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This Thursday, Def Jam celebrates its 30th anniversary with a star-studded live show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. It was a short three decades ago at New York University’s Weinstein Dorms where Vincent Gallo introduced Russell Simmons to Rick Rubin and launched what would become hip-hop’s longest-tenured label. But while its most heralded releases have found their place among the genre’s most treasured, there’s a number of gems in the Def Jam catalog that seldom get mentioned in these retrospectives. To right this wrong, we’ve named five unsung Def Jam masterpieces.
Downtown Science were a rap duo with some of the illest production you’ve never heard. While you may be familiar with Sam Sever’s production work on 3rd Bass’s output, the innovative sounds on his own group’s debut album is a must for Def Jam completists. It’s crazy to hear this album, with its spacey use of samples and airy flows, and think that it came out over two decades ago. Rap fans are still playing catch-up on this one.
All We Got Iz Us, 1995
Onyx’s debut, Bacdafucup, spawned two classic singles in “Slam” and “Throw Us Guns,” and their third album, Shut Em Down, gave us some of 1998’s grittier jams (and the debut of 50 Cent). Between those two milestones sits All We Got Iz Us, their darkest album (and, being that this is Onyx, that’s saying something) with perhaps their best rapping. It’s not for everybody, but judging from the title, they like it that way.
The Art of Storytelling, 1999
When people think of Slick Rick’s body of work, they either point to his flawless debut, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, as one of the genre’s defining releases, or they mention its two follow-ups as an example of what can happen when artistic output gets compromised by the legal system. But Rick’s fourth and final album, The Art of Storytelling, featured a newly freed and absolutely rejuvenated Rick weaving and dancing with language as only he can while not losing a step, hanging with the top MCs of the day.
The Truth, 2000
Really, any of Beanie Sigel’s monster first three albums qualify as underrated, but The Truth was so ahead of its time that we had to mention it here. Just as Roc-A-Fella Records was establishing itself as the dominant East Coast presence in rap, Beanie muscled together an uncompromising, often harrowing, journey through a Philly bull’s mind. Not to mention the ahead-of-its-time production that boasted a young Kanye West and Just Blaze shortly before they became rap’s signature sounds.
Pilot Talk, 2010
There’s a lot people say about Curren$y in terms of how he was left for dead by both No Limit Records and Ca$h Money in the early 2000s before rebuilding his career and finally taking off after finding his voice as the jetsetting pothead who made the stoner life glamorous. But while people tend to start at Pilot Talk 2 and continue from there as examples of Curren$y at his best — with the argument that this work was more “cohesive” — the original Pilot Talk offers much more in the way of spontaneity. While it clearly is the product of simply making tracks for tracks’ sake, that unpredictability and sheer zeal is part of its charm, offering new fun twists and turns even on repeat listens.