Photo by Mary Galli

In I Made You A Mixtape, we ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.

The mixer: After runs at such publications as CMJ, Wax Poetics, and XXL, hip-hop journalist Brian Coleman has made it his mission to document hip-hop’s history—his books Rakim Told Me and Check The Technique are excellent, informative looks at the making of classic albums, pulling together interviews from hundreds of important players, both on wax and behind the scenes. The A.V. Club talked to Coleman about hip-hop’s most interesting “what ifs,” using tracks on the albums examined in his latest book, Check The Technique Vol. 2, out October 14.

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3rd Bass, “Wordz Of Wisdom” (1989)

Brian Coleman: 3rd Bass, as a group, was one big “what if.” They weren’t planned as a duo—or if you include producer Sam Sever, a trio. Serch and Pete were both planning to be solo artists. Sam Sever and future A&R impresario Dante Ross knew both guys and through a random set of events Serch and Pete met each other and started working together. “Wordz Of Wizdom” was the first song they all combined on, with Sam. It was Pete’s song originally, and Serch added on his verses. But it went through many different versions, and Serch talks about how he felt a lot of pressure on his vocals because Pete’s were so good. That process took about two years, believe it or not, from 1987 to 1989. Far from an “overnight sensation.”

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Black Sheep, “The Choice Is Yours” (1991)

BC: That song definitely could have—and probably should have—been totally different. First off, producer and DJ Mista Lawnge said he originally did that “remix” music on the single, which is different than the album version, for the young rapper Chi-Ali, but never gave it to him. That would have sounded totally different with Chi rhyming on it, so you have to wonder how that would have gone. Then Dres added a full verse to the song when they remixed it for the single, and that really gave it a lot of extra punch. The original, album version is great, but it wasn’t going to be a smash. The remix ended up being huge, and fills dance floors to this day.

Gravediggaz, “Diary Of A Madman” (1994)

BC: Prince Paul’s description of that song is ridiculously complicated, and it was before ProTools, so this was done with tape-splicing, which is not easy. Most people out there probably don’t know what that is—I’m old and took a radio-production class back in the day. So the Latin Rascals and New York DJs in the ’80s, some of the shit they did would be hard to do on ProTools now, and they did it in the ’80s. It’s amazing.

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The interesting thing is that RZA did the same thing with “Protect Ya Neck”: It’s a big puzzle—in that there are a bunch of verses, and then he just rearranged it and added the intro, the skit element for which Prince Paul is deservedly famous. And all these years later, he’s still fucking around with this stuff. It’s interesting that sometimes you grab whoever’s there. “That engineer’s got a funny voice, let’s grab him!” On skits, it’s not a trained voice actor, it’s just whoever you can get. The other interesting thing about Paul is that people would send him cassettes of people saying dumb, random shit and he would just splice it in at different points on the album, which is kind of fascinating in its own right. That’s what a master producer does; they’re puzzle-makers. With “Diary Of A Madman,” the track itself is amazing, but once you learn the story of how it was created? Imagine if that were just in the original order, without the skit, the way RNS produced it. We’d just say, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.” It wouldn’t be amazing and still a classic now.

The funniest thing that Prince reminds you of is it didn’t have a hook. He was battling all of the top hip-hop songs of the day without a hook, talking about some Charles Manson shit. That’s pretty awesome.

Jeru The Damaja, “Can’t Stop The Prophet” (1994)

BC: The video is dope. Daniel Hastings did the video, and he also did all the artwork for the album. The concept of that song and the way it came together is pretty powerful. You can’t name too many songs Premier produced and someone else remixed, because why would you fuck with a Premier beat? But Premier even says it, “The only people who can automatically do a remix of one of my songs are Large Professor and Pete Rock.” That’s a pretty short list, so it’s kind of interesting. It’s a dope remix. I think concept songs are hard to pull off, and Jeru, the way he kind of put stuff together, wasn’t overly preachy, but it was very righteous. There are other artists out there where it comes off as preachy, but it’s all in the way you deliver it. That’s a perfect example of a cool video that wasn’t just eye candy. It was cool video for a powerful song.

