Next Shit - Top Ten 2002 Year in Review

Next Shit - Top Ten 2002 Year in Review
1. Blackalicious Blazing Arrow (MCA/Universal)
Picking up where they left off on their 2000 effort Nia, MC Gift of Gab and DJ Chief Xcel, continue to grow and on Blazing Arrow the duo delivered another conceptual tour de force. With Chief Xcel's emphasis on dusty grooves and refined edge on the boards, and Gift of Gab's willingness to dig deeper introspectively while exercising his carte blanche poetic licence with challenging and experimental rhyme schemes, the duo's freewheeling creative approach runs parallel to the progressive theme of the album. "Life is tough," says Chief Xcel breaking it down into simple terms. "But there's always light at the end of the tunnel and that's what Blazing Arrow is really about. It's about having that faith and having that conviction to just stick it out."

Blazing Arrow marks the duo's first foray onto a major label and is filled with guest appearances from Gil Scott Heron to Zach de la Rocha, enriching the creative process according to Chief Xcel. "[The collaborations were] one of the biggest blessings in this — that they were all natural. They weren't contrived and everything was really, really organic. I‘ve always been intrigued how other people approach the creative process and being able to work with a ?uestlove [of the Roots], a Cut Chemist [of Jurassic 5] and work with a Ben Harper or a Saul Williams as a producer, it just really helps you grow. It's a producer's job to bring out the most with the person that she or he is working with. Everybody has a voice and my job is to blend our energy with that voice and sort of hand craft and tailor make it."

In comparison to the wider sonic scope of past work, Blazing Arrow draws its sonic strength and unity from conjuring up the feel of raw, unvarnished funk and soul. Through retaining a distinctive sound to their music, the duo has struck a chord with many yet they remain humble. "Every time we're on the street, people come up to us and tell us how the music has moved them," says Chief Xcel. "That's the ultimate payment. Common had a line I think on ‘Geto Heaven' where he said ‘affecting lives is where the wealth and the merit is' and I think that really rings true. We're just really striving to do our part in the continuum, because it is such a musical tradition and a rich heritage in the Bay [area]. We are privileged and honoured to be a part of it. Given that, we are conscious of the fact that we have the responsibility of always doing our best and always putting our best work out there." Del F. Cowie

2. DJ Shadow The Private Press (MCA/Universal)
Josh Davis's sophomore release is an exercise in flexing his eccentric muscle, digging deep into his never-ending crate of resources and piecing together a collage of hip-hop, electro pop, soul, funk and classic rock, diverting ridiculously high expectations by throwing a curveball. And though some tracks are pure Shadow, The Private Press sees the DJ working from a clean slate. Built entirely from samples, Shadow has mastered the art of creating tracks that are more than loops. He's expanded his sound snippets and transformed them into intricate notes and sewing them into something that seems larger than hip-hop. Just when you didn't think it was possible, DJ Shadow raised the bar even higher. Noel Dix

3. Jurassic 5 Power In Numbers (Interscope)
With two gifted producers (Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark) and four distinct MCs in top form, Power in Numbers is Jurassic 5's finest accomplishment. They drop a dose of reality on the hip-hop world with finesse and a good vibe. Even outside production courtesy of Juju from the Beatnuts couldn't harden the crew too much. The beats are crisper and more diverse and the lyrical skills are as tight as can be, but what makes Power in Numbers so successful is its range. Cut Chemist drops an R&B effort that's sprinkled with Nelly Furtado's vocal chords on one of the best tracks. Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark to drop an epic instrumental closer in "Acetate Prophets," their most advance lesson in beat-manipulation to date. Further evidence that J5 is one of the freshest acts in hip-hop. Noel Dix

4. El-P Fantastic Damage (Def Jux)
El-P's political outbursts, street trash narratives and neo-b-boyisms create vivid images through symbols, metaphors and an attention to detail. A rapid, strongly punctuated flow expressing barely contained anger is wrapped around layers of self-produced, rock-hard sound that owes much to Public Enemy's Bomb Squad. When El-P brings the noise, he can get funky with the rock to get the heads banging. In the end, El-P's solo follow-up to Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus, one of the most important independent hip-hop releases, is a success thanks to the inspired allegory of "Stepfather Factory," a look into the mind of a little redhead step-child. Definitely challenging. Thomas Quinlan

