Happy 20th Anniversary to Black Moon’s second studio War Zone, originally released February 23, 1999.
Full disclosure from the outset: Black Moon’s War Zone is one of my favorite albums of all time, and I’ve been the recipient of many an ice grill over the years whenever I’ve dared to suggest that it’s a better album than the group’s first project, the classic Enta Da Stage (1993). But that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.
The album also holds special memories for me. As much as I love War Zone, I’m ashamed to admit that I never actually purchased it. My copy came for free, or more accurately I liberated it from a box of CDs and records that were being thrown out.
A year or so after War Zone came out, I was on a two-week internship at the head office of the record label EMI/Virgin in London. One of the label subsidiary offices was having a clear out that left boxes of free stuff on offer. I went digging and walked away with everything from limited edition Massive Attack gatefold vinyl to promo copies of music by Gang Starr, Source Money and more, including my copy of War Zone. Years later, I found out that my promo copy has the tracklist typed incorrectly on the artwork meaning several songs aren't named what I always thought they were.
Black Moon (comprised of emcees Buckshot and 5ft, and producer DJ Evil Dee) released War Zone six years after the acclaimed Enta Da Stage. In the time between those two albums, the landscape of rap music changed beyond all recognition with gritty, dusty boom bap having been replaced by something shinier and more sanitized. It’s obvious from the moment the sinister intro fades out and “The Onslaught” begins, however, that Black Moon had remained true to their original sound and not switched gears towards something more commercial.
Buckshot is as impressive as always, comfortably handling several solo tracks including the excellent “Freestyle” and the throwback “Two Turntables & a Mic.” The real surprise on War Zone is the emergence of 5ft as a credible emcee. He has minimal mic time on Enta Da Stage and when he does appear, he’s often outshined by Buckshot. War Zone is his moment and he takes it, dropping short but impressive verses like on the title track “War Zone” where he even states how he is “finally here to make my mark.”
War Zone also includes some well-placed guest spots, first from other members of the Boot Camp Clik, including Rock (one half of Heltah Skeltah, the other being the late Sean Price) who supplies a menacing hook to “War Zone,” and Smif-N-Wessun on “Frame” (credited as Cocoa Brovaz, as this was during the legal dispute over their more familiar crew name). Outside of the camp, Busta Rhymes drops by to nearly steal the show on “The Onslaught.” Q-Tip appears later on “Showdown,” one of a flurry of eclectic guest spots he made after A Tribe Called Quest’s last (at the time) album (The Love Movement) was released the previous year.
The members of Black Moon who makes the biggest impact on War Zone is the one who doesn't rap at all. DJ Evil Dee’s production team Da Beatminerz produced the entirety of War Zone and it features some of their best work. Having crafted several classic albums for their Boot Camp Click affiliates—Enta Da Stage, Smif-N-Wessun’s Dah Shinin’ (1995), Heltah Skeltah’s Nocturnal (1996) and more—Da Beatminerz maintained the hardcore feel of those albums on War Zone, but also added a breezier, vast and upbeat feel. Take for instance the space age pulses and tones on “War Zone,” sampled from Don Sebesky’s “The Distant Galaxy,” or the sparse notes taken from Curtis Mayfield’s “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” lifted for “Throw Your Hands in the Air.”
Enta Da Stage is an undeniable hip-hop classic both for the quality of the music and the role it had in reaffirming New York hip-hop at a time when the west coast was dominating. But War Zone is also a stellar album. You don’t have to agree with me that it’s better, but it’s hard to deny that it comes close.