Binary Star

Binary_Star_-_20100305121838911According to wikipedia, a binary star is a system of two stars orbiting a common central mass. And, thus, we have the aptly named underground duo Binary Star, consisting of emcees OneBeLo (formerly One Man Army) and Senim Silla. These guys are at the forefront of alternative, socially-conscious hip-hop and have remained deep in the underground since their formation in 1998. In fact, I’ve heard their first album, Waterworld was recorded on a $500 budget and most tracks were recorded in one take! One year later, when they could afford it, they re-mixed the tracks with better production and re-released it under a new album name and label: Masters of the Universe (2000).

As with most underground rappers, Binary Star are known for their depth of message and lyrical complexity. If I had to describe what distinguishes from from other alternative groups in one word, it’s this: goosebumps. The word play, story telling, smooth high-pitched vocals from OneBeLo complemented by Senim’s baritone voice. The jazz backing, piano loops, and smooth beats. These guys met in prison, and the way they discuss rehabilitation, evolution, and and other social topics — all under the theme of astronomy (hence the album and group name) — is well-articulated and leaves you thinking.

b28843df2437decebc54d11f9f6e7af7The duo disbanded a couple years after forming, but then released an EP in 2013, theirfirst in 15 years. It appears they’re back together (and hopefully for good!), because they released a follow-up to Waterworld in June 2017.

Reality Check – Waterworld (1999)

I’m showing this track off the original Waterworld, so you can see can see the raw verses in one take, with budget production value, and it still hits hard. They challenge the state of rap in 2000, and argue that quality should be priority — an interesting parallel to today. In this track, it’s all about the message, and you can tell since the wordplay and lyricism is not very advanced.

It aint all about economy
so the fact that these wack emcees is making G’s don’t bother me
Honestly, my number one policy is quality
never sell my soul is my philosophy
High velocity, lyrics like Nastradamus make a prophecy

Slang Blade – Masters of the Universe (2000)

This track is 100% about linguistics and technical lyricism. If you’re into this stuff, it will likely leave your jaw dropped. Otherwise, you’ll still get sucked into the rip curl of Senim Silla’s smooth flow. It’s interesting that only a couple years after lyricism was catching on in the underground, Binary Star was doing it better than half the originators. For example, in just 6 bars, he pushes 15 rhymes of the same ending:

Now just to be accurate, label me immaculate
Short fuse like monagues fuel capulets
Elaborate labyrinth, lavish pimp pattering
Rip, rude to ravishing, cabbage scavenging
from word babbling, babbling brook and words travelling
Like Miles Tattling, I’m kind of partial to battling

The K.G.B. – Masters of the Universe (2000)

The goosebump track. It’s almost 7 minutes, featuring 6 other artists (including Elzhi, one of my favorite rappers from Slum Village). The dark background beats hold you in a trance while the emcees spit fire one by one. Verse 4 is my favorite, especially the 30 seconds when the bass stops and all you hear is Elzhi going HAM.

Honest Expression – Masters of the Universe (2000)

Among all tracks I’ve heard about the state of hip-hop, this is the most well-delivered and poignant commentary. The theme is that honest expression should be the gold-standard in hip-hop, not just putting on a show. I couldn’t agree more.


Madvillain – MF DOOM & Madlib (2004)

madvillainy_coverIn this post, I continue the theme of one-album-wonders (see my last post on Blackstar) from a rapper/producer duo.  In terms of abstract, or, experimental hip-hop, Madvillainy is a timeless masterpiece. Most aficionados, including myself, would agree that it’s the best underground experimental album out there. When rapper MF DOOM and producer Madlib joined forces under the alias Madvillain, their goal was to give a twist to everything in hip-hop while highlighting their own eccentricities. They do this in three ways: theme, beats, and lyrics.

  1. Theme. The album’s theme is that of a supervillain in a comic book. Behind his metal mask, MF DOOM’s character is an amalgamation of all comic villains. Best described on the first track, “Madvillain, more accurately, the dark side of our beings. Perhaps due to this seminal connection that audiences can relate their experience in life with the villains and their dastardly doings”.
  2. Beats. Madlib brings back true sampling in this album, and, in a unique and bizarre way. He uses obscure samples of jazz, soul, even Hindi music, as well as 1940s mystery and crime films. All of this while sticking to the running villain concept.
  3. Lyrics. Madvillainy is in my top 5 most lyrically dense and complex albums. DOOM makes use of alliteration, multi-syllable rhyming, and even holorimes where the same rhyme encompasses an entire bar or verse. Very few rappers have the technical skill to do this. Even more, there are no choruses  in the album, so DOOM can focus on wordplay and showing off his slick, yet, laid back delivery.

