This week I reflect on a couple of new releases from Sony Legacy and a song by local band the Joseph Sisters.
Nas - "Illmatic XX"
This 20th anniversary edition of one of the seminal rap albums in hip-hop history by one of the greatest MCs of all time is set to drop next Tuesday. The package will include the original CD along with a vinyl copy of the album and an extra CD of outtakes and remixes from this classic album.
It's almost impossible for me to believe it's been nearly 20 years since the release of "Illmatic." This slice of New York City thug life was more cutting, more poetic and more real than most others that were busy copying the gangsta' blueprint laid down by Ice-T, Ice Cube and a whole bunch of other MCs that were good but also laced their venom with humor.
I lump Nas with what I call the second wave of rappers, including Tupac Shaker, Biggie Smalls and Snoop Doggy Dog. He came to life shortly after the first great wave, led by noisy rap artists such as Public Enemy.
Like Shaker and Smalls, Nas didn't just fake the gangster lifestyle growing up in Queensbridge - he lived it, and he was lucky enough to survive the mean streets of that New York district when so many others didn't.
The result were harder rhymes in Nas' delivery, a simplification of the beats and direct MC poetry straight from the heart and head.
The new wave of rappers were startling in their blunt honesty about growing up in the hard-core neighborhoods in the boroughs of New York and Los Angeles that were ignored by the vast majority. Crime, mostly black-on-black shootings, gang life, drug dealing and dodging bullets, was part of the everyday life of many aspiring rappers growing up in gangland. Nas was, without a doubt, the most poetic of the new breed.
I always loved Ice Cube, who also was a founding member of N.W.A., but you always got the feeling he was pulling your leg a bit with his over-the top, booming voice and even bigger braggadocio about life on the streets. I loved the humor of Ice Cube, but Nas and the new breed weren't funny - they were dead serious, with an emphasis on "dead." Nas lived the thug life, and there was a sincerity in his voice that he was "keeping it real."
While the Cube went on to movie stardom, you knew he wasn't nearly the gangster he pretended to be, while Nas' poetic, gritty and minimalistic "Illmatic" was instantly recognized as a rap masterpiece when released.
Buying this album 20 years ago, I was stunned by his machine-gun delivery and naked but extremely poetic rhymes. The most interesting aspects of "Illmatic" were not only Nas' blunt delivery but his balancing of rhymes in cadences no one had ever done before. Nas didn't just rhyme in a straight-ahead way - he played with the rhythms like a jazz drummer, rapping off the beats and on the beats in surprising ways that you didn't hear coming.
Much like Chuck D from Public Enemy, Nas took rap off the streets with his clever rhymes that established rap as a true art form. Unlike Public Enemy, who members were smartly political and the music noisy, Nas told tales what it was like to live in a place where you were lucky to escape that rang true. Hypnotic, repetitive grooves formed the core of Nas' music, placing the emphasis on his novel delivery.
Nas established the blueprint for modern MCs from Busta Rhymes to the Wu Tang Clan and even more mainstream rapper such as OutKast, but the gangsta' genre would grow stale by the end of the 1990s. Biggie Smalls and Tupac were both murdered in senseless violence a few years later, and the edge was gone. "Illmatic" is still the gold standard by which modern rap is judged.
Joe Satriani - "Joe Satriani: the Complete Studio Recordings"
Guitar hero Joe Satriani has been around for a long time, and this retrospective contains all 14 of his releases and one disc of unreleased material.
Satriani, now the guitarist for the oddball band Chickenfoot, spent his salad days as a guitar instructor, teaching everyone from Joe Morrello of Rage Against the Machine, Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett of Metallica the art of shredding.
But Satriani has had a successful music career of his own, including releasing the critically acclaimed "Surfing With the Alien," one of the few all-instrumental albums to ever hit the charts in the late 1980s. In the spotlight because of his famous former students singing his praises, Satriani went on to release several albums, many with him playing all the instruments. "The Extremist," released in 1992, also was received well by critics and the public, while later releases found him flirting with electronica.
The box set, set for release on April 22, is a must have for fans of tasteful shred guitar. It will retail for about 85 bucks on Amazon.com.
The Joseph Sisters - "West Virginia Town"
This just-released single is a homage to the Wheeling-based Joseph Sisters hometown, along with a video shot at Steubenville's Innovation Studio. Recorded in Nashville, fans of the three sisters can view the video on Youtube, while the single is available for download on iTunes.