This week’s NME is a 1994 special so we asked cult rapper, producer and writer J-Zone to pick out 10 of the greatest forgotten hip-hop tracks from the golden year.
1994 was a special year to me. Not because Nas cleared major label rap’s debt to gimmick-free, no frills New York rap. Not because Biggie proved you could be a fat, cockeyed cat from Brooklyn in a loud Coogi sweater and knock down the finest women in show business like bowling pins with incomparable aplomb. (Though both feats are admirable and have my utmost respect.) Nah, 1994 stands out to me because it was the year I officially made the decision to enter the music business and not look back as a 17-year-old junior in high school. And one March afternoon, that’s what I did when I cut my last period class to meet with Vance Wright (Slick Rick’s DJ), play him my most recent demo tape and begin a studio internship.
That gig got my foot in the door for what’s been a 20-year run of exhilarating personal victories, painful defeats, humbling reality checks, awkward dates on which I had to keep a straight face while I told a grown woman I was a rapper she’d never heard of, embarrassing claims of yearly income on my tax returns and other ups and downs. Anyway, here are 10 rap songs that got heavy rotation in my Walkman that year while I walked the six miles to and from the studio every day, plotting, planning, scheming, studying and forming my own sound.
10. Hard 2 Obtain – ‘Joker’s World’
The SD50s never got the credit they deserved as producers. They had this dirty, soulful sound that was unmistakable and unique – it was like hip-hop’s version of Stax Records. I anticipated this album for a long time because all the singles had great beats. Atlantic Records was notorious for not knowing what the fuck to do with the rap acts they signed, so I never knew when the H2O album, ‘Ism & Blues’, dropped. I stumbled across it by accident. Lyrically these guys didn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but the album just feels good and this is the song I ran to death that summer.
9. Nice-N-Smooth – ‘Do Whatcha Gotta’
Greg Nice was working on stuff at Vance’s studio when I started interning. I think he even stayed there awhile – he was there every day. He’d always tell me stories about Nice-N-Smooth back in the day and other happenings in the music biz, so as a young kid, I was wide-eyed. The group’s Jewel of the Nile album dropped while he was there, so I got to hear it before it was out. He came in with a big box of album vinyl from Def Jam and gave them out to some of the people in the studio. This song features Greg at his nonsensical best and that beat is still crazy today. Every time I hear it, I’m reminded that he and Vance were the first people to take the time to sit me down and tell me about the rap game and be real about shit.
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8. Milk – ‘Get Off My Log’
Audio Two’s second album got them in a lot of hot water (with the homophobia stuff) and the group disbanded a year later, but I always loved Milk as a rapper. I was amped when he came back as a solo artist with the ‘Never Dated’ EP. Milk was like the spoiled, arrogant kid on the playground that would spit in your face, then run and tell the teacher you spit in his. His brash, loudmouth style was a huge influence on me as a rapper. This song was wildly unorthodox for 1994 – the hook made you say “what the fuck is this?” Even the beat was way off-balance. But Milk was a risk-taker and dared to be different; I always loved this song. There’s another song on the EP where he doesn’t even rhyme – he just randomly raps and throws insults for four minutes.
7. Casual – ‘Get Off It’
Everyone was all about Souls of Mischief’s ’93 Til’ Infinity’ album when the Hieroglyphics crew was buzzing around this time. I loved it, too, but Casual was my favourite because he was the dark horse of the crew. He may not have had a catchy single (his album was pretty dark and funky, beat-wise) but he was the assassin that would put it on somebody. I was looking forward to his album, Fear Itself, for months. These guys were only a few years older than me, so I kind of looked up to Hiero, even being in New York. They made their own beats, kept everything in house and every last one of them could rap their ass off. It was like going full circle (no pun intended) when I got to produce songs for all of them 10 years later. This song is just really hard. I knew that Freddie Hubbard loop since childhood because my dad used to play that ‘Straight Life’ album around the apartment.
