(Foreword: In the early 2000's Carwyn Williams undertook an infamous road trip to Morocco from Hossegor that was covered in a recently launched magazine called Surf Europe. Their vehicle had one tape stuck in the stereo that could neither be stopped not ejected, Right Said Fred's Up, which played continuously throughout the trip. Rather than view that as unfortunate, Carwyn was typically upbeat. "Brilliant!" He enthused. "That's all you need, isn't it? No need fucking about changing the music... one surf trip, one album. Perfect."
In honour of Carwyn's shaky premise, we're nominating the albums genuinely worthy of continuous rotation on a surf trip.
Last time, Billy Wilson paid gushing tribute to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. This time, Long Island rappers Leaders of the New School's debut masterpiece A Future Without A Past is considered.)
Everybody thinks the era in which they came of age had the best music. Also the finest fashion, the greatest World Cup, superior surfers, proper haircuts, etc, etc.
It’s kind of a confirmation bias perversion of the shifting baseline theory, to put it unsimply.
The thing is, some people are actually correct.
If you were mid/late teen-ish in the early 90’s and you hold (now called) Golden Age (then known as New School) hip-hop as incomparable with anything in the genre since, while your hypothesis is based upon subjectivity, your conclusion is observable, provable, actual.
It’s simultaneously both a matter of opinion and a historical fact.
And thus as factual a statement it is that the Maastricht Treaty was signed in February 1992, around the exact same time my Dad brought this album on cassette back from a business trip to America ($9.99 vs £13.99 - I was demonstrating early flair for both taste and thrift), it is also a fact that Golden Age hip hop is not only by far and away the finest example of type, but in fact should be offended by comparison / mentioning in the same breath as the champagne/Bad Boy/mumble/etc that has come to besmirch the genre.
The fact that New School rap and New School surfing came about at the same time only lends further pertinence to a nomination into 1 Album 1 Surf Trip hall of fame, as you'll surely have noted dear reader.
Because if you were reading surf mags featuring New Schoolers tail slidin on 17” wide 2” thick banana Merricks, listening to New School rap, maybe even wearing a New Deal t-shirt, well it certainly felt like something was afoot.
Let’s address a couple of minor bones of contention with LONS and their broader movement firstly. Both the Scenario and the Scenario (Remix)*, two of the greatest hip hop tracks ever - and certainly the best two tracks featuring the Leaders - are glaring omissions from the record.
Scenario of course is the last track on Side B of A Tribe Called Quest’s era-defining Low End Theory released the same year (technically their song, but musically very much an LONS track... oh let’s not get bogged down), while the Remix is conspicuous by its absence even from following Tribe studio albums, until 1998's The Love Movement.
Phife's Scenario lyric "I'll bust a nut inside your eye, to show you where I come from" demonstrates classic New School schtick; making crude or silly sound catchy and clever.
Elsewhere, we should contend with spurious comparisons made between New School rap (and in particular the Native Tongues: LONS, Tribe, De La, Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep) with mid-century jazz artists, that are often bandied about in the ‘urban’ music press. Highly iffy, in my opinion.
(As an aside, check out Radio 4's excellent Seriously podcast episode Things Called Jazz That Aren’t Jazz )
I mean they sampled jazz, relentlessly, which in itself, makes them very unlike jazz musicians. They paid tribute to jazz, named songs after jazz, name checked jazz artists, but for my money, somehow perversely much more akin to Dylan, than Duke.
They like he were magpies, borrowing and stealing wherever they could (him everything box car riding hobo era, them everything funk and jazz). They were both lyrically brilliant, if vocally much less so in the conventional sense. There's the protest songs, although rather than acoustic and earnest, theirs are arranged and angry. The use of verse, the tapping into the collective youth subconscious... they may have looked more like Miles, but they measure up closer to inner city Zimmermans.
Perhaps the sole jazz-ish comparison worth making is one of historical significance, of timing.
Just as 1959 is lauded for the big five jazz albums - Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, Davis' Kind of Blue, Coltrane's Giant Steps, Mingus' Mingus Ah Um and Brubeck's Time out, so too did ‘91 represent a paradigm shift with a plethora of Golden Age releases. Leaders, Tribe, Gangstarr, Black Sheep, UMC’s, Pete Rock & CL, Nice n' Smooth and De La Soul all put albums out that year, a veritable East Coast New School rap roll of honour.
Was, as many claim, Charlie Brown the superior MC To Busta? His trademark shriek never got near the mileage of Busta's roar.
Mad cap rap was a change of tack from Nation of Gods 5 Percenters insular seriousness.
Leaders of the New School, so named by Chuck D, were Busta Rhymes, Charlie Brown, Dinco D and Cut Monitor Milo, and they essentially hated each other... well Brown and Busta did, anyway.
During 1991, Busta was pretty much only hanging out in the studio with Tribe (hence Scenario), and serious ego clashes between him and Brown meant A Future Without A Past almost never got made. Maybe that ephemeral quality is their saving grace, never sticking around long enough to go to seed.
