Killah Priest, B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth) (1995)

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Artist: Killah Priest
Title: B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)
Description: album track, Liquid Swords (credited to Genius/GZA); album track, Heavy Mental (credited to Killah Priest)
Label: Geffen/MCA
Release date: 1995; 1998
First heard: 2000

The white image of Christ is really Cesare Borgia
And, uh, the second son of Pope Alexand-uh
The Sixth of Rome, and once the picture was shown
That’s how the devils tricked my dome

A curious case. Liquid Swords is the second solo album from Wu-Tang Clan key man and co-founder GZA (aka The Genius), recorded and released in the hiatus between the first and second Wu-Tang albums in 1995. Like most Wu solo projects, it involves the majority of the Clan and numerous satellites in at least a guest capacity: RZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God and Masta Killa. It was recorded and produced by RZA.

So what’s the 13th and final track, B.I.B.L.E., all about? Despite a performance credit to GZA/The Genius “featuring” Killah Priest, it is, to all intents and purposes, a solo piece by Priest, then a Wu affiliate but not a full, card-carrying member. The artist born Walter Reed is best known for his group Sunz Of Man, who released two albums in 1998 and 2002. He has since severed ties with the Wu. If this isn’t interesting to you, I hope it at least goes some way to illuminating the complex, internecine, cross-hatched nature of the Wu-Tang family.

Having enrolled the Wu-Tang Clan’s Let My Niggas Live into The 143 – for me, a supreme example of teamwork – I’m left with a well twice as deep filled with Wu-Tang solo records. A number are registered classics among the rapuscenti: Tical by Method Man, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx by Raekwon, Supreme Clientele and Fishscale by Ghostface Killah, and GZA’s Liquid Swords, which is where, as they say, we at.

As a long-player, it run on samples from a 1980 marital arts film I have never seen, and am unlikely ever to see, Shogun Assassin. Such snippets of dialogue, usually dubbed into English and badly, are a thread that runs through the entire Wu canon. But no such find a place on B.I.B.L.E., the album’s final track, left off certain formats. Why? Perhaps because it appears to have very little to do with GZA, whose name does not even appear in the song’s credits. Quite what it’s doing on the LP is a mystery to me.

And yet, it makes sense, as it’s nothing like the rest of the album, and it comes at the very end, like the bonus it appears to be. It’s produced by 4th Disciple, an enduring Wu knobsman with prod and co-prod credits on the output of most principal members and the Clan themselves on Wu-Tang Forever (he also turntabled on Enter The Wu-Tang). So, B.I.B.L.E. is canon, but not. Run on a looped rhythm from the final track (apt!) of 1972 Ohio Players LP Pleasure – the eerie, hiccuping, childlike cry is presumably singer Robert Ward, hamming it up – it moves at an unhurried pace, creating a lowdown, smoky vibe, entirely suited to the earnest sermon thereupon.

Not a single curse-word passes its lips. You can play it on the radio. I did play it on the radio. (I think the first time I did I credited it to GZA and was quickly pulled up on my mistake.) As verbose as many a core Wu-Tang piece, its chorus is a soothing repeat of the “basic instructions before leaving earth” refrain and the lyric actually bears examination. That this investigation into Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology and imagery is not tossed off quickly becomes clear. “Life is a test,” he testifies, referring to “research”, which involved feeling “joy an’ the hurt.”

He spools back to when he was 12 years old in Bedford-Stuyvesant and presumably still called Walter (“I loved doin’ right, but I was trapped in Hell”). It’s a moving stanza about “mad ideas, sad eyes an’ tears” and “years of fears.” This church-going, juvenile “search for truth” ended when Priest found his own priest wanting: “souped up with lies,” he recalls.

Durin’ the service, he swallowed up the poor
An’ after they heard this, they wallowed on the floor
But I ignored an’ explored my history that was untold
An’ watched mysteries unfold

He returns to this theme of the unreliable preacher later in the song:

See, look into my eyes, brethren, that’s the lies of a Reverend

There are references here to Solomon, Jacob, Abraham, Hebrew, Job, the Bible, “hocus pocus”, space, sin and abortion. This is not a lyric you’ll get on first listen, nor one you hear every day. It, too, requires “research.” (“I studied ’til my eyes was swollen.”) But it’s eloquent, fluid, personal, questioning and complex, replete with surprising rhymes and twist, “abyss” twinned with “hiss”, “turban” with “urban”, “beanie” and “genie.”