The most memorable track, mostly because of the humming accordion sample that wouldn’t normally accompany a hip-hop beat. DOOM’s lyrics are dark and densely packed with rhymes and puns, but he doesn’t do anything fancy beyond multi-syllables.


madvillainThis track features DOOM in his element, dropping rhyme after rhyme with deep references. His style is somewhat free associative — meaning he experiments will several literary devices that don’t necessarily make logical sense. For example, his holorime:


Do not stand still, boast yo’ skills
Close but no krills,
toast for po’ nils, post no bills
Coast to coast Joe Shmoe’s flows ill, go chill

Not supposed to overdose No-Doz pills

Do Not Fire!
My favorite part of madvillain is Madlib’s versatility with the board. He cuts samples from the most unsuspecting places and not only backs DOOM’s vocals, but also peppers the album with his own short-but-fitting instrumentals. This track is a case and point. It samples everything from streetfighter to music and dialogue from a 1970s bollywood film. Yes, you read that right.

Other impressive track on the album that I did not include for lack of space include: Meat Grinder, Raid, and Rhinestone Cowboys.

Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star

“We feel like we have a responsibility…to shine light…into the darkness”
– Black Star (Intro)

9672Sometimes I find it difficult to articulate what hip-hop is. In this post, I will shed light on it through the lens of what in my mind is the most ‘hip-hop’ album ever made. Afterwards, you can reflect on the meaning. In 1998, then-unknown Mos Def and Talib Kweli came together under the moniker Black Star to create a conscious, culturally empowering, intelligent and lyrically substantive piece of art. This, one year after the death of Biggie and Tupac, when hip-hop was paradoxically at its golden-age but also had a vacuum for a new role model and introspection on the state of the art form through a socially conscious point of view.

In their album, blackstar turn hip-hop on its head and critique artistic glorifications, redefine black identity, and speak to issues of socio-economic disadvantages in the African-american communities as source of empowerment. In the Intro track they call themselves “real life documentarians” and act as such throughout the album. Let look at  three powerful tracks.

Astronomy (8th Light)

The opening track sets the stage for the remainder of the album and the duo comments on how the word “black” is and should be used in every day speech. Rather than a black vs. white binary mirroring a bad vs. good one, they counter this idea with positive similies and bond over “black” being a term of endearment rather than a limitation. All this, with great lyrical dexterity and a call-and-response flow.

What is the Black Star?
Is it the cat with the black shades, the black car?
Is it shining from very far, to where you are?
It is commonplace and different
Intimate and distant
Fresher than an infant

Black, my family thick, like they’re striped molasses
Star, on the rise, in the eyes of the masses
Black is the color of my true love’s hair
Star’s are bright, shining, hot balls of air

Black like my baby girl’s stare
Black like the veil that the muslimina wear
Black like the planet that they fear, why they scared?
Black like the slave ship that later brought us here
Black like the cheeks that are roadways for tears
That leave black faces well traveled with years
Black like assassin cross hairs
Blacker than my granddaddy armchair
He never really got no time to chill there
Cause this life is warfare, warfare


9672This is a favorite of mine, both because of the message and the verbal acrobatics and chemistry between Def and Kwali. They play the role of street prophets and reflect on how growing up amidst poverty and violence is a source of empowerment for what you can become, in contrast to most artists at the time focusing solely on the former. To present a message with a good flow, lyrical complexity, and delivery is tough, and they do it perfectly. The lyrical themes mostly consist of multi-syllabic rhyming, accented words, and matching rhymes and syllables perfectly in line with the beat.

