It was only appropriate they dropped this in the summer.

In 2007 the tides were shifting. Looking back on it, this was such a middle point in the music industry or maybe specifically in Hip Hop. The times were a-changing. And change looks like chaos until its viewed in hindsight. In 2007, behind us was an industry run by labels and age-old tastemakers by way of physical music and ahead of us was an industry run by artists and consumers by way of the digital scape. Everything was getting ready to change rapidly and there were certain artists that came out with bodies of work that, in hindsight, were the last great breaths of what was. Blu & Exile dropped their opus just months after Nas dropped Hip Hop Is Dead and before Soulja Boy dropped Souljaboytellem.com. The former diagnosed a shift in culture and the latter almost formally ushered in this Internet/Social Media/Soundcloud rap era that we know today. The following year Kid Cudi dropped Day N Nite, Kanye dropped 808’s & Heartbreak, Lil Wayne dropped Tha Carter III, then the following year Drake dropped So Far Gone and by then the tides were too strong to swim against and the entire makeup of the genre began to undergo a major face-lift stylistically. But before that there was 2007 and there was Below the Heavens. This was before the tempo dropped, before stuttering hi-hats, before auto-tuned verses, before vibes, before ad-libs took to the forefront, before tight jeans, before face-tats, and any of the characteristics closely associated with the genre in 2018.

This was boom bap. This was scratching. This was rap. This was a set of stories you felt the first spin and understood the second and third. I remember when this dropped it was one of those rare occurrences when everyone stopped and understood what this was. At the time I remember a very palpable void carved out by some of our best talents either dying or living past their primes. We were hungry for the next thing to give us that feeling. And this was a curse in some ways for the artists that did step up to the plate. Because 2007 was a middle point that swallowed all of the great potentials that weren’t cognizant of the way the tides were moving. Unfortunately Blu, in some ways, fell through those cracks.

Fortunately when he appeared that first time with Below the Heavens, he landed with a thud. There were immediate comparisons to Illmatic Nas or Resurrection Common. To anyone that fell in love with Hip Hop in its golden age, it was a very familiar feeling. This was like falling in love with a soulmate all over again. And beyond that, it was so summer-appropriate. It sounds like sunny California. Bump the record and you’re likely to hear palm trees and warm weather. It sounds like memories of cookouts, button-up flannels, and trading the best of times and the worst of times over 40 ounces. It is both the liberating energy that comes with this season in childhood and the loss of that childhood to the grim realities that seem to occur only with its heat.

Beyond that, I feel this album was a glimpse at what would become a West Coast revival. The left side of the country had the mic in the 90’s and though trends travelled elsewhere, make no mistake, we still have something to say. The way I see it, before we got the gratification of Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler the Creator, Jay Rock, Ab Soul, YG, Nipsey Hussle, Kamaiya, Anderson .Paak, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Vince Staples, Dom Kennedy, or anyone else that exploded the years afterward, Blu surfaced spotlighting an evolving West Coast scene; one that is both an homage to its history and a departure from its tropes. Before K. Dot told stories about being a good kid in a mad city, Blu captured that same perspective; just a blank and naive canvas surrounded by problems older than him that stain over time. There was a scene marinating based off the contributions ranging from the spectrum of, say, Pharcyde and something more dangerous like NWA. While the South dominated and the East Coast grew increasingly frustrated over losing its grip on the genre, the West Coast quietly bubbled before only just recently bubbling over. We caught fire.

And what I’m saying is Blu was the smoke.

Happy Anniversary to Below the Heavens! Underneath this is my favorite verse on the album, which happens to be one of the greatest verses of all time.

