The West gets painted in broad strokes. There are volleyball nets and cuffed khakis, hyphy hallmarks and conspicuous gang allegiances, all neatly cordoned off and placed in chronological order. But the real history of rap in California is much messier, more cross-pollinated, and more rewarding.
Collected below are 10 records, which, if you don’t already have them sitting on your shelves, you should make an effort to own on vinyl. In some cases, these are definitive works from marquee acts; other times, the list explores fascinating career detours and fills in gaps in the West coast rap landscape. Certain genres, artists, or albums don’t translate to the format — you won’t find any Mac Dre, you won’t find Doggystyle, and the greatest Project Blowed bootlegs were never pressed to vinyl.
Nine of the 10 records were released between 1988 and 1997, not because California rap fell off, but because the 21st century has been more dutifully documented. As rappers from the Golden State start to crowd rap’s elite ranks once again (YG, Kendrick, newcomers like Kamaiyah, Nef the Pharaoh, and Mozzy), it’s important to take a look back at some of the must-haves from past eras.
This all seems antithetical, doesn’t it? Los Angeles rap, at least the variety Suge and Dre trafficked in, was made for deserted freeways and packed cookouts, not for quiet times with a turntable. In the rush to bronze The Chronic, critics reduced it to a haze of blunt smoke and Parliament and venom for Eazy. As Andre would say, it’s that, too. But The Chronic came out while the city was still smoldering from the riots, and its knottiest, most deeply felt moments are viciously political. “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” is a latticework of protesters and those who hang around on the fringes, butchering the message. “Sitting in my living room, calm and collected.”
At this point, E-40 is a master the way few in music ever become. His command of the form—from the physical act of rapping to the perpetual search for new slang, new cadences—has only increased as he slides into middle age. Though 40 Water’s precise coordinates at any second can be hard to discern it was on his second album, 1995’s In a Major Way, that his style began to crystallize. There are relatively few rappers who could be accused of out-and-out biting 40; by the time you learn to closely imitate him, you’d be so good at rapping that you’d be able to develop an original style or two on your own. Nevertheless, In a Major Way should be studied, decoded for decades to come.
Click here to learn more about E-40’s ‘Tha Hall of Game,’ our January 2022 Hip-Hop Record of the Month.
If you passed through Compton in the early ’90s, you might have been able to pick up songs from DJ Quik’s debut on the hastily-made cassettes that would eventually vault him into boardrooms and retail shelves. If you lived in the Pacific time zone, chances are you at least caught “Tonite” on the radio a few times. Quik was never the national phenomenon that Dre, Cube, and Eazy became, but he has one of the most pristine catalogs in rap’s history, and has joined E-40 in the ranks of the genre’s unquestionable masters. Quik is the Name, released just before the artist’s 21st birthday, is a staggeringly complete world: see the hairpin turns on “Loked Out Hood,” the bombast of “Born and Raised in Compton,” the joking-not-joking deadpan of “I Got That Feelin.” From day one, Quik was one of hip-hop’s most precious talents.
Labcabincalifornia sounds like gritting your teeth through a hangover, hopping in the shower, forcing yourself to get dressed, and then collapsing back in bed. The album has little of Bizarre Ride’s Technicolor verve, but what it lacks in eagerness it more than makes up for in quiet desperation. Divisive at the time, Dilla and Diamond D’s pinch hitting behind the boards coaxes the group into grim, starkly personal corners. “Runnin” and “Drop” remain gateway drugs for kids all over the country who are digging into back catalogues for the first time.
You can get the VMP edition of this album here.
Quick, throw on “My Summer Vacation.” Tweak the percussion a little bit—and maybe axe the news report in the middle—and it could be a disruptive force on radio in 2017. Ice Cube’s powerhouse sophomore set is one of the greatest works ever committed to wax, distinctly of the H.W. Bush years and yet impossible to shake. Take “Alive on Arrival,” which could (read: should) be played outside the Capitol every day until every American has health coverage. And of course, there’s “No Vaseline,” which features one of the greatest diss-track daggers ever: “Yellin’ Compton but you moved to Riverside.”
As storied as California rap has become, there’s no question that early histories of the genre focus disproportionately on New York. But by the time Too Short dropped this opus in 1988 (it was re-released by Jive a year later), he was already wizened, an untouchable pimp from East Oakland. Life Is… synthesizes so many hallmarks from that decade, including the electronic and dance undertones (check “Oakland”) that were vital up and down the 5 freeway. To this day, Too Short has a magnetic, inimitable voice, and it’s instructive to jump back and hear how it sounded in mixes from past eras.
Boxcar Sessions feels like a fever dream. In one of the greatest quirks of history, Saafir was a backup dancer for Digital Underground alongside another up-and-coming rapper known as Tupac Shakur. Like Pac—with whom he briefly lived in Oakland—Saafir spent the early ’90s grappling with sociopolitical issues that would inform his work for years to come. Unlike 2Pacalypse Now, Boxcar Sessions address those issues in brief, impressionistic bursts, a four-second tangent on sagging pants. (An aside: listen to “Light Sleeper” and tell me Saafir and Method Man didn’t share a couple vocal cords.)
While Pac in ‘93 wasn’t quite the death-daring figure he’d be after his stint in prison, Strictly injected his music with a sense of forward motion that wasn’t always there on 2Pacalypse Now. “Holler If Ya Hear Me” alone was a strong argument for Pac as a budding superstar; consider than alongside “Keep Ya Head Up” and “I Get Around” and the ascent seems inevitable. But Pac’s sophomore album also has some heavier fare that requires repeated listens to untangle, and starts to dig into the complex psyche that he’d bring to the fore on Me Against the World.
Nobody raps like Suga Free. Street Gospel is pimp rap if the pimp just so happened to do his business on Saturn. Produced entirely by Quik, the LP would be perfect for long drives if Suga Free’s array of flows didn’t cause people to spontaneously black out on the 405. His turn on “Tip Toe” alone should be immortalized, alternately wounded and bulletproof—for all the bluster in pimp rap, there’s not much hand-wringing about the fact that the man in question might not be on a woman’s mind all the time.
Freddie Gibbs is from Gary, Indiana, but has called Los Angeles home for more than a decade now. In fact, “Lakers,” from his full-length collaboration with the Oxnard-born Madlib, is one of the most earnest odes to the city this millennium. Gibbs is one of the world’s most finely-tuned technical rappers, which explains how he was able to rap over beats that had been sitting, untouched, for years on hard drives that had to be combed through meticulously. Gibbs is a gifted storyteller, and songs like “Deeper” and “Harold’s” turn sexual misadventures into harrowing tales or lighthearted fast-food endorsements, respectively.
Paul Thompson is a Canadian writer and critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in GQ, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and Playboy, among other outlets.