Illustration by James Ormiston
With her new album set to drop this year and two teasing tracks released unexpectedly, Alex Macpherson weighs the significance of the most recent work of one of the best rappers of our time.
The most important thing about the sundry reactions to Nicki Minaj’s latest single, “Lookin’ Ass Nigga”, is this: dudes are shook. Trey Songz and Cassidy are shook, though it hasn’t been enough to invest their weak, misogynistic response salvoes with any power or worth. The hubbub of commenters beneath its video are shook: “fuck you nikki imma fap my dick to your phat ass and nothing you can do about it, you’re just a piece of meat,” mewled one in protest at the track’s evisceration of his gender. Another, spectacularly missing the point, pouted: “fuck this fake ass ho if you don’t want niggas lookin at you kill yourself fuckin hypocritical ass bitch.”
It’s worth noting that Minaj chose to premiere “Lookin’ Ass Nigga” not via a mainstream outlet such as YouTube or a nice, credible, tastemaking blog—but through World Star Hip Hop, the underbelly of the urban internet. Originally designed for unknown rappers to upload their own videos, its daily traffic of over one million visitors is now largely thanks to mobile phone footage of real life fights. And as the aforementioned comments demonstrate, its levels of misogyny make YouTube seem like a haven of progressive thought.
No wonder Minaj is angry. It’s been a long time coming; not the flamboyant, cartoonish anger of “Roman’s Revenge”, nor the bratty shit-talking of “Stupid Hoe”—both of which found her levelling her acid tongue and assortment of, “these bitches are my sons,” punchlines at fellow women. The anger of “Lookin’ Ass Nigga” is a cold, hard one. Minaj does not smile once in the video; one doesn’t sense this is fun to her. You could call it feminist, were it not ultimately indefensible on those grounds—but Minaj opts not to present a well-argued case against the misogyny she encounters as a woman in hip-hop (and the world), but to hurt her targets in the places it hurts the most with a cathartic, violent and misandrist gut response.
Hence: a video that reduces men to a single body part, a leering, creeping pair of eyes. Shots of Minaj on a beach are intercut with shots of her reflected in the man’s pupils, a target of the male gaze. Minaj’s relationship to sexualization has been scattershot and contradictory (adjectives which sum up her MO across all subjects). She consciously rejected the straightforwardly sexual image used to sell her in her early mixtape days in favor of becoming a shape-shifting, technicolor cartoon: one minute she’s pandering to the male gaze, the next creating a hyper-feminine pink Barbie fantasy, the next rupturing it all with violent or comedic grotesquerie. (Sometimes all has occurred within the same video, as on “Stupid Hoe”.) On “Lookin’ Ass Nigga”, Minaj defends her right to present herself sexually without being reduced to it: “Look at y’all lookin’ ass niggas / Stop lookin’ at my ass ass, niggas,” she spits contemptuously. The camera lingers on her ass, but also her mouth, reeling off rapid-fire put-downs; her eyes, dripping with scorn; her hands, armed with heavy-duty weaponry. The video concludes with the target turning, gunning down the stare that trapped her—our stare, as the final shot makes clear.
Hence: “I’m raping you niggas.” It’s the most shocking line in the song: Minaj flips rape culture back in the faces of men, but also perpetuates it. It’s politically indefensible, ultimately. But on a visceral, gut level? It’s analogous to Descent, Talia Lugacy’s 2007 film in which Rosario Dawson plays a rape victim who achieves catharsis by enacting an equivalent assault on her rapist: whether it’s strictly right is irrelevant compared to whether it’s real. And context is crucial. Minaj is a woman in the public eye, which means she has assuredly received her share of rape threats. She works in an industry in which her own A-list collaborators, such as Rick Ross, think nothing of rapping lines promoting date rape. Minaj may be blasé much of the time, but it’s hard to believe she would throw this threat out thoughtlessly. It’s a, “how does it feel to be on the receiving end, for once, of something women experience daily?” moment. It’s not progressive, but artistically it’s a sucker punch.
Minaj has been building up to this. Lately, there’s been an unspoken hip-hop rule that shit-talking and beefs should be gender-segregated. Witness T.I.’s response in 2012 to Azealia Banks’ attempt to drag him into her feud with Iggy Azalea: “That’s bitch shit, I’ma man. You ain’t got no business addressing me. Get your man to address me, if you got a man, get him to address me and he and I can speak on it.” When Kendrick Lamar laid down the gauntlet to rap rivals on his much-hyped “Control” verse last year, Minaj was a notable omission to the names he called out—and her gender was the only plausible explanation. Her superb response—to declare herself the king of New York above the boys—was illustrative of her outrage.
Despite rap matriarch Missy Elliott’s valiant attempts to promote solidarity among female rappers, divide-and-rule tactics have paid off lately: Banks, Azalea, Angel Haze, Lil’ Kim and Minaj herself have all dutifully played up to the catfight stereotypes. On record, Minaj has historically cleaved to this as well, with her most vicious ethering reserved for female rivals. There’s little sign of her stopping that—but the past year or so has at least seen her widen her focus. “The Boys”, her wickedly funny collaboration with Cassie, saw the pair throw pitying shade at Drake’s faux-sensitive sad-boy aesthetic; her guest verses on Ciara’s “I’m Out” found Minaj gleefully joining forces for a break-up anthem. Even better, her remix of PTAF’s “Boss Ass Bitch”, snuck out at the end of December as the opening salvo in her Pink Print campaign, contained a step-by-step guide to eviscerating straight men:
“I said, rule number one to be a boss ass bitch:
Never let a clown nigga try to play you.
If he play you, then rule number two:
Fuck his best friends, then make ’em yes-men;
And get a dick pic, and then you press send;
And send a red heart and send a kissy face;
And tell him that his friends love how your pussy taste.”
Nicki Minaj as feminist icon? That’s too reductive a label—though it’s worth noting the contrast between her own feminist moments and the shallow racism of self-proclaimed feminist Lily Allen. What is clear is that Minaj is biting back against the patriarchy ever more explicitly—and that can only be a good thing for her upcoming era. ~
In celebration of the resurrection of his twenty year-old Manchester hip-hop club night Slow Down (co-helmed by Sean Canty of Demdike Stare), the musician, artist, and Finders Keepers label head runs down his list of the crate-digging hip-hop that informed one young record enthusiast’s outlook on the entirety of music. Illustration by Inka Gerbert.
