Can you say classic? I know you can, cause it’s a term rap fans have been using like it’s going out of style. With hip-hop’s shared interests growing ever smaller, its fans seem all the more eager to define classic records, as if to tell the rest of the hip-hop world that classic material is still being produced, we’re just missing out on it. The fewer the classics everybody agrees upon, the more numerous the individual classics. So we’ve come up with these curious terms like underground classic, slept-on classic, street classic, or (my favorite) minor classic. On one hand such stubbornness is to be admired, on the other it is pretty pathetic. What on earth is a minor classic? Other than an oxymoron?
Then there’s the equally baffling instant classic. Are we that desperate that classics have to be established on the date of release? A true classic doesn’t reveal itself as such until later. It stands the test of time while competition fades into oblivion. If a classic is representative of a number of similar records, there is also at the same time something about it that puts it above all those similar records. However, as much as I wish rap fans would be more discriminating, I admit that classic itself is a problematic term. How does a record become a certified classic? Is there a certification authority? How long before albums/songs/verses become eligible for classic status? Can that status expire? Are all classics equally classic, or are some more classic? Maybe it’s actually a good idea to come up with different categories of classics. An independent record might have trouble reaching the critical mass of supporters, but it might very well become a classic in underground circles.
The term regional classic even has my full support. But like all classics it has to be able to rally a certain amount of advocates – during the time that the genre has already moved on. The longevity of a record should determine whether it is a classic or not. How much play it still gets. How fondly it is remembered. How many artists mention it as a source of inspiration. How many fans and critics use it as a reference point. How many new followers it is able to attract long after its initial release. Come to think of it, the people who trace our every move in the cyberworld might just be able to collect the relevant stats. Now that would be some data mining I would approve of.
What am I complaining about anyway? As long as people crown classics, they show that they care. And when they label something an unheralded classic, they make it known that they care when nobody else does. By distinguishing classics, we set artistic standards instead of economical ones.
But what do those we expect to deliver classics have to say on the subject? Here’s a quickly compiled top ten of search results from the Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive:
10) “I want hip-hop to come back and make classics / Nas should spit it like he did for “Illmatic”” (Apathy)
9) “I gotta hit The Source, I need my other half a mic / because that “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” was a classic, right?” (Big Boi)
8) “As long as the streets know it’s a classic / fuck all y’all envious bastards” (Foxy Brown)
7) “The power to listen and learn keeps me adaptive / A Tribe fan that appreciated the classics / But damn if I’m trapped in the past, I act to surpass what they crafted / and still manage to travel the path on the maps that they drafted” (Tonedeff)
6) “I went from niggas tellin’ me I really shouldn’t rhyme / to droppin’ a classic album muthafuckas couldn’t find” (Phonte)
5) “It’s real ill when a classic album drop / but it’s real fucked up when a classic album flop” (Bars & Hooks)
4) “My practice session’s a classic alone” (Copywrite)
3) “Rap bastards tryin’ to make a classic / keep your dumb ass out of the casket” (Ice Cube)
2) “Make you a classic like my first LP” (Biggie Smalls)
1) “Fuck a classic album, give my life 5 mics” (Slug)
So… where was I? Right, classics. With all these classics popping up left and right, I might as well introduce the averted classic. (Not very catchy, I know.) There are few contenders in this category, despite increased efforts to release shelved albums. The one I would like to bring up for consideration is a record that has been released in 2007 by Traffic Entertainment, Ultimate Force’s “I’m Not Playin’.” If the title sounds familiar, “I’m Not Playing” was the name of the duo’s only known track so far, released as a single in 1989, the same year appearing on Jazzy Jay’s “Cold Chillin’ in the Studio Live” sampler, and in 2000 unearthed for Ego Trip’s “The Big Playback” compilation.
Ultimate Force was MC Master Rob and DJ/producer Diamond D, who both grew up in the Forest Houses projects in the South Bronx, together with later rap luminaries Lord Finesse and Fat Joe. Count in Showbiz, a fellow DJ and childhood acquaintance of Diamond D, and you have the nucleus of what would become known as the Diggin’ In The Crates crew. Matter of fact, the Ultimate Force album would have been a crucial DITC release, competing with Lord Finesse’s “Funky Technician” as the first DITC-related full-length, and being the first ever to mention the crew’s name – through none other than Fat Joe, who appears on two tracks.
