The Good, The Bad, The Banned, The Sad, The Surreal, Top Rap vs. Hip-Hop Metaphor of the Year + more in Best of 2015 Hip-Hop

Posted by Billyjam, January 19, 2016 11:59am | Post a Comment
 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2015

Among all the top ten hip-hop albums in 2015 that caught my ear was Tone Tank's late in the year cassette release ONE-OFFs & ONE-UPMANSHIPs via indie Brooklyn label Modern Shark. It's the super-gifted Brooklyn emcee's first release in five years. The wait was worth it for what the longtime NY hop-hop artist considers his first official solo album. Complimenting Tone's unique flow and always engaging storytelling hip-hop style is a well-chosen array of mic and production collaborators. These include SerengetiCool Calm Pete, Kool A.D., Edan, Victor Vic, J Howells Werthman, and his longtime production partner Scott Thorough.  Other 2015 albums that made my top list included UK poet/emcee Kate Tempest's Bad Place For A Good Time (Big Dada), Knxwledge's Hud Dreems (Stones Throw), and Blackalicious's Imani, Vol. I (Black Mines). Their first album in a decade, it was also released in an instrumental LP version. 

Other tight 2015 releases included Public Enemy's Man Plans, God Laughs, and Semi Hendrix's Breakfast At Banksy's.  The latter was the 2015 project pairing of Jack Splash and Ras Kass. It was just one of many memorable ones in 2015, the top ten of which I highlighted in the Best of 2015 Hip-Hop: Top Ten Collaborative Projects and includes other rewarding collaborations such as Anderson Paak with Knxwledge as NxWorries. These two artists bridged the gap between underground and mainstream hip-hop in 2015 with Paak collaborating on six tracks off Dr. Dre's 2015 hit album Compton, and Knxwledge's contribution to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. Both of these albums made the top five chart entries on my Top 30 Hip-Hop 2015 Hit Albums post. Others included Drake's If You're Reading This It's Too LateMeek Mills' Dreams Worth More Than Money, and A$AP Rocky's At. Long. Last. A$AP.  That Top 30 list of popular albums in 2015 includes such other artist releases as Fetty Wap's Fetty Wap (300 Entertainment / RGF Productions) featuring the NJ rapper's unavoidable pop hit "Trap Queen" that, while it dropped in 2014, was among the most popular tracks of 2015. 

Between so much mainstream and underground hip-hop, the problem with hip-hop in 2015 was there was too damn much of it to keep up with it all. The rich variety of great hip-hop (indie & major) coming out in 2015 was like the musical version of the abundance of TV shows these days; too much good stuff is being made to have enough time to keep up with it all. 2015 presented an increasing quantity of hip-hop being released via download, CD, vinyl, or cassette (the latter two being the fastest growing formats in 2015). Today's hip-hop fan is faced with a dizzying non-stop array of releases coming and an ever mounting challenge of trying to stay abreast of all things hip-hop. It's overwhelming to wade through all the new hip-hop coming out in record stores like Amoeba, as well as online only via destinations like SoundCloud and YouTube. 2015 was another recent year in which many hip-hop fans tended to hone in on the one specific subgenre. Once upon a time, hip-hop was a young genre with limited releases. Now into the beginning of its fifth decade, like rock before it, hip-hop is all grown up, and blown up exponentially and globally, and splintering off into a myriad of sub-genres.

In the mid- to late-'80s, hip-hop fans still shared many of the same tastes in artist and records. Today it's less common for two hip-hop fans to share the exact same tastes. Examples include the following excellent top 20 albums chosen by Amoeba Berkeley's E-Lit, whose list is totally different from mine and probably yours too. E-Lit picked the following as his favorites in no particular order, and the list includes some releases that are technically more electronic than hip-hop. As expected, E-Lit included some of these artists on his KALX radio show this week when he presented his always well-researched and constructed weekly radio show as part of this week's Best of 2015 in Review theme at the UC Berkeley radio station.