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Dr. Octagon, “I’m Destructive” (1996)

BC: What’s cool is neither [MC Kool] Keith nor Dan [The Automator] came from a hard-rock background. I’m sure they liked some of that stuff, but it’s not like that was in their zone, so that was them taking a risk and going out of their comfort zone on an album that was taking a risk and going outside of pretty much anyone’s comfort zone. That’s pretty much outer edge of outer edge. I knew that group, Attitude. I was kind of a punk kid, so I knew who that group was. The funny thing is, if you look at the back of the original album, nobody was listed by their real name. It was all Whoolio E. Glacias and Chewbacca Uncircumcised, and all this shit. So you didn’t really know who was on guitar, but Dan told me who it was. It certainly draws you in. It’s hard to say that was an influential song that kind of helped the awful Korn/Limp Bizkit hard-rock/rap shit later in the decade, because it would be unfair to blame Keith or Dan for that, but it fit in that album, just because anything weird would have fit.

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AVC: Why do you think it fits here? Rap with really intense guitar almost never works.

BC: Dan even says that the guitar tone was horrible, but he still likes it. It’s Keith. Back then, he was just in the zone. He might not admit it, but he was trying to improve himself. He was trying to be like, “I’m not just the Ultramagnetic guy with the super-nerdy shit that no one understands. I can do a rock song—why the fuck not?” And he did, because talented MCs can do that. He even says that the thing people took away from the album was “Keith can do anything. He can do a cappella, he can do some weird shit over hard rock, he can do something with violin. Keith can literally do anything.” It’s hard to say why it works, but for me, whether a song works comes down to authenticity. Not that Keith was a hard-rock guy or a punk guy or whatever, but he believed in it. It wasn’t a gimmick.

Company Flow, “The Fire In Which You Burn” (1997)

BC: By the time those records came out in ’96, ’97, ’98, I was writing at that point, so I was part of the hip-hop organism, where there are people who make the music, radio people, people who write about it, at various levels. I remember the first time I got a test pressing for “The Fire In Which You Burn Slow,” and I couldn’t even believe what was going on. This was absolutely insane. Hip-hop at that point was already more than 20 years old. A lot had come before it, but to have a song with that out there—there had definitely never been a hip-hop song like it before. There were certainly abstract songs that had been done, but there was such an intensity and a muscularity to that song.

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For me as a reviewer, I was writing for CMJ, which was for college-radio DJs. Pop radio had no use for Company Flow, and they didn’t give a shit—they probably would have been upset if Company Flow had become popular. So that was kind of the audience, but even for a college-radio audience, that shit was pretty out there.

By then you had the rise of Puffy and Mase and all this bullshit that was coming out. There was a lot of straight-up garbage in hip-hop in ’96, and a song like that was like a nuclear bomb. It didn’t become a huge hit, but when you heard it, and could kind of understand what had come before it—at that point in hip-hop, it wasn’t easy to make something that hadn’t been heard before. A lot of people weren’t interested in making things that hadn’t been heard before. They just wanted to make banging tracks, you know? And El-P was out there like, “Let’s just burn the whole thing down.” Which was kind of exciting.

“RE:DEFinition” Black Star (1998)

BC: That song is a great example of how songs usually come together in the studio. Things are rarely the same at the end as they are when they are story-boarded. “RE:DEFinition” is technically a remix of the song that precedes it in the album sequence, “Definition.” DJ Hi-Tek produced both songs. “Definition” was, musically, pretty much a cover of Boogie Down Productions’ “Remix For P Is Free.” And Hi-Tek has said that was too easy for him; it wasn’t enough of a challenge. So he made the music for “RE:DEFinition” to see if they wanted to use that instead, while the rest of them were sleeping. They heard it, loved it, and wrote to it. According to Talib [Kweli], both songs were originally supposed to be combined to make up the song “Definition,” which would have been six-minutes-plus long. Rawkus didn’t want to put out a six-minute single, so they broke it in half. “RE:DEFinition” wasn’t on the “Definition” single, it was released on its own as a promo-only single later on.

