Often people ask me if I listen to rap. The short answer: yes, but a select group of artists. I enjoy clever rhymes and wordplay, creative use of sampling, and, of course, a skilled rapper. Some of the best tracks, however, rarely receive airplay. Nodding to the beloved tradition of making mixtapes, I present some of my favorite underrated rap songs.
“Drop” – The Pharcyde. Ever wonder what it would sound like if aliens decided to rap? This spaced-out track might be the result. Backwards loops, cutting lyrics (“Cause n—-s done sold they souls, and now they souls is hollow/And I think they can’t follow/They can’t swallow, the truth because it hurts”), and fierce delivery add up to a unique track. The often-edited end, which features what sounds like a UFO landing, enhances the out-of-this-world aura. The Spike Jonze-directed video, a dizzying few minutes filmed backwards, still stands out as one of the best hip-hop videos ever filmed.
“Breakadawn” – De La Soul. When De La Soul broke through in 1989 with their classic 3 Feet High and Rising, they ushered in a new kind of rap. Filled with psychedelic images and sophisticated word play, the group’s music generally avoided violent terminology. Perhaps best known for their first hit “Me, Myself and I,” they recorded several successful albums, including 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate.
That critically acclaimed disc contained “Breakadawn,” which samples Michael Jackson’s “Can’t Help It.” De La Soul’s members trade rhymes, effortlessly spitting tongue-twisting lines such as “Aiyyo groove with the mayor, hazard on the sayer/Wave the eighteen mill’, eat a still/Sack or bag of troubles, make the single double/Loop the coin and join the minimum wage.” This clever wordplay remains a hallmark of De La Soul’s unique sound.
“Shake Your Rump” – Beastie Boys. What other track can boast the lines “Well I’m Mike D and I’m back from the dead/Chillin’ at the beaches down at Club Med”? A tour de force of sampling, “Shake Your Rump” proves that the Beastie Boys are a genuine talent. Their first album, Licensed to Ill, positioned them as the frat boys of rap. But their second disc, 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, showcased a new Beastie Boys: artists that were not afraid to stretch the limits of rap.
At the time, the album was a commercial disappointment; as years passed, it became a modern classic. The track “Shake Your Rump” represents the trio’s best: astoundingly creative sampling, humorous and complicated lines, and gleeful rapping.
“Johnny Is Dead” – Q-Tip. This immensely gifted artist helped convert me to rap. Q-Tip’s singular voice, intricate rhymes, and willingness to incorporate jazz, rock, and other genres continue to impress. As a solo artist, he first captured my attention with the 1999 single “Vivrant Thing,” an aggressively danceable tune. It would be almost a decade before he released his follow-up album, The Renaissance, a hip hop masterpiece. The CD’s first track, “Johnny Is Dead,” announces Q-Tip’s comeback with its thumping beat, rock-infused background, and his effortless flow. “And its up to me to bring back the hopeful/Feeling in the music that you can quote,” he raps, and this song is Q-Tip’s joyous return to form.
“The Message” – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. One of the first rap songs I heard, “The Message” remains among the best protest songs ever written. Released in 1982, the track resembles the evening news, exposing the listener to the realities of inner city life. Poverty, violence, unemployment, drugs, crime — Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five directly address all these issues in one song.
Who doesn’t remember the chorus: “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head,” Grandmaster Flash raps, continuing “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” Indeed, the track delivers a message: take a hard look at these injustices.
“Full Term Love” – Monie Love. Female rappers might be a common sight now, but in the late eighties and early nineties, women were still struggling to be accepted in the hip hop world. One such artist is British-born Monie Love, who made her debut on Queen Latifah’s classic “Ladies First.” Her 1992 single “Full Term Love,” originally released as part of the Class Act soundtrack, later appeared on her 1993 album In A Word or 2. While the song leans toward pop, it retains its rap sensibility with Love’s rapid-fire delivery. The throbbing beat makes the song danceable, and the lyrics are written from the perspective of an independent woman wanting an exclusive relationship. Although the single can be difficult to find, don’t miss this slice of nineties hip hop.
“Much 2 Much” – US3. Briefly in the early ’90s, a trend combining rap and jazz emerged. Along with Digable Planets (“Rebirth of Slick [Cool Like Dat]),” US3 crossed rap with scatting, sampling classic jazz recordings with abandon. They were signed to the legendary Blue Note label and given permission to raid the music vaults to create their tracks.
While controversial in the jazz community, their 1993 debut album Hand on the Torch spawned a big hit, “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” based on Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” US3 never equaled that initial success, but they continue to release albums and tour in Europe. Their 2006 release Schizophonic exemplifies acid jazz, particularly the track “Much 2 Much.” A Latin beat predominates, while seemingly free-form lyrics such as “But whatever happens I’ve abided/To try to live righteous I’ve decided/That this existence can’t be rushed” weave throughout the horns and percussion. While dubbed a “one hit wonder” in the United States, US3 still produces interesting work that proves how jazz and rap can coexist.
