The second golden age of Hip Hop: Choice picks of my favourite albums from 1988 – 94.
The second age of Hip Hop for me, began with the hardcore chorus-line of The Ultramagnatic MCs block-rocking ‘Critical Breakdown’, and the daisy-age psychedelic rich game-changer, ‘3 Feet High And Rising’ by De La Soul, in 1988.
Both group’s kick started the era, relinquishing the baton change from the old school, and continuing with the good work that the radical Public Enemy and BDP, had already cast down the year before.
To my mind the golden period between 88-94, contained all the quintessential ingredients: quality and varied sampling, gymnastic wordplay, experimental new styles and more politicised podium browbeating.
This epoch spawned the rebel-rousing intellectual spit of such artists as Paris and The Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy, whilst giving birth to the Afro centric chest beating of The Jungle Brothers, X-Clan and Poor Righteous Teachers. Also many sub-genres, such as the jazz heavy sampling eulogy of Gangstarr and The UMCs; the P-Funk of Digital Underground and the head-banging metal/rock of The Gravediggaz flourished.
In the UK producers like Simon Harris launched a whole host of quality acts on his Music Of Life label, releasing material by M.C Duke, Overlord X and Hijack. Other notable groups like the Cash Crew and M.C Mell’O’, began to shake of the yolk of their stateside cousins to formulate the beginnings of a British sound.
From the highly influential Native Tongues collective, to the hi-jinx lyrical dexterity of The Pharcyde’s stoner rap; from the west coast Hispanic scene to the much underrated white-boys-done-good 3rd Bass, my series will take a look at some of the best albums from this 6-year period.
Of course there will be notable absences from my series – most obviously the L.A gangster scene, as I just never dug it the actual time and found that apart from the first N.W.A and Ice-T albums, it all got a little derivative and boring.
Also I’ve carefully chosen the more interesting and possibly undiscovered works from these groups where I can – so for example groups like, the already mentioned, B.D.P and Public Enemy released quite a few albums between them during this epoch, but I’ve tried to steer away from their more then adequately covered LPs for perhaps lesser celebrated works.
I’d add that all these records were brought by me on their release, and that my particular interest at the time was predominantly on the east coast scene, though I did collect a whole spread of both UK and west coast records too, just not in the same numbers.
None of these albums are in any particular order, either sequentially or chronologically, they’re just picked at random, so it doesn’t matter if you miss a particular part of this series.
Part 1: K.M.D – ‘Mr.Hood’ (Elektra Records) 1991
Recorded at Calliope Studios.
Side 1 (“Check 1”)
1. Mr.Hood at Piocalles Jewelry/Crackpot (2:49)
2. Who Me? (with an answer from Dr.Bert) (3:32)
3. Boogie Man! (3:49)
4. Mr.Hood meets Onyx (2:15)
5. Subroc’s Mission (4:00)
6. Humrush (3:26)
7. Figure of Speech (3:44)
8. Bananapeel Blues (3:54)
Side 2 (“And ya don’t stop!”)
1. Nitty Gritty (feat Brand Nubian) (5:34)
2. Trial ’n’ Error (4:08)
3. Hard wit no Hoe (3:48)
4. Mr.Hood gets a Haircut (1:17)
5. 808 Man (3:52)
6. Boy who cried Wolf (5:35)
7. Peachfuzz (3:59)
8. Preacher Porkchop (2:42)
9. Soulflexin’ (3:52)
Onyx The Birthstone Kid – Vocals
Subroc – Production and vocals
Zev Love X – Vocals
Stimulated Dummies produced ‘Humrush’ and ‘Boogie Man!’
Executive production by M.C Search and Prime Minister Pete Nice
Cover artwork: Arthur Cohen
Vintage photo by Arthur Leipzig, 1950
K.M.D use one of the iconic images taken by the Brooklyn born and raised photojournalist Arthur Leipzig. The still is taken from his 1940s series that chronicled children’s street games in the inner city of New York.
Leipzig was revered for capturing the human face of the metropolis, baring an honest account of the hardships faced in the deprived areas of New York, yet he also conveyed a certain hope borne out of hardiness and poverty.
“Straight from the island called Long, but we call it strong”
From the shores of Long Island, hauling out of New York’s surrounding areas: K.M.D – an abbreviation that is either referred to as ‘Kausing much damage’ or ‘A positive kause in a much damaged society’, take your pick – were part of the second Native Tongues wave; alongside the likes of Brand Nubian and The Black Sheep.