I was cold hearted and young, a dumb kid with a gun
Cuz fun days don’t last, the last nigga to laugh
So rap fell on my tongue, numb feelings remain
And pain comes and it goes
But my wounds shows the room where my pops beat my moms
Moms screamin’ for help, myself hot as the sun
Cold hearted and young, a dumb kid with a gun
That I got from my pops top drawer
When he left my momma twice in a week
My momma lifeless and weak, spendin’ her nights in the sheets
With seed killer number (one)
Seed killer number (two)
Seed killer number (three)
Got heat from the newborns scorned brother
Blu black hearted and young
Raps fell off his tongue
Numb feelings remain
The pain comes and it goes
But my wounds show the tomb that now shelters my boy
My boy needed my help, myself not in the game
The game heartless and young
Dumb niggas with guns cause fun days don’t last
The last nigga to blast got shots all in his back
Wrath fell on his soul but in my soul he remains
Pain comes and it goes
But my wounds show the moon shining off of his blood
His blood ran through his moms
His moms ran outside
5 niggas with guns
Seed killer number (one)
Seed killer number (two)
Seed killer number (three)
Pulled the heat and he was through
Threw dirt on his casket his mom wore a mask and
Still couldn’t hide tears years pass her son
Numb feelings remain
Pain comes and it goes
But my wounds show the groom that still married my mom
My mom still had a son
Dumb kid with a gun, that I got from my pops
Top drawer when he left
My momma fightin’ for years
My momma fightin’ her tears
Now she gotta explain the game of her life to her son
But the sun still shines
Nine children and a newborn scorn brother two
Blu, life isn’t young
Dumb kid with a tongue, that I got from Hip Hop
But she left me for you, so I’mma give her to you
Cold hearted and young

 

Back in 2011 True went up in flames. The two-alarm fire claimed the shop itself, a lot of merchandise, as well as a lot of memories. Out of the ash and rubble, a few of those memories survived.

There might have been another Ghostface polaroid back then. Maybe it melted away, maybe it got damaged by the firemen making their way through. Regardless, Ghost stopped by just before releasing his fifth studio album Fishscale. Not only was it met with critical acclaim, but it became his most successful album to date. I say that to say, he came to the shop very much on the humble. Surprisingly down to earth, he even previewed the album for a crowd of only 50 people over at Milk Bar that night, a chunk of them just folks that work in the Haight. Sitting on a bar stool, he went track by track, sometimes rapping, sometimes explaining. There’s a certain magic to the Haight and how events unfold within it and this is one instance. The characters and events both big and small seem to coexist.

Since it opened in ’96, the shop and Hip Hop have had a close and thorough relationship with one another. This is a beacon of small business in SF and somehow someway it survived a lot, including both a gutting of everything we know and associate with the city as well as the literal elements. In dedication to this idea of small business, perseverance, and lasting memories, I’ve got 42 polaroids in the chamber and 42 stories attached to them. Stay tuned for more surprises.

Shoutouts to Josh for the story!

Give it time and Lil Yachty will be the good ol’ days.

7 of the 10 top selling artists in 2018 are rappers. And I think it’s time to talk about how Hip Hop not only dominates as a music business but as an artform doing what art is supposed to do: shake up culture on a mass scale. I was inspired to write this piece after chatting with a 40-something about the state of Hip Hop. The genre hasn’t been around for long so in 2018 certain dynamics are cropping up that we are brand new to. An entire generation was chastised by their parents for youthful rebellion expressed over sample chops and now that generation are the parents doing the chastising. Growing up on 90’s Hip Hop is a blessing this 40-something and everyone like him was cursed with. He had nothing but complaints about this year and knowing I’m an avid appreciator of what Hip Hop was, a lot of folks assume that translates to not being a fan of what Hip Hop is. On the contrary, I think this is one of the greatest and most necessary phases in its evolution. And I think we need to understand it’s a phase like any other passing moment in time.

The genre is bigger than any one individual or moment and our perception of it needs to reflect that.

Give it time and Trippie Redd will be a the good ol’ days, is what I’m saying. To wish for the feeling an artist or piece of music gave us, we would also have to ask for the moment in time it took place and all of the conditions that time entailed. If you want ‘94 Illmatic back, you’d need ‘94 crack-era Queensbridge back. We are simply on a different chapter than those previous and I don’t know anyone who would opt to stay on the same page and not continue to see how the story unfolds. In fact, it is the very idea that rap moved on and escaped the grip of a generation that is the mark of its brilliance. Rock & Roll isn’t dangerous to the status quo anymore; Hip Hop is. All genres once considered a nuisance stayed frozen in time at their peak and, if anything, the nostalgia of those time periods became consumerized and thus neutered like any other revolution in this country. America tends to squash its threats by putting it on a T-Shirt and selling it. Hip Hop, however, manages to stay potent and still piss people off.