5. RJD2 Deadringer (Def Jux)
Stapled on the map somewhere between rap's bi-coastal metropolises, Columbus, Ohio isn't exactly known as a hotbed. Between rapper Copywrite and producer RJD2, the Buckeye State capital is fast gaining a reputation for poignant underground urbanism. Dead Ringer is an instrumental exploration of hip-hop that uses the pop song as its template. The boardsman's combination of ingenious samples and street-worthy beats makes Dead Ringer a consistently pleasurable listen. But while the beatmaker's widescope debut stands sturdily on its own two feet, RJ can't dodge comparisons to that don of cinematic beatscapes of DJ Shadow. Endtroducing may be the best instrumental hip-hop album ever, but Dead Ringer is arguably the next best. Martin Turenne

6. K-OS Exit (EMI)
Hip-hop has always instinctively recontextualised sounds from disparate sources and married it to black oral traditions. With Exit, K-OS brings his own organic approach to this process, fusing an acoustic base with his own instinctive blend of MCing and singing. By drawing on R&B, reggae, ‘80s pop and classic hip-hop, K-OS created a sonically accessible vehicle for his spiritually informed thoughts. While he takes time to diss the proverbial wack MC residing on the thug/jiggy axis, K-OS spreads conscious vibes, serves up tasty food for thought and embarks on a quest beyond a mundane existence while trying to retain a sense of humility. Coming to fruition after years in and out of the public eye, Exit is both a striking personal statement and an audacious step for home-grown hip-hop. Del F. Cowie

7. Antipop Consortium Arrhythmia (Warp)
If there was a defining moment on Antipop Consortium's Tragic Epilogue, it came when Priest, riding a ghostly stutter beat, rapped, "This beat is primitive, makes you move like the clouds." It captured APC's refreshingly experimental spirit, but its ironic call to the dance floor also embodied the trio's mannered intellectualism. But when "Bubblz," the first track on Arrhythmia, came bombing up to the surface, Priest charted a new course for his group, boasting that he "move[s] crowds like Larry Levan," the legendary New York City house DJ. In fact, APC's sophomore LP was as floor-friendly as it was intelligent, a compelling exercise in dignified jigginess that reeled in the backpack kids, the bling kids, and the cardigan kids. Where much of Tragic Epilogue was composed on vintage synthesisers and first-generation drum machines, Arrhythmia is rinsed in a highly-digital environment, an unabashed tip-of-the-production cap to next-shit operators like Timbaland and the Neptunes. APC belongs amongst them. Martin Turenne

8. Buck 65 Square (Warner)
Buck 65's been keeping this little doozy tucked up his sleeve for a long time, waiting for the ink to dry on his first major label deal, but Square was worth the wait. Buck weaves heartache, humour, and wholly unapologetic honesty overtop hauntingly sparse guitar samples and aggressive, don't-hold-me-back scratchin' to create a delicious, image-rich, aural extravaganza of stories, black and white photos, and devastating slivers of memory. Even if you don't want to call it hip-hop, you can't deny its dazzling, heartbreaking brilliance. Susana Ferreira

9. J-Live All of The Above (Coup D'Etat)
To say that J-Live loves to play with words would be an understatement. On indefinite hiatus from teaching English at a Brooklyn grade school, J-Live's "very first second album" (his first was the much-bootlegged The Best Part) shows this consummate wordsmith devoted to the craft of MCing. Reassembling already uttered lines to create new verses and delivering detailed comedic narratives with two alternative are just a few of his favourite things. The album cover homage to John Coltrane's Blue Train confirms the album's often jazzy leanings, primarily supplied by DJ Spinna and J-Live himself. Within this aural framework, he expands beyond mere verbal gymnastics, imparting vivid autobiographical rhymes, searing post-9/11 commentary and the missing degree of separation between Kevin Bacon and Run DMC. J-Live is still teaching, but this time the subject is "true school hip-hop." Del F. Cowie

10. Jean Grae Attack of The Attacking Things (Third Earth)
Eighteen dollars. Apparently that's how much Jean Grae, formerly known as What What, spent to make this album and you're inclined to believe her. To avoid rousing her neighbours, Grae's producing and engineering tactics means the album is subtitled The Dirty Mixes and the liner notes come with instructions and diagrams for bass, treble and midrange settings. This self-deprecating and sarcastic sense of humour is evident on the record, although it's not immediately apparent. Her calm, almost detached delivery over soul-infused soundscapes provided by Da Beatminerz, Masta Ace and Mr. Len and herself in alter ego form, belies the depth and creativity of her rhymes. At first you may not notice she's writing from the viewpoint of a misogynist male or shifting craftily between first and third person. While it's an intensely personal record that can touch on suicidal thoughts and the death of a soul-mate, Grae also proves she can stand toe-to-toe in any cipher with battle–ready rhymes. Not to be judged on its low budget origins, there's more worth to this than initially meets the ear. Del F. Cowie