The fact that Busta very much did, and in fact crystallised into a lurid, omnipresent MTV self-parody that you couldn’t escape, only adds to the potency of AFWAP. Sure, they maybe could’ve got a bit more done (The Smiths’ 5 year, 4 album stint feels just about right) but it wasn’t to be.
A '93 follow-up, T.I.M.E. does little more than squeeze a few drops out of their oeuvre, but with nothing like the rambunctious heft of AFWAP.
“If you were reading surf mags featuring New Schoolers tail slidin on 17” wide 2” thick banana Merricks, listening to New School rap, wearing The New Deal, well it certainly felt like something was afoot”
The two singles from the album, Case of the PTA and International Zone Coaster, charted modestly at best, neither particularly featuring in your eclectic** iTunes library nor the 6 Music playlist with their Beasties and their De La.
The best track of course, is the 10 verse Sound of the Zeekers, which features guest MC's from Rumpletilskinz. Sure, it's not quite The Waste Land, but it's lengthy and brilliant, similar enough for me then, with hardly any need to mention other obvious parallels with Eliot (both Anglophiles, Busta going on childhood holidays to Morecombe, Lancashire, TS renouncing his US citizenship to become British).
A production debut by Busta, he apparently told everyone to bring their own sample for Zeekers, and hip hop anaraks (puffas?) amongst you will enjoy the way the beat evolves madly through the track.
LONS flow is based around call and repeat, and features heavy sampling, before such a thing became a litigious swamp. As for the subject matter? School, mainly. How many other hip hop acts mention the Parent and Teachers Association, much less entitle their hit single after it?
I remember thinking at the time that they all seemed a touch old for school, but not in the unsettling way that Steve from 90210 did.
Their vibe was a zany, crazy walkin and dancing, wacky energy that prompted a whole generation of rap acts to start moving about in their videos, for better or for worse.
The great tragedy of hip hop albums of course, and the traditional snag in terms of them being album groups/artists, as opposed to ‘singles’ artists, aside from the music itself and the fact that they are generally awful live, is the skits between songs.
Kinda annoying on a first listen, become exponentially more excruciating down the line.
Imagine, just going past Valladolid, the 7th repeat of any skit from any hip hop album, and an iron resolve might be required, or perhaps a technical tape deck issue such as Carwyn's, to avoid casting the album forever into the windblown, bleached out Castillian plateau.
Whether C Brown talking about detention, or Method Man’s "Just your nuts on a fucken dresser” etc or any skit from any and every rap album, well it’s all a bit regrettable, isn't it? Again, another bizarre parallel with New School/Momentum generation surfing arises, with that same urge for a brief, skilled use of fast forward that you employed to avoid watching Greg Browning dressed up as a Star Wars something or other before his part, for the hundred and twelfth time.
Was it a more innocent, less cynical time? Or just a less odious? Probably. New School lyric writers seemed to have had the all important ‘relatable content’ memo, so much so that a Home Counties whitey preparing for his GCSE's could recite their rhymes without massive levels of irony.
There was precious little firearm ownership chat, nor boasts of the size and expense of one's narcotic habit, of jewellery owned and worn.
Mercifully, it was a time before the hideous ‘I drink very expensive champagne in the VIP section of nightclubs’ became the central thrust of the genre, the emcee’s raison d'etre.
Sure, there was a recession, and Bill hadn't yet not jizzed on Monica, but at the same time, it was more optimistic. And by optimistic I mean the youth were hopeful, with probable cause, about their prospects of getting higher than their parents had.
These days, there's something particularly bleak about all the aping of bygone looks ironically, something a bit sad in the notion that any genuine youth rebellion might require a bit too much commitment, originality and time away from self portraiture, or worse still threaten potential future financial stability, than it's worth.
Rap and surfing have never enjoyed anything like the relationship rock of various kinds has (probably in part due to simple demographics) or reggae (no matter how insipid) has for that matter, probably down to geography (surfing is more prolific on tropical islands than Strong Island).
Mercifully, hip hop has remained off most surf movie soundtracks.
The two, in fairness, do not go well. The more irregular visual rhythm of surfer on wave and the more geometric audio boom boom tsch, of hip hop are not happy bedfellows.
Surf trips, on the other hand, a whole different matter entirely.
* The first MC to appear on Scenario (Remix), Kid Hood, was murdered days after the recording and never heard the track. His 43 second rap career is still considered to top what the vast majority of his millennial counterparts will achieve in their entire lifetimes.
** The worst thing in the world to say about your music and/or quiver. Awful. Say Catholic, if you must, or, better yet, strap on a pair and cite just one single recording artist/record (e.g. fresh back from an epic surf road trip, Her: ‘What kind of music do you like?’ You: ‘Leaders of the New School’s AFWAP....’ allowing that to just sit out there without any need for further qualification).