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The Hip Hop Box
Hip-O Records

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Nas

Illmatic 10th Anniversary Platinum Edition

Sony/Columbia

 

As the years go by it becomes more apparent that history is becoming a thing of the past. By that I mean, of course, the appreciation of history, though I don't know if there was ever a generation of youth who had a great affinity for years past. Maybe the elders today who scoff at the young 'uns for not knowing their past have romanticized notions of their own teen-age years, making themselves out to be experts on their own culture's progenitors.

 

With the release of The Hip Hop Box, the latest four-CD offering from Hip-O Records (The Funk Box, 2000 and The Reggae Box, 2001), we find some ol' headz who've taken it upon themselves to package what they regard as "51 of the genre's greatest turning points, highlights, landmarks and breakthroughs," from the no-brainer Sugar Hill Gang's 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight" to Dr. Dre's 1999 hit "The Next Episode," which was co-produced by Hill District musical engineer Mel-Man.

 

Hip-O Records seems to be some people who re-package black semi-popular genres by the fours and re-release them under history-appreciation implications. But you kinda have to give Hip-O the benefit of the doubt, especially since they have a foreword on the jacket written by Chuck D. After all, if Chuck D. is co-signing for it ...

 

Following the foreword is a quick primer on hip-hop history written by music journalist Tom Terrell, then a list of the redundantly phrased "Indisputable Fact[s] Not Open To Debate": "The Technics 1200 Turntable is the last great musical instrument of the 20th Century"; "Hip Hop is the last great music of the 20th Century and the first great music of the 21st" and "Hip Hop is the new Rock 'n' Roll. Hell, to anybody born after 1970, Hip Hop is Rock 'n' Roll."

 

The musical selections of the Box are pretty obvious and frankly, it's futile to argue why certain songs did or didn't make the 51-cut cut. Depending on your region or background there are arguments to be made about why your favorite rapper is or isn't on here. They get it right in some areas -- Too Short's "Freaky Tales," Main Source's "Looking at the Front Door," Wu-Tang Clan's "C.R.E.A.M." and a live version of The Roots' "You Got Me" featuring Jill Scott.

 

But there are some obvious omissions: People like Method Man, Nate Dogg and Tribe Called Quest earn multiple slots at the expense of others like Jay-Z, N.W.A. and Outkast. Biggie only shows up for his verse on the Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s "Get Money" remix. Inclusion of Timbaland and Magoo ("Luv 2 Luv U") and M.C. Hammer ("Turn This Mutha Out") is questionable at best.

 

There's no excuse for excluding Nas from this set, though, unless it was due to (likely to be) label disputes. But no need to fret. Nas has taken it upon himself to re-release his own history-making offering.

 

Nas' debut Illmatic is for many what John Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is: a recording limited in track quantity but maximized in opus quality. And like the Coltrane and Gaye classics, it channeled all the pain of its own social era while leaving indelible impressions on both listeners and musical peers.

 

It was a blessing and a curse, as his rival Jay-Z would later say. Nas, the son of blues artist Olu Dara, never was able to match his Illmatic accomplishment, and for a while he didn't care. Once his rival began gaining ground on him, then eventually surpassing him, Nas all of a sudden felt compelled to make hip-hop folk remember who he was, fearing that people were becoming less impressed with who he is.

 

In 2001, Nas opened his own floodgate by releasing Stillmatic -- reflexively labeled a classic. Then there were two volumes of The Lost Tapes, which provided B sides and mix-tape favorites. There was the EP, Illmatic to Stillmatic: The Remixes. All of which culminates with this month's release of the Illmatic 10th Anniversary Platinum Edition.

 

Illmatic 10th ... is a remastered version of his debut landmark CD along with four additional remixes -- "Life's a Bitch," "The World Is Yours," "One Love," and "It Ain't Hard to Tell" -- and two "new" recordings -- "Star Wars," where Nas revisits his tired, almost homo-erotic swordfight with Jay-Z, and "On the Real," where he boasts about spitting lyrics that are 10 years old.

 

Why Nas feels so obligated to bludgeon us to death with his early-'90s supreme-king status, I don't know. Most hip-hop heads get it, and don't dispute it. But Nas is like Evander Holyfield: a once brave-hearted champ who now seems too stupid to get out the ring, as opposed to the more Lennox Lewis-like Jay-Z, who seems to understand when it's his time to retire.

 

Like the Hip-O label execs who produced the Hip Hop Box, Nas seems bent on making contemporary fans aware and respectful of the architects of this particular strand of black music even though hip hop itself was a flippant response to the historical black musical genres that proceeded it -- a position that early songs from Stetsasonic, Public Enemy and Run-DMC support.

 

"The music I'm hearing doesn't make me want to be a b-boy. It makes me want to throw it out the window like a Frisbee," says DJ Premier in another essay included in the Box sleeve. Maybe more like a boomerang. For the more rap aficionados keep throwing hip hop out the windows, the more it keeps flying back. And if you don't protect your neck, that boomerang is liable to decapitate you, disconnecting you from the current youth urban culture. Thus making you the latest incarnation of the musical snob who only longs for the glory days of [enter your favorite musical genre here] and refuses to recognize the genius produced by modern-day street griots.

 

 



S Prcss

Taste Like Daughter

French Kiss

 

I've always enjoyed the spectacle of the art-rock band. Let me be specific here: By art-rock band, I'm talking about a group of musicians who've been to art school. Not that any of them wear their diplomas on their sleeves, of course, but isn't it obvious that arty dance-punk outfits like Ssion, for instance, with their animal costumes and their animated film-school slideshow, are really more interested in the theatrics of their act than the sound it's making? Not that there's anything wrong with that. After all, if there's any genus of nu-punk that needs to get the "show" back in show business, stat, it's indie rock, right?

 

And therein lies the brilliance of S Prcss, who continue to release records that feel almost like a two-for-one deal: We're already expecting the spectacle, for instance, but the blistering, full-on, protopunk sing-alongs are a pleasant surprise. Nearly every track here has all the odd time signatures and the vaguely retro electronic bits we've come to expect from French Kiss-caliber music, but with just enough melodic knob-twisting to make them accessible to someone with more traditional tastes.

 

The major influences on Taste Like Daughter seem to come from nowhere in particular, as well. Some pieces are oddly psychedelic, and the brilliantly simple power-hooks from others ("Your Motivation Is," "I'm a Motorcycle Drummer") will affix themselves to the inside of your subconscious and refuse to stop looping for days. Maybe weeks.

 

This sort of behavior, in fact, is quickly becoming habitual for the entire French Kiss constituency: fully conceived rock deconstruction and do-re-mi harmonies, all on the same disc. If this is what they're teaching in art school these days, sign me up.

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