Hugs and Thugs (Retro Edition)

by David Broc

Abrazos y zancadillas David Broc Hip Hop from the wall

In this corner, we try not to break promises, we keep our word. We ended the July column, before the summer holidays, promising faithful readers and visitors a special retro edition of Hugs and Thugs. For one month, and we hope that it serves as a precedent for coming editions, there will be nothing about new releases, nothing about mixtapes put out on the Internet, no brand-new albums, no news, nothing closely linked to the latest current events. In thirty days, we’ll be back to all of that, and with a double serving, if necessary. But for now, let’s focus solely and exclusively on a journey to the past to reactivate our most nostalgic impulses and unleash our most retrospective passions. Carte blanche, then to wax sentimental, to hurl all manner of invectives at the passing of time, and to ask ourselves, once again, like hundreds of thousands of times before, why hip hop doesn’t sound now like it did twenty years ago. Let’s rescue those Timberlands, Champion hoodies, starter jackets, North Face down coats, Jordan VI Infrared trainers, and the throwback jerseys of John Starks, Anthony Mason, and Charles Oakley, and we’ll be entirely happy for once in our eternal addiction to retro nostalgia. Ah, and let’s not forget to have a good package of Kleenex on hand, whether to wipe away the tears or to clean up the spillage that comes from a trip like this to the heart of rap. It’s just one day. Let’s get this party started, like it should in these cases: a close-up of our face, in a pensive pose of remembering—the image suddenly starts to shift and blur, fading to black, and the credits appear on our visual screen. 16 years ago…

1. Let’s be sure we understand each other: 1994 is the year of the Creation, the year of the groundhog, the year that we lived dangerously, the year of the Apocalypse, but in the opposite direction. If a scientist were to come up and offer to take me back to the past, forget about the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or the French Revolution. Doc, old man, take me back to January 1994, set me down in the middle of New York, if you can, and leave me there for awhile—I’ll take care of myself. With my retro Jordan III sneakers and a Polo sweatshirt, I won’t stand out, not in the least. A period already lived through and savoured, but which has been begging for a first-person recreation to experience it again. And so on, every twelve months, like Bill Murray but with a backpack and a Giants beanie. 1994 is the best year in the history of hip hop, let me say it from the very beginning, and there is no year previously or later that has accumulated a greater number of masterpieces. You can check and consult all of the archives that you want, there is no way to equal the volume of definitive, transcendental albums that came out that season: “Illmatic”, “Ready to Die”, “Hard to Earn”, “The Sun Rises in the East”, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik”, “Ill Communication”, “Tical”, “Resurrection” and “6 Feet Deep”. It seems like a bad joke. But going back to that year wouldn’t be fundamental just to discover those albums once again taking their first steps, but also to capture that feeling of a boom and an absolute creative bonanza that affected everything around the genre in the capital of the world. One of the nerve centres of the scene and the whole movement that took place in the Big Apple was the famed club The Tunnel, located in the Tribeca area, near the Hudson River, which from the early 90’s until the turn of the century became the place to be for celebrities, artists, DJ’s, producers, MC’s, and hip hop fans, faithful testimony to the evolving of the sound of the genre during this period of feverish activity. One of the merits of the establishment was the talent of its house DJ’s, especially Funkmaster Flex, for getting mainstream singles with clear commercial aspirations to cohabitate with underground diamonds in the rough that the club itself and the reaction of those present would end up turning into hymns. If you weren’t played at The Tunnel, you were nobody; but if you were, you had a good chance of becoming a celebrity in the city, whether you were Jay-Z, Mobb Deep, The Lost Boyz, or DMX. All of this comes in response to a splendid report published on the website Complex this summer that reviewed the best songs that became popular and made it big in the club during its heyday, one by one, and with comments and notes. A total of 75 songs, ranging from 94 to 2000, selected by Cipha Sounds, who besides being one of the most respectable, trustworthy DJ’s of the last two decades, also manned the turntables at The Tunnel, warming up the booth and the floor for Funkmaster. His comments are splendid, especially because they provide anecdotes, details, and a walk down memory lane recalling times of absolute splendour, reflected in the type of people who came in the club, with a long record of incidents, closings, re-openings, and scandals that did not go unnoticed by the media. And along with the memory texts, we can listen to the respective song in stream format. Of course, this is Hugs and Thugs, and we always try to make things as easy as possible. No half-stepping. So, why settle for a simple stream when we can enjoy this entire selection in MP3 comfortably from our iPod or our iTunes? So, here’s the link, which wasn’t originally included in the article, and which I tracked down on the Internet like a faithful bloodhound to download this entirely overwhelming compilation of hits, with highly diverse aesthetics and expressions. For my taste, there is too much of the early phase of bling bling rap, but they are the exception in this awesome sample. It will keep you busy for awhile. Not even a trace of shit that you can do without: straight killa, no filla. More than five hours in paradise. And to top it off, a couple of videos that show what the club could be like: a real hotbed.