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Raekwon, “Ice Cream” (1995)

BC: I think it’s funny that Raekwon didn’t really like that song. You’d never know from the way he spit on it, but he says that it was for a crossover audience—it was for women—and he didn’t really want to make it. But he says, “RZA knew we should do it, and I said why not,” because it’s RZA. The Wu-Tang story has been told many times, but I don’t think it can be overemphasized how powerful RZA was in that universe. They all could have been like, “Fuck you, RZA,” after the first album. Whether they would have had the same careers or better or worse, who knows, but the fact that they all stuck with him shows the power not only of RZA the producer, but also of RZA as someone who guided their careers, both independently as solo artists and as members of the Wu-Tang Klan. RZA always had his next group album in mind as he made the solo albums. It shows how Raekwon would say, “I don’t like this, I don’t want to rhyme on it,” and RZA would say, “Just trust me,” and Rae’d say, “Okay, I will.” That said a lot.

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The other thing is that it really is Ghostface’s record almost as much as it is Raekwon’s. He gets billing right below him on the cover. It’s really his record, too, and he crushes it on that song.

AVC: It’s hard to imagine them fighting for beats on that first round of solo albums. They’re all too distinctive.

BC: A lot of the time, they’d say, “I’ll battle you for that beat,” and see who could fuck it up the hardest. That’s beautiful, in a way.

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KMD, “Get-U-Now” (recorded in 1993, released in 2001)

BC: That’s almost like a gangsta rap song if you didn’t understand what KMD was about, but it was really [MF] Doom asking questions, sitting there like, “What would you do? How far would you go if you were broke?” Putting himself in the mind of people who do ill shit, and not judging them, and not glorifying it, but just discussing it. And that bass line is ridiculous. The combination of how pretty much any of those songs came together is so powerful. It really was a duo, and to this day, for a lot of reasons, Subroc doesn’t really get his due.

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It’s so different from the first album to the second. Sub and Zev were young when Mr. Hood came out. But you grow up, you mature, and things really flipped around. Sub could very well have been the lead MC on the third KMD album if that had ever come about, and it’s depressing to think about how he was cut down literally in his prime.

[DJ Subroc died in 1993 when he was struck by a car while trying to cross the Long Island Expressway. He was the younger brother of Zev Love X, later known as MF Doom. —ed.]

Things were just beginning for that kid. I had this one picture that was so sad to look at that I almost included it in the chapter and didn’t. It was a picture of Sub that Pete Nice had given me of Sub and his girlfriend smiling and looking at the camera. I almost got a little misty just looking at it and thinking about how he was just mowed down, and what else could have happened and what other music they could have made. Clearly, Doom got kind of ill after they got dropped. But he persevered, and has had a very interesting career since then. But it’s a very interesting career. It’s more than symbolic that when Zev became Doom, his flow was different, too. He was a different MC—he was a different person. If you want to understand Doom, you really need to understand KMD.

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Stetsasonic, “Talkin’ All That Jazz” (1988)

BC: I think Stetsasonic almost always gets left out of discussions about the greatest groups of the ’80s, greatest groups of all time, political groups. Stetsasonic was a very political organization, and they never get any credit for that. The “A.F.R.I.C.A.” single was pretty huge back then, it went gold, they had a big part in Stop The Violence. But they were also an incredible live band, which pretty much 95 percent of hip-hop—starting in 1973 and continuing to the present day—cannot say, because most bands suck live, and Stet made it their main calling card.

