A Bounty of Hip-Hop Classics, Resurrected

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Hip-hop may be at the forefront of pop culture, and be embedded into the DNA of contemporary American life, but looking backward hasn’t always been its strength. Other genres — rock and jazz especially — tend to fetishize their history, something reflected in the intensity with which old and out-of-print and sometimes never-released music is reissued.

In hip-hop, which has moved from personally taped cassettes to street-corner mixtapes to zip files, ineffability is often embedded into the game. Increasingly, though, there is a movement to canonize crucial moments from the past, to rescue recordings that have long been prized for their inaccessibility, or to give physical-release heft to recordings that were never designed to carry it.

Much of this is happening on vinyl — the boom in that medium coupled with the internet-fostered ability to microtarget passionate audiences has resulted in a bounty of reissues.

Get on Down, the Massachusetts company devoted to lavish small-batch rereleases of classic hip-hop albums, has just released “Dr. Octagonecologyst,” the borderline-lunatic 1996 debut album by the Kool Keith alter ego Dr. Octagon. (Technically, Dr. Octagon is the pairing of Kool Keith and the producer Dan the Automator; the album also features significant guest work from the rapper Sir Menelik and scratches by DJ Q-Bert.)

This new version is on triple vinyl that includes the original album, unreleased tracks from the era and old and new remixes. It is a reminder of a particularly untethered time in the genre, when the underground was still a nebulous concept, home to dissenters of all stripes, including outsider-art conceptualists with ferocious technical skills and an urgent need to use them as a tool of dismantling orthodoxy.

When it comes to recent albums, there is something merchandise-like about vinyl releases — they feel more like luxury items than essential staples. But when it comes to albums from earlier eras, vinyl releases can sometimes serve to correct, or improve, the historical record.

Main Source’s “Breaking Atoms,” released in 1991, is one of the foundational New York rap records, somehow simultaneously dirty and crisp. Though it is widely bootlegged, it had not been officially released on vinyl in many years until this new edition, from Vinyl Me, Please. Get on Down has done the same for “Too Hard to Swallow,” the seminal debut album from the Port Arthur, Tex., duo UGK, which until this edition, released for Record Store Day in April, had never been available for sale on vinyl. Texas rap is also getting attention from a small company, On the Good Foot Music, which recently rereleased the 1989 debut single by DJ Akshen, who would go on to become Scarface, on 7” vinyl, part of a small suite of releases of early-days Houston rap.

This process of using vinyl as a stamp of legitimacy is now being accelerated thanks to companies like Omerta, a new vinyl-only imprint that specializes in pressings of mixtapes like Gucci Mane and Zaytoven’s “Mama’s Basement” and Murda Beatz’s “Keep God First.” (Sometimes the packaging of a reissue is the reward, as is the case with Get On Down’s recent Record Store Day reissue of Slick Rick’s “The Great Adventures of Slick Rick” on CD and a 7” single of “Children’s Story,” packaged with an actual children’s book relating the “Children’s Story” tale, with illustrations by Gilberto Aguirre Mata.)

And major labels are going through their archives with more care. Sony’s Legacy imprint recently introduced a hip-hop-focused campaign that included the first official vinyl release of Big L’s “Devil’s Son,” an excellent song that didn’t make his 1995 debut album, “Lifestyles Ov Da Poor & Dangerous,” with five additional tracks from that era (some were on the album’s promotional cassette) that were bootlegged but never officially released.

Hip-hop’s early recordings, from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s, have also been getting attention recently: Soul Jazz recently released “Boombox 2: Early Independent Hip Hop, Electro and Disco Rap 1979-83,” the second edition of a winning CD series capturing early rap curios. And the crucial New York rap label Tuff City has a new collection, “33 1/3 Anniversary Box: Original Old School Recordings 1982-1986,” which collects oodles of freewheeling work by pioneers including the Cold Crush Brothers, Davy DMX and Grandmaster Caz.

Loyal collectors and amateur archivists would likely have much of the above material, in one format or another, which is why the biggest thrills still come from the unearthing of barely heard music from artists who might have slipped through history’s cracks. That is what the British label Chopped Herring specializes in, as seen in its steady stream of limited-edition releases from the mid-1990s East Coast underground.

The best of the recent bunch is the “The Perfect Time” EP by Afiliashun, a Baltimore outfit from the mid-1990s fluent in the boom-bap production of the day. It’s the sort of rerelease that amplifies a story known to many, and thanks to this new platform, also allows for new history to be written.


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