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8/8/88 Top Shelf

1. Fab 5 Freddy - Intro
2. Black Sheep - I'm the One
3. Big Daddy Kane - Like That, Y'all
4. Biz Markie - My Name Is...
5. MC Lyte - Listen Up
6. Grand Puba - Let's Go
7. Smooth B (of Nice & Smooth) - I Want My Money Back
8. Graig G - Catch a Lyrical Beatdown
9. Chubb Rock - Chubb Rocks the Party
10. Special Ed - This Mic
11. Doug E. Fresh - It Ain't Nothin'
12. Jungle Brothers - Back In the Jungle
13. Just Ice - I Run the Streets
14. Melle Mel & Grandmaster Caz - The Battle Is On
15. Master Ace - Revolution's 'Bout To Start

A release which has the internet buzzing: Top Shelf 8/8/88. This compilation comes with a too-good-to-be-true backing story. Indeed listeners will easily be able to tell that these tracks weren't laid down back in the day but what we're left with is a brilliant concept many Hip-Hop heads will welcome with open arms: "Golden Age" legends kickin' 88 st.yle rhymes over 88 st.yle beats. As you can see from the tracklisting this album is something to get excited about. Once Yo! MTV Rap's presenter Fab 5 Freddy finishes the introduction Dres kicks off the album with a ludicrously fast rap, kickin' cocky lines straight over your head in true Black Sheep fashion. Next up is Big Daddy Kane but I couldn't help feeling a bit under-whelmed by this track. Kane circa 88 brings to mind furious cl&ssics like "Raw" and "Set It Off" but of course his performance here isn't as agile. However he still has that "if a rapper tries to diss I'll crush the mother ******" swagger. Biz Markie's appearance could easily be "Just Rhymin' With Biz" Pt. 2. His lazy flow, random rhymes and beat boxing sound as if they might well have been recorded in 88. Lyte's delivery is also in 80's mode and she name-drops many New York golden age artists and venues which makes for some misty eyed nostalgia which is the redeeming quality of her track. "Let's Go" by Brand Nubian's Grand Puba is quite possibly my favourite track on the album. His voice is a bit higher pitched but his cheeky lines; delivery and a funky bass line make that irrelevant. "Who's that cat that rocks the hot track, wack stay back it's the leader of the pack, don't test, try to mess, you know my st.yle like Daddy I'm fresh." "See I'm nice with the mic device, turn a hot MC into a block of ice, slaughter MCs that step in my path, school them on the whole coz they don't know the half." Yeeeeeeah! Smooth B busts his Nice & Smooth-days patented, inane party rhymes more designed for rocking the jam than wowing with listeners with lyrical intricacies. But still, it's dope. Likewise is Craig G's "Catch a Lyrical Beatdown". He flows nicely and benefits from one of the best beats and track titles of the album. Craig G closes out his spot by droppin' a gem, 88 old school st.yle: "We in here like swimwear... peace." The album finishes off with a poignant story rap from Master Ace, formerly of Cold Chillin'. Definitely a brilliant closer and one of the highlights of the album.

What this album reflects is a yearning for the seemingly abandoned characteristics of Hip-Hop's "golden age". A time when Run-D.M.C.'s mainstream breakthrough of the mid-80s demonstrated Hip-Hop's commercial viability to the music industry. Not yet knowing what to make of this new, unconventional art form the labels allowed the music to flourish with little intervention. The New York Hip-Hop community was like one big happy incestuous family (in a good way). A time when friendly competition and one-up-man-ship elevated the art of rhyme to its highest level, on record beefs were never allowed to spiral out of control, producers were developing ever new and fresh sampling st.yles, collaborations were rife but biting (purposely imitating) was a sure way to get your reputation flushed down the toilet. Early gangsta/hardcore (or "reality" rap as it was originally called) emerged alongside alternative, afro-centric Hip-Hop spearheaded by the Native Tongues Posse. Energetic young MCs were making a name for themselves with goofy, unconventional lyrical acrobatics while political rappers were brimming with righteous anger over the social injustices they saw in Reagan's America. Hip-Hop could be anything and everything and it still had a direct connection to and respect for its foundation: the old school pioneers who "paved the way" for the next wave of MCs and DJs to build something lasting upon their achievements. Those were the conditions of late 80s New York that produced dozens of top-notch albums, the bulk of which were released in 1988. Arguably the best year in Hip-Hop (as demonstrated by my profile banner.) Bear in mind I wasn't even born in 1988 and I didn't become a serious Hip-Hop fan until 2 years ago. But in those 2 years I have listened and enjoyed Hip-Hop for hours each day and what I have gathered is that since Hip-Hop's "golden age" there has been a general decline in the quality of music being marketed. That is not an attempt to whine it's just a simple observation. Of course there are exceptions but every Hip-Hop fan has to accept that this is the case. Things just ain't the same. "Nowadays it sounds a little different when a man raps".

