Saturday, July 19, 2003

‘Classic Material’
is hip-hop guide

It was in the fifth grade, just on the cusp of puberty, that I'd notice the first signs of a life-altering conversion. Though I had been offered vague warnings of imminent changes to my person, the truth was, I had already begun to experience something many other kids my age would soon be discovering for themselves.


There's a new album guide for hip-hop lovers.

I had just purchased my first 12-inch single, and over the course of several days, with much needle-jumping, I had committed to memory the lyrics to the long version of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight."

In 1979, "Rapper's Delight" was hip-hop's first bonafide top 40 hit and its curious, sing-speak lyrics -- "At the age of nine/I was right on time/'Cause every night/I had a party rhyme/Singin' on and on and on and on/The beat don't stop until the break of dawn" -- was pure nirvana for a preteen who spent his weekly allowance amassing an arsenal of exciting and provocative new sounds.

What makes a book like such "Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide" (ECW Press) a pleasure to peruse is its ability to transport its reader to those very moments when one is struck by the undeniable impact of a genuine head-bobbing classic. The 175-page, 48-entry handbook is compiled and edited by Oakland, Calif.-based hip-hop advocate Oliver Wang, who addresses the weighty task of assembling a thoughtful, penetrating compendium of the most important albums of the genre by enlisting the assistance of nearly two dozen mentors, peers and fellow devotees of the urban idiom.

"The first writers I went after were people that I've always wanted to work with professionally," explains Wang, whose initial wish list included among others, Tony Green, Jeff Chang, Ernest Hardy, Joseph Patel and Elizabeth Berry, whose work has graced the pages of such respected hip-hop journals as The Source, Vibe, XXL and URB. "From there, I started to branch out to people who I felt like could make a strong contribution to the book, including Kris Ex, David Toop, Billy Jam, etc. I took suggestions from other writers too, but I probably knew, at the front end, about three-fourths of who I wanted to get onboard at the very beginning."

Unlike other greatest-ever music guides, "Classic Material" does more than furnish brief biographies and fawn over its subjects with flowery English and vivid metaphors. Through the occasional anecdote, it reminds us of just how staggering Rakim's mastery of rhythm and flow seemed in 1987 (and still does today), how the prodigious vocal skills of a 15-year-old LL Cool J made every audacious statement sound less boastful than candid, and what an incredible revelation De La Soul was at a time when a poker-faced hip hop scene was in danger of believing its own hard-as-nails hype.

It also revisits some of the most indelible events in hip-hop history, including the 2 Live Crew censorship uproar; the untimely deaths of Scott La Rock, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (The Notorious B.I.G.); and the Los Angeles race riots of 1992.

IT'S A discriminating collection that reads best for true aficionados of hip-hop culture who recognize and understand the critical difference between a chartbuster contrived by the major label hype machine and a genuine under-the-radar masterpiece that finally gets its props 10, 15 or 20 years after its release.

Naturally, we are treated to glowing dissertations on Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "Adventures on the Wheels of Steel," Run-DMC's first three groundbreaking albums, the fury of Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" and De La Soul's delightfully radical "3 Feet High and Rising."

But what makes this collection so credible and enjoyable to read is its inclusion of such worthy, yet woefully underappreciated, classics like Brand Nubian's "One for All," "Breaking Atoms" by Main Source and DJ Shadow's "Endtroducing."

Through numerous exchanges between writers, Wang explains, an inventory of well over 150 meritable recordings was whittled down to a rough target of 50 finalists.

As Wang notes in his introduction, "Record labels may try to buy their way into history, but more times than not, it's the unknown upstart that finds himself or herself enshrined." Just as the industry-anointed mainstream megastars, with their flashy music videos and champagne lifestyles, pull in the money that keeps the wheels of the hip-hop juggernaut greased, "Classic Material" reminds us that those crate-digging, rhyme-crafting students of the game who view hip-hop as their lifeblood and art have been, and always will be, the true architects of this music.

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