Memory Lane - Rawkus Records

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Growing up in the suburbs of South Jersey fifteen minutes from downtown Philly was a treat. As a young aspiring musician and fan of the arts, it was always an exciting experience going to shows and seeing live music. Memories of seeing Sonic Youth at The Electric Factory, Stereolab at The Trocadeo, or Pat Martino at Chris's Jazz Cafe are some of my most impressionable moments.

One particular memory that I hold close is when I attended the Spitkicker Tour at The Electric Factory in 2000. It was a warm summer evening and featured that night were hip-hop veterans Biz Markie and De La Soul, newcomers Reflection Eternal, as well as hip-hop's all-in-one entertainer, Common. This was a pivotal event for me and a significant year for hip-hop music. It also marked the 25th birthday for hip-hop culture and launched a movement for new artists to collaborate with heros from the Golden Era. From these collaborations emerged a plethora of independent record labels that paved way for underground talent. One indie label in particular was Rawkus Records based out of New York City.

Rawkus Records, in its prime, housed new and upcoming artists like Mos Def (Yasiin Bey), Talib Kweli and Company Flow, as well as a handful of features from artists who had been in the game since the late 80's and early 90's. Pharoahe Monch from Organized Konfusion, Sadat X and Grand Puba from Brand Nubian, Cocoa Brovaz aka Smif-N-Wessun, as well as Kool Keith of the Ultramagnetic MC's. Pos from De La Soul and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest were also featured on early Rawkus Record releases.

I remember from the Spitkicker show, Talib Kweli expressed the importance of what was happening for hip-hop music at that time and with the help of a record label like Rawkus, it would fuel the return of real hip-hop. A much needed change for the rap scene when Puffy and Ma$e top the Hip-Hop charts.

For the first time, after years of what some call the "Cristal Era" of hip-hop, harder, more thought-provoking artists were coming to the forefront. These emcees weren't talking about flossing or having a Ph.D "player hating degree", they were expressing conscious, real issues and first-hand experiences from a fresh perspective. 

Five 12" singles from Soundbombing 2 released as a collectable "train car" series.

Five 12" singles from Soundbombing 2 released as a collectable "train car" series.

Through the release of the early Soundbombing series, particularly Volumes 1 & 2, I was introduced to the spirit of the culture. Hip-Hop finally had a home and it welcomed me in. The music became a gateway for me to reconnect and guided me through hip-hop's evolution. It wasn't until after this impact that I dived deeper into the music and reawakened myself to artists from similar movements such as Gang Starr, Busta Rhymes, Lord Finesse, Black Sheep, Nas, Biggie, Jeru The Damaja, KRS-ONE, O.C., the Wu-Tang Clan and many, many more.

One artist from Rawkus that stands out the most to me, whom I've been a fan of since the beginning, is Company Flow. Consisting of members EL-P, Mr. Len and Bigg Jus, the group's sound was so different and unique that I immediately knew they were doing something groundbreaking. Although Rawkus Records was short lived, the independent label was a force in furthering their career.

As a fan, it's really interesting to follow someone like EL-P. He's the founding member of Company Flow, he handled production and emceeing for the group, he transitioned into starting his own record label Def Jux after leaving Rawkus and more recently has become one half of the rap phenomenon, Run The Jewels. Having love for an artist like EL-P and being able to watch him grow over the years is really the best part of being a fan. I think my favorite aspect about EL's story is that he hasn't lost what first made him great years ago and to this day he still carries the same attitude while breaking new ground.

Sadly, what I consider to be the best part of Rawkus Records only lasted for four years. The label was founded in 1996 and its first official release was Company Flow's debut Funcrusher Plus in 1997. That same year we saw the first Soundbombing compilation mixed by DJ Evil Dee of Da Beatminerz and Black Moon. This "mixtape" highlighted talent from the label's roster which included Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Hi-Tek, Sir Menelik, Shabaam Sahdeeq, R.A. The Rugged Man, B-One, Black Attack and more. In 1999, Soundbombing 2 was released featuring more great artists and better sound quality. By 2002, the label had signed a joint venture deal with MCA and soon after that MCA folded, leaving a much less exciting Soundbombing 3. By that point, the spirit of what Rawkus Records represented and why I had held such high regard for them seemed to have faded away.

