Sound of the City’s search for the quintessential New York City musician enters Round Two this week, with battles in the Round of 32 daily. Keep up with all the action here.
Being that he’s a card-carrying member of the Illuminati and all, you might want to suggest Jay-Z used his influence to buy his way through the first round of SOTC’s search for the quintessential New York musician. But you can only beat what’s placed in front of you, and Jay did his duty in waltzing through to the next round against the recently defunct ensemble Parts & Labor. Now, the man from Marcy Projects is faced with a showdown against one of Queens’ finest rap ensembles—the No. 8 seed A Tribe Called Quest, who saw off the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the opening bout. Sit back and enjoy what’s sure to be a feisty cross-generational hip-hop matchup.
Jay-Z: “Dead Presidents”
Forget Jigga man’s vault of chart-toppers—his “Empire State of Mind” and “Hard Knock Life” crossovers—his entire career is nattily wrapped up in the original, non-album version of “Dead Presidents.” Fusing street smarts and cold-hearted boasts with lingering moments of introspection, this was the sound of the drug peddler transitioning over into the world of the artist; the second verse, with its talk of how the hustling life can quickly slip from being “all good just a week ago” into a mire of jail terms, snitches, and self-doubt is as relevant in rap now as it was back in ’96. And Jay’s opening confession that “My mind was fine ’til the dough hit it” still underwrites his career to this day—or at least explains his decision to record with Chris Martin.
A Tribe Called Quest: “Scenario”
The chemistry between Tribe MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dog was always undeniable, but by calling in an assist from Leaders of the New School they summed up an era in rap while also creating one of the greatest posse cuts of all time. Over a dusty, rambunctious beat, “Scenario” is an energizing string of top-notch boasts and brags, sparked by Phife’s spunky talk about bussing “a nut inside your eye to show you where I come from” and capped by Tip and then Busta going apoplectic. As a kicker to the quality of the song, verses from De La Soul and Black Sheep were reportedly ditched from the track.
Longevity: Well, Jay’s still doing it, while Tribe’s key players are largely content to stay embroiled in a series of simmering and petty disputes. And these days Jay is still capable of creating trends in rap and pop culture. He’s also partly to blame for the new basketball stadium at Atlantic Yards that will both annoy the crap out of anyone who lives anywhere remotely close to it and ensure a physical reminder of his legacy long after he ascends from this world.
Innovations: As part of the Native Tongues, Tribe helped usher through the idea that being intelligent and humble weren’t traits to scupper a rap career. They also hooked up with the producer Jay Dee/J Dilla early on in his career (although that might be a sour point as his influence on the group helped derail their consistent album streak). Jay, in contrast, brought to the fore the idea of the rapper as a business man—and forged something of a template for all hip-hop business since. That may or may not be a good thing.
Starpower: In tandem with his wife Beyoncé, Jay is now tabloid fodder. He can also pack out stadiums, and one pithy quote from him is enough to fuel an entire online news cycle. Much loved though they are, Q-Tip probably has to wait in line like everyone else at the Spotted Pig, and it’s doubtful a celebrity gossip rag will pay for the exclusive rights to publish photos of Phife’s firstborn.
Intangibles: Both Tribe and Jay have indulged in some really ropey and quite hippie-esque fashion follies. (Remember when Jay attempted to make sandals a hot item?)
Likely winner: Tribe might be one of rap’s most adored groups, but Jay-Z wins just about anything he puts his hand to these days.