2. Many of the hits present there are also to be found mixed in some of the sessions that make up two different projects, but with a similar concept, which have especially interested me in the last couple of years. Let’s start at the beginning. DJ Ayres, DJ Eleven and Cosmo Baker are the creators of The Rub, a monthly residence in New York that over time has become a radio show and artistic reference that is hired all over the world to liven up crazy nights of hip hop and other integrated styles. They are also the ones responsible for a series of sessions, “The Rub History of Hip Hop Series,” a wide-ranging catalogue of mixtapes cut out in the same pattern: going over the thirty years of the genre’s history in-depth, at the rate of a session per year. That is to say, they take the great moments of 1991, for example, and they create a session with material solely and exclusively from that date. And so on for each of the years in the period between 1979 and 2010. In the link that I’ve given you, you have access to all of the tracklists, as well as the corresponding link to download each piece. Don’t expect great technical feats, or even much chronological or aesthetic criteria in the mix: The Rub’s method is more melting-pot, letting whatever come out, sort of rough and tumble, with an indubitable party vision, especially in the review of the last decade, clearly the most dispensable of the three, and the one that I would leave for last in this whole process of hard-disk compression. In any case, they make for a good introduction to seldom-travelled periods, especially the first half of the 80’s, and an unbeatable memorandum for the golden age, you know, from the end of the 80’s to the middle of the 90’s. Infinitely better prepared, presented, and thought-out are the sessions that form a part of the series Beat Emotion Library, created by Japanese DJ Seiji and DJ Tama. I discovered the existence of this project, which is based on the same criteria explained above –that is to say, the orchestration of mixtapes by year, with the intention of creating a great summary of the history of rap– in the Tokyo shop Manhattan Records, sort of a small temple of vinyl and mixtapes fresh from the oven, located in the heart of Shibuya, and which is firmly resisting the blows of the record company crisis. A coincidence or not, the first launch that I had in my hands, and which I knew of, was that dedicated to 1994. And starting from there, of course, came the obsessive search to complete the collection to date, which for the time being covers from 1985 to 2003, intending, I imagine, to complete decades. Unlike the mixtapes from The Rub, these aren’t free, and are sold in actual shops and on-line, although they are illegal products, obviously. The problem? If you are one of those people who pays like a good student, you’ll only find them in Japan, which makes it considerably harder to track them down and buy them if you are a stubborn collector.

Is the effort worth it? Without a doubt. Seiji and Tama, members of the magnificent group S.P.C., really have a silky touch when it comes to mixing; they never step over into exhibitionistic territory, they take measure as their banner, and they can pride themselves on a criteria for selection, transitions, and crescendos that make them international leaders. In fact, I would put the Beat Emotion Library series in my own particular Olympus of retrospective sessions, without any moral conflict. Those corresponding to 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 are anthological, there’s not much to add; it is excellent material that you can’t lose with. If you’re new to it, you have a better introduction to the genre than you could get from any Wikipedia entry, and if you’re a veteran, your iPod won’t say no to a new stroll through the best years of our lives. You won’t miss anything and there is still room for surprise or rediscovery. So that you don’t have the feeling that I’m leaving you on tenterhooks, I’m passing on a couple of links so that you can get those of 1994 and 1995, two of the best of the lot. Press here to go to 1994, and here to go to 1995. And I can read up to here: since these sessions are for sale and we aren’t the type to facilitate cybernetic piracy, the rest of the work is in your hands.