An’ from the caves he crept from behind
An’ what he gave was the sect of the swine

You don’t need to sign up with the Nation of Islam – or indeed the Black Hebrew Israelites – to find the theological rigour intoxicating. It certainly makes a change from rap’s incessant braggadocio and gun-slingin’. As a longtime white fan of this deeply black music (one of the devils, I guess, who “tricked his dome”), I have long since made peace with the fact that I am a geographical and cultural outsider listening in, with issues, and accredit the best of the genre to its raw power, archaeological originality and lyrical dexterity. When Priest raps, “For years religion did nothing but divide,” you sense a man of peace not war.

Why should you die to go to Heaven?
The Earth is already in space

You can’t help but feel warmth when our father speaks of teaching his son “as he kneels on the stoop.” He augers, “Son, life is a pool of sin,” and then appears to warn of “wicked” women who “build picket signs to legalise abortion.” We’re in murky waters here, but to listen is not to condone. Think of it as reading a novel. You don’t have to vote for him.

This tune’s instructions are not basic at all, but a resplendent, fabulously interwoven crown of thorny issues. It’s one of my favourite Wu-Tang Clan tracks and yet occupies its own pitch on the outer limits. It’s not even really on the album it says it’s on. But it makes you think and nod your head, even if you don’t agree with every sentiment.

And it rhymes “And, uh,” with “Pope Alexand-uh,” which ought to win a poetry prize.

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Kanye West, Jesus Walks (2004)

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Artist: Kanye West
Title: Jesus Walks
Description: single; album track, The College Dropout
Label: Rock-A-Fella
Release date: 2004
First heard: 2004

I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long

I think I know what you’re thinking. But I used to like Tony Blair, Woody Allen and Christopher Hitchens, too, until I changed my mind (or in fact, to a degree, until they changed theirs). In the same way, we shouldn’t allow the global court jester Kanye West has turned into since his first two albums in 2004 and 2005 to blot his once good name. That was some run. (I know, other people retain a candle for his third LP Graduation in 2007, but he’d lost me by then and Auto-Tune has had him ever since.)

Having grown up with hip-hop, I’ve often despaired of the way it turned out in mainstream terms. The most powerful, profitable and influential music since piano-tie rock’n’roll, hip-hop has grown bloated and increasingly meaningless. Certainly, pockets of sincerity and invention exist, on the fringes (Death Grips, MF Doom, briefly Clipse – and those date me), but since the Wu-Tang Clan’s glory days, little has floated my boat. This is not snobbery; I’ve been into Jay-Z, had a crack at Nas, but in the main, I find that the genre’s been co-opted by careerists and poppets.

In 2004 (God, that’s a decade ago), it looked very much like we’d found a new saviour. Kanye, a man with no gangsta credentials, had overcome the industry commonplace that he was a producer not a performer through grit and determination, and crafted College Dropout pretty much singlehandedly. It was a visionary record, personal, palatable, ambitious and honest. The calibre of guest stars didn’t hurt, of course (Jamie Foxx, Common, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, also credited as executive producer), but this was essentially all his own work. A star was born. I knew nothing about him when I first listened to the LP, but plenty by the time I’d finished.

He’s not the first rapper to thank God, but there’s something almost militantly theist about Jesus Walks, far away the best track on the album and a hymn to convert any unbeliever. It had me at the military “Order Arms!” at the beginning. Remember, I’m the bloke who bought the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack album on the strength of Abigail Mead (Vivian Kubrick) and Nigel Goulding’s title song, which adds a modern beat to R. Lee Ermey’s drill instruction and attendant Marine call-and-response. The Bill Murray comedy Stripes was the first time I’d encountered the melodic singing of square-bashing US platoons but it kindled my imagination. Jesus Walks, built upon a similar marching rhythm, also samples Walk With Me, performed by The ARC (Addicts Rehabilitation Center) Choir and (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go by Curtis Mayfield. If there’s a message above, it’s that God is good.

It is to West’s credit that a lyric which had singlehandedly failed to win him a record deal during his wilderness period because open Christianity wasn’t “marketable” in a world of 50 Cent (West would have the last laugh there) should be so robustly and thumpingly framed in song. If you’d never heard Kanye before this tune, you’d be intrigued by his opening remarks: “We at war, we at war with terrorism, racism … but most of all, we at war with ourselves.”

