Chips Picks: Back to the basics

Oct. 6, 2005, midnight | By Samir Paul | 15 years, 1 month ago

As hip-hop fans look beyond the mainstream, Chips takes a look at some great alternatives

Nobody saw Kanye coming.

When rapper-producer Kanye West released his breakthrough album "The College Dropout" last year, no one could have predicted the tidal wave of commercial success and critical acclaim it met. West brought a fresh perspective to a genre dominated by music that glorified violence and degraded women, and people started to consider his criticisms of hip-hop culture's materialism.

Now that West's sophomore showing, "Late Registration" (2005), is climbing the charts, mainstream consumers are finally getting another taste of hip-hop outside crunk and gangsta rap. With fans looking to West for his insightful, socially conscious lyrics, the market is ripe for a resurgence of alternative rap. Chips presents three alternative hip-hop albums every fan should own:

"3 Feet High and Rising" (1989) - De La Soul

What you'll love: Creative sampling; catchy hooks; playful lyrics that make you laugh and think at the same time. De La Soul is the Charlie Parker of alternative hip-hop.

What you won't: The 1980s-style flow gets old after a while. Run D.M.C. does it better.

Sample lyrics:
"Do people really wish when they blow
Out the cake candles, and if so,
Is it for the sunken truth which could arise
From out of the characters in which the ghetto hides?"

-"Ghetto Thang"

Start with the classics. De La Soul's three members are the godfathers of alternative hip-hop. Released at the height of gangsta rap's advent, their most influential record, "3 Feet High and Rising," is the quintessential alternative rap album. The group's positive, witty lyrics set the stage for every alt-rap artist in the next decade. De La Soul has constantly taken risks in experimenting with its sound and pushing boundaries in underground hip-hop.

And it's clear that De La does as De La pleases. The group embodies the creativity and exploratory spirit alternative hip-hop prides itself on. The album's quirky samples come from a wide variety of musical genres, ranging from yodeling to "Schoolhouse Rock" to a French language learning tape.

Still, the album lacks the modern flow most hip-hop fans are accustomed to. De La's rhymes are simplistic, and the album is peppered with couplets pairing "heart" and "part" and "cool" and "fool." They sound more like unsophisticated Run D.M.C. than the skilled post-West-coast rappers whose timing and rhythm took on new dimensions.

But try to look past the flow to examine their message - De La Soul is all about uplifting fans with positive lyrics and a feel-good vibe. De La's "3 Feet High and Rising" is the perfect starting point for a hip-hop fan looking to take a trip back to the old school.

"Power in Numbers" (2002) - Jurassic 5

What you'll love: J5 boasts hip-hop's best DJs, and their MCs' inventive flow is a pleasure to listen to.

What you won't: The tracks don't flow into each other as naturally as Kanye West fans may be used to. "Numbers" lacks that satisfying beginning-to-end feel.

Sample lyrics:
"We tight like dreadlocks and red fox and ripple.
We pass participles and smash the artist in you.
The saga continues, but this I won't get into
`Cause there ain't enough bars to hold the drama that we've been through."

-"What's Golden"

Sheer bravado is the only way to describe Jurassic 5, America's most talented rap group. And here's the thing: J5's MCs have every right to be as cocky as they are. "Power in Numbers" mixes an old-school lyrical sentiment with a typical turn-of-the-century flow and sound, and the result is one of the decade's most innovative hip-hop records.

"Numbers" is a ride on an emotional roller coaster. The CD starts out philosophically. "Freedom," is a soulful cry for equality in a cruel world, and "Remember His Name" is an anti-violence track in the classic alt-hip-hop tradition. The lyrics are compelling and reflect a sincere yearning for justice.

The next section of "Numbers" is a demonstration of pure lyrical might and verbal versatility. J5 has the sharpest, tightest wordplay in modern rap music, and boy, do they know it. Much of the rest of "Power in Numbers" is simply the MCs rapping about how skilled they are, but their rhymes are so charming that it's hard to fault them for their arrogance.

Underneath J5's lyrical prowess, DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark flaunt their chops on the turntables - they're two of the most skilled DJs in American hip-hop. "Numbers" has catchy riffs throughout, but the DJs really open the floodgates during the last few tracks, culminating in "Acetate Prophets," an instrumental ode to turntables. Cut Chemist's production work on the album is superb, adding the perfect finishing touches to the record.

"Power in Numbers" is a mature, reflective album that manages to mix elements of thoughtful social commentary with new-school lyrical artistry and attitude. J5's sound is both distinctive enough to attract seasoned hip-hop fans and catchy enough to bring in mainstream listeners looking to get their feet wet in alternative rap.

"Black Star" (2002) - Mos' Def and Talib Kweli

What you'll love: Mos' Def and Kweli speak with more passion and conviction than any other rappers on the alternative scene.

What you won't: This album's distinctly alternative-style hooks are an acquired taste.

Sample lyrics:
"Caught up in conversations of our personal worth,
Brought up through endangered species status on the planet Earth.
Survival tactics mean bustin' gatts to prove you're hard;
Your firearms are too short to box with God."

-"Thieves in the Night"

Kweli and Mos' Def are the most politically vocal rappers on the alternative hip-hop scene. "Black Star" is all about a message of empowerment and pride in the face of an oppressive establishment. While the album was met with widespread critical acclaim, neither of the pair has been able to top its success in the years since each went solo.

Which isn't surprising, since topping "Black Star" would be like topping Beethoven's Fifth or the Beatles' "White Album." "Star" may never make nightclub rotations, but it is heartfelt, sincere and spiritual; every couplet on the record is well thought-out and imbued with deep meaning. Jazzy hooks and riffs underlie the mature, thoughtful tone of the album, which features some of the boldest, most cerebral rap ever recorded.

Even the most unsuspecting tracks contain some of the smartest rap around. In the battle rhyme "B Boys Will B Boys," Kweli and Mos' Def imitate the style of the Cold Crush Crew, an early rap group that pioneered the genre three decades ago. The song is an homage to hip-hop's schoolyard, grassroots origins and is a subtle jab at rap's commercialization.

Intelligent songs like that are what make "Black Star" a work of art. Each element is carefully weighed, and the final product speaks eloquently to the urban experience in a hostile society. "Black Star" pleases the ear and stirs the conscience, and it's exactly what the doctor ordered for a genre that's lost sight of its roots.

Samir Paul. <b>Samir Paul</b>, a Magnet senior, spent the better part of his junior year at Blair brooding over everyone's favorite high-school publication and wooing Room 165's menopausal printer. He prides himself in being <i>THE</i> largest member of Blair Cross Country and looks forward to one more … More »

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