The holiest of holies: Hip-Hop. It was ‘88…
—Vast Aire, from The Cold Vein
Let’s take it back to the basics.
—Blueprint, from “Unlimited”
As founder of the Ohio’s Weightless label and Greenhouse Effect crew, Blueprint used to be better known for his skills behind the boards than at the microphone. Aside from a memorable appearance on the dreamy jazzscape of “Alchemy” on Aesop Rock’s Daylight EP—a beat of his own making—he was more familiar as mentor and provider of beats to voracious prodigy Illogic; their perfect chemistry evolving over the course of three albums. In between times, Blueprint put out a label showcase, The Weightroom, that frustratingly leant microphone limelight mainly to others even as it underlined his production talent. Then in 2003 he emerged suddenly as part of super duo Soul Position, limiting himself solely to the vocal booth whilst man of the moment RJD2 cranked out the beats. Whilst there could be no doubt that gaining the rights to rip an RJ beat was enough to make the indie hip-hop crowd sit up and take notice, Blueprint’s wry charisma and witty wordplay over the course of the Unlimited EP and subsequent album 8 Million Stories got their hands in the air, substituting smarts and odes to one night stands (“Night to Remember”) for the morose intellectualism commonly associated with underground MCing. Last year came his third (and possibly last) album with Illogic, and also an instrumental album, Chamber Music, both of which saw him remain more or less mute. Now Blueprint has finally seen fit to drop his solo debut: entirely self-produced, and with only two guests sharing vocal duties, he’s out to prove that he’s “fresh… for ‘88. Suckerrrrrs!”
A word of explanation here for those not up on that year in the evolution of hip-hop, perchance because they weren’t walking upright by then (hell I was seven at the time, but then I’m a slow learner): ‘88 was not so much a pivotal period as an essential fulcrum of hip-hop’s development from a movement into an artform. Debut albums that year came from Eric B & Rakim, MC Lyte, De La Soul, EPMD, JVC Force, the Jungle Brothers and Run DMC. The colossi Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions (will Blueprint be the last MC to name himself after the KRS-One album instead of the Jigga one?) were firing off second rounds; there was so much going on so quickly that the damn air must have crackled with an almost frightening charge, the joy of discovery and excitement at the scope of potential feeding back into one another restlessly, relentlessly even.
Blueprint knows all of this because he lived it rather than just hearing about it, so this album has an authenticity lacking in most history lessons. From the paraphrased intro in you’re bombarded by the beats and voices imbedding themselves in his consciousness back then; we get BDP and Stetsasonic samples (scratched up by DJ Rare Groove, who apparently provided some of the rarer architecture needed to make the aural landscape authentic), beats that first banged on “Suckers MC” and “A Touch of Jazz”, soundbites from Malcolm X and Do The Right Thing and, most irresistibly, a track (the appositely titled “Fresh”) based around Doug E. Fresh’s exhumed exhalations.
Done wrong, this could merely have resulted in hollow nostalgia and beat jacking, but Blueprint’s is a living (and indeed live) testament and although we may have heard chunks before, the resulting speech -whether via tracks that seamlessly mix the instantly recognisable with the dark, dramatic grandeur of the raw blues guitar, piano and vocal samples he brings to bear over a shifting web of melodic lines, all without losing that timeless feeling, or the thematically linked rap styles and song concepts- is undeniably his own. Neither is Blueprint trapped in the past, as the title track embodies an amalgalm of his own break and backing with a gorgeous tinkling piano loop most recently used by El-P on “Stress Rap” off Cannibal Ox’s notorious 2001 LP The Cold Vein. He even goes so far as to let the last three words of my opening Vast Aire quote ricochet over the track repeatedly whilst laughing to himself in the background “Classic… bringing it back!” Thus is an impervious chain of originators established in ‘Print’s regard, and an album often derided as being “hip-hop for people who don’t like hip-hop” brought into the fold of hip-hop’s greats. “This is what real hip-hop sounds like”, say all the tracks on this album, “we know, we were there—so if we don’t like you, go figure.”