In an era where record collector obsessives and nostalgic DJ nerds frantically enthuse about lost tapes, early demos and missing links, it becomes a bit difficult to decipher which of these hyperbole artefacts truly represent a genuine cultural LOSS and which ones were, lets face it, a bit crap. It’s not unusual for a certain dinosaur demographic to start waxing about an important “life changing event” that happened in a cheap mid-week venue with a tiny crowd and some classic tunes, and it doesn’t take long before everybody’s picking up a prescription for the same pair of rose-tinted spectacles, and the skewed memory suspiciously becomes true legend! You’re getting old, mate… Slow Down!
For almost twenty years a possibly-pioneering hip-hop club night that fits this description has been cryogenically frozen in the smoke-filled memories of a small number of Mancunian b-boys, b-girls, record nerds, beat-diggers, and rappers. And as the years have passed, its main focus of Real Rap Music and its once susceptible place in the food chain has mutated into a beast too big to fit in the fridge. If those original, hungry Slow Down participants could walk out of that tiny club in Manchester, after dancing or head-nodding to the likes of Main Source, Ultramagnetic MCs, Gang Starr, Lord Finesse, and KMD (mixed back to back with the original records that they sampled), and meet the hip-hop of 2013, would they recognize their own bloodline or run away screaming? Hip-hop was ahead of its time by design.
Unsustainable after its third instalment in early 1995, Slow Down was arguably an unknown epicenter for buzzwords that hadn’t been invented yet: “GOLDEN ERA HIP-HOP” and “RANDOM RAP”. With DJ teams that would later be known as Finders Keepers and Chopped Herring, Slow Down was a night so true to its underground status that its obscurely shaped, tiny flyers were only given to select clientele, like business cards to people who wore the correct sneakers or passed the “spot-the-break” test for cheap entry. Twenty years older and not much wiser with the same bloated obsession, this time those buzzwords CAN go on the flyer, but disclaimers like, “Rusty DJ Skills,” and, “Records Might Skip,” are probably best left off the poster… and let’s pretend that the generic ‘bald head’ style of haircut is a matter of choice. Slow Down represents memories of its DJs first public gigs and time we were brave/insane enough to MC while we DJed… or even dance!
This list highlights an era of sampled music that could never be repeated. An era where a capricious underground artform had reached its creative zenith before lawyers and publishers began to cross the T’s and shield the eyes while cracking down on samples and writers-splits in the name of progression. This list bridges old school and new school before rappers had left school entirely and set-up management companies, clothes labels, and had shareholders meetings. This is from an era when hip-hop still lived with its parents and a hand-me-down deck and the record shop discount racks were your instruments and your “apps”. An era before interesting old records were subject to electronic auctioneers and entire communities shared drum machines instead of sharing mp3 files. These twenty year old artefacts, futuristic-minded, mechanical, and energetic music had more to do with the musique concrète, free jazz, folk music, and field study music than all the contrived pretentious minimal/noise bands who falsely cite suchlike as today’s influences. This is a list from the mixtape era when collage and juxtaposition was the higest form of art, and hip-hop blended go-go, Dada and la di da di with a good sense of humor and a bad-meaning-good intention to break down cultural boundaries before breaking even. This list proceeds rap as a global industry and pinpoints hip-hop when it was at its geekiest and freakiest with literally nothing to lose, resulting in some of the most bizarre, unlikely, urgent, unifying youthful musical expression committed to vinyl in the 20th century. It’s time to split the atom.
1) Run-DMC – “Peter Piper”
After struggling with the notion that this is perhaps the best rap record ever made, I’m gonna stick my neck out and propose that this record might actually be the best record of any genre ever made… period! (I mean full stop!) Randomly select the freakiest synth-ridden Pakistani soundtrack, or the most hallucinogenic acid folk album, the most ear splitting free jazz LP, or the most haywire acid house anthem and none will come close to how truly ground-breaking and inconceivable the molecular structure of this record truly is. And what’s stranger still is that the young public of 1986 wholeheartedly devoured it without question as the opening track to Run-DMC’s global breakthough LP, Raising Hell. Even after hearing my granddad’s one word review of this record (“‘Orrible!”) on a family trip to Southport in 1986, myself and a million other wide-eyed, European, suburban, teenage rap fans felt as if we had discovered life on Mars and only us special people could see the aliens. Even the band name read like a secret code, sounding about as catchy as a car registration number or a medical condition. These guys didn’t clearly give an F.U.C.K!
So here we have a three American black guys, one with ultra-geeked German national health-style specs and one of them wearing the same English flannel hat that the old woman who works at the library wears. They have huge, virtually immobile, padded goose down leather jackets over the top of sheeny, thin tracksuits and white Bavarian shoes with protective toe-caps and, errr, no laces. And one of them wears a gangster’s, stetson-style hat… and some massive necklaces. Before you’ve even heard one bar of music, you’ve encountered something that resembles an ADD kids’ dressing-up box explosion, which for years to come would rival the droogs in Clockwork Orange and the tramp cast of the Fisher King with token splashes of Bugsy Malone. And all you can say is… WORD!!! These guys look ACE! Keep in mind this record was a major breakthrough for hip-hop, the normalization LP which put radical black music in white houses. It’s not obscure, but it is bizarre. I mean what kind of music do people that look like this make?
So, let’s listen to “Peter Piper”. What can only be described as a really aggressive nursery rhyme, with added sexual references and the odd impression of TV commercials and kids toys, all starts off as an accapella. But what about the music? What instruments do they play? Well… they don’t really play instruments but they do keep playing the same part of this Paul Simon song, except its not the proper version, its an unsuccessful remake by a white, jazz funk dude with grey hair who uses steel drums and police radio interference to set the song’s tone (and he also did the music to that almost as freaky TV show Taxi). They actually play the first bit about seventy-five times and a tiny stab off a white disco record as a little surprise every now and then. A Paul Simon nursery rhyme you say? That sounds nice, dear. Not really, one of them is always frowning like he’s gonna kill me. What’s the rest of the LP like? It’s exactly the same, apart from the heavy metal one that I keep fast forwarding… by the way can I have some new trainers and ladies hat for Christmas? Hip-hop is amazing!
