The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!
Live Hardcore Worldwide, Boogie Down Productions (1991, Jive/RCA Records)
Hello there! Welcome back to what I am officially dubbing “Season Two” of The Great (Live) Albums, following a couple of extended and practically George R.R. Martin-ian writing hiatuses that have caused this at one point semi-regular column to become a resource more precious than platinum ore. And what better way to get back in the groove than by taking a look under the hood of Boogie Down Productions’ ass-kicking 1991 offering Live Hardcore Worldwide.
But I should probably confess something first: that despite priding myself as being a “live albums guy”—and thus assuming that this column would forever be a delicious piece of Bronx-bakery sheet cake—at this point, I’ve pretty much cycled through all the records that I myself have a personal connection to, outside of listening to them as research for this blog.
So that leaves us in something like uncharted territory here, as I push myself outside my natural comfort zone to engage with acclaimed live albums from artists—and often genres—I may not be very familiar with or that I may struggle to properly contextualize. But honestly, I’m thrilled to be listening to so much great new (to me) music, and exploring my reactions to them in real time.
Now, I’m not totally ignorant when it comes to hip-hop. I listen to a lot of it. I’ve been to some shows. I’ve seen documentaries, read books. But I wouldn’t say that I necessarily have a bird’s-eye understanding of the music’s full history. I do know one thing, though: that hip hop began as a live art form, built around the dazzling performance of fleet-fingered DJs entertaining large, sweaty crowds of New Yorkers at a ceaseless procession of raucous block parties (or at least that’s how I gather it happened, based on Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree.) MCs subsequently entered hip-hop as a means of further hyping audiences to the aural pyrotechnics of superstar turntablists like Grandmaster Flash—their cues taken their cues from the Jamaican dance hall tradition of “toasting.”
I know I sound like the whitest motherfucker alive right now (Northern Irish and Polish, per Ancestry.com), but my point is: as hip-hop’s center of gravity shifted away from DJs to MCs and producers, so too did the genre’s emphasis shift from live performance to what could be accomplished inside the confines of the studio. Which is why, when scouring online lists of notable records for column fodder, I’ve consistently been disappointed by the lack of high-profile rap and hip-hop offerings despite the fact that rap was born as a live performance medium.
But one title that did pique my curiosity was the 1991 Boogie Down Productions tour de force, Live Hardcore Worldwide. It again speaks to my suburban whiteness that, prior to diving into this remarkable album for this column, my only familiarity with BDP frontman KRS-One was his extremely ill-fitting verse on the opening track of R.E.M.’s Out of Time and as being the titular subject of a pretty decent deep album cut by SoCal ska-punks Sublime.
But the record is, simply put, the good shit, with KRS succinctly summing up his identity on the uncomfortably titled “House Niggas”: Some people Say I am a rap missionary/some people say that I am a walking dictionary/some people say that I am truly legendary/But what I am is simply a black revolutionary.
Hardcore captures one of my favorite eras, the late 1980s to early 1990s. At this time, the form had evolved sonically and lyrically well beyond its primordial party-centric focus to explore weightier ideas deployed with increasingly dexterous mic skills. Rap would soon slide into the nihilism of the gangsta era, and then splinter a million different ways. But this era represents, arguably, the peak of the music’s ability to impact, provoke, and motivate. KRS-One’s raps on the album are a series of essayistic treatise worthy of James Baldwin or Ta-Nahisi Coates, weaving themes of race, class, criminal justice, black identity, faith, and humor. The overall tone is angry, yet hopeful. As KRS himself neatly puts it in a quick bit of stage banter between tracks: “If negativity comes with a .22, positivity comes with a .45”—cue gunshot sound effects.
The beats on the album (courtesy of KRS’s brother, DJ Kenny Parker) are minimal—a brutal, hard-hitting assemblage of drum machine right hooks punctuated with the very occasional keyboard sting or James Brown sample. The sounds are abrasive, setting the stage for sucker MCs the world over to hold KRS-One’s beer, kicking off with the killer “The Eye Opener,” whose unambiguous thesis is that basically all major Biblical and pre-historical figures were in fact black, their racial identities whitewashed by corrupt Europeans.
Other top-tier bangers on the set—recorded at concerts in New York, Paris, and London—include the playful ode to safe sex “Jimmy” (as in the hat, this being the era of AIDS and all), the hometown-hyping “South Bronx,” hip-hop history lesson “Poetry,” and the aforementioned peace plea “Stop the Violence.” There are lots more, 23 quick-hitting tracks in all, but this is one of those works of art that somewhat suffers from the curse of consistency. Just take what I’ve already praised and apply it across the board.
Live Hardcore Worldwide may or may not totally change how you perceive live rap music. But chances are you won’t even have time enough to interrogate your preconceptions. You’ll be too busy getting up to get down.
-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)