What follows are 10 of the greatest forgotten records in New York hip-hop. It goes without saying that no such list is entirely comprehensive, nor ever could be — there are simply too many angles to cover. However, we believe these are among the choicest; here you’ll find obscurities, some lost classics, and a few unheralded masterpieces that simply demand revisiting. Enjoy, and please, discuss.
10. Intelligent Hoodlum (1990) — Intelligent Hoodlum
Skeletal, smart, politically literate and seemingly effortless, Intelligent Hoodlum’s (a/k/a Tragedy Khadafi) debut is the stuff of conscious hip-hop dreams. Intelligent Hoodlum’s concerns are timeless, and, sadly, still much too relevant. Take “No Justice, No Peace,” a track that recounts the killing of a black man at the hands of police, which, in light of recent events, is as anthemic as ever, eerily prophetic: ” ‘Cause if we don’t have justice, there is no peace/No peace, this is the message you’re sending me/Killin’ my brothers makes you my enemy…America’s a prison.” While not as sonically lush as Trag’s equally underrated sophomore effort, Tragedy: Saga of a Hoodlum, with cuts like “Arrest the President” and “Black And Proud,” Intelligent Hoodlum just hits that much harder. Despite being a member of the notorious Juice Crew and consistently name-dropped by legends like Nas, Intelligent Hoodlum remains a slept-on talent, a forgotten linchpin of the early ’90s. Listen here.
9. Goodfellas (1995) — Show and A.G.
Darker than its predecessor, Runaway Slave, Goodfellas is a gnarly twist on the mid-’90s hardcore and boom-bap underground. With Showbiz receding into the shadows, focusing almost exclusively on production, A.G. takes center stage on the mic, alongside a rotating crew of guest appearances (including a terse but fiery Method Man verse on “Got the Flava”). Opener “Never Less Than Ill” kicks things off like a heel to the dome, a groaning piano loop, jangling textures, and A.G.’s flashy braggadocio cracking the seal on what’s an immensely visceral album. Things never let up from there, with the sole glimmer of sunlight coming by way of soulful single “Next Level,” which constitutes the album’s only “hit” (it would later appear on the 8 Mile soundtrack). As one of the best, though under-celebrated releases to come out of the Bronx’s Diggin’ in the Crates crew, Goodfellas is a booming snapshot of the East Coast’s heyday. Listen here.
8. Blah, Blah, Blah (1996) — Blahzay Blahzay
This one’s just gorgeous. As the lone release of DJ/MC duo PF Cuttin’ and rapper Outloud, Blah, Blah, Blah is a consistently plush effort hinged on expansive samples and silky vocal deliveries. Absolute stunner “Danger” is the epitome of these strengths; slithering along a back of velvety hums and snappy beats, A.G lays down a brainy vocab clinic, repping Brooklyn as only the best wordsmiths can. Most memorable is the dizzying, scratched chorus, a refrain-as-anthem that loops the garbled chant of “When the East is in the house, oh, my God!” It’s a hook that will have its teeth in you for weeks.
7. This Is My First Album (1996) — Kwest Tha Madd Lad
The opening track on This Is My First Album is an intro entitled “Everyone Always Said I Should Start My Album Off With a Bang.” The entire track, all 47 seconds of it, is made up of goofy sex sounds — all female oohs, aahs, purrs, and moans — a cartoonish field recording of a “bang.” Which, somehow, in context, is just perfect: hilarious, witty, and surprisingly lighthearted. On the cover, the libido-damaged MC sits sad-faced, vaguely positioned like Rodin’s Thinker, wearing nothing but a diaper and stark-white socks. This write-up could end right here and you’d already go out and buy the record, right? Which, of course, you should go and do right now. Admittedly, by record’s end, the old-hat themes begin to wear a bit, but Kwest infuses each line with just enough charm and feverish dexterity that you can’t help but root for the ever-smirking underdog. Kwest has an unassuming, Lil B-like quality that allows him to make tales of lady-chasing and sneaker-hunting sound like grand pursuits. A notoriously formidable battler in his day, Kwest’s flow can still verge on hurried, even awkward, though with lyricism this purple it’s hard to even care. Any alt-rap list or mixtape that lacks Kwest’s “101 Things to Do While I’m With Your Girl” is one worthy of suspicion. Listen here.
6. Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light (1992) — Divine Styler
If hip-hop has a twilight zone, this record is its most outlandish chapter, and Divine Styler its goblin king. Following a fairly conventional debut, Styler was signed to Warner Bros.’ Giant imprint thanks to his affiliation with Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate. The major-label reps had no idea what they’d done. Spiral is a sprawling monster where rap meets collage music, industrial, power electronics, metal, and Beat poetry. It’s damn near Syd Barrett-like in its deranged, nervy introspection, yet it blooms with that rare balance of horror and unsmiling humor that artists like the Residents and the Butthole Surfers made careers out of juggling. Unlike similarly art-damaged rap crews (think Techno Animal, Death Grips), Divine Styler’s experiments are firmly grounded in narrative, one with an unmistakable religious bent. You’d almost be hard-pressed to even call this rap, as the bulk of its influences all lie in rockist avenues, from the disjointed angles of post-punk to the blinding maximalism of the artiest prog rock. It’s one thing to fumble around with pseudo avant-gardism; it’s quite another to somehow, impossibly, bring all the splintered ends back together into one congealed whole, even if that whole is defined by its own slippery logic. Spiral’s uncompromising defiance of genre boundaries (really, anything resembling linear musicianship) fuels what is one of the most difficult and fascinating pieces of outsider art in all of music. Listen here.
5. Seven Eyes, Seven Horns (1998) — Scaramanga
Yes, Scaramanga (a/k/a Sir Menelik) sounds a lot like Ghostface — right down to the unhinged frigidity of his flow and knotted delivery — but, no, it doesn’t diminish the MC’s effect whatsoever. Perhaps best known for his guest verses on Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagonecologyst, Scaramanga showed himself a true solo force with this, his 1999 debut. Largely unknown outside the world of hip-hop tastemakers and Brooklyn scenesters, Seven Eyes, Seven Horns is a subtly chilling collection of tracks ideal for highlighting Scaramanga’s vivid imagery and curiously opaque verbal romps. With growth evident since his awkward stirrings with Dr. Octagon, here Scaramanga’s knack for lyrical complexity and outright eccentricity makes for a lively set that simmers best after several listens. Paired with Scholarwise’s driving, ghostly beats, an in-form Scaramanga delivered a genuine masterpiece with Seven Eyes, Seven Horns, what would become one of the most criminally unheralded drops of the late ’90s.
4. My Field Trip to Planet 9 (1993) — Justin Warfield
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more obscure masterwork than this. Perhaps best labeled as psychedelic rap (mostly on account of its subject matter), My Field Trip to Planet 9 plays out like a hippie’s take on golden-era hip-hop — sitar samples included. Foreseeing the arty twists of OutKast’s later material, and firmly in step with De La Soul’s D.A.I.S.Y. Age, Field Trip is a quirky vision of backpack-era sympathies informed by psychedelic experiences and ’60s counterculture literacy. Although Warfield strains to layer on the hip reference points — A Clockwork Orange, Twin Peaks, Dali, Ravi Shankar, and Violent Femmes just scratch the surface — the end result is rarely clunky. Instead, Warfield puts middle-class doldrums to good use, knitting adolescent cultural discovery and well-read swagger onto a bed of gauzy Technicolor sonics, forming what might be hip-hop’s quintessential rock-fusion artifact. As you might have guessed, Warfield is a product of the West Coast, but the record slips in here on account of NY’s own Prince Paul, whose few but key production credits elevate My Field Trip to Planet 9 to classic status. Listen here.
