Hijack's "The Horns of Jericho", from 1991, is acknowledged by many veteran UK hip hop fans as the magnum opus of Britcore; to the initiated it holds the status of Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back". It isn't nearly as politically themed as the P.E. classic though, so it's just as much Ultramagnetic MC's "Critical Beatdown" or Tuff Crew's "Back to Wreck Shop" in terms of being a showcase of pure hip hop skills at their peak. It was also seen as the blueprint for many other UK albums that followed it, those of a harder nature at least. Being fanatical about UK hip hop during that era, I too have always regarded it as one of the best UK hip hop albums – an opinion that has held steadfast over the years. However, I will admit that the album is not perfection, and the sands of time have contributed to slightly weathering down its appeal over the years also.
"Hold on a minute there Mr. Know-It-All Reviewer, what is this "Britcore" you speak of?" It's not easily pigeon-holed as one specific sound/vibe; put simply you could say that it's golden era British hardcore hip hop - but then that's probably too loose a description. Although not all aspects of the following criteria need to be met, a few random generally defining Britcore characteristics are: beats at high BPM's; the MC's rapping at a fast pace and/or with menace; drums that hit HARD; frenetic DJ work which has a very dominant presence; a dark and aggressive feel in the music with references to horror, war or other generally sinister vibes; air raid sirens and/or emergency type sound effects; raggamuffin styles in the emceeing. I'll add what might be construed as a negative too, i.e. the production and/or sound quality tends to be a bit unpolished or "B-Grade", but I've always felt that to be a factor which provides a most appealing rawness.
Or to put it in a relative sense; give a UK touch to some of the tracks by Public Enemy ("Rebel Without a Pause", "Burn Hollywood Burn", "Move!"), Ice-T ("The Hunted Child", "Hit the Deck"), N.W.A. ("Straight Outta Compton"), Ice Cube ("Wicked"), and numerous other busy, noise laden tracks from the good old days where "hardcore hip hop" didn't just mean someone was rapping about guns. In fact, the early Eminem track "Biterphobia" is one of the most Britcore sounding US tracks I've ever heard (if you're unfamiliar with the track, check it on Youtube).
I've always been comfortable with the "Britcore" term; I use it freely and I know what it's referring to when I hear or read it. However, it's worth mentioning that I've had a few UK heads from the era tell me that they never liked or used the term, as they didn't feel that categorising their brand of hip hop into basically a sub-genre of its own was necessary or appropriate. Not wanting to incite another World War, but this resentment may have even had something to do with the fact that the Germans coined the actual "Britcore" term, which to my knowledge was first used in a German magazine article that was discussing some aspect or other about hardcore UK hip hop. The Germans actually had many artists themselves who adopted the Britcore style, some of whom rapped at absolutely breakneck speeds over similarly hyper and raucous production, which made the UK material seem almost laidback by comparison (Hideouz Newcome, Mindcore, Digital Colors and Mental Disorda being a few examples of HARD German exponents of the style). Britcore also gave influence to artists in other European nations, such as France, Switzerland, The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. Much to my delight, it even made its way down here to Australia, giving a strong stylistic nudge to our own hip hop legends Def Wish Cast in the 90's, as well as a few others locally during those long gone days.
Hopefully my "Britcore" ramblings made some sense. If not, search around on Youtube for the likes of Gunshot, The Criminal Minds, Hardnoise, Kobalt60, Dookie Squad and First Frontal Assault and see if you can detect an overall similar vibe between them - that is "Britcore".
Ice-T has more relevance here than simply being a sonic reference point. Hijack released their first couple of singles on Simon Harris' famed Music of Life label in the UK, one of those being the classic "Style Wars". The story goes that Ice-T heard one of those early Hijack tracks on the radio whilst on tour in Europe, and subsequently signed them to his Rhyme Syndicate Records label - thus they were in the unique position of a UK group being part of a US crew, albeit from a distance (the video for the album track "Daddy Rich" was actually filmed with Hijack in Los Angeles, so they clearly spent some time chillin' with Ice-T and posse on their home turf). This deal was short-lived though, as Ice-T's label folded after Hijack released only one single ("The Badman is Robbin"), thus "The Horns of Jericho" came out on Warner Bros. instead. Despite this, the presence of The Rhyme Syndicate is evident on the album, although indirectly.
