My city, like many other cities in the world, has a bustling black market economy thriving right alongside licensed and taxed enterprises. In this market, you can obtain duplicated copies of the most recent movies and albums for quite a few dollars less than what a brick and mortar entity would charge you. Sometimes, you can find the purveyors of this nefarious fare running their businesses in the parking lot a few hundred feet from where their licensed and legal competitors are conducting their affairs. One portion of this bootleg economy that has always intrigued me has been knockoff clothing.

One of the things that I have always found curious about knockoff clothing is the paradox in offering a facsimile of an expensive clothing item for an extreme discount. The buyer is attempting to present an image of affluence by purchasing a proximate copy of an item, most likely, marketed to upscale consumers without having to use a considerable portion of the resource that makes it appealing in the first place: money. However, for this item to be attractive enough to be bootlegged, requires that those who actually have mucho dinero to co-sign the brand. In effect, what you have is a situation where people who cannot actually afford an item purchasing a copy of it so as to appear that they can afford it. The irony is that if it were actually affordable, no one would be interested in buying the real thing.

A knockoff comes in two different forms. For those looking to avoid trademark violations and a visit from the federales, they may develop an offspring brand that resembles the parent by using a similar color scheme, typeface or logo that recalls the inspiration. They even take it as far as creating a brand name that so closely resembles the original; the casual viewer has to take a very close look to realize that the wearer is rocking a counterfeit. One of the best examples of this would be Pure Black, a FUBU knockoff so good that it acquired a fan base off its’ own merits.

Another type of knockoff would be the type that throws all caution to the wind and decides to copy the brand itself. This type of knockoff is designed to benefit the consumer by offering a low price for a normally high-ticket item, while giving the perception that he or she is willing AND capable of paying top dollar to satisfy the roving eye of the style police. The manufacturers of this type of knockoff understand that it doesn’t have to be EXACTLY like the item it is pretending to be, it just has to come close enough to fool the casual viewer into believing that it is. Because of this, many knockoff items tend to master the big details while failing to take into account the little things that make the original item special. It could be something as simple as not duplicating a stylized tag located under the tongue of the shoe, an obscure stitch pattern for a shirt or the direction of a small logo located on the lower portion of a jacket. They tend to be the type of minor details that true fans of the brand will notice instantly when they see you wearing the clothing, while casual style chasers will fail to see any type of difference.

I thought about this while I listening to the Kingsbridge Music compilation. The reason why it came to mind because here we have an occasion where you have individuals who have managed to get the big details right while missing the minor ones that allows an artist or group to rise above simply average. This album is similar to many other indie hip-hop albums I’ve listened to that, though it was produced in 2007, owe its ambience to the mid ‘90s. There is nothing wrong with continuing to use elements of music heavily associated with a bygone era, many acts do this and create brilliant modern music that audiences listen to and enjoy. The flaw comes when an artist listens to music from a certain era, takes the obvious attributes of that sound and attempts to build a career without taking the little things that made it special into consideration.

Something that people fail to understand is that the same elements that made a person or group popular in the past apply to any other person or artist who becomes famous today. Let us take Wu-Tang Clan for example. Many hip-hop artists like to talk about how people do not make the same type of music that Wu-Tang is famous for anymore. They complain about the dearth of that “real” hip-hop music and wonder why they have difficulty procuring an audience receptive to their sound. What people miss is that Wu-Tang was more than their music. At their commercial peak, they possessed all of the same characteristics that most people, and the Stans wishing for their resurrected commercial dominance, tend to gravitate towards when seeking a new act to glorify. They possessed tons of charisma, presence, distinctiveness, great voices, style and PERSONALITY.

Take just about any music act associated with the “Golden Era” and I am sure you will find that almost every single one of them possessed those intangibles to some degree. Some like to call it star quality, many term it the “it” factor. No matter what you choose to call it, it has to be available in some amount for others to find you compelling enough to continue paying attention to. Sure, you have artists who have grinded out careers without possessing much personality, but you find that those artists are mostly relegated to “workman” status and are more respected for their work ethic than for their actual musical output.

The bottom line is that you can mimic all the obvious things you feel made your heroes great, while lacking all the little things that actually made them so. Just because you still use jazz samples and dusty drum kicks does not make you A Tribe Called Quest. Just because you choose to use lyricism, delivery and production that can be referenced to a bygone hip-hop era does not make you “real” hip-hop. Just because you do not hear your favorite kind of hip-hop prominently played over the radio does not mean that your variety needs rescuing. Most importantly, just because you have made the choice to continue recording and performing that style does not mean that you are the best candidate to “save” it.

The “Golden Era” was filled to the top of the bucket with fool’s gold as much as any other exploited genre in music’s long and oscillating history. I know because I purchased A LOT of bum albums even then. This is why I become upset when I read on the inside of an album how this crew or that crew is set to “save” hip-hop from itself as if they are qualified to do it quite simply because they fell in love with one particularly influential period. There are so many artist and groups dedicated to rescuing hip-hop by keeping it firmly implanted in the past that they fail to notice that there is a lot of new music worth hearing, if they would stop pulling out their “Illmatic” album and give some other music an opportunity.

