True MCs

LIFE AIN'T ALWAYS what it seems here in the more money/more problems era of rap, when the genre enjoys stupefying success and widespread respect but lives uncomfortably in the shadow of its former achievements. Every corner-stoop critic can pinpoint the exact moment in which hip hop reached its artistic peak--'87? '89? '93?--but both the hard-core audience and the big press seem haunted by the knowledge that the moment has passed. Take the muted response to the self-titled debut by the Firm, a corporate merger of East-meets-West with powerhouse producer Dr. Dre and rappers Nas and Foxy Brown taking anxious fans on a cinematic Benz ride through junior mafialand. Sure, the album sold well, but critics couldn't ignore its lack of inspiration.

Perhaps Nas best exemplifies the parallel phenomenon of creative slump and financial conquest: When the Large Professor introduced him to the world on the Main Source's 1991 debut, Breaking Atoms, Nas sounded hungry, and on his epochal 1993 debut, Illmatic, he seemed to have something to say. But in 1998, the music that schooled America in new ways of talking, dancing, and looking at itself now seems to have nothing at all to say, except Buy Me. Meanwhile the underground thrives and the turntable movement--that is, DJs without rappers--has marshaled a quiet response from the suburbs of the world. With '70s funk exhausted, these formalists cut and scratch rap records from, say, seven years ago, and if you're stuck at one of their wank-fest competitions, peek in the crates to remember why you got into this stuff in the first place. The pristine copies of, say, the Ultramagnetic MC's Critical Beatdown stand alongside a reissue boom in older new-school, or "middle-school," rap. And the great middle-school label Wild Pitch couldn't have picked a better time to rise from the dead and rerelease classic debuts from Main Source, Gang Starr, Lord Finesse, and the UMC's.

The UMWhos, you say? Well, as familiar as you may be with Gang Starr (or Guru's Jazzmatazz projects), most Wild Pitch artists at the turn of the decade had an influence that far outstripped their unit success. Initially, Gang Starr didn't make either MC Guru or DJ Premier rich, but 1989's No More Mr. Nice Guy took its cue from Stetsasonic and brought hard-core hip hop decisively into the larger black-music lexicon. With cuts like "Jazz Music," they set the positive tone and jazzy atmosphere for a generation of New York rap, and if Guru's voice sounds cardboard (though no more so than Puffy or Mase), Premier's work is still jaw-dropping: Listen to the way he flips the piano riff from "A Night in Tunisia" to make pure funk on "Manifest."

But if Premier and Guru went on to wide fame and influence, like-minded rappers Kool Kim and Hass G of the UMC's never found the audience they deserved--though their weirdest loops are of the same mold as fellow Staten Islanders Wu Tang Clan. The singles "Blue Cheese" and "Never Never Land" sound as musically progressive today as they did when they first appeared on 1991's Fruits of Nature, their debut. But like too many undergrounders vibing off the Native Tongues clique--that loose Afrocentrist alignment of De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest--the UMC's metaphor-driven science-drops were ignored in the increasingly gangsta-fied market. The beguiling string sample on "Jive Talk" would always be lost on the residents of Chronic-town.

The Native Tongues made early-'90s rap quicker, smarter, funkier, breezier, and bassier--and for a few minutes, they also allowed rappers to dress like college students. No group came harder, and looked softer, than Main Source, whose fierce MC, Large Professor, remains a widely cited influence. Extra P, as he's also known, had a unique ability to turn emotional nuance into street poetry, as on the great break-up single "Looking at the Front Door": "When you're with your friends, I glide to the side 'til the spotlight is mine and never sabotage a good time," he reminds his chilly girlfriend. 1991's Breaking Atoms had other breakthrough moments, like the police-brutality metaphor "Just a Friendly Game of Baseball" and the invigorating posse cut "Live at the Barbeque," which saw Nas and others trading breathless strings of rhymes. This was hip hop at its most exciting, but by the time Nas hit the charts, P was largely forgotten.

Lord Finesse, meanwhile, could barely move his classic first album with DJ Mike Smooth, Funky Technician. Produced by Premier, it floundered upon release in 1990, even by modest Wild Pitch standards, and the MC had to jump labels. Like the other rereleases, this joint is striking in its buoyancy and scratchy rawness. But more than any of his labelmates, Finesse connected hard with the street audience; The Source recently named Funky Technician one of the 100 best albums ever, along with Breaking Atoms.

Like Ice Cube, Finesse made rap more honest, and he aired a lot of sexism--check his straight-shooting "Strictly for the Ladies." But as with the UMC's, he got slept on (he's reportedly set to release something new in '98). The middle school of Finesse and Main Source might be suddenly fashionable in DJ circles, but flip through the stacks yourself to see why--it may renew your faith in a waxing and waning form.

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