The outstanding quality of Hijack and this album is thanks to the sum of the group's parts; the vicious and streetwise spitting of Kamanchi Sly (AKA K-Sly), the deep, ominous tones of Undercover, and the legendary DJ Supreme (who was cited as an influence by DJ Q-Bert). Supreme produces and DJ's on the album, as does Undercover to a lesser extent (due to his emceeing taking priority). The group had a few more members also, namely Agent Fritz, Agent Clueso and Ulysses, who, as far as actual album contribution, did nothing more than look badass on the album cover - wearing gas masks and brandishing weaponry. K-Sly was revered as an MC back then, and has maintained that aura over the years, all thanks to his performance on this "The Horns of Jericho" album and on a handful of other singles. As for Supreme, the following clip is a nice little overview of his status and place in DJ history, and it references Undercover's turntable prowess also (from Supreme's "Turntable Trixters" DVD, released a few years ago):
So, let's get into the nuts and bolts of the album itself. I do not hesitate to state that "Phantom of the Opera" is one of my favourite songs of all time, and also a brilliant way to start the album. To me it is the foundation track of so many hardcore UK hip hop songs that followed it; it has all the elements that define it as a perfect example of the UK style of the era. It has the "Apache" beat as its heartbeat (a beat which was used in many Britcore tracks) with prominent bass adding weight to the rhythm, various horror movie themed effects running throughout it, and a few explosions and gunshots for added effect. On top of the soundtrack we have rapid fire delivery from K-Sly coupled with an absolutely terrifying aggressive vocal technique from Undercover; the combination of the two rappers on this song is truly something to behold. Sparseness exists in parts of the track as well which adds an appropriate raw feel. The only blight on the track is a mock Count Dracula voice, which has become rather lame with age (or perhaps less acceptable with me being "of age").
As I've mentioned too many times here already, Ice-T is an excellent gauge of what sounds to expect on this album. Take "The Hunted Child" or any of his similar faster tracks, add some golden era classic Bomb Squad noise to the mix, season it all with undertones of ominous darkness and you'd have an idea of what you're going to get from quite a few tracks on this album; "Hijack the Terrorist Group", "Airwave Hijack", "The Syndicate Outta Jail", "The Badman is Robbin" and the brilliant afro-centric themed call for unity of "Brother Versus Brother" all sit in the pocket of that sound.
All songs have some nice elements that set them apart from each other as well. One of my favourite tracks on the album is "Airwave Hijack", and one aspect I really like is a 70's gangster flick type bassline that runs underneath the song:
"Hijack the Terrorist Group" is probably one of the toughest songs you're ever likely to hear; Undercover sounds like he wants to totally fuck someone up on this one, and K-Sly is rapping with an intensity and power normally reserved for rocking over a noisy crowd in a packed arena. The sirens add to the drama of the track:
It doesn't take a genius to work out that the most obvious shout out to The Rhyme Syndicate is on "The Syndicate Outta Jail". Pretty much every single one of Ice's homies gets name-checked, from Nat the Cat to Mixmaster Spade to Divine Styler. Again it has some delicious 70's funk underneath it, and police sirens keep the tension at a high, but what I always liked most about this one is the mid-song changeup where Undercover steals the show over an intense break (check for the changeup around the 2 minute mark, apologies for the poor video quality but it's a stunning TV performance):
If you've been paying attention to the lyrics in the clips thus far, it should be apparent that Hijack aren't actually hijackers, and aren't advocating acts of terrorism in the sense that most people would associate the terms with. In a nutshell, they were more concerned with hijacking the airwaves with their brutal sounds, and terrorising listeners and hip hop with their aggression. It's hardly dropping science and mathematics on wax, but using themes and imagery of terror as metaphorical reference to emphasise their hardcore hip hop stance was quite clever and creative at the time – and it certainly had an appropriate impact. Kids these days might not be able to relate based on what they hear from modern hip hop, but back then a prime objective for many rappers was simply to be more hardcore than the next guy, as non-commercial as possible, and Hijack (and many other Britcore artists) receive top marks for achieving that.
However, Hijack did occasionally move beyond intimidation on wax. "Brother Versus Brother" is another dose of hardcore energy, but it's more stripped back and less "wall of noise", and is essentially reliant on not much more than a simple breakbeat and menacing bassline musically. However, the lyrics show what could have been had Hijack been a bit less concerned with the mostly unwavering hardcore mission of the album:
"Brother v brother, sister v sister
Police brutality, the reality
Government excites the personal vendetta
Thatcher supports the yuppie trend setter
Sign of the times, hear the bad vibes
The crimes heard through the grapevine
System design for the mind malfunction
On this rhyme there's a court injunction
WHY am I the last one hired?
WHY am I the first one fired?
WHY are the fields so filthy?
