In 1999, Material released Intonarumori, a sprawling double-album sourced in the seedy underbelly of hip hop stretching from the Wu-Tang Clan and Company Flow all the way back to Schoolly D and the Death Comet Crew. The record was as ugly and twisted as you could hope for. Demented downbeat jams rubbed shoulders with asymmetrical big beat symphonies that owed as much to Tackhead as they did the RZA, while Killah Priest rapped over a beatless illbient soundscape of eerie flutes and droning tambura before a dusted beat drops in at the last minute.
With old skool legends like Rammellzee, Kool Keith, Flavor Flav and DXT (consequently all of which warrant further exploration today) trading verses with the grimiest voices in dead end underground hip hop (including a cadre of figures from the WordSound crew), it's a perfect culmination of the most abject and abrasive tendencies in New York hip hop.
Of course, by the end of the century Material bassist and ringleader Bill Laswell's involvement in rap music had already spanned the better part of twenty years. As covered in Terminal Vibration V, the original incarnation of Material was a downtown post punk group that specialized in bass-heavy punk funk records like Temporary Music 2 and Memory Serves. When they signed with Celluloid Records, the group were tapped to produce a series of rap records for the label.
Ultimately clocking in seven 12" singles (all released in 1982), ranging from electro-tinged slated like Grand Mixer D.St. & The Infinity Rappers' The Grand Mixer Cuts It, The Smurfs' Smurf For What It's Worth and Phase II's The Roxy to odyshape post-p-funk grooves like Fab Five Freddy's Change The Beat and Une Sale Histoire, Tribe 2's What I Like and Futura 2000's The Escapades Of Futura 2000 (which featured an electrofunk backing from The Clash!), these were records of varying quality that nevertheless managed to consistently offer up a left field take on rap (the original undie records?).
By the early 90s, Laswell was producing the sessions for what would become the Jungle Brothers' ill-fated third album, Crazy Wisdom Masters. The unreleased tapes — recently leaked on the web — reveal a druggy, abrasive sound very much in the vein of Intonarumori (albeit informed by a greater sense of demented humor).
The record that finally did surface in 1993, J. Beez Wit The Remedy, may have tightened up the edges and introduced a spoonful of sugar in the shape of downbeat summer jams like Good Lookin' Out and My Jimmy Weighs A Ton, but that only served to highlight the strangeness of the material that was preserved from the initial sessions. Tunes like Spittin' Wicked Randomness and For The Heads At Company Z were complemented brilliantly by the smoked-out, Gaussian blurred beats that the crew had come up with in the intervening years. In either form, it was clearly one of the most unique rap albums of the decade (and incidentally my #1 rap album ever).
In 1999, the same year that Material's Intonarumori hit the shops, the New York-based WordSound label put out a stunning four track EP of recordings from the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (this long before anyone had heard the untouched masters) on the Black Hoodz subsidiary imprint. Hinting at the rougher edges of the initial recordings, Battle Show and Ra Ra Kid were abrasive, asymmetrical slabs of left field big beat hip hop. Naturally, this fit the WordSound aesthetic perfectly, which was a grimy, staggering vision of hip hop informed by dub's bottom end gone lost in the wastelands of the big city. Releasing records by the likes of Spectre, The Bug and Dr. Israel, it was something of a stateside, gutter mirror image of James Lavelle's Mo Wax empire.
Crucially, WordSound was also linked with the Axiom imprint that Bill Laswell was running across town, with Laswell contributing substantial material to WordSound's output — including the Crooklyn Dub Consortium series — while various WordSound personnel would regularly appear on Axiom releases. One such figure was Sensational (aka Torture), an iconoclastic MC who had a profound impact on the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (and by extension J. Beez Wit The Remedy). The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that Laswell introduced the JBs to Sensational while he was freestyling over a Stockhausen record as he was scratching it!
Although not all of his raps survived to the finished product, one can feel the spirit of his contributions in a continuum stretching from Gram Parsons' on The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo to J Dilla's on Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope. Whatever the case may be, he managed to release two excellent records of skewed hip hop as the 90s drew to a close. Loaded With Power, in particular, is a brilliantly claustrophobic slab of decomposed hip hop (think REQ's Frequency Jams) that descends into the same sense of hydroponic psychosis showcased on Tricky's contemporary records (especially The Hell EP, recorded in part with the Gravediggaz).
Meanwhile, across the city DJ Spooky was mirroring trip hop's modus operandi with his own vision of dub-soaked, abstract hip hop, a sound that he called illbient. Importantly, Spooky was not only a DJ and producer but an arch theorist, ruminating on hip hop's sampladelia with the most intricate detail since David Toop started checking the music in the early 80s. His own music stalked the outer rim of what would come to be called dark ambient, with low slung hip hop beats squeezing through the claustrophobia of bass pressure and slow-motion industrial sonix.
Nevertheless, with a keen ear for a hook, Spooky also excelled at the sort of block rockin' hip hop that would fit right in with the likes of EPMD and The Beatnuts (not to mention the jungle of Dillinja and Roni Size). Tunes like Object Unknown, Galactic Funk and Peace In Zaire would have been radio staples in a parallel world where figures like and Rammellzee became superstars and managed to reshape hip hop in their image.
Indeed, Rammellzee is surely one of the key figures in the development of an abstract, avant garde strain of hip hop. Appearing on stage clad in a trench coat with Shockdell during the climactic show at the end of the film Wild Style, he provided one of the most memorable moments of the film, rhyming rapid-fire over an awesome synth sequence with a mic in one hand and a toy machine gun(!) in the other. This sense of the strange carried over into his collaboration with K-Rob and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the epochal Beat Bop (a record that Peter Shapiro once declared the Rosetta Stone of trip hop1), a record that in retrospect sounds about a decade ahead of its time.
The Death Comet Crew record followed swiftly afterwards. A collaboration with Ike Yard's Stuart Argabright and Michael Diekmann (along with Shinichi Shimokawa), the Death Comet Crew realized perhaps the most uncompromising fusion of rap attack and angular post punk sonix yet essayed with Rammellzee rapping over uptempo electroshock beats cooked up by the remainder of the group. These tropes were further explored a couple years later on the Death Command/Lecture 12" collaboration with Shockdell, which culminated in the excellent Missionaries Moving LP by the Gettovetts.
In many ways, Kool Keith was the figure in rap's next generation who picked up the baton of rap's mad scientist. Starting out as the scatological court jester of the Ultramagnetic MC's, he also happened to be by far the greatest MC in the crew, spitting his surreal wordplay (informed by mathematics, non sequiturs and bizarre insults) in singularly nasal fashion.
The Ultramagnetics turned out a trio of excellent LPs — the utterly essential Critical Beatdown, the deeply unpopular (though I've never understood the hate for it) Funk Your Head Up (which nevertheless turned up the epochal Poppa Large) and the bleak hip hop noir of The Four Horsemen — before Keith struck out on a long and singularly weird solo career.
His first move was the Dr. Octagon record (recorded with Dan The Automator), a surreal slab of perverted hip hop whose eerie downbeat atmosphere boasted a startling détente with the contemporary trip hop of Tricky and DJ Shadow (indeed, the record was even licensed by hip downbeat institution Mo Wax).
Similarly, Mo Wax also put out a record by abstract hip hop pioneer Divine Styler. Wordpower 2: Directrix featured Styler rhyming abstract-to-the-max over ice cold breakbeat geometry, which found the MC entering the slipstream of the burgeoning hip hop underground. Of course, he'd laid some of the foundational architecture for that underground in the first place with the first Word Power record (check Tongue Of Labyrinth) in 1989 when he was still aligned with Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate.
In between those two records lies the enigma of Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light, a record that would strain at the confines of any generic definition, let alone rap. Grey Matter, the one moment of more-or-less straight up hip hop, shares space with extended spoken word pieces like Heaven Don't Want Me And Hell's Afraid I'll Take Over and spacious post-Hendrix psychedelia like In A World Of U and Walk Of Exodus. This album is one of the most unexpected moments in rap's winding history, and remains essential listening for curious minds.
Divine Styler's dalliance with rock mirrors Ice-T's controversial thrash metal output with his band Body Count, as well as T's embrace of noise on the recordings that bear his own name. Early records like Rhyme Pays mirror Code Money's crashing productions for Schoolly D, while O.G. Original Gangster runs parallel to the dense noise-collages that The Bomb Squad unleashed behind Public Enemy and Ice Cube (with a hint of Dr. Dre's contemporary productions with N.W.A.).
Public Enemy and N.W.A. both flirted with elements of metal in their music at times (see Public Enemy's She Watch Channel Zero?! and The D.O.C.'s Beautiful But Deadly), a tradition that dated at least back to Run-DMC with Rock Box, King Of Rock and Rock This Way). Def Jam-co-founder Rick Rubin (that notorious heavy metal head) is the other great conduit of rock dynamics into hip hop, a primary example of which is his production of Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill (which also turned untold hordes of rockers onto the sounds of rap).
Moving beyond literal rock 'n roll sonics, the crucial element in this strand of hard-edged hip hop to surface in the 80s was in their harnessing of noise: looped snatches of atonal sound, heavy on-the-one stabs, and huge, skyscraper-crumbling beats. Upon their emergence, Run-DMC's beats hit harder than just about anyone else's and ushered in what would become rap's second era.
The stark minimalism of Rick Rubin's drum machine matrix in productions for the likes of T La Rock, the aforementioned Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and especially LL Cool J honed hip hop down a stripped-down essence of an shouting over block rockin' beats, defining the dominant sound in rap for the next couple years (with Jewel-T's I Like It Loud a particular highlight). Schoolly D and Code Money amplified the sound to a preposterous degree (see P.S.K. "What Does It Mean?"), inadvertently spawning gangster rap in the process.
Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate, who had their own significant strains of hard edged hip hop, produced by the great DJ Aladdin, seemed to pick up where Schoolly D left off. Along with that other forefather of West Coat rap, Too $hort, they laid the foundation for the twin poles of L.A.'s rough/smooth dialectic, with Ice-T's hard-edged beats playing the bad cop to Too $hort's low-slung street funk.
This thread was picked up most infamously by N.W.A., who took Ice-T's hard-hitting beats to a whole new level, spiked with a generous helping of intricate funk programming dished up by Dr. Dre. Starting out in the World Class Wreckin' Cru, sequined purveyors of West Coast electro par excellence (see 1984's Surgery), Dre moved into this heavier style to complement the heavier subject matter being explored by MCs like Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Ren, along with the rest of the posse.
Interestingly, early N.W.A. member Arabian Prince had similarly strong roots in electro before hooking up with the crew, ultimately splitting in 1989 to put out the excellent Brother Arab, a shadowy fusion of computer beats and proto-g-funk.
