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

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