(originally appeared at HipsterJew)
I’m not old enough to have real nostalgia for the 1990s–the oldest music I heard as a kid that I still listen to has to be the singles off Speakerboxx/The Love Below. But I’ve heard more than enough about it—bands were ethically purer, less willing to sell out, hip hop wasn’t commercialized, the Simpsons was still funny. Maybe people just miss Bill Clinton. I really don’t know.
For hip hop, the early 1990s were a crucial time. Especially in New York, where in one year, Biggie Smalls’ Ready to Die and Nas’ Illmatic dropped (Illmatic came first—Ready to Die copied the album cover). Illmatic’s cast a long shadow on many rappers, most of all Nas, who unlike the narrator of Illmatic, had to age and fall off. But everthing about it’s been incredibly influential–Memory Lane begot 50 Cent’s Hate it or Love It, Cam’ron’s Killa Cam, and every other New York rapper’s autobiographical “this is where I get deep” song. It Ain’t Hard To Tell basically invented the enigmatic “lyricism” of underground rap. Even to this day, people want another Illmatic.
So this Detroit rapper Elzhi gave it to them. Elmatic, which dropped for free on May 10th, is literally a track-for-track recreation of 1994′s Illmatic (shades of Borges). Producer Will Sessions used a live band in the studio to make live versions of every beat on Illmatic. The Ahmad Jamal piano of “The World is Yours” sounds fuller interpolated on Elmatic than it did when Pete Rock sampled it. In fact, it sounds thicker than it did on “I Love Music”. When Elzhi begins a verse “to my man J Dilla, god bless your life”, he is simultaneously referencing Nas’ tribute to his dead homie Ill Will, and recontextualizing it in a modern, Detroit-focused context. Throughout Elmatic, Elzhi rephrases old lines Nas used, or echoes their rhythmic cadence, resulting in a fascinating text that clearly aches for the sounds of 90s rap. You can read this as a commentary on the fundamental conservatism epidemic to hip hop, a commentary on the end to New York’s commercial and critical dominance in the music, or as personal expression. Elzhi sounds a lot like Nas vocally, and while he isn’t quite the lyricist the street’s disciple was back in the day, he can drop a dope line. And the beats are invariably dope—at a good price too.
London indie rock band Yuck approach the 90s from a more guitar based context. Singers/guitarists/songwriters Max Bloom and Daniel Blumberg (yes, they’re Jewish) write music that sounds like an amalgamation of all the big sounds of 90s indie—Pavement, Dinosaur Jr, and all those British shoegaze groups which were too ethereal for me to tell apart. Their self titled album dropped February 15. Unlike Elmatic, it isn’t free, but you can’t hate on a band for trying to eat.
For me, it was a mixed bag. But like I said, I’m not old enough for 90s nostalgia. I was disappointed when the lyrics to “Shook Down” turned out to be “You can be my destiny/you can mean that much to me” instead of “you can be my lunch for me”. What I’d heard as a Positively 4th St-esque putdown/come-on was actually just regular indie lyrics. And while I felt the simple, 4 bar figure of “The Wall” for a while, I don’t know if it sustains itself for four minutes. But the last two tracks of the album are both brilliant, easily ipod status. “Rose Gives a Lily” is a melancholy instrumental that suggests so much without explicitly saying it, and the guitar lines stick in your head long after the song is over. “Rubber” is a long noise rock number, all droning guitars and cooing vocals that changes mood and texture several times. You can listen to it closely or have it on in the background, and it sounds tight either way. But a lot of the album was forgettable, especially the cliched rhyming (fire/desire and dreaming/believing were two of the worst offenders). If Yuck always had great songwriting behind the 90s haze, they’d be a force. As of now, they’re interesting, but more like a civil war re-enactment. They have potential though.