Bring Back the Beat! What’s Up with Hip-Hop Reissues?

The record industry makes huge efforts to reissue rock CDs, but nowhere near as much effort for hip-hop CDs.
Illmatic XX

The record industry makes huge efforts to reissue rock CDs, but nowhere near as much effort for hip-hop CDs.

It would be nice to know that the record industry thinks older hip-hop fans are cash cows, too.

For most of the last 30 years, major record labels have generated steady income from regurgitating their back catalogues on one format or another, especially once they learned fans would happily buy the latest versions of music they already owned. First it was straight-ahead album reissues on CD, then multi-disc collections including a rarity or two. Then, those album reissues were remastered to catch up with improved audio technology. Once hipster cred revealed vinyl was a growing opportunity, some classic albums started turning up in that format too (on 180-gram vinyl, of course, the better to charge a premium price for it).

By this point, there aren’t many classic – or even way-less-than-classic – albums that aren’t available on CD, even if you have to troll through eBay to find ‘em (and for the sake of argument, let’s all pretend that you can’t hear any of them on YouTube, anyway). But the industry is still addicted to that easy-peasy reissue revenue, so like any junkie, it’s got to kick things up a notch to match the never-ending jones (and for the sake of argument, let’s all pretend that they aren’t really trying to squeeze some more cold cash from their most faithful consumers, the folks who don’t actually mind paying for music in physical formats).

Thus, we have this month’s launch of a major Led Zeppelin reissue project. The first three Zep albums have been re-re-released on CD with up-to-date remastering overseen by Jimmy Page himself, plus rare tracks, concert videos and assorted other goodies. The other albums… their time is gonna come (and I wouldn’t be surprised if said time falls around a holiday – the first batch hit just in time for Father’s Day). Seeing as their catalog has been in dire need of attention for years, it’s hard to be mad about this effort.

But do we really need a bells-and-whistles blowout to mark the 20th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s final album, The Division Bell? Or a 40th anniversary victory lap for Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky? Or a 30th anniversary release of a greatest hits record? Yep, you read that right. The Bob Marley and the Wailers best-of Legend, one of the most efficient and popular CDs of its kind, is being re-released as a two-disc set, with the second disc being a Blu-ray audio version of the regular CD. I actually should say re-released again, following expanded versions in 1994 and 2002, a set with a DVD in 2004, and a set of remixes in 2013.

I have no idea who would shell out bucks for this latest iteration– certainly not most Marley enthusiasts, who’ve had these songs for years in one format or another – especially since the original Legend seems to have been selling just fine (25 million worldwide and counting, by most estimates). The whole thing brings to mind this lyric from one of those Legend-ary tracks: “every day the bucket a-go a well/one day the bottom a-go drop out” (“I Shot the Sheriff”). For now at least, this particular well seems to still has a drop or two left.

Other genres have their own spins on the reissue game; you can get Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in more hard-copy permutations than there are tracks on the original album. But curiously absent from all this fun has been hip-hop. There are numerous classic hip-hop albums, many of them around as long or longer than the band Soundgarden, yet their Superunknown has just been gussied up into two- and five-disc expanded packages to mark its 20th birthday, while most major hip-hop albums haven’t been revisited since their original release.

One of the first significant hip-hop album reissues was the 1998 “Platinum Edition” of Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full, which included a disc of remixes along with the original album. Run-D.M.C.’s catalog got the full treatment in 2005, with bonus cuts tacked on to the original albums. De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising got a similar treatment in 2009, but that’s long since been forgotten, especially after their BitTorrent adventure earlier this year.

But beyond that, there’s been little industry attention to revitalizing hip-hop’s past for current consumers. Milestone anniversaries of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and The Low End Theory, to name just two, came and went without reissue-style notice. Some major hip-hop labels have had nice retrospectives (Sugarhill and Def Jam have each seen several), but sometimes it seems like there’s more interest in reissuing the music hip-hop sampled than the final products, as evidenced by the steady stream of soul and funk obscurity compilations.

Perhaps it’s an issue of getting clearances for samples (although that didn’t prevent a 20th anniversary reissue of the Beastie Boys’ sample-driven Paul’s Boutique, complete with a vinyl version, in 2009). Perhaps a workable master tape to use for the remastering process doesn’t exist anymore. Perhaps there isn’t enough unreleased material just lying around in a vault somewhere to pique fan interest. Or perhaps somebody determined that folks just don’t care about re-buying old rap records for the sake of a remix or two.

All of which makes this year’s re-re-release of Nas’ Illmatic news. The story of the album is part of hip-hop’s legend and lore. Nasir Jones grew up watching rap take shape in the Queensbridge housing projects in New York City, then made a name for himself with incendiary cameos on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” and MC Serch’s “Back to the Grill”. Illmatichis debut album, is at once gritty and poetic, defiant and hopeful, all with a jubilant flow. It was an instant classic, and has been a foundational text for rappers ever since.