I didn’t buy Jay-Z’s Black Album, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, or G-Unit’s Beg for Mercy. I figured, why bother paying cold hard cash for the official product when you can get most of those songs — plus exclusive freestyles, remixes, and interviews — on an underground mix CD for five or ten bucks cheaper?
So I’m lovin’ The Black Remixes, the latest mix CD from some New Jersey cat who calls himself DJ Lt. Dan. The disc contains every song from the Black Album, plus a second disc, Jay-Z vs. G-Unit, stacked with Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and G-Unit remixes. It also excerpts various Howard Stern radio interviews, including one segment in which the G-Unit squad disclose how many times they’ve each been shot. But what really makes this a collector’s item is the way The Black Remixes presents itself as “a thematic prequel” to Jay-Z’s 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt — the album that changed hip-hop as we know it, ushering in an era of cigar-chomping, champagne-sipping businessmen-rappers who put their entrepreneurship ahead of any cultural obligations to the music. (Unless you consider drug-dealing, bitch-slapping, and gun-clapping essential elements of hip-hop.)
That’s the subtext. More’n likely, Lt. Dan was just trying to make a hot blend CD. Nevertheless, he has created an entirely new context for The Black Album. The lyrics to Jay-Z’s most personal opus to date are paired with pre-’96 tracks like Black Moon’s “How Many Emcees,” Blahzay Blahzay’s “Danger,” Nas’ “The World Is Yours,” Notorious B.I.G.’s “Unbelievable,” Group Home’s “Livin’ Proof,” Master Ace’s “Born to Roll,” Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day,” and Dr. Dre’s “Ain’t Nothin’ But a G Thang.”
Surprisingly, the CD also includes Young Lay’s “All About My Fetti,” a track crafted by North Bay-based producer Khayree. It’s an all-too-rare moment of East/West synergy.
Prior to the mid-’90s, East Coast hip-hop prided itself on its cultural superiority, regarding West Coast playas, pimps, hustlers, and gangsters as somehow less than authentic. Yet the battle cry of “Keep it real” switched up to “Can’t knock the hustle” as soon as Jay-Z entered the game, followed in quick succession by DMX, Ja Rule, and, most recently, 50 Cent, whose minimalist G-funk beats and pimpish attitude wouldn’t have been out of place in Vallejo, Oakland, or South Central Los Angeles in, say, 1994.
Mix CDs — and their immediate precursor, mix tapes — have always been primarily an East Coast phenomenon (notwithstanding the efforts of the late Dirty South pioneer DJ Screw). East Coast DJs such as Green Lantern and Kay Slay have dominated the scene, yet there’s at least one dude west of the Rockies who’s been putting it down for a hot minute: DJ T-Ski. Best known as part of the Mad Idiot/M1 crew (which also includes Chuy Gomez, Franzen, and Rob Reyes), T-Ski’s “Wessiiiide” mixes have prominently featured regional artists rarely heard outside of California.
T-Ski’s latest masterpiece, A Commitment to Mixxellence, is no exception. On it, you’ll find exclusive tracks alongside Mad Idiot-ized remixes of songs by Snoop, E-40, and Too $hort, not to mention an old-school thug life classic by Tupac & the Outlawz, and current knocks by Westside Connection, Suga Free, and Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. The CD screams “Yay Area,” with a Raiders theme right down to the silver-and-black color scheme.
So what does mixxellence mean to T-Ski? The Bay Area native, now residing in the 702 area code, explains: “That was just the slogan. For me, living in Las Vegas now, I wanted to bring it back to the bay.”
Apparently, fools are feelin’ T-Ski. “The feedback has been incredible. It’s the best mix I’ve had in about two years now,” he exclaims. That’s saying something; so far, the Mad Idiot crew has put out fourteen Wessiiiide mixes, an old-school series called Hip-Hop Classics, an R&B-themed mix called Strictly 4 tha Ladies, and an all-Bay Area mix, Recognize the Bay.
The Bay Area deserves its props, T-Ski insists, although he admits that outside of Too $hort and E-40, “Bay Area artists have lost their recognition on a national level.” Still, a constant influx of young, hungry rappers are “trying to put their music out the traditional Bay Area way — through an independent label, with independent distribution.” Recognize the Bay was “an avenue to take enough of the material of the artists that people are familiar with so they’ll relate to it, and introduce a bunch of the new artists coming up, that haven’t had that shine, that haven’t had that radio play, that are just now basically rookies in the game.”
Rookies they may be, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play ball. Take Balance & Frontline, for instance, who take an honored hip-hop tradition — the answer record — and come off like a T-Mac 360-degree dunk with “We Don’t Stunt,” their response to G-Unit’s “Stunt 101.” (For those who don’t know, T-Ski describes “stunting” as interchangeable with “flossing” or “shining”: acting overly ostentatious and flashy regardless of one’s surroundings.)
While G-Unit bragged about Bentley GTs and jewelry that costs more than other rappers’ advances, Balance & Frontline keep it turf-ificular with lines like “Where I’m from/If you show your funds/We show our guns,“ delivered in the same cadence as G-Unit’s original. And Commitment to Mixxellence is the only place you’ll hear it.
It’s not lost on T-Ski that 50 Cent went from wide circulation on the mix-tape scene to ultracommercial status, and his most fervent wish is that deserving local artists will get the opportunity to blow up too. He notes that neosoul singer Goapele, who contributed an exclusive track to Recognize the Bay, recently inked a deal with Columbia, and feels there’s no shortage of talent here. However, largely because of the lack of commercial radio play, “there’s no avenue for artists to get some shine.”
T-Ski is doing his part to change the status quo, but he’s aware that the mix-tape game itself has changed since the original Mad Idiot cassette-only release back in 1996. He’s not too fond of MP3 DJs, who program their blends through a computer and have no turntable skills. “That’s disrespectful to the game and the culture,” he says. T-Ski grew up on vinyl records, and though he occasionally uses a CDJ player, “to this day, I’ll lug around record cases, because that’s where I came from.”
In case you missed it, that’s the “Wessiiiide, fool.”