Another look back at the best hip hop albums of the decade, this time with Viktor Vaughn, Dizzee Rascal, Buck 65 and Jaylib amongst others.
King Geedorah – Take Me To Your Leader (June 2003)
It’s testament to Daniel Dumile’s considerable talents that he matched the quality of 1999’s Operation Doomsday several times over the next decade.
Take Me To Your Leader was his sophomore longplayer as a solo artist, encapsulating his anarchic, eccentric production and rhyme style at its off-the-wall best.
Claiming he’d been possessed by a three headed space monster, he spat perceptive observations on human foibles, accompanied by gloriously eccentric production.
The album opens up with a clear statement of intent on Fazers, where he breaks down the album’s philosophy, “He only here to warn us what the plan is, The hour be upon us it’s bananas.”, before delivering an irreverent anti-gun message, “Rule number one, Set your fazers on stun”.
There’s a fine line between gimmicky and innovative, and Dumile has always walked the right side of it. As you venture further into TMTYL the layers of oddness fall away, revealing sensitivity, beauty and, more often, straight-up bangers.
At its heart, the album is pure hip-hop rawness. Anti-Matter, and No Snakes Alive are as good as any tunes he’s ever dropped.
Lockjaw dazes you with quick-fire raps and a super-fast beat. By the time you get to the last line of I Wonder you can’t help but see the parallels with Dumile’s own fraternal grief, “And my brother got stabbed and I miss him”, accompanied by a delicate string loop that’s moving and melancholic.
Even by his impeccable – and totally loopy – standards, TMTYL was an eyebrow raiser. With the benefit of hindsight, we can also see it was an absolute classic.
Video & track
King Geedorah – No Snakes Alive
King Geedorah – I Wonder
Dizzee Rascal – Boy In Da Corner (July 2003)
Dizzee Rascal was just seventeen years old when Boy In Da Corner dropped. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, he was also the producer on every track. Added to that, he’d already been part of the Roll Deep crew for several years.
Make no mistake, this was a rare talent mature beyond his years, and his first album blew the minds of those who heard it. It’s no surprise the album won 2003’s Mercury Music Prize – it sounded like nothing else you’d ever heard.
On the first few listens, before you got to thinking about the lyrics, you just listened to the music. It was like an east Londoner in a mental institution doing a bad impression of Kool Keith, accompanied by several stolen Nokias and a fax machine. Meanwhile, his cell mate pounded on the bins.
Every track reflected his flexibility, his skills as a strong emcee but also as someone with an ear for a great tune, period. I Luv U was an instant knockout – a story about inner city violence, underage sex and teenage bravado. Jus’ A Rascal was as good a battle rap as you’d ever heard, and Fix Up Look Sharp was a braggadocio tour de force.
Stripped down, stark and bleak, Boy In Da Corner couldn’t fail to grab your attention. Wiley, Chipmunk and every other grime rapper and producer that has gained notoriety since 2003 owes this album – and Dizzee – a huge debt.
Dizzee Rascal – I Luv U
Dizzee Rascal – Jus A Rascal
Cappo – Spaz The World (August 2003)
Criminally underrated. If you take nothing else away from reading about Cappo’s Spaz The World album – take that. Listening to the album is like listening to 40 minutes of pure, distilled 1980s boom-bap at its very best.
Hit play and you’re transported to a different era, totally faithfully and without even the smallest hint of post-modernism. Cappo comes at you hard, from the first minute to the last.
Produced by Nottingham’s P Brothers, this is by far their easiest work to buy. But everything they do can be summed up by the title of another of their albums – Heavy Bronx Experience.
They headed to uptown New York to research how the music was originally made, then bought all the necessary production equipment and started rockin’ the bells. Quite how the P Brothers never got more exposure is baffling, on this album they are fearsome.
Their heavy production could only be matched by an emcee with plenty of raw power and talent – and Cappo has it in spades. His hard, braggadocious battle raps from start to finish leave you punch drunk. He takes on every beat and matches it for intensity and hype. And when he’s done, you understand him when he says, “I rip it like Scarface, I do it for fun”.
Cappo – Grand Final
Viktor Vaughn – Vaudeville Villain (September 2003)
So intense was the whirlwind of excitement around the myriad personas Daniel Dumile had created by this point, the rumours threatened to get out of hand. In the best of the tales, a plucky young reporter from Phoenix, Arizona called MF_DOOM to talk about Vaudeville Villain.
DOOM hung up, but not before instructing him to call back and ask for Vik. Was Dumile really such a method actor during this period, insistent on staying in character? Maybe not, but such folklore always surrounds art this brilliant.
Not one track on Vaudeville Villain is produced by Dumile. The first time this had happened the creation of the MF_DOOM character.
Instead, he focuses on his lyrical skills, and introduces us to a new character – Viktor Vaughn. Comic-book references remain, sci-fi influences continue, but Vaughn is a world apart from Dumile’s other characters.
Vik is no super-villain, like DOOM, and no soothsayer, like Gheedorah. He’s a small time hood, albeit an enlightened sorta guy, and the album’s choc-full of street raps. Vik’s stories, phrases and metaphors are straight from the ghetto.