Amoeba Berkeley E-Lit's Top 20 2015 Albums:

1) Ka & Preservation  Days With Dr. Yen Lo (Pavlov Institute)

2) Billy Woods Today I Wrote Nothing (also on LP)
(Backwoodz Studioz)

3) John Robinson & Chief We the Prolific (Feelin’ Music)

4) Blueprint King No Crown (Weightless)

5) Ceschi Broken Bone Ballads (Fake Four Inc)
6) White Boiz Neighborhood Wonderful (Stones Throw)

7) Moon & Pollution The Box Borealis (F I X)

8)  B. Dolan Kill the Wolf (LP version)  (Strange Famous)

9)  2econd Class Citizen  A Hall of Mirrors (The Content Label)

10) Greg Grease Born to Lurk x Forced to Work (Sound Verite)

11)  Bleubird Lauderdale (Fake Four Inc)

12)  Mixed Blood Majority Insane World (Doomtree/F I X)

13)  Kill the Vultures Carnelian (Totally Gross National Product)

14)  Myka 9 & Factor Famous Future Time Travel (Urbnet)

15)  Knxwledge Hud Dreems (Stones Throw)

16) Golden Rules Golden Ticket (LP version) (Lex Records)

17) SiR Seven Sundays (LP version) (Fresh Selects)

18) LapaluxLustmore (2LP version) (Brainfeeder)

19) LoDeck Pomegranate (Johnny23)

 20) Hot Sugar God's Hand (LP version)  (Break World)

 Best Rap vs. Hip-Hop Metaphor at Presidential Primary Level 

Donald Trump's braggadocious swagger and non-stop ubiquitous display of headline-grabbing, controversial statements earned him the best rap vs. hip-hop analogy at a presidential primary level in 2015. If Barack Obama was the first hip-hop president, then Donald Trump truly is the first rap presidential hopeful. If Obama, with his gift for oration and thought-provoking speeches, is hip-hop's Rakim then Trump is rap's Rick Ross. Like Rick Ross (pictured above in video still c/o YouTube) and all these other superficial pop rappers, Trump is more concerned with image over substance. But that is not to say he should be dismissed or that he can be avoided. Calculated and shrewd Trump is much like a chart-topping, popular contemporary rapper, who knows how to craft a hook-driven hit with a catchy memorable vocal refrain that will dominate the airwaves in the short-term. He's the political equivalent of a studio rapper who claims to be the "greatest hip-hop artist ever" but who hires others to help create his hits, has no love or understanding of the culture of hip-hop, and most likely has never seen or even heard of the seminal hip-hop movie Wild Style.

Much like the fragile of ego, faux tough-from-the-streets rapper Rick Ross, who gets upset when his prison guard employment history gets exposed, Trump is another loudmouth bully who, rather than battling on the mic in the traditional hip-hop way, is prone to lawsuit threats and Twitter feuds. In addition to all the Twitter feuds he's had with politicians in the past year, the thin-skinned Trump actually had a social media rap feud with Mac Miller back in 2013 over the Pittsburgh, PA rapper's gold-certified 2011 recorded hit song he titled "Donald Trump."  "Little @MacMiller, you illegally used my name for your song 'Donald Trump' which now has over 75 million hits" - Tweeted @realDonaldTrump. Note that Trump initially claimed to be supportive and a fan of Mac Miller's, but then he turned nasty and threatened to sue the rapper. Ultimately though, like so many of Trump's loud but hollow threats and promises, he never followed through.


 Best Hip-Hop Record Label

The Tuscon, Arizona-based Mello Music Group (MMG) record label have been doing an amazing job for the past few years, with their impeccable taste in hip-hop. But in 2015 they truly killed it and fulfilled their mission statement of providing "music for the soul, from the heart of American culture, opening the realm of the intelligent Hiphop experience through melodic evocations, beats that corroborate the truth, and voices that roar above the rising void and impose order on the terrible & triumphant moments of everyday life." Yep, lofty a goal as that may sound on paper, MMG kept their promise and truly delivered in 2015. 

