Smile Politely

15 hip-hop albums to change your life

It’s strange how being brought to the brink of technological catastrophe can shed a new sense of fluorescent light onto a situation. Since we last spoke, this writer had been huddled over the mass of circuits and magnets that was a dying iPod, shocked back to life only through carefully prying it open, then re-attaching a three-pin connector between hard drive and main board.

With my relative emergency averted, and setting to the task of re-re-re-organizing my music collection, tags and all, I began to take a Marty McFly style journey back through the annals of my obsessive vinyl/rare release collecting habit. Extending ad infinitum between the tenets of “once upon a time” and “right now” (to be said in the same voice as the infamous Van Halen song), I had always been the type of person to send someone else off to sojourn into a record store, especially when the right question was asked:

“What are some good independent hip-hop albums to start my collection with?”

But now, we have this glorious invention, hitherto referred to as “the internet,” which presents us with an endless fountain of both good and bad information, music included. So, for all you budding boombox addicts out there that are still diggin’ in the crates, here’s another map for the vinyl archaeologist in you.

Mind you, these are but the musings of a 20-something hip-hop head, and do not represent the breadth of excellent musical work that exists out there. Research is the key, but everyone needs an “x marks the start” to venture from. Strap on your headphones, and here we go … again.

1. Gagle, 3Peat — Across the left-coast pond for the first one. Japanese hip-hop is a monstrously jazzy movement, and Gagle is no exception. Fronted by the incredibly talented DJ Mitsu, and backed by MCs Hunger and Mu-R, 3Peat is a 16-track stomp through what sounds a lot like Pete Rock plus Champaign’s own Spinnerty. The groove is solid, and it may inspire you to learn to speak nihonjin.

2. Sound Providers, An Evening With — Continuing on our Jazz-Hop scene voyeur front, how about a record with samples only from 1940s and 1950s jazz? The Sound Providers, JP and Soulo, deliver 21 tracks including instrumental breaks that make you feel like you’re in a suit, at some smoky juke joint, where the worlds of Miles and Dilla collide.

3. Mars ILL, Pro*Pain — Who dares to say that Atlanta only has crunk music? DJ Dust and manCHILD create a tapestry of songs that tug at the heart strings in melancholy boom-bap, accompanied by bucket blues samples that betray their southern roots, not as moments of acceptance, but daft and crafted musical difference.

4. Verbal Kent, Move With the Walls — Chicago, stand up. One of the city of big shoulders’ finest battle tuned MCs, is also one of the most gifted on Molemen Records’ roster. Kent’s off kilter delivery, scathing wit, and unrelenting attack make the stories he tells all the more powerful, especially since he does them in multiple, intricately detailed acts.

5. Spinnerty, In Full Bloom — Yes, the local kids are just as dope. Spinnerty fell into C-U’s hip-hop hall of fame and infamy in his stint as a local, and grooved us silly with this mixtape. Over an hour of careful blends, mashups, and pace changes that take the listener from head nod to night drive.

6. El-P, Fantastic Damage
— The Brooklyn-born, Def Jux-taposed master of “oh man, I just threw a Molotov cocktail at my drum machine” runs the full gauntlet on his first solo album. Laid thick with distortion, and creeping drum patterns, El-P bares his soul on everything from trying to save drug-addicted friends, onto the lucky lay after a night’s work at a show.

7. Cool Calm Pete, Lost — As one-third of the Bronx collective Babbletron, Pete croons so well over tracks (with beats he made himself), that you might not catch the fact that he’s firing battle lines. Bonus points if you can spot some of the incredibly hard-to-find samples he used, as well as locating his nine-track remix album Loosies.

8. Outasight, Radio New York – This kid is nuts. I mean seriously, what made him think that a singing cadence while rapping would work (I’m looking at you, Lyrics Born)? All jokes aside, this was one of the best indie hip-hop albums of 2008, and Outasight’s delivery doesn’t hurt it at all. 15 butter-smooth tracks, that are more than worthy of “break your rewind button”-repeat status.

9. Psyche Origami, Is Ellipsis — More down South love on the underground tip. Wyztyck and DJs Synthesis and Dainja show skills all around, with clever lines, and astounding, surgical-grade turntablism work. Be careful, there are several incredible bangers on this album, including “At Last,” a song that vaulted them to Adult Swim fame.

10. Electric, Life’s a Struggle — The necessary, hard-to-find record. Released in 2003, this five man team (Insight, Dagha, MoePope, Ra and Anonymous) only released one album, which now proves nearly impossible to get a copy of. Thankfully, one of the members, Insight, has an extensive catalogue of albums, most of which are easy to find and feature members from Electric.

11. Jniero Jarel, Craft of the Lost Art — The Shape of Broad Minds – Absolutely incredible, drunk-kilter instrumental hip-hop. Jarel channels the compositional bravado and skill of Flying Lotus and the late, great J Dilla, all while maintaining a groove that distinctly sounds a lot like what the West Coast is doing for instrumental hip-hop. Strangely enough, despite his sound … he’s from Philadelphia.

12. Madvillain (Madlib & MF Doom), Madvillainy — In late 2003, when rumors began to circulate that Madlib and MF Doom were working on a collaboration album, indie hip-hop heads began to go nuts on the topic. A year later, the result was one of the most eclectic and well-assembled hip-hop albums of the 2000s, period. This album is still so much in demand, that Madlib re-released the album in 2008, completely remixed.

13. MF Doom, Metal Fingers Presents Special Herbs — Hip-hop’s only supervillain is quite the beatsmith as well. Special Herbs is not just a single album, but actually TEN volumes of used and unused instrumentals from all of MF Doom’s past projects. If you can find all ten, you’ll have them on constant rotation, along with a growing knowledge of herbal nomenclature, as each song is named as such (High John, Arrow Root, etc.).

14. Georgia Anne Muldrow, Worthnothings — Hooray for blurring the line between hip-hop and soul music! This was Ms. Muldrow’s first release, at the ripe age of 20 years old, upon which she did all production, played all instruments, and both sang and rapped. Also, one of the few albums on this list that moreso ranks as an EP, with one of the shortest track bangers in memory, “Hey.”

15. Busta Rhymes, The Coming — Last, but certainly not least, a Busta Rhymes album that not many people know too much about. Busta released this gem in 1996, and the only song that achieved any notice was “Woo-HA!” However, this album holds countless head-nodders, including production from Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest.

Remember, this is just a refresher course to inspire you heads out there to keep looking. There are countless albums that will go unmentioned in lists like these. Above all else, listen to what you like, but be open to discovery. Keep diggin’.

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