This switch of styles is, of course, a triumph – and testament to Dumile’s adaptability and supreme talent. “Lickupon” is reminiscent of Biggie Smalls’ “Warning”, all shambling beats and tales of vengeful violence. RJD2-produced “Saliva” is a straight club banger. “Let Me Watch”, possibly the album’s best, is a refreshingly honest tale of a wannabe-player who fails to seduce the girl.
Vik follows the variety of beats perfectly, shifting his flow to match the track every time. When an emcee is on the very top of his game, sometimes a rare thing happens.
Rather than the producer setting the tempo, it’s almost as if the emcee is in control of the beat. This is one of those albums. About this time, it just seemed Dumile could do no wrong.
Viktor Vaughn – Raedawn
Viktor Vaughn – Let Me Watch
Jaylib – Champion Sound (October 2003)
No review of the decade would be complete without a mention of Jay Dilla. A supremely talented producer, he has continued to be hugely influential even after his untimely death.
And nowhere more consistently were his talents showcased than on Champion Sound, where production and emcee duties were split between Dilla and crate-digging genius Madlib.
The division of labour was exactly balanced. Half the tracks are produced by Jay Dilla with Madlib on the mic. On the other half, the roles are reversed, Madlib on the boards and Jay Dilla on the mic. And the difference is clear.
Jay Dilla produced tracks like Starz are stripped down, soulful and sharp. Madlib’s production, like on the title track, bangs hard and full – loaded with eccentric samples. The two styles complement each other perfectly.
Most importantly, few albums in our list deserve to be turned up as loud as Champion Sound. If you’re listening at home and your neighbours aren’t banging down your door or calling the police, you’re doing something wrong. If you’re hearing it in a club and they haven’t been served a notice for noise pollution, something’s wrong. Or, in the words of Madlib, “you n***** must be outta ya head if yo system ain’t up to The Red”.
Video & track
Jaylib – McNasty Filth
Jaylib – The Red
Immortal Technique – Revolutionary Vol. 2 (November 2003)
“Martial law is comin’ soon to the hood to kill you,
While you hangin’ your flag out your project window.”
Political hip-hop was part of the mainstream once. Times were when Public Enemy and KRS-One were on MTV.
Nowadays, Immortal Technique and artists like him struggle to even get signed. Revolutionary Vol. 2 was effectively self-published (Technique being President of Viper Records).
Yet, lyrically, it’s as strong as any PE or KRS album and, commercially, “Obnoxious” was the 3rd biggest selling hip-hop single online in 2004. It doesn’t take long to understand why he’s a little bitter about major record labels.
Make no mistake, Technique has done his reading. He knows his history. For any political dissident, socialist and anarchist, his lyrics are the stuff of dreams.
Rap message boards have been filled with countless threads attempting to decipher all his references. His lyrics have a depth that Chuck D and KRS-One would be proud of – in truth he eclipses them at times.
Perhaps the strongest track on the album is “Peruvian Cocaine”. Featuring a crew of underground rap royalty, this masterpiece tells of CIA involvement in running drugs to USA city streets. And as well as just being a great rap tune, it’s well supported by the work of journalists like William Blum, Gary Webb and Michael Ruppert.
“4th Branch” dissects the idea of a free press in the USA with Chomsky-esque skill. “Freedom Of Speech” sees him revel in his freedom from artistic influence from a big music label. And, all the while, his metaphors and similes continue to overflow with references to other key moments in world politics and history.
One criticism made of Revolutionary Vol. 2 is that, at times, the production lets Immortal Technique down. These moments are rare, though, and it’s far more often that the austere production frees his voice to take centre stage. After all, his lyrical content is why he’s such a cult hero, and it’s why you’ll come back and back to this album.
Immortal Technique – Peruvian Cocaine
Immortal Technique – Obnoxious
Buck 65 – Talkin’ Honky Blues (November 2003)
A world apart from any of his previous work, this is The Great American Novel on wax. His tone had developed from youthful to gravel-voiced, his raps from abstract to cynical. Talkin’ Honky Blues is like taking a boxcar ride with a storytelling, depression-era hobo.
Production that varies between jovial and haunting pulls together a mix of ripping yarns and philosophical observations. Sometimes the beats are as simple as the pleasures he discusses (“perfection is where… there’s 2 for 1 milkshakes on Tuesdays”).
Other times, like on the opening track Leftfielder, tracks are leaden with reverb, samples, cuts and scratches. Equally, lyrics vary from the hope of Wicked and Weird, through the principled pride of Craftsmanship to the embittered Tired Out. Perhaps the zenith of the album, this cathartic tale of infidelity, conceit and self-destruction illustrates the futility of regret beautifully.
From the moment you hit play, you’re on a Jack Kerouac road-trip, amidst the golden era of Pax Americana and spending a hedonistic night with 1950s beatniks. You’re listening to elements of Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Tom Waits.
Crucially, you’re listening to Buck 65 roll all this up with his very own quirky sense of humour, his tales of hope and heartbreak, his raw honesty and his unique metaphors – this right here is Buck 65.
Video & track
Buck 65 – Wicked and Weird