Whole Game Boxed Up
The prestige packaging of hip-hop nostalgia
In a pivotal scene from the 1983 cult classic hip-hop movie Wild Style, a soldier angrily confronts his graffiti-loving brother: “Stop fucking around and be a man. There ain’t nothing out here for you.” Zoro, the chided graf writer, fires back: “Yes there is. This.” A heartbeat later, Wild Style’s “Subway Theme” snaps in.
Besides the graffiti documentary Style Wars, no other early rap film reigns supreme like Wild Style. Dozens of hip-hop artists have paid homage by sampling dialogue from the film, including Nas, who replayed that entire exchange between Zoro and his brother on the opening of his classic debut album Illmatic. Wild Style wasn’t exactly a triumph in filmmaking. The plot, writing, and acting were decidedly amateur. But whatever it lacked in polish, the film felt more genuine than later “hip-hopsploitation” films such as Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Written, directed and produced by Charlie Ahearn with a big assist by Fab 5 Freddy, Wild Style made a point to include key New York hip-hop figures. That included rappers Busy Bee and Cold Crush Brothers, the Rock Steady b-boy crew, graffiti artist Lady Pink, DJs Grand Wizard Theodore and Grandmaster Flash. Whether or not you believe that hip-hop culture is comprised of “four elements”—dancing, DJing, MCing and graf writing—Wild Style played a pivotal role in minting that mythos.
“The Subway Theme” that accented Zoro’s defiance was one of 13 instrumental tracks — called “breakbeats” — expressly created for the movie. Fab 5 Freddy oversaw their production and as this was the era before drum machines and samplers, he hired live musicians to fire up the funk: David Harpur on bass, Lenny Ferrari on drums and Blondie’s Chris Stein on guitar. Their breakbeat baker’s dozen was pressed to vinyl and shared with the various DJs and rappers participating in the film.
Those instrumentals became the sound bed for all the music heard on the movie’s soundtrack, but the breakbeat LP itself was never commercially released. Reportedly only one hundred copies were ever printed, let alone circulated, and extant copies rarely reach the open market via eBay or elsewhere. Even Brian Coleman, who wrote the 28-page liner notes to the new Wild Style Breakbeats box set admits, “I have never even seen a photo of the original.” Today, someone would undoubtedly just leak the entire album onto YouTube but back then, the album was so hard to come by, it took another seven years for bootleg copies to appear.
The Wild Style Breakbeats box set remedies that situation with a vengeance. New York DJ/producer Kenny Dope was given access to the original studio masters and used them to craft extended edits of the 13 original breakbeats. With help from Boston’s reissue specialists Get On Down, they’ve now all been pressed onto seven 7-inch discs, packaged together with extensive liner notes and archival photography. For those who ever wanted to recreate the “Busy Bee at the Amphitheater” routine from the movie—“If you smoke cheeba, throw your hands in the air!”—here’s your chance (though technically, you’d need to cop two of those sets to cut the beat up proper).
The richness of the Wild Style Breakbeats package raises the question: Who exactly would want this? Unless you own a vintage jukebox, it’s a hassle to sit by a turntable, flipping over 7-inches every couple of minutes. Also it’s not like party-goers in 2014 are bugging DJs to drop “Cuckoo Clocking” in the mix. Clearly, whatever the set promises, practicality isn’t included, especially with a $70 price tag. Instead, Wild Style Breakbeats is the latest example of hip-hop’s new prestige releases, where history, rarity and sentimentality are being literally and figuratively packaged together.
A prestige release has at least two defining features. First, it has to offer the customer something unique: unreleased songs, creative packaging, colored vinyl, a bonus booklet, anything to distinguish it from a conventional, commercial product. Second, what ultimately separates a prestige release from other compilations or box sets is that they convey an air of exclusivity, whether real or imagined. That’s why so many remind you that they’re “limited edition.” Bragging rights don’t come with records stocked in Walmart.