Even the most paranoid, protective, prejudiced parent who had watched too much New York violence on episodes of The Equalizer and Hill Street Blues really didn’t know how to protect their kids from this street poet pantomime, while we played it on repeat twenty-four hours a day until we’d memorized every lyric quoting American-only household products and started calling teachers “skeezers” without getting in trouble because neither of us would ever know what the word meant. Hip-hop had no rulebook. This was an international flagship for a culture that was born out of nothing. A fancy dress musical scavenger hunt like join-the-dot pop from a post-nuclear holocaust. Some called it “fresh” others called it “the new rap language”.
I first met Run-DMC in 1999 while interviewing them about German sportswear. They clearly knew how important they were, and Run almost fell asleep at one point… until I started asking about their repeat visits to Bob James records as sample fodder and then the trademark frowns turned to smiles. Jam Master Jay (RIP) told me that the “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” sample was also the original basis to “Rock The Bells” by LL Cool J (hence LL’s title), until the three of them traveled across Hollis to St. Albans and politely discussed the matter—another one of hip-hop’s great “what ifs…” In all fairness, the sample also appeared in replayed form in records by T-La Rock and Crash Crew proving it to be a ubiquitous block party anthem, later leading to rumors of a special bell stricken promo mix residing in the record collection of one Biz Markie like a giant cone without the ice cream. Taxi for Mr. Simon! Popular song stops here. Reset The Meters.
2. Ultramagnetic MCs – “MC Champion”
And then came the backlash, the “Peter Piper” diss record! “Say what? Peter Piper, to hell with childish rhymes!” When Stu Allen first played Ultramagnetic MCs “Ego Trippin’” on Bus Dis, (Manchester’s only dedicated rap radio show) it was overwhelming! Not because my loyalty to Run-DMC was being compromised, but because we understood! We knew what they were talking about; they were dissing a record that I owned. I understood the language, and in Ultra’s case this was no mean feat in itself, because of Ultra’s invented language, reading medical dictionaries, and making up six-syllable words. These maneuvers would, elsewhere, win the likes of Gainsbourg and Magma lifelong followers. The Public Enemy sound-alike “Ease Back” ticked enough boxes to pay the entrance fee, rendering ex-BDP beatmaker Ced Gee as the tough, wordy Chuck D-style rapper that we all craved, and ex-New York City Breaker Kool Keith as the zany Favor Flav sidekick. But as a long-term fixture on the Ingersoll “ghetto buster” (as incorrectly requested on that year’s Xmas list), backed up by the Hip-Hop Connection poster on my ceiling, it soon became apparent that there was actually more to Kool Keith than met the eye. Maybe the super-macho Ced Gee was the weirdo and Keith was a… genius???
Fast forward (or perhaps slow motion) a whopping four year wait until 1992, perhaps golden-age hip-hop’s most important and critically competitive year, and Ultramagnetic MCs’ second LP FINALLY came out in a move which drew comparisons to a rap Elvis ’68 Comeback Special. Suffering a quiet UK pressing with the anthemic Poppa Large remix absent from the actual LP, the obscured hidden jewel of Kool Keith’s career “MC Champion” appears in all of its three-minute glory, fusing classic Ultra’s beats with psychedelic jazz rock disco riffage sampled from disco-rockers Brick’s “Can’t Wait”. Here, Kool Keith “takes your brain to another dimension,” with one of the best openers of the decade (“Power compactor, brain distractor / Dropping a bomb right in your anal connector”), reinstating the future Dr. Octagon as not just a sideman but the lyrical foundation and backbone of a whole generation of new school MCs who dropped-science in Poppa Large’s image, leading to a wide range of solo careers to try their luck against each of his own viagra-overdosed alter-egos.
3. A Tribe Called Quest – “Mr. Incognito”
Standing up as yet another triumphant testimony to Q-Tip’s obsessive record-digging at the root of A Tribe Called Quest’s success, “Mr Incognito”—based around a neat stripped-down bass and sound effect sample from Buster Williams’ 1975 prog-jazz opener “The Hump”—competes with Quest classics such as “If The Papes Come” and “Excursions” as fruits of some world-class, dedicated, and educated jazz-digging. “Mr Incognito” was never officially released but surfed in on an avalanche of independent releases and white-label releases that filled 1994/’95 with some of its best moments. Having established himself as ‘The Abstract’ member of the group, and inadvertently applying for unlimited artistic license when it came to random rhyming, Q-Tip wrote a number of guest rhymes around this time for records by Del, Organized Konfusion, Mobb Deep, and Beastie Boys, which got progressively more surreal, non-linear, and virtually devoid of any communicative concept. In short, his best work! Alongside “SheFeMcs” (a posse cut with De La Soul) and a remarkable freestyle on The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito show, “Mr. Incognito” contains a classic three-dimensional verse from Tip matched by Phife, on reliable good form, over a one-stop loop complete with the ghosts of a thousand dead Nintendo sprites.
4. Zerox – “Blurs and Slurs”
Originally known as the Xerox Twins (but changed to Zerox for those who couldn’t pronounce the X and to evade legal claims from the photocopier company), this track used vocal pitches to differentiate between the two alter-egos of Anthony and Antonio Harris, predating Madlib’s Quasimoto and rivalling UK rapper Overlord X’s “Sidekick” and “Lord Vador” vari-speed personas. As one of four tracks on this rare ‘random rap’ collectors item, “Blurs And Slurs”’ main gimmick renders most of the vocal content virtually undecipherable (in a good way), but the opening line, “I’m like AIDS / I kill slowly,” is pretty much unmistakable, challenging only Will Smith “Live At Union Square, November 1986” for the most offensive AIDS metaphor ever used in new school hip-hop. Instrumentally built around the drum machine sequencing talents of Texas producer MC TNT, aka Franz Ates (following his own self released “Born To Bass” single and another Dallas-rap rarity called “Something Fresh” by Oak Cliff), this sample-free slice of pre-sizzurpian drank-funk leaves little for the beat-diggers list but opens a whole new bottle of slo-mo Dallas random-rap unknowns. A Sean Demdike favorite for our Slow Down maraudering.