It is Kendrick Lamar rapping on top of a demolished cop car. It is Kanye West jumping up on a Grammy stage to defend a Black woman’s art. It is Jay-Z dealing crack in the Reagan era only to set foot in the White House in the Obama era as a self-owned billionaire. It is Young Thug wearing a dress on his album cover. It is Nicki Minaj taking advantage of America’s conflicted obsession with the sexualized female body and extracting millions from it. It is Drake broadening the scope of what does or doesn’t constitute Hip Hop, who is or isn’t allowed to contribute, and why. It is a 16 year old Chief Keef and his people embodying the alarming yet inherent violence of America in a YouTube video. And more than any other bullet point, Hip Hop manages to remain in the moment, question itself, and take the shape of the times as they are right now.

Playboi Carti will be the good ol’ days too. Angela Davis once said “we definitely love Martin and Malcolm and deeply appreciate their historical contributions, but we need not replicate the past.” There are no infallible deceased minds, only mortal men and women not unlike you or I who introduced valuable ideas to the conversation and then exited it. The conversation is on-going and ever-evolving based on the one step their contributions built; leading only to another, higher step for those of us living to further architect. At times the worst attribute of America and American media is its nostalgia. It leaves one constantly locked into the good ol’ days, believing the past to be a long gone utopia and the present infinitely worse and without a doubt headed toward the end of days.

I mean it when I say this is one of the greatest and most necessary phases in rap. The crack era fueled the genre’s beginnings, reflecting and documenting the violence, poverty, and various borders of morality that came out of it. We saw a community nationwide use every angle of creativity to tell its story from the 80’s well through the 90’s. The 2000’s more so introduced a level of success within the genre unparalleled to years prior and the music reflected that. By the end of it we even saw stories that critiqued those heights of celebrity and riches it obtained and the 2010’s are understandably more introspective in ways. But I say this is one of the greatest eras because it is a visible testament to how shapeless and of the times Hip Hop is. I don’t know another genre that embraced the concept of free music so early. Mixtapes evolved to a point that artists were putting out album-quality original works for free in a climate where the industry as we knew it was crumbling. Eventually that highlighted the fact that music is simply promotion for an entire brand and the industry actually took shape around this concept. As the industry evolved, music of all eras and all genres became accessible in ways not comparable to any other era by far. All of a sudden it wasn’t up to companies to provide us a set of curated choices, our choices are now up to us. So each iteration of the genre has a fair chance at success and distinctive categories of those iterations got blurred. What I mean is Kendrick and J. Cole are two of the top selling rappers in the genre if you appeal more to so-called conscious rap, Drake and Post Malone are two more if you appeal more to so-called Pop rap, Migos are a little more bouncy and hood, XXXTentation is a little more emo and suburban, and Eminem is more traditional and driven by lyricism. Most importantly, none of these labels we put on them hold up and all of these artists are liable to fall under whatever category at any moment. In the streaming era it benefits to fall under multiple boxes and the music reflects that. This era is marked by questions of identity and where one falls in a spectrum as opposed to a category and this genre reflects that. This era is marked by an opioid crisis wherein artists, like their fans, are susceptible to addiction by both illegal and legal means. This era is marked by questioning respectability politics and the notion that some people and expressions are more valuable than others by nature; the type of concept that breeds snobbishness and stagnation. This era is marked by over-information, misinformation, and confusion to the point where simplicity is valued. One day I guarantee fans will talk about the good ol’ days. And not unlike Illmatic in ‘94, we won’t be able to get ‘18 back because to get ‘18 back would mean we would need the ‘18 opioid crisis, questions of gender roles, issues of psychological predispositions of violence against bodies of color, a music industry driven by consumers and not companies, and all other factors that make this year what it is. Jay-Z was a crack dealer in the Reagan era. If he insisted on staying put he would have never grown to the point of setting foot in the Obama-era White House.

