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What the Smithsonian missed in its hip-hop anthology

The excellent ‘Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap’ covers official releases, but leaves out the freestyles and live performances that also made history

Earlier this month, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Smithsonian Folkways launched their expansive Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap, a nine-CD, 129-track collection that chronicles hip-hop from its beginnings to 2013. The collection, which ranges from “Rapper’s Delight” to “C.R.E.A.M.” to “Started From The Bottom,” is an excellent primer for anyone who needs to know what made rap what it is today. It’s hard to argue against any of the songs included.

However, there is one significant constraint on the choices: It only includes official song releases and tracks that are available on streaming services. This isn’t a slight on the selection process, as it’s often nearly impossible to get the necessary permissions required to rerelease many mixtape tracks, live performances and radio freestyles. But much of rap’s narratives take place in the margins, away from labels and record stores, and these pieces of music could add to a collection like the Smithsonian’s.

So The Undefeated’s Justin Tinsley and David Dennis Jr. picked some performances that they wish could have been included and would help tell rap’s full story.

Dennis’ pick: Kool Moe Dee vs. Busy Bee rap battle

So let’s start with the wayback machine. In 1981, at the legendary Harlem World venue. Busy Bee was performing the traditional role of MC – master of ceremonies – hyping up the crowd and calling out names of local MCs he was better than. Unfortunately for him, he called out Kool Moe Dee, who was in the crowd. The Treacherous Three member hopped onstage and freestyled a barrage of disses that both introduced a new layer of lyricism to rap and birthed rap battles. You don’t have Nas vs. Jay-Z, Drake vs. Meek Mill or any other battle without this moment.

Tinsley’s thoughts: Talk about coming out the gates swinging. Battling has always been an element of rap, and to an extent, I hope it always is. In ’81, this had to have felt like a line-in-the-sand moment for a genre that was still in its infancy.

Tinsley’s pick: Eazy-E’s original demo tapes

Remember that scene in Straight Outta Compton when Eazy-E first raps and everyone laughs at him because he can’t catch the beat? I want those tracks. It sounds weird to ask for someone’s rough drafts as a writer, but Eazy-E is so influential and responsible for so many sounds, images and styles that come after him that I’d love to hear that moment from when his voice, however flawed, first touched wax.

Dennis’ thoughts: Ooooh, that’s a really dope choice. Especially considering the way demo tapes have had such an impact on the most famous careers. We really could do one of these lists on just demo tapes that changed the game.

Dennis’ pick:June 27” – DJ Screw and the entire city of Houston

How often does the name of a song become its own holiday? This 38-minute freestyle comes thanks to Houston artist DJ Screw putting together a beat and getting any artist he could find in the city to rap on it. Then he slowed the audio down to a crawl, creating this effect that makes you feel like you’ve been sipping “lean.” The track put Houston on the map and has the city considering it a full-fledged holiday.

Tinsley’s thoughts: BRUH! This is what I’m talking about. I’ll never forget when this dude named Will moved to my neighborhood when I was in high school. This was like ’99, 2000. He went to Virginia State, which was right up the street, and he was from Houston. He used to hoop in the neighborhood with us. One day he pulled up in his car blasting his music. I was like, “What the f— is wrong with your CD? Why’s that so slow?” He proceeded to put me onto chopped and screwed music. My life hasn’t been the same since.

Tinsley’s pick: Biggie and Tupac freestyle at the Budweiser Superfest

I truly hate that when we hear “Tupac and Biggie,” it’s always associated with their beef and how their lives ended. Sure, that’s part of the story. But that’s only part of the story. People forget, or may not even know, just how deep their friendship was. ‘Pac loved Biggie’s style and Biggie loved ‘Pac’s fearlessness. This adoration was on display in 1993 at Madison Square Garden when they freestyled onstage with Big Daddy Kane and Shyheim. Their styles were worlds apart, but they sounded natural together. Biggie brought that effortless wordplay and ‘Pac had in-your-face energy that feels like he’s about to jump through the speakers. What an iconic moment for the genre’s two most cautionary tales.