The D.O.C. turned out possibly the greatest negotiation of Dre's hard-edged production style on Straight Outta Compton and his later g-funk sound with the aptly titled No One Can Do It Better, featuring a dense sonic concrete jungle that found Dre expanding his earlier innovations into the sound that would inform the rest of his career. N.W.A. upped the ante with 100 Miles And Runnin' EP, alongside up-and-coming L.A. crews like Compton's Most Wanted and Above The Law, nearly managing to outdo everything that came before with their final LP, Efil4zaggin.
Efil4zaggin is a production tour de force, featuring Dre's most fully-realized productions ever, it only suffers from a descent into puerile humor and less inspired detours in its second half. It seemed the crew needed Ice Cube around to keep things focused (see AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and the Kill At Will EP), although one wonders what might have gone down if The D.O.C. had never had his car accident and folded into the group to take Cube's place...
Of course, at the center of any talk of hip hop's noisescapes will always be Public Enemy and their production masterminds The Bomb Squad, who tore up the fabric of sound a stitched it all back together again into a dense collage of confrontation. This sound, which utilized hard breakbeats, guitar stabs, vocal exhortations and illogical snatches of sound was the perfect complement to the stentorian vocals of Chuck D and Flava Flav's wise guy antics (who fulfilled a role similar to Kool Keith and Eazy-E in their respective crews). The turntable skills of Terminator X provided that certain x-factor of scratchadelic noise, so crucial to the era, rounding out Public Enemy's unique sonic attack.
The Bomb Squad's approach had a crucial influence on not only the next wave of hard-hitting hip hop but also the feedback-drenched, distorted breakbeat sound taking shape across the Atlantic, a sound that would come to be called big beat. Bomb The Bass were out the gate early with records like Into The Dragon, even continuing to have hard moments (the big beat perfection of Bug Powder Dust) even as they sprawled out into a sort of post-hip hop blues.
However, if there was one crew that shaped this sound (and they don't get nearly enough credit for it), it was Meat Beat Manifesto. The group's mastermind was Jack Dangers, who gradually took their sound from a sort of heavy industrial-inflected, post-Bomb Squad rap (imagine a dystopian, J.G. Ballard-damaged Beastie Boys) into a densely populated breakbeat sound that split the difference between big beat and trip hop (with a healthy dose of dub thrown in for good measure). There was a paranoid aspect to the music, bordering on psychosis, that only became more unhinged as the group pared down to the central figure of Dangers. In 1998 — the same year as Actual Sounds + Voices — Dangers even collaborated with Public Enemy, producing Go Cat Go (along with Danny Saber) for the He Got Game OST.
A lot of big beat leaned heavily on the classic rock side (Fatboy Slim springs to mind), which is not relevant to this discussion, but a lot of it was heavily indebted to the hard beats Bomb Squad-era hip hop. The Prodigy, for one, betrayed Liam Howlett's roots in UK hip hop after their ardkore era had run its course with Music For The Jilted Generation, even collaborating with Kool Keith on the album to follow (1997's Fat Of The Land). Howlett's mix adventure The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One encapsulates this drift perfectly, featuring Public Enemy acolytes Hijack's awesome Doomsday Of Rap. There's that whole lineage of UK rap that fits squarely into this continuum, crews like London Posse, Hi-jack and Ruthless Rap Assassins.
The Chemical Brothers offered the best of both sides of the big beat coin, indulging in blissed out reveries like Where Do I Begin and Asleep From Day (featuring Beth Orton and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, respectively) and Tomorrow Never Knows-inspired sixties psychedelia worship with Setting Sun even as they unfurled feedback-drenched beats like Loops Of Fury, Song To The Siren and Block Rockin' Beats.
Records like Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole seemed to exist in the tradition of instrumental hip hop landmarks like The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel and The 45 King's 45 Kingdom (not to mention Frankie Bones' series of Bonesbreaks records).
Representing this phenomenon at its darkest, although he did have moments that predicted the Brothers (see Shaolin Buddha Finger), is one Jon Saul Kane. As Depth Charge, he combined the hard beats that were big beat's calling card with the oppressive atmosphere and dragging tempos that would come to define trip hop. Combining a pervading sense of sleazy darkness with copious martial arts samples, Depth Charge created a unique sonic vernacular all his own out of whole cloth. Notably, Kane also released the Beat Classic compilation on his own D.C. Recordings imprint, which made scarce hip hop grails available once more (often in instrumental form).
If the equation of bleak soundscapes, heavy drums and martial arts samples sounds familiar, it's probably because a certain East Coast crew happened to be taking a similar approach into the charts around the same time. Master producer the RZA wove desolately downbeat sonic tundras for his cadre of MCs to haunt. Figures like the GZA, Method Man and Ghostface Killah provided the perfect counterpoint to the RZA's visions of doom.
The early Wu-Tang records — records like Liquid Swords, Tical and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — might be as close as rap ever got to post punk sonix within the mainstream drift of 90s hip hop. Strange, decomposed moments like Sub Crazy and 4th Chamber rubbed shoulders with hits like Bring The Pain and C.R.E.A.M., while peripheral Wu-Tang records like Soldiers Of Darkness/Five Arch Angels by Sunz Of Man took this sound to its outer limits. Collaborations with figures like Tricky and Genaside II were scattered amongst the crew's extended discography, while Method Man's Release Yo Delf was even remixed by Liam Howlett of The Prodigy!
One thing that Wu-Tang seemed to lay the foundation for was what would become the modern hip hop underground. I once read an interview with El-P where he explained that when he started out, the underground was merely the seedy underbelly of hip hop culture, whereas it would ultimately break off into its own world that bore less and less resemblance to the body hip hop. The Company Flow and Cannibal Ox projects that he masterminded certainly bear this out, during an era when rap was becoming increasingly electronic.
This the era that southern rap was on the ascendant, and empires like Cash Money and No Limit were firmly established. Records like Lil Wayne's Tha Block Is Hot and Juvenile's 400 Degreez seemed to recreate the density of sampladelia with digital materials, harking back to Mantronix even as they often bore striking resemblance to the atmosphere conjured up by The Prodigy circa Music For The Jilted Generation. There would be an interesting echo of this in Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury half a decade later.
It's rather appropriate that these twin wings of rap would eventually meet in the middle — no matter how unlikely — with Run The Jewels, featuring an elaboration on El-P's production for Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music that resulted in a full-scale collaboration for three albums (and counting). Which takes us right up to the present day, where Kanye West puts out Yeezus — a stark slab of an album featuring EBM/grime/Code Money-inflected hip hop — on Def Jam (the original home of hard beats). Likewise, Vince Staples' Hell Can Wait was also released on the label, sounding like something Terranova might have produced at the turn of the century.
It all ties back to those base materials, the idea of rap conjured up by Material's Intonarumori, a grimy cyberpunk vision of hip hop, where droppin' science is meant to be taken literally. This is the realm of Rammellzee, Dr. Octagon and Hank Shocklee, where mad scientists split the atom again and again, refracting rap's beat matrix through the bleak prism of Metal Box, Liaisons Dangereuses and Front 242. A place where breakbeats collide with guitar stabs, found sounds, rude electronics and pure noise, as MCs unfurl tangled mathematical phrases over the surface. This is the sound of rap at the edge of no control...
TV007: Edge Of No Control
Killer MikeBun B, T.I. & TroubleBig BeastWilliams Street
Meat Beat ManifestoGod O.D. Part 1Mute
Jungle BrothersBattle ShowBlack Hoodz
Public EnemyShe Watch Channel Zero?!Def Jam
Schoolly DP.S.K. "What Does It Mean?"Schoolly D
Kanye WestOn SightDef Jam
Method ManRelease Yo Delf Prodigy MixDef Jam
Ultramagnetic MC'sPoppa Large East Coast MixMercury
Ice-TNew Jack HustlerSire
Ice CubeThe ProductPriority
MaterialAhlill The Transcending Soldier, phonosycographDISK & Jerome "Bigfoot" BraileyFreestyle JourneyAxiom
Lil WayneRemember MeCash Money
Public EnemyGo Cat GoDef Jam
Vince StaplesFireDef Jam
DJ SpookyPrince Poetry & Pharoahe Monch of Organized KonfusionRekonstructionOutpost
It's been three years and three days since I first posted the original Parallax 100, and I've been wanting to delve into the next 100 for some time now. Over the course of the intervening years, I've worked up a little list that I've tweaked here and there but have somehow managed to shape into a sequence as firm as the original rough-and-tumble 100.
The rules remain the same: each of these records have had a critical, sustained impact on me beyond the rush of a great new record, are all killer front-to-back and I still listen to them all the time. Albums, EPs and singles all rub shoulders here in what is — in the spirit of the original list — a deeply personal selection from the log book of my sonic travels.
Take it as a check-it-out list from a 21st century lapsed rave-dancing chrome-plated digital soul man chilling beneath the computer blue palms of the Parallax Gardens, sipping on a glass of cognac while the soundsystem is likely pumping out any of the following sounds on any given day while the Heights does its thing all around.
Once again, each and every one of these is a stone cold killer.
And so we descend...
Mystic exotica from the man who wrote Nat "King" Cole's Nature Boy (he once said that he "heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains"). A concept album shaped around a drifter's encounters on a mysterious island, with gently swaying rhythms cut adrift in an ocean of sound. It's tempting to think of this as one of the very first "head" elpees, arriving just in time for the new decade.
Smoldering Miami soul, like an even more lush and lived-in take on Willie Mitchell's Hi Records output (Al Green, Ann Peebles, et al.). Gwen McCrae's tough vocal presence, already in full force on this her debut LP, is one of the great treasures in soul music. The centerpiece here must surely be the lavishly glazed, smoldering sway of 90% Of Me Is You, which remains one of the great downbeat jams in seventies soul.
Improbably early oddball house from the two Fine Young Cannibals that aren't Roland Gift. The original version comes on like prime Yello, while the remix finds Derrick May stripping the track down to its essential organ/whistle framework (while not forgetting that trumpet!) and injecting a nagging piano vamp into this stop-start motor city groove.
West Coast g-funk spanning ten sides of vinyl like an endless stretch of California highway. There's an almost undisclosed amount of straight up techno running throughout, emerging in the moody surfaces of In Flight and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky, but the heart of the record lies in the blissed out machine soul of Brookside Park and I Wanna Thank You For Steppin' Into My Life. The atmosphere takes me back to endless summer afternoons in the heat of the mid-nineties, daydreaming to similar moods and grooves for hours on end.
Raga-rock hybrid, in which massed choirs, oscillating Moogs and Shankar's sitar stalk the streets of Calcutta. First, you notice the excellent (and utterly unique) covers of rock 'n roll standards Jumpin' Jack Flash and Light My Fire, but it's the haunting downcast moments like Snow Flower and Sagar The Ocean that give the record it's unfathomable depth and dimension.