But what I love about this era is there are no rules. Only music that truly resonates prevails. Gaudy clothes and 808’s work like the Migos, or absolutely normal clothes and musicianship works like Brockhampton. Straight hood shit like Lil Baby works like suburban shit like Mac Miller. Old acts like Juicy J work like a newer Lil Uzi Vert. Experimental Hip Hop like Jay Electronica can make a splash like more bare Hip Hop like Lil Pump. A complex performance like Chance the Rapper’s can land the same way as a simplistic performance like 21 Savage’s. Something more flamboyant like an ASAP Mob work can hit like a more lowkey Vince Staples. Singy-rap like Anderson .Paak can get the job done like a bare-bones rap from Dave East. Truthfully, I couldn’t understand the 40-something I wound up talking to. I mean no insult if you’re reading this, man. I think about Kendrick, the rapper that all Hip Hop heads agree on, and how his style changed over the years. He started doing traditional raps comparable to a Prodigy, Tribe, or Big Pun and eventually evolved into different sounds, flows, curves, and pockets; all of which were inspired by some of the more melodic and less traditionally lyrical acts of today. Everyone is adding to the conversation from different angles and it benefits the whole. You want a 100-piece Crayola crayon set that is all yellow. You want to only draw yellow things because yellow is your favorite color. But 100 is a lot. What you’re preventing from happening is a red crayon being introduced to the conversation. And regardless of what you think of that red, it may help your yellow make more orange hues and you draw a better picture. It isn’t healthy to stay in the same place and if this genre were to continue to dominate I think we need to better understand the function of the old head and the young head. Because the old head has all of the value of the past and the young head has all of the value of the present without any bias. We should deeply appreciate the contributions of the old, but the new need not replicate the past.

America tends to kill its threats by putting it on a T-Shirt and selling it. In 2018, images of such revolutionaries as MLK became commodified and simplified to the point that the very people he fought against are using his name in 2018 as a reason as to why we should stop fighting. The concept of his peaceful protests, on a surface level at least, became the “tagline” of his “brand” and is used to pacify justified rage that MLK himself spoke on, understood, and at times advocated for. And so went Rock & Roll. I only say that to say one of the monumental strengths of this genre is that it can’t be pinpointed. It can sound like anything, it can look like anything, it can feel like anything. It can absolutely annoy, enrage, and scare those in power.

And most impressively, it can also sell T-Shirts in the process.

In 1969 a genius was born in Marcy Projects.

In 1996 his genius manifested itself in the form of Reasonable Doubt. This LP was a message. Those guys in those black and white photos were all on the inside. They knew. We didn’t. The Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter we know today, the embodiment of 21st Century Black excellence and opulence, started with Dame Dash, Biggs, and this thing of theirs.

In hindsight that name Rocafella was more of a mission statement.

There’s something inside the man that absolutely refuses to lose. His debut album is a testament to that. First and foremost, it came after being turned down by every label, creating their own independent label, and completely funding their own product. Then there’s the fact that Jay made a work so potent and so undeniably great that some of the year’s biggest heavyweights Biggie and Mary J. Blige went out of their way to contribute to it and Tupac found some time to throw shots before his passing that same year; signalling the end of an era. Jay was embraced by and threatened by two of the greatest talents in music and entered at just about the exact moment their lives were taken. A state of flow is when maximum skill meets maximum challenge. Jay had what it took to seize the moment. Really it shouldn’t be a surprise that at 48 his life and career took the shape they did. You can hear it in the 26 year old’s flow way back then. He came for it all.

The Ski produced Dead Presidents was the first release of the album. It, too, felt prophetic. Nas’s words “I’m out for presidents to represent me” are some of the first words heard. In 2018 the man is peaking on a billion dollar net worth and in 1996 he was plotting on it. While these days he’s able to name drop media titans like Oprah, or presidents like Obama, or money gurus like Buffet and his relationships with them in a verse, back then he had the same energy with much different surroundings. Dead Presidents is a story with borders that don’t stretch beyond the street. Just a player in a game, Jay goes into psycho-analytical detail about what we do in this pursuit of money. All the while, his proximity to Nas on this track and the story surrounding it all but foreshadow what would become one of the greatest feuds in Hip Hop history. The haunting sample became a staple in great Hip Hop instrumentals and it wasn’t a sore thumb on the album.

Personally what I love most about the album is the sharp attention to detail. Jay-Z is an artist. He is one of the great American writers of the 20th Century. And, per his legend, he doesn’t even write. As the story goes, this is the album before he properly knew how to structure bars or organize a song. This was before he learned that simplifying lyrics reaches a wider fanbase and he switched up his business model. These were raw, heavy, dense, detailed, layered, intimate thoughts from a man barely removed from the lifestyle he narrates. And it was scored using some of the most appropriate and cohesive instrumentals for the stories Jay kicks off. From boasts such as “ghetto’s Errol Flynn, hot like heroin, young pimps is sterile when I pimp through your borough” to wisdoms such as “if every nigga in your clique is rich your clique is rugged, nobody will fall because everybody will be each others’ crutches” or grim realities like “I’ll push you to the limit when I’m needing the wealth, and all I see is life’s’ cycle just repeating itself,” the proper moods layer it. Clark Kent, DJ Premier,  Irv Gotti, and Jaz-O among others clearly took good care of it.

