How Diamond D helped define an era for hip-hop 

Diamond in the Rough

Diamond in the Rough

"F--- what ya heard."

As a suburban teenager, covertly sneaking late-night, left-of-the-dial listening after my parents went to bed, I knew exactly what I didn't hear: the F-bomb. But that didn't stop me from filling in the blanks. And what I was hearing was mind-blowing — a liquid bass line over crisp, bouncy drums and a hard-panned horn loop swinging from one side of my brain to the next. The voices were familiar. "Was that the dude from A Tribe Called Quest's 'Show Business'?" I asked myself. "That's definitely the dude from Brand Nubian," I told myself, proud of the knowledge I'd gleaned from college radio, my cool older cousin's CD collection and the rare chances I got to watch Yo! MTV Raps. "F--- what ya heard." That was a sentiment I could get behind. Sorta.

"You just heard Diamond and the Psychotic Neurotics," announced the DJ.

That was my first run-in with the work of legendary rapper/producer Diamond D, but far, far from the last. The Diamond and the Psychotic Neurotics album, Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop, never made it to my small-town record store — the owner clung to the "rap is just a fad" philosophy until the store shuttered in the mid-'90s — but even the craggy old dodger behind the counter couldn't ignore his later work. From that first album, which is the jump-off for a billion-and-a-half hip-hop tropes that are still in use 20 years later, D went on to help create some of the most definitive albums of the '90s: The Fugees' Grammy-winning The Score, Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia, Tha Alkaholiks' Coast II Coast.

But D's true and lasting impact doesn't come from the hits, Top 40 or otherwise. It comes from the work he did with the legendary Diggin in the Crates crew, a loose conglomeration of New York hip-hop heavyweights working in the early '90s. Diamond D and D.I.T.C. defined the art of sampling and the craft of lyricism for an entire generation, unearthing loops and spitting rhymes that still show up on mixtapes and pop hits to this day.

Between Lord Finesse, Showbiz & AG and Big L — arguably the greatest MC of all time, and Lord knows I've spent enough time arguing about it — you have rappers whose worst rhymes are better than the best shit you'll hear in 2011. (Side note: Can we please get Kanye a ghostwriter? Pretty please? It's for the good of all mankind.) And with producers like Diamond D and Buckwild behind the board, every track is pure, unadulterated funk, timeless even 20 years later, when the only thing that gives away their age is the fact that, nowadays, some of these samples would never get licensed for anything short of budget-busting fees.

OK, the facts that the songs aren't drenched in Euro-trance-style synths and that they use polysyllabic words makes it pretty clear that it's not contemporary. (No one is ever going to confuse D.I.T.C. with, I dunno, LMFAO.) The fact that the dynamic interplay between the samples and vocals is so spacious makes it pretty evident that it was recorded before some record exec decided that every element in a song needs to be at maximum volume to be listenable. (A decision that was probably made at the same meeting in which the industry decided that suing the shit out of its customers was a good idea. A bunch of geniuses up in those boardrooms, am I right?)

There's also a lack of shameless pop samples in the D.I.T.C. catalog, making it pretty clear that they were creating beats before everybody started riding Puffy's shiny-suit-covered dilznick. All right, so maybe "timeless" isn't the right word for the work that Diamond D and D.I.T.C. did back in the day, because frankly, it does sound exactly like a specific time in history. And why not give them credit for having some of the most distinctive music in an era when innovation was at an apex?

It was more about obscure flute samples than stock portfolios and sipping fancy wine — more about creating music with actual musical value than marketing your designer vodka. D.I.T.C.'s music, whether 20 years old or of a 21st century vintage — like Diamond D's bangin' 2008 album The Huge Hefner Chronicles — evokes an era in which anything was possible in hip-hop. It was before the suits took over, before it had all the life sucked out of it by corporate sponsorship and vapid club styles. Back when the party was more important than sitting in the VIP section, and back when hip-hop was the province of late-night, left-of-the dial listening.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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