Among the Mello Music Group releases of the past twelve months, there was not one but two from L'Orange. Both collaborations, they were the excellent L'Orange & Jeremiah Jae's The Night Took Us in Like Family and L'Orange & Kool Keith's Time? Astonishing!  Another  excellent collaboration projects from MMG in 2015 was the pitch perfect pairing of Ras Kass and Jack Splash as Semi Hendrix who gave us the album Breakfast At Banksy's. Other MMG 2015 releases included Apollo Brown's Grandeur (LP version), Oddisse's The Good Fight (LP version), Open Mike Eagle's A Special Episode Of Open Mike Eagle: Split Pants at Sound Check, Kenn Starr's Square One (LP version), and Pete Rock's much anticipated and long awaited PeteStrumentals 2 (LP version).


Most Surreal Hip-Hop Moment in 2015

The most surreal hip-hop moment of the year had to be the revelation that the mysterious two-million dollar bidder behind that super rare Wu-Tang Clan one-of-a-kind album turned out to be none other than Martin Shkreli. Yes the reviled pharmaceutical CEO dubbed "Pharma Bro" who had famously jacked up the price on life-saving pills for AIDS and cancer patients by 5,000% from $13.50 to $750 per pill. That same guy who then got busted for securities fraud and accused of running a ponzi scheme was the highest bidder for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.

The outrageously high $2 million price tag, that the Guinness Book of Records ranked as the most expensive album of all time, scored Pharma Bro the lone copy of the 31-track, two-hour-long album that was packaged in a hand-carved box, along with a leather-bound book of parchment paper containing lyrics and album liner notes. Having not heard the rare album, I don't know what it sounds like, but I find it hard to be believe it is worth that much money. Frankly I imagine that it's yet another Wu-Tang album that fails to top their landmark 1993 debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)When the unique WU album offer was first reported in April 2014, Rza said that offers for it went as high as $5 million. The deal reportedly went through in May 2015, but it was only in December when the controversial buyer's name was revealed. Since then, RZA and Shkreli having been going back and forth in the press. In late December, NY Magazine reported that, "Martin Shkreli Says He Was Only Acting Like an Awful Person As Part of a ‘Social Experiment.'" And this week Shkreli Tweeted that he might be releasing a mixtape - one that would likely include tracks from his Wu-Tang purchase.


 Best West Coast Hip-Hop Pioneer Keepin' It Fresh Like 1984 in 2015

West Coast electro pioneer Greg Broussard, aka The Egyptian Lover, may have begun his hip-hop career way back in the late '70s and his recording career in the early '80s, but don't let the passage of four decades fool you into thinking that this incredibly influential first wave LA hip-hop legend and old school artist has lost any of his passion for the simple but compelling sound he crafted with booming 808 beats, scratching, and bugged rap vocals. In 2015 he kept it fresh like it was 1984 all over again when he released 1984 and did a slew of memorable DJ gigs all over the globe. Shows included a Boiler Room session at Bloc in London and a St. Patrick's Day gig in Dublin Ireland that I was lucky to catch. He also did a few sets at Amoeba Music in both Hollywood and San Francisco. Two of his Amoeba in-stores were to support the November 2015 release of his first album in nine years. [1984 is available in vinyl, download, and CD formats. Cassette versions no longer available]. The appropriately titled album 1984 keeps that West Coast electro style he pioneered alive and well, utilizing both the same approach and the same gear that he started out on back in the pre-digital age.  At his shows The Egyptian Lover makes a point of bringing along vinyl to play, and all the original 12" records! He also brings along an 808 drum machine to incorporate into his set. He may be an elder statesman of hip-hop, but at his shows he displays such a raw energy and unbridled enthusiasm that you'd never guess that this is a guy whose been doing it (and loving it) for four decades! In 2016 Stones Throw Records will be releasing The Egyptian Lover's anticipated Anthology collection.


