Hip-hop celebrates its 20th anniversary as a recorded art form this year, and California radio DJs Sway and King Tech commemorate the milestone with what amounts to a block party on wax.
Their new compilation, This or That, includes contributions from the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, Gang Starr' Guru and current rap sensation Eminem, as well as samples of an impressive back catalog of rap standards.
"Our first goal was to put something classic together," said the 30-something King Tech via cell phone as he escorted his dog to a Los Angeles veterinarian. "We've seen a lot of bad hip-hop albums lately. If you make a CD, I want people to buy this two years from now and say, 'Holy sh--!' If you're gonna make something, make something that's worth it."
This or That, which was released on Interscope Records this week, has the feel of an album that Tech said it took the duo more than a year to assemble. The music spans two decades, using samples from songs by Ice Cube ("AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted"), Boogie Down Productions ("My Philosophy"), Stetsasonic ("Go Stetsa I") and LL Cool J ("I Can't Live Without My Radio"). It reintroduces Eric B. and Rakim's "I Know You Got Soul" and Main Source's "Looking at the Front Door" to the world.
The album is a showcase for what Tech said the DJs consider today's best rappers and their favorite veteran performers.
Sway and King Tech, who decline to give their born names and ages, got their start in hip-hop as breakdancers in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. For a short time in 1990, they recorded as rappers and producers for Warner Bros. Records, releasing Concrete Jungle in 1991, an album that sold only around 10,000 copies and is now out-of-print.
Following their short-lived recording career, Sway and King Tech began hosting a radio show in the San Francisco area and moved to Los Angeles earlier this decade. The show gives them the chance to encounter history, Tech said.
"None of us are dead. Almost everybody who made hip-hop is alive," he said. "We can actually call people and get them on the air."
The lineup of MCs on the compilation is long and diverse: Detroit's Eminem, KRS-One, Wu-Tang Clan producer RZA, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, Canibus, Redman, Kool Keith, Chill Rob G, Xzibit, Kool G and Gang Starr are among them. The artists appear on freestyle tracks recorded while they were guests on Sway and King Tech's show and on brand new songs produced by either Tech or DJ Revolution.
The first single, "The Anthem," is an ode to the old-school traditions of lyrical battling -- in which rappers criticize each other in their music -- and working to top the other rappers on the song. In succession, RZA, Tech N9ne, Eminem, Xzibit, Pharoahe Monch, Kool G Rap, Jay-O Felony, Chino XL and KRS-One flex their muscles to words written by Tech.
For instance, Chino XL recites this line: "You act like Will Smith/ Your rhymes style is pansy/ I'll f---ing murder your young star like JonBenet Ramsey."
In some ways, Tech said the song and the album reflects the pair's feeling that hip-hop has lost its creative edge and its sense of fun as more young rappers aim for money and glory.
"Think about 1984," he said. "It had to be hot to come out. If Tommy Boy [Records] signed you, everyone had to buy it. They knew your sound was dope. These days, everybody's got something invested in anybody that's rapping. Those days are gone. In my opinion, we'll never live it again."
Guru, the rapping member of Gang Starr, which also includes producer DJ Premier, said he also feels rap has turned a corner that may not be altogether life affirming for the music's future.
"A lot of guys are faking moves and selling records," he said. "But they're really all that they say they are. And a lot of people are not elevating the minds of the readers. I'm not saying every song has to do that. But at the end of the day, I'm looking for some kind of substance. I want to learn something."
For This Or That, Guru rhymes on "N.Y. Niggas." Gang Starr's "Above the Clouds" (RealAudio excerpt) also is included on the disc.