'll go on record and say that D.I.T.C. as a crew has produced some of the most important people in that era of Hip-Hop, and they are also one of the most slept on crews in terms of the mass market.” -- Matt Wright, publisher, Elemental Magazine, as quoted by AllHipHop.com.
It is difficult to write an unwritten history. This is simply the reality of writing about 1990s rap music in 2006; the information is out there, but much of it exists as hearsay and unsubstantiated rumor. There is no Wu-Tang Manual for the Diggin’ in the Crates crew. What I know about D.I.T.C. is … not much. I’m not from New York, never been to Harlem. What I do know is the available music. So this piece won’t revolve around obscure Show and A.G. 12”s. But I do hope to provide both a brief primer for folks who are not familiar, and some context and perspective on one of the most significant—and underrated—groups in rap history. If the history of the group is what you are interested in, Elemental has already covered that ground in an extensive multi-part exploration of the crew and its origins.
In the early 1990s New York hip-hop was at a creative peak. Sure, NWA had arrived from the west, laying the groundwork for the gangsta blueprint that would set the direction for rap music future, and the Geto Boys had established themselves as notable Southern artists. But New York was still rap music mecca, with talent popping out of every borough, rappers spitting from so many different directions, producers still mastering the SP1200. A major cornerstone of NY's creative rap movement was the Diggin in the Crates crew, known simply as D.I.T.C..
Today, snitching aside, the last thing a hardcore rap crew will cop to is “digging in the crates.” However, this was New York in the early 1990s, and no group captured that time and place better than D.I.T.C.; Wu-Tang was one-of-a-kind, Boot Camp Clik was too dark and grittily underground, too focused in scope. Until the Bad Boy era, the members of D.I.T.C. were exemplars of quality rap music in New York’s early-mid 90s creative explosion. The beats were hard, and the rappers were harder.
The crew was a loose conglomeration. There were many albums released by individual members with assists from the rest, yet only one (until last year) released officially by the group as a whole, and it dropped well after most members’ creative prime. Although at one time all underground New York rappers, each artist would end up in very different places; for Showbiz and AG: canonization as respectable early 90s jazz-rap; for Buckwild: obscurity in the wider world but a renowned producer's status in hip-hop. For Fat Joe: superstardom. And for Big L and Big Pun, tragic deaths.
Lord Finesse, Diamond, Buckwild, Showbiz
These four were the key to the crew’s name; their beats defined the period.
Finesse was a rapper and producer, and had been a DJ since he went to a Bronx high school. And in some ways seems to exists as the central constellation around which the crew revolved. Finesse had known Diamond and Showbiz from his teenage years; they all began as DJs in the mid-1980s. By 1990, Finesse had released his first LP, Funky Technician, along with his DJ and close friend Mike Smooth. Production credits on the record went to the core of the D.I.T.C. sound: Diamond and Showbiz both contributed, alongside DJ Premier, who was still in the formative stages of establishing his own style. Gang Starr’s rep wouldn’t be solidified until Step in the Arena’s release the following year. (Although not a member of the crew, Premier would produce tracks for D.I.T.C. members throughout his career.)
By this time the Diggin’ in the Crates crew began to come together. Buckwild didn’t meet the crew until after Funky Technician’s release; both were New York mixtape DJs—Finesse was supplementing the meager paychecks he received from Wild Pitch with mixtape hustle on the side—and at that point, the foundation for D.I.T.C.’s sound was established. Buckwild would go on to produce some of the best tracks in hip-hop history, from Notorious B.I.G.’s “I Got A Story To Tell” to Black Rob’s “Whoa.”
Big L, AG, Big Pun, Fat Joe, O.C.
1990 was a major year for Lord Finesse in another way; it was the year he met a rapper named Big L, who would arguably become the group’s definitive rapper. Big L was a Harlem kid badgering Finesse for a shot. AG had battled Finesse in the late ‘80s, and was an obvious choice for the crew. Big Pun and Fat Joe were later additions; literal heavyweights who the wider world would know as solo artists. O.C., an associate of the duo Organized Konfusion, rounded out the group, although various New York rappers would make appearances on D.I.T.C. recordings, associates like Party Arty and established vets like Brand Nubian’s Sadat X.
For an early 90s group named for the rather nerdy habit of crate digging, D.I.T.C. were first and foremost street. And these were New York streets, so a NYC sensibility followed: shock-punchlines, lyrical posse cuts over banging production. In many ways, D.I.T.C.’s rappers defined New York rap in the mid 90s better than anyone; while the group itself is almost a footnote, its members' influence in the world of rap is broad.
His second album was more developed, but continued along the same lines. Finesse’s rhymes were still some of the best out of New York, and the beats came from a familiar cast. Perhaps the most well known track from this period, however, was the remix of his album track “Yes You May” alongside a 17-year-old Big L. The “Yes You May (Remix)” is a key track in the D.I.T.C. canon; Finesse’s punchlines would destroy on any track, but it is L’s voice that captures the show.
