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.
There was a time when there were clear lanes for rappers and their expected subject matter. For instance, Chuck D of Public Enemy and Brother J of the X-Clan were considered “conscious” and gave us knowledge-of-self lyrics while Too $hort and Ice-T enlightened listeners of the pimp and gang sub-cultures.
Right around the time Ice Cube broke off from N.W.A and began picking up literature from the Nation of Islam’s Mohammed Mosque #27 in Los Angeles, one half of a young duo dubbed the “Super Kids” from an ensuing rap dynasty was setting to release a groundbreaking LP under the tutelage of East Coast king-maker Marley Marl.
Apparently, the late ‘80s hits by MC Shan, Roxanne Shante, and Craig G. along with the legendary Juice Crew battle with the Bronx-based Boogie Down Productions inspired a generation of Queensbridge Housing Project natives to perfect their penmanship. A handful of years before modifying his stage moniker to Tragedy Khadafi, the emcee originally known as Intelligent Hoodlum, who prior to serving a prison stint had become somewhat of a junior member of the super conglomerate Juice Crew, aspired to write the next chapter of his legendary neighborhood.
The well-trained ear can hear the similarities between Intelligent Hoodlum’s rhyme patterns like “I'm fantastic when things get drastic / gimme the mic and I melt the plastic / fatal hits with the groove that's like granite / gimme the mic and I rock the whole planet” from the song “Trag Invasion” and arguably the most notable of Queensbridge natives’ epic debut on Breaking Atoms’ “Live at the BBQ.” Main Source’s Large Professor even assisted Marley Marl with the production of Intelligent Hoodlum before discovering its namesake’s neighbor Nasty Nas and introducing his talent to the hip-hop world.
No doubt igniting the spark of lyrical enthusiasm amongst his borough-mates, Intelligent Hoodlum’ debut LP, like Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted (1990), blurred the lines of conscious hip-hop and the raw street journalism of reality rap. The album visits uncomfortable topics such as teenage pregnancy, police brutality and underaged abortion several times, proving to be an immediate precursor to later works that would follow suit such as 2Pac’s inaugural album 2Pacalypse Now (1991).
Well crafted on all cylinders, Intelligent Hoodlum unabashedly challenged a conservative time in American history when even civil rights organizations sought to sensor rap artists by standing flat-footed on its poignant lyrics including “Culture stealer, big high wheeler / arrest the president, he's the drug dealer / chief command and got his hand in/ drugs demandin,’ kept it standin’ / hands were dipped in, someone flipped in / made a mistake and stopped the shipment” on the monumental song “Arrest the President.”
Aside from a few honorable mentions from Will Smith on his hit sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Intelligent Hoodlum has gone overlooked as a groundbreaking East Coast album that defined the hip-hop attitude of a new decade. One of the most versatile albums ever released, it has always stood on its own merit, enduring as a testament to Tragedy’s quietly legendary career and remaining a worthy companion alongside more well-known 1990 jewels like Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo’s Wanted: Dead or Alive and Eric B. & Rakim’s Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em.