5. Del the Funky Homosapien – “Eye Examination”
Another MC who experimented with early vocal pitching, best exemplified by his fake, pre-teen “Unicron” persona, was Del. Based on his impeccable rhyming skills and unique flow (and not hindered by the fact that he was Ice Cube’s cousin), Del managed to score a Top 40 UK hit, a major film soundtrack, and a collaboration with Dinosaur Jr all within the initial term of his Elektra record deal. Del was also a unique signing as one of the few West Coasters sharing the label’s release schedules with Leaders Of the New School, Brand Nubian, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and KMD under the A&R of Stimulated Dummies honcho Dante Ross. Hidden amongst the illuminous psychedelic P-funk infatuation of his first LP lies an lesser-known B-side that witnessed Del left to his own devices in a solo production capacity with a bunch of West Coast psych records. Not exactly digging deeper, rather digging left of center, Del’s ingenious use of Jefferson Airplane’s classic opium-paean “White Rabbit” throws the MC into his own wonderland with a layered, squelching back-beat dragged straight from a stinking swamp, a barely audible female conversation, and loose scratches culminating in another unidentified psych-rock outro and some random Lord Of The Rings references. In no uncertain terms, this record changed the way I personally bought music—from then on, long-hairs joined the afros on my teenage ‘original breaks’ record shelf.
6. Ron B – “Stitch By Stitch”
Hailing from Ellenville, eighty miles north of Manhattan, Ron B’s only single on the self-initiated Asiatic Records embodies the same, then-revolutionary, piano-loop ingredients of Cold Chillin’ classics like “The Symphony” and Kool G Rap’s “Ill Street Blues” with a rap style to match that of Stezo and an image straight out of KMD’s barbershop. Given the right label and promotion, this track could have made Ron B a rap household name!!! Often confused as a sample of Donavon’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, “Stitch By Stitch” actually samples a cover-version of the same song performed by Canadian funk-rock singer Eric Mercury, taken from his 1969 Electric Black Man LP, layered with the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President” drum break, and finished off with a breakdown of Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” combined with Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Girls” (as sampled straight off the Real Roxanne’s “Bang Zoom” single)—a triumph for the open-minded crate digger Melvin Bolden, who put the beat together. The fact that the total bill for original copies of all of the samples used to make this record would only amount to a tenth of the cost of what Ron’s 1990 12-inch would currently set you back goes to show how the random rap collecting phenomena has literally turned the tables and changed the dynamic of b-boy beat digging. The fact that Ron namechecks New Kids on the Block in the first verse doesn’t warrant a discount.
7. Masta Ace – “Go Where I Send Thee”
Ron B might well be the the most rare and coveted hip-hop track to sample “Impeach the President” by the Honey Drippers but it was by no means the first… or last. Originally formed as a backing band for Roy C. Hammond (a man who was opening tracks with shot gun samples in 1966, pre-dating EPMD by twenty-two years), The Honey Drippers found unlikely fame with their quasi-political novelty hit “Impeach the President”, and by simply adding four bars of open drums at the start rewarded themselves with a recording legacy that has lasted forty years via sample-usage on an estimated one thousand plus rap records. To put it in perspective, Rakim, Kane, Lord Finesse, Biz Markie, and Nas have all rapped over this beat, which means that the original teenage Honey Drippers drummer has technically jammed with the best five rappers of all time… six if you count Masta Ace. In the case of this 1992 B-side, the same drummer has also shared needle time with a fantasy supergroup featuring Mavin Gaye, the 20th Century Steel Band, and most bizarrely of all, a slick-haired family folk singer celebrity called Tennessee Earl Williams, singing a traditional Christmas fireside chorus. Again, hip-hop is amazing! This also raised the possibility that if a beat was this solid to begin with, and the funk had been established, then anything goes! Sample what you like… we have a strong safety net.
Educing the same juxtaposed confusion as the candy coated 1950’s “Hey Kids” intro to Just-Ice’s “Freedom of Speech” (1988), this rap wild-card arguably forged the blueprint for the wide stream of recontextualized, ironic, and culturally-displaced fully-formed vocal chorus interpolations that made way for Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life”, KMD’s “What A Niggy Know (Remix)”, Craig Mack’s “Wooden Horse”, and to some extent Main Source’s “Faking the Funk” or Edan’s “Sing It Shitface”. This non-LP bonus track marked a new era in Masta Ace’s post-Juice Crew rap career introducing a host of exciting new MCs and producer names in an underexposed posse cut which tantalized the same tastebuds for those waiting in the queue at “Live At the Barbecue”. But due to behind-the-scenes major label wranglings with the same lawyers who looked after Bugs Bunny’s carrots, it took Masta Ace three years and a minor moniker adjustment to finally spread his wings and go where they sent him… underground!
8. Downtown Science – “This is a Visit”
And then came the game-changer! If, for the naysayers, sampling culture in hip-hop had only achieved one thing, it was repairing, perhaps revitalizing, old music—like KRS-One said, “We take the wackest song and make it better.” The actual fact that Masta Ace could make a sold-out club crowd lip-synch the words to a Johnny Cash standard, or Run-DMC could command a crowd to pump their fist to a Paul Simon-penned song, or Del would urge backpack-wielding skaters to head-nod to a Jefferson Airplane loop broke down more cultural boundaries than any politician, PR company, or social scientist could ever do. I hated Thin Lizzy when I saw them on TV as a kid, but after rap taught me to put my ears before my nose, Johnny the Fox was a friend to me. As much as the snobby, die-hard tribal social groups resented it, hip-hop would eventually dig deeper, quicker and gather the most fertile harvest than any other youth culture movement and then continue to educate and unify by rapid example while promoting individualism as its arsenal.
When I joined secondary school in Greater Manchester, the older kids were split into well-defined fractions: goths, mods, Smiths fans, the odd football casual, and three metal fans. Five years later, ninety percent had morphed into a huge Stone Roses fan club, whereas the metal fans and a very small rap contingency made up the rest. Hip-hop culture taught you to work harder and open your mind in return for an individual identity by viewing music like a sniffer dog making indiscriminate checks on anything seemingly unrecognized. Crate-diggers became the secret police, spotlighting the freaks and befriending them, consistently leaving your comfort zone in fear of becoming predictable. It was because i didn’t like The Happy Mondays that I loved hip-hop; it was because I didn’t like your dad’s Beatles records that I forced myself to love jazz. Hip-hop was the reason I hated Pink Floyd’s The Wall with pride (and still do). But suddenly, in a fatal twist, Sam Sever repaired that Wall. I didn’t want to to talk to the mods about Quadrophenia… until Downtown Science sampled The Who. This crew’s beatmaker (and ex-3rd Bass DJ) Sam Sever took the blueprint of Prince Paul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, that reconstituted good records out of black American families’ record collections, and applied it to shit records out of English dad-rock record collections. “This is a Visit” rewrote the rule book and took a desperate comeback LP by The Who, a Brian Eno record, the omnipresent Wall LP, and the Mancunian-mixed ESG and created what sounded like the best ever, unreleased John Carpenter soundtrack with tougher beats and an OK rapper, achieved by merely taking off the blinkers and pretending the shit bits weren’t there. Downtown Science—truly visionary without snobbery. I also used to hate Frank Zappa.
