PART THE FIRST
Shocking confession time, friends.
Until last Saturday, I didn’t own a copy of Illmatic.
Given everything you know about me, you should probably take a moment to let that sink in.
I did not. Own a copy. Of what is widely considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.
Of all time. And I hadn’t heard all of it.
I don’t know how this happened. 1994 was a strange time in your narrator’s musical journey. When the album dropped, I was still reeling from Cobain’s suicide less than a week earlier and immersed in all that was Seattle, Halifax, Hamilton and anywhere else that had a bustling indie scene. Dr. Dre and Snoop were ruling rap, and when I saw the lunkheaded stoners on my schoolbus singing along to ‘Gin and Juice’ well, no thank you. Later that year some fat guy with a lazy eye and a lisp was telling me that ‘birthdays was the worst days’ and how he now ‘sip[ped] champaign when we thirstay’. Rap and me were on the outs.
But one video did crack through the helmet of Soundgarden and Tool I was perpetually wearing. A squawking sax note, a snare drum that slapped you like it was your mother, and the first use of a Michael Jackson sample I’d ever heard accompanied a raspy voiced kid who looked barely older than myself squatted in the New York snow rapping into an old-ass cell phone threatening to “freak beats, slam it like Iron Sheik, jam like a Tech with correct techniques.” It made an impression.
When I finally made my way back to rap after the milennium rolled over, that kid seemed a bit lost, hooked up with Puffy, dropped one record that hooked my ear the way that first single did [you know which one] and I didn’t think of him again until Jay-Z declared war in 2001. Though even then, Hova had to admit Illmatic was undeniable. But I still never bought it.
I knew the story of the album [young hungry Queens MC steals the show in a guest spot on Main Source’s ‘Live at the BBQ’, assembles a team of A-list NY producers like Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip to provide the beats, and lyrically murders every one of the album’s nine proper songs. But I still never bought it. More of the tracks started popping up into my life [Life’s a Bitch performed at Hip-Hop Karaoke, Memory Lane requested by Canadian MC Classified on George Stromboulopolos’ radio show], and they stuck in my head like an icepick. But I still never bought it. Until the book pictured above came into my possession.
I had a passing familiarity with the 33 1/3 series of record guides; slim, small volumes that dissected classic albums by Dusty Springfield or the Stones or the Smiths, but I didn’t think they had anything to offer me. Until I discovered a recent addition to the series on the shelves at work, dedicated to the album weve been discussing. I promptly purchased it, and the following weekend finally went to a used record store and bought the CD.
Surprise, surprise. It really is the classic everyone says it is. Or, as Matthew Gasteier says in that book, it’s “the first record of the rest of hip-hop’s life.” A bold statement, but one that can’t be denied. It’s not an album you can take in chunks. It demands to be listened to from beginning to end: the sinister thump, squeaks and piano tinks of ‘NY State of Mind’ to the soulful, reflective one-two punch of ‘Life’s a Bitch’ and ‘The World is Yours’ through the braggodocio of ‘Halftime’ and vivid street narrative of ‘One Love’, the compelling atonal vibes of Primo’s production on ‘Represent’, coming to a close with the daring mission statement of ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’. Once you’re in the album’s grasp, you can’t get out, and you don’t really want to. It’s the sound of a young artist hungry and desperate to prove himself and succeeding on every level, as it captures a distinct place and moment in time. Really, when The Wackness came out, was there any other choice for the opening?
It’s late now, but next time I might talk about the other book/CD combo in that photo. Which I now have, after the cut.
PART THE SECOND [A WEEK LATER]
I don’t buy albums like I buy books. Books decisions, if I have no previous experience with the authors, are ninety per cent of the time based on a combination of book design and author photo. With the business of graphic design so mindful of ideal audiences and targeted demographics, it’s a safe bet that if I like the cover, I’ll like the book. Another cliche mowed down by progress.
Albums I usually always have prior knowledge. A song on the radio I can’t get out of my head, a video that blew my mind, a television performance…I always know at least something about an act before I dip my feet in.
