From RZA to Group Home...

The '90s was a hip-hop decade.

It's the decade in which the genre became a truly global phenomenon, arguably becoming the de facto means for American youth to view themselves.

'95 is - for many - a peak. It's a year that delivered a host of game-changing albums, with the golden era drawing to a close a numerous international icons making their first vital steps forward.

Clash will be celebrating this momentous year for hip-hop with a series of features. First up: Hugh Leask takes a look at some of the most enduring releases from '95.

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The Genius/GZA - 'Liquid Swords'
Hip-hop in 1995 very much belonged to the Wu-Tang Clan, the renowned nine-man New York crew from the city’s forgotten borough and cultural wasteland of Staten Island. With early breakout stars Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard dropping major singles in the early part of the year, Raekwon crafting a hip-hop magnum opus (more of which later), and the group’s chief producer RZA rapidly becoming one of the genre’s marquee-name beatmakers, ‘Liquid Swords’ - the Genius’s second album (a career false start on NY rap indie Cold Chillin’ in the early 90s yielded one album, ‘Words From The Genius‘, and little else) - rounded off a banner year for the Clan.

From the off the Genius (aka GZA) takes an expansive approach on the album, peppering his rhymes with references to chess moves, Eastern philosophies, war strategies and pro wrestling, and comparing his lyrics to “roundhouse kicks from black belts”. Sonically, meanwhile, RZA laid down some of his most experimental work up to that point: the kung-fu movie dialogue samples - a Wu-Tang staple in the mid-‘90s - were still present, but here they’re introduced to weird synths and feedback loops that drop in and out of songs seemingly at random, as the traditional Shaolin soul loops arrive heavily processed and drowning in static.

Songs like ‘Investigative Reports’, ‘4th Chamber’, and ‘Duel Of The Iron Mic’ gather together various members of the Wu-Tang Clan, showcasing the group’s considerable strength-in-depth at the decade’s midway point. The stunning ‘Shadowboxin’, in which the GZA faces off against Method Man - then the Wu-Tang’s star performer (Ghostface Killah had yet to release a solo LP) - offers up a five-star master class in battle-rapping: “I slayed emcees back in the rec’ room era/My style broke motherfucking backs like Ken Patera,” GZA raps, referencing the old school WWE star, before adding: “We reign all year round from June to June/While niggas bite immediately, if not soon…”. Which, if you think about it, is as accurate a summary as any of the Wu-Tang Clan’s absolute dominance in rap in 1995.

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Mobb Deep - 'The Infamous'
Mobb Deep’s second album ‘The Infamous’ built on the late ’80s foundations of Queens-based reality rap laid down by emcees like Kool G. Rap and Tragedy, and saw the duo of Havoc and Prodigy craft a signature sound that would set the tone for New York’s street-level hip-hop for the remainder of the ‘90s.

From the group’s logo, based on those New York City Housing Authority’s ‘Welcome To Queensbridge’ signs that stand outside the district’s project buildings (Hav and P first met as students at the High School of Art & Design in Manhattan), to the stark depictions of crime and violence in their neighbourhood, ‘The Infamous’ serves as a fully immersive experience. Its intense, atmospheric sound, comprising eerie piano loops and drums that rattle like passing New York subway trains, matches the group’s hardcore lyrics perfectly. The anthemic ‘Shook Ones Part II’ - used for the final battle-rap scene in Eminem vehicle ‘8 Mile’ - remains a club classic to this day, while the incredible ‘Survival Of The Fittest’ finds Prodigy comparing his surroundings to Vietnam, confessing how “New York got a nigga depressed/So I wear a slug-proof underneath my Guess.”

