So you are a young hip-hop fan who has moved on from the first random purchase and discovers new musical marvels every day. Living in the here and now, you are completely captivated by what rap has to offer in 2007. There’s so much out there, and while you’re not feeling everything to the same extent, there’s no denying that you have fallen in love with rap music. You’re not thinking about a common future yet, but the way things are looking, you and hip-hop are gonna spend some time together.
What does hip-hop hold in store for you? Having been there myself, I can tell you as much – prepare to get your feelings hurt. Brace yourself for disappointment and disillusion. Your favorite artists will inevitably fall off, one after another. And if they don’t fall off artistically, they’ll fall out of favor with fickle fans. If you’re lucky, you won’t spot them on embarrassing TV shows obscuring the memory of when all they needed to be interesting was to be in a rap group. Calling into question everything you thought you knew, the self-appointed hip-hop experts who come after you will have completely different notions of terms like dope, wack, credibility, classic, original, pioneer, golden age, or old school. They won’t be able to relate to what you think made hip-hop so great in 2007. In 2017 you will have to listen to people telling you that hip-hop has evolved since the days of 2K7. I guarantee you that.
I once believed that even the softest Big Daddy Kane tune could scare the baggy pants off any new jack. I was wrong. The part of the audience that has the most say just doesn’t want to hear about rappers that were before its time. They might give props where they feel they are due, but they see no point in turning back the hands of time. And that is perfectly normal. They need to admire artists that are active now. They want mainstream stars and underground heroes they can read about in magazines, watch on TV, interact with at concerts, get to sign autographs during in-store appearances, write fan mail to in the privacy of their bedroom, discuss with their friends during lunch break. People that share the same present reality, that comment on today’s events, that shop the same clothes, that are still eligible bachelors and bachelorettes, that mention products that haven’t been off the shelves for years, whose singles have state-of-the-art video clips, whose music gets played outside of an oldies format, through which you can bond with your peers. Why worship a rapper who is but a picture on the piano?
Last year, young Scottish singer/songwriter Sandi Thom disclosed, “I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair.” She knew very well that punks wouldn’t have been too fond of flowers in their hair, but the intended time lapse from 1969 (hippies) to 1977 (punks) in her UK number one hit “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)” summed up a longing for what she perceives to be better days, “when record shops were on top / and vinyl was all that they stocked / and the super info highway was still drifting out in space / kids were wearing hand-me-downs / and playing games meant kick-arounds / and footballers still had long hair and dirt across their face.”
As heart-warming as it is to hear a young person sigh, “I was born too late into a world that doesn’t care,” let’s counter that with Joan Jett, who sang in 1980, one year before Thom was born: “I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation / You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation.” “Bad Reputation” having been used as the theme for the admirable (retro) show _Freaks and Geeks_ notwithstanding, Joan Jett is a quarter of a century older now. Rock ‘n roll and rebellion? Girls have P!nk, The Donnas, MIA or Gwen Stefani for that these days. (Feel free to color me completely out of touch with contemporary rock music after this statement.)
But at least since the mid-’90s, nostalgia tends to overtake every graduation class, creating an atmosphere where even some freshmen, similar to Sandi Thom, begin to reminisce over eras they were too young to witness. Those people our website accomodates with its loose series of Back to the Lab reviews. To the others I say, by all means don’t let grumpy old men like myself (or Nas) spoil it for you. My music is not better than yours, no matter how much I keep telling myself it is. But know that rappers tend to live in the past. Many of their songs are recounts of past events, even if they are acting as if they’re happening right now. Their inspiration dates back. Listen to any Game album of your choice. So if you truly want to connect with them, you might want to make yourself familiar with their influences. You too can catch the lyrical references Little Brother make on “So Fabolous,” for instance. It just takes a little bit of research. And the realization that hip-hop is a continuum, not just in the sense that what goes around comes around, or that there’s nothing new under the sun, but in that one generation always influences the next. There is no future without a past.
