If I had to choose a favorite year in Hip-Hop history, it would without a question have to be 1996. This is despite the fact that at that time I was a mere 9 years old, and rather than nodding my head to some of the most incredible rap the world would ever hear, I instead banged the shit out of my head to bands like Rancid, Soundgarden, and Metallica. To be honest, at 9 I had absolutely zero interest in hip-hop. Yet in retrospect, when I look back at the albums that hit the shelves in 96, it once again makes me wish I was born earlier, so that I could have experienced a period in music that I actually would have appreciated and been excited about. Music that would have permanent implications for the future. I mean can you believe: The Fugees The Score, 2 Pac All Eyez On Me, Jay Z Reasonable Doubt, Nas It Was Written, Outkast ATLiens, UGK Ridin’ Dirty, Westside Connection Bow Down, Busta Rhymes The Coming, Ras Kass Soul On Ice, Jeru The Damaja Wrath Of Math, Ghostface Killa Ironman, Kool Keith Dr. Octagonecologyst, Mobb Deep Hell On Earth, The Roots Illadelph Halflife, Redman Muddy Waterz, Xzibit At The Speed Of Life, The Geto Boys The Resurrection, Heltah Skeltah Nocturnal, E-40 Tha Hall Of Game, De La Soul Stakes Is High, M.O.P. Firing Squad, A Tribe Called Quest Beats, Rhymes, and Life, 2 Pac The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, DJ Shadow Entroducing…, Dru Down Can You Feel Me, Richie Rich Seasoned Veteran, Too $hort Gettin’ It, Chino XL Here To Save You All, Rage Against The Machine Evil Empire, Eminem Infinite, and Snoop Dogg The Dogfather were all released in the same fucking year?!?!?! I mean it’s as if you absolutely couldn’t go wrong by picking up a new hip-hop release in 1996 unless it was from Kriss Kross or Master P. Yet one album, from an established vet, that I didn’t know came out in 96’ was Keith Murray’s Enigma.
Although I had heard him through his work with Erick Sermon and Redman, until I picked up this album towards the end of 09’, I had never paid attention to Murray at all. I knew he always spit on Erick Sermon’s beats, which I have been a big fan of for years, and I knew he had the respect of most MC’s that I listened to as well, but for some reason he was always one of those artists I wanted to check out, but just never got around to hearing. I guess he never grabbed me as someone I had to go out of my way to listening to due to his lack of relevance in the modern era, and the complete absence of die hard Murray fans in Cali. Yet when I saw Keith Murray’s name on an album from 96, featuring production from Erick Sermon and The Ummah (Q-tip and J-Dilla for all of y’all who don’t know your history) for $2.99, y’all know the rest.
If Erick Sermon wanted to make you dance, and Redman wanted to get you higher than Everest, I always thought Keith Murray was the one just waiting for you to talk shit so that he could beat your ass. In regards to Keith’s lyrics, my assumptions were not too far off, he raps about how he is the best and how he demolishes wack MC’s and people on a daily. Yet when you get an album where that is the entire subject matter, you expect the musical back drop to consist of beat after beat that makes you want to break the closest thing in arms reach, even if it’s the face of a frail old women. Yet that is the biggest surprise with Enigma, Keith has nothing but hard core lyrics and delivery, but the beats are almost all really relaxing. I want to say that this album is a perfect accompaniment to a bowl of cereal and a blunt in the early morning, accept for the fact that many aren’t trying to hear about stomping motherfuckers out to start off their day. Yet even with Keith’s aggressiveness, there is no denying that Enigma is a laid back head nodder.
What stands out most about Keith is his angry and violent character, mixed with an expansive vocabulary. Now a days it seems like those two things are oil and water: if you have a vocabulary, your are nerd, and thus don’t know shit about being hard. Yet on this album, it’s almost as if Keith’s usage of big words gives him more confidence and reason to believe that he’s the shit. Not only can he knock your teeth out, but afterwards he’s gonna make fun of your ass using lengthy words that you won’t understand. I really like that about him and his music. There is no reason why intelligence should be seen as a weakness. The problem is, that’s all he gives you. It’s not until you reach track 12 of 14 that a song becomes more than a bunch of loosely related punchlines and “I’ll fuck your ass up” raps. They’re all done well, but after listening to this album all the way through at least a dozen times, I still have yet to find a verse that stands out from the rest due to it’s superiority or uniqueness.
That takes me to the production because it has the same issue. Erick Sermon churns out 12 dope beats guaranteed to make you bob your head, but they all seem to convey the same mood. Laid back samples, combined with funky yet simple bass lines, and some basic drum patterns that fit the instrumental perfectly, yet are completely devoid of any of the bells and whistles that we now expect from hip-hop drums. Each beat is tight, and each verse is ill, and that’s why most of the tracks on this album would sound really good by itself. Yet when you make the same song 12 different times and put them all together on an album, nothing stands out as exceptional.
In terms of features there are only a handful. One thing I always find interesting is when established rappers try to put their homies on. Sometimes it kind of works out, like in the situation between Jay and Memph Bleek, but most of the time these artists patiently wait in line, only to have the peak of their careers equal a cameo in a music video, such as Busta and the Flipmode Squad (yeah I know they put an album out, and it was actually kind of dope, but how many of y’all actually knew it existed? Also how many of Busta’s liner notes guranteed that Spliff Star would be the next big thing?). In this case, Keith reps his crew, L.O.D., really hard throughout the whole album.Yet when the two members, Kel-Vicious and 50 Grand, actually step to the mic, it’s clear why no one has ever heard of them. They really don’t have much to offer besides a basic understanding of how to ride the beat. Yet at the same time, back then everyone could ride the beat, and it’s only in today’s world where people consider OJ Da Juiceman one of the countries most talented MC’s, that we get amazed by rappers with rudimentary flow. Yet if their features do little to impress, “Yeah” featuring Erick Sermon, Busta Rhymes, Jamal of Illegal (anyone heard of that group? cuz dude’s all right), and Redman is well worth the listen. While the beat might be the most generic on the album, each MC rips the mic with their own unique style and flair. None of the rappers disappoint at all, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would have to go to Busta. No one has ever been able to match the energy, creativity, and fun that the early Bussa Buss put into his rhymes. You can just tell that nothing made him happier in life than obliterating microphones.
Finally the last thing worth talking about is the production of an early Dilla. Although neither of his beats are great examples of his off the wall creativity, they do provide good insight into what built his reputation as a producer: bouncy drums, sparse but funky bass lines, and ambient samples, that all come together to create a perfect groove. His early beats just hang out in that pocket, that’s so hard to describe with words, but it gives each instrumental that overall feel let’s you know Dilla did it, even if you have never heard it before. While I don’t predict either track will become your favorites out of his ridiculous catalog, they are both well worth a listen for fans of the late great James Yancy.
Although there is nothing enigmatic about Enigma, except for maybe the contrast between the vocals and the beats, it is for sure another strong album from one of hip-hop’s greatest years. It may not stand out from the other CD’s released that year, probably due to the lack of diversity found on the project, but overall it’s quality music from top to bottom. Not only that, but for me it was a really good introduction to the type of MC that Keith Murray is. I liked the album enough that when I more recently saw his 1999 CD, It’s A Beautiful Thing, on the clearance rack, I made sure to cop it too. At the same time, it wasn’t impressive enough to build my interest in last year’s Undergods album that he did with Canibus. Take that how you want to, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I now recommend Keith Murray, but I don’t think that he will change the way you listen to the music we all love.