As hip-hop nears its 40th year, the rapid evolution of the genre has fostered an environment where tracks from the ’90s are already considered old-school. That misnomer speaks volumes about the mercurial nature of the hip-hop world. Perceptions of the youth aside, only in recent years have we begun to truly conceptualize what old-school means. New Rochelle MC Grand Puba isn’t old enough to be ranked with pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa or Kool Herc, but as a rapper who had his first bit of shine in ’88, he is definitely in the KRS/BDP peer group, which made huge strides toward making hip-hop what it is today.
His debut with Masters of Ceremony was a little more chart-oriented than we would come to expect from his later work, featuring the young Grand Puba Maxwell rhyming in a little bit higher of a register. While Masters got a fair bit of notice, the group was ultimately short-lived and disbanded by the end of 1986. Puba quickly formed the more openly Afro-centric group Brand Nubian with fellow politically minded MCs Lord Jamar and Derek (later Sadat) X, and the group released One for All in 1990. Grounded in the teachings of the Five Percent Nation, the record alternately made waves and shaped minds on the scale of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The music and the message were tack-sharp, with tracks like “Wake Up” and “Slow Down” prompting many a hip-hop head to nod along as their mind was blown.
Puba left Brand Nubian soon afterward, taking Nubian DJ Alamo with him. Real to Reel followed soon afterward, spawning a mild hit with “360 Degrees (What Goes Around)” and featuring some of the earliest recorded appearances from Mary J. Blige. Puba seemed well positioned as a hip-hop heartthrob who also kept the streets satisfied. The record sold respectably, and Maxwell returned in 1995 with another minor hit in I Like It, but Puba soon reunited with Brand Nubian for the respectable, if chart-untroubling Foundation.
RetroActive is the first Grand Puba solo release for the New York indie Babygrande label. The record sports an old-school flavor, but wielded with the self-assurance of an MC confident in his flow, not as an artist clinging to past rhyme glories. New(er) school cats like Rell make appearances, as do Maxwell’s Nubian comrades and Queens cronies like Q-Tip and Large Professor. While I’m sure Babygrande and Puba would like to see some chart action with RetroActive, know that from the needle drop, any placement will not be at the expense of their politics. RetroActive comes with the same unapologetically acute Afrocentric mindset we have come to expect from the self-proclaimed Grand Pu-bama.
Politics aside, old heads can rest assured that Puba continues to display a level of modesty that would make Big Daddy Kane demur. Tracks like “Hunny” and “Get That Money Quick” are quick to extol his own virtues for the benefit of the ladies, but his hubris doesn’t seem to have burned too many bridges with his peers, as guest shots abound on RetroActive. By and large they are reasonable pairings, with a refreshing lack of cut-and-paste Asher Roth guest verses or other profit-driven musical miscegenation. Large Professor handles his business on “Same Old Drama”, as does Q-Tip, who straight rips “Good To Go” with the closest approximation of his old-school, pre-Vivrant flow that I’ve heard in eons.
Old or new, fans should be more than satisfied with RetroActive. Puba knows his place in the annals of hip-hop and isn’t about to relinquish his spot for the millions of rap new-jacks coming up in his wake. Whether trading sixteens with the old school or rhyming with Kanye-approved auto-tune, RetroActive combines the best of the old and the new school to spawn the best-realized Grand Puba solo release to date.