9. Mad Kap – “Phuck What Ya Heard”
One million Frank Zappa fans, including George Duke, Jean Luc Ponty, and, errr, Mad Kap, could not be wrong! Right?
Mad Kap’s LP landed in the record racks with the same gust of wind that brought day-glo rap classics such as The Pharcyde, Y’All So Stupid, UMCs, and KMD, and this Zappa-fueled, zany-rap anthem’s unfathomable inclusion of UK fast-rap MC (and Record Breakers contestant) Daddy Freddy only contributed to this bizarre ride. At a time in my life where I was literally buying every single £3 Kudu or CTI Jazz LP I could find, Zappa’s omnipresent and previously ignored Hot Rats LP would be the first of many ‘rock hybrid’ LPs with eye-catching, solarized photography sleeves to grace my incoherent record shelves. When The Beastie Boys released their acidic fish-eye video to “So Watcha Want” in 1992, it was easy to draw visual comparisons to a whole bunch of Keith MacMillan-designed sleeves for Vertigo and other prog-rock labels. And when bands like Affinity and Ian Carr’s Nucleus actually bequeathed the sample-ready goods, the doors had been blown off the van! At this point, new genres had begun to appear on black music record dealers’ lists, such as hippie funk and folk funk, and mixed-race American bands like Rotary Connection, Sweetwater, and Elephant’s Memory shared milk crates with David Axelrod and Terry Callier. It seemed like new-school West Coast groups like Mad Kap and Del’s Hieroglyphics crew were already looking beyond their own families’ record collections and scouring the rubble of LA’s 1970 psychedelic scene and replacing gangster rap lyrics with acid imagery and some strong-weed-words. This was no gimmick, though; hip-hop culture was growing bigger and stronger and naturally casting a wider net. In this pre-eBay era, record-digging was at its most virile, it was the dawn of the samplers’ supermarket sweep. French pop, Italian soundtracks, Polish jazz, and Bollywood were rocks waiting to be unturned.
10. Main Source – Breaking Atoms
So finally we arrive at the one-stop shop—a rap record that ticks every thing on this list: Bob James, scientific references, jazz basslines, sped-up vocals, chop-edit acid rock outros, Canadian roots, lock-stock song-based choruses, Christmas novelty records, rare funk, dayglo covers, prog rock, Nas! When Breaking Atoms by Main Source was released on the independent Wild Pitch records in July, 1991, record-diggers and hip-hop enthusiasts were handed a new benchmark. The cover and title alone made up for those suffering Ultramagnetic scientific-rhyme withdrawal symptoms (both groups unified by the lesser credited, legendary producer Paul C) and reinforced the new vibrant rap aesthetic shared by KMD and Wild Pitch labelmates UMCs.
Again, like Downtown Science, Main Source rewrote the rulebook, celebrated, and cross-referenced everything that was good about hip-hop and created golden age hip-hop by a ritualistic formula that would soon become known as “keeping it real”. A key observation is that not every track on Breaking Atoms exactly broke ground so much as reconstituted what we loved about hip-hop in a clever, compositional, and stylistically durable way. “Pot Belly” by Lou Donaldson and “Think Twice” by Donald Bird had already been sampled and widely exploited by fellow Queens superstars A Tribe Called Quest, while Bob James’ “Nautilus” had been used on hits by Rakim, Ultramagnetic MCs, and Run-DMC. But Main Source did it differently; they used different sections and chopped them so they sounded different. The cosmic “Think Twice” keyboards were already firmly instilled in rap fans’ psyches after Tribe did “Footprints”, but when Large Professor used the vocal loop, this bold move took us to a familiar but altogether new place. It’s safe to say that after Breaking Atoms, I stopped buying albums just so I could fawn over a two-bar sample then shelve, and I started listening to full tracks, breakdowns, and solos, and for the first time started digging in my own record collection. The ‘finders keepers’ logic in the hip-hop rulebook that encouraged rappers to not re-use samples had creative loopholes if you did it correctly. This is why KRS One could re-trigger “The Champ” on 1997’s “Step Into A World” or use the faded outro of Wilson Pickett’s “Engine Number Nine” on “Duck Down” and still sound fresh.
For this reason, Breaking Atoms was also a clear and honest product of its environment. The inclusion of two (twice the norm) Canadian DJs came with its own ‘outsider’ exoticism, but the actual beats & rhyme content of the album was very much a New York affair. Alongside the re-fried, anthemic samples came some of the best beat-digging triumphs from the center of New York’s cultural melting pot. The use of wailing psych-rock on “Friendly Game of Baseball” came from layering a sample of Elephant’s Memory, a late sixties combo stylistically built in the vision of a West Coast pop-psych but based around the New York club circuit (featuring members of Robert Downey theater group before becoming Yoko Ono-ized). Main Source’s compositional uses of middle eights and DJ solos introduced melodic funk 45s to the party, such as The Third Guitar’s vocal track “Baby Don’t You Care” on New York label Rojac, undeniably shining an early foglight on a future funk collectors’ holy grail. For years, Main Source fans couldn’t understand how Large Professor and his EMU SP1200 had successfully dissected and instrumentalized Gwen McCrae’s “90 percent of Me is You”, before realizing that the Main Source research laboratory had unearthed a lesser known alternative 1973 version by Vanessa Kendrick—which soon popped up on more funk collectors’ want-lists. Breaking Atoms was the result of one of hip-hop’s first intensive research modules, led by a non-conventional musical mind who understood the importance of constructing a fully-formed, coherent album to the same standard as its original source material—as opposed to a mic-hungry rapper looking to spit his rhymes at the quickest possible opportunity and get paid, laid, or inevitably dismayed when groups like Main Source rewrote the rule book and demanded a new standard in rap musicality.
