THE YEAR 1994 was an undeniably significant year for hip-hop.
Indeed it was probably hip-hop’s finest year. Nas, Notorious BIG and Outkast all released their classic genre-defining debut albums.
Common, Scarface, Method Man, Jeru the Damaja, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Gangstarr, Warren G and many more all released critically acclaimed albums that enjoyed commercial success. In fact, an average of one album now considered to be a classic was released every fortnight in 1994.
In the UK we had to wait another ten years for our ‘1994’. 2004 was to hip-hop from a British perspective what 1994 was to hip-hop from a US perspective: a watershed moment of creative glory. The twin peaks of 2004 were the release of the debut albums by Skinnyman (Council Estate of Mind) and Klashnekoff (The Sagas of Klashnekoff).
Both albums were highpoints for hip-hop (anywhere) and could be held out, credibly, as being on par with what are considered classic hip-hop albums including Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, Ready to Die, Moment of Truth etc.
Klashnekoff had a very unique ability to make complex and rapid word play songs – usually relegated to headphone consumption – work successfully. And not only on the radio but on TV too. His breakout track Murda was extremely minimalist: beats and rhymes. And I mean lots and lots of rhymes, his verses went on forever but were never jarring. A rapper’s rapper.
Skinnyman’s Council Estate of Mind (a title play on Nas’ classic record New York State of Mind, itself borrowed from Billy Joel) is a dark and moody affair. It starts with the defiant, militantly pro-artistic integrity and anti-poverty record F*ck The Hook and then goes on to speak to themes of injustice, drug addiction, life on a poverty stricken council estate, suicidal thoughts and, tellingly, aspiration in the mist of it all.
The title track Council Estate of Mind is just a beautiful depiction of pure ugliness. Nowhere is life on a council estate in Britain at the time better depicted. In fact you would struggle to find a record of any genre that depicts modern harsh inner-city life in such a soulful and sensitive manner. Each verse ended with the touching and refreshingly honest words “life is kind of militant / stuck in a grime / nothing is equivalent to this council estate of mind”.
At 14, lying on my boarding school bed, I would be mesmerised by a song called Playaz Club by a Bay Area rapper called Rappin 4-Tay. I would listen to it time and again and I’d envisage the places he was speaking of in San Francisco. ‘Fillmore’, ‘Third and Newcomb’ and the ‘San Francisco “Mother-Effing” Bay’. I fell in love with these places although I’d never been to any of them.
Fifteen years later when I finally arrived in San Francisco Bay for the first time you can imagine the sense of excitement and accomplishment I felt.
The talent of Rappin 4-Tay was to paint a picture of where he is from and what life is like for people like him there. Skinnyman and Klashnekoff did the exact same thing for the various areas of London they came from.
They immortalised life in Finsbury Park (Skinnyman) and Stoke Newington (Klashnekoff) at the time. And they could not have picked a better moment to do so. Both areas, like most once poverty-stricken affordable areas in London, are currently going through significant regeneration and ruthless gentrification.
With the luxury flats going up, bankers and hipsters moving in (myself included!), the Dalston Kingsland that Klashnekoff so vividly depicted was a different country to what it is now. And it will be a different planet five years from now. If you wanted an expert guided tour of the London, the real London, of the time you’ll struggle to find a more accurate, safe and secure experience than the debuts of these (vertically challenged) giants.
Council Estate of Mind and The Sagas of Klashnekoff should be regarded, upheld and protected as culturally significant British works of phonographic art in the same manner as God Save the Queen (by the Sex Pistols), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (by the Beatles), Tommy (by The Who), London Calling (the Clash) or Club Classics Vol. One (by Soul II Soul).
They may not have had the backing and, therefore, the celebrity of their more famous peers both in Hip-Hop and other genres, but creatively, Skinnyman and Klashnekoff were just as good, just as entertaining, just as innovative and just as informative.
Sadly, they didn’t remotely match the success of their peers or capitalise on the momentum built by their debuts. Perhaps they couldn’t.
Skinnyman and Klashnekoff each had their Illmatics, their creative successes, however they lacked the Steve Stoutes required to take them forward to deliver their ‘It Was Writtens’, their commercial success.
By this I mean: the Americans had the risk takers, the infrastructure, determination and foresight to keep the creative (and commercial) fires burning but we Brits never really went beyond the spark. Creatively, at least.
I hope that Skinnyman and Klashnekoff get the roses while they can still smell them (as Kanye put it), I hope they are one day afforded the reverence, celebrity and salary they are duly owed.
They have earned it.