Now, I was still visiting Northampton regularly when the Jesus Army became a ubiquitous sight around town in their camouflaged bus and have long associated Christians with soldiers, “marching as to war.” Jesus Walks is a natural progression of that association and makes a compelling rap: “God, show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’-a beat me down!”, he implores, that voice gritty and honeyed at the same time, angry and beatific. Not big on cussing, West has his urban cake and eats it by affecting the cry of “Niggaz!” [EXPLICIT CONTENT] as if it were some kind of echo and not him uttering it in the stanza:

Where restless [niggaz!] might snatch yo’ necklace
And next these
[niggaz!] might jack yo’ Lexus
Somebody tell these
[niggaz!] who Kanye West is

Third person: always a warning sign of megalomania, but we’ll let it pass. Such intrigues are common on this record, which is lyrically fleet and thematically grounded. When he talks of being “breathless”, he draws breath and wheezes in a way that will spook asthmatics everywhere, every time. He compares the way he believes in Jesus to “the way school needs teachers” and “the way Kathie Lee needed Regis” (a reference to the syndicated morning TV hosts). If he is testifying, he displays the common touch, insisting he “ain’t here to argue about His facial features,” or to “convert atheists into believers.”

He’s no angel after all, as implied by his fear of talking to God when it’s been “so long” since his last confession, or ecumenical equivalent.

It’s a pretty direct and inclusive concoction. The march time. The instructions. The shopping list of “hustlas, killas, murderas, drug dealas, even tha strippers”, accompanied by the choir invisible’s firm assurance: Jesus walks with them. For an artist-producer with all the tricks of the motherboard at his disposal, he and his collaborators are more than capable of stripping back and striking a line through some of the excesses that would dog his subsequent output.

It wasn’t long before West became the scourge of awards ceremonies, invading the stage when he didn’t win, and in the most famous case, interrupting Taylor Swift (“I’m-a let you finish”) and bloodsucking her moment of glory in 2006. Kanye the oxygen thief was not a good look. I could have lived with these antics if his music hadn’t started to reflect this messianic tendency.

It’s a free country and the lifestyle is not the artist (I didn’t go off Woody Allen’s films because of that business with his step-daughter, but because his films went bad). Kanye West can marry a woman from a reality show, start his own fast food franchise, design shoes, and it wouldn’t matter. But when a musician becomes more famous for being famous than for being a musician, I instinctively find myself looking elsewhere for stimulation. (It is not a pose to say that I didn’t really know who Kim Kardashian was for some years into her reign. The day I started writing this entry, her photograph was on the front of most of the smaller-format national newspapers, because you can see the whole of her large bum in it.)

None of which vampires the phenomenal impact of The College Dropout, or the aftershock of its follow-up Late Registration, whose singles Touch The Sky, Gold Digger and Diamonds From Sierra Leone shone brightly. One critic described Kanye’s arrival as “post-thug”, and I guess that’s why it felt as refreshing as De La Soul once did. But De La Soul never embarrassed themselves. Or sold their souls to Auto-Tune.

Remember him this way. After all, Woody Allen pulled one out of the hat with Midnight In Paris.

Beyoncé (Featuring Jay-Z), Crazy In Love (2003)

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Artist: Beyoncé (Featuring Jay-Z)
Title: Crazy In Love
Description: single; album track, Dangerously In Love
Label: Columbia
Release date: 2003
First heard: 2003

We all know that lightning-bolt feeling of satisfaction when, by hook or by crook (and it was way more of an achievement in the latter 20th century), you idnentify the original source of a sample used in a modern record. Eureka! It is the musical equivalent of Poirot’s reveal in the drawing room. Whodunit, or who-originally-dunit, has been the sport of nerds since the late 80s, when a combination of available technology and a legal Wild West combined to create a plundertopia. Even when audio-recycling was reigned in by m’learned friends and samples had to be – yawn! – cleared and credited, with all the residual paperwork entailed by this musical-industrial complex, the creativity bubbled on.

In 1994, I let light in upon the magic of Portishead’s haunting Sour Times in the old-school way. I actually had a Lalo Schifrin Mission: Impossible album (I think I was on a soundtrack label’s mailing list), which contained Danube Incident, a jangling, melancholy theme he’d composed for the show, and once I’d heard it, I reached for my copy of Dummy. Eureka! Ingeniously lifted by Geoff Barrow, it forms the basis of Sour Times. Just as The Last Time by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra formed the basis of Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve a couple of years later. Having only applied to use a five-note sample, this proved actionable. But there’s no denying the drama and the brilliance of the pilfer. Which brings us to Crazy In Love.

