De La Soul – Pain (w/ Snoop Dogg)
This song epitomizes what I love about old-school hip hop. It’s got the tightest funk groove around, some female backing vocals, a little bit of a message, and a fantastic cameo rap by one of the greats in Snoop Dogg. This easily could have gone in the Soul category.
Atmosphere – Ringo
Atmosphere has been around for a while, probably twenty years or so, as part of the Minneapolis hip-hop collective Rhymesayers. It is led by Slug (Sean Daley) who is a fun rapper, who will never be accused of being gangsta. I mean how many rappers say “Everybody Wanna See a Falling Star”? Again, this is the type of loosey-goosey hip-hop that I live for. The whole album (Fishing Blues) isn’t this light-hearted, but it’s not going to scare your grandma.
A Tribe Called Quest – The Space Program
ATCQ is perhaps the Hip Hop collective that has influenced me more than any other over the past 25 years. I still play their first two albums People’s Instinctive Rhythms and Low End Theory a couple times a year. I still quote those albums at least a couple times a month. “I left my wallet in El Segundo!” “Can I kick it? Yes I can!” The Space Program captures that classic, boundary pushing, jazzy sound that ATCQ brought to the world back in 1990. RIP Phife Dawg.
DJ Shadow/Run the Jewels – Nobody Speak
Wow. This one combines the best qualities of the perfect sample (the guitar line that repeats throughout, the baritone sax bleats) and a filthy voiced rapper. Here we get two of them, in Run the Jewels (El-P and Killer Mike). This video and this song are very timely and speak to what’s going on in this country as good as the TV show BrainDead did this past summer.
Aesop Rock – Rings
Another veteran of the underground/more-experimental wing of the hip-hop scene. The production on this Aesop Rock song (and album, The Impossible Kid) is stellar. He doesn’t rap about the usual topics, which is always a plus for me. He might write about the sensitive gut of his pet cat, his dysfunctional family or anything else that pops into his head. I love the samples he finds and the way he uses percussion loops.