Master Rob and his DJ had been a team for some time, inspired by what was going on before their very eyes, for instance when top-tier MC’s would attend jams hosted by local DJ’s Supreme and Hutch. In the mid-’80s they hooked up with hip-hop pioneer Jazzy Jay, who provided Diamond with production equipment and eventually signed them to the Strong City label he established in the late ’80s. After dropping “I’m Not Playing,” Master Rob and Diamond D continued working on tracks from 1989 through 1991. Capitol Records showed interest in an Ultimate Force album, but when Diamond began to develop solo artist aspirations, fueled by the reception of “Best Kept Secret,” a track he had recorded within the Ultimate Force fold, their careers wound up taking a different course. The MC hung up the mic and the DJ became a widely respected producer with an at least initially promising rap career.
Once slated for a 1990 release, “I’m Not Playin'” is very much an ’80s record. Master Rob (not to be confused with the Fantastic Five member) is an uncomplicated MC, cruising his partner’s funk-driven compositions with a natural understanding. The slight slur is part of the rapper’s charm, but it does tend to affect his delivery at faster tempos. He uses simple rhyme schemes and virtually no punches, but ever so often manages to make a convincing case for himself. He sounds gritty enough on the spectacular “I’m Not Playing,” the most cutting-edge production on this album, whose raw and booming yet at the same time delicate deconstruction of an Albert King blues guitar (presumably the first blues sample in hip-hop) foreshadows the early ’90s sound spearheaded by Cypress Hill. The song itself is a coarser version of Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend,” as Rob looks back on his accomplishments, intimidating competition with colorful similes like “You’re yellow, just like the yolk of an egg” and “Raised in Forest, across from Morris / I got more hair on my chest than Chuck Norris.”
Another ’80s characteristic are the simple but cleverly spun song concepts. “Another Hit” is as contagious as any opener that went down in history. It starts with someone telling our duo to “forget what record companies (…) say you must do to be successful, do what that voice in your head tells you to do,” immediately followed by the sampled JB’s urging them to “Make it funky!” Diamond complies with an irresistible uptempo combination of jerky guitar chords, ringing pianos and plenty of vocal samples as Rob runs down “the ingredients for another hit.” The beat is remarkably organized, and Rob follows suit in the lyrical department in refreshing detail, hushing the crowd before he begins, reassuring himself that his DJ is there with him (who responds with a Slick Rick quote) and recalling “spendin’ hours with Diamond lookin’ for loops.” The song might even be the first ever to reference the promotional power of mixtapes, as Rob boasts, “Hear my joint on a Kid Capri tape.”
“Girls” samples the same Moments & Whatnauts song Marley Marl used in ’91 for “Girl Fever,” but where Craig G embraced the entire female population, Master Rob focuses on black women, inviting the listener to “sit back and learn about your culture / because the black woman is a sculpture / of beauty.” “I Gotta Go” is a storytelling joint with three ‘Would you believe that’-type episodes, and definitely a source of inspiration for Diamond’s own “I’m Outta Here.”
From another familiar angle comes “Revolution of the Mind,” which addresses social ills over a nonetheless optimistic background. Rob touches on everything from Reaganomics to Howard Beach, thanks Spike Lee for _Do the Right Thing_ and scolds the “neighborhood thug” who “almost caught a slug cause you wanted to bug.” This is one instance where Master Rob trades his b-boy stance for a grown man posture:
“Seen a lotta things in my days
and that’s why I’m set in my ways
Won’t turn the other cheek, to me that’s weak
Whatever’s on my mind I’ll speak
400 years over here
Made more contributions than Shakespeare
Still genocide is the scheme
Martin Luther King had a dream
Things ain’t always what they seem
That’s why Malcolm X was more extreme
Both were killed durin’ the fight
because the man doesn’t want us to unite
Floods our community with crack
shatter your dreams front and back”
At the other end of the concpetual spectrum are the comradely neighborhood sparrings. “C’mon” features an animated Fat Joe over a skeletal beat, while Rob reminisces on ciphers they had back in the days. “Oh Shit” is a contemporary one with the late Gizmo, Saladeem, Seville, and again Joe catching wreck over a barrage of thick drums and loose guitar strumming, a driving track similar to the uptempo cuts on Eric B. & Rakim’s “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em.” “One of the All Time Greats” cuts back on BPM’s in favour of a strategically slow explanation as to why The Ultimate Force is here to stay. “Smooth as Suede” follows the format of dividing a rap song into different musical themes for verse and hook, the rhythmic “Person to Person” guitar alternating with a more melodic background for the hook. “Tuf (So Damn)” sees the crew making a final pledge to hardcore hip-hop with another grab at the James Brown catalog. Rob scores once more with imaginative imagery like “My mind’s ablaze, rhymes are cinder” or “Attack and Rob reacts real quick / cause if you wanna get stupid, then Rob’ll get thick.”