Like millions of others, I was knocked sideways by the stomping pizzazz of this, Beyoncé’s debut single as a solo artist. The rattlingly funky beat, those blaring horns – what a fanfare it was for this newly-minted superstar, and so perfectly calibrated for her tottering, arse-shaking warrior dance. The fact that both the beat and the horns are cut and pasted from the Chi-Lites’ 1970 single Are You My Woman (Tell Me So) diminishes the song’s pop alchemy not one jot. Certainly, it was a shock when I first discovered how much of the original had been borrowed, and how little producers Knowles and Rich Harrison had adapted it, but once you’re over that, you can go back to shimmying and trying to replicate Beyoncé’s vocal aerobics.

Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh no-no

Even that‘s tricky to sing along to. Unless you’re actually doing karaoke, it’s fine to skip the verse and belt out the chorus, but you’ll need to do some serious breathing exercises first. And some treadmill. She obviously has.

Got me looking so crazy right now, your love’s
Got me looking so crazy right now (in love)
Got me looking so crazy right now, your touch
Got me looking so crazy right now (your touch)
Got me hoping you’ll page me right now, your kiss
Got me hoping you’ll save me right now
Looking so crazy in love’s,
Got me looking, got me looking so crazy in love

It feels so good when you nail it. It doesn’t mean a heck of a lot, but she sells it so hard. Both your love and your touch haven’t actually got her crazy right now, they’ve got her looking crazy. Which is as much of an imposition, if poise is your thing. Additionally, your touch has got her hoping you’ll page her right now, which is a) technologically quaint, and b) borderline submissive. Why doesn’t she page you? Because she looks crazy? She also wants saving, like some fallen woman, and all because of your kiss. Good lord, has she been sectioned? It’s torrid stuff. And not for one moment do you disbelieve it.

Beyoncé and Mr Carter (her now-husband Jay-Z) have remodelled themselves as some sort of power couple, and it can cloy. From an Independent Woman to Mrs Carter? Really? But herein, they’re in harmony.

He’s there from the start – unless, like Smooth Radio, you actually favour the Jay-Z-free version – bigging her up (“ya girl, Bee”), and it really does feel like “history in the making.” Duets, we’ve had a few. But the dynamic here is so much more, well, dynamic. She’s in charge, but he gets a verse. And they complement each other: she the operatic street diva, he the cunning linguist, banging on (“y’all know when the flow is loco, Young B and the R-O-C, uh oh, Ol’ G, big homie, the one and only, stick bony, but the pocket is fat like Tony, Soprano”). It’s a bold, redolent explosion in the English language factory.

Back to the verse, and Beyoncé’s back on the tiller, explaining that she’s not herself lately (“I’m foolish, I don’t do this“) and that your love’s got the best of her (“And baby you’re making a fool of me”). You got her “sprung”, which I like, and she “don’t care who sees.” Beyoncé’s strapping voice ascends like a lark and diffuses like an exploded pyrotechnic.

None of this was on the Chi-Lites.

I made the fatal mistake of buying the parent LP, Dangerously In Love, off the back of my love for Crazy In Love and discovered, to my cost, that it followed the pattern of all R&B albums in the modern style: three good songs, all of them singles, one with Missy Elliott, and the other tracks. It’s the way. Even – to pluck a more recent example – Pharrell Williams’ GIRL, which is in the same vertiginous league, has filler. None of it’s bad, but not all of it is Happy. This need not detain us. Outside of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, and Stevie Wonder’s six-LP rally from Where I’m Coming From, even Motown never really traded in classic albums, and maybe that’s where this neo-R&B orthodoxy grew from. (Both Marvin and Stevie had to wrest control to make their respective bids for long-playing freedom in an era when recording artists were like actors under the Hollywood studio system.)

Beyoncé used the string sequence from Bitter Sweet Symphony on her 2013 world tour. Eureka!

DJ Scott La Rock, Blastmaster KRS One & D-Nice, South Bronx (1986)

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Artist: DJ Scott La Rock, Blastmaster KRS One & D-Nice
Title: South Bronx
Description: single; album track, Criminal Minded
Label: B-Boy
Release date: 1986; 1987
First heard: 1987

Many people tell me this style is terrific …

I vividly remember back in 1982, a friend who was a couple of years older and had left school to work in Our Price in the town centre, Alan, brandished an import 12-inch by somebody called Afrika Bambaata. As he excitedly placed it on the spindle of my record player, he confirmed it to be the future of all recorded music. Planet Rock certainly sounded big, bold and different, albeit a bit fuzzy and not entirely to my taste at the time. (I was only just getting my head around Kraftwerk.) I must say though, Alan was a prophet.