During an interview on The Cipher podcast, Mr. Len stated that most of the money made from the Funcrusher Plus record was being used to further the career's of other artists on the Rawkus roster and not directly going towards Company Flow. The group felt slighted and eventually moved on to better things.

EL-P famously exclaimed later in his career that he'd "rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious" instead of signing to Rawkus. A lyric that most fans interpreted as the general consensus from CoFlow when in fact it was simply EL-P's take on the whole thing. The group didn't share such a brash perspective on what had happened. Lyrically, EL-P was always a brash emcee and his contributions to Company Flow was a major force in the overall sound and image that carried forward.

Ultimately, Rawkus Records spawned a new appreciation of hip-hop for music fans around the world and it opened my eyes and ears to something incredible that I'll never forget.

Memory Lane - KRS-ONE 'Outta Here'

KRS-ONE is considered to be a pioneer in hip-hop and credited as one of the first artists to create "conscious" rap.

His group, Boogie Down Productions, originally consisting of members KRS-ONE, DJ Scott La Rock & D-Nice, released some of the genre's second wave of groundbreaking music that paved the way for many other artists and helped forge the sub-genre "gangsta rap". Most in particular are 1987's 'Criminal Minded' and 1988's 'By Any Means Necessary.'

The group made a huge impact on the development of hip-hop and they gave a sincere voice to the reality of life for young African-Americans growing up in the slums of New York City. Boogie Down Productions boosted both political and social activism through their music and challenged their audience to think differently about the world they lived in.

It was during the making of 'By Any Means Necessary' that KRS-ONE's mentor, partner and DJ, Scott La Rock, was fatally shot during an attempt to diffuse a conflict between D-Nice and a couple of young men from the South Bronx.

Scott's death would inspire KRS-ONE to become more passionate about the message of BDP's music and also help launch the "Stop The Violence Movement," a hip-hop super group that raised awareness in the community about violence and attempted to restore hip-hop's original principles, which are, celebrating black culture and having fun through rapping, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti writing.

From this point, KRS-ONE defined himself as the "teacha" or "teacher" symbolizing his emphasis on educating fans about relevant social issues. He continued to release three more albums under the BDP name up until 1992.

Photo by Doug Rowell

Photo by Doug Rowell

Fast forward to 1993, KRS-ONE releases his debut solo album, 'Return Of The Boom-Bap,' where he continues to deliver some of his best rhymes about social, political and moral concepts without getting off topic. His articulation and the pure volume of his voice was enough to penetrate my consciousness as a listener. Never before did I pay attention to lyrics and focus in on every word. Always being drawn to the music first, KRS-ONE was the first emcee to make me realize the importance of lyrics and how powerful his message was.

One of my favorite tracks from this album is 'Outta Here' because it tells the history of Boogie Down Productions and it also sends a message to other rappers about staying true to yourself while gaining fame.

"Do you ever think about when you're outta here? Record deal and video outta here? Mercedes Benz and Range Rover outta here?"

He talks about ignoring peoples opinions and continuing to do what he loves as an emcee.

"It used to irk me when these critics had opinions." Scott would say "Just keep rappin', I'll keep spinnin'."

As he moves ahead in the track, he sees other emcees "fall off" and get side tracked by fame and money, losing sight on the importance of their voice in the community and what it means for black youth to have a positive figure to look up to. 

As a late bloomer to the golden age of hip-hop, (I was at the impressionable age of 7 when De La Soul dropped "3 Feet High & Rising") there were a lot of emcees and hip-hop groups that had already proved they could sustain a career in music by the time I was old enough to comprehend what hip-hop was and where it came from. It wasn't until I finished high school and started college that I really dug deep into the history of the music and started buying hip-hop records from the 80's and 90's.

Sustaining a career where money and fame have become more important than the music is what seems to be the ultimate struggle for some of our favorite hip-hop artists. In order to survive you need to stay humble, stay true to your roots and never forget about where you came from. 