Meanwhilst ‘Print himself is busy boasting about having shagged your moms (“You found out it wasn’t toothpaste on her quilt”), explaining how to judge beat quality (“The next time you think you got a classic/throw it in your ride/and listen to it in some traffic/make sure you roll the windows down…”) and outlining his dating scheme for competitors (“You need to know/I play matchmaker as a hobby: I can introduce speed knocks/to your body”) and laying down the law: “I hope to God that you’re a scholar/‘cos before I test your skills/I’ma test your knowledge.” Here, playfully resurrected, is the invigorating brashness of hip-hop’s youth that would degenerate into crudity, violence and ignorance (seemingly without it recognising the difference) and very welcome it is too, never more so than on the outrageously un-PC “Big Girls Need Love Too”, which wrings every last ounce of affectionate satire out of both that patronising cliché and women with “weight issues” on either side of the divide (hey, whether “You look like Jabba the Hutt/with two butts” or “You look like a hungry P-Oh-Double-U”, “Blueprint still loves you”). Totally insensitive and sexist, of course, which is why in these tightly clenched times that line about double mint gum has me practically in tears (of laughter, bless) every time.
Of course, ‘88 wasn’t just Paul C’s year, and so aside from the endearingly learing “Where’s Your Girlfriend At?” there’s the thoughtful, sympathetic tale of a young man’s fall into crime on “Inner-City-Native-Son”; the cunningly rhymed, accusatory b-boy vs. b-girl narrative of “Tramp” (“This ain’t about hate/this is about you being fake”); the righteous rage of anti-police violence anthem “Kill Me First”, with its chillingly mundane samples; and the personal unburdening of “Trouble On My Mind” and “Liberated”, the first about Blueprint’s career to this point, the second about his personal journey, beginning “I thought I saw/what Malcolm Little saw/inside the game/that made him want to draw an X/across his last name…” and ending in an analysis of his old, discarded relationship that puts the cartharsis back around art, before bringing in the man himself for a few words.
Speaking of a few words, what better way to remind of us of ‘88’s focus on wordplay of a simpler potency whilst simultaneously pissing off up-themselves backpackers everywhere than by having Aesop Rock, war god of insanely knotted bramble patch verbiage, guest on a track and yet utter only “This is lo-fi funk/you can find me in your trunk/Turn my volume up” on the chorus? Genius. And on “Boombox” ‘Print crafts an ode to the joys of being antisocially noisy in the days when tweaked, booming beats had yet to become the norm on the radio, when you graffed and fetishised your deck to the point where it was the music made chrome, when your choice of batteries actually made a difference in terms of power, when the crackle in the air earthed itself anywhere: “Wherever I’m at/the b-boys follow/my ‘box turns bus stops/into the Apollo.”
On 1988, Blueprint delivers a guide to a sparkplug of a year, capturing its essence whilst feeling bang up to date. He has made the truth of those years his truth, delivering authentic slices of his personal history through hip-hop’s prismatic traditional trinity: this is how it was, this is how it is, this is how it might yet be. As happened then, as happens now, as will happen in the future, repression forges community; hunger,deprivation and fear catalyse gusto (“Rrrrrah!”), confidence and risk taking; injustice and success breed anger and hope. Seldom in history has something so powerfully positive united so many in the face of such overwhelming negativity. You might cast aspersions as to the music’s celestial qualities, but you don’t rate Mozart by banging it in your whip, do you? You can choose to view the fact that not much has changed musically in 17 years with either contentment or regret, but with regards to the message, there now seem to be a majority who never listened properly, and for them, Blueprint’s solo debut rewinds things to Year Zero. He’ll slap you around a little to get your attention, he’ll make you grin, he’ll make you grim, he offers you hope. Whether in ‘88, now or in another two decades, that’s fresh.