Dennis’ thoughts: I knew you were gonna include this and I almost did. We’re gonna have to consult the judges because it does technically show up on Funkmaster Flex and Big Kap’s The Tunnel album from 1999. But since I almost had it on my list and you’ve got it on yours, let’s allow it. It’s our list!

Dennis’ pick: “The B—- In Yoo” – Common

In the early ’90s, rap was in the midst of an identity crisis. Gangsta rap was taking over just as rappers such as Common wanted to shift the culture to a more progressive, less violent form of expression. This caused an on-wax fracas with Ice Cube that we all figured Common would lose. But he dropped this scathing track that showed the conscious guys can be just as biting as the most rugged in the culture.

Tinsley’s thoughts: This was like seeing the quiet kid in school get picked on for days. Then out of nowhere, he fights back and everyone’s jaws hit the floor. But he also gains everyone’s respect.

Tinsley’s pick: DMX vs. Jay-Z battle

There’s a fascinating story of DMX and Jay-Z battling at a pool hall before both became the legends they’d evolve into. They go at it for what feels like forever. If I could’ve been a fly on the wall for anything, it’d be that. There’s still no clear-cut winner. X says he won. Jay says he won. But honestly, who cares?

Dennis’ thoughts: Mannnn, this was SO close to being on my list, too. I was also going to throw in the legendary freestyle session with DMX, Canibus, Big Pun, Noreaga and a bunch of others from that 1998 class. These moments were talked about for years.

Dennis’ pick: “Enjoy Yourself” – Foxy Brown and Lil Kim

This is one of rap’s biggest what-ifs. In the ’90s, Foxy Brown and Lil Kim were both jockeying for the title of Queen of Rap. However, the two recorded at least part of an album together called Thelma and Louise that was never released. The lead single, “Enjoy Yourself,” recently made an abridged appearance on Fat Joe’s Instagram Live, giving us a taste of what could have been.

Tinsley’s thoughts: It’s sad, because a Foxy Brown and Lil Kim album would’ve done NUMBERS, and who knows what that partnership could’ve produced moving forward. I was going to mention the OG version of Kim’s “Big Momma Thang” that didn’t make her debut Hard Core album. In this version that was released on YouTube years later, she went all the way in on Tupac with lyrics such as, “Oh yeah, who shot ya?/ Who knows but they gotcha/ Fed up, wet up/ Maybe next time ya punk ass’ll keep yo’ heaaddd up!

Tinsley’s pick: The Beanie Sigel vs. Jadakiss diss records

This needs to be on the Mount Rushmore of great rap battles. Beanie and Jadakiss both traded haymakers. And I won’t lie to you, I was scared by where it might go. Thankfully, nothing happened in terms of violence, but it felt like at any moment it could’ve gone there.

Dennis’ thoughts: This is by far the most fulfilling and well-crafted battle. We had the whole city of Philly vs. all of Yonkers. They were tossing grenades at one another with every track. My hope is that they revive some of these songs for their tour together now that they’ve made up.

Dennis’ pick: Grammy Family freestyle – Jay-Z

It might seem impossible now, but 15 years ago, the world was wondering if Jay-Z had fallen off. He’d just had a two-year retirement end with the Kingdom Come album, one of his worst-received albums ever. Jay did as Jay does, taking the criticism to heart and showing up on Hot 97 to get it all off his chest. The freestyle is a masterpiece. We learned quickly to stop questioning Hov. Very big LeBron James #WashedKing energy.

Tinsley’s thoughts: This record here, fam? He should’ve gotten a Grammy off of that freestyle alone. Not only did he not take a single bar off, he didn’t take a single syllable off. And, by the way, let’s leave the king out of this!