My favorite hip-hop acts exemplify this philosophy and KRS-ONE is an artist that I will always respect because of that.

Following The DJ - Nick Wiz

I read a tweet today from a hip-hop music producer I follow named J-Zone that said “Cool shit about being a crazy late bloomer with so many things is being hyped about shit everyone around you gave up on already.”

This quote stood out to me because I can relate to it. I too feel the same way about discovering music that I love well after its release date. There are so many records that have come out over the years that I've slept on or never even knew existed.

When so much music gets released every week, how can you possibly stay on top of everything anyway? When I fall in love with music that hits me, I can listen to it on repeat for months, sometimes years. I'm still listening to Nas's “Illmatic” debut.

This brings me to Nick Wiz, an underground hip-hop producer born in NYC and raised in Teaneck, NJ, whose appeal lends itself to fans of raw, uncut, jazz-laced, bass driven, mid-tempo, 90's hip-hop. If you dig the sounds of DJ Premier or Buckwild, you can definitely get down with Nick Wiz.

Nick Wiz first made an impact on the 90's hip-hop scene with his beat contributions to Ecko Unlimited's “Underground Airplay” cassette series, which are now highly collectible. He is also considered to be an integral part of the early Lyricist Lounge movement.

His most notable work can be found on the Cella Dwellas 1996 debut album “Realms n' Reality” on Loud Records and one of my personal favorites, Shabaam Sahdeeq's 12” single, “Arabian Nights” on Rawkus Records. His unique choice in samples, low-end filters, hard hitting SP-1200 drums and dense bass lines can also be heard on records by Mad Skillz, Chubb Rock, Chino XL and Rakim.

Recently I discovered two full-length albums of nothing but Nick Wiz instrumentals from that same era and I couldn't be more hyped.

The first one was actually released in 1997 on a compilation series called “Hydra Beats Vol. 12” while the other one was just released a couple of weeks ago, simply called “Unreleased 90's Hip Hop Instrumentals.”

Through my constant journey as a DJ, searching for that 90's sound I've come to love, it's always a challenge finding a certain flavor that I can listen to on repeat for lengths of time. It might be dated but it takes me to a place that satisfies my ears and soul.

Some highlight tracks from the two albums include “Mind Crusher”, “Starlite”, “Four Elements”, “Hermano”, “Hey Man”, “Xylophone” and “Ride Out”.  Check out these dope tracks yourself and help support underground hip-hop by purchasing Nick Wiz's music on Bandcamp.

Following The DJ - Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

There's a great story told by the legendary Nile Rodgers, American musician & producer, known for producing hits for artists like Duran Duran, Diana Ross, David Bowie and Madonna, as well as being a founding member of disco/funk band Chic - where he talks about handing a copy of Chic's very first single to a DJ who was spinning at Studio 54 in NYC. The DJ liked it so much after one listen that he immediately played it for the people on the dance floor and that's essentially how Chic started their success.

This post is dedicated to the DJ, the music curator to the masses, the original source. Back in the day, if you wanted your song to get heard, you had to give a copy to your local DJ and hope they'd play it, or you could pay a lot of money to the radio station and guarantee rotation (this still goes on today.)

When looking for new music I tend to stick to record labels, online blogs and other trusted sources that I like. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib's album, Piñata, I found through LA-based record label Stones Throw and online news blog Rappcats.com, a website dedicated to promoting three of my favorite artists: J Dilla, Madlib and MF Doom.
Madlib has described himself as a DJ first, producer second and MC last. If you're wondering how this record relates to following a DJ, Madlib is the DJ and he is the reason why I got hip to this music in the first place.

The Freddie Gibbs and Madlib collab started in late 2011 with the release of their debut EP Thuggin'. Rappcats.com along with Madlib's own record label, Madlib Invazion via Stones Throw, teamed up for the release of all three EP's as well as the group's full-length LP, Piñata, which was released earlier this year - an artist release schedule spanning the course of three years.

