1. Charizma And Peanut Butter Wolf, Big Shots (recorded 1991-93, released 2003)
Before he introduced the world to Madlib in all his future incarnations, Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf was a crate-digging West Coast beatsmith enraptured by the blunted sonic sophistication of classic Native Tongues. In the early '90s, Wolf teamed up with a brash kid named Charizma, who radiated the ingratiating b-boy bravado of a young L.L. Cool J for the long-unheard Big Shots, which foreshadowed the instant-vintage Stones Throw aesthetic. A botched deal with Disney subsidiary Hollywood and Charizma's 1993 murder kept Big Shots from audiences for a decade, but the disc's 2003 Stones Throw release was heartbreaking and revelatory in its all-too-brief glimpse of a dynamic duo bursting with enthusiasm for a glorious future that, for Charizma at least, wasn't to be.
2. Nice And Smooth, Jewel Of The Nile (1994)
Nice & Smooth are the only old-school duo beloved enough to appear on a New Kids On The Block single ("Dirty Dawg") and still retain their alt-rap credibility. On the duo's breakthrough album, Ain't A Damn Thing Changed, pop-rap goofballs Greg Nice and Smooth Bee crooned off-key, recited borderline nonsensical rhymes ("I don't beg cause I'm not a begonia / I dress warm so that I won't catch pneumonia") and sampled the Partridge family on one single ("Hip Hop Junkies") and Tracy Chapman on the next ("Sometimes I Rhyme Slow"). The duo's follow-up, 1994's Jewel Of The Nile, is just as goofy and delightful, but less revered. Here, Greg Nice and Smooth Bee sample Jefferson Airplane, pay woozy homage to herbal relaxation ("Blunts," "Get Fucked Up"), and do the rap-rock headbanging thing alongside Everlast ("Save The Children"). Pop-rap doesn't get much better.
3. InI, Center Of Attention (recorded 1994, released 2003 as part of Pete Rock Underground Classics)
Pete Rock stands tall in the pantheon of great hip-hop producers, but his reputation wasn't enough to get Elektra to release Center Of Attention, a mid-'90s classic Rock produced for InI, the group featuring his brother Grap Luva. When Center Of Attention was finally released in 2003 by Rapster/BBE, its bohemian vibe and masterful combination of rugged boom-bap and silky lushness fit in snugly with the retro, Rock-inspired sounds of acts like Little Brother, Madlib, and Slum Village.
4. Tha Alkaholiks, Likwidation (1998)
Tha Alkaholiks' 1993 debut, 21 & Over, gave an enterprising young producer named Madlib his first big break, while establishing the trio as alternative rap's party animals of choice. Conventional wisdom posits 1998's Likwidation as the beginning of a steep decline in quality for the brew crew. While the overloaded disc isn't as tight or concise as Tha Liks' first two albums, it still offers an embarrassment of riches, from Ol' Dirty Bastard's drunken screeching on "Hip-Hop Drunkies" to the delightful nursery-rhyme infectiousness of "Pass Out." Now that the Liks have disbanded, Likwidation can more accurately be seen as the end of the group's '90s golden age.
5. J-Zone and Old Maid Billionaires, Pimps Don't Pay Taxes (2002)
Rapper, producer, and incorrigible smartass J-Zone has made a career out of being a belligerent, misogynistic cheapskate. But underneath the comic boorishness and non-stop one-liners lies a deceptive amount of craft. Pimps Don't Pay Taxes is J-Zone's masterpiece, a tight, cohesive concept album where '40s and '50s sound bites serve as Greek choruses and unsuspecting punchlines for J-Zone and his Old Maid Billionaire crew, and accordions are as ubiquitous as James Brown samples on golden-age records. Tracks like "I'm Fuckin Up The Money" convey a social consciousness J-Zone pretty much abandoned on subsequent releases.
6. Lifesavas, Spirit In Stone (2003)
Anyone disappointed in Blackalicious' The Craft or Gift Of Gab's solo album would be wise to check out Lifesavas' Spirit In Stone, a Quannum classic that fuses the rich musicality of Blackalicious' Blazing Arrow with a divine sense of purpose. "Solderfied" thumps with the visceral force of a nuclear bomb. "Hellohihey" simultaneously spoofs, deconstructs, and pays homage to hip-hop braggadocio, while "Me" enlivens its autobiographical storytelling with a heartbreaking, novelistic sense of detail. Spirit In Stone is so strong that it threatens to give Christian hip-hop a good name.
7. Count Bass D, Dwight Spitz (2002)
After releasing one of the strangest major-label rap albums of all time, 1995's Pre-Life Crisis, Nashville's Count Bass D was dropped by Sony, worked day jobs, and fell in love with the free-associative sonic crazy quilts of kindred iconoclasts MF Doom and Madlib. For Dwight Spitz, Count Bass D largely abandoned the live instrumentation of Pre-Life Crisis and embraced sampling with the outsized zeal of a convert. MF Doom pops by to lend his benediction to Count Bass D's crazily inspired new direction, as does Edan, whose "How We Met" was later recycled (with the addition of way, way, way too much echo) as "Promised Land" on his own unjustly overlooked classic, namely…
8. Edan, Beauty And The Beat (2005)
Hip-hop is full of inspired genre mash-ups too damn weird to win over the general public, like Bubba Sparxxx's radical fusing of bluegrass and wiggy electronic hip-hop on Deliverance. With 2005's Beauty And The Beat, a Berklee School Of Music-trained Jewish kid from Boston named Edan reconciled the sounds in his head by mashing '60s psychedelic rock and golden-age hip-hop into a head-spinning, utterly unique sonic odyssey.
9. Devin The Dude, Just Tryin' Ta Live (2002)
Like many of the artists here, Devin The Dude is a hero to rappers and hardcore hip-hop heads, and an unknown to pretty much everyone else. Devin's velvety drawl, gently self-mocking humor, and soft, almost effeminate singing have enlivened tracks for everyone from Dr. Dre to The Roots to De La Soul, but Devin's solo albums have flown far under the mainstream's radar. On Just Tryin' Ta Live, Devin raps about his broken-down hoopty, aliens who shop at Wal-Mart, and children traumatized by the profanity and lasciviousness of his live show. Is it any wonder gangsta-rap mainstay Rap-A-Lot seemed to have no idea how to promote the album?
10. Various Artists, Hip-Hop For Respect (2000)
When an unarmed African immigrant named Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by the New York police, Mos Def and Talib Kweli assembled a who's who of underground hip-hop luminaries to record a benefit EP to fight police brutality. The project's star-studded roster suggests a Rawkus version of the "We Are The World" crew, but Hip-Hop For Respect's incendiary tone couldn't be further removed from the bland uplift of that benefit single. "Protective Custody" and "One Four Love" explode with rage and righteous indignation, while "A Tree Never Grown" provides a haunting elegy for Diallo. Hip-Hop For Respect is an essential document of a historic moment where activism and music joined forces to demand social justice in terms both angry and poetic.