Icy disco inna new wave style by Yoko Ono, from the last sessions John Lennon ever played on (he was holding these tapes when he was shot). The surreal mood seems to predict both Yello's most atmospheric sides and David Lynch's later cinematic adventures, but Lennon's violent rubberband guitar solo still sounds wholly alien. It's all thoroughly in the tradition of the Plastic Ono Band records, with It Happened and Hard Times Are Over both incredibly moving expressions of a woman coming to terms with devastating loss and vowing to soldier on no matter what the future holds.
Well into his late-period career as a baroque pop crooner, Nat King Cole reunites with his original trio for some cool jazz action in a dream after-hours jam session. The group work their way through standards like It's Only A Paper Moon and a killer rendition of Duke Ellington's Caravan, while revisiting Get Your Kicks On Route 66 and even cutting the opening song from Tin Men (Sweet Lorraine).
The birth of soukous, the Congo's beloved post-rumba musical export. In L'Orchestra African Fiesta (the group Docteur Nico formed with Tabu Ley Rochereau), his finger-picking style came to define the sound of the genre. This record the eighth entry in an flurry of LPs that emerged in the late sixties to chronicle contemporary Congolese music, three of which were devoted to Nico and remain the easiest way to get ahold of the man's music. The whole set should be reissued — in a spirit similar to the William Onyeabor box set put out by Luaka Bop a few years back — with gorgeous sleeve art intact.
Instrumental reggae 7" crafted by man from the EastHerman Chin-Loy around the singular Melodica stylings of Augustus Pablo. Its smeared exotica stylings and off-kilter skank always make me think of The Man Who Would Be King and Michael Caine and Sean Connery's long journey through the Khyber Pass and beyond.
Unfettered head to head guitar duel between two luminaries of MPB, wherein loose strings are bent into soaring fractals as guitars tango like clockwork in the sunset. Transcending even their most stellar individual work, the duo flutter between the lush calm of Nega and the wild careening frenzy of Taj Mahal. The fact that the vocals seem almost improvised, an afterthought even, only adds to the charm of this loose, freewheeling double-album.
Electronic hip hop epic in widescreen. MC Tee's trademark rapid-fire raps hit hard before flipping into sing-song mode for the chorus, all of it backed by impressively futuristic production from Kurtis Mantronik. You also get an extended mix thrown into the bargain, along with a dub version — which might be the man's absolute finest — in which the track's filmic descending spiral gets chopped into strange shapes before shocking you with a cyborg rap in the climax.
Chicago juke. I first crossed paths with Rashad's music via DJ Godfather's Twilight 76 and Juke Trax labels (this within the context of Detroit ghetto tech electro) back when I was living at the 1808, and I've kept an ear tuned in ever since. I was pleasantly surprised when he hooked up with Hyperdub a couple years back for both the Rollin' EP and this record, a true masterwork. Hypnotic synths soar over a bed of furious drum programming throughout, as slow-motion raps and bottomless bass twist and turn within. The man was a virtuoso and his music still sounds like the future.
Grachan Moncur's great galleon of soul-inflected free jazz, coming out of left field on the storied BYG imprint (arguably the genre's spiritual home). Moncur's trombone flourishes glide gracefully over the loose, swinging rhythms of Andrew Cyrille and Alan Silva's wide open double bass as he trades lines with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell and Archie Shepp. It's the sound of wide-open spaces and crystal clear skies, full of freedom and possibility.
Stranded in the south of France, The Rolling Stones lose themselves in the basement studio at Nellcôte and manage to wring magic from the whole affair. Careening from the dirty barroom rock of Rip This Joint into the raw Clavinet funk of Ventilator Blues and spending a satisfying amount of time with Gram Parsons-inspired country rock numbers, this band of dandy rogues turn out a ramshackle masterpiece that manages to capture the very essence of rock 'n roll.
Sun-warped post-Beach Boys blues. When You're Sad is a joyously aching teenage daydream with Alex and Rudi's gently soaring harmonies drenched in wild-eyed feedback. Meanwhile, the b-side's Haunting offers up an unresolved slab of guitar melancholy that seems to lay the blueprint for the whole shoegaze endeavor and by extension predicts the sound of nineties indie rock about four years ahead of schedule.
The birth of canyon folk, featuring songwriter Joni Mitchell front and center with virtuoso fretwork and that voice. In a bold move, Mitchell decided to rely entirely on new material rather than fall back on songs that she'd already provided to other artists (as was common practice for singer-songwriter albums at the time). The results are stunning, with a rich thematic continuity running through the record even as individual songs like Marcie and Cactus Tree glisten like gems in their own right, epitomizing everything that makes Mitchell's music such a treasure.
The Burning Spear's debut album, full of deeply spiritual roots music. Bottomless bass and rock hard riddims play out in stately slow-motion while Winston Rodney's haunting vocals hover above it all like a ghostly mirage. Songs like Ethiopians Live It Out and Fire Down Below ride tough rocksteady beats into the sunset, while the deeply moving Creation Rebel and Down By The Riverside are among some of the most gorgeous roots music you'll ever hear.
The final Funkadelic record, where all previous electrofunk innovations are taken to their illogical conclusion. P-funk's engine is deconstructed, the parts spread out across the floor of a Detroit garage while the band methodically rebuilds them into freaky malfunktioning warped machines. The deliciously bizarre Funk Gets Stronger (featuring Sly Stone), seems to rev its engine only to reel it back down again in a nagging stop/start groove, while the title track re-routes their early guitar freakouts through the new wave hall of mirrors before wiring it all up for the next decade's dancefloors.
Dutch techno par excellence from the inimitable Dobre and Jamez, in one of their myriad guises (Jark Prongo, Klatsch!, Tata Box Inhibitors, Chocolate Puma, etc. etc. etc.). The carnivalesque wild ride of Spectacle De Foire is undoubtedly the centerpiece here, but the Moroder-inflected digital disco pulse of Houp! seems to contain the germ of house music's next ten years in its gloriously geometric groove.
Algerian raï from a true pioneer of the form. Cheb Khaled plays the cosmopolitan desert mystic, singing his winding, hypnotic chansons over sun-glazed synths and spidery machine rhythms in a stunning roots 'n future mash up that defies its period of origin with striking clarity. He'd go on to international stardom and eventual political exile in France, but this record — released smack in the middle of the eighties — remains Khaled's crowning achievement.
Pre-eminent post punk malcontents lose themselves in the studio, intoxicated by the twin experimentations of krautrock and dub, in the process deconstructing the album format into three 12" singles packaged in a metal reel-to-reel film cannister. The ten-minute Albatross creeps out the soundsystem like a ghostly steamroller, Jah Wobble's ten-ton bass kicking you in the chest, while Keith Levene's searing guitar shoots sparks across its surface and John Lydon wails deep into the abyss. And that's just the first side...
Iconoclastic chanteuse Brigitte Fontaine blends sophisticated songcraft with Areski's droning inflections (inspired by music of the Algerian musicians that he grew up around) in a haunting set of skewed chansons. Les Borgias and Ragilia are shot through with a distinct North African inflection, while Il Pleut Sur La Gare and L'abeille come on like Medieval folk ballads. The duo also touch on their jazz roots in Déclaration De Sinistre and venture into acid folk with L'engourdie, a gently psychedelic reverie. Indispensable.
Brittle art techno masterpiece. BDP's deep space sonics remain in full effect throughout this sprawling set of electronic head music, touching on everything from skittering techno to ambient house and the abstract hip hop that had informed their music since day one when they first set to work cloistered in the mystery of Black Dog Towers. The esoteric current running through the trio's work — that ancient quality haunting the music's shadows even as they pushed headlong into the future — inhabits every corner of this record and sounds like the soundtrack to some secret society in lunar orbit.
Siren song in 3D. Sumptuously produced headphone r&b laid down by Da Bassment cohort Darryl Pearson and masterfully inhabited by star-in-the-making Mýa. From that period when a slowjam would casually sound like a UFO landing in your backyard. Every element, from the crisp beats to the blurred instrumentation and of course Mýa's wistful multi-tracked harmonies, is meticulously placed and blissful to the ear.
Lazing Texas rap from Devin The Dude, featuring guest appearances from the likes of Scarface, Spice 1 and the rest of his old crew, the Odd Squad. It's a supremely lush and mellow LP, to my mind surpassing even the excellent Fadanuf Fa Erybody as the finest full-length on Rap-A-Lot. A laidback, homegrown live sound prevails throughout, with deep blunted bass, smooth guitar runs, synth strings and dusted bleeps enveloping Devin's loose-limbed raps like a twilight mist.
Discomix reggae cover version of the Dazz Band's immortal Let It Whip, self-produced by the great Derrick Harriott, which somehow manages to surpass the sterling original. The version on the flip is reworked by Paul "Groucho" Smyke, who also dubbed King Sunny Adé's Ja Funmi into oblivion around the same time. The sumptuously pulsing bassline quickly grows hypnotic as myriad shards of sound reverberate across the soundscape, marking this out as the neon-bathed cousin to the x-ray dubs of Lloyd Barnes on Horace Andy's Dance Hall Style.
Definitive jazz funk produced by the Mizell Brothers during their blazing arc of seventies studio excursions. This one is without a doubt my favorite, featuring veteran key master Johnny Hammond tinkling the Rhodes over rock hard rhythms and soaring ARPs while that odd spectral chorus weaves its way in and out of the ether. The sound of the city.
Candy-coated ardkore from the man with the golden haircut, recorded well before he turned to the darkside and pounded the jungle scene into submission with his techstep brethren. The Full Mix rides tumbling breakbeats into the trancelike bridge before collapsing into a blissed out lovers rock chorus, while The L Mix brings hard-edged hoover stabs into the equation before exploding into the ecstatic piano-led climax.
My absolute favorite era of The Beach Boys is the six year period spanning between Smiley Smile and Holland. There's a strange charm and paradoxical rough-hewn smoothness to the sound that seems of a piece with both Lee "Scratch" Perry's sun-glazed productions at the Black Ark and latterly The Beta Band's oeuvre. The only trouble is, most of these albums are fairly patchy (thanks Mike Love). The one exception is Sunflower, in which Dennis Wilson emerges a master songwriter in his own right, kicking off the whole affair with Slip On Through's insouciant counter-clockwise groove and striking yet again with the immortal ballad Forever. Brian Wilson's presence remains in full force as well, lending his touch to the gorgeous sunstruck reverie Dierdre (co-written with Bruce Johnston), All I Wanna Do's ethereal drift and the ambient surf music of Cool, Cool Water.