The fact that Large Professor was a good rapper also went without saying; virtually every track on Breaking Atoms was concept-driven, with thematic duplicity in both senses of the word. Tracks like “Friendly Game Of Baseball” took a comedic tenuous comparison but instantly appealed to both conscious and political listeners as well as gangster rap fans without force-feeding listeners a patronizing edutainment salad. “Peace is Not the Word to Play” also presented the first anti-peace record and gave rap stereotype subscribers a funky little slap! It must be noted that the occasional inclusion of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song samples seemed to give a little insider’s nod to the record-diggers and VHS fans (again, pre-dating Quasimoto’s fascination with the film) which went hand-in-hand with references to Lightnin’ Rod’s Hustlers Convention and “The Cafe Black Rose”.
In short, Breaking Atoms was basically an entire record collection, lifestyle, and manifesto-by-example packed onto one single LP… and most importantly it was the first of its kind. And even as the second side of the LP reaches its halfway mark we are introduced, via the obligatory golden age posse-cut, to a whole new set of characters including Akinyele, Neek the Exotic, and most importantly Nasty Nas (in his vinyl debut), who would take the Atomic baton and outrun the band’s short but immaculate lifeline.
Main Source in this original formation would never release another LP. After a second, aborted album, DJs K-Kut and Sir Scratch split from Large Professor to record another LP for Wild Pitch, handing the mic to Sleeping Bag Records-signed MC Mikey D to fill the original rappers huge shoes… not an enviable position—especially after A Tribe called Quest’s zillion selling 1993 track “Keep It Going” gave Large Pro (aka Extra P) an exalted platform to diss his former bandmates with the sheen-free line, “FUCK THOSE TWO DJS.” Inevitably, some boring music business held up the second LP which, while clearly better than ninety percent of LPs to come out during the four year wait, the rap fans loyalty to Large Professor as a pillar of the community prevented would-be champions from hearing the first sampled usage of Monty Stark’s Stark Reality and bemoaning Madonna’s smash-and-grab adoption of the instrumental of their single “What You Need” for a top ten hit, possibly keeping the unspoken Canadian über-legends well-funded in Stanton carts and Champion sweatshirts well into their grey years. ~
Andy Votel is the founder of the Finders Keepers reissue record label of lost gems. Slow Down returns to Manchester at Soup Kitchen tonight with Edan, plus residents Violators of the English Language (or V.O.T.E.L.), Sean Demdike (Demdike Stare), and Benjamin Hatton/Invisible Spies. For future updates, follow @SlowDownMcr on Twitter.
Rather than operate as a music news source, Electronic Beats operates as a music information source. We want to share with you; we want you to know what we’re hearing, what’s reverberating our cochleas and sending broader vibrations throughout our bodies, and by extension our audio-addled souls. Down with that? Welcome to Editors’ Choice.
Lisa Blanning (Online Editor)
Jeremih – “F You All The Time” (Akito’s F U On the Clap Trap Ice Rink – Bootleg)
This track is months old (sorry), but I only heard it last week when Kingdom dropped it during a DJ set. A mash-up of Jeremih’s ubiquitous but irresistable “Fuck U All the Time” and Wiley’s “Ice Rink Riddim”, the idea sounds obvious and naff, but it works. I know this feeling won’t last long, but I’ll enjoy it while it does.
Louise Brailey (Deputy Online Editor)
Diagonal Records – Far Out, Man: A Heatwave Mix
A psychedelic mix awash with sun-bleached colour courtesy of Jaime Williams who runs the Diagonal label with Powell. It’s quite a departure from the dense, charred textures of the label’s output but it does contain Creedence Clearwater Revival who are known to pop up in the odd Powell set so it’s not that out of character.
Jensen Sportag – “Bellz”
Nashville duo Jensen Sportag have a fetish for the kind of sumptuous, frictionless electronic pop that feels so detached it borders on chilling. This is entirely a good thing, by the way. Their debut drops this autumn.
Moritz Gayard (Online Duty Editor)
dBridge & Skeptical – “Move Way”
A drum’n’bass banger by dBridge and Skeptical. The track will be one of two on the B-side of the upcoming R&S EP Move Way.
Factory Floor – “Turn It Up”
Turn It Up! Here’s a new track from synth dance trio Factory Floor from their debut LP Factory Floor, out September via DFA. I can’t wait for this release.
Daniel Jones (Contributing Editor)
Cassie – “Take Care of Me Baby” (feat. Pusha T.)
Cassie’s Rock-a-Bye Baby is one of the great mixtapes of the summer, and this track has more or less burned its way into my cortex. Time for a power electronic remix, perhaps…
Jannik Schäfer (Social Media Editor)
Jon Wayne – “Ode to Mortality”
Who is Jon Wayne? Stones Throw introduced him about a year ago as an MC and producer without any further details and has since released two tapes (exclusively cassette tapes that is), which I never saw anywhere. Now, Jon Wayne’s 3rd Cassette, the Marion Morisson Mixtape, was released together with a free download, And boy what a tape it is.
Read previous editions of Editor’s Choice here.
Rather than operate as a music news source, Electronic Beats operates as a music information source. We want to share with you; we want you to know what we’re hearing, what’s reverberating our cochleas and sending broader vibrations throughout our bodies, and by extension our audio-addled souls. Down with that? Welcome to Editors’ Choice.
Lisa Blanning (Online Editor)
Ben Aqua – “Ass Kicked Later”
The Austin-based producer—you might have heard his track with Zebra Katz “Red River”—comes correct with a fresh-sounding club roller using a Missy Elliot vocal sample as a hook.
Louise Brailey (Deputy Online Editor)
M.I.A. – “Bring the Noize”
Look, I’m as confounded by this as you are. After the iconoclastic mega-pop of “XXXO” and “Bad Girls” nobody really felt like a summer holiday back to 2006. The bone-clattering staccato production and dodgy sloganeering is all well and good, and Switch’s pawprints are all over this thing, but I have a feeling it’s a red herring. Intriguing.
Moritz Gayard (Online Duty Editor)
Vessel – “Court Of Lions” (Prurient Remix)
Extraordinary rework of Vessel’s “Court Of Lions” by Dominick Fernow, better known as Vatican Shadow and Prurient. Roll it, press play, light it up. Relax.
