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Tunnel Bangers vs Backpack Bangers

If that title doesn’t get me some accidental traffic, I don’t know what will.

So last month, Complex played host to Cipha Sounds Presents: The 75 Greatest Tunnel Bangers, a list of tracks from the late 90’s that had been labelled with that infamous tag: ‘Tunnel Banger’.

Tun·nel bang·er (noun) Circa 1994-2000, a record—often hardcore and aggressive—that whipped the crowd into a frenzy during the prime-time hour after 1 a.m. at the NYC club’s Sunday-night party.

Obviously, being in my early teens for most of that period, I never frequented The Tunnel – but I did listen to Tim Westwood who at the time seemed to base his entire show on whatever Funkmaster Flex was doing in New York. So on a Saturday night in Plymouth, I’d be blasting Ruff Ryders, Puff Daddy, Mobb Deep, Noreaga and the rest of them.. It was like I was there. Sort of. But not really at all. I didn’t even know what some of those tracks were until years later (Horse & Carriage for example), but they formed much of my playlist when the radio still meant something.

The list is pretty definitive – as you’d expect from someone like Cipha Sounds – and the small write-ups are occasionally interesting if not annoying to have to click endlessly through on the Complex site. (If you don’t want to read the anecdotes, (the full list in one go is here). Also, some kind soul has prepared a nice download of all the tracks mentioned here if you fancy giving them a listen but don’t really want to buy out the Def Jam / Bad Boy back catalogues.


In response to the list of Tunnel Bangers, Bloggerhouse have been running a series of ‘75 Backpack Bangers‘ (that seems to have reached 100? but whatever) that is a nice counterbalance to the Complex list.

The real reason this post was created was because perusing the list of the 75 greatest Tunnel bangers there were at least 30 of those jawns that underground Hip Hop heads, later referred to as “backpackers” absolutely abhored. Don’t get me wrong, a fair amount of the Complex list brought back some great memories. The thing is a fair amount of the same list brought back memories of me playing a steady diet of Cannibal Ox, Rubberoom, K-Otix, Jigmastas, Five Deez, Cunninglynguists, Atmosphere & Athletic Mic League to combat the bullshit I heard on the radio.

I don’t agree with the ‘bullshit on the radio’ comment, because I actually liked that shit back then – and still do to an extent – but I definitely agree that the list brought a whole range of other memories too. I was getting more into ‘underground’ hip-hop in the late 90’s, much more so than ‘The Tunnel’ esque stuff but it was largely a case of only listening to what I could actually hear. Rawkus were the poster boys and you could get their stuff in HMV, but pretty much everything else underground for me, had to come from the interweb. I’d just started getting onto forums and whatnot, and it opened me up to a ton of new music by people I’d never heard of. Seriously, if it wasn’t for places like Mr Blunts’ hip-hop forum, my musical taste would be so different, but that’s another story. You couldn’t really get hold of anything down where I lived, so you had to buy stuff online. Places like HipHopSite, Sandboxautomatic and UGHH were the shit. They even had Real Audio samples of everything they sold, it was amazing! (Ha! Real Audio. Remember that? I’ve still got tonnes of downloaded .rm files that I have no way of playing anymore. Madness.)

MP3’s were just about picking up pace and you could get a decent amount of this music from Audiogalaxy and Napster. Napster actually had a lively underground hip-hop community come to think of it. But I was still rocking dial-up and getting pocket money so I’d actually try to buy stuff. Most of it I’d never heard before, but got it just because it was underground. Bought Polyrhythm Addicts because I read somewhere that they’d done something with Pharoahe Monch. I got The Arsonists album with a voucher I’d won in an MC battle. I bought Skillionaire from some Swedish guy, but forgot to send him the money. (If you’re reading this J, I owe you!) It was great. But I digress.

Both lists are great, and worth looking through / listening to yourself. But I thought I’d highlight some of my personal favourites from each collection, in no particular order.

Noreaga – Superthug


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/15-Superthug.mp3|titles=Nore – Superthug]
I never owned this, but I swear Westwood played it at least 17 times every show for months on end. Couldn’t escape it! “Aiyo we light a candle, run laps around the English Channel, Neptunes, I got a cockerspaniel.” Nuff said.


Dilated Peoples – Work The Angles


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/Work-The-Angles.mp3|titles=Dilated Peoples – Work The Angles]
It was the remix of this track on the Sway & Tech album that I really like, but this isn’t too shabby either. Dilated were actually the only US group that I caught live during this time – at The Thekla in Bristol. I could’ve seen Souls of Mischief about a month before in Plymouth but I convinced myself that it wasn’t really going to be Souls of Mischief and must have been some other local group instead. Idiot. Anyway, they were great and The Platform was a quality album. Babu and Rakaa more than make up for Ev.


