It’s a dangerous game: expounding upon the virtues of the late ’80s/early ’90s “golden era” of hip-hop to whippersnappers raised on a steady diet of 50 Cent and Ludacris. Complain too much and you end up sounding like an embittered old fogy. But for those of us who came of age to the sounds of Pete Rock, De La Soul and Black Moon, tuning in Power 106 these days is a bleak experience. Commercial hip-hop of yesteryear was experimental, exuberant and innovative. Producers crafted banging beats out of old jazz and soul samples, not cheesy synthesizer caterwauls. Hip-hop also used to be a decidedly eclectic affair — the Daisy Age rubbed elbows with thug life, and no one batted an eye (remember Q-Tip producing Mobb Deep?). Nowadays, clearing samples is too expensive for anyone but maybe Kanye, and rappers are content to churn out the same old moneymaking party anthems. No wonder hip-hop sales have plummeted.
Nostalgia is tiresome, yes, and maybe we should save the complaints for the retirement home. But don’t front; classic hip-hop albums are few and far between in 2007, a long way from the era of 1988–1996, which spawned some of the finest works of the genre.
Check the Technique (Villard/Random House), a new book by Boston-based writer Brian Coleman, is a love letter to the glory years of hip-hop. Expanding upon 2005’s Rakim Told Me, Coleman profiles 36 seminal rap albums in a format that he dubs “invisible liner notes.” Each album (with one or two exceptions) is given a chapter, comprising an introductory overview and a track-by-track breakdown straight from the mouths of the artists involved. This format serves its function well, as many hip-hop albums from this era contained minimal production information on their often low-budget packaging. For the avid hip-hop junkie, this ain’t enough. From 2 Live Crew to Brand Nubian to DAS EFX to the Pharcyde, Coleman offers an insider’s perspective on some groundbreaking albums, using the key players’ voices to uncover facts and dispel myths.
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“You do an amazing interview with someone for 90 minutes, and then you’re supposed to be happy about writing up a 350-word piece,” explains Coleman via e-mail, taking a break from holiday visitors to explain his reasons for writing the book. “I wasn’t satisfied with that shit. I wanted the fuller versions of those interviews to be out there in the world, because if I knew someone who was keeping all that information hostage, I’d kick their ass.” His Schwarzenegger-style approach to hostage negotiations unearths fascinating results. Some of the hip-hop hype revealed in the book includes 2 Live Crew’s Riverside, CA, origins, Big Daddy Kane’s early ghostwriting for Biz Markie, Black Moon’s original, cringe-inducing moniker (Unique Image), Ice T’s pre-rap-game felonious antics, and Scarface and Bushwick Bill’s displeasure with the cover photo for We Can’t Be Stopped.
Of course, choosing 36 albums from this impressive roster and bronzing them as “classic” will equally infuriate and ingratiate finicky hip-hop connoisseurs. “I’m not trying to say, ‘These are the best hip-hop albums of all time because I am the judge of all things hip-hop,’ ” says Coleman. “I mean, shit, 36 isn’t even a good number for a list, excluding the obvious Wu-Tang reference, which I’m sad to say wasn’t intentional.” But if you’re ready to bring the motherfucking ruckus because The Chronic and Illmatic weren’t included, Coleman isn’t sweating it. “[This] shows how much people care about this era of hip-hop and the albums that got produced during those years,” he says. He’s currently at work on the next installment, which will take care of some omissions, excluding Biggie and Tupac, who are sadly unavailable for interviews. “I would have liked to have included more West Coast albums in this volume, but . . . I couldn’t get Dre, didn’t get Ice Cube in time for my deadline (although I’ve already completed a great Amerikkka’s Most Wanted chapter for the next book).”
Check the Technique will certainly reinforce the sorry state of contemporary hip-hop for some, an understandable reaction when they’re faced with the prospect of hearing Felli Fel’s “Get Buck in Here” for the hundredth time. But Coleman is keeping the faith: “Hip-hop, in the classic sense, is still alive and well — it’s just living and thriving on indie labels. L.A. has at least three really good ones: Stones Throw, Up Above and Tres Records.” And the things that drive these labels and artists are the same ones that fueled the golden era: “Innovation and competition,” he declares. “Every record that gets explored in Check the Technique was produced because the artist(s) wanted to make a better record than anyone else had ever made before.” Now that’s a work ethic to inspire the kids and give hip-hop fogies hope for a new wave of soon-to-be classics.
Brian Coleman celebrates the publication of Check the Technique on Sat., Jan. 12, as part of the Beat Junkies’ monthly “Nightlife” gig at the Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd., (323) 463-0204.