It took me until 1986-87 for my own tectonic plates to shift. It was in this tumultuous period that I really went apeshit for hip-hop, a new-to-me genre that had been shaped by Afrika Bambaata when I was still at school. A graduate now, I wasn’t exactly flush, but I was living in a flat, eating boil-in-the-bag meals-for-one and spending my spare cash on Street Sounds Electro compilations, each of which, clearly numbered, acted as a vital, hit-and-miss primer into, well, street sounds. Catching up with this vast series which, thanks to the import acumen of label boss Morgan Khan, had been paving the UK dance scene since 1982, gave me a sense of purpose. John Peel played hip-hop, too, as questing as any of us schooled in rock about this vibrant, politically-charged American block party music (whatever block parties were).

I first heard South Bronx on Peel. Because I was carefully taping anything that sounded promising, I was able to play this tune until the magnetic layer wore off – although I never actually purchased it, and it wasn’t on any of the Street Sounds LPs I bought during that spree. I’d cut off the intro, in which Scott La Rock, KRS One and D-Nice politely introduce each other (“What’s up Blastmaster?” “Yo, what up, D-Nice?” etc.), so I had no real idea who was rapping and who was DJ-ing or if either of them was MC-ing or perhaps even toasting. Indeed, I had Scott La Rock down as the main rapper, as his name came first. And I didn’t really know where Boogie Down Productions came into it. I’ll tell you what I did know, though: South Bronx was as riveting a piece of music I’d heard in years.

A disarmingly simple staccato horn signature (da-da-da-da-da) announces a primitive, spidery beat with a drum-fill so Teutonically synthetic it’s almost comical, the sparse arrangement punctuated with single sampled notes, over which our three unidentified cheerleaders chant, “South Bronx, the South, South Bronx, South Bronx!” It is where you’re from and where you’re at. I had no context for this bulletin from what I didn’t know were the “Bridge Wars”, a fairly typical internecine hip-hop feud between the South Bronx and Queensbridge. Verbal border skirmishes were described in the rap, although this is an “answer song”, so I was coming in long after it had started (with Marley Marl and MC Shan’s The Bridge), to whit: “So you think that hip-hop had its start out in Queensbridge? If you popped that junk up in the Bronx you might not live.” Drum fill. Chant.

My reaction then was my reaction to much subsequent hip-hop: it was like watching an exciting film set in an urban part of the world I would be unlikely ever to visit. It was laced with threat, danger and deprivation (“Instead of trying to take out LL, you need to take your homeboys off the crack”), and seemed to tell a potted history of the musical form, name-checking Afrika and Flash, whom I already knew. I used my imagination to fill in the blanks.

B-boys gettin’ blown away, but coming outside anyway …

My planet was rocked. I subsequently learned that Scott La Rock was in fact the supple-wristed DJ of the outfit when I read of his death by gunshot, aged 25, in the NME. (The NME was all over hip-hop, and I remain grateful for the education.) The rapper whose rhymes I had so righteously and whiteously learned and parroted was KRS One (“the holder of a boulder, money folder”). The habit of rappers to rap about themselves in the first person made it a minefield without a Brodie’s Notes. Their braggadocio was new to me. None of the singers I’d admired sang about how great they were at singing, or threatening to kill singers from other bands. Call me shallow, call me a colonial, but I was electrified by the whole thing. La Rock and KRS wielded firearms on the album sleeve – an unhappy landmark for the genre, apparently – but I never had the album.

I arrived at the NME in 1988, wearing a baseball cap, but one with the Age Of Chance logo on it, as I’d welcomed the white, British indie rappers into my life with arms flung wide, and would witness Pop Will Eat Itself being coined offstage by a predominantly black audience at Brixton Academy before that year was out. It was a vexing time, but never dull.

Not all old-skool hip-hop stands the test of time. I retain a soft spot for the comedy of Doug E Fresh and the lack of self-consciousness about those early samples of Bugs Bunny, and I sometimes hanker after the sheer pioneering simplicity of much of what was on the Street Sounds LPs in the prelapsarian pre-Gangsta years: Whodini, Mantronik, Kid Frost, Roxanne Shanté, Newcleus, UTFO, early Run-DMC … so much treasure, but none more valuable than South Bronx, the South, South Bronx, South Bronx, the South, South Bronx.

