rom hyphy to crunk to snap to grime to whatever the fuck Subtle is, hip-hop has split into a wide variety of sub-genres since its inception. Despite this, most hip-hop heads can be fit pretty neatly into two categories: those who consider NYC’s two golden ages of hip-hop (87-88, 93-97) the high-water marks for the genre, and those who don’t.
Toronto producer Marco Polo throws himself in with the former camp, paying homage to the latter Golden Age through scratched hooks, graveyard strings, and breakbeats redolent of worn vinyl and dust. (Not to mention an album guest list fit to double as Nas’ “Where Are They Now (’90s remix).”) If nothing else, Polo deserves some sort of medal for getting O.C., Masta Ace, Ed O.G., Large Professor, Buckshot, Kool G. Rap, Ju-Ju from the Beatnuts, and Sadat X, together on the same album. Hell, the record even has a guest spot from Kardinal Offishal and I don’t even think his own mother knew that he was still alive.
If “Hip Hop is Dead” was a grumpy declaration of civil war for hip-hop’s identity, Port Authority (and to a lesser extent Joell Ortiz’s recently released The Brick), are the first salvos of the young generation, aimed squarely at everything from candy pop-rappers like Mims and Jibbs to dull two-dimensional cocaine portraitists like Jeezy and Rick Ross. Polo’s mindset is made clear on the first actual track, “Get Busy,” where ex-MHz MC Copywrite spits darts about “cowards whose flows are gangsta’ till the powder’s out of their nose,” before declaring that “in ‘95 I thought music was losing its touch / Compared to now, it’s a golden era / Who’d have thought?”
But if Port Authority was only concerned with the genre’s decline, it’d be an unimaginably dreary affair. Polo wisely balances the record, enlisting D.I.T.C alumnus O.C. (“Marquee”) to glide slickly over twinkling bells and rugged drums, a beat recalling Buckwild at best, and a hook reminding everyone that they’re just trying to make “feel-good music.” On “The Radar,” Large Professor drops science over a cut that sounds like a Hard to Earn outtake, while Rollin’” finds Sadat X, Ju-Ju, and A.G. crafting a weed anthem over skittering pianos, darting snares, and grimy drums.
At 18 tracks and 70 minutes, Port Authority would benefit from a bit of brevity, as the subject matter—mostly battle raps and golden-age paeans—can get repetitive. And inevitably, people will snipe that Polo’s beats heavily bear the sonic imprint of his two biggest inspirations, Pete Rock and Premier. Then again, a great beat’s a great beat, and few heads ever sniped at Kanye for jacking the RZA’s chipmunk soul loops.
Polo’s refreshingly anachronistic mindset is best exemplified on his video for the Masta Ace track, “Nostalgia.” Little more than grainy hand-held footage of the criminally underrated Juice Crew vet with Polo idling in the background, the five minute clip is emotional manipulation of the best kind, instantly triggering flashbacks to the days of bootstrap-budget DIY videos full of gargantuan boom-boxes, breaking, and black-and-white shots of a gritty New York skyline. It’s the sort of video that makes Golden Age sentimentalists remember why they fell in love with hip-hop in the first place. Port Authority itself might be the least original hip-hop record made this year—it’s also one of its best.