Tinsley’s pick: Diplomats Rap City freestyle

Look, I know they didn’t have the greatest showing in their Verzuz against The Lox. No, let me keep it a buck: They got demolished. But I’m still a proud card-carrying member of “The ‘Set.” When Cam’ron, Jim Jones and Juelz Santana pulled up on Big Tigger’s BET show, Rap City, and launched into a freestyle over Scarface’s “On My Block,” it was truly one of those planets-in-alignment moments. Cam’ron’s verse in particular while counting the cash still brings tears of joy to my eyes. I still know it word for word, which makes me even madder Cam’ron didn’t pull this song out when Jadakiss was single-handedly dropping a triple-double on them in The Garden.

Dennis’ thoughts: The coaching decision behind not having them perform this at the Verzuz would make Wade Phillips jealous.

Tinsley’s pick: “Ask Dem Hoes” and “Never Get It” Lil Wayne

Those Wayne tour bus performances with Curren$y and Mack Maine should’ve won an Emmy or an Oscar or both. Real ones know exactly what I’m talking about. “Ask Dem Hoes” is still one of Weezy’s most fun songs to rap along to. And to this day, I still don’t get how “Never Get It” didn’t make Tha Carter III. It’s Wayne at a level of focus I have rarely seen from him since.

Dennis’ thoughts: I knew we were going to have Wayne overload as I had two of my own! I was torn between “Swag Surf” from No Ceilings and “Upgrade U Freestyle” from Drought 3. Wayne’s run of unofficial releases and mixtapes are as legendary as his albums and the body of work from Dedication 2 to No Ceilings is an all-timer.

Dennis’ pick: “Car Service” – Curren$y and Wiz Khalifa

So this is something near and dear to our hearts. The “blog era” encompassed the post-Napster period when the best music on the internet was found on rap blogs. The era birthed some of the biggest stars we know today. This, in my opinion, is the defining blog era track, featuring two stars who ditched labels and rediscovered themselves through the blogs. Plus, the song just sounds as good as it did a decade ago.

Tinsley’s thoughts: The blog era produced so many classics and this is one of its finest. Curren$y and Khalifa revolutionized the sound of rap in the late 2000s and early 2010s. We didn’t have life anywhere near figured out back then, but at least the music was fire. I’m gonna run this today just to restore the feeling (of the music, not my empty bank account).

Tinsley’s pick: “My Interpretation”Big K.R.I.T.

I’m so happy that K.R.I.T.’s music is on streaming services now. But I’m still sad this one isn’t. This song came around during that rough period post-college and I couldn’t find a job to save my life. K.R.I.T. was speaking to a ton of insecurities I had at the time.

Dennis’ thoughts: Man, I was bummed my list didn’t have K.R.I.T., so you having my back here is clutch. He’s another defining artist of the past decade and his music needs to be here.

Dennis’ pick:Look Out For Detox” – Kendrick Lamar

This loosie is one of the tracks that made Kendrick Lamar one of the most respected lyricists in rap. The year was 2010 and Lamar had just been crowned “next up” out of the West, hanging out with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. This track, where he hyped up a mythical and still-unreleased Dr. Dre album, is a vicious barrage of lyrics that marked Lamar’s ascent to the top of rap.

Tinsley’s thoughts: I mean, if we can’t get this one in the Smithsonian, can we at least get it back on streaming? Somewhere? Anywhere? I had a Lamar track, too: “The Heart Part 4.” He bodied every installment of “The Heart” series, but part four was Cornrow Kenny losing his complete mind with NBA references, lyrical gymnastics and a sense of aggression that even he rarely shows.

Tinsley’s pick:Perfect Timing”Nipsey Hussle

This and “Racks In The Middle” were singles Hussle was testing out for his next project. Unfortunately, we’ll never get to know how that would’ve materialized. And it sucks … because Nipsey Hussle was improving as an MC, as crazy as that sounds.

Dennis’ thoughts: This is so perfect, no pun intended. Hussle and the marathon continuing is the way to end this list because that’s the essence of what’s next. Rap is continuing its legacy for the next 50 years.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.