Cheo Feliciano cut his teeth in legendary groups like Tito Rodriguez's Orchestra, the Joe Cuba Sextet and the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra before gradually descending into drug addiction and bad times. After a stretch of rough years and hard miles, Cheo kicks heroin for good and finally makes his record. A delicately crafted masterstroke, it finds him confidently working through a peerless set of Tite Curet Alonso songs like Mi Triste Problema and Poema De Otoño with unmatched depth and splendor.
Nocturnal electronic jazz from Detroit whiz kid Matt Chicoine. Standing outside the boundaries of any one scene or genre, he unfurled a number of exquisite delights on an unsuspecting public at the turn of the century, none better than this astonishing five track EP. Kicking off with the oddball deep house of Soul Clap 2000 before launching into Get There Tonight's off-kilter boogie and the bebop stomp of Landscaping, it's not long before he's easing into the half-lit downbeat moves of Insomnia In Dub and Four Ways Of Saying Goodbye's multi-part jazz funk excursion. A crucial record for me at the time, it's stayed with me ever since.
An utterly out of time acid-soaked masterpiece, existing in the netherworld between post punk and a living, breathing psychedelia. The Blue Orchids splintered off from the mighty Fall, and in the process stretched that band's speedfreak intensity out into a wild, pantheistic celebration of the great outdoors. Una Baines' ghostly keyboard mirages are the crucial factor in these eerie, widescreen sonic tapestries. The mood here curiously similar to On The Silver Globe, and I've often thought that this album could soundtrack the haunting ritual beach scenes from the first half of the film.
The soundtrack to your nightmares. Mark Arcadipane — the man behind The Mover — wrote the blueprint for rave hardcore with Mescalinum United's We Have Arrived and a sequence of uncompromisingly bleak 12"s that surfaced on his Planet Core Productions (yeah... PCP) imprint. This double-pack combines both volumes of the Frontal Sickness EPs into one blazing package of sonic extremism, ground zero for the zombie sound that would come to be called gloomcore.
Stone cold blues from the Mississippi Delta. Skip James' music remains deeply unconventional, full of shadow and mystery, marking it out as utterly unique even within the rich terrain of early blues recordings. Still, there's quite a bit of weary joy to be found hidden within this record's grooves, even if only in the promise of salvation after a lifetime of hardship and tragedy. Hope against hope, in other words.
Cymande — featuring musicians from Guyana, Jamaica and Saint Vincent — are the sort of group that could have only formed in a town like London. Merging Jamaican Nyabinghi rhythms (the bedrock on which reggae was formed) and American funk, the crew forged a wholly unique sound that on first listen seems almost too good to be true. The glorious rock hard beat of Bra rubs shoulders here with gentle moments like Listen and the slow-burning groove of Getting It Back, while the eleven-minute Dove finds the group stretching out into a rolling longform jam. There ought to be a copy in every home.
A particularly elegant slice of slinky UK garage, Love Bug's bionic two-step groove seems to expand on both the liquid garage sound of Roy Davis Jr. and Timbaland's android r&b. Diva Lynsey Moore's vocals get chopped and twisted through the tune's very fabric, in which every piece clicks like percussion in the clockwork machinery of this sultry digital juke joint jam.
Uptight New Yorkers cut loose in widescreen, stretching the impenetrable atmosphere of Fear Of Music to its outer limits as they mainline on African rhythms and the information overload of modern America. Each track is a dense web of sound spun from layers of throbbing bass, drifting synths, strange guitars and those rolling, polyrhythmic beats. Hard to believe the album predates the sampler, so intricate is its multifaceted construction. Indeed, you can hear the germ of nineties music (and beyond) buried deep within these unfurling, technicolor grooves... it sounds a lot like a blueprint for the future.
Eighties electro-afrobeat monster jam, with Fela Kuti's right-hand man in the driver seat, rocking the drum kit with singular style and finesse. N.E.P.A comes on like one massive arcing groove stretched over two sides of vinyl, each housing a song in two versions (with both an original and a dub) that probe different aspects of the same central theme. Sounding a lot like a pirate radio transmission from the distant future, this is the original groove that won't stop.
Digital dancehall! This the instrumental companion piece to Wayne Smith's epochal Sleng Teng LP, produced by Prince Jammy, which famously brought reggae into the computer age. Taking Sleng Teng's brittle electronic rhythms into the spacious realm of dub, these tracks embody a sort of machine perfection that one usually expects from places like Cologne or Detroit, but slackened and smoked out with a singular Jamaican flavor.
The Three Degrees hook up with Philadelphia International after their appearance in The French Connection, resulting in a vocal masterpiece of lush Philly soul. The ladies' breathless harmonies deftly swoop and glide through the gossamer orchestration of Gamble & Huff's Sigma Sound, their exquisite production ringing clear as a bell. You can hear disco's wings begin to spread in the driving pulse of Dirty Old Man, while in If And When's epic balladry and the swirling A Woman Needs A Good Man their pathos is undeniable. You also get When Will I See You Again, quite simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
A joyful hip hop symphony composed by the late great J Dilla just before his untimely departure from planet Earth. Slicing and dicing all manner of loops and breaks from his seemingly bottomless crates of arcane records and reconstructing them into rock hard beats and interlocking movements, he created his unassailable masterpiece: a boundless, wildly shifting song cycle that feels like a glorious tribute to life itself.
Dub techno par excellence. As difficult as it is to narrow it down to just one record from the dynamic duo of Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, for me Quadrant Dubjust edges out Lyot Rmx for the #1 spot. Its two elongated tracks — spanning one to each side — last the better part of forty minutes, dubbing Round One's soul-inflected I'm Your Brother deeper and deeper into shimmering cascades of four-dimensional sound. Over twenty years later, it still sounds like the future.
In a further elaboration on the towering eighteen minutes of Tago Mago's Halleluwah, Can submerge their mercurial kraut-funk deep into the swampy voodoo of their Inner Space studio and surface with a spooked out set of seven songs teeming with otherworldly atmosphere. The proto-world music of Spoon sets a rhythm box against a gently swaying, lopsided rhythm, while I'm So Green showcases the group's pop sensibilities at their absolute finest. The spectral tango of One More Night even points the way toward Future Days and beyond.
Offbeat slacker blues debut from the great Okie troubadour, this one goes down like the smoothest bourbon at sunset. Containing the original, superior versions of After Midnight and Call Me The Breeze, it's a veritable treasure trove of exquisite songwriting. That crawling rhythm box is a particularly far-sighted touch, putting Cale in shared company with Kraftwerk and Sly Stone as the first artists to put electronic rhythms on record. In the context of the hazy dreamtime sparkle of songs like River Runs Deep and Crying Eyes, it's almost as if they're springing naturally from the surrounding terrain itself. A casual masterpiece.
The a-side cover version of Jacob Miller's Augustus Pablo-helmed lovers rock standard is a post punk proto-trip hop masterpiece, submerging Lorita Grahame's torch song vocals within a murky stew of towering bass, metallic percussion and film samples from John Carpenter's Escape From New York. The flipside's Looks Like We're Shy One Horse, meanwhile, mines Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West over an apocalyptic groove skanking endless into some dystopian horizon as a blood red sun sets in the distance.
Remain In Light's (edgier, younger and slightly mad) sister record takes its forward-thinking fourth world moves further yet into proto-sampladelia and
the avant-garde. Side one is stuffed with non-stop crazy rhythms: The Jezebel Spirit is a left field disco staple for good reason, spooling an actual on-air exorcism out over a frenetic rhythm matrix, while Regiment's stone cold funk is something like the interzone flipside of Once In A Lifetime. Side two stretches out into pure atmosphere, its individual tracks seeming to materialize from the shadows before drifting off again into the night, spectral and sublime.
A quasi-compilation pulling together a whole raft of choice instrumentals from contemporary 12"s and unreleased material, this record offers a stunning glimpse into the mind of Larry Heard. Bookended by the genre-defining Can You Feel It — the song that took Europe by storm during the Second Summer Of Love — and Mystery Of Love (which has the distinction of being Larry Levan's favorite song of all time), the record also ventures into the deep space ambient house magic of Stars, Bye Bye's sleek electronic soul and the proto-acid madness of Washing Machine. Crucial in every respect.
Exceptionally lush and melancholy jazz for big band, orchestrated and conducted by the late great Duke Ellington. Moody and spacious, the record evokes lonely nights, long moonlit walks and downbeat solo blues. Melancholy meditations like Solitude and Willow Weep For Me are swathed in layers of sumptuous atmosphere, while wistful reveries like The Sky Fell Down and Prelude To A Kiss overflow with the promise of romance. There's even a solitary vocal showcase in Autumn Leaves, featuring the vocals of Ozzie Bailey intertwined with Ray Nance's weeping violin, a haunting duet in a lonely place.
Steeped in nuclear dread, economic uncertainty and post-Watergate blues, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson casually laid down the definitive late-seventies soul album. I was turned onto this record by Moodymann's set at the first DEMF, which he opened with We Almost Lost Detroit (a rumination on the meltdown at Three Mile Island). I was blown away and simply had to track down the album, which includes songs ranging from Under The Hammer's synth-smeared funk to the downbeat blues of Delta Man and everything in between, each of them rising slowly from languid pools of soul.
The definitive statement in bleak mid-nineties hip hop, that era when the RZA's sphere of influence seemed to spread across the entirety of the genre. Showcasing the peerless words and sonix of Prodigy and Havoc, the loping unresolved piano figure of the epochal Shook Ones Part II is matched here by the more elusive first part, sounding like something that sprang from the same New York shadows that Terranova was just beginning to essay from across the Atlantic. You ain't a crook, son... you just a shook one.
The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers' eyes, sings Bowie as the record opens, setting the stage for his transition from plastic soul crooner to fearless sonic trailblazer. Using his recent forays into Philly Soul as a jumping off point into churning proto-disco rhythms — shot through with the motorik drive of German groups like Neu! and his avowed love of Kraftwerk — he kicks off with the ten-minute multi-part rush of the title track and closes with a heartbreaking rendition of Wild Is The Wind, touching on everything from the insouciant funk of Golden Years to TVC 15's robotic pop in between.
I'm a huge fan of Santana's music throughout the seventies, all of those excursions into space rock and interstellar jazz, but the raw frenzy of the debut remains my absolute favorite. This is where it all began, with the same band that rocked Woodstock within days of this record's release. Songs like Soul Sacrifice and the cover version of Babatunde Olatunji's Jingo are masterful in their building tension and release, while Evil Ways remains one of the great jukebox tunes of all time. If you dig the sound of the Hammond B3, then you need to get down with this record..