James Brown, Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine Part 1 (1970)

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Artist: James Brown
Title: Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine Part 1
Description: single
Label: King (UK: Polydor)
Release date: 1970
First heard: 1980s

Fellas, I’m ready to get up and do my thing!
Yeah! That’s right! Do it!
I want to get into it, man, you know?
Go ahead!
Like a, like a sex machine, man.
Yeah!
Movin’, doin’ it, y’know?
Yeah!
Can I count it off?
Okay!
One, two, three, four!

On 21 March, 1983, BBC2 repeated an edition of Pop Carnival featuring band of the moment Echo & The Bunnymen, live at Sefton Park in August 1982. I taped it, as we used to say in those days, and played it on a loop. Captivated in general by a lithe, smooth-skinned, coolly possessed Ian McCulloch in close up, lit in red and green and sliding out of a wide-necked t-shirt, I was particularly taken with his trademark, Jim Morrison-inspired freeforming. During a memorable protraction of Do It Clean, he yelled these instructions at the audience, separated from the stage by an actual moat:

“Get up! Get on up! Stay on the scene! Like a sex machine!”

Ill-educated at that tender stage in the riches of soul and funk, I wrongly assumed these provocative words to be of McCulloch’s own wild invention and not, as it turned out, a sincere tribute to Mr James Brown.

As the decade wore on, the goalposts of my mind were moved exponentially, and a James Brown best-of was added to my collection under “essentials”. Sampling had breathed new life, if not new royalties, into the Godfather of Soul’s knockout canon, and by the end of the 80s, his horns, his rhythms and his catchphrases belonged to the world. For me, it may well have been Sefton Park that cast a special aura around Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine – a critical moat, if you like – but no matter how deeply his other greatest hits burrowed under my skin, it was unimpeachable. His biggest hits in the UK up to the mid-80s had been It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and Get Up Offa That ThingSex Machine only reached 32 on initial release in 1970 and barely charted at all in endless, greedy reissues – and then that blatant bid for glory Living In America put them all in the shade. But for an artist whose back catalogue goes classic, classic, classic, classic, classic, you need your own criteria for selecting one.

To say that it’s his best work is to perhaps undersell the marksmanship of the JB’s, who’d only just been assembled in 1970 and the horn section are relatively quiet on the track after that signature “count-off”. But in some ways, the lack of arrangement gives the music air, and over that modest but hypnotic guitar phrase from Bootsy’s brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins and the low-energy beat from “Jabo” Starks, Brown and co-writer Bobby Byrd are able to effectively duet, affecting a funky version of bants (“Dig it!” “Right on, right on!” “Shake your money maker”). When Byrd’s piano adds some fleeting colour, it’s about as complex as the five-minute studio version gets. This is stark stuff. Like a machine, in fact.

When – after teasing the band once again with a call-and-response – Brown takes them to the surely definitive bridge, and then counts it off “one more time”, nothing miraculous actually happens. It barely even goes up a gear, for all the fanfare and spoken preamble. And that’s the way I like it: the way it is. There’s steam coming off this recording, and yet the lid stays on; it constantly pulls its punches, but such restraint takes skill and judgement. It’s what, for me, renders it so irresistible, a tune you go back to again and again and again. There are elongated live versions on wax (featuring the returning Fred Wesley), but you’ll never top this original take for sheer precision and, yes, discipline.

The JB’s had a tough boss, but, y’know, dig it, James Brown ran a tight ship, he docked people’s wages and he got results. To lift a call-and-response from my second favourite James Brown tune:

What you gonna play now?
Bobby, I don’t know. But whatsoever I play, it’s gotta be funky.
Yeah!