The way I see it Jay-Z’s vision and his rise that runs parallel to it doesn’t feel much different from tech giants we revere. Reasonable Doubt is his first Macintosh or Windows or The Facebook. From Reasonable Doubt, that combination of willpower and vision, an entire lineage of artistic, business, and cultural innovations spawned. It’s an amazing piece of work no matter what angle one looks at it from.

Happy Anniversary to Reasonable Doubt!

 

Back in 2011 True Clothing went up in flames. The two-alarm fire claimed the shop itself, a lot of merchandise as well as a lot of memories. Out of the ash and rubble, a few of those memories survived.

 This one was a little bizarre. We carried an old school SF Giants jacket back then. People came in and out as they do and somewhere in there one of those people was Mos Def. He skated up to the shop and absolutely needed that jacket. He came in, threw it on the counter and paid full price. A lot of famous people that roll through to the shop expect a hookup or free shit. Mos was different. That moment was bizarre in that it all happened so fast: he pulled up on the skateboard, B-lined to the jacket, threw it on the counter, paid for it, said peace, then hopped on his skateboard and floated out. Mos wasn’t a stranger to the shop though. He and a select group of others would routinely but randomly pop up throughout the years. If you check out the video for 1998’s “Travellin’ Man,” about a minute in, Mos is seen wearing one of the original True tees while fixing himself in the mirror.

Since it opened in ’96, the shop and Hip Hop have had a close and thorough relationship with one another. This is a beacon of small business in SF and somehow someway it survived a lot, including both a gutting of everything we know and associate with the city as well as the literal elements. In dedication to this idea of small business, perseverance, and lasting memories, I’ve got 42 polaroids in the chamber and 42 stories attached to them. Stay tuned for more surprises.

Shoutouts to Josh for the story!

Nobody wins when the family feuds.

Invited for an early viewing of the Oakland Museum of California’s latest exhibit, I didn’t know what to expect. Hip Hop in 2018 is filled with tension. Right down to its atoms, modern American culture is characterized by a stark defiance of the old and conventional and what’s thumping out of our speakers is just one showcase. Respect: Hip Hop Style & Wisdom is an exhibit that covers the genre with at least 50 years of context. Hip Hop is no longer an infant art form. That’s an important fact to consider when judging what the genre means in 2018.

Jay-Z’s words about nobody winning when we’re all bickering is so indicative of the times. And thankfully this tribute housed in the Oakland Museum is absent of that tension. This is a happy home; a celebration of a culture. I saw a couple of kids running around and couldn’t help but think that, at the rate things are moving, they’re just a blink away from telling their own experiences; pieces of this one greater experience we all seem to be involved in. It is this experience, this thing that is bigger than any one of us, that I felt walking into the building. One can’t know where they’re going without first knowing where they come from so I can’t stress enough how important it is to give the youth a home such as this.

I think it’s important to look at exactly where we’re from. One of the most notable features of this exhibit is how far back in time it stretches. To give us context on the chain of events that led to Hip Hop, it starts as far back as 1964: referencing the Civil Rights Act, Malcolm X’s assassination, televised James Brown performances, the national platform Soul Train gave to Black musicians and pop-lockers, the founding of the Black Arts Movement, as well as the Black Panthers. Art movements like Afrofuturism, involving Parliament Funkadelic among others, are noted as prototypes to the style of Hip Hop that directly followed. One of the pieces read “race riots erupt across America over police violence and segregated schools, and a generation of student-activists and radicals create new approaches to liberation struggles.” There was already a great deal of experimentation going on in the art world as well as a laundry list of social issues that demanded new forms of expression and it is this context that really gives Hip Hop weight. It was never just music. It is part of a long lineage of Black American expression in a country that suppressed it at all cost.