I had a feeling what I was in for when I put the cd in and the very first thing I heard was the same sample from “Who’s Got the Props” by Black Moon. I’m funny about samples that have already been used, and utilized well, by a prominent artist or group. If you are going to use a sample that is heavily associated with a classic effort, you better be prepared to use it in a unique manner or bring a performance to the table that draws positive comparisons to your efforts versus the previous endeavor. In this case, the sample was used as the backdrop for an intro that featured a DJ cutting up various vocals naming hip-hop icons. All it really did was make me think about when was the last time I listened to “Enta Da Stage”.

The first vocal effort would feature Superstar Quamallah on an effort titled “Love Has Madeus”. The subject matter is positive illustrating themes that emerge regularly on many indie hip-hop efforts, namely, the desire to be a success in a crowded hip-hop industry and reverence for hip-hop icons from the past. Though I can respect the subject matter and the positive vibes emanating from the music, the track, lyrics and vocals don’t make you want to listen for very long. The production resembles a 9th Wonder chop effort, but lacks the savvy sample collection that has kept crate diggers guessing about where he’s finding such wonderful fruit to harvest. The drums are lazy to the point of lethargic and don’t do much to drive a sample that could be special with a tad bit of dressing.

The second effort “Dope” by Jazz Addixx suffers the same problem as the first track. This is compounded by the use of a chorus that would have been acceptable back when the track title was current slang. Using the word “dope” to build your chorus around does nothing but take a track that sounds as if was a leftover from the mid ‘90s and make it seem even more dated.

The third track by Shadowfacts called “Gracious” tries to add an up-tempo element. The track uses jazz elements in much the same way that they would have used back in the ‘90s. In fact, this track would have been comfortable on Common’s “Resurrection” album. However, it would not have been a standout effort; it just employs many of the same elements that made it a classic recorded document of its time. Anyone listening to the rhymes and flows on this track would find it difficult to believe it was produced and recorded during a recent timeframe.

I do not mind simple lyrics. Sometimes, simple lyrics are best equipped to handle the job at hand. You don’t always need to whip out the thesaurus to get your point across, in fact, it’s better to be able to convey complex ideas in a language that can be understood by the masses. However, when an emcee delivers simple lyrics that are coupled with equally simplistic punchlines, they are doing neither you nor themselves any real favors by spitting them. An example of what I mean would be this lyric by Fab Nickel on the song “Credit’s Due”.

“If you ain’t family, then don’t lay a hand on me
My hands are so fast, (you) thought I was a cavalry
I’m trying to fully fill my jeans like a cavity
But people mad at me, cause I speak reality
This is for the niggas and bitches,
(indecipherable) best wishes to the ones on the bottom of my shit list
She ain’t getting nada, no jewelry nor Prada
Microphones I smoke em like I’m puffing marijuana
My mind is sharper than the blades you find at Benihana
(indecipherable) down in Tijuana
I got a knack for dope beats…”

Why are these cats still using the word “dope”?

Mind you, many rappers have spit far worse rhymes and still managed to be a favorite of mine. An example of this would be Nice and Smooth. The difference goes back to that “something extra” I mentioned early. The rapper on this verse does not really seem to make an effort to add that something extra to the verse to put it over the top, delivering a dry and boring effort instead. The track is not exceptional enough to provide the listener what they would need to want to stay and listen to what he may have to say next.

The remaining thirteen tracks on the album all seem to follow a similar course resulting in humdrum lyrics, lackluster performances and mind-numbing beats to back them. This is disappointing because in the middle of one song, I heard a rapper claim that if the year were ’96, he would be a major hip-hop player.

I have heard MANY artists on these types of albums say something similar to what he said. Personally, I think there is something dubious about creating a certain style of music in a time when you, no longer, have your muse available for a side-by-side assessment. You can be an individual, like me, who adores the soul/funk of the ‘70s. I have spent serious time in the studio trying to capture the essence of what I love most about that style of music. However, it would be wishful thinking for me to claim that my music would have provided as much business for a record shop as my muse, if I had only had the benefit of having my music released at the same time as theirs. If that is why I am doing the music I do, I could be accused of playing it safe by performing music that I already understand has limited appeal and complaining when that scenario plays itself out.

There is no way the artist, or the listener, would ever know how large they would have been in ’96 with the same music. However, it is curious that artists feel that their music is comparable to what they admire. There was not a single star making performance to be found anywhere on this compilation, just a lot of “real” hip-hop that fails to hit the spot.

The thing is that all of the music on the compilation, like a pair of knockoff jeans, succeeded in using all the major elements one would need to create the illusion that what you are seeing is what you think you are seeing. However, if you look closely, you realize that something vital is missing. That missing “something” is the very detail that you thought was least important or you did not notice yourself, but sometimes, it is the only thing that matters.

Various Artists :: Kingsbridge Music presents Independent & Underground Hip Hop Compilation Vol. 1
4Overall Score