Thursday, July 31, 2008

10 Records You Didn't Know Were Better Than Illmatic

Every time Nas releases a new record, every hip-hop critic and fan reminisces on the greatness of his debut record, Illmatic. Several people (and plenty of websites and magazines) I know have recklessly claimed Illmatic, without a doubt, to be the greatest hip-hop record of all time. Funny thing is, most of these people, while ostensibly being correct when comparing the record to other huge hip-hop albums of the time (ie. Ready To Die, The Chronic, Reasonable Doubt etc), seem to know little about the underground records that came out around the same time. It's hard not to blame them, as most of the records listed below are either out of print (some for over a decade) or simply ignored by everyone but the most attentive fan of hip-hop. Below you will find my personal list of 10 records that should have been bigger than Illmatic. Please note that i'm not trying to take anything away from Illmatic, it also happens to be one of my favorite hip-hop records, but I feel the record has commanded it's position due to the fact the critics love to praise an album by an artist who suffers from the curse that follows making such a great debut record. Not that Nas hasn't hopelessly tried to top Illmatic, in fact, he's done everything to try and get back the world's attention, including releasing singles with cross-over appeal, beefing with Jay-Z, releasing *gasp* a double album, claiming "Hip-Hop Is Dead", and trying to name his latest album Nigger, none of which have kept him in the public interest for more than a few weeks. Ok, sure, the man had twenty years to create his debut and only one to follow up on it. Any true visionary (as many claimed him when the record first dropped) would have been able to follow up the record with something at least halfway decent. Nas never did. I believe that the man picked some choice production from ace producers at the top of their game (Q-Tip, Large Professor, DJ Premier), put together his best rhymes from a lifetime, and basically blew his load too soon, resulting in a lifetime of trying to outdo his debut with a series of media-bating tactics and weak cross-over singles.

So I had two rules that I made up to try and keep this relevant.
1. The album had to be made within 3 years of Illmatic, which is mainly because anyone could name dozens of classic hip-hop records that were hugely influential and helped to define the genre more than Illmatic ever did (ie. It'll Take A Nation Of Millions, Paid In Full, Three Feet High and Rising, Criminal Minded, Straight Outta Compton are all better records than Illmatic and were hugely influential.

2. I tried to stick with records made around the same time that have slipped into more of a cult status or were just largely ignored. It would have been too easy just to rattle off huge records of the time (36 Chambers, The Chronic, Low End Theory etc.)

Without further ado, here are ten records better than Illmatic. Samples can found below each writeup. Right click to download them

MOBB DEEP "The Infamous" 1995
Mobb Deep dropped their second record, The Infamous, one year after Illmatic was released. It also features a guest rhyme by Nas himself, alongside Raekwon from the Wu Tang. The beats are gritty are minimal, while the rhymes are spun around dark tales of life in the criminal underground of NYC. Mobb Deep suffered a similar fate as Nas in that they were never able to top this record, and spent the rest of the career trying to get back to what the critics and fans so loved. Mobb Deep did, however, with their beats and rhymes, translate the dark side of street life far better than Nas did with Illmatic.

SHOWBIZ & AG "Runaway Slave" 1992
Showbiz and AG were an integral part of the DITC (Diggin' In The Crates) crew that also included Diamond D, Fat Joe, Lord Finesse and Big L, among others. Runaway Slave dropped in 1992 to little fanfare and soon faded to cult status. Showbiz and AG rhymed on the record and produced all but one of the tracks on the record. In comparison, Nas only performed the rhymes on Illmatic and brought in outside producers to supply the beats.

Just for the record, this is most likely my favorite hip-hop record of all time. Seek it out at all costs.

JERU THE DAMAJA "The Sun Rises In The East" 1994
Jeru was a prodigy of Gang Starr's DJ Premier, who also supplies the amazing beats for all of The Sun Rises In The East. Jeru was more of a teacher, kind of in the same way that KRS One became after the death of Scott La Rock. Rather than regurgitate life on the streets of New York, Jeru was more intent on preventing youth from making the same mistakes. In comparison, on Illmatic all that Nas rhymed about was how life was on the streets with no mention of how things could change or how to go about it.

KAM "Neva Again" 1993
Kam was an affiliate with Ice Cube and the Lench Mob production team, who helmed most of the production on this all but lost West Coast classic. Kam takes the listener on a realistic trip through post-riots South Central LA and the effects it had on his neighborhood. Despite the funky nature of the production, the themes remain incredibly dark, and tend to stick in the listener's mind long after the album has finished. Particularly affecting is Kam's tackling of black stereotypes featured in the player below.

KMD "Black Bastards" 1992
After debuting in 1989 alongside hip-hop sensations 3rd Bass, KMD released a post-daisy age record entitled Mr. Hood. The record was filled with youthful positivity and hilarious rhymes, very typical for a hip-hop record at the dawn of the 90s (think De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest etc). Something changed in the group between their 1992 debut and their 1994 follow-up Black Bastards, which was never actually released due to the cover art and a dispute that ended the group's relationship with Elektra. Zev Love X (who would, years later, become MF Doom) was suddenly filled with an anger that fueled the darkness that shrouds Black Bastards. If you thought Nas almost naming his album Nigger was outrageous, 15 years ago naming your album Black Bastards and putting Little Samba in a noose on the cover was damn well unthinkable.

MAESTRO FRESH-WES "Naaah, Dis Kid Can't Be From Canada?!!" 1994
Maestro Fresh Wes should have fallen off of the planet after his hit 'Let Your Backbone Slide'. Instead he toiled in obscurity in the US, remained a hip-hop anomaly in his own country (wow! a real live Canadian MC!! Golly, I can't believe we have one!), but, thanks to low expectations, Maestro managed to sneak out one of the best hip-hop records of the era, not to mention the greatest rap record in Canadian history. You wouldn't know this because the album has remained out of print for a decade and saw little press outside of his native soil.