I think it’s important to look at exactly where we’re at. As of this year Hip Hop is the most popular genre of music in the country. Once labelled a passing fad, then turned the perpetual underdog, I’m sure anyone that witnessed its infancy didn’t quite see all of this coming. This is an American-bred worldwide phenomena. It is bigger than just a genre of music. It always was. It was at one point in time a fever in the underground; a well-kept secret way of speaking, of moving, of dressing, and of sounding. That fever spread above ground and got an iron grip on anything it touched. It is bigger than a genre of music. It is a sport: a constant debate of who put up the biggest numbers, who had the biggest moments, who put on for theirs the hardest. It is a business: revolutionizing entrepreneurship, branding, technology, and inspiring generations to get up, get out, and get something. It is an all-encompassing art form: completely flipping  fashion, film, language, stage design, theatre, and culture as a whole on its head. Hip Hop is unique in that it is, for example, the only genre of music to receive open invitations to the most illustrious House in the country but still never dull its rebellious edge. As it reaches the heights of capitalistic success, we see acts like former FBI target Dr. Dre peaking on billion dollar net worths while mentoring acts like Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar whose “we gon’ be alright” chant was a staple for grassroots rallies like Black Lives Matter. All of a sudden Eric B & Rakim come to mind.

 

“Thinking of a master plan

Cause ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand

So I dig into my pocket, all my money spent

So I dig deeper, but still coming up with lint

So I start my mission, leave my residence

Thinking, “How could I get some dead presidents?””

 

Looking back on it, those lines almost feel like a mission statement. Fast-forward 30 years and Hip Hop resembles some kind of Robin Hood-style figure. It took change from the industry but, as profitable as it grew, still retains an air of rebellion and a voice for the unheard and underdogged.

In 2018 Hip Hop still challenges the status quo.

We are part of something bigger than ourselves.

I had the pleasure of chopping it up with a man by the name of E Bone. Born and raised in San Francisco, he comes from a long lineage of San Franciscans. He told stories of his roots. His grandfather was part of a 1950’s gang on Fillmore called the War Demons. Fillmore was considered the “Harlem of the West” back then, notable for its jazz music and Black and Brown presence. The next generation down his uncle Anthony followed suit. His uncle made good friends with a man who looked up to him and would go on to name his son after him. That son is Anthony Fort, better known as Rappin Forte. When I entered the exhibit, there were clips of a music video by Drake, the Toronto artist who rapped a handful of Forte’s bars on what would become a smash single. The reach on this thing we’re involved in goes far, is what I’m saying. E. talked about people he knew who told stories about Too $hort’s hustle. In this decade Too $hort is still relevant, collaborating with contemporary acts such as Pittsburgh’s Wiz Khalifa, Virginia’s Chris Brown, Cleveland’s Kid Cudi, and Oakland’s G-Eazy. He was just a young hustler at one point selling out of his trunk and 30 years later his presence is fresh and the blueprint he laid down is standard and expected. The Bay is one of the many areas to get infected by this bug that started as our own little thing and now kids that were born the year some of these artists popped grabbed the baton and ran with it on a global scale. E. and his people in the Fillmore took part in a ripple effect that changed the course of history. That’s some shit.

You really need to see the exhibit for yourself. I was overwhelmed immediately when I walked in and couldn’t absorb it all in the two hours we were allotted. There is visual art, video installations, audio installations, interactive DJ stations, vintage clothing, a mock barber shop, images of old Oakland, images of new Oakland, and much much more. And a low rider. There is so much to it that I assume any one person’s given experience may drastically differ from the person they stand next to. Having my fingers on the pulse and knowing the overarching conversation and concerns regarding the state of Hip Hop, the idea of old vs. new, and this being a transitionary period in the genre with a very stark divide between the two, it is amazing to experience a moment of coexistence and celebration.

Thank you so much to the Oakland Museum for the invitation.

Thank you forever to the pioneers, much love to those carrying the torch, and RIP to everyone that passed.

Peace!

 

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0

 

 

This is the tale of two boys and the Queensbridge projects.

Imagine a child prodigy surfacing in the middle of one of the roughest hoods in New York during one of the roughest times in Black America. Nas was just 17 when his journey started and what he went on to lay down rippled outward throughout the whole of New York and forced grown men to completely switch their styles up or fall victim to natural selection. There was New York Hip Hop in ‘93 and then there was New York Hip Hop in ‘94 and beyond.  Nobody could touch Nas in ’94 and they knew it.

Illmatic was the Manhattan Project.