Dr Dre (feat. Snoop Dogg), Still D.R.E. (1999)

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Artist: Dr Dre (featuring Snoop Dogg)
Title: Still D.R.E.
Description: single; album track, 2001
Label: Interscope
Release date: 1999
First heard: 1999

I’m representing for them gangstas all across the world
Still hitting them corners on the low-lows girl
Still taking my time to perfect the beat
And I still got love for the streets

If I say I’ve lost touch with hip-hop this century, that’s true of most musical genres so part of a broader pattern of disengagement which I put down to my age and to how shit music now is. As for hip-hop, I gave Jay-Z my best shot and appreciated The Black Album, but that’s a decade old now. I found 50 Cent exciting to begin with, but his flame quickly went out. Eminem made some great records, but crashed and burned and I don’t find his nasal whining easy to listen to any more. It’s hard to imagine that Kanye West was an artist to take seriously at one time, but he lost me at Graduation, which, again, is some years back. Sasha Frere-Jones gave such a positive write-up for Virgina duo Clipse in the New Yorker around the release of their third album Hell Hath No Fury, I bought it without hearing a note and was with them for a while. Buy that was 2006. There’s a theme here. I had a later dalliance with MF Doom’s excellent Born Like This in 2009, but the pickings had, for me, become slim.

I’m finding it difficult to pinpoint exactly where hip-hop I parted company but the Wu-Tang Clan’s weak swansong 8 Diagrams, which I loyally paid money for in 2007, was certainly a watershed. My patience ran out. Maybe I grew out of it, or it grew out of me.

I remain attached to the genre, historically. It really shook me out of the rock ghetto in the 80s and continued to provide exotic sustenance through the 90s, especially when Dre and Snoop Dogg helped define the low-riding G-funk sound. Doggy Style, for all its juvenile content, was a set text at Q magazine of all places, thanks to the influence of our dear leader Danny Kelly. Dr Dre’s The Chronic was much in evidence in the office, too; what nobody in those days called a “game-changer”. But its belated follow-up 2001 remains a preeminent Millennial work. Its lead-off single is the definitive article; a “previously on” recap of Dre’s empire-building interim (“Guess who’s back?”).

Bragging about how good at rapping you are was a thematic linchpin of early hip-hop, but this was quickly overtaken by bragging about how successful at rapping you are when the genre struck oil. As a producer and mogul, Dre’s showing-off is strictly business: “Since the last time you heard from me I lost some friends/Well, hell, me and Snoop, we dipping again/Kept my ear to the streets, signed Eminem/He’s triple platinum, doing 50 a week.” It’s not a new thing for artists to achieve success and turn kingmaker, but I still find it sweet that Dre bigs himself up by bigging up his new signing. “My last album was The Chronic,” he states, baldly, for the record.

Even his preeminence in the field is couched in a line about his judgement in a shifting marketplace. “They say rap’s changed, they want to know how I feel about it.” Whatever the view, he’s insistent that we know he’s “still got love for the streets.” The streets are lucky to have his patronage.

It’s not always easy to describe why you like one rapper’s voice over another’s. I like the sheer amount of saliva Method Man seems to work up, and the way Dre signing Nate Dogg (RIP) sounds like he can’t quite fit in all the words he wishes to get out, but these are rare examples of me putting my finger on it. It’s more about intonation and rhythm with Dre – the way the word “still” is employed, for instance, driven into the ground like a stake – and of course his avuncular sparring with naughty nephew Snoop Dogg, happy to play second vocal fiddle to his boss, with a complementary and complimentary “uh-huh”, “fo’ sho'” and “Nigga”, plus the defining refrain, “If you ain’t up on thangs”. Snoop also gets to vibe a solo verse about marijuana (“No stress, no seeds, no stems, no sticks” – we want to know how he feels about it).

Underpinning all this vocal tennis is one of the great pilfered-or-otherwise cinematic/orchestral riffs in all of hip-hop, an insistently plucked string instrument – and two notes of cello to start? – which is not credited as a sample and the song’s composition is shared between Dre, Snoop, Jay-Z and producers Mel-Man and Scott Storch, so I’m assuming it was played for the track. Is that likely? You can usually identify samples with an Internet search, but nothing comes up for this one. Any clues gratefully considered. In the video, unsurprisingly, Dre and Snoop rock along in a car. Play this song in a car and it’s impossible not to do just that. It’s a low rider.

Because rap is all about dead presidents, the fact that, as a single, Still D.R.E. sold four million copies in America is significant. (It went Top 10 here, too.) No longer underground, if hip-hop doesn’t go quadruple platinum, can it really be said to be hip-hop at all? But of all at rap’s top table, I find Dre one of the most palatable. Since putting out 2001 in 1999, he appears to have recorded and scrapped the follow-up – and his proposed “final album” – Detox. If he never puts it out, as hinted, he’s done enough already, as an architect, administrator, scout and musician.

He’s the same age as me. Bastard.