As a record collector, following a record release like this is one of the most rewarding experiences for a music fan.  Back in 2011 when I first purchased the Thuggin' EP, I knew it was going to be an immediate classic in the eyes of music aficionados and hip-hop heads. 
I kept my eyes and ears open for more info and news about what would come next from the group.  As each year passed and a new EP was released, clocking in at just over 15 minutes front to back, I experienced a sense of anticipation and appreciation for the music.

November 18, 2011 - Los Angeles based DJ & producer, Madlib, along with Gary, Indiana based rapper, Freddie Gibbs, announce their first collaborative EP entitled Thuggin', live at the Madlib Medicine Show in San Francisco.  All five hundred vinyl copies of the EP were sold out that evening.

November 21, 2011 - Thuggin' 
This album sparked a sense of awe and appreciation from the hip-hop community.  There is something really profound about Freddie Gibbs's dark delivery over Madlib's excellent use of soul sampling and worldly genres. Like a lot of Madlib's music from recent years, the choice of drums and percussion used to create back beat is something cinematic and crate digger worthy. The content presented here is reminiscent of early west coast gangster rap.

June 26, 2012 - Shame
Seven months after the release of Thuggin' came the Shame EP. This only proved the duo's chemistry to be stronger and left myself and critics wanting more. Jon Hadusek of Consequence of Sound graded the EP with a “C-“ stating: "To call Shame an EP is misleading, it's only two tracks - 'Shame' and 'Terrorist' - with instrumental and acapella versions, as well as some tacked on 'bonus beats.' These songs are strong, however, and make the prospect of a proper debut album from Gibbs that much more exciting. If he wants a legacy, he needs to release a full-length."

September 24, 2013 - Deeper
Deeper was the last of the EP's and would eventually become the lead single for the group's full-length album. Lyrically there had not been a song reflecting the realities of incarceration and outside drama since Nas's 1994 release, “One Love.”

March 18, 2014 - Piñata LP (originally titled Cocaine Piñata)
The long awaited debut full-length album, Piñata, that music fans and hip-hop heads had been eagerly anticipating for over three years was finally released. All the hype and expectation had been full-filled. After immediate release, large music blogs like Pitchfork and Spin were already nominating it to be Rap Album of the Year. I had already made my prediction back in December of 2013 when I tweeted this and got a response from Now Again Records founder and former Stones Throw label manager, Eothen “Egon” Alapatt.

May 28, 2014 - Piñata Beats (Freddie Gibbs Instrumentals)
The latest release, Piñata Beats, is the full-length instrumental version of the album. Essential to most DJ's is the instrumental version of the song. This version is crucial to your mix. Whether you're a DJ making live remixes or a radio disc jockey playing an instrumental version of a hit song in the background, the instrumentals are key elements to any serious DJ's style.

Together the duo's chemistry is undeniable. Lyrically Freddie Gibbs could be compared to greats like Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. based on their ability to tell stories from an array of perspectives. From cutting up dope, hustling, and expressing the realities of street life to expressing pain, heartbreak and close friend fall-outs, the stories embedded in each track and how well they flow with the beats makes Piñata an instant classic. This album shone a light on what is missing in hip-hop music today.

Following The DJ - Tuamie "The Gift Vol. 4"

Discovering new music in today's world is practically effortless. Depending on your preference, there are multiple music outlets online, allowing you to listen to and purchase music digitally via iTunes, Pandora, Amazon or Spotify. If you haven't already familiarized yourself with these companies, then you probably still listen to music in a traditional format like radio, TV, or maybe you are overwhelmed with the amount of options to choose from and gave up.

If you're a hip-hop fan like me, you can easily discover new music by turning on the radio and tuning in to one of the first clear signals that comes through. Hot 97 in NY, Power 99 in Philly, Power 106 in LA, Hot 107.9 in Atlanta; most major cities have a primary radio station dedicated to hip-hop.

You can also hop online and visit music blogs like EgoTripLand, Pitchfork, MassAppeal, Consequence Of Sound, SampleFace, or PotholesInMyBlog to get your daily dose of what's fresh. The ease of finding music to listen to has become greater now that most people in the world own smartphones and these big companies like iTunes have an app to preview and download music straight to your device.

