Though 1990’s rap music did not necessarily share the same critical acclaim in comparison to the golden era of the previous decade, it nonetheless contributed highly to the popularity of hip-hop culture today. A few artists like The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Nas and groups like Outkast are in many hip-hop aficionados list of top 10 greatest of all time. Prominent rappers from this age were able to carefully balance complex lyrics along with commercial sensibilities in a manner that catapulted the art form to new heights. With the release of his new mixtape “When Hip Hop Was Fresh,” producer Abstrakt Soundz of Custom Made celebrates 1990’s hip-hop culture by remixing 11 popular tracks (with the exception of De La Soul’s “Oooh.”) from that decade.
Boldly the California-based producer chose to remix songs that for the most part define the various artists and groups. Listening to the tracks in a new light is a very tough task while trying to understand how the interpretation of the song may work (or not) for a particular song. Tunes like the Abstrakt remake of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” O.C.’s “Time’s Up” and Skee-Lo’s “I Wish” are very effective since the producer approaches these songs in original ways, while staying true to 1990’s hip-hop style. For example, “Juicy” incorporates a classic boom-bap sound along with a cleverly flipped soul vocal sample that may not have the same commercial appeal of the funky original, but illustrates Biggie’s rags-to-riches story just as well. Skee-Lo’s “I Wish” utilizes boom-bap drums and funky keys to provide an upbeat backdrop as opposed to the mellow original version. Much like the previous track, O.C.’s “Time’s Up” shifts the tempo with hard drums, dramatic strings and tinkling synths, which is in stark contrast to the slow, bass-heavy groove of the original. This may be the best remake as it perfectly matches the energy of O.C.’s lyrics about changing the game and exposing frontin’ emcees.
While the mixtape may have its share of fresh remixes, other tunes just don’t seem to hit the mark. Tracks like the Fugees’ “Ready or Not,” Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” and 2Pac’s “Me Against The World” leave the listener confused as to how the Abstrakt remake adds anything inspiring to the songs. For example, “Ready or Not” features a stripped-down bass along with unnecessary chatter in the background when it could have used a melodic instrumental to convey a new emotion. Listening to this remix made me appreciate the quiet and highly melodic original tune even more than the past. “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” also fails to provide anything inspiring as the electric guitar riff makes this track as generic as any rock remix you could find on a rap release. “Me Against The World” featuring Element incorporates haunting synths with soft drums, making this track about hardship even more depressing. At least the original version had hard-hitting drums and high-pitched synths that livened up the harsh lyrics.
Even though Abstrakt Soundz is inconsistent as a producer on “When Hip Hop Was Fresh,” one can certainly give the California-based beatsmith props for digging in the crates and compiling a thorough list of popular tunes deriving from legends, respectable veterans and one-hit wonders. Though choosing definitive tracks from this decade led to mediocre results on his part, the courage to tackle songs of this calibre is quite commendable. Perhaps the mixtape would have made a greater impact if he chose modern-day instrumentals on some tunes instead of sticking to his old-school boom-bap approach. In any case, “When Hip Hop Was Fresh,” is certainly a worthwhile download for anyone who appreciates hip-hop culture and would like to jam to ’90’s rap music.