This is where Janetgoes deep. There's a breadth and depth to this record that one usually expects to find in an Erykah Badu or Moodymann LP — you can really get lost in this record's grooves — but it's really just a logical progression of everything she'd been up to since the days of Control. Jam & Lewis square their production finesse in the age of Timbaland and — with the help of Q-Tip and a young J Dilla — unfurl a set of tracks that are both state-of-the-art yet at the same time imbued with the timeless gravity of 70s soul, remaining right at home in the present all along.
Released hot on the heels of his excellent Visions LP, this is my absolute favorite moment from Robert Owens (the voice of house music). Teaming with master producer David Morales and Satoshi Tomiie on keys, this seems to be an attempt to recreate the dynamic of their epochal Tears (masterminded by one Frankie Knuckles) in sprawling widescreen. The Original Def Mix is a moody dancefloor burner of the highest caliber, but The Glamorous Mix takes it to another level altogether, where driving strings and organ runs are woven into an echoic epic over which Owens' voice soars.
Grime taken out to die in the frozen wastelands. Crafting a surprisingly varied landscape within this icy realm, Wiley roams between the crystalline garage moves of Doorway and the bleak tundra vision of the title track, essaying the almost straight up hip hop shapes of opener The Game and the shimmering r&b inflections of Special Girl along the way. I've always preferred Thin Ice to Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner, which is the classic grime LP by critical consensus (and a classic it is), but this ploughs a deeper furrow and remains my absolute favorite grime record.
Neon-lit bedroom funk from Miles alumni James Mtume, taking seventies cosmic jazz into the computer age. This is without a doubt the greatest electro boogie LP of them all, boasting computer blue dancefloor burners like Green Light and Your Love's Too Good To Spread Around, while both mixes of Juicy Fruit remain twin pillars of atmospheric machine soul and a font of inspiration for so much music (from Dâm-Funk and SA-RA to Timbaland and The Neptunes) that I hold dear.
When weaving this record's captivating pan-global menagerie of sound, Yusef Lateef looked East for inspiration, predating just about everyone — from The Beatles to John Coltrane and even Sun Ra — in his exploration of the wider world's sonic shades and timbres. The Plum Blossom employs Chinese globular flute in it's off-kilter shuffle, while Three Faces Of Balal features a notably stripped-down exercise in rhythm. Rudy Van Gelder's peerless production imbues these sonic excursions with an almost exotica-esque sense of space, remarkable within the context of contemporary jazz.
The There's A Riot Going On of swingbeat, Sons Of Soul is a lushly multi-textured record that makes for a dense, absorbing listen. Some strange turns are taken in the shifting corridors of this record's jazzed-out r&b (see the almost subconscious funk of Tonyies! In The Wrong Key), even shading into the epic with the closing ten minutes of the Anniversary/Castleers suite. I can't think of many records that I get as much pleasure listening to, regardless of the mood I'm in (indeed, Fun may be the most honest song title you'll ever come across).
FSOL's sterling debut, featuring ten tracks of brilliantly vivid, four-dimensional breakbeat techno. A brace of tunes from the Pulse EPs get paired with new material like Expander and the epochal Papua New Guinea, rounding out a deft song cycle shot through with unmistakable cyberpunk vibes. From Buggy G. Riphead's striking sleeve art to the paranoid interludes and Central Industrial's slow-motion widescreen cascade, the whole thing conjures up imagery of Neuromancer, Blade Runner and Cabaret Voltaire in its long flowing corridors of Chiba City blues.
Exceedingly warped, fathoms deep disco on the legendary West End imprint. Forrrce unleash a proto-rap party jam with an unforgettable whiplash bassline tearing through its very fabric, while François Kevorkian works his inimitable magic on the flip, stripping the track down to its frame and rebuilding it like a ramshackle mine cart before running it off the rails through the illogical machinery of Jamaican dub.
Weird reggae forged by its greatest band and produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry at the peak of his powers. The title track is one of the finest dub outings ever, running down a languid skank before collapsing into a rock-hard slow-motion climax, while the Tell Me Something Good cover version blows away everyone I've ever shown it to. Throughout, Scratch coaxes the swirling sounds of the Black Ark into a singular negotiation of reggae roots and the deepest chasms of futuristic dub.
Of all the records to spring from N.W.A.'s axis, this is hands down my favorite. A dense, varied record, full of twists and turns like the liquid funk of the title track and the skittering fast-forward groove of Portrait Of A Masterpiece, it even features the entirety of N.W.A. on The Grand Finalé. Dr. Dre's ace production splits the difference between the hard edges of Straight Outta Compton and the nimble funk of Efil4zaggin, while The D.O.C. out-raps everybody else in the crew. No One Can Do It Better indeed.
Cosmic canyon folk from ex-Byrd and CSN main man David Crosby, recorded in San Francisco and featuring local luminaries like Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia (along with further members of Jefferson Airplane, Santana and The Grateful Dead) and a few L.A. colleagues for good measure (including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell). This ad-hoc supergroup shines in Cowboy Movie's low-slung, eight-minute canyon funk jam (a chronicle of CSNY's dissolution as seen through the prism of The Wild Bunch) and the murky tumble of What Are Their Names' abstract, blazing protest, while gentle, otherworldly moments like Traction In The Rain and Orleans quietly steal the show with a shimmering magic all their own.
Sparkling proto-new wave from a four piece group of hard-dreaming CBGB luminaries. Picking up where West Coast acid rockers like The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane left off, Television reshape yesterday's wild psychedelia into a contemplative sonic menagerie — with just a hint of punk attitude — that ushered in a whole new era for rock.
Pastoral Krautrock from a large, shifting group of musicians centering around the vision of Florian Fricke. Gentle instrumental sketches like Kleiner Krieger and Morgengruß set the stage, gradually giving way to the title track's lush, multi-part longform jam — featuring the ethereal vocals of Djong Yun — that dominates the entirety of side two. The common thread running throughout is a bucolic sense of tranquility and near-telepathic interplay between the musicians.
Two holdovers from eighties new wave are joined by younger techno DJ Darren Emerson and dive headfirst into dance music, sculpting a moody masterpiece of electronic noir. Karl Hyde's rock dynamics are crucial to the record's singular tone, with the overcast alternative rock stylings of Tongue and Dirty Epic's subterranean guitar moves utterly unique within the context of nineties dance. This is "binary skyline" music, to borrow a phrase from Snakes, shimmering on a cloudy horizon.
Twelve-inch post-disco dancefloor action from synth wizard Wally Badarou, lifted from his excellent Echoes LP of the same year (recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau). The Vine Street mix by Paul "Groucho" Smykle is the absolute best version of Chief Inspector (and it can only be found here!), gliding along with percussion inspired by D.C. go-go and slipping into a zero gravity moonwalk for its dreamlike refrain. Tying together strands stretching from disco to post punk, dub to hip hop and even the nascent house music, Badarou winds up with an eerily prescient hallucination of the next twenty years of club music.
Late sixties minimalism from one of the prime architects of the form. Absorbing the hypnotic electric pulse of Indian classical music as a prime influence, Riley treats the organ as a proto-synthesizer and plays every note by hand, becoming the human sequencer as he multi-tracks myriad layers of keyboards, harpsichord, tambourine and goblet drum into a cycling electronic ballet on the sidelong title track. The flipside's marathon workout, Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band, trades kinetic flow for gently droning arcs, with Riley's improvised saxophone dancing across its surface.
Jefferson Airplane are the embodiment of radical sixties counterculture's interface with rock and are the obvious precursor to seventies German groups like Amon Düül II (the commune that coalesced into a band) and Ash Ra Tempel. This 7" single stands as their greatest merger of righteous joy and anger into a triumphant firebrand vision of acid rock, continuing the everyone sing at once (preferably in a different key) and let the chips fall where they may late-period sloppy proto-punk vocal style that they'd pursued since Volunteers. Mexico, possibly the greatest song about smuggling marijuana into the country, expands on the spirit of songs like We Could Live Together, while Have You Seen The Saucers is quintessential West Coast space rock, setting the stage for Paul Kantner's Jefferson Starship and Blows Against The Empire.
Sleazy new wave glam rock, where punk meets disco in the red light district. You can see where Duran Duran got most of their ideas (executing the whole Sex Pistols meets Chic equation years before it had even occurred to Nick Rhodes and Simon Le Bon), and I've often thought that you can hear a bit of Royal Scam-era Steely Dan in the jazz-tinged grooves of Wish You Were Black and Television. An utterly original sound in evidence throughout, this record deserves to be be more widely heard (and imitated).
Cyberpunk jungle. Taking in the sonic skyline of Vangelis' Blade Runner Blues and sampling a snatch of Roy Batty's "tears in the rain" speech from the film's conclusion, Dillinja runs riot with his trademark depth charge bass bombs and speaker-shredding breaks to create one of jungle's all-time greatest rollers. The two tracks on the flip pursue the same path of shape-shifting, aerodynamic drum 'n bass intensity, rounding out a three-track set of superbly engineered breakbeat noir.
Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer may have gestured ominously in the general direction, but this monolithic, towering LP was the de facto birth of heavy metal. Slowing hard rock down to a robe-shrouded crawl, Black Sabbath injected a blood-soaked sense of the occult into their music while everybody ran for cover. A key outpost in rock's grappling with James Brown's elegant, funky beats inna caveman stylee, this stone tablet is cherished by rock, rave and hip hop heads alike (just ask Ice-T and Joey Beltram). Containing five ruminations on slow-motion fury, for me the debut remains their finest hour.
Mande music snaking its way through the desert sands of Mali, cooked up by the region's finest band and fronted by the inimitable Salif Keita, whose piercing wail cuts through the dense instrumentation like a knife. The towering title track rocks a dusty downbeat rhythm before breaking into a double-time frenzy in its coda, while Kandja refracts Caribbean music back across the Atlantic in mutant form. Balla closes the record on a gentle organ-led shuffle (think Booker T. & The M.G.'s), with a vibrant repartee between the band as they ride off into the sunset together.
Endless cosmic jam by an ad-hoc supergroup of Krautrock luminaries, the results edited down into a series of five spaced-out kosmische LPs (of which this is the first) by Rolf-Ulrich Kaiserwithout the knowledge of the band. This is true outer space/inner space music, with one extended track sprawling across each side. The opening Galactic Joke is a pulsing excursion into deep sonar architecture — its guitars arcing gracefully into oblivion — while the flipside's Cosmic Joy inhabits a dark textural sprawl that ultimately spawns a ten-ton bassline. The record should come with a spacesuit.
Brian Eno once called this the most important record ever made, and when you hear it booming over a nightclub soundsystem at full volume it's pretty hard to argue. Pulsing machine music produced by Giorgio Moroder, this forward-thinking computer disco remains wildly influential. And then there's the matter of Donna Summer, who takes the whole affair to another plane altogether, her voice soaring in graceful arcs around that central rhythm and putting all manner of would-be divas to shame in the process. This is hardcore.
