Today we take a look at a brand new line of hip-hop trading cards. If you saw these at the corner bodega or local Wal*Mart, would you pick them up? Would kids spend their own allowance money to get them? Could hip-hop trading cards be bigger than Pokemon?

While The Official Hip-Hop Trading Cards may be a brand new product in 2009, trading cards have been around an awful long time, going back to the days when they were called “tobacco cards.” Initially cards were inserted into packs of cigarettes just to stiffen them up and make them more attractive on display, but soon enough it occured to someone to put famous people and athletes on the cards to make them collectible. This resulted in the first card collecting controversy as concerned parents and religious groups were convinced it encouraged youth smoking, and unintentionally early 20th century baseball player Honus Wagner created the first “rare card” by demanding his image be removed from packs and destroyed. Finding an authentic Wagner T-206 card in good condition in 2009 is like getting a free $2,000,000 lottery ticket.

Spidey-Card! Spidey-Card.Trading cards are easy to come by these days without having to get a nicotine fix. In fact you don’t even have to get a stick of gum with your trading cards, which was the rule of thumb when I was a little kid. I’m glad that was done away with that, because it was always the consistency of cardboard and left a nice greasy stain on the back of your favorite ballplayer’s card. When I got older I realized there were more than just baseball player trading cards out there. I started picking up football cards, comic cards, any kind of pack I could get for less than a buck – sometimes four FOR a buck. Amazing that one pack can cost you FOURbucks these days. I digress – there were a lot of options out there for a young card collector, even one on a pittance of an allowance. For a young hip-hop head with a subscription to The Source I found what I THOUGHT was the ultimate – Yo! MTV Raps trading cards.Yo. Yo, yo, yo! A complete box like the one pictured here contains 36 packs of cards, 10 cards to a pack. By the time these came around in 1991 trading cards were already creeping closer and closer to a dollar a pack, and the only store that carried them was 20 miles away, but that didn’t stop me from trying to complete the first series. For the life of me I can’t remember the one card I’m missing. It doesn’t help that I can’t find the album they’re stored in either – an actual Yo! MTV Raps card collector storage binder I sent away for in the mail. I suppose that’s a collector’s item now in itself. (And yes, if I do ever find that binder, I’ll probably open the box in the photo to get that one card.)

Unfortunately, even though I was stoked about the fact somebody had released trading cards for the culture and art I obsessed over, there were plenty of glaring holes. There was literally no rhyme or reason to the organization of cards. Big Daddy Kane gets three cards. Vanilla Ice getsEIGHT. That’s even more appalling when you consider that BDP only had three cards, just one featuring KRS by himself. I suppose the creators thought that the best-selling artists at the time deserved more shine when they came up with the design, but Rob Van Winkle had already been exposed as a fraud by the time these cards hit stores and getting almost one of his stupid face per pack was to quote the aforementioned KRS “WICK WICK WACK.” I wantonly destroyed the duplicate Ice cards – immature but fun. Slick Rick only had one card in the set, while MC Hammer had FIVE. You get the idea. As a representation of the current hip-hop scene in ’91, let alone the culture of hip-hop as a whole, it was outrageously bad. No offense to the dead but when Ted Demme gets a card yet Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo do not, especially in that era of rap, your whole concept is FUBAR. It was even sexist, as neither MC Lyte nor Queen Latifah were represented. At least Public Enemy got 9 out of the 100 – more than Mr. Winkle, but just barely. As for the prizes, I didn’t win that trip to see Yo! filmed live in New York City… or anything else for that matter. Ah well.

For a short time there was a competing series of cards called THE RAP PACK, which unfortunately were even harder to find than the Yo! cards. WCW Nitro!I say unfortunate because although the graphic layout of the artist cards wasn’t very appealing (big blocky text – to the point of being cartoonish) they actually cared enough about hip-hop to include GRAFFITI ARTWORK STICKERS. I treasured these. When I was bored in high school I would attempt to copy the designs in my notebook, or come up with my own, neither of which would turn out well – but it kept my mind focused on the music and the culture. I think out of 150 cards in the series I only ended up with about half, but they DID have N.W.A. cards, which the Yo! set sure as shit did not. I was impressed. That was about it for trading cards though – for me AND for hip-hop. Every now and then I look at trading cards at the grocery store just to see what kids collect these days. You can still find sports cards, celebrity trading cards, occasionally even pro wrestling cards (I found the pack pictured left at a Meijer in Michigan, clearly dated given WCW died years ago) but for the most part it’s all Bakugan and Pokemon. You gotta catch ’em, err, collect ’em all.