And this is what Top Shelf 8/8/88 represents. A yearning for the good ol' days when Hip-Hop was just better than the crap-fest it supposedly is now. But what some fall victim to is the "everything that came out after '97 is bull ****" syndrome. This is most common amongst new Hip-Hop fans who perhaps weren't even born never mind aware of Hip-Hop in 1988 and therefore tend to over-romanticise its golden age at the expense of current music being released. I know I did. While it is crucial to have an appreciation of the great music made at that time it is also important to support good Hip-Hop in the present, of which there is plenty to enjoy. 8/8/88 is a celebration of 1988 Hip-Hop but still, it is an imitation. We can't go back in time. Hip-Hop will never recapture that youthful, fresh energy. It has seen too much, grown too world-weary and of course will never be the same again.

If you got this far thanks for reading. :D Remember to check the album and leave a comment.

My Take on Illmatic

The debut from the rapper Nas. Nas grew up in the notorious New York housing project Queensbridge and was living there as a young adult when Illmatic was recorded. Nas never slips into the basic gangsta-posturing of many West Coast acts or even the crack-empire daydreams of Jay-Z or Raekwon. Nas takes the perspective of a street hustler on the bottom rung of society trying to scrape a living but thinking of bigger things.

"Be having dreams that I'm a gangster, drinking moets holding tecs / Making sure the cash came correct then I step / Investments in stock, sewin' up the blocks / To sell rocks, planning gunfights with mega cops / But just a n**** walking with his finger on the trigger / Make enough figures until my pockets get bigger"

N.Y. State of Mind is undoubtedly one of the greatest street narratives written. DJ Premier contributes one of the grimiest beats ever however it only serves to emphasise Nas' gritty lyrics.

"In the PJs my blend tape plays, bullets are strays / Young b****s is grazed, each block is like a maze / Full of black rats trapped, plus the Island is packed / From what I hear in all the stories when my peoples come back"

The "black rats trapped" metaphor is very powerful. By using "rats" Nas illustrates the poverty that affects the projects. When a rat is cornered it will become desperate and violent in its struggle for survival, it is aware its life is in the balance. Nas conveys more to the listener with 3 words than most rappers could with a whole verse.

"The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps / That's where I learnt to do my hustle had to scuffle with freaks"

With rhyme displays like these Nas shows he can write gripping descriptions of Queensbridge and still amazing listeners with the technical genius of his rhymes.

On "Life's a B*tch" the nihilistic chorus of "Life's a b*tch and then you die, that's why we get high 'cause you never know when you're gonna go"is countered by Nas who has a more optimistic philosophy: "I switch my motto, instead of sayin' f**k tomorrow / That buck that bought a bottle could've struck the lotto". On the same track Nas also questions the materialism that saturates every level of American society. "I'm saying, that's what this is all about right? Clothes, bank rolls and hos, you know what I'm saying? Yo then what man, what?"On "The World Is Yours" though Nas accepts the reality that cash rules with his now famous double-edged line "I'm out for dead presidents to represent me."See, Nas is so good he can be materialistic and political... at the same time!

In "Memory Lane" Nas lays down one of the best claims to "realness" ever.

"Check the prognosis, is it real or showbiz? / My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses / Live amongst neurosis, only the drama, for real / A nickel plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganga"

On the same track he also drops some astonishing lines that undoubtedly rank as the best in Hip-Hop, ever. (Just like almost everything else to do with this album.)

"My intellect prevails from my hanging cross with nails / I reinforce the frail with lyrics that's real / Word to Christ a disciple of streets, trifle on beats / I decipher prophecies through a mic and say peace"

The album's intro: "The Genesis" features dialogue from the old school Hip-Hop movie "Wildstyle".

"Stop f**king around and be a man. There ain't nothing out here for you."

Another voice answers: "Oh yes there is... this."

And the beat kicks in.

This shows how much important Hip-Hop is to Nas, Queensbridge and thousands across America. Nas may live a life "parallel to hell" but through Hip-Hop he transcends it all. This sentiment rings true throughout the rest of the album. Illmatic is set in Queensbridge, amongst the outcasts of society, under the crushing crime, poverty and stress. How can a thing of such creative inspiration come from that? Illmatic, like Hip-Hop, should apparently not exist, but the fact that it does contradicts many of the misconceived values of "decent" society.

