IN CERTAIN HIP-HOP quarters, the "featured guest" is viewed as a prop. "We have friends, but we don't look for people to boost our shit," is how Freestyle of the Arsonists explains his group's self-containment. "We'll never have features on our records unless it's someone close to us."
The Funky Precedent (Loosegroove)
Connect The Dots: Music4AllCities (Ground Control/Nu Gruv Alliance)
Revenge of the B-Boy(Bomb Hip-Hop)
The feature has long been a method for an established artist to introduce a novice labelmate to a broader audience, ࠬa Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Lately, though, the practice has gotten out of control. No rapper with chart-topping aspirations goes it alone, whether they enlist a name producer or an MC who offers credibility by association (Puffy, meet Nas). It's Eve does "Ain't Got No Dough," featuring Missy Elliot; and Missy Elliot does "U Can't Resist," featuring Juvenile and B.G; and on and on ad infinitum.
Many of these "solo" albums are compilations in all but name, suffering from the disjointedness that mars most albums that fall under the "various artists" rubric. Now it's the compilations that are starting to sound unified, as three recent releases show.
The best of these focuses on LA's underground hip-hop and soul scene. It's easy to like The Funky Precedent before you even hear it, since its proceeds benefit three California public high schools (the 16 tracks were compiled under the auspices of No Mayo, a Bay Area record label and clothing line that supports music education in urban public schools; it's out in conjunction with Seattle's Loosegroove). Many of the contributions are previously unreleased or written exclusively for the compilation.
There's everything from the playfully blunted mood of Ugly Duckling's "Journey to Anywhere" to the snappy verbosity of "Ambiguous Figures" by MC duo Styles of Beyond. The two songs that veer into boho b-boyism—by African soul group Blk Sunshine and vocalist Damon Aaron—are less successful. But 14 out of 16 ain't bad, especially when you're talking about noteworthies like Divine Styler, Jurassic 5, and the World Famous Beat Junkies' DJ Rhettmatic.
Rhettmatic also shows up on Connect the Dots, the soundtrack to a skateboard video called 4 Cities. As any subscriber to the music/skate magazine Strength will tell you, hip-hop has become a component of skateboard culture (even if the reverse isn't true). With the exception of a rhyme here and there, though, the cuts on Connect the Dots aren't about skating. The flavor here is backbone-strong and straight beats with MCs raising a battle cry for hip-hop integrity, typified in tracks like "Not Pseudo" by LA's Lexicon.
Though several of these 16 songs are available on other mixes or as 12-inch singles, they fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Most are reminders of how powerful simple production can be when combined with the right MC. Particularly strong are two older songs: New Yorker Pumpkinhead's indignant and hilarious send-up "Wack MCs" ("I came down to this earth to rid you of these wack MCs/I hate these wack MCs/gun-clap MCs/ playa-mack MCs"); and "Duck Duck Duck" by Oakland rapper Motion Man, a skater fave with loose-lipped delivery reminiscent of a less brutish Eminem.
Unlike skating, breakdancing is an essential element of hip-hop culture—though you'd never know it from watching MTV or the Box these days. Shining a spotlight on this resurgent art is Revenge of the B-Boy, the "soundtrack" to a hilariously titled imaginary film, I Saw Your Mama Breakdancing Bucknaked. Turntablists from the US, Europe, the UK, and even Australia dug into the crates to create new breakdancing anthems for this mostly instrumental collection. The resulting 14 tracks incorporate scads of samples familiar from early hip-hop and electro, everything from Boz Scaggs to New Order. Rhythm is the only message here, and it comes through loud and clear, no featured guests necessary.