Hip-Hop Ambassador Of The Year

In 2015 Christie Z Pabon continued to tirelessly champion hip-hop culture through such avenues as her key role in the US DMC DJ battles, and the annual Tools Of War-produced summer park jams in New York City. Since the 1990s, Christie Z  has been a major ambassador of hip-hop culture, specifically the turntable arts, through her invaluable work at both the DMC (when she temporarily departed the Popmaster Fabelorganization for a few years, it seemed to go downhill without her) and also through the company that she co-founded with her famed husband Tools of War. Among a myriad of other productions and grassroots promotions, Tools Of War produces the premier annual summer park hip-hop events True School Summer NYC Park Jam Series along with such others as her husband Jorge Fabel Pabon (aka PopMaster Fabel) and fellow hip-hop pioneer "forever host" Grandmaster Caz. Free to the public these events feature hip-hop legends week in, week out every summer season without fail. In addition to these Park Jams, and her DMC battles job (including trekking all over the US to places like San Francisco to oversee Regional DMCs), Christie does a detailed weekly Tools Of War hip-hop happenings mail-out, participates in and cross-promotes positive hip-hop events that promote the culture, and even finds time to bake her now famous cookies that she sells at events to make some extra much needed income. Christie Z Pabon may not make a whole lot of money from the culture that she never ceases to support and promote, but her mostly unheralded contributions hip-hop are unmatched and as such she is truly the Hip-Hop Ambassador of the Year! 

Best Hip-Hop Movies of 2015

For me the best hip-hop movies of 2015 fell under two categories: documentary and bio-pic. Best documentary was the excellent Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives about the two late night radio DJs whose long defunct, highly influential weekly show on Columbia University's WKCR featured a non-stop parade of gifted guests (mostly emcees but some DJs too) who get equal screen time in this must see film. Meanwhile in the bio-pic category the best film of 2015 is the justifiably hyped N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton (released today on Blu-Ray and DVD) which scored well at the box-office and appealed to a wide audience including critics - despite being snubbed at Oscars for best picture. The popular film brought back many "back in my day" memories for old school hip-hop heads, while introducing young hip-hop fans to the engaging backstory to the controversial and highly influential South Central LA gangsta rap pioneers. Additionally the movie introduced audiences to Ice Cube's talented son O'Shea Jackson, Jr. who not only looks just like his famous father, but looks to follow in his pop's footsteps with a promising acting career ahead.

 Top Banned American Rappers in 2015

In the top internationally banned American Rappers in 2015, in first place is Tyler, the Creator with runner up being Action Bronson who respectively dropped the 2015 albums Cherry Bomb, and Mr. Wonderful.  Both American artists were banned overseas in 2015 due to lyrical content, notably misogyny or violent imagery deemed so offensive that it led to concert cancellations. In August 2015 the Queens, NY rapper Action Bronson surprised fans by cancelling his Osheaga Festival performance in Montreal, Canada. The announcement by the food loving following the circulation of a petition against his misogynistic and violent lyrics. He was subsequently replaced by Mos Def. Then the following week while on the road down under Odd Future's Tyler, the Creator abruptly cancelled the Australian leg of his Cherry Bomb World Tour, following a campaign initiated by Collective Shout. The grassroots movement's stated mission is to fight "the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls in media, advertising and popular culture."  Later that same month Tyler, the Creator announced on social media that he had been banned from touring the United Kingdom for 3 to 5 years, also due to his lyrical content. After arriving at the airport on his way to perform at several big UK music festivals last summer, including Reading, he was stopped and refused entrance to the UK being told word had come down from the home secretary, Theresa May, that he could not enter Britain until sometime between 2018 and 2020. Back in 2014 New Zealand banned the LA artist from entering their country stating he was, “a threat to the public order and the public interest."



Best Mixtape of 2015

DJ Qbert presents: Hard Boiled Scrambled feat. DJ The Eggsecutioner rates not only as the Best Mixtape of 2015, but also as the best 2015 sequel to the legendary DJ's acclaimed 1994 mixtape Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik [Preschool Break Mix] One of a few DJ Qbert produced "mixtapes" in 2015, this "mixtape" was not released on cassette tape but via download published via Mass Appeal's SoundCloud page. Like Q's landmark 1994 mixtape (that was on cassette tape) Hard Boiled Scrambled is brimming with funky ole skool breaks and cutting and skratching in between. Musically it also recalls Qbert's four-part vinyl (single CD) Breaktionary series.