Arsonists – Blaze


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/Blaze-Radio-Edit.mp3|titles=Arsonists – Blaze (Radio Edit)]
As I mentioned earlier, I got The Arsonists album without really knowing who they were or having heard any of their singles. That’s not to say I didn’t own any of their singles though. I actually had the 12″ of this before I had the album – I just didn’t have a turntable to play it on. Really. I can’t even remember why I ended up buying it, but I did. It’s still shrink-wrapped. Any offers? But anyway, on an album full of quality hip-hop, this track always stood out because of the mind-boggling speed of it. I can still recite 80% of it word for word but the fourth verse is just ridiculous.


Notorious B.I.G. & 2Pac – Where Brooklyn At


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/37-Where-Brooklyn-At-ft.-2Pac.mp3|titles=B.I.G. – Where Brooklyn At ft. 2Pac]
The intro to that Funkmaster Flex & Big Kap – The Tunnel album, this live recording was the closest I’d ever get to seeing either of these live, so it was good enough for me. I was a big 2Pac fan for a long time (obviously; being a white 14 year old boy from South West England) so used to front like the Biggy verse was meh to me, but it’s great.. Seven mack elevens..


DMX – Get At Me Dog


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/03-Get-At-Me-Dog-ft.-Sheek-Louch.mp3|titles=DMX – Get At Me Dog ft. Sheek Louch]
I bought the enhanced CD single of this which had a quicktime version of the video on it. That grimy black and white footage of DMX performing in The Tunnel was so ill to me. I used to play this on repeat LOUD.


High & Mighty – B-Boy Document ’99


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/05-B-Boy-Document-99-Featuring-Mos-Def-And-Mad-Skillz.mp3|titles=High & Mighty – B-Boy Document ’99 (Featuring Mos Def And Mad Skillz)]
Appearing on pretty much every Rawkus release ever, Mos Def sort of became the face of ‘backpack’ hip-hop. Or at least, it seemed that way. He was like the saviour of hip-hop. I remember having a giant A1 promo poster for ‘Black On Both Sides’ with some tag like ‘the new hip-hop is here’ or some shit. I’m not sure if I believed it, but I certainly appreciated his contribution. The High & Mighty were a bit of an odd one for me – I didn’t like any of their album except for this, Dirty Decibles, and The Last Hit (because of Mos, Pharaohe Monch & Eminem respectively) – but I always associated them with quality music. Weird. This track is a classic though.. I’m still using it as my ringtone today.


Bad Meets Evil (Eminem & Royce Da 5’9”) – Scary Movies


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/09-Scary-Movies-Dirty.mp3|titles=Bad Meets Evil – Scary Movies (Dirty)]
Eminem used to rip shit. Undeniable. Loved this track. If they’d have made a joint album, it would’ve been over. As it was though, the couple of 12″s they released will remain gems in my collection.
“The one man on the planet that’ll drive off of the grand canyon, hop off of a grand am and land it hand standing..”


The LOX – Money, Power & Respect


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/25-Money-Power-Respect-ft.-Lil-Kim-DMX.mp3|titles=The LOX – Money, Power & Respect ft. Lil’ Kim & DMX]
I didn’t like The LOX. Or Lil’ Kim. Sort of liked DMX. But loved this song. The instrumental makes it for me; so many times I would put this on a loop and freestyle to this beat.. It was perfect.


MHz – World Premier


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/11-World-Premier.mp3|titles=MHz – World Premier]
Again, it’s not so much this track that I remember, but it’ll do for MHz. Long before Copywrite was embarrassing himself all over the internet, I was proud to wear my t-shirt with the big © logo on the front. He was one of the best punchline MC’s to me at that time – a time where punchlines meant so much. In fact, even before all that, I bought a beat off him from his MP3.com page once. It was only like, £10, and was a bit shit, but I didn’t know any local producers and needs must..


Craig Mack – Flava In Ya Ear (rmx)


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/38-Flava-in-Ya-Ear-Remix-ft.-The-Notorious-B.I.G.-Rampage-LL-Cool-J-Busta-Rhymes.mp3|titles=Craig Mack – Flava in Ya Ear (Remix) ft. The Notorious B.I.G., Rampage, LL Cool J & Busta Rhymes]
You can’t really deny that Puffy came up with a classic on this one. If there’s one thing you can always say about Bad Boy, it’s that they knew what they were doing, and they did it well.


