12. “Sterns to Western” – People Under the Stairs ft. Cap’n Kidd Lexus (2000)
“Sterns to Western” swings, allowing the three MCs to build up a stream of consciousness: there’s Kidd Lexus’ champ intro (“It’s like fabulous, we all-out kings, blessed and talented/ So who’s here to handle this? I’m the prime candidate”), digressing with Double K self promoting that they’re “kinda clever, like old Jewish dudes,” and ending with Thes One pulling out all the Paul’s Boutique stops: comparing fake MCs to “Alf pogs,” his style to a BART turnstile, and referencing the war between Springfield and Shelbyville. Between it all is a chorus of an old man la la la-ing like their jazz grandfather enjoying the show.
11. “Flipmode Squad Meets Def Squad” – Busta Rhymes ft. Jamal, Redman, Keith Murray, Rampage, and Lord Have Mercy (1996)
Erik Sermon (not on this track) formed Def Squad after the split of EPMD; Busta Rhymes formed Flipmode Squad after the breakup of Leaders of the New School. Both collaborations debuted on Busta’s first solo album, The Coming. “Flipmode Squad Meets Def Squad,” an 8-minute track split in half, has some of the hardest gems out there: Redman’s psychotic but poetically sharp “Manslaughter in alphabetical order for four quarters/ Raw water turns sons to granddaughters,” and Keith Murray (“You stupid niggas always got something smart to say/ And probably can’t even spell TWA”) and Lord Have Mercy (“My maneuvers drop like lugers/ Illegal, maybe Lethal, like Gibson’s/ Spitting blessings with three Weapons”) both in classic form.
10. “Black Trump” – Cocoa Brovaz ft. Raekwon (1998)
Wu-Tang Clan’s chef cooks up his East Coast Mafioso style with label mates Cocoa Brovaz (aka Smif-N-Wessun) over an obvious West Coast beat, trading rhymes about street craps, gun clapping, and the kind of cats they roll with: “You see my set of twin-hit men from Bushwick?/ Two chicks with the twenty-two TECs, bitch?” By the end of the track, you know who’s holding weight and carrying heat: all three of them.
9. “Cowboys” – Fugees ft. Pacewon, Rah Digga, Young Zee and John Forté (1996)
Drawing more from Westerns than the actual West, Fugees and fellow New Jerseyans the Outsidaz treat everyone from the Sundance Kid to John Wayne as mythical figures, and remind NYC that the Wild Wild West is only one state away. Each of the first three verses is shared by two MCs – the desperados Wyclef and Pacewon (the latter pulling out his gun to “Plug Two like Trugoy”), followed by Lauryn Hill and Rah Digga liberating saloon girls, then Young Zee and the Gambler Pras – while the fourth verse is a Man with No Name coda by John Forté. A dynamic collaboration, Young Zee sums it up best: “When the Outs hook up with the Refugees/ It’d be more niggas than the NAACP.”
8. “The Show”/“La Di Da Di” – Doug E. Fresh ft. Slick Rick (1985)
A grandiose showcase of Doug E. Fresh’s beatboxing, “The Show” recounts the typical (and atypical) problems with organizing a rap concert – cats not showing up, hitting stage last minute, not being able to locate one’s shoe horn – and oh yeah, features the debut of hip hop’s first true storyteller, Slick Rick. The single for “The Show” is a metaphor for hip hop’s history: the MC (Slick Rick) originally introduced and celebrated the DJ (in this case, Fresh), until the MC stepped in front of the set and became the central figure (example: the B-side “La Di Da Di,” Slick Rick’s non-stop classic).
7. “Get It Together” – Beastie Boys ft Q-Tip (1994)
“Get It Together” is four MCs playing a game of 21 and shooting the shit: John Stark’s importance to their beloved Knicks; Q-Tip’s Queens-specific Timberland boots (that MCA points out in such a way that I swear it means Tip is wearing them on the court); Joanie Loves Chachi (with a rhymed-in comparison to Ad Rock and his then wife, Ione); and annoying game interruptions (“The phone is ringing/ Oh my god…”). The Beastie Boys mix Q-Tip into their three man weave so well, it’s a wonder that this collaboration didn’t happen years before (I mean, Tip’s references to zany shit like pineapple Now and Laters, John Holmes, and Ma Bell are noticeably missing from Paul’s Boutique).
6. “Symphony” – Marley Marl ft. Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane (1988)
Marley Marl, hip hop’s Art Blakey, introduces heavyweights Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane in pass-the-mic fashion. On “The Symphony,” the verbal beat down to beat, each MC is introduced by the last – i.e. names are given, and then taken. Masta Ace shifts rhythmically and lyrically so often, it’s hard to catch him (“Once you hear the capital A rap, it’ll stay/ With you for awhile, it won’t go away”). Craig G Rap takes the POV of the target MC, if only to emasculate him: “I apologize. Oh yeah, and uh/ Can I have your autograph for me and my grandma?” Then there’s Kool G Rap, toned down compared to his later work but he still raps “your metaphor sucks more than a whore.” And Big Daddy Kane grabs the mic last and makes a lasting impression: “And battling me is hazardous to health/ So put a quarter in your ass, cos you played yourself.” After 20 odd years, “The Symphony” remains the definitive example of MC bravado.
5. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)
Mos Def and Talib Kweli collaborated when both MCs were fresh and at the top of their game – and hip hop was losing its identity in mainstream radio. “Brown Skin Lady” is lyrical admiration akin to Miles Davis covers. “Respiration” bridges the gap between old school hip hop and the then situation, using Style Wars as a backdrop for a culture struggling in a city, much like the people living and dying there. “Children’s Story” is a line-for-line rhyme-for-rhyme retelling of Slick Rick’s signature rap, turning Rick’s cautionary tale about crime into a tale about MCs and producers selling hip hop out. Also on “Children’s Story,” Mos was one of the first to clarify that the East Coast/West Coast beef was grossly manufactured by the media. But not to ignore the talents lost to that beef, Mos and Talib pay tribute to Tupac and Biggie: with the single “Definition,” Mos and Talib rightfully declared Black Star as the “best alliance in hip hop” in a new era that hoped to be defined by artistry and not militant competition. (And “Good Jesus!” the song is a damn rhyme-fest.) A wake-up call to hip hop’s caretakers, Black Star appeared only once (so far…) – but with warnings that still apply to today.
4. Gorillaz (2001 – present)
Blur’s Damon Albarn took trip hop’s collaborative mentality and created Gorillaz, an open forum for some of hip hop’s best verses in the last 10 years. Whether digging up the underground’s finest (Del the Funky Homosapien, MF Doom, Roots Manuva) or the shy (reminding everyone how great De La Soul is with “Feel Good Inc.” and “Superfast Jellyfish”); or finding the right MC for the right track (Mos Def’s Convoy-spit on “Stylo;” the paranoid antics of Bashy and Kano on “White Flag;” Snoop Dogg’s high-from-Mr. Bubble verse that opens Plastic Beach); all of Gorillaz’s hip hop collaborations have been solid. And: Bootie Brown’s tale of a soldier returning from war (highlighting the general bullshit of war) on “Dirty Harry” might be hip hop’s greatest verse.
3. “Act Too (Love of My Life)” – the Roots ft. Common (1999)
An ode to hip hop that’s as sweet (and heartbreaking) as any pop ballad, “Act Too (Love of My Life)” touches on hip hop’s finer points and comments on its state in 1999. Black Thought raps his “I Only Have Eyes For You” verse, using his personal history (his childhood romance) with hip hop: “It was all for you, from the door for you/… From the start, Thought was down by law for you/ Used to hit up every corner store war for you.” And Common masterfully returns to his “I Used to Love H.E.R.” metaphor, blaming crossover gents Hype Williams (“Caught in the Hype Williams, and lost Her direction”) and Puff Daddy (“Her Daddy, he beat Her, eyes all Puff”) for using hip hop as a commodity (and abandoning her as such). In the end, hip hop was treated the same way jazz was: neglected by the originating culture/exploited by another, a central theme of Things Fall Apart. “Act Too (Love of My Life)” is the album’s thesis statement.
2. “Big Brother Beat” – De La Soul ft. Mos Def (1996)
Of all the tracks that have introduced new MCs to the world, none have matched “Big Brother Beat” and its introduction of Mos Def. Vets De La Soul took on the MC from the unsigned Medina Green, and passed the torch by making Mos an honorary member of Native Tongues. At 22, Mos had already developed his particular style: his grimy slur that gives his lyrics such fluidity; and his diachronic sense of rap, interpolating Rakim’s definition of “MC:”
“I don’t bug out or chill or be acting ill/ No tricks in 86, it’s time to build/ Eric B(e) easy on the cut, no mistakes allowed/ Cos to me, MC means “move the crowd”
“I don’t bug out, I chill – don’t be acting ill/ No tricks in 96, Native Tongue gon’ build/ But we be easy on the cut, no mistakes allowed/ Cos to me, MC means “making cream,”
a line about financial security (not to be confused with financial obsession). Mos Def’s career accelerated shortly after this collaboration and he remains hip hop’s resident lyricist and most vocal advocate.
1. “Scenario” – A Tribe Called Quest ft. Charlie Brown, Dinco D, and Busta Rhymes (1992)
A Tribe Called Quest brought on Leaders of the New School (fellows of Native Tongues) for a 4-minute anthem to settle the score for those who still viewed hip hop as a fad. “Scenario” couldn’t have come at a better time: it was a stake for creditability as it became a mild hit, proving hip hop as a legitimate art from, with a great back beat and catchy yet impossible to match lyrics.
And Phife raps the importance of hip hop at the beginning (and starts what is one of his best constructed verses): “A-yo, Bo knows this and Bo knows that/ But Bo don’t know jack, cos Bo can’t rap.” Jester Charlie Brown keeps the posse going and sets up fellow Leader Dinco D, who chops up words with sushi chef esteem: “So yo, the D, what? The O/ Incorporated I-N-C into a flow.” Tribe’s head, Q-Tip, waxes on not being a criminal, having better hearing in his right ear, and the pride he has in colleagues (“I love my young nation”) – just cold lamping while his crew backs up every line.
The only break comes with Tip introducing Busta Rhymes, who builds the tension back up before… “BOOM! from the cannon/ Not bragging/ Try to read my mind, just imagine/ Vo-cab-u-lary’s necessary/ When digging into my library.” In a rhythm – and volume… and voice – that’s distinctly his, Busta closes “Scenario” as the posse comes back with the chant. One of the most re-playable songs, the greatest hip hop collaboration doubles as hip hop’s greatest track.
And that, my friends, is the scenario.