“Don’t Sweat the Technique” – Eric B. & Rakim. Long considered giants in the hip hop field, Eric B. & Rakim released the famous album Paid in Full in 1987; before that, they became known for the pioneering tracks “I Know You Got Soul” and “I Ain’t No Joke.” They mastered the art of sampling, yet were able to transform the samples into something entirely new and different. In addition, they preceded the jazz/rap trend with 1992’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique,” from the album of the same name. The running bass line, saxophone, and room-shaking drums explode from the speakers, while the lines borrow from the hip hop tradition of boasting about one’s rapping prowess. “They wanna know how many rhymes have I ripped in rep/But researchers never found all the pieces yet,” they rap, and the heavily rhythmic delivery bolsters their argument. For another example of truly exceptional hip hop, one cannot find much better than this and other Eric B. & Rakim works.
“Pop Goes the Weasel” – 3rd Bass. Although they recorded only two albums, 3rd Bass proved to be rap pioneers. Along with the Beastie Boys, they were among the first credible white rappers. Duo MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice possessed a gift for writing clever, often amusing lyrics. They particularly crusaded for authentic hip hop, frequently bashing artists they considered sellouts or manufactured by record companies. The ultimate “dissing” track, 1991’s “Pop Goes the Weasel” attacks Vanilla Ice and other overtly commercial rappers for perverting the genre. Over a sample of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” the pair lays into Vanilla Ice with abandon. “Ya stole somebody’s record then ya looped it, ya looped it/Ya boosted the record then ya looped it, ya looped it/Aiyyo, I came from Cali, and they hooped it, they hooped it/But now you’re getting sued kinda stupid.” Overall, the track calls out wannabe rappers with razor-sharp wit.
“Nuttin’ But Love” – Heavy D & the Boyz. Heavy D deserves credit for successfully merging rap with pop, although he could hardly be called a sellout. His lightning-fast rapping skills were the real deal, and his tracks received a great deal of airplay at ’80s and ’90s parties. While he recorded numerous terrific tracks, including “Is It Good to You” and “Now That We Found Love,” my favorite remains 1994’s “Nuttin’ But Love.” Its relentless beat and Heavy D’s seductive performance make the song an enjoyable listen that demands everyone to get on the dance floor.
“All Falls Down” – Kanye West. From this list, one can conclude that I am heavily steeped in old-school rap. Obviously some modern artists also exhibit clever wordplay, and Kanye West stands as one of the most adept. Setting aside the controversy and his admittedly massive ego, he has shown a willingness to experiment and test rap’s boundaries. West has created many memorable songs like “Gold Digger,” “Through the Wire,” “Stronger,” and “Power,” but “All Falls Down” still sounds different from anything else he has released.
A cut off his debut album The College Dropout, “All Falls Down” serves as an urban folk song, with West rapping about people struggling to live a successful life. Amazingly, West confesses that he experiences moments of insecurity: “It seems we living the American dream/But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem.” He adds that “We’ll buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need ’em/Things we buy to cover up what’s inside.” Artists rarely lay themselves bare for their audiences, and “All Falls Down” excels for its brutal honesty.
“Heart” – Neneh Cherry. Before Lauryn Hill, there was Neneh Cherry. The daughter of jazz musician Don Cherry and sister of Eagle Eye Cherry (“Save Tonight”), Neneh created a stir with her 1989 classic Raw Like Sushi. Mixing R&B, dance, pop, and rap, she scored a huge hit with the single “Buffalo Stance.” Her tough delivery and ability to sing as well as rap distinguished her from other artists. Another Raw Like Sushi track, “Heart,” displays her confidence and sass. Neneh castigates a woman for stealing her man, spitting out unusual lines like “Chocolates, bananas, doughnuts and salami/Ain’t gonna fit cause you’re full of baloney.”
Featuring a catchy beat and a chorus she sings herself, “Heart” is another standout single from a landmark hip hop album.
“Hey DJ” – Malcolm McLaren Presents World’s Famous Supreme Team. Take a trip back in time with this fun cut, when rap just started to break into the mainstream. A tribute to DJs of all types, the 1984 track now functions as a sonic time capsule, with retro lyrics like “Yet your cuts are fresh and your raps are mean/ Take your two turntables and a microphone/And keep em dancing all night.” While the artists and technology have changed, the spirit of rap remains the same—and this classic song summarizes the wonders of hip hop. As they say, the DJ still “rocks the beatbox.” A sidenote: the distinctive melody was sampled in Mariah Carey’s hit “Honey.”
It took me a while to appreciate rap, but I gradually learned about its different sub-genres, messages, and moods. Rap and hip hop may have undergone numerous changes since the advent of “Rapper’s Delight,” but its emphasis on creativity and facility with wordplay remains. No matter what, as the World’s Famous Supreme Team states, “While the MC rocks to the microphone/Rockin’ the house is what it’s all about.” Dig into rap’s rich history and discover these and other under-appreciated gems.Powered by Sidelines