Still, for fans that don’t carry the emotional baggage of ten or twenty years of hip-hop fandom, the focus is naturally on the stars of their time, not their idol’s idols. Let me conjure up a conversation I had some years ago I saved for this occasion that reflects some of my encounters with younger hip-hop listeners. Online someone sought my recommendation for something ‘with a nice beat and still some speed and aggressivity.’ Naively, I named some Eric B. & Rakim tracks, present as they still are to me. The person’s reply was: ‘Rakim is hot but the problem with older shit is that it sounds different, it ain’t as clear, the beats ain’t the same.’
How do you reply to that? Damn right it sounds different. Damn right the beats ain’t the same. Maybe all taste is aquired and we should leave it at that. I am the first to admit that hip-hop (while arguably still limiting itself in a lot of respects) has embraced many possibilities that offered themselves along the way. And I stay open to it. When it comes to rap, I consider myself young at heart. Bless my local radio host who keeps yelling “New shit!” whenever the DJ premieres a rap tune. New shit is what keeps this music alive. If everybody would turn to stone once they hear a superior MC, DJ, or producer, the only way would be down. By accepting challenges, by entering competition – successfully or not -, generations of hip-hoppers have made this thing what it is today, a thriving community that despite its Darwinistic make-up provides for young and old alike.
The fact that those involved come and go makes the rap business no different from any other social structure. We’re all here today and gone tomorrow. Some of us leave something behind for which we may be remembered for a while, but the legacy of even the most famous historical figures is always debatable. So enjoy it while it lasts, your contemporary hip-hop, and don’t worry too much about the fact that it may not last for as long as you think.
If you happen to occasionally direct your attention counter-clockwise, may I interest you in The Krown Rulers’ “Paper Chase” album from 1988? Originally a vinyl- and cassette-only release, it was reissued in 2005 by Traffic Entertainment, the CD edition preserving the freshness that makes this the epitome of a forgotten gem. Comprised of MC Grand-Pubah (Terrell Ivey) and DJ Royal Rocker (Roger Perry), The Krown Rulers were a duo from the City of Camden, NJ, whose proximity to Philadelphia (it lies just across the Delaware) was likely the cause for the Rulers hooking up with the Tuff Crew, with which they shared the 1987 album “Phanjam” on the Soo Deff label. With just two Krown Rulers cuts opposite six Tuff Crew jams, The Krown Rulers were primarily guests on “Phanjam,” but the two contributions, “B-Boy Document” and “Kick the Ball,” had the distinguished honor of being co-produced by Ultramagnetic MC’s Ced Gee and Kool Keith.
The two tracks were so essential they were included in the Rulers’ full-length debut, “Kick the Ball” in the form of two remixes. Even though the tracks are largely identical, the album credits make no mention of Ultra, attributing all production to Ivey and Perry and a certain ‘Dave from the Tuff Crew’ – which would be L.A. Kid for those familiar with the Tuff Crew. “I come from East Camden but I’m down with the Bronx,” Pubah says on “Confetti Emcees,” possibly referring to the Ultra connection. But despite seeking musical support outside of their hometown, The Krown Rulers were proud Camden representatives. Combining an “East Camden heart with a b-boy brain,” Pubah especially holds down the fort for 32nd Street, erecting a musical monument in the street’s name on “32nd St. Down (The Eastside Story).” Riding an invigorating “Superstition” sample, he paints a picture of hustling high-rollers and battling b-boys living door to door, all in pursuit of money. He introduces local collectives like the B-Boy Academy and 32 Mob as organizations you wouldn’t want as enemies: “Down here when we have to fight / we can pull metal but we do things right / beat you down with our fists, make you feel like a punk / So you know it’s a risk when you pop off junk.”
The East Camden of “Paper Chase” is a close-knit community that defends its “territorial rights, all talk should cease / and you better be strapped if you’re battlin’ East / 32 Down.” While Camden didn’t have the ring places like South Central or the South Bronx had, The Krown Rulers very much describe the same urban America that has been blessed with hip-hop and cursed with violence: “Black rhythm created on the top of drums / Skyscrapers stand tall where I come from / (…) / From way back when, the arms are raised / The block still stands, so the posse’s praised.”