6. Tweedy Bird Loc – ‘I’m Callin’ You A Bitch’
1994 was like a boom-bap renaissance in New York, while Cali was all about synthed-out low rider G-Funk. Tweedy was from Compton, but he didn’t sound like anybody and he disliked everybody. This dude was just roasting everyone from rappers to white folks to entire cities. Completely unprovoked! He gets mad points for sheer heart. This was the Queen Latifah diss track and the answer to her song, “U.N.I.T.Y.” It’s ignorant as the sky is wide, but I was bumping shit like this in high school for entertainment and change of pace since most other rappers were about showing skills or too busy imitating The Chronic.
5. Artifacts – ‘Whassup Now, Muthafucka?’
I beat the shit out of this cassette single. Till this day, I say it’s one of the most consistent rap singles ever. There were three solid, hard-hitting songs on it: “Wrong Side of the Tracks,” “Flexi With Da Tech” and this cut. By this time, it was rare for an imprint of a major label (Big Beat/Atlantic) to sign a group this grassroots in approach – they were rhyming about graffiti and rhyme books – so I anticipated the album like a madman. This song also demonstrates the power of the short song – I’d run this shit and the instrumental over and over and over, wanting more. I bought the Cassingle in June and it popped by Labor Day.
4. M.O.P. – ‘Blue Steel’
‘To The Death’ has always been my favourite M.O.P. album, despite the DJ Premier connection and more refined production associated with their later albums. The energy on this album just puts you right in front of Jefferson High School in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with Billy and Fame rhyming in a circle of 50-plus goons. This was one of the last New York albums to really make you feel like you’d catch a buck fifty across the face for visiting here. The beats were dated and drowned in reverb, but that sound fits the wild juvenile aesthetic even better in my opinion. Lil’ Fame has a line on this song: “It don’t cost nothin’ to send your ass to the paramedics.” That shit always got me! Old New York, R.I.P!
3. Pete Rock & CL Smooth – ‘The Sun Won’t Come Out’
‘Mecca And The Soul Brother’ was such a masterpiece that Pete & CL made a sophomore album that was just as good in its own way and nobody even recognised that fact until years later. When I was interning in Vance’s studio that summer, a dude from Mt. Vernon passed through with a dub of ‘The Main Ingredient’ album on cassette and played it for us. This was three months before it came out. I nearly fell out the chair when I heard this cut. The way Pete layered the samples and how effortless CL sounds – it’s just a beautiful chemistry. When I got the album, I went right to this song first because I remembered how dope it was.
2. The Odd Squad – ‘Fa Sho’
I expect a barrage of “You’re crazy” comments for this, but Odd Squad’s ‘Fadanuf Fa Erybody!’! album was my favourite album of 1994. It still is today. I’ve never heard a rap album fuse so many influences so effortlessly. The group was from Houston and on Rap-A-Lot Records, both known for some of the hardest gangster shit you could find. They had that southern gumbo soul in their production, but then they sampled jazz records, had comedic song content that would leave you in stitches and they didn’t kill a single person on the album. You really couldn’t discern which region the group was from by listening to this album, which was rare then. ‘Fadanuf Fa Erybody!!received little to no attention, probably because it couldn’t be categorised musically, but it saw that very fate based on label and region. I knew Devin the Dude would one day be a star after I heard this song about cheating on your girl.
1. The Beatnuts – Sandwiches
The Beatnuts are far and way the most underrated hip-hop producers of all time. Their first full-length album from ’94 is brilliant from start to finish; their ear for samples is pristine. This song is a perfect example of what I call a “busted loop.” That’s a sample that’s recorded in a way that captures what you think would be unwanted sounds that surround what you’re really trying to use. And it sounds…busted. The Beatnuts are pioneers of smart brainless rap. That’s music you need to be sharp to put together, but you deliberately avoid any type of depth content-wise. I adopted both concepts when forming my own sound, so I owe a great debt to The Beatnuts. This song is just twisted and ignorant in so many ways that I have no choice but to say it’s my favorite on the album.
Finally, honourable shout-out Shadz Of Lingo’s ‘A View To A Kill’. This song blew me away then and still does today; the drums just grab you by the neck. The rapper was no Nas, but his voice and flow were perfect fits for the beat.
J-Zone latest album ‘Peter Pan Syndrome is well worth checking out