Endtroducing is and remains the only album I have ever bought cold. Which makes sense to me.
Every holiday season my mom would always pick up the year end issues of magazines I liked or she thought I would like: mags on music, video games, general entertainment, stuff like that [I still maintain this is a top quality stocking stuffer].
One of my most loved and loathed features of these magazines was SPIN’s best-of album list, which at the time was always coupled with a list of ten albums you didn’t hear because the writers at SPIN were so much cooler than you [Was ’69 Love Songs’ actually on that list one year? That seems presumptuous to me. I know Sloan’s ‘Twice Removed’ was. SPIN apparently forgot they had Canadian distribution. Anyway].
Now, SPIN’s lightened up quite a bit in their autumn years, but in the heady days of the mid-to-late ’90s, the review section read like a literary theory textbook. I recall a write-up on Bjork’s ‘Homogenic’ that I don’t think even made sense to the writer. Anyway.
One of the albums included in the Class of ’96 was by some DJ I’d never heard of from California who apparently invented a style the kids in the know we’re calling trip-hop, a type of slowed down, beats driven music that also made use of ethereal vocals and dreamy samples. And I don’t know, something about that description, something about wanting to be a cool kid, something about the wordless album cover with nothing but an image of crate diggers pulling twelve-inches out of the bins compelled me to pick it up.
I don’t really remember what I was listening to in ’96. I may have been in the throes of my first great love, a soundtrack that probably included a lot of acid jazz and disco, and enduring the alt-rock flavours of the day like Beck’s Odelay and Sublime. I know hip-hop and I were on the outs again. B.I.G. didn’t do much for me [foolish boy, I know], and 2Pac was too angry and scary for me [I don’t think he’s angry and scary now, I just think his rhymes are wack. But 2Pac isn’t for me. Discussion for another time]. So picking up an instrumental album of beats, sound unheard, was out of character for me.
If you’re one of the millions of people who cherish this album, is there anyway to describe what happens in your brain when you first hear it? After the furious, violent scratching where the man announces who he is and what he came to do, the first that hit me were the beats. As a drummer, I obviously have certain preferences in the beats I enjoy, and Shadow seemed to know every beat that was in my head, and varied them up with every track. From the triple-kicks and cracking snare on ‘Changeling‘ to the laid back, hiccupy smack of ‘What Does Your Soul Look Like? [Part One]: Blue Sky Revisit‘, to the relentless ride cymbal of The Number Song, the guy knew how to tweak my brain perfectly. Like Illmatic, once you crawl into this album, you don’t want to get out until you have to and the disc stops spinning.
When I saw that there was a 33 1/3 for this one too, it was mandatory I pick it up. Unlike the installment on Illmatic, what you get with this one is a brief essay on the author’s relationship with music, along with the best ‘Hearing Endtroducing For the First Time’ story ever, then the remainder of the book is one long interview with the man himself, discussing the album, the early portion of his career including the stories behind tracks I dug up on Napster back in the day.
Napster. For. Real.
And it’s still recognized as one of the greatest album of the last 25 years. In 2005, SPIN compiled the 100 best albums between 1985-2005, and Endtroducing sat at 69, ahead of Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’, Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ and even one in front of Jay-Z’s ‘The Blueprint’.
It’s not like Shadow is reclusive or anything, but he is somewhat private, so to have sixty pages of him just talking about his craft, where he’s been and where he was going [the book came out in ’05], was fantastic, and I devoured it like the Nas book in about a day, day and a half.
It’s just one of those things, as you get older. The music you like is the music you like, and I’m no better than those old farts who buy Beatles albums on rerelease. Because while you never stop discovering the new, the new will belong to the next generation the way Shadow and Nas belong to me, the way the Backstreet Boys belong to your kid sister, the way James Taylor belongs to my parents. And that will never make one better than the other to any of those people. It will just make it theirs, like yours is yours.
But honestly. Go get these records.