Always thinking big, rap music gives new meaning to the phrase hometown pride, and it’s no different here, where the crew you’re rolling with is nothing less than “one empire, bigger than Rome.” Grand-Pubah may mystify his environment, but he doesn’t glorify its negative effects, as he observes that “many eyes cry in the trooper zone.” But as he beholds the scene, the economics overshadow the emotions: “Out there on the Trece-Duce the hustlers play / every day, every way is a form of pay.” Those wary of the same old same old by now may see their suspicions confirmed that a title like “Paper Chase” (a popular phrase in ’90s gangsta rap) raises. In reality, this is a hip-hop purist’s dream album, and a close listen should convince sceptics of the idea of hip-hop as a voice of the street, much like undisputed classics by N.W.A and Boogie Down Productions.
For enlightenment, look no further than “B-Boy Document” (paid tribute to twice by Philly’s High & Mighty, once in ’98 with El-P, Mos Def and Mike Zoot and again in ’99 with Mos Def and Mad Skillz). Grand-Pubah once more conjures up the image of the b-boy as a rebel and renegade, offering, “This is my story cause the b-boy’s king / of the ghetto underworld and the project swing / The year’s ’87, hardrock as ever / To society, speak now or never / As far back as ’61 when Malcolm X stated / An empire’s built on the power created / by b-boys, just like yourself.” He goes on to argue that “a b-boy’s blessed with a genius mind / but he rather be a hustler, dress sharp, flash dough.” But as he’s “attracted to the worlds of dope and prostitution,” inevitably “death is the greatest common factor solution.” Before reminiscing on a friend “who they killed for blow,” Pubah reflects on his own role as a messenger: “I can only look back and make you think / I can lead you to the water if you choose to drink / This battle will continue till the endin’ of time / much longer than that you’ll remember this rhyme.” Given the amount of hip-hop kids-turned-hustlers rap music has since produced, these lines are nothing short of prophetic.
15 years later Camden, once home to phonograph and record giant RCA Victor and the nation’s corporation capital, final resting place of poet Walt Whitman, during World War II hosting the world’s largest shipyard, and the place where the first drive-in theater opened, regularly ranks among the most crime-ridden cities in the U.S., even earning the infamous Most Dangerous City title in 2004 and 2005, and remaining in the top five in 2006. Last year’s numbers from the United States Census Bureau also state that of all communities with populations of more than 65,000, Camden has the highest percentage of people living in poverty (44%), its median household income ($18,007) making it America’s poorest city.
In view of these stats, a title such as “Paper Chase” would seem self-explanatory. Yet don’t jump to the conclusion that Grand-Pubah is the prototype of the modern day materalistic MC. Instead of “the money in my wallet or the size of my chains,” he reveals that his mind is occupied with God. Neither is it his intention to come across like a criminal, as he’s “never done no bid.” He’s just “a street-wise kid” who knows the importance of protecting your physical: “[Posse member] with the nine at my limo door / not tryin’ to be a gangster, I’m tryin’ to be sure.” If you feel you have to belittle ’80s hip-hop just because you assume the artform has matured in its 30 years of existence, ponder “B-Boy Document” or “That’s Not Where it’s At,” a dead-on cautionary tale about what crack does to people (other than enabling dealers to reap their short-term benefits).