Even when the sound brightens up - the brilliant Q-Tip-produced ‘Give Up The Goods’ is underpinned by a breezy loop of Esther Phillips’ ‘That’s All Right With Me’ - the lyrics stay grounded in the streets, with Hav and P relaying an array of stick-up scenarios, and guest rapper Big Noyd packing a gun as he visits his parole officer. But its perhaps Prodigy who captures the album’s overall nihilism and despair best, forthrightly declaring on ‘Survival Of The Fittest’: “I’m goin’ out blasting, taking my enemies with me/And if not, they scarred so they will never forget me/Lord forgive me/The Hennessy got me not knowing how to act/I’m falling and I can’t turn back…”

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Big L - 'Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous'
Packing punchline-heavy rhymes delivered in rapid-fire flows with a distinctly un-PC outlook on life, Big L’s ‘Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous’ remains one of the most quotable rap albums ever made.

Imbuing a stack of over-the-top threats and violence with his trademark twisted black humour and surreal wordplay, ‘Danger Zone’ finds the Harlem emcee “always spraying Tecs, because I be staying vexed/Some nigga named Dex was in the projects laying threats/I jumped out the Lincoln/Left him stinking/Put his brains in the street now you can see what he was just thinking”. Elsewhere, the Harlem rapper delivers some straightforward advice for potential detractors (“So don’t try to test me, ‘cause I can’t stand testers/Fuck around, I’ll introduce you to your ancestors”) as well as some heartfelt musings on relationships (“And when it comes to getting nookie, I’m not a rookie/I got girls that make that chick Toni Braxton look like Whoopi”).

This cartoonish-but-resolutely-hardcore lyrical approach drew critical acclaim (his multisyllabic flow and caustic barbs surely gave the young Eminem a few ideas). But while he would score minor radio hits with ‘Put It On’ and ’MVP’, and outshine all the guests gathered here - including Jay-Z, who drops an early pre-‘Reasonable Doubt’ verse on ‘Da Graveyard' - Big L’s verbal dexterity and phenomenal talent did not translate into wider commercial success. Still, he remained a revered figure in underground scene, rolling out a clutch of classics, both on his own and with his crew Diggin’ In The Crates.

Long rumoured to be on the brink of signing with Roc-A-Fella Records - the label run by Dame Dash and Jay-Z - which would have helped set him on the path to stardom, Big L was tragically murdered in Harlem on February 15th 1999. He was just 24.

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Raekwon - 'Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…'
Chef Raekwon’s remarkable debut solo album, 'Only Built...' saw producer RZA’s grand strings and brass form a rich, widescreen sound for the Wu-Tang Clan emcee - ably assisted by partner-in-rhyme Ghostface Killah (“Guest starring Tony Starks [Ghost Face Killer]” is how album’s cover puts it) - to weave a loose narrative of two street hustlers plotting one last big score in order to escape the streets. It brings a cinematic quality to proceedings which has drawn comparisons to mob flicks such as Brian DePalma’s ‘Scarface’, Abel Ferrara’s ‘King Of New York’ and Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time In America’, and marked it out as one of the finest rap albums ever.

Over 18 tracks, Raekwon and Ghostface serve up an intoxicating mix of Mafia-influenced crime rhymes (‘Knowledge God’), project parables (‘Verbal Intercourse’, which features Nas) and straight-up old school battle rap (’Guillotine [Swordz]’) - with a classic Wu-Tang posse cut (’Wu-Gambinos’) tossed in for good measure. Song like ‘Criminology’ and ‘Glaciers Of Ice’ explode with a blistering energy that, 20 years on, still stop you dead in your tracks. And even when the pace settles down a notch, such as on ‘Rainy Dayz’ and ‘Heaven & Hell’, the album remains streets ahead of the competition, delving into themes and moods rarely explored in hip-hop.

So sure of the superior quality of his music, Raekwon (so the story goes) sought to distinguish his brand from everything else out on the street by having his label Loud Records release an initial limited cassette run (rumoured to be around 10,000 copies) in distinct clear-purple plastic casing; a strategy said to be borrowed from neighbourhood drug dealers looking to ship an altogether different kind of product. Original versions of 'The Purple Tape', as the album came to be informally known, are now highly sought-after collector’s items which exchange hands for big bucks, reaffirming the album’s legendary status among hip-hop heads.

