Thursday, August 12, 2010

Remember the Underground? Last Tracks

It's no secret that mainstream hip hop has taken a new direction during the past decade, drifting so far into the realm of catchy club music that it may no longer even fit under the name "hip hop." Many of the veterans of hip hop's golden age in the 90s have decried this development. As we all know, Nas, whose 1996 debut album Illmatic marked the height of that age and has since become the definitive hip hop album, declared with his album title in 2006 what many had already been saying: "Hip Hop is Dead." Putting aside the longer debate about the validity of this statement, which requires a careful definition of terms and a thorough comparison of the hip hop of the 90s to that of the 2000s, it is worth noting the impact this statement has had on the underground hip hop community.

During the past decade, underground hip hop artists have been among the best that hip hop has to offer. While many of the celebrated artists wallow in their wealth, the underground artists have continued to rap about their struggles, both in their efforts to be successful and in facing the challenges to live a safe, happy life. They have been the ones speaking the truth, rhyming about things that matter and carrying on the torch of hip hop. It is the fault of the mainstream audiences and artists that they have not been more commercially successful. Or so many of them would have you believe.

While there is definitely plenty of truth to these ideas, too many underground hip hop artists have taken full advantage of the "hip hop is dead" buzz to blame others for their own subpar music. I cannot remember how many songs included at least a verse or two along these lines: "Yeah Hip Hop is Dead/ Like Nasty Nas Said/ My Music is Real Hip Hop/ Not Wack Radio Pop/ I'm the Greatest/ Because I Never Made It....Byah!!"

For someone who loves good underground hip hop and cannot stand most of the mainstream "hip hop", I cringe whenever I hear this repetitive, misplaced self-righteousness that comes across as truly pathetic. Many of these artists are far too good to fall to the self-aggrandizing depths of their counterparts.

So, to remind us all why hip hop and underground hip hop in particular is worth listening to, I have created a playlist of classic tracks that evaded the generic, contrived, superficial lyrics of those posing as hip hop artists. The playlist is themed: all of the songs are last tracks on albums. As it happens, MCs are often inclined to be most intimate, most honest and most truthful in their last track, when they describe the struggles they are facing. Hope you enjoy and feel free to add your own favorites. (Also, a couple words of note: it is really pretty difficult to make a playlist of last tracks because each one feels like, well, a last track and if you only listen to one song, listen to the last one).

1. No Rest for the Weary - Blue Scholars, Blue Scholars (2004)

2. Nothing Less (feat. Slug) - Living Legends, Almost Famous (2001)

3. Walk the Walk - Gatsby the Great, Falling Up (2007)

4. Clear Blue Skies - Juggaknots, Clear Blue Skies (1996)

5. "B.I.B.L.E" - GZA, Liquid Swords (1995)

6-7. "You Never Know (feat. Jean Grae)"/ "One (Remix) feat. Akir" - Immortal Technique, Revolutionary Vol. 2 (2003)

8. "Revelations" - Masta Ace, A Long Hot Summer (2004)

9. "Epilogue" - J-Live, The Best Part (2001)



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