February 26: Gang Starr, Ice Cube, N*E*R*D, Raekwon, The Roots, Run DMC, Snoop Doggy Dogg

This week I’ll be covering some of the prime rap and hip-hop cuts on the list. This is the second time I’ve specialised in this genre, after looking at seven of the best in October. Let’s see what’s on offer today.

Gang Starr, ‘Step in the Arena’

The second album from the East Coast duo is widely renowned: IGN calls it the greatest hip-hop album of all time. There’s certainly a valid argument for it, with Guru’s style a clear influence on, for example, Lyrics Born, while DJ Premier mixes up the tempos and the styles behind him. Like most 1991 hip-hop, it’s predominantly funk samples, but there’s up-tempo sounds and downbeat cuts, and even some Bomb Squad kettle whistle sounds. The duo’s only appearance on the list, this is well worth your time. Sadly there’ll be no reunion though: Guru sadly died a few years back, apparently while at odds with Premier.

Ice Cube, ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’

Following the acrimonious split of NWA, it was getting tricky for Cube to work with Dr Dre, so instead he approached Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad to handle the beats and loops, and had Chuck D and Flavor Flav show up on a couple of tracks. Not surprisingly, the album sounds like a Public Enemy album but with a greater focus on gangster rap lyrical themes and attacking racist institutions. It’s okay but exhausts itself before it reaches its climax. ‘A Gangsta’s Fairytale’ is notable for its lyrical conceit: it tells the story of da ghetto in the style of Mother Goose, with a child showing up to frame the verses.

N*E*R*D, ‘Fly or Die’

I assumed this was rap because of the band’s ‘Rock Star’ and involvement with Kelis, but this is in fact more along the lines of Pharrell’s later career, with a greater emphasis on singing and live instruments (Williams plays drums and Chad Hugo plays guitar; both are competent but rough). ‘She Wants To Move’, the best-known song here, is reflective of the overall style. Of course, the duo’s songwriting omnipresence means that, here in 2017, all music sounds like this mainly because all of it is written by the pair.

Raekwon, ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’

Rae is of course one of the Wu-Tang Clan, and the rest of the members are present here: most notably RZA on production and Ghostface Killah as the deuteragonist. The album’s legacy is hard to deny: as well as creating the mafioso world that Jay-Z used to massive commercial success, it introduced Cristal into hip-hop vernacular. It’s long as hell though (upwards of 70 minutes) and takes forever to get going: over three minutes elapses before a beat drops. With this personnel, though, it’s hardly a dud: highlights include the vibraphone funk of ‘Criminology’ and the 8-bit bleeps of ‘Glaciers of Ice’. Also, ‘Incarcerated Scarfaces’ is a pleasing title to say.

The Roots, ‘Phrenology’

Like N*E*R*D, The Roots use live instruments to add a bit of dynamic edge, and like the Raekwon album, they sprawl over 70 minutes. Jazzy hip-hop is the band’s main style, but they maintain interest for the duration by diversifying and mixing it up: the tape-skip sounds of opening track ‘Rock You’, the pounding Prodigy-ish ‘Thirsty!’ and the thrash-metal of ‘!!!!!!!!’ are just three examples. Nelly Furtado and Jill Scott also pop in. This is a good album!

Run DMC, ‘Run DMC’

Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay really strip the essence of “two MCs and one DJ” back to the very basics: apart from the full band ‘Rock Box’, there is almost nothing on these tracks but 808 drums, scratching and vocals. It’s a stark strategy that leaves most of the work to the rappers: luckily their interplay (swapping lines and even words) is meticulously planned and executed. Surprisingly it stays compelling despite the starkness and, by dispensing with all the dated aspects of late-80s rap, sounds fresher than you might expect.

Snoop Doggy Dogg, ‘Doggystyle’

With his blunt-passing, fo-shizzle-mah-nizzle slang and TV appearances, Sasha Banks’s cousin is somewhere between national treasure and laughing stock these days. In the early 90s, though, he was just getting started spraying G-funk in your ears. Everyone sounds motivated on ‘Doggystyle’, the maniac in black’s debut: Snoop’s laid-back delivery and Dre’s squelching bass and squealing synth leads are on point. Naturally there are loads of cameos from the Dogg Pound and the album doesn’t outstay its welcome. A pleasant surprise.

If we haven’t covered your favourite rap album yet, there’s plenty more to follow: still 19 rap albums on the list I haven’t heard yet.

Next week: I’ll be looking at some of the albums widely considered classics, but which I’ve never heard.

Status update: 429 listened to (43%), 572 remain.


Author: JT Wilson

Listening to all of the albums in the '1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die' book (2006 edition).

2 thoughts on “February 26: Gang Starr, Ice Cube, N*E*R*D, Raekwon, The Roots, Run DMC, Snoop Doggy Dogg”

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