The Third Unheard, New York Times

Hip-Hop's Raiders of the Lost Archives

Jon Caramanica NY Times June 26, 2005


<i>The Third Unheard</i>, New York Times Written by Jon Caramanica, published in The New York Times, June 26, 2005

Four years ago, DJ Ivory issued a challenge. He had long been a collector of rare American rap records, particularly those from the era commonly referred to as hip-hop's golden age - the late 1980's and early 90's. It "was a terrible year for music," he said, recalling 2001 in a phone interview from his home in Nottingham, England, "so I found myself revisiting a whole bunch of rare 12-inch singles I'd bought over the years that weren't getting any attention." He decided to compile his favorites on a mixtape, "Hear No Evil," which he released that same year with a twist - no track listing.

Aficionados viewed it as a challenge and scrambled to identify the songs. But some of them were so obscure that it took two years for anyone to name them all. In the interim, however, the buzz created by the mix helped jumpstart a movement, broadly called "random rap." Until then it had been a private affair, the preserve of a small group of D.J.'s, collectors and writers. But through mixtapes, articles and, in the past year, a proliferation of Web sites, random-rap acolytes have begun to create a parallel history of the genre in which artists who were shunned - or completely ignored - finally get attention.

Hip-hop has never been much for institutional memory: there is no museum devoted to this relatively young genre, and many early recordings, released on regional independents and in limited supply, are now all but impossible to locate. Others, relegated to warehouses for years, were simply ground to bits. Paradoxically, the first efforts at preservation arose in Britain and Japan, where collectors, working at greater distance and cost, were less likely to take rare records for granted. "People overseas have long appreciated what America finds disposable," says Jefferson Mao, who compiled Ego Trip's "Big Playback" (Rawkus), one of the first licensed compilations of rap obscurities.

Kohji (K-Prince) Maruyama, who has been a collector for 15 years, says that random rap, still fairly new on these shores, has experienced several waves of interest in Japan. "A lot of the old records went to Japan," he says. "Unlike here, they don't grind records over there, so they're still in circulation. And expensive."

After "Hear No Evil" started attracting attention, other D.J.'s began to issue their own random-rap mixtapes (which, despite the name, appear on CD's). In 2003, Maruyama teamed up with DJ Muro to release "The Golden Era of Hip-Hop" (11154 FM WKOD), which resurrected unheralded groups like the Freestyle Professors and New England Massive. Around the same time, 7L/Tall Matt of Boston released "We Drink Old Gold," which featured rare remixes of notable tracks by artists like 3rd Bass and Tim Dog. Last year Tony D, a producer from New Jersey, entered the field with two volumes of a series called "The Indy Years," and the electronic music pioneer DJ Shadow released his own mix, "Diminishing Treasures."In addition, a number of compilations built around a particular theme - like J-Zone's "Ig'nant," a collection of particularly lewd tracks; Edan's "Sound of the Funky Drummer," which explores variations on a common hip-hop sample; and the self-explanatory "Fast Rap" - have also become prevalent.

Unlike "Hear No Evil," these mixes identify all the songs and artists they include. That's good news for rookie collectors looking to learn more about the field. For DJ Ivory, who cites a long hip-hop tradition of one-upmanship (early D.J.'s like Afrika Bambaataa would soak the labels off their crucial pieces of vinyl so that a rival wouldn't be able to copy their ideas) doesn't think that's necessarily a good thing. "I don't like people trying to buy into hip-hop," he says.

To Freddy Fresh, however, who has been at it as long as Ivory has, the more attention random rap gets, the better. So he set out to write a collectors' guide, a complete catalog of all rap vinyl released from 1979 to 1989. "It bothered me that Beach Boys and Elvis collectors have a wealth of resources at their disposal, but we had nothing," Fresh says. Released last year, "The Rap Records," a self-published guide, is a vast compilation of might-have-beens and never-weres, overflowing with minutiae and scanned images of original pressing-plant markings, to help distinguish real articles from attempted forgeries. "Once the labels folded, there was no paper trail for a lot of these records," Fresh says. "If it didn't get documented properly, and quickly, it was going to disappear forever."

Fresh's book anticipated the emergence of a full-fledged collectors' market for random rap. "It used to be where I could name the people who were looking for these types of records," says Dave Tompkins, a Brooklyn writer and collector. "Now, the information is out, and loads of people are using it." The influence can be seen on eBay, where listings for rare (and sometimes not-so-rare) pieces of vinyl often use Ivory's name, much to his dismay. "I definitely never thought it would blow up the way it has," he says. "It's a bit sad."

Fresh's catalog generated controversy among random-rap fans because it grades records on their rarity - a scale that some say values availability over quality. "I know a lot of people were irritated," Fresh says, "but I don't feel guilty at all. I had to do something to differentiate myself."

In any case, thanks to the book's visibility, he says he has received "hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from all over the world, filling in gaps I had." He is now planning a second edition. And after Mr. Tompkins published an in-depth history of Paul C, a highly regarded but little known hip-hop producer, in the British magazine Big Daddy in 2001, collectors unearthed over 15 more songs by Paul C, who died in 1989.

As random rap's profile increases, though, prices for crucial records are beginning to soar. A copy of "Pelon," by the Bronx group 360¡ - a highly sought-after Paul C production - recently sold on eBay for more than $700. The fervor has even spilled over into the world of CD's - out-of-print titles on Rap-A-Lot, a Houston label, can trade for over $100, as do gangster rap obscurities from cities as unlikely as Denver and Dallas.

Over the past year, random rap has received a lift, thanks to the emergence of more than a dozen specialized audioblogs, essentially catalogs of record reviews with accompanying audio available for downloading. (Though the sites are of dubious legality, the Recording Industry Association of America has yet to crack down.)

Andrew Nosnitsky, author of the site Cocaine Blunts and Hip-Hop Tapes, says that 90 percent of the songs he posts are out-of-print, including one recent track by High Potent, "HP Gets Busy," which featured the first recorded appearance of a then unknown Jay-Z. "I was told that Jay and BeyoncŽ checked it out and got a kick out of it," he says.

Audioblogs can get particularly specialized. For example, Can I Bring My Gat? focuses on hip-hop producers; The Rap Nerd specializes in lost tracks from the 90's. On , Robbie Ettleson tackles different themes from week to week - a recent one unearthed songs that were never released because of legal conflicts. "There's so much stuff that people totally ignore," Mr. Ettleson said. "Now I get e-mails from the people I'm covering thanking me for keeping their names out there."

Traditionally, vibrant bootlegging indicates a significant untapped market. "Maybe a lot of these mixtapes and bootlegs and MP3's have to be out there before the scene becomes legit," speculates Eothen Alapatt, producer of one of the few licensed obscurities collections, "The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip-Hop 1979-1983" (Stones Throw).

And some companies are beginning to capitalize on random rap's higher profile. Traffic Entertainment Group, a Quincy, Mass., distributor, has recently begun brokering deals with long-shuttered labels to put their crucial material back into print. "Records that used to be worth 99 cents are now selling for $150," says Matt Welch, a sales representative at the company. "If people are willing to spend that much money, why not put it back into circulation?"

For the most part, though, these records will remain rare, relying on these makeshift historians to memorialize them. "I'm a reporter, but I make tapes to do it," says Edan. "At some point in the future, these records will be seen on the same level as the Delta Bluesman, like the Dead Sea Scrolls of hip-hop."

Mr. Alapatt says, "We all hope that some day our record collections will be put in a museum somewhere and properly archived. But even if that doesn't happen, we can always say we did our part."

The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip Hop, 1979-1983

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