By 1992 Maestro had hooked up with the DITC crew, and managed to pull Showbiz in to produce a good chunk of "Nah, Dis Kid Can't Be From Canada," though Maestro did produce the rest. The combination of Maestro's dexterous flow (which I would rank up there with Nas'), the DITC's inventive and catchy production, and the ignorance of the mainstream media, resulted in one of the most underrated/overlooked hip-hop records of all time. Below is a the best track off the record, where Maestro raps confidently beside one of the all time greats, Percee P.

BIG L "Lifestylez Ov Da Poor And Dangerous" 1995
Big L's Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous suffered severely in the long, blinding shadow cast by Illmatic. Big L was raised in New York, and this entire record was devoted to the streets of Harlem where he grew up, much like Nas' many tributes to Queens that appear throughout Illmatic. The main difference between the two MCs was Big L's unflinchingly hardcore take on street life, whereas Nas took a softer, more reflective and nostalgic look on his upbringings. Most of this record is produced by various members of the DITC crew and boasts some of the best beats ever laid out by the group, which proved necessary when backing up Big L's witty and hyper lyrical flow. Sincerely, Big L was one of the greatest MC's to ever grace the mic, and the legacy left behind on Lifestylez is more than enough proof. Unfortunately, just before releasing his second record, The Big Picture, Big L was gunned down. The Big Picture was released to critical acclaim, proving that he was, unlike Nas, able to follow up on his astonishing debut record.

Diamond D was one of the founders of the DITC, and in 1992, after almost ten years of behind the scenes production, Diamond was able to release his first solo record, Stunts, Blunts and Hip-Hop. The record didn't sell well but caught the attention of his contemporaries, and he eventually went on to produce tracks on The Fugees' Score, Mos Def's Black On Both Sides, Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory and Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia, all of which are staples in any hip-hop diet. For his debut, though, the man did it all by getting behind the mic and producing every track on this underground classic. That's one better than Nas.

EPMD "Business Never Personal" 1992
EPMD's last record before disbanding for several years, also happens to be their best. The duo was able to improve and advance on their sound with every album, and the result of their fourth record is one of the best records of the genre. Just for the record, Nas' fourth record was the universally panned Nastradamus.

ERIC B. AND RAKIM "Don't Sweat The Technique" 1992

When Nas first dropped on to the scene with Main Source's Live At The BBQ, and soon followed with releasing Halftime as his first single, there was a lot of murmurs about Nas taking over the throne that Rakim had left after disbanding the duo. Listening to Don't Sweat The Technique, and then listening to the best lines off of Illmatic, it's quite easy to discern that the high praise was completely misplaced. Technique was the fourth and final record from Eric B and Rakim and served to solidify their status as hip-hop royalty. Rakim's hyper flow and ingenious wordplay, mixed with Eric B's intense and technically advanced production combined to help create a near unbeatable record. Sure, most critics will place Paid In Full above Technique, but pound for pound, Technique is stronger, swifter and refuses to sound as dated their debut.


Anonymous said...

All solid choices what prompted the rebuttal of illmatic? Which is a milestone in hip hop regardless of wether it was good or not. People always tend to favor nostalgia over reality it provides a comfortable distance. Illmatic's real strength was that it was short and it was the one thing the Nas couldn't do again. He forgot how to edit himself and every album after ill felt like nothing had been edited.

Mark E. Rich said...

I just wanted to remind everyone that there were dozens of other albums that were completely overlooked that came out at the same time. Illmatic is great, but the huge lump of praise that continues to be dumped on it irks me when I think of all the great, great records that get zero attention. The fact that he just put out a new record is, and his name is in the media again was reason enough to be sick of the idolizing of Illmatic. Alsom if you look up best hip hop records of all time in google, Illmatic tops a lot of lists. However, these lists tend to have all the obvious choices in them as well (The Chronic, Ready To Die, Paid In Full etc etc), so, basically, i'm hoping to expose some peeps to some great shit that came out way back then.

As for the short length of the record, that definitely works for it, as most hip-hop records of the time took advantage of the 80 mins available on CD. Most of the records below are longer and feature better production and rhyming. I could just imagine the weak tracks that got left off Illmatic. That being said, Illmatic is not perfect; One Love is a crap track and The Genesis isn't even a song. What does that leave you with? 8 Songs. It's practically an EP when you look at it that way.

As for Nas not being able to do it again, well you're dead right on that. Back then, however, everyone thought he was the second coming, which has obviously turned out to be completely false.

Bjorn said...

I still think Stillmatic is better than Illmatic.

Bjorn said...

Nas Top 10:

1) "What Goes Around" (from Stillmatic)
2) "Doo Rags" (from The Lost Tapes)
3) "Heaven" (from God's Son)
4) "Ether" (from Stillmatic)
5) "Hate Me Now" (from I Am...)
6) "If I Ruled the World" (from It Was Written)
7) "Purple" (from The Lost Tapes)
8) "My Way" (from The Lost Tapes)
9) "Made You Look" (from God's Son)
10) "The World is Yours" (from Illmatic)

Mark E. Rich said...

wow! just one track from illmatic? you are, once again, on an island of your very own.

Chop Dawg said...

Damn son, Mark E. knows his shit! Don't Sweat the Technique is one of the most overlooked records ever, Rakim was on top of his game!

Chop Dawg

Chop Dawg said...

And oh yeah, where's the SUV at? ha ha

Anonymous said...

Thx for this post ; i knew half the albums and discovered some jewels in your list.

Illmatic, is still for me on another level.