Most Consistent Revolutionary Rapper of 2015

Longtime Bay Area hip-hop artist Paris had a year in which he continued to stay 100% true to his political beliefs no matter how unpopular they may be. The outspoken revolutionary rapper, who famously got dropped by Tommy Boy Records in the nineties over his anti-authoritarian content, has not softened up one bit as proven by his 2015 album, Pistol Politics, self-released via his Guerrilla Funk Records on September 11th.  Pistol Politics, the artist's eighth album since his 1990 debut The Devil Made Me Do Itaddresses a myriad of political and social issues including police brutality, oppression, and institutional racism. Its 27 funk-fueled tracks are structured to be both a condemnation of society's ills and a celebration of its virtues, emphasizing themes of unity, progression, and community in what the artist calls a "musical statement of solidarity." On the album he is joined by an array of guests including Chuck D, George Clinton, E-40, WC, Kam, Tha Eastsidaz, Dead PrezT-K.A.S.H., and The Conscious Daughters.

As to why he continues to express his so often unpopular beliefs he told the Amoeblog in a 2015 interview, "If you are not speaking on something you're passionate about [then] you are wasting your voice. And I've been passionate about a number of things: progressive ideals, social justice, police brutality, and education are among the things I've touched on in my music. These are topics that for whatever reason, and everybody has their theories, have not been more readily available in hip-hop and other forms of music. And I'm able to do it, so I do do it. I'm able to drive my own engine by having my own label"

Most Unlikely Remix Album Project of 2015

WTF? RTJ!  admittedly was my initial reaction upon hearing that revered hip-hop super-duo Run The Jewels was actually going to do a cats meow remix of RTJ2, re-recording their widely acclaimed second album using nothing but cat sounds. What started out as a joke in 2014 became a reality in 2015 with the December release by Mass Appeal of the nicely packaged two-LP set Meow The Jewels.  From faux fun promotion of Run The Jewels 2, Meow soon morphed into a Matmos worthy sample-based project for El-P, following some more thought plus the aid of a successful Kickstarter campaign. He also got the creative aid of an impressive array of guest producers for the 12 track album. Each were presented with the challenge of utilizing cat sounds in their re-appropriating of RTJ's familiar songs. On "Angelsnuggler (Dan The Automator Remix)" the San Francisco producer transforms cats sounds into soulful sounds. On "Lie, Cheat, Meow (Prince Paul Remix)" Prince Paul beautifully chops up and weaves in these alternating meow sounds, building them into the song's lazy seductive rhythm  that act as the perfect backdrop to Killer Mike's commanding flow It's hard not to wander into corny territory if using "meow meow meow" samples. And even though on "Creown (Alchemist Remix)" The Alchemist does sound hella corny flipping the RTJ song into sounding like a kids sing-along party theme with a non stop assault of meow meow sounds, you gotta love it. You also have to love the experimental nature and adventurous spirit of the project that acts as the perfect bridge between 2014's RTJ2 and the highly anticipated forthcoming RTJ3 album, later this year. A limited edition pressing in real nice packaging by Mass Appeal Records, the 2LP Meow The Jewels is currently still avail at Amoeba.

Most Overhyped New Tech Tool of 2015

Most overhyped new tech tool of 205 had to Jay Z's TIDAL which, following being trumpeted as the next thing in streaming music upon its launch a few months into the year, had a somewhat anti-climatic performance by year's end. Following a mega-hyped, star studded, over the top launch back in late March, Jay Z's music streaming service TIDAL has not (so far) taken over from all other services. "A complete disaster" is what Businessweek described it as since it did not live up to the promises and because of all the inner turmoil with CEOs.  By late September TIDAL, which boasts of higher quality streaming, had reached the one million subscribers mark which is good but not considering that it already had 75% of those back in April. Not only has the company seen outside forces at work (both Apple Music and YouTube Red were introduced to the already competitive streaming music market in the period after TIDAL launched) but internally it's had upsets also. In its first nine months of operation the company had three different CEO. Last month Jeff Toig, whose past experience includes SoundCloud and Virgin Mobile, took over as the latest CEO to help Jay Z live up to his company's promise.