A few rap labels recognized the potency of that one-two punch early on. In 1987, 4th and Broadway released a special version of Eric B. and Rakim’s seminal Paid In Full that came paired with a second “Mixpak Elpee” filled with remixes from the album. The cover strip makes its intentions plain, emblazoned with the claim: “Strictly Limited and Highly Collectible.” A year later, in the wake of the death of Boogie Down Productions’ legendary producer and member Scott “La Rock” Sterling, B-Boy Records put out the tribute LP Man & His Music. It was another two disc set, filled with alternate versions and previously unreleased music connected to BDP’s debut album, Criminal Minded. Like Paid In Full, Man & His Music was quick to push its exclusivity, splaying on its cover, “Limited Edition Collectors Classic.” The P may have been free but apparently, this double-LP wasn’t.
As hip-hop aged into its adolescence in the mid-1990s, labels had enough material to begin issuing box sets with more historical heft. Releases like Def Jam’s 4-CD 10th Anniversary box (1995) or Rhino Records’ 5-CD The Sugar Hill Story (1997) promised a bounty of songs and anecdote-packed booklets. They appealed to the discriminating hip-hop connoisseur with their depth but they didn’t sell themselves on perceived rarity; the Def Jam box is still in print, available right now on Amazon. That’s not to say artists and labels didn’t know how to use manufactured scarcity to whip up hype. In 1994, De La Soul and Tommy Boy Records pressed up 500 copies of the Clear Lake Auditorium EP on (what else?) clear vinyl and designated them as “promo-only/not to be sold.” Desperate fans still found a way to track them down (and not surprisingly, the EP was eventually bootlegged several times over) and all of this helped sustain buzz around De La’s Buhloone Mindstate LP. “Promo,” after all, is short for “promotional.”
Until recently, collectibility in hip-hop tended to be established after-the-fact rather than pre-fabricated. There’s long been a global hip-hop collector’s market, especially for genuinely obscure releases such as Rammellzee and K-Rob’s original “Beat Bop” 12-inch with the Basquiat-designed cover (500 copies originally pressed, now worth upwards $1000 on the open market). By the early 2000s, people were raiding record store bins and defunct distributor warehouses for out-of-print “random rap” releases, i.e. small-run, regional records. They were, essentially, failures in their time, but now became hot commodities precisely because they were originally ignored. What were once third-rate, Wu-Tang-knock-offs, littering $1 cut-out bins, could now sell for 100 times that amount.
The random rap craze seemed to directly influence the emergence of the next wave of hip-hop prestige releases that began in the mid-2000s: limited edition reissues of out-of-print or unreleased songs, often by little-known, cult rap favorites such as the Freestyle Professors, Phill Most Chill, and Da Dysfunkshunal Familee. These reissues are deliberately pressed in low numbers (a few hundred units) and priced much higher than a normal 12-inch ($50–100 isn’t unusual). Premium-pricing is, of course, a time-honored stratagem across all manner of consumer goods, from luxury cars to chopsticks—we pay more, we think we’re getting more. That manufactured scarcity not only enhances the exclusivity factor but it shrewdly nudges reluctant consumers to “buy now/regret later,” lest they miss their window of opportunity.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a good marketing gimmick. Especially at a time where streaming services and file-sharing helps to make music feel underpriced if not also undervalued, trying to create “worth” for a record doesn’t seem like the worst idea. The problem is that a gimmick used once can seem genius; once it gets copied a dozen times over, it just seems like, well, a gimmick. Ken Shipley, of the reissue label Numero Group, told the UK’s Wire magazine in 2013 that “the limited edition, once a reasonable countermeasure to over-serving demand, has become the groan-inducing lingua franca of the vinylsphere.” In other words, we’re now seemingly overrun with a limitless supply of the “limited run.”