Akrobatic – Internet MC’s


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/02-Internet-MCs-Dirty.mp3|titles=Akrobatic – Internet MC’s (Dirty)]
Bearing in mind what I used to spend most of my free time doing at that time, I should’ve probably taken offense to this song. But he wasn’t talking to me, so it was cool. Otherwise, I’d’ve uploaded a maaaad dis onto MP3.com. “So internet MC’s heed my advice: online keystyles don’t make you nice. Bring it to the streets and start to rabble rouse, sincerely yours, Akro 2000.”


Mobb Deep – Quiet Storm / Shook Ones Pt. II


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/27-Quiet-Storm.mp3|titles=Mobb Deep – Quiet Storm] / [audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/18-Shook-Ones-Pt.-II.mp3|titles=Mobb Deep – Shook Ones Pt. II]
It was mostly because of the first 30 seconds or so of each track. The slow brooding intro of Quiet Storm before that drum kicks in, or the abrasive, menacing intro of Shook Ones Pt. II. “I put my life time in between the paper’s lines..”, or “I got you stuck off the realness..”. I could never decide which one I preferred, though nowadays it’s Shook Ones Pt. II I reckon. I don’t know what Mobb Deep are up to these days (is Prodigy still in prison?) but I know that for me, they’ll never top either of these songs. (Though, that said, they come very close.. The Infamous is unfuckwitable).


Pharoahe Monch – Simon Says


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/32-Simon-Says.mp3|titles=Pharoahe Monch – Simon Says]
This was actually on the ‘Tunnel’ list, but I always associated it with the ‘Backpack’ realm, what with the Rawkus connection etc.. I’m still always surprised when I hear this on Radio 1 these days because when I first heard it, it was so obscure and fresh to me but I suppose you can’t keep a catchy song down. I could’ve sworn that the 12″ version of this had a remix with Rodney P on too.


Cage – Agent Orange


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/1-04-Agent-Orange.mp3|titles=Cage – Agent Orange]
Before Cage the emo ‘rapper’, there was Cage the Clockwork Orange reject. The former > the latter. I realise that people evolve and change but it’s so bizarre to me to see this guy hang out with that bloke from Transformers. Come on Chris, I still have those Smut Peddler videos. Be honest with yourself. I used to lump him in with Necro and that lot and thought he was a dick who had a couple of decent songs, but when he finally dropped an album, I definitely ranked him on a different level to the standard gore shit that Psycho-Logical were putting out. I was waiting for ‘Movies for the Blind’ for ages. I even went for a HipHopSite preorder which came with a ‘people said his brain were infected by devils’ t-shirt. Dope.


Redman – I’ll Bee Dat!


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/73-Ill-Bee-Dat.mp3|titles=Redman – I’ll Bee Dat!]
Another Def Jam enhanced CD that came with the video in QT. I kinda get a late pass on Redman; the first album I got from him was Docs Da Name, after I heard this single. I’ve made up for it since, don’t worry, but because of that, I still have this down as one of my favourite songs from him. It’s catchy as hell.


Last Emperor – Secret Wars Pt. II


[audio:https://www.mattnortham.com/blog/wp-content/images/2010/08/Secret-Wars-Pt.-II.mp3|titles=Last Emperor – Secret Wars Pt. II]
Last Emp was one of the first people who’s album I downloaded. Fact. The aptly named ‘Legend of Bigfoot’ was almost mythological in the sense that I couldn’t find it anywhere to buy. The only thing I managed to find out about it at all for so long was a tracklisting and tiny image of the cover on Sandboxautomatic. I saw it being shared on Audiogalaxy one night and rushed to get it – but it turned out that the rip was glitchy as fuck so I didn’t really listen to it. I’ve still got it. When it comes on shuffle, it makes my ears hurt. What I did manage to get hold of though was this single, where Last Emperor details the battle that’d take place if he ‘had the power to gather all of his favourite MC’s, with the illest comic book characters, and they became arch-enemies..’. Hearing his slightly shit, but pretty good in context, impressions of GZA, Redman and the like, and about Ras Kass taking out Magneto etc etc.. was so dope. It’s masterfully done, even if it does turn out to be a bit of a one-sided fight.

Ah. Misty water coloured memories.. It was a fun time to be listening to hip-hop. Don’t even get me started on the non-Tunnel, non-backpack stuff! 🙂

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