Our recurring column ‘Lest We Forget’ is devoted to revisiting albums that have been unfairly overlooked or marginalized within the broader critical and commercial context of our favorite artists’ discographies. We hope that our recollections shine a newfound light on these underappreciated gems from the past, and as always, we encourage you, our readers, to weigh in with your own perspectives and memories in the comments below.
In creating an album, there’s something to be said for the notion of quality over quantity. As the GZA once said, “Make it brief son, half-short and twice strong.” Which is of course easier said than done, especially since the Genius of Wu-Tang Clan expresses those thoughts on a double album, 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever. The late ’90s and early ’00s saw the release of mega-packed albums chock full of material by many rappers and crews, often using nearly every second of the CD’s 80-minute capacity. Some of these overstayed their welcome. Cru’s Da Dirty 30, released in 1997, successfully navigates its 77 minute running time, and yes, 30 tracks.
Cru, aka The Rhythm Blunt Cru, were a trio of South Bronx emcees who were fixtures in the mid to late ’90s New York City rap scene. Comprised of Jeremy “Yogi” Graham, Chad “Chadio” Santiago, and Anthony “The Mighty Ha” Holmes, they were signed to Def Jam Records in the midst of the label’s forgotten period. Fresh off celebrating its tenth anniversary, Def Jam tried a lot during the mid ’90s. Some of it was cringe-inducing (see: The Flatlinerz), but there are a few gems that slipped through the cracks, like Da Dirty 30.
Da Dirty 30 was Cru’s first and only release, and it’s not an album that’s easy to categorize. It’s not as slickly produced as the Bad Boy Records creations that were dominating the charts at the time, and it wasn’t as dusty and grimy as the hip-hop being spawned from the city’s healthy underground scene. Regardless, it’s still a quintessentially New York album, and an extremely dope one at that. Despite featuring 21 songs (and 9 skits), Da Dirty 30 doesn’t feel overlong, and justifies its length through its creativity and humor.
As emcees, all three members had presence and skill. Chadio and Yogi had a straight-forward meat and potatoes approach to rapping that proved effective, while The Mighty Ha and his Ol' Dirty Bastard-esque presence, stood out as well. Yogi handled all of the album’s production, and did a great job of creating music that could get the heads nodding, but didn’t pander to hip-hop’s growing popularity in the mainstream. It’s perfect nighttime music, best appreciated through car speakers.
Da Dirty 30 is an understated, ambitious album. Cru cover a whole host of topics and use many production styles over 77 minutes, but they never sound like they’re trying to please every type of listener. There are straight lyrical and stylistic exhibitions like “That Shit” and “Bubblin,’” alongside crowd-pleasing call-and-response songs like “Up North.” On his solo track, Chadio spins a down and dirty street-crime tale on the appropriately named and appropriately gritty “Goines Tale,” which would sound at home on an album by Kool G Rap or AZ. “Pronto” is a West Coast/g-funk influenced track, while “Pay Attention,” featuring the vocal talents of Anthony Hamilton, is the closest the album gets to a radio and club friendly song.
Cru make good use of guests throughout Da Dirty 30. Their first single, “Just Another Case,” features one of the first return appearances of Slick Rick, who had just been released from prison. All four emcees ride a smooth, slightly sped-up loop of Rhythm’s “The World is a Place,” while Yogi works in the best and most random reference to Phil Collins to ever appear on a hip-hop record. Cru teams up with a young and hungry LOX crew, pre-Money, Power & Respect, to conduct a straight lyric-fest on “Live at the Tunnel,” an updated version of the late Lovebug Starski’s “Live At the Fever.” Black Rob, another Bad Boy roster member, appears on two tracks, both the sinister “Nuthin’ But” and the mellower “Wrecognize.” On “Ebonic Plague” they even mix it up with Ras Kass, one of the best pure lyricists in hip-hop during the mid to late ’90s.
Da Dirty 30 ends strongly with the potent one-two punch of “Loungin’ With My Crew” and “Armageddon.” “Loungin’” is a smooth and mellow after-the-party anthem, perfect rider music for the return drive home from a show or club. In contrast, “Armageddon” serves as Cru’s commentary on the many beefs gripping hip-hop during the late ’90s, East Coast/West Coast or otherwise. Over a bongo-laced drum track complete with chimes and whistles, Yogi and Chadio describe a club descending into an orgy of violence, as your favorite emcees go from partying together to literally murdering each other, until no one is left standing.
Cru never released another album after Da Dirty 30. It was not much of a commercial success, and wasn’t met with huge critical acclaim at the time, mostly championed by publications like ego trip. Yogi went on to become a member of Puff Daddy’s Hitmen production crew, and consistently worked throughout the late ’90s through the ’00s. Chadio and The Mighty Ha have been largely AWOL. Da Dirty 30 earned a good deal of acclaim in the years that followed its release, and currently exists as a cult classic. Hard to categorize, it’s a unique album that didn’t quite fit what was considered “hot” at the time, its virtue existing through the quality of its construction.