Yet to label ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’ as simply a great rap LP does it a huge disservice. The album is bona fide triumph of modern music, a 100% stone cold classic that deserves - demands - to be mentioned in the same breath as the very best rock and pop of the past 40-odd years.

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AZ - 'Doe Or Die'
In retrospect, ‘Doe Or Die’ – Brooklyn rapper AZ’s debut album - offers a revealing snapshot of a rap scene in transition during 1995, carrying strong clues of hip-hop’s general direction of travel at that point. The traditional rugged street rhymes which characterised the New York style in the earlier part of the decade sit next to the initial outlines of the Mafioso sub-genre which would become de rigeur in east coast hip-hop towards the end of the decade. (Raekwon had already delved into the mob life on ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Nas would explore it further in 1996 on his second LP ‘It Was Written’, and Jay-Z and Lil’ Kim, to name just two, built their early commercial successes indulging in Mafia fantasies.)

Possibly also predicting the underground vs mainstream split that divided hip-hop in the late ‘90s, AZ attempts to reconcile the two camps on 'Sugar Hill', his debut single and a summer ’95 smash, in which he lays out a hardcore rags-to-riches rap (rhyming “Costa Rica” with “smoke my reefer” and comparing his rap style to a cocaine rush) over a radio-friendly candy-coated loop of ‘80s R&B duo Juicy’s ‘Sugar Free’.

Elsewhere, he excels on ‘Your World Don’t Stop’, an illuminating study of life on lockdown. While most rap songs dealing with prison life rarely go beyond stories of a vicious lunch-hall shanking or attempts to fend off unwanted, er, ‘attention’ in the showers, AZ takes an altogether more introspective approach: “Without knowledge of self, how else can a criminal change?/And being locked up just ain't the life for me/Shit is way too trife for me/‘You're coming home soon’ sounds so nice to me…”

The set also benefits from a stellar supporting cast: AZ had been the sole guest vocalist on Nas’s excellent ‘Illmatic’ LP a year earlier, and Nas returns the favour here on the superb ‘Mo Money, Mo Murder, Mo Homicide’, while the likes of L.E.S., Pete Rock and Buckwild supply the sounds.

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Group Home - 'Livin’ Proof'
Taking a less-is-more approach to the art of rapping, the East New York pairing of Lil’ Dap and Melachi The Nutcracker convincingly demonstrated that an altogether more simplistic vocal style can often prevail over more technically-elaborate rhyming.

Protégés of Guru and DJ Premier - the legendary underground duo Gang Starr - Group Home’s memorable debut sees Lil’ Dap deliver lines with heavy lisp, while Melachi brings an almost brutalist style of emceeing, dropping faintly absurd lines like “it’s a wonderful world/a world of wonder” and “I’m nuttin’ suckas like a runaway deer”. On their debut single ‘Supa Star’ (at one point the biggest song in New York over the ‘94/’95 winter) he advises you to “Always love your mother ‘cause you never get another”, but later he’d threaten to “hit ya moms in the head with a metal pipe”. At least he has all bases covered.

On paper, it absolutely shouldn’t work. But backed by some of DJ Premier’s finest ever production – a heady mix of tough funk breaks and woozy jazz loops – it makes for a memorable trip into the duo’s low budget environment: ‘2 Thousand’ is backed by an awesome cut-up of Donald Byrd’s ‘I Feel Like Lovin’ You Today’, while Bob James’s ‘Valley Of The Shadows’ brings an understated menace to the brilliant ‘The Realness’.

A hundred times more quotable than many other albums by technically superior emcees, consider this the authentic sound of the ‘90s New York underground, before a clutter of rappers with complex metaphors and needlessly intricate rhyme patterns caused it to disappear up its own arse at the turn of the millennium. Group Home: nowhere near simple.

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Words: Hugh Leask

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