"I drop the ancient manifested Hip-Hop, straight off the block"

"Sometimes I sit back with a Buddha sack / Mind's in another world thinking how can we exist through the facts / Written in school textbooks, bibles etcetera / f**k a school lecture, the lies get me vexed up"

"I got so many rhymes I don't think I'm too sane / Life is parallel to hell but I must maintain"

At his core Nas is an astoundingly gifted lyricist who just happens to live in Queensbridge housing projects and so Illmatic reflects that dark, dangerous and complex environment. By studying and building upon the techniques laid down by golden age innovators and modern rapping archetypes such as Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap and Rakim, Nas kept the intense New York lyricism alive as Hip-Hop progressed into it's mid-90's hardcore era. His delivery is nonchalant and stony faced which means the focus is mainly upon his lyrics. His raps conjure up vivid images but never in a straightforward fashion because of his poetic and often abstract imagery. Indeed, Illmatic is such a challenging listen it requires undivided attention over multiple plays for Nas' intricate rhyme styles and lyrics to sink in.

"Explore rap and tell me Nas ain't all that"

Illmatic is often compared to another landmark Hip-Hop recording also released in 1994: Biggie's Ready To Die. These comparisons are warranted as both are stellar albums however there are key differences, particularly in the tone of the personas both artists present. On Ready To Die Biggie intimates the listener immediately. The album is after all, a rough biography of Biggie's hustler persona, from beginning to end, the personal highs and lows are shared with the listener. His deep voice and charismatic delivery also lessen the distance. His personality is open and unguarded, from the intro, which briefly describes his birth and childhood, right through the album until his moving, introspective last words. On Illmatic on the other hand the listener is never granted this intimate perspective into Nas. And maybe this is another strength of Illmatic, Nas does not attempt to create a colourful on-record persona, which as we know (especially in Hip-Hop) is likely to be distorted by the artist's own vanity and insecurity, and so Illmatic maintains a sincerity in that respect. Nas' deadpan, cold delivery also keeps the listener at bay. His character is never clearly defined; it seems to be subordinate to his surroundings, the Queensbridge Projects. They are described vividly and in such candid and grim detail that they are indeed as big a part of Illmatic as Nas is. This is perhaps another accomplishment of Illmatic; it conveys the insolubility of the individual and the environment. New York never sleeps, and neither does Nas. Whatever personal insight is allowed appears not to be unique to Nas himself, rather representative of an experience shared by all of his project peers. And so Nas remains an Enigma, which is perhaps why Illmatic possesses such a powerful pull on fans who can listen to it for years because try as we might we can never quite work him out.

That's all not to mention Illmatic's production from an A-Team of early 90's Hip-Hop producers, namely: The Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip and DJ Premier. They provide a range of musical beds for Nas' superb raps. The overall album is a showcase for the classic early 90's New York production style: Soul and Jazz samples flipped ingeniously and backed with neck breaking drum loops. The legendary producers contribute some career highlights to Illmatic making it essential for any fan of Golden Age Hip-Hop music.

Many seem to think that Illmatic's weakness is its length. It consists of 10 tracks (one of which is the intro) and lasts around 40 minutes. I would have to disagree with that criticism. Every track is highly immersive and engaging, the consistency of beats and rhymes is unparalleled in Hip-Hop. Illmatic is truly a full and satisfying listen.

Coming at (and perhaps heralding) the end of Hip-Hop's golden age, Illmatic can be seen as a final product of the enormous strides and innovations Hip-Hop took, both musically and lyrically, between the mid-80's and 90's. It is the fruition of the advancements made by modern Hip-Hop's architects. What's more Illmatic represents something else: a hungry young street rapper with a tonne of raw talent who somehow managed to convert every last ounce of that potential into a fully realised masterpiece. Although contemporary Hip-Hop is soured by violent, misogynistic images and basic nursery rhyme chants no one should allow that to taint their retrospective view of Illmatic. It deserves an unprejudiced listen to its consistently brilliant production and of course Nas' literally awesome rapping ability. Both of which make Illmatic an album that can fully live up to its classic status.

The World Is Yours (produced by Pete Rock)

Halftime (produced by the Large Professor)

One Love (produced by Q-Tip)

It Ain't Hard To Tell (produced by the Large Professor)

Illmatic Promo Videoft. DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip, Pete Rock and Nas himself.

Oh Word Illmatic Sample Breakdown

Gifted Unlimited, Rhymes Universal (G.U.R.U.)

