"Don't call it a comeback / I've been here for years" is arguably one of the most famous lines in hip-hop. Rapped with self-referential authority by LL Cool J, those ten words epitomize nearly every artist's struggle to stay relevant in the here-today gone-tomorrow world that is the hip-hop industry. Even back in 1990, everyone knew it was a bitch out there, but Uncle L took the haters to task for trying to dismiss him before he was ready -- and, in the process, established a career-defining moment for himself.
I’d like to say that the same sentiment applies to Large Professor (a.k.a. Extra P or Large Pro or LP), who’s also been here for years but has just recently dropped what everyone wants to call his ‘comeback’ record. At the tender age of 17, Extra P cemented his reputation as the man to call for the hottest beats in town—a high school prodigy who had such a way with the SP1200 that he was programming tracks for Eric B & Rakim and Kool G Rap in the evenings while still attending classes during the day. According to legend, LP also passed his knowledge on to a young DJ Premier (knowledge that LP himself had absorbed from Pete Rock), who in turn hooked up Extra P’s own group, Main Source, with the Wild Pitch label. As is too often the case, Main Source only put out one album—1991’s brilliant (and, sadly, long out-of-print) Breaking Atoms—before dissolving into a cloud of bitterness. However, Large Pro was so in demand as a beatmaster by this time that he put his own projects on hold to work on records that have since become blueprints for hip-hop masterworks—A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and Nas’ Illmatic.
But somewhere along the line, things went south for the Professor—uncredited work, collaborations left unreciprocated, and the rising prominence of thug rappers in the mainstream began to make Extra P look like yesterday’s news. Adding insult to injustice was the fact that Large Pro had put together two whole records worth of solo material for Geffen by the mid-‘90s, all of which remains unissued to this day with the exception of two 12-inches. Through it all, Large Professor has kept himself busy while putting together this new solo joint—mostly on a much smaller scale that has balanced contributions to underground groups like Non-Phixion and the Beatnuts with work on bigger projects like Nas’ own “comeback” Stillmatic and the X-ecutioners’ Built from Scratch.
Now, a big red flag jumps up almost immediately when you notice the label responsible for 1st Class—Matador. As an indie rock label, Matador knew few peers in its mid-‘90s heyday (and continues to eke out a solid release now and then), but its forays into hip-hop have always come up short. Unfortunately, Extra P hasn’t done much to change their reputation in that respect, because all the wishful thinking in the world can’t make this record anything more than the work of a legend clinging desperately to his past successes.
That’s not to say that the production is awful on 1st Class—in fact, a lot of it is quite good in an early ‘90s time capsule way, begging the question of whether he might’ve been better off making an instrumental record. But the lyrics—to quote a recent cut from Dälek—“what the fuck happened?” It’s impossible to believe that someone who wrote rhymes with such a combination of ingenuity and social consciousness as “A Friendly Game of Baseball” can expect his listeners to accept some remedial shit like “Brand New”, or even worse, “Born to Ball” (where he spends a full verse rattling off his past song titles in a lame attempt to justify his credibility). Large Pro doesn’t change his tune over the course of the entire record, preferring to carry the load with one of the most dispassionate takes on the boasting tradition ever committed to disc.
Not even the record’s high-profile guests can help Extra P out of his rut. Nas and Akinyele try to rehash some of the old Illmatic vibe on the two-part “Stay Chisel” and “Akinyele”, but never really take it anywhere. Elsewhere, Q-Tip sounds as if he’s phoning in his lines on “In the Sun”, and Busta Rhymes’ contribution to “On” is so lackluster that he makes Large Pro sound like Talib Kweli in comparison. Maybe if Nas had invoked his beef with Jay-Z they could’ve moved some units for controversy’s sake, as opposed to wasting big-name collaborators on half-assed routines.
Deep in the record, the Professor finally delivers some redeeming moments in the form of “Large Pro” and “Alive in Stereo”, two tracks that, despite not being able to shake the disc’s dismal lyrical trend, are vintage Extra P in terms of production. “Hip Hop” also rides a decent beat, but reveals a glimmer of the old Main Source-era Professor with its slightly less egocentric lyrics—if these cuts weren’t in the minority on 1st Class, this review would be a far more positive proposition.
So is it unfair to judge 1st Class by Large Professor’s past accomplishments? Perhaps. But regrettably, it’s the only thing that makes the record worth listening to—because an album this weak that came from someone without Extra P’s cred wouldn’t even be worth the polycarbonate substrate it was pressed on.