All of this renews pressure on artists/labels to find new ways to package old music, often times by focusing on the literal packaging. Hip-hop, in this case, have been latecomers to that game. Back in the 1990s, when CDs still ruled, back catalog specialists such as Rhino Records created ever more elaborate and eye-catching box sets. Beg, Scream & Shout: The Big Ol’ Box of ‘60s Soul came inside a 45-rpm carrying case. Its sequel Can You Dig It? The ‘70s Soul Experience was shaped like a stack of 8-track tapes. Perhaps nothing Rhino made was ever as over-the-top as One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost And Found set: it came inside a vintage-style hat box with each CD slipped inside sleeves made to look like makeup compacts.
Hip-hop’s prestige releases eventually caught up to this packaging trend. In 2008, Tommy Boy created a miniaturized plastic milk crate for their 5-CD, Greatest Beats collection. Two years later, Stones Throw Records reissued MF Doom’s 1999 album, Operation: Doomsday as a 2-CD set… inside a lunchbox. However, the most audacious packaging so far goes to Get On Down’s 2012 “Deluxe ‘Purple Tape’ Box.” The box, in this case was quite literal — a “piano lacquer” case built to house a reissue of the famous purple-tinted cassette of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. For some, it may strain credulity that people would pay $45 for a reissued cassette tape yet Get On Down sold out their 1000-unit run in less than 48 hours. Call it today’s mathematics.
Ultimately, what made The Purple Tape Box successful wasn’t the lacquer, it was our collective memory of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. In other words, the most potent thing a prestige release can package is nostalgia. It’s no coincidence that this current wave of high-profile reissues have helped mark the 20th anniversaries of major “Golden Era” milestones including Illmatic, The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, and Souls of Mischief’s ’93 Til Infinity, among others. Younger fans may be picking these up, curious about the classics, but it seems more likely that labels are banking on older aficionados, now presumably middle aged (and middle class). A prestige box doesn’t just flatter the superfans’ spending power but it’s also a powerful way to affirm their taste in older music.
In that regard, hip-hop itself has always had a love jones for the past. Rap is often described as the first “postmodern music” because of how it digs into history for snippets of sounds and styles, flipping them into something new. Even the earliest hip-hop songs, from the era of Wild Style, were first built from replayed disco grooves and then primitive drum machines before digital sampling threw open the doors to explore all manners of vintage jazz, soul, and funk records. Rappers themselves are also obsessed with reminiscing about “back in the day.” It seems absurd now but in 1986, Just-Ice released an album entitled Back to the Old School… and hip-hop records weren’t even 10 years old yet. When Nas spliced in that scene from Wild Style for Illmatic — which has also been given the premium box set treatment — he was only 19, yet had the moxie to cut a song like “Memory Lane” as if he were thrice his age, reminiscing from a park bench perch.
Even Wild Style itself seemed to yearn for New York’s proto-hip-hop days of the ‘70s, of a graffiti scene before Mayor Ed Koch declared war on it, for rap songs that ran 20 minutes with no radio-friendly hooks. From its birth, hip-hop has been the greatest repackager of the postwar Black cultural past.
In that sense, these prestige sets are like nesting dolls of nostalgia: each layer you peel away simply reveals more layers beneath.
Audio pessimists claim we’re witnessing the last gasps of physical media, presumably creating a future where fans will sneer at CD or vinyl box sets much like today’s crate diggers frowning at brittle 78s. But as long as hip-hop stays viable, it’s hard to imagine it ever abandoning its love affair with the tactile. Something like the new Wild Style Breakbeats 7” set may seem niche and impractical—and it is—but the appeal isn’t that mysterious. The original LP it’s based on wasn’t just a bunch of beats; it was also the literal means through which DJs created the entire soundtrack for Wild Style, cutting back and forth with their hands. To play one of the reissued Breakbeat 7-inches means having to lay hands on it, and through that touch, the past becomes present again. We understand now, as Zoro did over 30 years ago, that there is something out there for us.