"I'm too deep and yes much too complicated, my lines when stated are quite often underrated."

As one half of the legendary Hip-Hop duo Gang Starr Guru was part of a force which quietly shook the foundations of Hip-Hop and played a tremendous role in elevating it to it's golden peak of the early 90s. However his partner most often overshadows Guru in the eyes of Hip-Hoppers. That partner is DJ Premier. Premo's legacy in Hip-Hop is untouchable. Having broke massive ground with Gang Starr he went on to provide beats for New York's Hip-Hop elite, both mainstream and underground, always expanding and progressing his sound and so he remains relevant and active in Hip-Hop to this day. Premo is the main contender for the title of greatest Hip-Hop producer. Therefore it is understandable that Guru,sharing a group with a Hip-Hop god should be unrecognised by many as one of the greatest lyricists of recorded Hip-Hop.

Emerging from Brooklyn in the late 80s Gang Starr released the promising "No More Mr. Nice Guy" in '89 which had a number of accomplished cuts but was overall an inconsistent effort. Gang Starr's Hip-Hop monuments came with 91's "Step In the Arena" and 92's "Daily Operation". Yet these releases seemed to operate just under the radar. Even The Source gave both albums a shocking 3.5/5 mics rating, a decision rebuked by Hip-Hop fans of the time and abhorred by Hip-Hop fans of today. Nevertheless it is undeniable that both "Step In the Arena" and "Daily Operation" left the duo's debut in the dust and played a huge role in uplifting Hip-Hop to its golden heights.

Of course I'm not going to try to downplay Premo's role in Gang Starr, namely his production. It was genius. He often infused his rugged and raw beats with jazzy samples and laid down sublime scratches as hooks. He also used vocal snippets to astounding effect. Guru's rhymes were given a towering platform from which to be heard and he came correct.

On "Step in the Arena" and "Daily Operation" Guru holds true to the values of high level lyricism and technical skill set out by Big Daddy Kane and Rakim. As well as this he was clearly inspired by the intelligent, incendiary socio-political messages of Chuck D and KRS-One. His famous monotone maximises the impact of his thoughtful lyrics and gives his raps a distinct and easily recognisable sound.

On the title track of "Step In the Arena" Guru flexes his vocal chords with an awesome battle rap. It is riddled with internal rhyming and using word choice and imagery Guru compares his rap battles to gladiator duels yet somehow he never veers from his tight rhyme structure.

"But now I must bow to the crowd as I stand proud
Victorius, glorious, understand now
Cause battles and wars and much fights I have been through
One MC got beheaded, and you can too
Forget it, cause you'd rather be just a spectator
An onlooker, afraid you may get slayed or
Struck by a blow from a mic gladiator
I betcha that later you might be sad that you played yourself
Cause you stepped up, chest puffed out
And in just one lyric, you got snuffed out.

"Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" is a merciless antidote to wack, one hit-wonder MCs but more than that, it illustrates the way the music industry eats up new jack rappers, reaps the profits and then spits them out without giving them a chance to make a positive, lasting contribution to Hip-Hop. Written over 15 years ago it is even more relevant to Hip-Hop today than it was then.

"Step In the Arena" makes an overall statement about the position of inner-city blacks and the hardships and barriers facing them. However Guru does not dwell on the petty violence and ignorance that plagues the ghettos. He recognises the huge creative and spiritual potential of his peers. In the most powerful socio-political statement on the album "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?" Guru suggests that that potential may be realised through embracing 5% Nation ideology. He calls for awarness, unity and responsibility.

"Still, all of that is just material
So won't you dig the scenario
And just imagine if each one is teachin' one
We'll come together so that we become
A strong force, then we can stay on course
Find your direction through introspection
And for my people out there I got a question
Can we be the sole controllers of our fate?
Now Who's Gonna Take the Weight

On Daily Operation Guru explores the trials and tribulations of black inner-city life with more depth on tracks like "Soliloquy of Chaos", "No Shame In My Game" and "The Illest Brother." There are so many quotables on Daily Operation. Guru has his feet in the streets but he never loses sight of the bigger picture. What's more Guru is one of the few who doesn't reserve judgment for criminals and thugs. This is evident in Soliloquy of Chaos. He recounts how a show Gang Starr was set to perform at descended into Chaos after someone is shot. Guru has words for the shooter.

"This can happen often and it's really f**ked up
So I'll ask you to your face homeboy what's up?
Did you come to see my show or the stupid n****r playoffs
Killing you and killing me, it's the Soliloquy of Chaos

Guru also describes the vicious cycle of violence that affects the ghetto.