Not unlike the WWII scientists huddled together to create the ultimate weapon, Nas’s debut was the culmination of the best minds in Hip Hop developing the ultimate album that, like that nuclear bomb, was the first of its kind. Fuck it, let’s not even call these guys artists. They were scientists.

 

“My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses

Live amongst no roses, only the drama

For real, a nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja”


There is DJ Premier. One half of the duo Gang Starr, in 1994 he is in the middle of one of his career highs, refining the boom-bap. His production starts to take on qualities that feel like the touch of cold steel, the smack of concrete, the rattling of train rails; a sonic depiction of the opaque black and white photography that makes the city of New York pop in a way unparalleled.

 

“Wipe the sweat off my dome, spit the phlegm on the streets

Suede Timbs on my feet makes my cipher complete”


There is Pete Rock. at this point he is not but a year removed from contributing one of the greatest songs of the genre, They Reminisce Over You, with his partner C.L. Smooth. Pete is a true to form crate digger, notably pulling a lot of his sound from the Jazz age; a passed baton from New York’s very potent musical roots.

 

“I had to school him, told him don’t let niggas fool him

‘Cause when the pistol blows

The one that’s murdered be the cool one”


There is Q-Tip. With A Tribe Called Quest, by this time he is fresh off of one of the most untouchable runs in Hip Hop: their first three albums People’s Instinctive Travels & The Paths Of Rhythm, The Low End Theory, and Midnight Marauders. I always think of Q-Tip as a painter that makes beats. Each and every production has an array of colors portrayed through sound; a character of its own that could speak without words if there weren’t words present.

 

Deep like The Shining, sparkle like a diamond

Sneak a Uzi on the island in my army jacket linin’”

 

There is Large Professor. Also hailing from Queensbridge, this was his first venture into a production with his name on it. His ghost production is attached to such heavy hitters as Eric B & Rakim and Kool G Rap & DJ Polo at the time he breaks a young Nas onto the scene by way of his group Main Source. At this junction, his most notable beats consist of a certain bounce and in-your-face energy.

 

“Now it’s all about cash in abundance

Niggas I used to run with is rich or doin’ years in the hundreds”

 

L.E.S is a relatively unknown producer at this point. Having grown up with Nas in the Queensbridge projects, he shares a certain youthful hunger and talent with a production style that at times feels lush, regal, and syrupy. And much like Nas, this album goes on to set the tone of the rest of his career.

This is the tale of two boys: Nasir Jones & his right hand man Ill Will. Much to his mother’s dismay, Nas dropped out of school in the 8th grade and started running the streets. His development from that point almost mirrors this decision. An avid reader, he decided to chase knowledge on his own accord. We are far removed from it and able to see it perhaps more clearly now, but Nas’s lyrics were a marriage of his experiences on the street in regards to violence, death, drugs, and poverty with the verbal dexterity and broad worldview he developed with his nose in the books. His whole outlook evolved in a different way than most, as did his ability to articulate it. As he started to show promise on the mic and locked in with his DJ Ill Will, excited to one day pop, Will was shot to death in the Queensbridge projects. Death is part of a natural cycle intertwined with birth, I heard somewhere. Enter MC Serch of the Hip Hop group 3rd Bass.

 

“Another dose and you might be dead

And I’m a Nike head

I wear chains that excite the feds.”

 

Nas already had a natural buzz. Locked in with Large Professor and Main Source, he delivered scene-stealing performances on “Live At The BBQ” and what was essentially Illmatic’s first single “Halftime.” Anyone in New York attuned to the culture was buggin. Just a peak at the young man’s potential had the city buzzing. Something was incubating and anyone with an ear and an eye could see it. Serch was that person. 3rd Bass separated and he worked on a solo album. Nas was unsigned with a demo sitting idly in the background. After getting rejected by Russell Simmons over at Def Jam among other labels, Serch linked him up with Faith Newman, an A&R at Sony As executive producer for the project, he used his pull together the beatmaking dream team.

I get genuinely excited when anyone tells me they haven’t listened to Illmatic. One only gets to hear something for the first time on the first time and my first time changed my life. And how exciting is it that there are people out there walking around with that same experience ahead of them? This is one of the most fabled stories in Hip Hop. They call this album the Hip Hop bible. It was as if all of what came before it was inevitably leading up toward it. He mastered the diction of Rakim, the stream-like flow of Kool G Rap, Slick Rick’s storytelling, Big Daddy Kane’s smoothness, and KRS One’s aggression.

