[15 October 2006]
The underground rap explosion of the mid- to late-1990s started out as a good idea. Back then, it made sense to oppose the vapid pop-rap bubbling on both coasts. The movement to protect and preserve so-called “real hip-hop” was a driving force for those who liked rap better before all the champagne and, more importantly, all the ridiculous major label exploitation and restriction. Major labels opted for the shock value of ignorance and misogyny and preferred to avoid creative risk that would threaten the bottom line. As rap became a commodity, those who valued their creative freedom often found themselves without a deal. Thus the indie rap community attracted rappers who wanted to push the envelope in their topics or their music. Dense lyricists like Aceyalone and Company Flow. Bugged-out dudes like Kool Keith and Aesop Rock. Revolutionaries (at least in intent) like Black Star and Non Phixion. Female emcees whose gender was irrelevant, like Jean Grae. What they did was less important than how they did it. Independent rap labels pushed everything from hood retellings of Scarface to 11-minute concept jams. The radio shows in New York that pushed many of these records were also among the first to play Biggie and Nas.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before the movement was hijacked by a generation of college kids who wanted rap that didn’t offend their fragile sensibilities. The new wave of fans, having grown up surrounded by rap but turned off by the common knowledge that it was all bitches and guns, championed any emcee that said nice things about women, mentioned stopping the violence or lamented police brutality. That is, as long as they were not on the radio or from the South. The magic of group-think dreamed up a revisionist golden age of rap, an idyllic 1992 when everyone wore shelltoes and “kept it real,” and rap had nothing to do with sex, drugs, partying or any of the other fun things that happen in real life. The further away it gets from 1992 (and as the major players from 1992 grow distant from the scene), the more it seems underground rap aims for their Platonic ideal of “real hip-hop.”
That quick and overly general history lesson explains why Urbnet Records’ Underground Hip-Hop Vol. 4 is so dull. Vol. 4 starts out strong, with powerful tracks from Red Ants and DL Incognito (“Two Bars” and “The Masses”, respectively), both narrating with frustration and intensity. Doujah Raze’s “360” is similar, and also very good. Reign gets help from Canadian star Saukrates on the mildly Neptunes-inspired “Guilty Party”. But, as indicated above, the genre is dominated by those who want to rap about rapping (and how most people do it wrong) over an incredibly dated fake Pete Rock beat. For example, consider Theology 3’s “Temptation Island”. The track tells of T3’s journey to a metaphorical island where he is, well, tempted by 808s and fast rap, hallmarks of that down-South sound. Of course, he avoids temptation and returns to his studio and his SP1200 sampler, presumably to continue channeling Pete Rock.
The bulk of the lesser material on Vol. 4 isn’t so self-righteous, but as with much underground hip-hop today, tracks from Jay Bizzy, Tru-Paz and Dragon Fli Empire barely have enough substance to critique. The larger problem is that none of these tracks differ much from the standouts on paper. Most genres have a blueprint, a trendy sound that a grab-bag compilation such as this one will inevitably capture. But underground rap has a golden standard that will not change, a stated intention to serve as a time-capsule for New York circa 1992. Though there’s some damn good 1992 approximations, Underground Hip-Hop Vol. 4 shouldn’t interest anybody with a working copy of Daily Operation or Mecca and the Soul Brother.