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I think that was an incredible concept. Again, it could have come off as preachy or corny if it hadn’t been done correctly, but I think that when you listen to that song, the music is dope, but also in the lyrics, you really heard their passion, and you really heard they were pissed off. They weren’t pretending, they were like, “Fuck this dude.” They were mad, and they made a reasoned argument about why they were mad and why James Mtume was wrong. They were standing up for hip-hop. That was one of the best “hip-hop is not doing to die” moments.

Ice Cube, “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate” (1990)

BC: As producer Eric “Vietnam” Sadler of The Bomb Squad recounts, that music was originally done for a musician friend of his from Long Island, Howard Eady, who was more of a singer than a rapper. Additionally, Cube wrote the verses on there originally to be used by N.W.A. So, for two reasons, that one probably shouldn’t have ever been an Ice Cube solo song. Thankfully it was, since it’s one of my favorites on the album. That song was also done early in the album sessions, so it cemented the tone of the rest of the songs they did. Keep in mind, Cube and The Bomb Squad had never worked together before, and there’s always a feeling-out period when you aren’t sure if things are going to click. With that song, it most definitely did, and I’m sure it energized them moving forward.

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DJ Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince, “Nightmare On My Street” (1988)

BC: Not only was the video for that, expensive as it was, never shown—no one even has a copy of it anymore—Jeff doesn’t have a copy, [Jive A&R] Ann Carli had a copy but lost it in a storage space. It was a dope song, taking something that was a very popular phenomenon, Freddy Krueger and Nightmare On Elm Street, and just doing a cool song about it. Will’s style of storytelling wasn’t a new thing. Slick Rick, Dana Dane, other people had done it, but that didn’t mean they were the best at it, because Will had his own panache—clearly, because he became more successful than anyone before him who was a storyteller.

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There’s also an interesting backstory on the other end: Pretty much everyone—including Jeff—says that if that video had actually come out, that album would have sold millions more copies. It’s crazy to think about how big that album was, and how it could have been so much bigger. They basically said that song would have been bigger than “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

AVC: It also probably would have sold more tickets to Nightmare On Elm Street.

BC: Exactly! I agree, and Ann Carli agrees, too. Like, “Why the fuck are you guys even suing us? We’re promoting your movie!” But New Line felt a certain way about their brand, and even though most sensible people would say no harm could have come from this song coming out, clearly they didn’t agree. They had a shitload of expensive lawyers who also stated their case very persuasively, to the point where there was a warning sticker put on the single saying this has nothing to do with the movie, this is not approved by New Line Cinema. I think Ann Carli gets the final word, she says, “Who remembers the Fat Boys song?” Nobody, because it wasn’t very good.

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Mantronix, “Fresh Is The Word” (1985)

BC: Kurtis Mantronik became a superproducer. He was never in the realm of Dre, or Premier, or any of those guys, but, to be honest, none of those guys could have really existed without Mantronix. He was one of the first, and probably the first, producers where you heard a Mantronix track and it just affected you—he influenced all the superproducers who came after. But the thing about “Fresh Is The Word,” which was the first song they did, was that Kurtis was just a good drum-machine programmer. He was not a master producer by any stretch back then. He was scraping to figure out how to make his music, to get heard, and he didn’t really know how to use the studio equipment. That’s not a knock against him—he had never had a chance to work in the studio before. He was just a really dope drum-machine producer, and he didn’t even own his own 808 until after that first single came out. That always fascinated me.

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The fact that Kurtis started with a song like “Fresh Is the Word” is pretty ridiculous, because to this day it’s one of the most unique hip-hop tracks ever made. Will Socolov says, “If you listen to Run-DMC records today, they sound dated. You can tell that sounds like 1984.” But if you listen to Mantronix, that could have been produced this year, or five years from now, because it’s that strong and that futuristic. I like that it tells a story, it talks about how this was someone with a ridiculous amount of talent that was just waiting to unleash it on the world. A lot of times, on your first chance you don’t kill it—the first Fugees record is really not that good, but the second one sure as hell was.