Originally formed whilst still in collage, the Dumile brothers, better known as Zev Love X and Subroc, along with their sparing partner Rodan – also known as Jade 1 – started rapping together during the late 80s.
Rodan soon slipped off the radar, preferring to finish his education, rather then pursue the dream. His replacement was the gemstone monikered Onyx.
The trio soon caught a break with a guest slot on the 3rd Bass LP ‘The Cactus’ in 1989. Dante Ross, the A & R man and member of The Stimulated Dummies Hip Hop production squad, was impressed enough with their innovative skills and delivery to sign them up to the Elektra label the following year, after the Bass’s M.C Search recommended them.
Zev Love X was of course the early birth of that metal-faced maverick and crusader MF Doom, an alter-ego he later adopted, born out of the tragic loss in 1993, of his brother, Subroc – he was killed in a tragic freeway crossing incident – and at the embittered rage he felt after being sucked into the music industry and then un-ceremoniously spat out.
On ‘Mr.Hood’ you can already hear his undercurrent of cynicism and contempt, articulated in a flam-filled throaty delivery; like an apprentice you can hear him finding his feet.
The debut album caused minor ripples, with its adopted use of racist sound bites, miss-directed use of English learning instructional records from a bygone era, appropriation of much loved kids TV puppets and antagonizing Malcolm X speeches.
K.M.D cleverly assembled a collage of inflammatory and discriminate language, which ran alongside satirist and humorous skits – much in the style of De La Soul and The Leaders of the New School – to create a highly ambitious commentary on their own backyard.
There is a central theme running throughout, with the Mr.Hood character of the title popping up in many memorable sketches and miss-quoted exchanges. His contributions are lifted from an old English language course from the 50s, which throws up all kinds of unpleasant, and quite frankly racist, dialogue – well it comes out that way when manipulated as it is.
Our protagonist’s colloquial tones open up the album, as he goes on a wrecky to the local downtown Long Island jewellery shop (misspelt intentionally on the album I assume) where he bumps into Zev Love X, as he attempts to wrangle with the proprietor over an over-priced watch.
He appears on near enough every other track; with his oddly misconstrued and out of kilter with the modern times queries and insults, which draw sharp breaths of disbelief from the trio, or deride ridicule from the local cast of characters, as he meets them on the street corner or at the barbershop. Also making a surprisingly eye-opening appearance is Sesame Street favourites, Bert and Ernie, who amusingly turn up on the tracks, ‘Who Me? (with an answer from Dr.Bert)’, to look for “little sambo”, and on ‘Humrush”, where they nasality hum along with the group.
Musically the beats are of an R’n’B and soulful nature, with samples crafted from the Isley Brothers – their ‘I Turned You On’ track is sampled on ‘Who Me?’ – Shirly Ellis – her ‘The Nitty Gritty’ is used on ‘Nitty Gritty’ – O C Smith – ‘You Can See Forever’ and ‘The Sounds Of Goodbye’ used on ‘Peachfuzz’ – and The Hassles – ‘4’o’Clock In The Mom’hour Of The Wolf’ is used on ‘Subroc’s Mission.
There’s even a re-appropriated use and borrowing of both De La Souls ‘Potholes In My Lawn’, on the tune ‘Hard Wit No Hoe’, and A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Push It Along’ on ‘Nitty Gritty’.
All these beats are sophisticatedly layered and used quite subtly as a backdrop – you will notice that they are always lower in the mix, and seldom overawe the vocals – and is made-up of 808 drums, Jim Reed-esque organs, tightly packed thumping drum beats, taut wielding guitars, Stax rich bass lines and harmonica.
Any scratching is kept to a bare minimum, with the turntables skills arriving via the acute cutting, mixing and editing of samples and speech; mostly executed by Subroc.
The lyrics are dished out amongst the trio, with each member usually taking it in turns to step to the mic or guest in a solo spot, though Zev does tend to get a larger share then his partners.
A heavily laid-down mix of pro-Muslim rhetoric and protest goes up against the often-whimsical episodes and comical storytelling. Inspired by the teachings of Clarence Smith (known as Clarence 13X), and his splinter group the Five-Percent Nation – an offshoot from the Nation Of Islam – many of the lyrics encapsulate the beliefs and metaphors of this Harlem born sect.
On the opening track ‘Mr.Hood at Piocalles Jewelry Shop/Crackpot’, Zev articulately jams in the syllables, unravelling a kindergarten tale of following the wrong path in life:
“I first met Crackpot in like Head Starts,
And then I knew he wasn’t too head smart cuz as I scribbled in art,
He insisted on standing in the sandbox to collect unknown amounts
of pebbles and stones to throw rocks!’