It received the coveted 5 mics in The Source.

Listen to Jay-Z before Illmatic dropped. Listen to Mobb Deep before Illmatic dropped. Listen to Biggie before Illmatic dropped. Listen to Wu Tang before Illmatic dropped. Listen to Fat Joe before Illmatic dropped. All of New York evolved once it encountered Nas’s blueprint. Throughout its history, rap took different shapes as an art form. It went through a lot of phases and picked up different tools along the way. Illmatic was a very valuable tool. From the level of lyricism and detail to the production as well as the executive production. The concept of pulling together an album produced by all of the hottest super-producers of the era was not common. The genre was pretty uniform with its one rapper, one producer format. It set the trend for rappers to turn their baby pictures into album covers; almost an unspoken statement that says ‘this is the one, this is the album.’

And it was the one. It was the album. Everyone in that studio knew what it was when the dust settled. It was if they were all possessed for those sessions; commanded by something bigger than themselves.  Death is part of a natural cycle intertwined with birth. Nas decided to name the album Illmatic.  Born from the loss of his best friend Ill Will. 

DJ Premier once talked about how Nas didn’t know how he wanted to perform on NY State Of Mind. “I don’t know how to start this shit, yo” are some of the first words heard. Apparently they used that exact first take. The story goes as soon as he opened his mouth and spit the very first bars for what was about to be the best Hip Hop album of all time, everyone in the room realized what they all had on their hands.

Happy Anniversary Illmatic!


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🌊Lost City🌊
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👀 Am California
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Kush & Orange Juice is one of the greatest mixtapes of all time.

If you disagree, you just weren’t there. We all only get that one moment at that one age with that one artist who dropped that one album which unquestionably defined that one summer. I’ll never forget it. “I don’t love them, I don’t chase ‘em, I duck ‘em.” Wiz was the man, that was his summer, and he made the kind of body of work that made that feeling contagious.

The energy shifted.

This was at a pivotal point in the genre when the new guard stepped up in clusters and planted their flags down on what we now know as the internet era of Hip Hop. It was a free for all and there were spots for the taking. That summer felt like a movie scored by Cardo, Sledgren, and Jerm; starring Wiz and all of us. This is one of the flyest bodies of work I’ve ever heard. I imagine Taylor Gang sitting around in a boardroom and on the whiteboard are the words “partying”, “smoking”, “fly clothes”, and “beautiful women.” This was music carefully crafted in a lab; the handful of scientists involved brought together for the sole purpose of creating the perfect sonic wake and bake. The whole thing is hazy, dream-like, bouncy, bright, groovy, expertly paced, and Wiz took off on it on pure charisma. He was a young and hungry artist who was always destined for stardom, this was his magnum opus, and he knew all of the above.

Hip Hop had a hand in revolutionizing the music industry in its collapse. The concept of free music was petrifying to anyone following the old model. Napster came through and crushed the buildings and somewhere in there mixtapes started to mean something different within the genre. All of a sudden rappers started dropping tapes that sounded like albums; some that were better than the major label releases of their year. Eventually, as the means of music consumption started to take on a new shape, Hip Hop artist realized music is just a tool to advertise an overarching brand. Kush & Orange Juice came free of charge but we buyed into the brand that is Wiz Khalifa and the lifestyle he packaged and delivered to us. He went number one (trending) on Google and Twitter and  got the top trending hashtag with #kushandorangejuice; the download link to his album on his Twitter. This meant something. Fast forward 8 years and the concept of free music and social media is a standard.

“Self made G, did everything on my own bruh.”

Mezmorized, The Statement, Spotlight, The Kid Frankie, Never Been, in the Cut, Visions, Still Blazin; there are actually too many classic tracks on here to name. They all culminate into the story of a young playboy taking flights to different cities, living out of his luggage, partying in hotels, falling asleep in designer clothes, and waking up to sold out shows. The way Wiz himself describes it feels like an Oceans 11 movie on wax. The heist was to figure out a way to smoke weed, be the coolest guy in the room, and get paid to do it. It was an instrumental streetwear drop. It was a musical sneaker release. It was a cool item to have and it sounded like how rocking some fly shit feels. And Taylor Gang packaged it in a way that was conducive to a changing industry. And I was there for it.

Happy Anniversary to Kush & Orange Juice!