WHY am I always guilty?
WHY can't I get a good job?
WHY do they force me to rob?
WHY don't I know my own history?
WHY is my surname a mystery?
WHY are we still in chains?
WHY did they confuse our brain?
WHY are you so blind?
WHY don't they play this on prime time?
WHY should I bleach my own skin?
WHY should I make my nose thin?
WHY if we're all from the mother
WHY are brothers killing brothers - WHY?"
"Back to Brixton", "I Had to Serve You" and "Don't Go with Strangers" do slow the BPM's down somewhat, although not to the extent of forsaking the hardcore feel of the album. "Back to Brixton" has punchy Run-DMC style drum programming, and with the guitars is close enough to an 80's rap/rock effort. It's not too dissimilar to what the aforementioned Run-DMC were famed for with tracks like "King of Rock" and "Walk This Way", and is one song here that clearly suffers from a dated feel (in fact, it was already outdated at the time of the album's release, sounding more 1986 than 1991). Regardless, it's still enjoyable and is not "too" cheesy for me - yet. "I Had To Serve You" is probably the funkiest song on the album, with a cool bassline, head nodding tempo with snappy beats, and dope cutting of a Spoonie Gee sample for the break. Totally different again is "Don't Go with Strangers" which is an intensely dark, ominous and rather gloomy sounding track, which lyrically plays out as a Community Service Announcement warning kids to be wary of strangers, perverts and shady types, very much as the song title implies. I'm surprised hip hop never spent much time dealing with similar subjects (then again, little kids wouldn't have been listening to the likes of Hijack):
"Can you believe that he had 92 previous convictions for child abuse?
On the loose, the courts just left him
To walk and stalk another victim
We have the solution to end this confusion
However, what does detract rather severely from the hardcore feel of the album is a track, well actually two tracks, called "Daddy Rich", which appear on the album in "Part 1" and "Part 2" variations ("Part 2" being a slightly better remixed and extended version). The "Daddy Rich" syndrome has always been a painful thorn in my side regarding this album; both versions are both heavily R&B singing laced, very slow and very LONG songs, which to me always felt incredibly out of place amongst the hardcore vibes of the rest of the album. It doesn't help that "Part 2" closes out the album, resulting in a dour finale. The other lesser track on this album, although not on the same scale of upset as the "Daddy Rich" business, is an interlude which is nothing more than someone playing one minute or so of freestyle drumming. Simply unnecessary and ridiculous to record something like that and it screams of album filler.
Far more positive is a stunning posse track called "The Contract". Along with Kamanchi Sly, it features three of the best UK rappers of the era i.e. Shaka Shazam, Icepick and Katch 22's always magnificent Huntkillbury Finn. All MC's rip wonderfully on this track (it's a crying shame that Icepick and Shaka never had albums of their own), and interestingly K-Sly gives what might be his best appearance on the album here, as if the presence of the others on the track inspired him to pull out all stops. The music is another staple of Britcore bliss with fast bongo styled drums, a very bass heavy and punchy rhythm, matched nicely with dramatic "Hawaii Five-0" type crime-wave sound effects. One of the best posse tracks EVER.
Whilst reflecting on various points about this album, it occurred to me that it doesn't actually sound distinctly British; not very British at all in comparison to some of Hijack's contemporaries at the time, such as Ruthless Rap Assassins, Katch 22, Demon Boyz, London Posse, Silent Eclipse or fellow Britcore kings Gunshot. Kamanchi Sly and Undercover both sound "kind of" Yankee on the mic, there isn't a great deal of local reference or colloquial language used, and if you've patiently read this far you undoubtedly know that the music heavily channelled Public Enemy and Ice-T, rather than throwing around the ragga/Jamaican influences that set some other UK rap artists apart from their American peers. Perhaps that's a negative in the context of this album being viewed as a definitive UK hip hop piece or not, but then it has never really bothered me, and I've hardly even noticed the fact until all these years later. I guess the conclusion can be drawn that Hijack were looking to tap into the American market, more-so than their local one. However, Warner Bros. didn't actually release the album in the US, so Hijack never had a chance to undertake any sort of "Airwave Hijack" in the States. Also, I always felt that "The Horns of Jericho" would have been better had both versions of "Daddy Rich" been replaced by the earlier "Style Wars", "Hold No Hostage" and "Doomsday of Rap" singles. Regardless of all that, this album remains as one of my all-time greats of UK hip hop - of all hip hop in fact.
Music Vibes: 9 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 9 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 9 of 10
Originally posted: October 29th, 2013