It was not until ’96 that Finesse released his follow-up, Awakening, which is one of my favorite rap albums. At this point, beats sounded entirely current, with the hard-knock tunnel banging style that had become New York’s stock in trade. One year later and the entire city would be dancing to a different beat, but for the moment, New York was still reveling in the noir-ish funk that crate digging wrought. Witness the posse cut “Speak Ya Peace,” where echoing snares compete with murky, thumping drum kicks for the listener’s attention, while instrumental samples float like haunted spirits around horn lines and treble-filtered vocals.
Another Finesse album worth investigating is his Lost Tapes-style release From the Crates to the Files. Particularly for the single-only “S.K.I.T.S.” “S.K.I.T.S.” stood for “Shorties Kaught Up In The System.” It is a dark, hypnotic cautionary track about the tragic changes wrought over the neighborhood kids—or, more likely, Finesse’s outlook on the neighborhood kids as he grew up. He grapples with the way a harsh life twists childhood (“and 80 out of a hundred/ all they wanna do is clock dough, scoop bitches and get blunted,”) and the pressures of economic abandonment. “Get a 9 to 5, What?! That shit sucks / And besides I wouldn’t make enough.”
His follow-up wasn’t as effective, perhaps, but O.C. has always been a consistent rapper and although he has moved further to rap’s margins over the years, his music is worth checking. With age, O.C. lost his hunger, his youthful enthusiasm to capture so effectively the human condition, lost the righteous anger that infused "Time's Up" and “Constables,” and occasionally degraded into bitterness. His career extended beyond his albums; his verse on "Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers" and Organized Konfusion's classic "Fudge Pudge" and "Let's Organize" tracks, for example. Jewelz, his 1997 sophomore release, was consistent enough, and the opening cut “My World” featured one of DJ Premier’s best tracks. He had the misfortune to release it when hip-hop was shifting into Puffy’s discofied orbit, and even further south, which prematurely shifted his career to the New York sidelines. His next album, Bon Apetite, was relatively forgettable. In 2005, he released two albums. The first, Starchild, is startlingly energetic and reflective; especially the gorgeous jazz bass-riding cut “What Am I Supposed To Do?” which warns against the proverbial snakes in the grass. Smoke & Mirrors, its follow-up released on Heiro Records, echoed many releases from mid-90s New York rap giants a decade down the road; he had not fallen off, and plenty of his songs were pleasant, but the rap world would move on.
SHOWBIZ AND A.G.
Like Finesse, Showbiz and A.G.’s follow-up would take a harsher direction, embracing the dark real-world based raps that they began on cuts like “Runaway Slave.” The beats, too, had developed along similar lines. Both records are worth checking. Show and A.G. would disappear for a few years; Show continued to do the occasional production, and the duo resurfaced with the underground producer Soul Supreme in the early 2000s. But for the most part, their careers followed a similar arc to O.C. In the early 1990s, they recorded some of the best LPs of the period, but by 2000 rap had changed direction yet again and these legends were left by the wayside.
BIG L, FAT JOE, BIG PUN
Although Bronx-born Fat Joe’s best records may not be his R Kelly duets (debatable), there is no doubt that on tracks like Ja Rule’s “New York” or Young Jeezy’s “Go Crazy (Remix)” he holds his own in a modern context. Fat Joe has released six solo LPs, and while many of them have moments worth checking, two in particular I come back to. Although his debut Represent may be worth the price just for the baby-faced photos of the rapper on the sleeve art and the original “Shit Is Real” verses, his sophomore album Jealous Ones Envy is his best early-period release. With the hard knock real talk of “Shit Is Real (DJ Premier Remix),” Joe set the stage for an extended career and made it clear that he understood where he came from, and that it wasn’t just lyrical skills but attitude that defined the artist. He was, more than many in the crew (sans of course Big L) able to capture street attitude and outlook. Over whistful Premier-sampled vibes, Fat Joe’s braggadocious doesn’t sound mean, nor does it sound matter-of-fact (as it did over the squealing saxophone samples in the original mix) so much as desperate and tragic. On Jealous Ones Envy, Joe’s blunt, honest rap style gelled compellingly. His 2002 album Loyalty is also worth checking; many of the tracks sound modern, but not forced. Perhaps by avoiding the pressures facing those that the press branded ‘lyricists,’ (Nas, for example), Joe was released from the pressure of sounding modern without the fear of selling himself short. Further, the soulful “Born in the Ghetto” proved that Joe hadn’t lost the realness that had been so appealing in his “Shit Is Real”-days.
