in 1996, but only upon its re-release in 2003 did all of these tracks see the light of day, along with bonus material. Clear Blue Skies is perhaps the best representative of Fondle 'Em records' status as New York's premier underground label in the late 90s. MC Breezly Brewin has a warm, heavy baritone, and the impact of his voice and thick, rounded syllables perfectly accompany the dark jazz loops on songs like "Trouble Man" or the two-part uplift/ominousness of "Romper Room." The elegiac title track, where Brewin plays the role of father and son in a poignant attack on racism, sounds more profoundly sad than angry. Lately underground rap has acquired a specious rep, viewed as insular and square; although some artists seem driven by a depressingly limited musical perspective, The Juggaknots make the case that underground hip-hop can take the listener to new and interesting places without leaving the dusty and “conservative” cobwebs of NY traditions.
20 Other Underrated 1996 Classics (And Not-So-Classics)
01. M.O.P. - Firing Squad
02. Da Bush Babees - Gravity
03. Heltah Skeltah - Nocturnal
04. Big Noyd - Episodes of a Hustler
05. Messy Marv - Messy Situations
06. Lord Finesse - The Awakening
07. Xzibit - At the Speed of Life
08. Too $hort - Gettin' It
09. Ras Kass - Soul On Ice
10. 5th Ward Boyz - Situations
11. Busta Rhymes - The Coming
12. Crucial Conflict - The Final Tic
13. Lost Boyz - Legal Drug Money
14. Tela - Piece of Mind
15. V/A - America Is Dying Slowly
16. Poor Righteous Teachers - New World Order
17. Geto Boys - The Resurrection
18. 3-6 Mafia - Tear The Club Up
19. Sadat X - Wild Cowboys
20. Keith Murray - Enigma
By: David Drake
Published on: 2006-02-10