“I’m in Effect,” the second song on the album to quote “Microphone Fiend,” gives assorted Fred Wesley & The JB’s tunes its own spin, pinning them down with stiffly stomping drums while Rob promotes the duo with aplomb:
“You searched and seeked to find a beat
that can compete with me and DJ Diamond D
But that’s absurd, I’m not the herb
And that’s my word, me bein’ labeled wack is unheard
The scratches that he does, the lyrics in my song
What else could be wrong? Even my label is Strong
A lot of you sleep and even more snore
Wake up, cause we’re kickin’ down doors”
And then there’s “Supreme Diamond D.” Almost too good to be believed, there’s no doubt that if released on time this track today would be one of the most fondly remembered DJ anthems. As the title suggests, Master Rob, already regularly giving the man behind the wheels credit, fully dedicates this one to his DJ, and Diamond doesn’t miss the opportunity to be the star of the show with an innovative segment where he hits us with cuts representing each letter of the alphabet, from “Ain’t no half-stepping” to “Zulu Nation.”
Would I trade “I’m Not Playin'” for “Stunts, Blunts, & Hip Hop”? Probably not. Although some tracks turn out to be timeless, others are forever trapped in the late ’80s. Even in 1990 this release would have been a throwback to 1988. Lyrically the two albums are worlds apart. The Diamond of “Best Kept Secret” easily surpasses his then-MC. Master Rob does use more profanity than expected, but he remains a very traditional MC who is mainly concerned with moving the crowd and would have never been able or willing to tread the path Fat Joe would take (who already employs an early gangsta lean on “C’mon” and “Oh Shit”). From Ice Cube’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” to A Tribe Called Quest’s “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” we’d have no trouble coming up with 1990 releases that would have made “I’m Not Playin'” look old in any department.
If the makings of a classic are somehow tied to the era it is released in, “I’m Not Playin'”‘s potential classic status would have also depended on the exact year of release, especially when there’s room for doubt. But no matter the hypothetical year of release, ’89, ’90, or ’91, fact is that this album wasn’t given the chance to apply for classic status. A classic makes an impact on its genre. That impact may not become evident until later, but both the fact that people consider it a classic and that its influence is felt means that it helped shape the music and its fans. Every classic was once a common contemporary record, representative of the here and now, but for whatever reason it was able to accumulate classic points over the years. “I’m Not Playin'” is at the most representative of the back then, unable to make up for lost time.
Still, the material gathered here has been rightfully saved from oblivion, and it makes you wish it would have been allowed to reach “hip-hop maniacs” and “college brainiacs” as intended. Those who love their late ’80s boom bap will be surprised by how perfectly this release captures the essence of its time, how expertedly Diamond D, while not digging exceptionally deep, constructed these tracks, arranging samples in subtle and stunning ways. This is the work that built D’s confidence as a musician, these are the tracks that enabled him to boast in 1992, “Word got around that my shit is boomin’ / it ran through the Bronx just like Paul Newman.” I myself feel as much robbed of the experience to have known these tracks for many years as I am surprised that such a quality record was simply put aside. Regarding the liberal use of the word classic, thankfully we’re all free to choose personal classics independent of what the rest of the world thinks. At this point, “I’m Not Playin'” has a good chance of becoming one of mine.