For my money, the greatest late-summer hip hop LP ever. East meets West in this extended song cycle about two cousins from opposite coasts spending a summer together in the city that never sleeps. If you imagine a rap record produced by Roy Ayers, you wouldn't be too far off. Even the skits are good. This always takes me back to August of '95 when my brother and I were refinishing a deck for walking-around-money, tripping out under the blazing sun with Jammin' z90 coming through like a mirage in the Santee heat... Born To Roll, the man said.
The perfect encapsulation of Nu Groove's half-lit, anything goes vision of house music, where reggae, disco, ambient and acid rub shoulders on the dancefloor and nobody misses a beat. Of course it's hard to choose just one Bobby Konders 12", but this one's the reason the man's a household name where I come from. From the rolling pianos of Let There Be House to the searing 303 lines of Nervous Acid, Massai Women's eerie Serengeti atmospherics and the sprawling deep house epic The Poem, it's an unmissable EP of off-the-wall New York house.
This is the sound of my youth. I could have picked any of their first three LPs, but this one's dubbed out, rootsical bass architecture marks it as my absolute favorite. The voodoo calm of Karmacoma, Weather Storm's invisible soundtrack, Mushroom Vowles, Tracy Thorn's mournful croon, the smoked out Light My Fire cover version, Horace Andy's x-ray falsetto, the depth-charging 303 basslines, Nicolette's serenading of the spirits and Tricky's dread magic — still in full force at this point — all blur into the perfect prescription of blunted Bristol blues and a true smoker's delight.
Mingus' Impulse! debut finds him righteously at home in the house that Trane built, working through a series of four complex suites inspired by Duke Ellington that — with all apologies to Count Basie — seem to take big band jazz into the atomic era. Mingus was so impressed with Bob Theile's in-house production that in the liner notes he proclaimed that his fans could throw out all of his old records because this was the sound he was after all along!
Skeletal, dubbed out reggae from the concrete jungle. Black and white newsprint paranoia reigns supreme throughout, not unlike a remake of The Parallax View set in contemporary Kingston. Spying Glass, later covered by Massive Attack, drapes gutter-glazed synths over its stately, slow-motion crawl. Horace Andy's lonely falsetto is cloaked in layers of desolate production courtesy of Lloyd Barnes, who stretches these solarized riddims out into echo-chambered infinity.
Dark and moody electro dubbed out into a mirage on the fabled Cutting Records imprint. Hashim advances from the sparse, crisp edges of his epochal electro jam Al-Naafiysh The Soul into deeply blunted terrain, the sound of which seems to strangely overlap with that of certain late-period post punk records like 400 Blows' Declaration Of Intent in its slap-bass fueled approximation of William Gibson's visions of the future. This always makes me think of riding around with Snakes back in high school, bombing down the lonely corridors of Grantville and Mission Gorge at night.
The spectacularly powerful debut, and the unacknowledged midpoint between Kate Bush and Neneh Cherry (by way of 4AD). A treasure trove of striking moments, ranging from the machine rhythms of Jerusalem and I Want Your Hands On Me (which seem to trace a jagged line between Control and Buffalo Stance) to the warrior charge of Mandinka (featuring the unmistakable guitar of one Marco Pirroni) and the indie rock drone of Just Call Me Joe (sounding like The Breeders a couple years early), the record's heart lies in majestic numbers like Jackie and the drama of Troy's towering suite, while the lush folk balladry of Just Like U Said It Would B and Drink Before The War swoop in deftly to conquer all. O'Connor wields her voice like a weapon throughout, and on The Lion And The Cobra she takes no prisoners.
After his stunning major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar went on to top it soundly by improbably hooking up with jazzmen like Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner and Kamasi Washington, crafting a vital modern rap record in thrall to figures like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. There's a wealth of material here, from the staggering modal grandeur of How Much A Dollar Cost to King Kunta's nightclub stop and the free jazz interludes in between, while the bleak intensity of tracks like u and The Blacker The Berry are balanced by occasional moments of lighthearted euphoria like These Walls and i. The sonic breadth in evidence throughout is matched only by the vast array of subjects Lamar explores over the course of this often harrowing — if ultimately uplifting — record. Someday, someone will write a whole book about this record.
The kid from the Jackson 5 delivers yet another pop masterpiece, the claustrophobic machine shapes and soaring chorus of which mark it out as my absolute favorite moment from the man. The Extended Dance Mix stretches the tune's crashing groove to nearly eight minutes of sonic perfection, with Jackson vamping sublime over its protracted jam. I've often thought this tune was a kindred spirit with the contemporary techno output of Detroit's big three: when those gorgeous, soaring synths hit in the chorus — Jackson's vocals sliding effortlessly across the surface — you're cruising the same sprawling metropolis corridors essayed in Reese's Rock To The Beat, Rhythim Is Rhythim's It Is What It Is and Model 500's Off To Battle. File under futurism.
Swashbuckling ragga ardkore produced by PJ and Smiley of Shut Up And Dance. Setting the tone for the nineties, this swings wildly from the breakbeat madness of Ragga Trip and Wipe The Needle to Illegal Gunshot's straight up dancehall moves and the awesome EWF-pillaging groove of The Killing. The instrumental 18" Speaker — a bassbin-shattering slab of dubbed-out ravefloor magic — spools wild bleeps across a shuffling breakbeat strapped with a bassline like an oil tanker. One of those records where everything comes together to form an unlikely masterpiece (in truth SUAD had quite a few of those under their belt), this is what raving is all about.
Legendary proto-punk Detroit heavy metal. Maybe the wildest live album ever recorded, and certainly my favorite. The title track and Come Together ride great churning riffs deep into the redline, while I Want You Right Now seems to split the difference between Wild Thing and 1983... A Merman I Should Turn To Be in a slow-motion come-on of epic proportions. The closing Starship borrows from Sun Ra in a wild freeform launch into the stratosphere, rounding out a chaotic masterpiece that manages to transcend its era and feel brazenly alive in the present.
An urban troubadour rises from the streets of Detroit to cut a blistering folk LP. Rodriguez hits plain and direct throughout — rather than hiding behind layers of abstraction — as he chronicles his singular visions of the inner city. Each of these tunes progress with a wicked internal logic that slowly creeps toward their inevitable conclusion (like the baptism scene from The Godfather). I only recently learned that it was arranged and produced by disco/funk stalwarts Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey. Right on!
The lushest, most laidback LP from Stevie Wonder in the seventies, an era when the man could do no wrong. After surviving a near fatal car accident the previous year, he seemed to enter the studio in an even more introspective mood than usual. Indeed, aside from the blistering electronic funk of You Haven't Done Nothin' — the last in his line of songs to take on our very own Parallax icon Richard Nixon — this is by far his most mellow album of the decade. Even more lavishly arranged than usual, it features appearances by figures like Minnie Riperton, Syreeta and The Jackson Five, lending their rich backing vocals throughout, while Tonto's Expanding Head Band coax the verdant shapes of their machines into a sumptuous bed of sound.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, firing on all cylinders, dropped this 12" hot on the heels of their debut full-length and somehow managed to surpass everything on it. A crucial, forward-thinking elaboration on The Message, with a next-level reality rap flowing sharp and precise over skyscraper-crumbling beats and a searing, futuristic production, this anticipates and exemplifies basically everything I love about modern music.
Jungle came out of nowhere a few years back with this absolutely blinding album, a sterling debut haunted by a dozen of their gloriously fractured dancefloor hymns. Sounding wholly alien and unlike anything else around, I like to imagine this intoxicating hall-of-mirrors post-disco trip would have sounded right at home pumping out the immaculate soundsystem at the Paradise Garage. These shimmering grooves shift and slide like liquid metal, melting into a sonic T-1000 reclining at the cutting edge of dance music and pop.
The mesmerizing Edu Lobo's most intimate record finds him unveiling a thoroughly unique take on lush Brazilian samba. I always liked how Woebot would refer to him as "the Brazilian Bryan Ferry". Here you definitely get that same sense of sophisticated languor one finds in Roxy's more downbeat moments. The peerless Quarteto Novo, fresh from Miles Davis' Live/Evil sessions, provide sumptuous backing with their patented turn-on-a-dime rhythmic panache and nimble touch. Everything here is light as a feather, yet deep as the ocean.
Cinematic free jazz with its eyes locked firmly on India. Alice Coltrane takes her boundless vision into widescreen with a full string orchestra in tow for this record's five swirling rhapsodies. Her masterful reworking of late husband John Coltrane's A Love Supreme breaks into a left field beat that leaves you blinking in disbelief at the improbable perfection of it all, while the sprawling Galaxy In Satchidananda feels like the soundtrack to some metaphysical sword-and-sandal epic set on an alien planet orbiting a distant star.
Wild-eyed Celtic folk troubadour cuts loose with a jazz combo, reaching his true potential as he unleashes a stone cold masterpiece imbued with gentle soul and a spiritual elegance all its own. The heart of the record lies in sprawling character studies like Cyprus Avenue and Madame George, where Morrison lingers on these sad characters longer than most would dare. Sweet Thing and the title track seem to magnify the sum total of human love until it threatens to eclipse all of its bitterness and hate, embracing the world in its weary arms. And really, what could be better than that?
Dense NDW. This is a space music that sounds like something SETI picked up on a particularly long range scan, those churning alien sonics emanating from within the center of some distant black hole. Voices echo just on the outer rim of the soundscape as fractal synth sequences pulsate all around, literally absorbing everything within reach. It feels like a staircase spiraling off into oblivion as gravity's pull draws you ever deeper into the churning vortex below. Surreal and occasionally disturbing — like late-period David Lynch — and the true soundtrack to In The Mouth Of Madness.
Juan Atkins's second release on his own Metroplex imprint is characteristically ahead of its time with its ultra-modern stripped down production and racing computer blue sequences. A lone driver's tale unfolds, recounting a freaky trip through the nocturnal highways of Techno City and the mysterious passenger he encounters along the way. The flipside is a turbo-charged rework of No UFOs (the centerpiece of the first Model 500 record), which finds Atkins short-circuiting World War III by landing a spaceship in your backyard. A bold, angular line drawn through the middle of the 1980's... this is what Detroit Techno is all about.
Rising from the ashes of post-industrial Cleveland, Pere Ubu are without a doubt one of the great American bands (in fact, they're almost too good to be true), working up their own unique brand of post-Velvets racket long before punk — let alone post punk — even existed. In the past, I'd always gravitated toward their earliest sides (essayed on the Terminal Tower compilation) but over the last year or so the razor-sharp precision of The Modern Dance finally won me over once and for all. This is either the sound of perfection perverted, or perversion perfected... take your pick.
