Rock the Bells: Vital Albums, Part 2
The original idea here was to pick the five best albums by Rock the Bells participants, and it looked like we were well on our way after immediately agreeing on the first three titles. But then I nominated De La Soul's "3 Feet High and Rising," and Malitz insisted that we include two Wu-Tang solo albums, which I thought was a cop-out. Anyway, five became six - also a cop-out, but who's counting?
Malitz covered "Illmatic" along with the two Wu albums, Raekwon's "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx" and Ghost's "Supreme Clientele. Here are the other three.
Eric B. and Rakim - "Paid in Full"
This is a perfect album. It was also a paradigm-shifter, thanks to the rhythmic innovations of Rakim's delivery along with the lyrical matter itself. The microphone messiah's wholly original flow elevated the form and gave Rakim immediate access to the pantheon, where the Long Island wordsmith seems to have been hiding out in recent years. (He's still had greater visibility, though, than his former partner, Eric B., a fearsome turntable technician who made James Brown matter again with "I Know You Got Soul" but seems to have dropped off the grid.) Rakim is an MC's MC, what with his golden-toned vocals, complex internal rhymes and a delivery that blends a drummer's instinct for timing and fills with the improvisational feel and emotional intensity of bebop. And his metaphysical thug poetry was flat-out gripping, blending racial pride and Islamic philosophy with the sort of street pragmatism that was in full effect on "Paid in Full," a story song about the get-money ethos of the hood. This thing still sounds like a monster 21 years later, and its influence continues to echo throughout hip-hop. "I Ain't No Joke," indeed.
A Tribe Called Quest - "Low End Theory"
"The low end theory's here, so it's time to wreck shop!" Phife declares on "Jazz." And wreck shop Tribe did with this seamless 1991 classic, which brought the hip-hop-jazz sound to the fore - for better or worse. On "Excursions," Tribe even made the case that there's a direct line from bebop to the Last Poets to circa-1991 hip-hop. (Not that "Buggin' Out" will make anybody think of Thelonious Monk or Umar Bin Hassan.) This is DJ-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad's masterpiece, with his jazz samples and programmed beats providing a perfectly sparse and self-assured frame for Phife and, especially, Q-Tip's fluid, butter-smooth flows. "Midnight Marauders" featured more hits, but the trio was at its most creative and confident here.
De La Soul - "3 Feet High and Rising"
De La didn't play in the same sandbox as the rest of the rap kids, and that was clear from the moment I saw this album cover, with its Day-Glo colors and psychedelic flower-power design. These were hip-hop hippies from the 'burbs, not the hood, and they merely produced one of the genre's most playful, innovative and audacious albums ever. They announced their arrival - and fierce individuality - with the monster single, "Me, Myself and I" and followed that with a masterful debut. With the like-minded producer Prince Paul in the booth, Posdnous, Trugoy the Dove and Mase (Plug One, Plug Two and Plug Three to the rest of us) crafted a quirky, thug-free world with their own jokes and slang and rules, telling dense, coded stories about everything from body odor and bodily lust to individuality - and framing the whole thing with a series of game-show skits, at a time when the skit simply didn't exist on rap albums. Prince Paul's free-wheeling, kaleidoscopic sound was stunning and full of surprises (he sampled the Turtles, for chrissakes) and, therefore, perfect for De La's mold-shattering, D.A.I.S.Y.-age musings.
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