3. I’m setting aside sessions and mixtapes of vintage material, but we aren’t getting out of the DeLorean that has taken us to the 90’s. We’re still there, holding on tight to those years, and don’t let anybody bring us back to the present, please. Because these days, “God Connections” has been released again, the solo debut of Al’ Tariq. For those who aren’t especially up on the subject, a brief reminder or introduction to the album: some time after leaving The Beatnuts, a New York rap icon of that decade, with at least two masterpieces of the genre, the MC, who wanted to show his own talent without the company of his former partners, pulled this high-flying debut work out of his sleeve, which had a short life in the industry for several reasons. First, the closing of the label that released it; second, a consequence of this, the non-existent promotion of it, and its total lack of repercussion on the circuit beyond the underground; third, it came out in 1996, maybe a little late in relation to the type of sound of the contents, which collided head-on with the beginning of a change in trends in the use of beats and the first attempts at a massive appearance of electronic sounds. If “God Connections” had come out in 1993, for example, it would have been another story, as that would have been the moment to explode and compete face to face with other similar referents. The problem is that in 1996, even the Big Apple underground was changing and evolving, and the rough, dry, hard, street hip hop of this album was starting to seem out-of-date to the champions and bounty-hunters of new trends. Fuck them. Time has ended up doing justice to this juicy work, produced by The Beatnuts; they were also in the midst of a personal reconciliation with Tariq, with a lyrical bet that has an unsurpassable expressive lucidity. After the disappearance of the label, the album, of course, was lost in the netherworld, like so many others at that time that are now worth their weight in gold (I am a witness: Godfather Don’s first album, “Hazardous”, put out in 1990, hard to track down, was sold in CD format for 20,000 yens in the Shinjuku branch of Disk Union this summer; if we do the relevant currency conversions, we’ll flip), and you had to resort to the usual underground channels to enjoy the album if you couldn’t get it in its day. This new edition, splendid, with extra material, like some unpublished songs from producer No I.D., an explanatory booklet, and new photos from the recording session, is not only a required purchase for people who didn’t know the item; it’s also for those who still have their copy, worn out by time, and who would like to put it out to pasture with all due respect.

It seems that deluxe re-editions are the order of the day, because in shops these days you can also find two more that hardly need introduction or justification around here: “Mecca and the Soul Brother”, by Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and “Resurrection”, from when Common used to call himself Common Sense. Both have arrived in very complete versions including the original re-mastered CD and another CD full of exclusive songs, instrumentals, remixes, and other paraphernalia, like a very complete booklet, and even a poster. It’s a bad sign if you didn’t already know about or have this lethal pair of masterpieces, so you have no choice but to mend the historical error of your ways and pay up, showing the necessary courtesy to two peak moments of the 90’s. And I wouldn’t like to end this chapter about re-editions without rewinding and going a few years further back in time. Back to 1988, the date when “Born to be Wild”, MC Shan’s second album, came out, him being a premature legend on the New York scene, eternal rival of KRS-One, father and guru of the future representatives of Queensbridge rap, and one of the great MC’s of the end of the 80’s. The album was relatively easy to find on vinyl, but CD consumers ran into more trouble finding it, basically because shortly after its appearance it disappeared and could only be found on the second-hand market. Another blow to speculators who take advantage of compulsive buyers. This re-mastered, complete re-edition, with the addition of material present on the vinyl singles and a spectacular booklet with text by Shan himself, solves two problems at once. And that’s the news. There is no space or time for more. We have to come back to the present if we don’t want to be trapped for life in that year. Well, that wouldn’t really be so bad, why deny it? In any case, there will be more issues of the retro version of the column. There are a lot of things left to talk about that we couldn’t overlook. In the next edition of this retrospective corner (who knows when), we might give a special report about mixtapes on cassette with the links to all of them, artwork included; or a chapter apart dedicated to the best sessions of the 90’s held on radio programs, also with demonstrable links, as well as plenty of space and in-depth attention paid to those producers and hip hop DJ’s who in their free time like to give us memorable mixtapes of soul, funk, and R&B.

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