The period between 1988 and 1993 was hip-hop's golden age. During those five short years, the promise and energy of the nascent musical movement came to fruition in a massive way that has never been repeated. Look at a quick roll call of the crews making classic music during this time: EPMD, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Gang Starr, Main Source, the Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Ultramagnetic MCs, the Jungle Brothers, Boogie Down Productions, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, and on and on. It was a wondrous time, when every trip to the record store promised a feast. And few companies brought more dishes to the table than Wild Pitch.
Founded in 1985 by Stu Fine, Wild Pitch helped bring seminal groups like Gang Starr, Main Source and Lord Finesse to hip-hop consciousness and included such underground stalwarts as O.C. and the Ultramagnetic MCs on its roster. Over its 10-year history, the label launched its share of clunkers (does anyone remember N-Tyce or Street Military?); it owns the dubious honor of having released Chill Rob G's "Let the Words Flow," later jacked by Euro-dance outfit Snap! for its huge cheese-ball hit "The Power." But any company that put out Main Source's "Breaking Atoms" is certainly worthy of respect.
Unfortunately, after Wild Pitch went out of business in the mid-'90s, copies of the company's releases quickly became scarce. That's why it's so great that JCOR has bought the label's catalog and is releasing some of the old material. Chill Rob G's "Ride the Rhythm," The Coup's "Genocide and Juice," Gang Starr's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and a compilation, "Wild Pitch Classics," are the first out of the pipe.
"Ride the Rhythm" is probably best viewed as a window into hip-hop history. Chill Rob G has a deep, slow, Chuck D-influenced voice, but where the Public Enemy frontman offset his lumbering flow with incendiary lyrics, Chill Rob G unfortunately drones on and on. The album's saving grace is the excellent production from the legendary DJ Mark the 45 King. Sampling the likes of kalimbas and flutes as well as the usual funky bass licks, the 45 King was one of the first to invoke the James Brown loop. The jazzy production of "Court Is Now in Session" and the sleek bounce of the title track are almost enough to make the listener forgive Chill Rob G's lackluster delivery.
Almost. The MC's main claim to fame remains his appearance on "The Power" (against his will, it's worth noting -- he wasted no time suing Snap!), thus making him an obscure rap footnote. Sad to say, he probably deserves the reputation. Budding hip-hopologists will want "Ride the Rhythm" for "Let the Words Flow," but otherwise this is a reissue to skip.
The Coup, however, is a group that history has treated unkindly and unfairly. The best way to describe the Oakland, Calif.-based trio of Boots, E-Roc and Pam the Funkstress is as a proto-Goodie Mob -- that is, they sport a stereotypical ghetto aesthetic but with a decidedly revolutionary outlook. When the group's first full-length album, "Kill My Landlord," debuted in '93, the mix was a bit much for fans trained to fit their hip-hop groups into the neat categories of "street" (N.W.A., Kool G. Rap), "esoteric" (Dream Warriors) or overtly political (Public Enemy). The Coup was something new, something that transcended such expectations. Unfortunately, in 1993 there was so much good hip-hop that a lot of worthy crews slipped through the cracks. By the time The Coup's follow-up, "Genocide and Juice," came out on Wild Pitch the following year, the trio's career was effectively stalled. By the time folks caught up with the group, the label had folded and The Coup's albums were long out of print. (The group came back in 1998 with "Steal This Album" on indie imprint Dogday.)
The reissue of "Genocide" goes a long way toward rectifying The Coup's lost legacy. Revisiting the album is a true revelation. E-Roc's and MC Boots' wry wit, knack for detail and keen sense of irony is perfectly buttressed by DJ Pam's jazzy samples and turntable work, supplemented by live musicians. Honestly, this album could sit next to anything from new-school acts like OutKast or the Roots.
"Genocide" is a case study in why reissues are so important to the history of the music. Fine work slips through the cracks sometimes, and artists are often not appreciated in their day. The Coup is the perfect example of a group that might have been relegated to the mists of time if not for this rerelease.
Gang Starr doesn't have that problem; its place in history is secure. The dynamic duo of Guru and DJ Premier is one of the most beloved and well-respected hip-hop groups ever. Besides his work as an MC on Gang Starr's half-dozen albums over the last decade, Guru has also shown his prowess as a producer. And Premier is the best hip-hop DJ/producer of all time -- the innovative musician almost single-handedly brought jazz to the library of hip-hop sample-fodder. Yet despite Gang Starr's status as one of the foundations of the modern era of hip-hop, its debut, "No More Mr. Nice Guy," was difficult to find on CD until this reissue.
Nice Guy sets the stage for a dynasty. Right out the box, all the elements are in place. Over a short loop from the O'Jays' classic "Give the People What They Want," horn lines interlace and a snare-drum roll buttresses the first cut, "Premier and the Guru." Guru flows effortlessly over the polyrhythmic background, and Premier scratches intermittently throughout. On "Jazz Music," Guru gives a three-and-a-half-minute history lesson on the same subject that Ken Burns took better than a week to cover. And "Manifest" features perhaps the illest sample in history, a loop from Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia."
While the album is a must-have just for its original contents, what puts the reissue of "Nice Guy" over the top are the extras -- remixes of "Positivity" and "Manifest" plus the duo's 12-inch debut, "The Lesson." So there's something here for the archivist as well as the new fan. Of the four Wild Pitch reissues, "Nice Guy" is easily the most essential.
Coming in at a close second is "Wild Pitch Classics." While Gang Starr and Main Source made great albums, most hip-hop groups only manage one or two singles worth owning. With that in mind, "Classics" collects such noteworthy cuts as the Ultramagnetic MCs' "Blue Cheese" and Lord Finesse's "Funky Technician" and puts them alongside interesting curios, creating a cornucopia of Wild Pitch goodness and a valuable history lesson.
For all the talk about paying respect to the old school, hip-hop has been notoriously shortsighted in respecting its history. Part of the problem is that, by its very nature, much of said history is fleeting. Now that Wild Pitch product has started to come back into print (JCOR plans to release Lord Finesse's "Funky Technician" and the Ultramagnetic MCs' "The Four Horsemen" in July, with O.C.'s Word ... "Life" to follow in August and a two-fer package of Main Source's "Breaking Atoms" and "Fuck What U Think" in September), hopefully some other gone-but-not-forgotten labels will follow suit. Red Ant or Profile, anyone?