  Hip-Hop Artists Taken At Too Young An Age in 2015:

We lost a lot of great artists across various genres over 2015 including Allen Tousaint and Lemmy Kilmister. But for some reason there seemed to be a greater ratio of hip-hop artists dying at a young age in 2015.  At the young age of 39 we lost Pumpkinhead (aka P.H.) who was paid tribute to on the Amoeblog back in June. In August the 43 year old  NYC emcee Sean Price died in his sleep. The prolific Brooklyn, NY rapper was known for his membership of such groups as Heltah SkeltahRandom Axe, and the group/collective Boot Camp Clik as well as his solo work and endless collaborations on others' projects. The Duck Down Music artist was known as Ruck when he was a member of duo Heltah Skeltah along with rap partner Rock.
Like Sean Price, many others' lives were lost to natural causes. But some rap/hip-hop artists in 2015 were victims of gun violence. Such an artist was popular Bay Area rapper Dominic "The Jacka" Newton was shot and killed in early February in East Oakland. According to reports the 37 year old, Oakland based, Pittsburg, CA born hip-hop artist died doing what he loved most: rapping and freestyling with a group of seven hip-hop friends of his sitting in a van. The Jacka was standing outside beside the van when the shooting took place. Gun violence also took the lives of Louisianna rapper Young Ready, and NYC rapper Chinx who, on May 17th, was shot and killed while sitting in his Porsche in Queens. Three months later his debut album Welcome to JFK would be posthumously released.

Old school Bronx born hip-hop pioneers to pass in 2015 included Dot-A-Rock from the Fantastic Five, and Kool DJ AJ Scratch best known as DJ for Busy Bee and Kurtis Blow. The Bay Area lost African Identity, paid tribute to in the Amoeblog here, and Derrick "Digg" Reed (or Dig) who was one half of the famed Hunters Point, San Francisco rap duo U.D.I. Tragically both San Francisco rappers, who died from natural causes, were only in their 40's. Rest in peace also to A$AP Mob co-founder A$AP Yams, Three 6 Mafia member Koopsta Knicca who died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 40, and Hussein Fatal of The Outlawz who was killed in a car accident in 2015.

Hip Hop is 40 live at IDA World DJ Championships from DJ Woody on Vimeo.
                         Best Hip-Hop History Lesson Via Live Music & Video DJ in 2015

2015's best hip-hop history lesson delivered live, via music and video in a live club setting, was DJ Woody's Hip Hop is 40 live at IDA World DJ Championships (Dec 2015) above. The super skilled UK battle/club DJ constructed this latest music and video history lesson mix to appeal to hip-hop fanatics while have it "still work with a dance floor" in a mainstream setting, he told the Amoeblog. The above video captures the full 65 minute audio-visual DJ set that he performs live every time. "It's kinda like the 90's one but extended it back to '73 up to today," he said in reference to his 2012 audio/visual assault Big Phat 90's Mixtape that was profiled here. The DJ's latest mixed media mix was performed live, with no overdubs/edits, at last month's World IDA DJ Championships in Krakow, Poland. The IDA is the International DJ Association - that was born directly out of the now defunct ITF (International Turntablist Federation). Back in when in 2001 DJ Woody won the ITF World championship title in San Francisco, and the following year won the Vestax World title. These days the UK talent is in demand for his audio-visual DJ performances at clubs and showcases like the IDA event. 


 Best Last Minute Free Surprise Release of 2015

For the past couple of years DJ Shadow has been busy behind the scenes at his new Liquid Amber record label and focusing on the artists being released through the label. But he hasn't released anything new himself in the two years since he dropped the 2014 EP similarly entitled Liquid Amber. But over the holidays he pleasantly surprised fans with a tight new track entitled "Swerve." On Christmas Day, he posted as a gift to DJs the new 3:14 length track to his SoundCloud page with an accompanying Santa pic and the tag, "DJ's, Santa's not done with you yet. He dropped off this little battle weapon for you. Enjoy, and see you in 2016!" The banging rollin' bass track acts a teaser for DJ Shadow's upcoming next album. "One small piece of the larger and more diverse project" promises a press release from the artist for the album that is supposed to drop in the coming year.

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