Dreamy, jazz-inflected folk from one of the early visionaries of the Laurel Canyon scene. Lazy reveries like Strange Feelin' and Dream Letter drift weightlessly beneath the setting sun, even as a curling undertow continues to build up deep within until the interminable jamming of Gypsy Woman threatens to pull all of its surroundings into orbit before collapsing into a swirling vortex of proto-Krautrock intensity. Sun-baked with an undercurrent of dread, this is the L.A. of Inherent Vice.
Monumental, unclassifiable moody psychedelic cabaret rock 'n roll from the days when giants roamed the lazy beaches of California. Jim Morrison comes on like a twisted beat-poet crooner (echoes of Eden Ahbez in full effect) while Ray Manzarek wields his keyboards as if they were synths. Meanwhile, John Densmore seems to draw his tricky rhythms from anywhere but rock and Robbie Krieger's crystalline guitar style anticipates Carlos Santana. The whole effect is entirely unique, yet so easy to take for granted owing to the sheer magnitude of their historical impact. Utterly essential.
German b-boys cut loose in widescreen with Krautrock legend on guitar. Basically a jazz record, Tokyo Tower is eight minutes of somber perfection, while the flipside's Clone is a slab of seriously bleak microtonal madness that drops you into the middle of The Parallax View without map or compass. Terranova's album from a couple years later was good, but this right here is magic. When this first dropped, it seemed to me like a record from another age... whether that age was twenty years in the past or twenty years in the future, I'm still not quite sure...
Chris Corner steps out of the shadows to front his own group — sounding like some unholy blend of Scott Walker and Marc Almond — who wrap him up in the raw architecture of feedback and ragged downcast beats on the long road to ruin. The whole trip feels deeply unhealthy and self-destructive — making plenty of stops in some incredibly dark places along the way — yet somehow in its resolute, brave stance finds itself at a strangely uplifting conclusion, crawling through the basement to find redemption. If OK Computer were as good as everyone says, it would sound an awful lot like this.
NOTE: To continue onward to The Parallax 100, click here.
This is the first of a four part series that I'll be unveiling over the next few months, each focusing on a different aspect of L.A. rap's sweep. As I noted earlier, an excellent DJ Quik show last week inspired me to put this together (to give credit where it's due). I'm no expert on the subject, but I've lived with this music since it was first coming out and it has continued to inform my listening habits in myriad ways through the years. After all, coming up in this era, with this music and parallel sounds from near and far providing the sonic atmosphere of the day, can have a profound effect on somebody...
As early as the late '70s, Uncle Jamm's Army and The Egyptian Lover were developing the earliest foundations of a distinct West Coast style that would culminate in prime L.A. electro like Egypt, Egypt and Dial-A-Freak in the early 80s. Within a few years, pioneers like Ice-T and Oakland's Too $hort began carving out a harder, street-level aesthetic that gradually began to supplant electro's popularity. Then, a crew called N.W.A. entered the Audio Achievements studio in Torrance, CA and started putting out records on their own Ruthless Records imprint, culminating in the seismic impact of their debut album Straight Outta Compton.
The five years between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic were probably the most important stretch in the development of a distinctive West Coast sound, spanning the transition from N.W.A.'s hard, skeletal beats to Dr. Dre's fluid g-funk. This period was marked by extraordinary innovation, with a monumental soundclash of ideas and influences that would gradually be synthesized into a whole new thing. The following 14 records were all released within this timeframe, are undeniably classic material and trace this rough path of progression from Compton to The Chronic.
Ground zero. The earlier N.W.A. And The Posse record was but a preview of things to come, pulling early singles and some hastily recorded material into one package. This is the true arrival. I was in elementary school when this record dropped, and by the end of the year everyone seemed to be talking about it. That's the level it got to. The influence of this record cannot be overstated (just compare the first Geto Boys album with the second, for one obvious example). It kicked open the door for everything that follows in this list.
The opening three tracks — Straight Outta Compton, Fuck Tha Police and Gangsta Gangsta — form one of the great opening salvos of all time, a pump-action barrage of street-level imagery delivered with a brutal intensity. For the purposes of this discussion, Gangsta Gangsta seems to be Dre's first stab at what would one day be called g-funk (check that rude Funky Worm synth whine coming in after the Way back... part). It's still too raw, the beats too rugged, to be considered g-funk proper, but the ingredients are all there just waiting to marinate a little longer.
There seems to be a bit of historical revisionism at the moment about this record, claiming that the opening three tracks are the only real substance it has to offer. Not true. The Dopeman Remix is an incisive look at the drug trade with a barely concealed rage bubbling beneath the surface, matching the fury of that opening rush, while tracks like 8 Ball Remix, Parental Discretion Iz Advised and MC Ren's Quiet On Tha Set serve to further flesh out the world that this record inhabits.
Express Yourself (Dre's solo shot) and I Ain't Tha 1 (Cube's requisite battle of the sexes rumble) both offer moments of levity, while Something Like That is a pure old school throwback showcase. Something 2 Dance 2 even closes things down with an electrofunk workout featuring the legendary Arabian Prince. They really did think of everything!
Released nearly simultaneously with Straight Outta Compton, and at the time taken more or less as a companion piece to that record. They'd usually be listened to side by side. Releasing the follow up so quickly on the heels of Compton was a shrewd move in retrospect. People were hungry for more.
This LP picks up where 8 Ball left off. A reckless ride through the wild side of the Ruthless fun house, this party careens drunkenly through through the streets of L.A. with audacious Eazy-E acting as your unhinged tour guide. The Prelude recalls the sort of conceptual interlude Parliament specialized in, setting the tone for a particular sort of skit that would become an integral part of the landscape on West Coast records.
Where Compton had its share of hard, skeletal beats, the production feels slightly more fleshed out this time around (the Boyz-N-The Hood Remix notwithstanding). DJ Yella even gets in his first appearance behind the drum kit on 2 Hard Mutha's, an engaging sound that the group would engage in sporadically to fine effect. Even if Eazy-Duz-It doesn't hit with quite the same force as Straight Outta Compton, its incrementally looser rhythms and balanced sequencing do point the way toward the nineties.
The first record in this list to come from outside the N.W.A. organization, this is a collaboration between West Coast stalwart W.C. and DJ Aladdin. Low Profile made their first appearance on the previous year's Rhyme Syndicate Comin' Through compilation with the show-stealing Think You Can Hang?. That track isn't here, but this phenomenal record expands on its foundation. From W.C.'s deft, conscious microphone delivery to DJ Aladdin's loose, fleshed out production and devastating turntable skills, this is truly advanced technology for '89.
This is something of a conscious flipside of the coin to a lot of the game related platters listed here. I've often felt that this is something of a West Coast counterpart to Gang Starr's Step In The Arena. An off the wall comparison, perhaps, but I couldn't resist making it! Keep Em Flowin' even sounds like a Jazzmatazz beat! Just listen to How Ya Livin' back to back with Step In The Arena (the track) and tell me I'm crazy. Of course, We're In This Together came out a whole year earlier...
None of the records here are obscure, but for the longest time this one was incredibly hard to come by. You'd hear it whispered about by people in the know (it had a fearsome reputation as a lost classic), but you'd never see it in the shops. It was actually easier to track down on wax, along with the accompanying 12" singles. Well, Universal Japan has just stepped in with their Classic Hip Hop Best Collection 1000 reissue program, featuring this record among their first brace of releases. Don't sleep!
The D.O.C. was N.W.A.'s secret weapon. Starting out as a member of the Ruthless-affiliated Fila Fresh Crew, the Dallas native set out for L.A. where he ghost-wrote some of N.W.A.'s rhymes behind the scenes. Here, he gets his chance to shine. Portrait Of A Master Piece is a literally breathtaking fast-forward deluge showcasing the state-of-the-art flow of one of the great uptempo lyrical stylists. Through the entirety of this sterling LP, The D.O.C.'s mic skills are top notch.
This album catches Dr. Dre treating Audio Achievements as his own personal laboratory, further elaborating the sound of the previous records into a high-octane formula that he would continue to tweak over the next couple years. With a few exceptions, the drums are tighter and more compact (as opposed to the booming big beat of the earlier records), while the production has become more crisp and the rhythms increasingly fluid, with a greater emphasis on live musicians (not to mention further welcome appearances by Yella behind the kit).
The Formula, Let The Bass Go and the title track are the first attempts at chilling out the Ruthless sound, slowing the tempos and cooling out the atmosphere in the process: an important step on the road to g-funk's genesis. These tracks themselves aren't g-funk per se, but the production is certainly starting to move further in that direction. The closing track, The Grande Finalé is a stunning posse cut, featuring the entirety of the original N.W.A. rhyming over a tremendous build up (pinned down by another ace breakbeat from Yella). If I'm not mistaken, this is the last time the original group would all be heard together on record.
Old skool renegade from the N.W.A. posse strikes out solo. The Arabian Prince actually had a history stretching back much further than the rest of the group, operating as a contemporary of The Egyptian Lover in the era of Uncle Jamm's Army, and consequently, much of this record is built on a heavy electro undercarriage. That's no bad thing, since Brother Arab is right at home in the form. This is a fascinating sound that he cooks up here, existing midway between his earlier records like Strange Life, It Ain't Tough and the sounds Dre essayed on The D.O.C. album. Gettin' Down even locks a loping blues guitar loop into a hypnotic groove with planet rocking 808 beats.
However, the exceptions to the rule might be even even more compelling. Let The Good Times Roll Nickel Bag, a murky downbeat number built on an ever-tumbling breakbeat, is a fabulous bit of hip hop noir, while She's Got A Big Posse, the album's biggest single, rides a Zapp-esque bounce that totally prefigures the classic g-funk sound. To my mind, one of the crucial elements of g-funk is the linear quality of its groove, stretching horizontally into infinity (as opposed to hip hop's usual vertically arranged change-ups). What's missing here is the greater emphasis on live musicianship and those whining sine wave synths, but the groove is definitely in the same ballpark. Still not textbook g-funk, but certainly strong enough shades in evidence to warrant a proto- prefix.
This one's a giant step forward. Dr. Dre had a hand in producing this LP for these Ruthless proteges. Above The Law introduce a rolling, cinematic sweep to this music, evoking OSTs like Shaft and Truck Turner in its widescreen sensibility. Menace To Society is essentially a gangster film in miniature, while Murder Rap samples Quincy Jones' Ironside theme, establishing an intense, maddening atmosphere.
Another key development is the fact that ATL often operates on a laidback tip, as on Flow On Move Me No Mountain and Another Execution. Even on the uptempo numbers, they bring a nonchalant gangster lean to this material that would become a crucial element of the g-funk equation. N.W.A. even makes a cameo on The Last Song, certainly the most leisurely beat they'd yet been involved with.
