A wave of regular folk in disparate locations across the nation roared ecstatically when original “bad boys” — the Detroit Pistons — defeated the team everyone loves to hate. The Pistons facile manhandling of the L.A. Lakers, a team of superhuman proportions, illustrated that substance can trump flash. Although most certainly the exception to the rule, the Pistons understated demeanor, selflessness and undecorated skill startled a nation of hoops fans guaranteeing clips of Rasheed’s and Ben’s overjoyed faces on the nightly news, hourly editions of SportsCenter and every other media for months to come.
Sprouted from the same spirit that crowned the indifferent afro and omnipresent cannabis cloud of the Wallaces is a hip-hop association dedicated to twelve-inches, not basketballs. The National Vinyl Association hopes to pick up where the now-defunct Rawkus Records left off — by churning out a series of quality indie hip-hop compilations. Straight from the Crates, Vol. 1 is the first installment. Its contributors, ranging from the relatively established Ras Kass and the Pharcyde to the relatively unknown Jon Notty and Phil da Agony are hopeful that the Piston’s win is a sign of the changing times.
Slum Village offers up a mantra for the NVA roster in their infectious track “Da Villa.” “Take time, take time to feel us” slides off of the duo’s dexterous tongues in their patently unique, seductive and grimy tone. Elzhi, the latest addition to the ever-changing SV crew, demonstrates a lyrical prowess that will make you forget Jay Dee and Baatin if you haven’t already. Elzhi’s verse eloquently captures the sentiments of many hard-headed emcees trying to make their way in an industry that pushes simpletons, money-hungry hedonists and big-booty aficionados. Elzhi gripes, “It’s a shame we barely on our way to gold/ The wrong niggas is platinum in the mansion with a gated road.” Despite admonitions to “keep it simple for all the ignorant niggas to like,” Elzhi and his NVA crew eschew “regular rhyme schemes” and attempt to push the envelope.
Oddly enough, Def Poetry Jam host, Broadway actor and regular man about town Mos Def’s selection is the most cliched. Frequent collaborator Minnesota offers a futuristic body-rocker to host Mos’s renovated rhymes. Shiny Tribeca-loft-style rhymes replace his Bed-Stuy style. Posing as the bourgeois agent of gentrification, Mos — or rather his unremarkable alter-ego Pretty Flaco — pronounces, “You got to find you a new place to live at. This property private there is no stoop to sit at.” A lot has changed since the days of “If you can huh you can hear it,” but fans may find themselves yearning for the sturdy construction and undervalued craftsmanship of old, epitomized in the historic brownstones of his world-famous native borough.
On the energetic “Do You Know,” Saigon quips charismatically over the same beat that hosted Jean Grae’s self-produced “Thank Ya” from 2003’s Attack of the Attacking Things, illustrating one of the NVA’s and the industry’s perpetual failures: there are no women on the compilation. The multitalented and lyrically gifted Mystic sings the hook to Living Legend’s Grouch & Eligh’s “The Nexus” but stops short of kicking a verse. Twenty-five years since Sugar Hill Gang opened wide the gates for rap’s mainstream success and women are still relegated to singing hooks? To their credit, NVA does attempt to de-center hip-hop from its New York capital with regional representation from both coasts and the Midwest, but the south is sorely missed. The absence of the region that has provided the creative spark for contemporary hip-hop defies logic.
The Pistons skills, hard work and teamwork guaranteed them the national spotlight, but the path to success for the emcee isn’t quite so democratic. Unlike Chauncey Billups or even Kanye West, we cannot all toast the Roc(k) for our success. Although lacking stunning Soundbombing inclusions like “Fortified Live,” “1999.” or “Round & Round,” Staight from the Crates benefits from strong contributions from Saigon, Slum Village, Grouch & Eligh and Black Moon. The rap market can be overwhelming for even the most sincere consumer, especially the flooded underground market. With Straight from the Crates, Vol. 1, the NVA assembles a discriminating slice of the underground hip-hop scene.