Consider me the entity within the industry without a history
Of spitting the epitome of stupidity

Living my life, expressing my liberty, it gotta be done properly
My name is in the middle of equality


This is a beautiful track with strong imagery and plays to ones imagination, which is a rare theme in hip hop at the time. It’s a poetic story of New York and dives deep to celebrate the “nightime”, thieves, skyscrapers, corrupt cops, and other elements. Cities define who we are and this pays beautiful homage to that. I’m not from NY but I can appreciate it nonetheless. Kweli jumps in with puns and quick rhymes and goes deeper into the idea of night as metaphor. This track went over my head the first few times. It reminded me of dissecting poems in high school. For example, this is packed into 15 seconds:

Looking the skies for God / what you see besides the smog / is broken dreams flying away on the wings of the obscene. / Thoughts that people put in the air / places where you could get murdered over a glare, / but everything is fair. / It’s a paradox we call reality / but keeping it real won’t make you a casualty of abnormal normality.”

Hip Hop

I still don’t have a definition, but I know black star is the epitome of it.

Big Pun(isher)

big-pun1I chose to write about Big Pun because I think I’ve been straying away from this blog’s objective — to draw attention to the lyrical pedigree of my favorite artists. Big Pun is a lyrical heavyweight, in both senses of the term (he was ~700lbs). His characteristic rhyme style is to mix-and-match alliteration, multi-syllabic rhymes, and squeezing as many words into a couplet before taking a breath. This talent is probably the reason Fat Joe linked up with him and the reason he became the first Latino rapper to go platinum. He dies in 2000 from weight issues and only put out one album.

Because of his unique style and inclusion in the “best rappers of all time” arguments, I am choosing three songs to analyze.

This track is genius. It samples a Dr. Dre beat (to strategically get listeners on the west coast) and features a hardcore back-and-forth between Pun and Fat Joe, with Pun spitting possibly one of the most memorable verses in hip-hop:

Dead in the middle of little Italy, little did we know that we riddled some middlemen who didn’t do diddly

Not only is it the most intricately carved alliteration + coupled rhyme masterpiece, but it also makes sense. They’re talking about how their hit went wrong and they shot an innocent bystander.

Super Lyrical
First time I heard this I was mind-blown to see a collab with Black Thought (The Roots), especially since Pun was somewhat unknown at the time. Pun’s first verse might be one of the most advanced pieces of lyricism (in style and meaning) that might only be rivalled by the likes of Eminem. Get a piece of paper and write the first three words with distinct sounds: “Murderous”, “rap”, “actual”. Treat these as column headers and put each subsequent word under the corresponding sound. You’ll see that all three columns fill up and no word goes unrhymed! Same thing goes for the rest of the verse.

Ay-yo my murderous rap verbal attack is actual fact
Tactical tracks match perfectly with graphical stats
Half a you lack the magical dap of tragical rap
That tackles you back and shackles and laughs at you

Fast Money
When people reference Pun as the King of Flow, I think of this track. The second verse first packs all his talent together. Two things stand out to me: First, he hardly takes any breaths. Second, in his one-liner

Aiyyo the plot thickens I’m pickin the locks in the back entrance

he literally reverses the plot thickens to pickin the locks, and then brings it back to the original compound rhyme. In numbers, this is 12-21-12. I can’t think of any other rapper who does this.

Black Moon

blackmoonThese guys are one of the least hyped and most underrated acts in the independent rap scene. In all my years listening and searching for old school hip hop, I only found out about them this year when watching their music video at a hip hop karaoke event. I immediately looked them up but could barely find anything on them other than their wikipedia page. Looks like they never broke out of the underground.

They came onto the east coast rap scene in 1992  and their first album, Enta da Stage (1993) is definitely my favorite. Although the “L” in “Black” stands for lyrical, this album is less lyrically technical than other underground NY rappers around the same time (like Big L). That said, it definitely has the defining old school vibe and DJ scratching sounds from the late 80s.


Who got da props?
This is their first song and my favorite off the album. Great flow and will make your head nod.  It’s the braggadocio style so don’t expect meaningful lyrics.

Son get Wrec
Another one of my favorites. Quite an advanced and fast lyrical delivery.

WAR ZONE (1999)
After releasing Enta da Stage, Black Moon went on a hiatus and then came back 6 years later with this album. It’s features a different musical style without the classic old school delivery and instrumentals. Lyrics and rhymes are more advanced and the material is more mature as well.