By the end of the song, Zev bemoans to Mr.Hood about the negative allusions made about his race, and at the depressingly predictable decisions certain black males take: reminding them of their heritage and lack of ambition he almost exasperates:
“We built this place man,
We’re the Gods of the Universe,
Kings and Queens of the planet!”
On the highlight track ‘Who Me?’ Zev rides on the derogatory comments and ethnographical implanted stereotypes of the black race:
“Pigment, is this a defect in birth?
Or more an example of the richness on Earth?
Lips and eyes dominant traits of our race,
Does not take up 95% of one’s face.”
Sibling Subroc, has a more skipping and bouncy terminology to compensate against Zev’s; his own jam ‘Subroc’s Mission’ follows along a loose narrative of street slang and obscure references, whilst the birthstone kid, Onyx, unleashes his torrent of humorous one-liners and staccato stuttering tongue-twisters, over the soul shaking R’n’B horn blasting ‘Boogie Man’:
“Now check it, don’t miss this,
Lick them while I diss this sarcastic bastard,
Of which I’ve been mastered”.
They’re joined by fellow Afrocentric compatriots, Brand Nubians, on the super-rap wordplay riffing chorus-line of ‘Nitty Gritty’. The Nub’s own grandly entitled Grand Puba Maxwell, gives the K.M.D boys a run for their money on the lyrical wordplay:
“God cipher divine as I build on the incline,
Quick to help another, cause I know I’m a get mine.
Build-powers think they’re hard, but they’re killin’ their own kind,
Emphatically no, divine evil got him in his mind”.
Each of the two crews members line-up to show off their dexterity, which revolves around quotes, passages and the teachings of both the Nation of Islam and the offshoot 5-Percenters, name-checking the grand design of their creator, the Pyramids and oppression.
The rest of the album often throws up some unsettling mentions of “white devils” and other uneasy rhetoric, with a heavy use of Malcolm X’s speeches – his famous “he’s a wolf, and you’re a sheep” quote appears on the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ track – from his Nation of Islam days; though it must be pointed out that he eventually publicly left the group, breaking away to form his own splinter group which had a far mellower attitude to the white folk – as long as they were Muslim, of course. But this often cited prose is always counter-acted with the satirical use of cartoon characters and humorous anecdotes.
‘Mr.Hood’ holds up extremely well, proving to be one the more accomplished albums from the period. Those conceptual themes, so essential to many of the Native Tongues collective, shows exceptional moments of creativity and talent.
Unfortunately their follow-up, no messing, album ‘Black Bastards’, didn’t sit well with the label, held-back and consigned to the vaults for nearly a decade. Both its content and provocative imagery – the cover sports a rubber-lipped characterture of a poor unfortunate black fellow with a noose around its neck, waiting in anticipation for someone to fill the blanks in a fatal game of Hangman. An ultimatum of sorts was made, ditch the cover or else! Of course this never happened and the album was never put out until a later reissue package under another label finally made it to the public – I was lucky to get a rather rough bootleg tape version of 5-tracks, but waited until the noughties to finally get my hands on a proper copy.
‘Black Bastards’ omitted much of the more comical interaction and playfulness, replacing the colourful samples catalogue with a more layered backing, and adding a more heavily laden set of lyrics to counter the whimsical postulations of the debut.
The birthstone kid had of course already jumped ship, leaving the brothers alone to deliver the much-anticipated second LP. Subroc took on all the production duties and assemblage of samples and beats; creating so much material that his brother used some of these sessions on his later MF Doom recordings – including most notably ‘Hoe Cakes’ from the seminal cuisine obsessed ‘Mmm Food’ album.
Tragically as I’ve already mentioned, Subroc was killed whilst crossing a freeway in 1993, putting the albums release into further turmoil, though the controversy over the artwork had already put a kibosh on it ever making the stores.
With the album shelved, resigned to cover dust in the vaults, Zev Love X began his wilderness years. It would be 5 more years until he was re-born as the vengeful MF Doom.
Mr.Hood at Piocalles Jewelry/Crackpot
Who Me? (with an answer from Dr.Bert)
Boy who cried Wolf
Check these out –
Brand Nubian – ‘One For All’ (Elektra Record)
Leaders of the New School – ‘T.I.M.E’ (Elektra Records)
Zev Love X solo and collaborative highlights –
MF Doom – ‘Mmm Food’ (Rhymesayers Entertainment)