In today's world, this is considered the norm. I tend to follow these blogs myself for what's new, but earlier this year I focused on a different source; The DJ.

American Hip-Hop Producer and DJ, Michael “House Shoes” Buchanan, has been an essential person in the continually rising growth of the Motown scene in Detroit and has been given the title by peers: “Hip-Hop's Ambassador to the World”.  Four-time winner of “Best Hip-Hop DJ” and a long time resident at hip-hop staple, St. Andrews Hall, from 1994-2004, House Shoes has also been credited as one of the first people to shop some of J Dilla's early beats when he went under the “Jay Dee” moniker back in 1994. He continues to carry the Dilla torch today.

Like many J Dilla fans, I started researching more and more about his music and wanted to find other producers and DJ's affiliated with him. If you watch any of the documentaries or read anything that has surfaced since Dilla's passing, you'll quickly start to see the name “House Shoes” circulating. There is an entire series of videos online produced by another Detroit native, Jeedo and his “Bling47” label, that interview some of Dilla's peers and dissects some of his most famous work. There are about six videos from House Shoes where he talks about how and why Dilla sampled the records he did and you can listen to first-hand accounts of stories he shares and can start to understand the relationship they had. From here I started following House Shoes and his music. I quickly got hip to more amazing music from underground artists as well as more unheard Dilla material.

Over a year ago back in March of 2013, House Shoes started an inaugural free download release via his SoundCloud account of compilation “beat tapes” from young, undiscovered artists he felt deserved more recognition from the masses. House Shoes states: “…a series where I will be spotlighting producers and artists you may not be aware of. Each volume will be curated from prior bandcamp/soundcloud releases as an introduction to cats who have released prior material that I feel hasn't reached its potential audience like it should.”

Fast forward later that year to November, The Gift Vol. 4 featured Atlanta beat maker and mystery man, Tuamie. Just as House Shoes quoted in the release in regards to the music, “I was floored” - I too share the same enthusiasm.

Tuamie's beats are reminiscent of J Dilla and Madlib. The sounds are very chill, intriguing and raw. Laced with hard-hitting drums with a lot of attack, obscure samples, hints of jazz and old-school R&B grooves they have a unique quality that holds its own.

The Gift Vol. 4 is a mix of different beats pulled from different self-releases on Tuamie's Bandcamp page as well as some highlights from his debut release on GrandGarden Records, “Masta Killa”. The compilation is sprinkled with musical treats for any hip-hop lover.

Catchy vocal samples on tracks like “Reoccurring Feeling of Loneliness” & “The More Weed Smoke I Puff” will have you humming along to each note. The jazzy hooks on “No Limitations”, “Plant”, and “High Eyes” will keep your melodic taste buds satisfied while sample heads and hip-hop aficionados can find joy in recognizing flips on tracks like “Feed Em Gunpowder” and “Eva-re-moanin”. All in all, this album stays true to hip-hop form and it is noted, stating that all beats were made using only records and an MPC.

DJ Laytonic Presents - Marty's Mix

My new mix was inspired by my older cousin Marty who turned me onto hip-hop music at the tender age of 7. I remember him showing me songs from LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys whenever my family went to visit. It made a profound impact on me. I later heard more amazing music from  Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Run DMC from watching MTV after school and on weekends back when MTV only played music videos.

Although not all of those artists are featured in this mix, I wanted to convey the same feeling I got back then when Marty first introduced me to the music. This was the late 80's early 90's when rap was considered a threat to the suburbs. Most of white America wasn't ready for this new music filled with foul language, outspoken political views, sex speak and the occasional gun violence.

Thankfully, my parents allowed me to listen to this music in the house growing up regardless of some of the lyrical content. As an aspiring musician, I never really paid much attention to lyrics anyway.

My ears were drawn to the music and the production is what moved me the most. Even to this day I have a hard time listening to lyrics if I don't feel the music first. Hip-hop and rap music was my first true love and I haven't stopped listening since. Thank you Marty for the positive influence. I'll never forget it.