"And if you live in the cities where streets reek warfare
People getting nowhere but you go for yours there
You'll find it doesn't pay to front or play the role
You could get stole or maybe beaten with a pole
Then you'll wanna retaliate, regroup and come back
So you set the brothers up for a sneak attack.

He goes on to show the futility of the killings and recognises that outside factors play a part.

"Whether you die or kill them, it's another brother dead
But I know you'll never get that through your head
Cuz you're misled and misfed facts from way off
Killing you and killing me, it's the Soliloquy of Chaos

Perhaps the most powerful track on the album is Conspiracy in which Guru shrewdly takes to task institustionlised racism. He focuses on America's centralised media.

"And every time there's violence shown in the media
Usually it's a black thing so where are they leading ya?
To a world full of ignorance, hatred and prejudice
TV and the news for years they have fed you this
Foolish notion that blacks are all criminals
Violent low lifes and then even animals
I'm telling the truth so some suckers are fearing me
But I must do my part to combat the conspiracy

He also indicts the "snakes" who attempt to co-opt and neuter Hip-Hop in order to maximise profits. The snakes being record label executives. Guru's words are startling because, written in 1992, they prophecise the cause of Hip-Hop's subsequent demise.

"Even in this rap game all that glitters ain't gold
Now that rap is big business the snakes got bold
They give you wack contracts and try to make you go pop
Cuz they have no regard for real Hip-Hop

Guru is often criticised for his montone flow and some feel he lacks charisma. Guru's voice may not be as pleasing to the ear as Biggie's but this is a superficial complaint. Guru's lyrics make that argument completely irrelevant. His scathing battle raps were superb and his complex, thought provoking lyrics that addressed issues surrounding the black community are amongst the best in Hip-Hop. Another critisism of Guru is that he was a mere sidekick to DJ Premier. While it is true Guru needed Premier more than Premier needed him that does not take away from his brilliant lyrics which a lot of people should listen to more closely.

In short Gang Starr was a group of two halfs: a DJ/Producer who set the standard for authentic and creative sampling and scratching (that only an elite few could match) combined with an MC who wrote intelligent, empowering lyrics and also possessed the technical skill to deliver them with clout. Working together, they created Hip-Hop at its purest and best. The duo was firmly planted in the streets from which Hip-Hop was born yet they completely defy the misconception that "street" means bragging about how much crack-cocaine you sell and how many people you've murdered. Leaving a collossal legacy in their wake and a golden example for future Hip-Hop artists, Gang Starr is quite arguably the definitive Hip-Hop group.

The Native Tongues

Hip-Hop today is synonymous with ignorance and mindless thuggery. This is a great injustice to the genre's golden age which often rejected crime and violence in favour of individuality, common sense and having fun.

The Native Tongues collective was perhaps the most prolific embodiment of these values which have been protected in Hip-Hop to this day. The Native Tongue posse was formed in late 80's New York by The Jungle Brothers, under the guidance of Kool DJ Red Alert a prominent and well respected old school pioneer and Hip-Hop radio DJ. The collective's core groups were De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and The Jungle Brothers although other Native Tongue members included Queen Latifah, Black Sheep, Monie Love and Da Bush Babees. Many of these artists were members of the seminal Hip-Hop organisation the Zulu Nation created in the 70s by one of the founders of Hip-Hop: Afrika Bambaataa. The Native Tongues became a popular alternative to the increasingly violent and egotistical themes occurring in Hip-Hop at that time. They offered intelligent and playful rhymes backed by a wide range of musical beds. They also popularised the sampling of Jazz which reflected their sophisticated and occasionally afro-centric stance.

I know many people will be apprehensive about giving Hip-Hop a chance but when I first heard 3 Feet High and Rising I immediately fell in love with the culture. I was amazed that I had never heard of The Native Tongues or their music. I had discovered an alternative side to Hip-Hop which was an antithesis to the corrupt and dead-end messages of overtly exaggerated gangsta rap which I thought, up until then, represented Hip-Hop as a whole. Listening to the Native Tongues made me ask the same question that's at the end of De La Soul Is Dead, De La Soul's second album.

"That's it? That's all? What happened to the pimps? What happened to the guns? What happened to the curse words?"

"That's what rap music is all about........... right?"

Wrong. Maybe that's what a lot of people have been led to believe but Hip-Hop is far more diverse and has a lot more to offer than just gangsta rap.

Very, very interesting site with loads of thought provoking articles and interviews concerned with the condition of Hip-Hop and it's effects on society.