11 January, 2010@5:00 am
There was a short period in the mid-1990′s, when heads were so fed up with direction that major labels were taking with hip-hop music, that many artists just decided to put their stuff out independently. The indie hip-hop movement kicked into full swing, as artists on both coasts (and even in between), began releasing their material via 12″ singles, putting it in the hands of deejays that still cared about the integrity of hip-hop music. Many important players were integral to this movement, including indie labels like Stones Throw and Fondle ‘Em, radio shows like Stretch & Bobbito and the Wake Up Show, and retailers such as Fat Beats and HipHopSite.Com. It wasn’t long though before corporations wanted to get a piece of the action, such as the Fox-funded Rawkus Records (yes, you read that correctly), or Tommy Boy who formed their “Black Label” imprint, specifically to market to this demographic.
Before all of this became the “in” thing to do, at the forefront of this movement was NYC based crew, Natural Elements, made up of A-Butta, L-Swift, Mr. Voodoo, along with producer Charlemagne. This group helped pioneer the indie movement, creating a local buzz for themselves, which would soon spread worldwide. However unlike artists like Mos Def, Dilated Peoples, or Eminem, all of whom seemed to strike at just the right time, the N.E. crew came too early, and then thanks to a short-lived deal with Tommy Boy Black Label, remained shelved for the duration of their career. The group would go on “indefinite hiatus”, leaving their lost album in legendary status.
1999: 10 Year Anniversary skips much of the group’s earlier solo works, where arguably their strongest material lies, and instead collects many of the Tommy Boy sessions. Herein lies a handful of the group’s greatest recordings, which now shine with classic status over a decade after their original 12″ release. Among these is “2 Tons”, which worked as the perfect introduction to the crew, as they effortlessly flowed over Charlemagne’s BDP-inspired drum-kicks and interstellar keys. It’s B-Side cut, “Livin’ It Up” also featured the crew in perfect harmony, as they captured that almost “jiggy-backpack” sound of the time, also heard on records like High & Mighty’s “B-Boy Document ’99″. Taking things back even further, also included here are a pair of tracks from their first Dolo Records 12″, a label headed up by Stretch Armstrong. “Bust Mine” was executed perfectly, as Charlemagne’s meaty track showed their potential with a little studio shine. The crown jewel of them all however was the ridiculous “Paper Chase” a track that could more or less sum up the sound of the NYC’s indie movement in that time period.
Among this handful of undeniably classic tracks, Natural Elements have been romanticized as legendary Greek gods of their time, however 1999 seems to bring them a bit more down to earth. The previously mentioned songs featured Natural Elements at their best, as each member of the group gave it their all, right down to Charlemagne’s final mix of the track. However the difference in quality on the rest of the album is very noticeable. Sadly, 1999 seems to have been left unmixed and unfinished, as many of the tracks sound like they were done in one take, never looking back. Still, there is something to be said for the late-night quality of songs like “Supreme Domination” or the Havoc-esque “Shine”, which have a basement like quality that doesn’t reek of major label tampering.
But with the ever-evolving sound of New York rap, we find the N.E. succumbed to the pressures of their parent company, taking things in a more commercial direction as the album progresses. “Intricate Plot” reminds us of the all-too common Ruff Ryders sound that was dominating the scene at the time, coming off like a paltry attempt to gain radio spins, while the unnecessary “Livin’ It Up Pt. 2″ attempts to turn the classic 12″ banger into a dark and brooding beat more suited for Ja Rule.
With 1999 revealing what was locked away for song long, it seems that much of the rest of the material has remained unreleased for good reason, as it simply was not up to par with the group’s handful of classic 12″ bangers. There was obviously so much potential here, and perhaps if any number of the album’s 20 tracks were finished, mixed down, or monitored for quality control, they may have been able live up to their legendary status.
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