This is What it Sounds like (Whirlwind)
My favorite track of the album. The beat track is so dope I have to post the instrumental below. Delivery is calm and smooth, but lyrical complexity is still slightly lacking. That said, one of my favorite lines (in general, not just from this album) is “Not an alcoholic but I sip liquid lyrics”.

Whirlwind (Instrumental)

Showdown (ft. Q-Tip)

De La Soul

de la soulThese days one could hardly fathom that there existed a hip-hop group in the 80’s that strived to promote peace, harmony, and provide a critical commentary on the decline of hip hop through their lyricism. That group is De La Soul. As the name suggests, this trio aimed to inject a soulful and peaceful message into the increasingly violent hip hop scene. The majority of their tracks include some analysis on the evolution of hip hop away from its roots and themselves try and bring it back. After the release of their debut album “3 feet high and Rising” they became known as hippies, and although they did not like the label, became center of a movement for peace and non-violence in hip-hop. As you may have guessed, their beats mostly build on jazz samples but also bring in lots of funk.

In my opinion their greatest album is the debut, 3 Feet High and Rising. It is a classic in every sense. When it was released in 1989 it was edgy, musically near-perfect, and incredibly fun. At this time there was an invisible force pushing top artists to conform to once idea of rap, and De La Soul broke the rules and released one of the most innovative albums to date. The album contains funky samples, bizarre vocals, odd rhyming schemes, and a scattered structure. The lyrics vary from simplistic to incredibly complex and technical. In The Magic Number they hop around from using simple ABAB rhymes to complex alliteration.

Some of De La’s subsequent albums, such as Stakes is High (1996) , have focused more on the decline of rap music and provide a normative analysis of where it is going versus where it should be. Buhloone Mindstate (1993) is a self-referential album and they collaborate with Gang Starr’s Guru for the first time.


The Magic Number

Insane opening verse:

Difficult preaching is Posdnous’ pleasure
Pleasure and preaching starts in the heart
Something that stimulates the music in the measure
Measure and the music brings in three parts
Casually see but don’t do like the Soul
‘Cause seeing and doing are actions for monkeys”

First collaboration with A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, and The Jungle Brothers

Full Album


Stakes is High

Deals with topics including the state of hip-hop, commercialization of hip-hop, and criticism of gangsta rap. Beats produced by J-Dilla


Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa

A dark humoured story about a girl who was abused by her father and later kills him at the mall where he works as Santa.


In the Woods

Digable Planets

digableDigable Planets is one of the most unique and eccentric hip hop groups I’ve heard. Most would call them an old school “alternative” hip hop group, but I find that term pretty vague to describe their diverse styles. If I could give them a genre, it would be experimental jazz-hip-hop spoken-word fusion. Almost every track they drop features a smooth jazz backdrop with drum chops that’ll make your head bob non-stop. This fits perfectly with the vocalists laid back, slow, and annunciated flow. One characteristic that separates Digable Planets from most old school groups is the presence of a female in the crew. Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieria adds some sick female vocals which tops off each track with some added charm.

My favorite thing about Digable Planets is their focus on simplicity. Very rarely do they drop a complicated, lyrically complex rhyme or verse that lacks in meaning. Instead, their focus is always on keeping it slow and simple, highlighting the mellow flow.

In my huladybugmble opinion, Digable Planets epitomizes the mellow charm of jazz more than old school hip hop. Their debut album Reachin’ (see below) in 1993 featured samples from Jazz kings like Art Blakey and Curtis Mayfield. On tour, they featured live jazz musicians which was celebrated by hip hop lovers, but criticized by jazz enthusiasts for simply covering old jazz tracks. In their following 1994 album Blowout comb — which features beautiful original jazz solos accompanied by experimental and spoken word vocals — this was solved. In 1995 the group broke up, citing “creative differences”. It’s unfortunate, but thats it — only 2 years active on the scene, which may be why they are little known today.

Reachin’ (1993)

1. Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)

This is their number one hit single. Such dope flow and delivery. My favorite the transition to Ladybug’s verse.

2. Where I’m From

Full Album

Blowout Comb (1994)

This is my favorite album. It’s less about catchy hooks and focuses more on experimenting with vocals, spoken-word/slam-style delivery, and is overall a little be darker than Reachin’. If you read my post on Guru of Gangstarr, you might be wondering if he has any connection with Digable Planets because of their similar styles. Yep, he does, and he’s featured in one track on this album. Here are my favorites.