In 18 years since Yo! cards first hit shelves I never saw another pack of hip-hop trading cards and honestly thought no one would every try again. TOHHTC caught me by surprise. I got their press release in e-mail and was immediately intrigued – after all this time someone was actually giving rap cards another chance. Fredro Starr pack courtesy TOHHTCI requested a sample pack for review and the producers kindly sent me what you see pictured to your right. The Official Hip-Hop Trading Cards come in clear plastic, five to a pack, plus one insert with the company’s logo on a separate card. It’s an immediate positive to be able to see what the cards look like before buying a pack, so you know the product is real hip-hop and not some cornball BS. On the negative side if the distribution of cards in the series is truly random, what’s to stop a kid from pawing through an open box of packs just to find the one with a Jay-Z visible on the back? With all due respect to Fredro Starr, this one’s probably getting thrown back in the box. He ranks higher than Vanilla Ice simply by having been in Onyx, but his solo careerhasn’t exactly lit the world on fire in the last eight years. At least the biographical information from the interview seems thorough and accurate, so if Fredro Starr actually was your favorite rapper ever, you’d be happy with the “stats” on the back.

Design still seems to be an issue in oh-nine. These are a lot better than the cards I remember getting in THE RAP PACK but they could still use some work. Once I opened up the pack and spread out the cards I discovered that they all had a single solid color border, with most rappers sporting the same generic “mean mug” pose for the camera. Other than the chains they’re wearing and the fact one is a producer and the other raps, Dame Grease and Fredro Starr are completely interchangable. Besides that the static shots bring back an age old debate from my youth – whether or not “action cards” were better than “headshot cards.” It’s certainly more impressive to see Andre Dawson swinging for a homerun than standing there smiling for the camera, but there’s also something to be said for getting to know the face of a star when it’s not covered by a ballcap or dripping in sweat. Unfortunately I have no idea if there’s any such thing as action cards in TOHHTC because I only got one pack and all five hip-hop representatives are just chilling – nobody’s doin’ shit. The samples on their website suggest that’s the norm though. Maybe series two will feature Tame One bombing a wall, LL Cool J rocking the bells, Crazy Legs doing a backspin and DJ Revolution on the turntables. There’s always hope.

Caktuz Tree..? 13Earlier I apologized for knocking Fredro Starr as a B-list rap star, but at least his was a name I knew and recognized, so I’m REALLY going to have to apologize to Caktuz Tree..?13. To his credit he’s rocking the only original pose of the pack, looking away from the camera and sporting a baseball bat – a nod to my old card collecting days I approve of. If you’re trying to establish these as the OFFICIALhip-hop trading cards though go with some OFFICIAL rappers from the get-go. The best analogy I can think of is if you bought a pack of Topps baseball cards in 2009 hoping to get Albert Pujols and instead found the St. Louis players in your pack weren’t even in the majors – they were toiling away in some AA franchise inNorth Carolina. I don’t want to belabor this point, but I can’t imagine any kid buying a pack of these and being excited to get CAKTUZ TREE instead of Nas, Busta Rhymes or 50 Cent. Even if you’re a snob and don’t consider Atmosphere or Sage Francis to be in the major leagues, they still have more name recognition than Mr. Tree. I probably see upwards of 500 rap albums a year and this name hasn’t come up once, not even as a cameo appearance. Now that I own his trading card though I’ll certainly notice him the first time it does.

Camp Lo courtesy TOHHTCI’ll say this for TOHHTC 2009 – I appreciate their effort and I appreciate their willingness to embrace the whole of hip-hop from the A-list to the Tree-list. Their e-mail responses were nothing but professional and courteous, and they even sent me a follow-up inquiry to make sure the sample pack arrived. I also appreciate the holo-style silver foil logo that the bottom of each card is embossed with. It definitely brightens up the dull solid color borders and adds a touch of class to the series, so their design is already headed in the right direction.

The biggest thing I can knock is not actually their cards or their professionalism – it’s their website designer. TOHHTC is very flashy but it’s all sizzle and no steak. The “about us” section really tells you nothing about them at all. It would be nice to get the whole story about what inspired them, how they got funding to launch the product, what level of distribution the cards have, what their goals are – anything more than “contact us for more information.” That seems a little lazy, as is the fact the word “collection” is spelled wrong. Most of all there needs to be at least one page on the website that tells you how much a box of packs sells for, the suggested retail price for individual packs, and how many cards there are in the series – preferably with a detailed checklist so you’d know if you ever completed the set. Given the cards aren’t numbered on the back, this is a NECESSITY especially given any card collecting kid in ’09 is sure to get on the web while brokering card trades with their friends. After all you can’t trade cards at school – mine always got confiscated that way – and since these probably cost a buck or more a pack that’s money you can’t afford to lose. I think after 18 years, Official Hip-Hop Trading Cards are an idea whose time has come – again. There’s plenty of potential to do it better than it was done when I was young, and if they step their game up this will not only be fun but vitally educational to the culture. If kids today can get a Gucci Mane card and a Schoolly D card in the same pack, we all win in the long run. I only ask that they consider bringing back the graffiti stickers – I miss that shit. And for the love of God, no Vanilla Ice cards.