Ashrae Fax – “Pointbreak”
Up for some goth/ethereal/synth pop stuff? Then try Ashrae Fax’s 2003 album Static Crash. You can pre-order the re-release, courtesy of Mexican Summer, here.
Daniel Jones (Contributing Editor)
Kanye West – New Slaves (Brenmar Club Edit)
Brenmar posted this slick, sick remix of Kanye’s politicized anti-consumerist rant (this is the guy whose clothing line sells $300 t-shirts, remember) over the weekend and turned a growling beast into a purring kitten of a track. “For my DJs”, his Facebook page proclaimed, and this DJ couldn’t be happier.
V▲LH▲LL – LIKΣ ▲ NIGHT IN THΣ F0RΣS7 [✞JOhN D3nVΞR✞ C0V3R]
In my wildest dreams of pimping out the idea of witch house around 2009, I never imagined John Denver covers. Is this even witch anymore? What is anything, who knows. Just so long as we can finally move past the ‘post-genre’ term, which is the least sexiest description for music ever. That said, I kind of dig this. My mom does too.
Read previous editions of Editor’s Choice here.
Following his appearance our recent EB Festival Poznań (you can watch HD footage of his set here), we caught up with the grime pioneer to reflect on his straddling of both the underground and mainstream, the impact of American hip-hop on his music, and old beefs that die hard.
Dizzee Rascal released his first album Boy In Da Corner ten years ago as both MC and producer at the age of 19, scooping Britain’s coveted Mercury Prize (awarded for the album of the year from a UK or Irish artist or band) and introducing the sound of grime—that particularly British genre of underground electronic music often accompanied by MCs—to the world at large. Six years later in 2009, he scored his first number one hit with the Calvin Harris-produced “Dance Wiv Me”. Several more number ones later, and his most recent single “Goin’ Crazy” features a collaboration with the ultimate pop idol Robbie Williams. Yet with his record label Dirtee Stank, which continues to release key grime artists as well as edgy free mixtapes—such as the one given away at the end of last year—he remains grounded in the scene that made his name. His career has traversed both the underground and mainstream, giving him a unique perspective on music.
Tell me the record recently that you’ve really been enjoying, that isn’t on Dirtee Stank.
You know what I love, when I was in Miami, I was listening to “Show Out”, Juicy J. I love Juicy J anyway. That song excited me when I heard it. I just love the beat, it’s just ignorant and it makes you just jump up and down.
So, are you a fan of Three Six Mafia?
Yeah, from early! If I didn’t listen to Three Six, I would have never have made grime. My first single, “I Luv You”, that was all based on that. I would never have known how to do that if I had never have listened to Three Six Mafia. So if you hear the connection now, it all makes sense.
Do you mean as a rapper or as a producer?
I guess as a producer. Even some of the way I MC’d, even, just the simplicity of it. A lot of it was I grew up listening to Project Pat at a time when people weren’t listening to down South music. Especially in the UK, like that. That’s around the time when Eminem was big. I was into Three Six Mafia and the Hot Boy$ and Master P and all that, as well. But especially Project Pat.
Southern rap, basically .
Yeah, basically. Now it’s a dominating force, which is amazing, but back then, it wasn’t. It was obscure.
You say that influenced you to make “I Luv U” and presumably Boy In Da Corner, but wasn’t that stuff all happening around you anyway? You’re saying Three Six influenced you more than Roll Deep?
I was making grime before I was in Roll Deep. I was doing it before they were. I was grime, I’ve got tapes and shit, when Wiley was making garage.
Yeah, I was in school, making grime. All their shit changed when I came around. I was already doing it. But like I said, my influence—as well as UK garage, drum ‘n’ bass, and general hip-hop, as well—it was the Southern thing. People like Ludacris had a major influence on me. “I Love U”, you could say, was based on pretty much Three Six Mafia, Ludacris, and [Memphis Bleek ft Missy Elliott &] Jay-Z “Is That Your Chick”. That was the format for that thing, the boy/girl thing, and just the way I wrote it.
Have you not been doing that much producing anymore?
Nah, I haven’t. Especially with this album, there’s been a lot of bigger-sounding production. It’s kind of nice to be working with all these bigger producers and getting a bigger sound, so I just focus on writing the songs. It’s all seasoned people, it’s a different thing. I enjoy it. I’ve got people like Jean-Baptiste, RedOne, a guy called Tim Anderson—who was actually in a rock group called Ima Robot—just working with them and doing it different. I don’t mind not making the beats. I started to fuck around in the studio last week and get into it a little bit more, work out Ableton and all of that—started to make a few little bits. But it’s been nice just jumping on different shit. I don’t necessarily make big dance records as production, myself, so I don’t have the expertise to get it at a level that someone like RedOne would. To even get that weight, it makes a difference. I know my limits.
I’d be really interested to hear what you were coming out with these days, myself. You’re still doing the label, and to me it seems like a split between your artist life and the label. The label’s still doing underground stuff, basically.
Well, Footsie does a lot of wicked beats, as well, so I like to jump in on his stuff.
The last couple of Dirtee Stank mix tapes, there’s some really raw shit on there.
Yeah! When it comes to the mixtapes, I’ve done a couple of beats. I just do it for fun. But as far as trying to get this big worldwide album done, I haven’t really jumped in on that. The most I do as far as production is arrange a track. A track might come to me differently, and I write to it and tell him, “Naw, structure it like this.” That’s as much as production as I’m going to do, for the most part, on this album.
This is how I see it—the effort that’s put in in making those mixtapes is the same effort as making an album, time-wise and effort-wise. And a lot of it still goes over people’s heads, because it’s not a big proper release and things like that, so people are still asking, “Ah, when you gonna make that grime?” And they’re moaning about it, and I’m like, “Well, I just put it out.” So, sometimes it’s a bit deflating, so I just need to do that for fun. When it comes to the big, serious work of trying to make music worldwide, it’s about working with other producers and that, because again, I’ve been at the forefront on things. “Bonkers”, I was at the forefront of EDM. We were taking “Bonkers” around in America to the labels, and they weren’t getting it. And how many years later, EDM is the big thing. So, now it’s like, right, they’re ready for it, so let me continue on. But I don’t produce that music, personally.