Black Ego

Borough Check ft. Guru of Gang Starr


rakimI should have written about Rakim earlier. Given that the theme of this blog is lyricism and technical rap, well, Rakim is the Grandmaster of that. Prior to his debut in the underground hip-hop scene in 1986, rappers were dropping basic bars and rhyming the last word of each sentence. Masta Ace himself said in an interview for the How To Rap book that it was Rakim who showed the rap community that you could put more than one word in a line that rhymed together. Any other rapper would agree. This culminated in the MC technique called internal rhyming, of which Rakim is the Grandfather (see the 18th Letter below). Since he developed this technique, all rappers followed suit. You started seeing everyone from the likes of Big Daddy Kane to Big L dropping 5+ rhyming words in each bar and this changed the hip-hop game for good.

A couple more noteworthy points about this legend before I get into the tracks. First, unlike most upcoming rappers in the 80s who rose to fame through underground rap battles/freestyles, Rakim was among the first to showcase the possibilities of sitting down and writing intricately crafted lyrics, clever word choices, metaphors, etc. You clearly see how he was developing an entirely new style when you compare a Rakim track to, for example, an Eazy-E track from the same year. Second, Rakim was one of the first to use his new style and back it with an even different type of content form. He focuses on imagery, analogies, and metaphors to draw abstract content rather than generic gangster rap forms. He converted to Islam at age 16, and his track’s content span everything from religion and God to the universe and it’s meaning.

The 18th Letter

This track is Rakim’s hallmark exhibition of his lyrically advanced style. When I say he coined the practice of internal rhyming, I don’t mean just a few words per bar. Literally every word in the bar rhymes not only with the next word, but also the corresponding word in the next bar. And doesn’t just carry the rhyme over to the next sentence, he does this for up to 10 sentences at a time before changing the rhyming word. Next level shit!

Example. Pay attention to the number of internal rhymes and how long he keeps the end-word.

“Just when things seemed the same, and the whole scene is lame
I come and reign with the unexplained for the brains ’til things change
They strain to sling slang, I’m trained to bring game
History that I arranged been regained by King James
Go to practice, with tactics, when the track hits, theatrics
Women that look like actress the status of Cleopatra’s
Stacks of mathematics to feed yo asiatics
As I find out, what the facts is, its geographic”

Examples of Early Abstract Content Form

Very rarely did artists drop tracks like this in the mid-90s when this came out. The specific content form is not easy to pull off, as it describes non-concrete things and cryptic lyrics. In this case Rakim is describing about his quest to find God, but the message is abstract and carefully woven into the lyrics. Beautiful. Other artists which come to mind who are influenced by this style are Brand Nubian and MF Doom (who I will write about soon).

Eric B & Rakim

For lack of space, I did not talk about Rakim’s partnership with Eric B. Eric B is a DJ and connected with Rakim in 1985. They put out their first track, and Rakim’s debut song, in 1986 called Eric B is president. This track changed the game as Rakim’s style and wordplay was unheard of back then. In 1992 the Duo dismantled and Rakim has been solo ever since.

Naughty by Nature

nbnNaughty by Nature is an incredibly talented hip hop trio known for their combination of lyrical complexity and catchy choruses. They formed in 1986 under the name New Style and were later discovered by none other than Queen Latifah, who mentored them and helped them land significant record deals.

Personally, I found out about NBN through Ice-T’s Art of Rap documentary. In Eminem’s clip he notes that Treach from NBN influences him greatly in his flow and delivery. In particular, he notes that Treach’s lyricism in Yoke the Joker (see below) is one of the most advanced he has seen. I consider Eminem one of the greatest lyricists of all time (on par with Big L), so him talking up Treach like that means that he must be next level. Trust me, he is.


This is hands-down one of the most lyrically advanced tracks I have ever heard. In the Art of Rap, Eminem said his “world ended” when he heard this. Treach not only uses short, fast, and choppy rhymes, but he mixes in a multiplicity of other techniques that few artists can pull off. He uses alliteration in several bars as well as a technique called Random Arrangement where each bar has a new rhythm instead of the matching the rhythm of the previous bar. This makes the flow unpredictable.