That is as much social commentary as you will get from “Paper Chase.” Further conclusions could be drawn from the rawness of the sound and the aggressivity of the raps, but what this album really is is a pure excercise in hip-hop. Grand-Pubah has dozens of titles to adorn himself with. He’s “crown king lord of all vocabulary,” “unprecedented ruler of the lyrical land,” “virtuoso of rhyme,” “literature king,” “prince novelistic,” “girl animazer,” “audio elevator,” “rhyme wizard with the dialect,” “a devil on the treble,” “the genuine genius of rap warfare,” “24-track lyrical brainiac,” “a hip-hop terrorist, educator and rap lyricist,” “compositional writer, wack song hater / toy boy killer when I rock the data.” “Paper Chase” is an album that takes everything literal and to the maximum and still works with subtlety and sophistication, never operating by sheer force. The cover shows the two brothers in shining armor, posing in front of some sort of medieval manor, above them a battlements-helmed tower. One song is called “Call Me the New Sire,” but instead of royal references, the rapper hits you with slick couplets like “My literature takes out crews / rougher than a cop on _Hillstreet Blues_” and “Just like a sniper standin’ up on a roof / shootin’ down at you suckers till you bleed the truth.”
Throughout “Paper Chase,” Grand-Pubah gives off a sincerity and seriousness that was quite rare in ’80s hip-hop. Manifestations of pride and poetic acumen like “The steel voice of a poetic man / Black power’s in the palm of my hand” are much more than just a concession to African American awareness as it happened to be popular during that time. Just as believable are his veteran claims, summed up by “Not a new jack, a new jack killer.” Take the surreal swagger of Kool Keith, the “I Ain’t No Joke” attitude of Rakim and the intellectual air of T La Rock and you come up with the prototype of a breed of rappers that are more aggressive and abstract than your average rhyme writer, today embodied by someone such as El-P. Add a whole lot of funk, and you get Grand-Pubah. His star didn’t shine as long as the one of his namesake from Masters of Ceremony and Brand Nubian, but in 1988 he shone just as bright as Grand Puba Maxwell in 1990.
While a playful and almost experimental lyricist, the way he hurls those verbose verses with a slightly hoarse but ultimately clear voice at you is quite captivating. As an MC, he may bear resemblance to some contemporaries, but compared to many more prominent peers (Milk Dee, Tragedy, Beastie Boys), his technique is clearly advanced. Also, on a lyrical level, declarations like “They couldn’t deal because the kid was real” or “Comin’ straight from the heart, I ain’t playin’ no role / If I die when I try, then bless my soul” were virtually before their time. “Paper Chase” contains the kind of underground rhetoric other rappers have since updated but that essentially makes the same arguments: “I’m makin’ records similar to none of you / miscellaneous poets that just wanna do / a show here and there to gain dollars / Glory to the rappers that wear a blue collar.” And you thought the blue-collar MC was a new concept.
So how would our friend who thought ‘older shit’ sounded ‘different’ take to this album? It would be hard to convince him of the appeal of this pure and uncut dope. As funky and in-your-face as it is, it has decidedly less crossover appeal than late ’80s efforts by trailblazers such as Public Enemy or EPMD. It doesn’t get any more hip-hop than “Paper Chase,” and that’s not always beneficial to a career. This is highly physical, drum-dominated music, not for the faint of heart, because if your heartbeat would follow the same polyrhythmic pace, you’d have to be in damn good shape to keep up with The Krown Rulers’ “beat metabolism” (another one of Grand’s ill verbal creations). If you manage to go the ten rounds, you’ll find out that Camden did stand comparison with New York in 1988. In fact, it is damn near impossible to think of a record as simultaneously raw and well produced. Not to mention the fact that unlike other MC/DJ duos of the time, The Krown Rulers form a real entity. Not a verse goes by that Grand-Pubah doesn’t mention his DJ, and rarely has a DJ been kept as busy as Royal Rocker by his MC.
“These the kind of songs that hardrocks be playin’,” Pubah boasts, and it’s hard to argue. Not with a rapper who makes “heavy metal crews listen” and is “out to kill any musician with my rap technique / to oppose those that say rhymin’ is weak.” In my personal crate-digging history, this is probably the most spectacular ’80s discovery I made. Its strengths are also its weaknesses, as at times it’s just too relentless, too raw, too creative, too competitive. But ultimately, as “the crown king ruler of all rap material” says on the brilliant “Kick the Ball,” The Krown Rulers were “equipped of harder beats, smarter raps, fresher sound.” Hear for yourself if that still holds true today.