Although not officially a member of the crew, I’ve associated Pun with D.I.T.C. if only for his verse on the group’s classic “Where Ya At.” Even if he wasn’t a member, he sounded like one; his albums are all worth mention and the price of admission, just for his tireless, apocalyptic, larger than life flow and lyrics. Like Big L, Pun was hardcore; he was spitting with the purpose of lyrical disemboweling, shocking and terrorizing his rhetorical victims with the pure force of his lyrics and charisma. “Dream Shatterer,” the best track; I’d probably go with his debut as his best album. His premature death, which is undoubtedly attributable to his big size, has solidified his legendary status. Consider the incomparable internal rhymes of his Snoop & Dre tribute, “Twinz (Deep Cover ’98)” alongside Fat Joe, where his single couplet about the mistaken murder of middle-men in Little Italy who “didn’t do diddly.” His skill seems magnified by the way it dexterously seemed to defy his bulk, a tearing aggression that flipped acrobatically around the beat while Pun kept his feet firmly planted on the earth.
Then you have Big L, who was not actually large in stature but was the arguably the definitive persona of the crew. c left behind some of the most impressive tracks ever recorded; precocious doesn’t begin to describe the lyrical genius of his early career. Both of his albums are absolute must-own releases, and both feature other D.I.T.C. members prominently in production roles; his freestyle tapes are worth hearing too, if only for the prodigal talent with which he dispatches his enemies, real and imagined. His words punched through to your chest while his syllables wrapped themselves around the rhythm, filling every available space to break down how exactly he was at the top of the game. His wit was unmatched—he could have tricked Andrea Dworkin into laughing at the most misogynistic imagery (“No Endz, No Skinz”) - and the rhythmic weight of his vocals was uncannily powerful. If you can’t think of 10 Big L lyrics off of the top of your head, you have no business being a hip-hop nerd.
The group’s first album, however, is easily one of the most underrated in New York history. Stylistically, it is fairly one-note, a nonstop onslaught of raw street lyrics and tunnel-banging production. “Where Ya At” featuring Big Pun; over a supremely satisfying track, Pun’s abstract and wordy claims to interplanetary supremacy come second only to his vaguely ‘sing-song’ hook, as addictive as rap music can sound, hip-hop for cold lampin’. “If I ain’t home with the fam—where I’m at?” “Day One,” the highlight single, is actually a slow, chiming funk. Diamond opens, at this point past his creative prime, yet his familiar husky voice doesn’t seem to mind, dreaming of vacations in the Bahamas. He’s followed by Big L, who steals the show, dropping for one moment the usual metaphorical shields to admit in a moment of brute honesty, honesty made all the more bittersweet by his later tragic passing: “I went from standing on the corner selling cocaine / to rippin’ shows live on stage, hoes yelling my name / to be precise rippin mics is the light of my life….” Despite Finesse’s claims later in the song—“We worldwide, niggas just nice in one borough”—this track sounds so perfectly of its time and place: New York braggadocious translated through metaphors and intricate, stylized lyrical acrobatics.
The notable exception to this style is “Tribute,” a song recorded after Big L’s death and features one of O.C.’s most passionate verses for his lost friend. With low pianos, tinkling chimes and a minimal boom-bap thump, O.C. regrets not answering his phone when L called just before his murder:
If I had the slighest idea that was gonna be our last convo,On the whole, New York lyrical hip-hop has never sounded as simultaneously immediate yet confident, vital yet assured in its dominance. Certainly, other records have captured New York's swiftly changing spirit, but no record so thoroughly defined the ideals of this era like Worldwide. D.I.T.C. were on top of the world, but they retained the vital connection to their origins - the goal of countless rap records. We discuss the fall of New York, and reassess the significance of a rap history that ignores Too $hort, but it is vital that we appropriately reassess New York's own history as well. Yes, Public Enemy were significant, one of the most important groups to ever record. And while mainstream music criticism seems to have picked up P.E., then A Tribe Called Quest, finally on to Wu-Tang, the story seems distorted with D.I.T.C.’s minimal inclusion. In my mind, D.I.T.C. were the definitive New York rap crew, and they deserve a central role in its history.
I woulda picked up yo
Please accept my apology, I know you're listenin
It ain't a day that go by without the crew sayin we miss him
February 15th, you was judged by the most high
I was really mad at God
You had big plans, you was about to be the man and I'm
Proud to death that you a part of the fam
It be a privilege you associated wit us
I hope you in a good place where life is love
Their most significant role, however, is in your speakers. Driving the cross-Bronx expressway some years ago, nothing sounded more like the sights, smells and sounds of New York hip-hop than D.I.T.C.'s "Thick," blasting from my headphones. Immediate, definitive, vital—D.I.T.C. were brilliant.
Wheeler, Austin “The Judge”, “Lord Finesse”. Elemental Magazine, 2003.
By: David Drake
Published on: 2006-03-27