Example of Treach’s alliteration:

Soul simulated, sounds from a stocky
Semi social, never seem sloppy
See silly slappin’ suckers, sorry saps and slouchers
Straps slammin’ stouch, mackin’ this mass is savvy

Example of Random Arrangement (at 1:52)

All that straight faced shit like your heart had been thru
Smile and give your face somethin’ the fuck to do
You’re ugly, smugly, squiggly, dilly, wrinkled faced bastard
Someone needs to hit and run ya to run ya ass over backwards
Let’s giddy up, yep yep, another fuck up
Grab your microphone, battle time shown up
Any freestyle I see while I prowl I dial a new style, tell me about ooh chow

Listen to this verse and you see how he changes the number of rhymes and syllables per bar in a completely unpredictable manner.


The minute the opening verse starts you know Treach is rapping because of the number of rhyming syllables per bar. At several points I lose track of what he is saying, but I can hear the rhyme endings repeated at least 3-5 times in a bar.


The flow pro poetical with skills only A vet’ll know better know where’s The wetter flow that’son point like Decimals 

In the first bar we have: flow, pro, po. In the second bar we have: vet’ll know, better know. etc. Note that in the second bar he not only manages to fits two rhymes in a short bar, but he also uses rhyming couplets! Sheer skill.

 LIVE OR DIE (1999)

Most NBN tracks feature the classic old school style with a hard drum chop. However, they distinguish themselves by changing it up once in a while. Here is an example of one of my favorite tracks with a more dark and sinister style.

Gang Starr

tumblr_mglatdUuMp1repi21o1_1280Gang Starr is an old school duo consisting of two of the most legendary artists on the scene — Guru, the lyricist, and DJ premier, the king of beats. The group was founded in 85′ by Guru but at that time he was rapping with other producers. In 1989 DJ Premier (known as Waxmaster C at the time) sent Guru a beat tape which he liked and teamed up with him soon after. The first track they released together was “Words I manifest” (see below).

Guru is known to have one of the most distinctive voices in hip hop. It is smooth and encapsulating. Additionally, he has the gift of story telling, backed by clarity of thought and articulation. Being able to structure content in the form of a story, and intertwining wordplay and complex rhymes, is what distinguishes Guru from other well-rounded artists. While you go into a trance listening to his voice, the story unfolds right in front of you.

Guru had a heart attack in February 2010 and went into a coma. He died a couple months later. His legacy has been carried on by a group of rappers who worked closely with him and DJ Premier. They call themselves the Gang Starr Foundation.


Guru and Premier had a vision of rap that included organic, unique beats with smooth and simple rhymes. Premier spent years trying to get this sound right. As artists must do to get a foothold in the scene, they identified themselves with a very unique sound — a fusion of jazz and hip hop. But not traditional hip hop. It was a slow, verbose style more to the likes of spoken word. Jazz Thing was their first song of this type.

Afterwards their jazz-rap style faded to the background for a few years while the duo focused on other styles of hip hop (below). In 1993 Guru alone brought jazz-rap back to the forefront with a whole album called “Guru’s Jazzmatazz: An Experimental Fusion of Hip Hop and Rap”. I will dedicate a full post to this album and it’s two other volumes.


This is the first track Gang Starr recorded together. As most new artists do, Guru starts off by establishing himself. Unlike most, he does not do this by talking shit and acting hard. Instead, he elicits knowledge of himself and gives a strong description of his inner qualities. Just a taste of his articulate form to come.

“I got tenacity, because I have to be
The brother who must live and give with much insight
Foresight to ignite, excite and delight.”


Guru’s voice is so smooth, relaxed, and monotonous (in a good way) that it actually highlights the voice of his collaborators. In this popular party jam collaboration Nice and Smooth kick it off with some goofy rhymes. The second Guru comes on at 1:27 the whole tone drops down a notch.


Here is an example of Guru’s story telling abilities. What makes a good story teller is the simplicity of his rhymes. A good emcee has balance. Use too many complex rhymes and a big slew of advanced techniques while telling as story and the listener gets overwhelmed. Use too many simple rhymes in an abstract rap and the listener gets bored. Guru strikes the perfect balance.