3. First Come, First Served (1999) — Dr. Dooom (a/k/a Kool Keith)
First Come, First Served is Kool Keith’s most inspired release. Here we see the de facto prince of experimental hip-hop at his most uninhibited, most imaginative, and most strange. The artist’s usual tropes are present — free-associative wordplay, surreal imagery, baroque beats (courtesy producer KutMasta Kurt) — but here they’re taken to deliciously absurd extremes. And, no question, both lyrically and technically, Keith was never in finer form. He moves through these tracks with newfound confidence and insight, with flow and cadence at dizzying heights. Still, it’s not hard to see why the album alienated fans and retail outlets in equal measure: cannibalism, scatology, and sadomasochism all figure into Keith’s macabre tales of psychological squalor (even the Gravediggaz sound mild by comparison). In truth, it’s as much a damning piece of genuine commentary as it is a hilarious satire on commercial rap. With First Come, First Served, Keith drew the hardest line between himself and the rest of the industry at large, between the furthest reaches of the underground and the glossy echelons of the mainstream. From its No Limit parody artwork to its subversive uniqueness, First Come, First Served is one of the most criminally unheralded artifacts in the history of the genre. Listen here.
2. The Sun Rises in the East (1994) — Jeru the Damaja
The Sun Rises in the East was released in May ’94, just over a year after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. On lead single “Come Clean,” Jeru drops a line referencing the event, but even more explicitly inspired by the bombing is the artwork, wherein the artist depicts the twin towers wrapped in orange flames. It’s enough to send chills down your leg. Still, there’s something oddly fitting about the unsettling cover, the face for an album that’s firmly steeped in prescient, apocalyptic overtones. Although overshadowed by other, now legendary ’94 releases (Illmatic and Ready to Die included), Jeru’s debut remains a seminal moment in East Coast hip-hop. The MC’s lyrics are searing, metaphysical musings on mortality and life in Brooklyn’s concrete jungle, truly among the headiest turns ever put to record. And Premier’s beats here are nothing short of game-changing, together standing as a masterpiece unto themselves. Flitting between frightfully atmospheric and playfully ingenious, these instrumentals would announce the stardom of one of the best producers hip-hop has ever seen. I swear, there are days I think I could swap this record one-for-one with 36 Chambers and have absolutely no regrets — Premier’s schizo piano loops are even better than RZA’s here. In fact, it’s almost as if Jeru was inviting Wu-Tang comparisons: name-dropping Shaw Brothers kung fu films, and even directly sampling RZA’s laughter on album highlight “Ain’t the Devil Happy.” The move would have been a recklessly arrogant blunder, were the results not so undeniably brilliant. Listen here.
1. Crazy Wisdom Masters (1993) — Jungle Brothers
Conventional wisdom says that after drafting the blueprint for all jazz sampling in hip-hop, the Jungle Brothers stalled, quickly surpassed by the likes of Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. What many don’t know is that years later they almost changed the course of hip-hop all over again, just nearly. With ambition and creativity to spare, the JBs — high on inspiration from mysticism and left-field jazz aesthetics — took to the studio with the infamous avant-jazz and dub producer Bill Laswell in tow. The time was the early ’90s, and hip-hop was still very much in the midst of defining itself, in a state of discovery. What the JBs hoped to accomplish (and in a very real sense did), was to redefine the rulebook, even as it was in the course of being written. The white-hot masterpiece that resulted, Crazy Wisdom Masters, was seen as far too experimental for commercial release, and therefore shelved by the JBs’ record label, Warner Bros. Eventually, a watered-down, heavily edited version emerged entitled J. Beez Wit the Remedy. And six years later (’99), additional Crazy Wisdom Masters tracks saw the light of day, released on an EP called The Payback under the fitting pseudonym Crazy Wisdom Masters. In time, the record became hip-hop’s answer to the Beach Boys’ Smile — a ravenously discussed, heavily bootlegged lost album that would go on to develop its own cult following. It’s difficult to do the record any justice, save to say that it still sounds quite unlike anything else. There’s not one saggy moment on the record, nor any empty space left unadorned with torrid imagination. Crazy Wisdom Masters is a genuine musical prophesy, one, sadly, too radical and individual for its time. Listen here.