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The Boston Phoenix Mop and Glow

Rap comps from N.W.A, Wu-Tang, Gang Starr, and more

By Alex Pappademas

AUGUST 2, 1999:  My favorite hip-hop compilation of all time is this budget-priced old-school sampler called Rapmasters Volume 10: Best of Scratchin' (Priority). An elementary-jams mix conflating the likes of Newcleus, the Soul Sonic Force, and Funky Four Plus One, this tape cold-rocks the roller rink, on and on till the backwards skate. I got my copy at a Northern Cali gas station.

These days, hip-hop comps seem to outnumber, and routinely outperform, full-length albums -- the year's highest-profile independent-rap release, for example, is Rawkus Presents Soundbombing II (Rawkus), a multi-artist sampler rich in sharply vented Giuliani-mosity and heartfelt B-boy testimonials, subsumed in a craftily administered mix by Beat Junkies Babu and J-Rocc. Mos Def and Common come off characteristically cool, Company Flow above average, but it's the relative upstarts who walk off with the crown: Sir Menelik shoots summer breezes with half of Brand Nubian (Grand Puba and Sadat X) on "7XL"; the beat divides Stereolab synth squirts by the hiss of Joni Mitchell's lawn sprinkler. Then sicko show stealer Thirstin Howl III hopscotches in and out of his own slang lexicon on the cantankerous, single-verse "Brooklyn Hard Rock." Spreading a message "as positive as my drug urine test," he vows we'll never catch him half-stepping, "even if I lost both feet."

The more sedate Tags of Our Times V.2 (Mary Joy) offers beats by the (ex)pound, the sound of one drum machine clapping; it transmits sonar pings and humid wisps of jazz out into the ether while top-shelf indie MCs meditate. Apani B-Fly Emcee branches out "like Badu's apple tree," Murs and Esop confess that "Some of my best friends are wack," and Rubberroom split the difference between Public Enemy and Megadeth. Not that independent necessarily equals cool: the dumb British comp Superrappin (Groove Attack import) throws umpteen undergroundists against a wall of fussy Premier-indebted beats, praying something sticks. Mr. Roam of Da Grassroots takes palpable joy in a string of superball syllables like "I got an entourage layin' in a lagoon/Full of Jamaican moneymakers and Guyanese tycoons," but he's the exception. On This or That (Interscope), disc-jocular wake-up-show hosts Sway and King Tech flex their Rolodex and bid for a dual degree in old and new school. The most inspired drop-on here is Cash Money and Marvelous's circa '87 party goof, "Ugly People Be Quiet." Still beats drive time, I guess.

Cue's Hip-Hop Shop (Dogday) hides its brightest lights (Westside Chemical's chugging 808-strumentals, the voluble, vulgar, underexposed Sacred Hoop, and gutbucket turntablist Mr. Dibbs's rock-'em sock-'em, blues-blood-bleeding "Judahs Transmission") under a bushel of undifferentiated DJ calisthenics. On the whole, the ghetto blasters have it all over boho-clique tracks this week: on South Coast Ballers (Big Baller/Epic), dudes with names like "Dirt," "Violence," and "Self-Made Millionaire" squeeze the accumulated fruits of G-Funk and Miami Bass for maximum juice as though it were their manifest destiny to do so. This is the real soundbombing: trunkfuls of piano plunk and electro slink, stereo-action bongos, Mr. Mister "interpolations," slot-machine sirens, and low, low freak-quencies, all calculated to make your bottom line shake. Listen and learn, as rum-punchy future star Po'Boy charms a potential bass kitten, suavely revealing, "I masturbate each time we conversate." That's this comp's sales pitch in a jeweled nutshell -- not exactly sexy, barely even coherent, but persistent. The Oaktown-emblematic Turf Stories (C-Note/Ruthless) takes Too $hort's 'hood-canvassing pimp phonics into the next millennium, with production (by synth-epicurists E&H and Keytek) that pours over even the rowdiest rhymers like velvet smog. File under "gangsta dub," a seductive blend of strip-club bum rush and massive attack.

Among songs that say "please," EPMD's "Please Listen to My Demo" is probably the least urgent, a tossed-off account of falling into a lucrative record deal, with Erick Sermon and Parrish "PMD" Smith big-upping their A&Rs by full name. Most of the duo's other highlights (collected on the bonus disc included with their new Def Jam effort, Out of Business) don't deviate -- Sermon's flow is so slack, the marbles won't stay in his mouth when he rhymes, and rudimentary sampling mummifies a lot of the old cuts in lockgroove funk loops. It's tough to front on vintage dick schwinging like "You Get the Bozack," but Out of Business is painful, and the hits disc omits "You're a Customer." What the fuck?