ATL's Cold 187um and LayLaw later claimed to have invented the g-funk sound (developing it further on the following year's Vocally Pimpin' EP), influencing Dre in the process. Whatever the veracity of those claims, it's clear that this is the next step in the evolution, whether instigated by Above The Law or Dr. Dre (or both). The crew continued to hit hard on their second LP, Black Mafia Life, an excellent follow up that exists just outside the timeframe of this list: although it was completed before The Chronic, it wasn't released until early '93.
I've included three major N.W.A. records here, so crucial are they to the L.A. story. There's just no getting around their centrality. This EP was released on the heels of Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and the title track seems to take on aspects of that record's monster production by The Bomb Squad. A widescreen epic running at a breakneck pace, it finds Dre splitting the difference between those uptempo D.O.C. tracks and Above The Law's cinematic sweep.
This EP also marks the beginning of the group's descent into pure nastiness, with Just Don't Bite It's lush production backing the sort of off-color humor that would really come to the fore on the following record. Still, Dre's production finesse is continuing to develop at a staggering rate. The intricate breakbeat rhythm of Real Niggaz and Sa Prize Part 2's liquid groove both demonstrate the new forms that were materializing at Audio Achievements. If there were a symbolic midpoint between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic, then this must be it.
WC again! Another Texan transplant (a bit of a pattern here), WC was always on his own level with a sort of street-level consciousness that always managed to sidestep preachiness and never failed to carry a fatal sting. This record finds The Maad Circle in its prime, with Coolio still in the fold (Fantastic Voyage and Gangsta's Paradise still a few years off), a steadfast Big Gee in evidence and kaleidoscopic production from Crazy Toones, Sir Jinx and WC himself.
It's tempting to read this LP as a bracingly aggressive, West Coast gangsta take on Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, so all-encompassing is its scope. With eagle eye observation and insight, tracks such as Fuck My Daddy (a rumination on the destructive impact of an abusive, no good, two-timing father) and Behind Closed Doors (a scathing indictment of police brutality — especially relevant in light of current events) tackle societal troubles head on and fill the corners of this LP with a richly detailed chronicle of life in south central L.A.
WC would later hook up with Ice Cube and Mack 10 in supergroup Westside Connection, finally receiving widespread recognition and going double-platinum in the process. However, this and the Low Profile record remain absolutely essential listening, together offering a crucial glimpse into the man's unique breadth of vision. Both LPs certainly belong in any serious conversation about the best albums (hip hop or otherwise) to come out of L.A.
Ice Cube blazed a fierce trail through the early nineties, starting with his Bomb Squad produced debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and running through Death Certificate and The Predator at a blistering pace of one album every year — BAM! BAM! BAM! — and all within the timeframe of this list. The Kill At Will EP, released just after his debut, is my absolute favorite record of his. As a matter of fact, this just missed inclusion in The Parallax 100 (a decision that still keeps me up at night).
Building on the sonic foundation of The Bomb Squad's work, this EP's masterful beat construction — by Sir Jinx, Chilly Chill and Ice Cube himself behind the boards — result in some of his absolute finest moments. The Product is a searing avalanche of fury, and one of the hardest hip hop tracks ever conceived (in both form and content). Cube weaves like a boxer through this densely-populated sonic matrix, chronicling the unforgiving circumstances that conspire to drag a young brother under, all while riding a jagged, amped up breakbeat. Jackin' For Beats showcases a rotating selection of hype rhythm tracks, switching them up rapid fire beneath one of the fiercest flows in the business.
Dead Homiez is the flipside of the coin, with Cube reflecting on the mortality of himself and everyone around him over his own moody, half-lit downbeat production. There's a barely concealed desperation that creeps in through the cracks here, adding further context to the record's hardest moments. In just over twenty minutes, this EP runs the spectrum from rage to sorrow in an uncompromising vision of the world.
As mentioned earlier, Ice-T looms large over L.A. hip hop, seemingly coming out of nowhere improbably early to lay the groundwork for the whole operation. Despite his comfortable niche with Law And Order nowadays, he deserves non-stop props for his trailblazing work as an innovator on the West Coast. His first three LPs are all crucial records, each providing an evolutionary step forward in development. O.G. Original Gangster finds him taking this sound into the nineties, moving with the times into an ever-funkier direction.
This is a sprawling double-LP that paradoxically finds Ice-T tightening his game. It sits comfortably with the surrounding records in this list, taking in some of their aspects even as it expands on them with a nearly unmatched breadth of vision. DJ Aladdin produces a handful of tracks here, including the awesome New Jack Hustler (originally appearing — along with Ice-T himself — in the excellent film New Jack City). The production is some of the loosest around, beats swerving and diving with a nimble touch, and often running at lightning speed. Ice-T is razor sharp on the mic, as usual, dropping gems left and right (I'm raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro). Even the interludes are unforgettable.
The final N.W.A. album is a production tour de force. The beats on this record are simply phenomenal, taking the developments of 100 Miles And Runnin' to their logical conclusion. Dre's production arguably reaches its pinnacle of elegance here, weaving intricate tapestries of lush texture through sticky funk basslines and crisply executed breakbeats, resulting in one of the most compelling sounds in rap music (or any other, for that matter).
Rock hard tracks like Approach To Danger and Real Niggaz Don't Die recall Compton even as they transcend it, improbably revealing a turn-on-a-dime agility beneath their monumental heaviness. Both tracks are shot through with an unresolved tension that reaches its apex in the frenetic roll of Appetite For Destruction. Stretching even further toward the future, Alwayz Into Somethin' — laidback, cooled out and boasting those whining sine wave synths — is generally considered to be the first true g-funk tune to hit the shops.
Despite sagging into a mid-record sequence where the blue humor gets out of hand and veers into the intentionally offensive, the production remains top-notch throughout the entirety of this LP. In fact, it would easily stand on its own as an instrumental record. Dr. Dre would leave N.W.A. within the year, the group dissolving shortly after into solo careers, concluding one of the most impressive winning streaks in hip hop and quitting at the top of their game. For further reading, this excellent L.A. Times article1 is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the N.W.A. story.
This is an unabashed party record, featuring a handful of uptempo numbers (reaching their frenetic peak in Tear It Off) but generally easing back into a first-rate selection of West Coast bounce. DJ Quik had the linear g-funk thang down from the word go, spooling deep, funky grooves out into infinity. Part of Quik's appeal is the fact his sound seems to spring directly from the old school electrofunk sound of One Way and Kleeer, transforming that sound into something that could weather the '90s.
Speaking of Kleeer, Quik Is The Name features an interpolation of their immortal Tonight in the rolling, endless Tonite, surely a textbook example of g-funk proper that prefigures the sound writ large on both The Chronic and Doggystyle. These moves continue in 8 Ball and permeate the entirety of this thoroughly loose LP. Quik's Groove, a gentle instrumental, lets the beats speak for themselves and betray Quik's love of pure electric funk.
The closing Skanless is an engaging slice of slow-motion downbeat featuring AMG, Hi-C and 2nd II None, seemingly hewn from a longer marathon groove. In 1991, DJ Quik was also involved with Hi-C's Skanless and AMG's Bitch Betta Have My Money, the latter of which is an even looser, albeit less consistent, loony cousin to this record's non-stop party moves. The other day, I forgot to mention this video,2 an amusing interview with DJ Quik at Amoeba Records, and this seems as good a time as any to get in a mention.
It's difficult to choose the best CMW record. The outfit's first three albums, released in quick succession — one a year — starting in 1990, all have their strong points to recommend them. I tend to go back and forth. This one — their second — stands out for its loping downbeat rhythms and desolate atmosphere, what Peter Shapiro brilliantly referred to as DJ Slip's dark jazz.3MC Chill was sentenced to prison between the release of CMW's debut — It's A Compton Thang — and the sessions for Straight Checkn 'Em, leaving MC Eiht as the solitary vocal presence, further cementing the prevailing mood of downcast isolation in evidence throughout.
With Slip and The Unknown DJ behind the mixing desk, the approach here seems to prefigure Dre's for the epochal Deep Cover (even if nothing here hits quite as hard as that tune). There's a casual fatalism to tracks like Def Wish and Growin' Up In The Hood that mark this LP out as a tour de force of gangsta-noir. Can I Kill It? even slips into the classic Footsteps In The Dark beat a whole year before Ice Cube would use it as the basis for his immortal It Was A Good Day. Indeed, whole sections of this record predict not only the sound of hip hop's eventual descent into darkness, but even seem to raise the spectre of trip hop's twisted methodology.
Ready to leave N.W.A. and strike out on his own, Dr. Dre formed Death Row Records with Suge Knight and The D.O.C., kicking off the next chapter of the L.A. story. Dre's first solo record was Deep Cover (from the soundtrack to film of the same name), featuring vocals from a then-unknown Snoop Doggy Dogg. A Death Row release in all but name — it technically came out on Solar — Deep Cover was the first warning shot of things to come on Dre's full-length debut.
Snoop's off the wall personality inhabits this record. Tracks like Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat and The Day The Niggaz Took Over continue to develop the dread atmosphere of Deep Cover, yet that's only the tip of the iceberg. The Chronic is where Dre nails down g-funk as a formula, utilizing live musicians to create rolling epics such as Fuck Wit Dre Day and Nuthin' But A "G" Thang. It's important to note the importance of Dre's earlier experiments with smoother, more r&b-based material on his productions for artists like Michel'Le and Jimmy Z in developing the clean, polished sounds of The Chronic. The sun-glazed vibes of a track like Let Me Ride seem to flow directly from those smooth sonics.
Built on a sizable chunk of Parliament's Mothership Connection, Let Me Ride is just one example of p-funk's totemic importance throughout this record. Indeed, George Clinton interpolations are the order of the day here, cropping up all over the place. Between L.A. and Detroit, Clinton's influence seemed to be everywhere in the nineties. If you were aiming for the dancefloor — be it hip hop, r&b or techno — p-funk loomed large over the decade's excursions into rhythm.
Remaking hip hop in the image of earthshaking electric funk, The Chronic changed the face of West Coast rap and became its dominant sound for the foreseeable future. It's usually a stretch to put sea changes down to a single record, but this truly is a case where one record did provide that watershed moment. At the height of the sampladelic age, it opened rap up once again to the possibilities of both live playing and synthesized textures on the widest scale imaginable.
As its sound quickly spread worldwide, reverberations began to be felt everywhere, and one could largely trace the direction hip hop has taken in the ensuing years back to this record. Much like Straight Outta Compton before it, The Chronic catalyzed a whole new thing into existence that had to be acknowledged one way or the other. The rest is history...