Okay, let me ask you a question: how much are you trolling your audience?
Trolling? What is trolling?
Trolling is when you get online and you provoke people, and tease them.
I don’t provoke and tease.
The thing is, the stuff you’re doing now, it’s aimed at a lot more people. But those of us who have been following your career for a long time know that you do way more serious stuff.
Yeah, and like I said, I still do way more serious shit. You do a mixtape and it just goes over people’s heads. But i didn’t get into the Twitter thing for ages because I knew that the type of person I am, I react to certain things, and it’s not healthy. So when I did finally start using it, that’s exactly what I did. Started seeing people talking shit and then I get onto them. And after a while, it’s like, “What am I doing?” It’s stupid. But sometimes you can have fun doing it, because some people it’s just banter. And some people just go overboard with it. But I’m not into just trolling or stuff like that.
But it always struck me that it seems like you had quite a devilish sense of humor that comes out in the music and the things around the music, and that’s what I meant trolling—with your music.
Sometimes I have banter with people, but for the most part, I try and stay off Twitter full stop, but it gets stupid for no reason. It starts taking up time and starts getting personal, it starts taking up your personal life. No need.
Well, I think you have always been really respectful in the press and you don’t ever talk shit about people, that I’ve ever seen. But I gotta ask, you and Wiley, you guys ever going to be friends again?
That’s one thing on Twitter I did address, I think early this year. People believing there’s been some kind of beef for all these years and that, and there isn’t. I saw Wiley maybe six years ago, I’ve seen him once in six years. It was like, “What’s up, brother?” Everything else has just been when he goes off on one, like he does, and he just starts calling people out, and I’m one of them. But that’s just through his frustrations because people keep bringing up our names and stuff that they don’t really understand about situations that’ve happened, that they don’t really know about. And I’ve never bothered to correct them because I’ve just been busy trying to do what I’m doing. But I haven’t got no problem or beef with anyone. At all.
Like I’ve said, you’ve stayed above it all, but sometimes he gets on Twitter and it’s like he sounds sad about it.
Yeah, but that’s just down to him. At the end of the day, he’s doing well. He’s making music. At this point, we’re all just older, innit? I’ve seen so much of the world and had a little while to breathe—it just seems like, what’s the point? I’m just thankful that I’m still in it. There’s a scene that loads of us have crossed over into the mainstream. It’s like, we’re not getting younger, let’s just eat and be happy. Some people have got kids, we ain’t got time for squabbling. There’s big shit to be had. EDM is taking over America [laughs].
As an American, I think that you were the first British MC to pierce the American consciousness. People may have heard of Roots Manuva, but they didn’t care. But you were the first one where people were like, this guy is doing something new, I’ve never heard this. Because it’s rapping, but it’s not like American rap.
Even though it’s heavily influenced by American rap.
Obviously, because it’s rapping.
But again, you didn’t know that Three Six Mafia was a heavy, heavy influence. And most people don’t. But what I got from American hip hop was a sense of themselves and I was able to translate that, put it into my music, maybe better than people before me that tried to make almost American music and sell it back to them.
Yeah, but it was different. It was original. And the person that pointed that out to me was an American rapper named Murs. I remember he said about you, “I’ve never heard rapping like that before, he’s doing something completely original.”
And that’s why it’s time to come back now again. And times have changed. So, I’ve jumped on electro or house music, the range. When you actually hear the album, I can actually do everything. It’s just nice to be able to put that in a package and it actually work. That’s what I’m happy about, that all these songs side by side, with all these features as well, which is another thing, and it all works. So, I’m just glad about that, really.
I’m quite shocked about how great “Dance Wiv Me” still is, because I have to say, that track, I guess people wanted to hate it because it’s a pop track, but it’s actually a really good, really appealing, bouncy pop production. But the way you ride the rhythm is really fantastic, actually. Every time I listen to it, I’m still amazed at how good the rap is on that.
You know, I’ve noticed, every time you do something different—I get it with “Bassline Junkie” now, all the different things; not so much “Bonkers”, people tend to like that one, but “Dance Wiv Me”, that’s the first time out on my own to try pop—people don’t get it. They can’t see things coming, they kind of shun it. I’ve been through that a few times with stuff. But that always lets me know that in the end, I’ve done the right thing. Because as long as you do something different, people will catch on later. That was Calvin Harris’ first number one as well, and look where he’s gone to. It’s good. I like taking risks. I know my safe zone. I could have stuck to doing what I was doing in 2000. I was churning it out all day. But what would be the point? I would just be that cool, “Remember Dizzee Rascal?” instead of sitting in the back of an S-Class in any part of Poland.
You make a really good point there. That’s quite an answer to anybody that says they do just want you to make grime. In all honesty, Boy In Da Corner is now a classic.
At the time it wasn’t.
It kinda was. It won a Mercury.
It won a Mercury, but the way I hear people talking about it, moaning about it—like you’ve got nine year-olds on Twitter whinging at me, “I like the old Dizzee.” I’m like, you were like three, what are you on about? Shit like that. People act like everyone loved it at the time. They didn’t. That’s what I remember. It was very different at the time.
Yeah, because it was grime. It was the world’s introduction to grime.
People at the time were saying that it wasn’t grime, as well, because of everything else. Do you know what pisses me off about grime? No one wants to make up and decide what grime is. I put out all my mixtapes, I put out stuff that I consider grime, I sat there and made it. Do I get a say? I dunno [laughs], I kind of was there at the beginning, making it. But people say, “Nah, that’s not grime.” You’ve got new generations of people, new generations of kids, and rightly so, they’ve got their take on it. So, they should dictate it, I guess. So, that’s why I’m not caught up in the whole, “I’m making grime, this is a grime record,” this and that. I just make music now, I just experiment. That’s the best way. The basic thing about it, if I never won an award or got no money, or no anything from it, it’s the fact that it took me to other countries, it took me to see other cultures in their environment. I understand America now, not just through TV and rap, like I did when I was younger. Now it’s actually because I had the money to be there and live there, in Miami for a bit. This is the first album I’ve made in America. So I’ve spent plenty of time there. Shit like that. Not just America, but music took me around the world to travel and embrace other cultures. And that was through experimenting and doing different shit. So, I’ve got no regrets.~
Dizzee Rascal’s new album The Fifth is set for release this summer.