On Gang Starr's Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr (Noo Trybe/Virgin), inept song sequencing jumbles Guru & DJ Premier's unimpeachable track record into insightless incoherence. Material like "Jazz Thing" (originally from the Mo' Better Blues soundtrack, with Guru impressively rhyming the word "recondite") and "Just To Get a Rep" (on which a gurgling Jean-Jacques Perrey Moog sample gives the plumber some) belongs on a better-conceived, chronological look back. And overlooking the sublime scratch track "DJ Premier in Deep Concentration" is plain unforgivable.

Played side by side, Suge Knight Represents Chronic 2000 (Death Row) and The N.W.A Legacy Volume 1: 1988-1998 (Priority) illustrate the crucial difference between mop and glow. Legacy is maybe the only piece of gangsta shit you need to own, alternating sociologically significant N.W.A ("Straight Outta Compton," "Fuck tha Police") with vital solo shots from Ice Cube ("It Was a Good Day," remixed to bounce eerily on a slinky Staple Singers loop) and Dr. Dre ("Let Me Ride," the awesome "California Love"). Suge's Chronic 2000, on the other hand, is all stems and seeds, pairing hapless new talent with same-ol'-G's who got caught behind Death Row's lines before their stock options vested. The unreleased Tupac songs sorta rock it from the crypt, but sorry-assed cracker Milkbone straining to pick a fight with Eminem is just sad. In their post-N.W.A careers, Dre and Cube replaced attitude with aptitude, tearing gangsta's sonic crackhouse down to put up a hedonistic player's club on its foundations. Knight, still in jail for running his company like a subsidiary of the Mob Piru Bloods, doesn't have enough friends left to do the same. Payback is a beeyatch.

From Compton to Shaolin: The RZA Hits (Priority) tries to make the dubious case for the early Wu-Tang Clan as concise, clock-punching pop-single craftsmen. No dice -- the back-in-the-day Wu were always earthy and sometimes nearly God, but they're better represented by their effluvia, the snakes and bats in their wild-card catalogue. Still, the RZA produced this stuff with one finger on the pulse of hip-hop's future and one hand on his nuts, and nearly every track represents some crucial wrinkle in his operatic style -- pianos that drip down like venom, drums as cotton-mouthed as Royal Trux rhythm guitar. This crib sheet stops, wisely, at the so-tacky jeans commercial "Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance," which red-flagged the group's subsequent splintering; the RZA soon began subcontracting his duties to his senseless apprentices, letting stumbling Wu-spinoffs clog the Clan's chambers. Wu-Chronicles (Wu-Tang Records/Priority) bags up assorted Wu-cameos, remixes, and killa B-sides, capturing core-group members testing the bounds of reality in collaboration with outside talent. Method Man and the Notorious B.I.G. form a dope gravedancers' union on Biggie's "The What," and the RZA's walking-on-broken-glass revisiting of Genius's "Cold World" spotlights a D'Angelo chorus vocal, pouring cognac on open wounds.

The best thing about Ruffhouse Records' Greatest Hits isn't the track listing (which bestows gold watches on label MVPs Cypress Hill and the Fugees for songs you probably own already). It's the video-clip infomercial that's been running on late-night TV: Lauryn Hill does the Mary Wells across the split-screen barrier on "Doo Wop (That Thing)," Wyclef Jean runs for the border to chill with Bob Dylan on "Gone till November," and all the Fugees get interviewed separately, like feuding Real World housemates. Now playing in a paid-program time slot near you, it's the best Fu-TV since Pras Michel's credit-bureau endorsement.

Profile Records' ruthless rap/R&B mergers were more catchily conglomerated than Ma$e featuring anybody; appropriately, their retrospective Profilin': The Hits packages essential disposables (and Run-D.M.C.) in fly K-Tel fashion. N2Deep's "Back to the Hotel" is sexy as a drive-by, with ominous (canned) sax and violins stalking the beat like laser-targeted rifles. Poor Righteous Teachers foreshadow Outkast on the harmonica-juked "Rock Dis Funky Joint," the Kartoon Krew do the same for Timbaland by beat-jacking the "Inspector Gadget" theme, and Special Ed proves he's not just a member of the Eric B and Rakim Kids' Club -- he's also a client! It all works schmoovely, because everybody sells out and no one claims otherwise.

So let's shill on to the next episode: Rhino's as-seen-on-TV Millennium Hip-Hop Party, which makes crossover rap sound like the best idea anyone ever had. Steven Tyler frees his inner James Brown (Run-D.M.C.'s "Walk This Way"), Heavy D shakes it to pop, hip-hop, and house ("Now That We Found Love") because there's plenty of him to go around, and the shoop-bopping girl singers on L.L. Cool J's wet-dreamy "Around the Way Girl" just jingle, baby, like a bamboo earring. The clincher, though, is PM Dawn's "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss"; as overweight lover Prince Be sighs in your ear about the puddles in his mind, the plastic plants in his neutron van, expanding rubber bands and aces in the hole, and his Christina Applegate jones and his ice-cream headache, a flakily lovely Spandau Ballet sample melts on his tongue like low-fat butta.


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