As usual, I already regret the genre I implied in the title. This post might better be described (to those who have an opinion on what “old school” means) as early-90’s hip-hop, but I digress. Instead of listing some bands I enjoy and providing a few songs to get into them, I’m going to list some songs I enjoy, and briefly talk about the band/artist responsible, and what I like about them.
The Pharcyde – Oh Shit. I feel that the modern day dearly misses the concept of a rap “group.” It was very common in the 80’s and 90’s, and seems to have fallen out of favor when guys like Tupac and Biggie got popular individually. Rap groups are interesting because they provide the listener with multiple different vocal stylings and techniques in one song, and this can make for a very refreshing sense of discontinuity that ordinary rap songs don’t have. In the case of this song, we get three guys bantering about moments they had with women that ended in them saying “oh shit!” The first is Slimkid3, who has the most standard approach of the three (at least on this track). He doesn’t do anything special in terms of flow, but he’s got some clever wordplay. Next is Imani, who has an uncommonly high-pitched voice that grabs your attention. He’s actually quite expressive, which is a trait he shares with Fatlip, who goes last in the song (and incidentally has the funniest verse). I really enjoy the bounciness and the sense of “fun” that this song conjures. As you’ll see in the rest of this post, it’s a feeling a lot of rap groups succeed in producing.
Souls of Mischief – 93 ‘Til Infinity. There is a long list of things this song does right. First off, they took a fantastic sample from Billy Cobham’s song, Heather, resulting in one of my favorite beats of all time. It’s ethereal, smooth, and I feel like I could listen to it for a very long time (so maybe I’d like Billy Cobham). This type of airy beat seems to have come back in fashion lately, and I’m glad for it. “Oh Shit” separated the individual rappers by the chorus, but this song is quite different. The group has 4 guys in it, and between choruses, all four do a stanza. What this allows them to do is demonstrate their adeptness at “the hand-off”. By, “hand-off,” I mean the interchange between one rapper and another as the main vocalist in the song. Souls of Mischief put on a masterclass in this technique, bringing to mind the children’s game where you start a word using the last letter of the previous word. Each rapper’s closing verse leads to the next rapper’s starting verse in terms of rhyme, and occasionally even subject. It makes for a sense of listening to a well-oiled machine. A very relaxing, enjoyable song.
De La Soul – Eye Know. De La Soul is a three-man group, but one is primarily a DJ, so “Eye Know” has two vocalists going back and forth. They use the style of “Oh Shit,” separating rappers by chorus. This song is characterized by yet another great sample (Steely Dan – Peg), but to me, what really stands out are the lyrics. We’ve all heard love songs, and yet I am still truly impressed with Posdnuos (who refers to himself also as “Plug One,” addressing which input jack he plugs his mic into) and Dove’s (Plug Two) creative and effectual use of metaphor. And I don’t mean to say that they took a complex route; quite the contrary, they used very simple, but poetic concepts to make their point. They both flow very well, they both speak very clearly, and therefore easily paint a picture in your mind of what they’re talking about.
Nas – Memory Lane. Back in the Macklemore post, Nas was mentioned for his lyrical abilities. I think Memory Lane is one of many good examples of his skill. I believe a lot of the hype around Nas is justified: he set a very high standard, and never dropped below it. Before I get into it, since I’ve been mentioning all the other samples, I should mention that Nas sampled “We’re In Love,” by Reuben Wilson, and of course, I think it was a good choice. Nas grew up in the Queensbridge projects of Queens, New York, and that provides the context for both this track and the entire Illmatic album that it is on. Nas drops so many references in this track that it’s best I just link you to the encyclopedia on the matter. He makes substantial use of double meaning (maybe I can finally use the word “metonymy”) in talking about physical objects he remembers seeing while growing up, while associating them with institutional problems that plague life in the ghetto. What’s important is that he does this, and you still can tell what he’s talking about. Even more incredible, he still manages to make everything rhyme, and flow on top of that. He’s an impressive guy.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of oldschool hip-hop, but these rappers are some of the greatest of all time. Rather than overload this post with more suggestions, I think I’ll probably come back for a part two sometime with a few others I didn’t get to mention. As a remark to those who are not big hip-hop fans, despite the quality of the artists in this post, I’ve never found the 90’s to be the most accessible form of hip-hop. You might enjoy some of the artists mentioned in this post, instead. With time, you will learn to love it all.