New York is the mecca of hip-hop music and culture. Originating in the Bronx (1520 Sedgwick Ave to be exact…shoutout to Kool Herc!) in the seventies, it would soon blossom and blow up in the other four New York City boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island) and Long Island, birthing several hip-hop legends and classic records. Before going west to California and becoming a universal phenomenon, hip-hop would also spread to other east coast cities and states (i.e. Philly and New Jersey), but it’s safe to say only one emcee has ever repped for White Plains, NY on a national level. Ladies and gentlemen, Top Quality.
Top Quality was a featured artist in The Source‘s once coveted Unsigned Hype column back in April of 1991. The column praised the White Plains emcee for being “faster than The Jaz (as in Jay-Z’s mentor, Jaz-O) when it comes to speed rhymes.” Thanks to the exposure from The Source and a copy of his demo getting into the hands of Parrish Smith (one half of the legendary duo EPMD), Top Quality would sign to Parrish’s PMD imprint under RCA Records where he would release his debut album, presumptuously titled Magnum Opus.
Parrish Smith served as the executive producer for Magnum Opus, but surprisingly he doesn’t produce any of the album’s tracks. Instead, Top Quality would rely on a handful of producers to craft the soundscape for the album. Magnum Opus would produce one minor hit, but I doubt you can find three people who actually own a copy of the album.
Well, you found one in me.
Messages From Uptown – Magnum Opus begins with a hard backdrop that some how makes the pretty sample from The Emotions’ “Blind Alley” (which has been used in quite a few different hip-hop songs over the years: see Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'” and Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker”) sound dark. Top Quality puts his underwhelming choppy flow and random lyrics on display and manages not to distract from the illness of Hell Raisin’s instrumental.
Someone So Fly – Top Quality uses no less than four different rapping voices on this song, spittin’ a portion of his rhymes in Pig-Latin, and still manages to say absolutely nothing. Khaalia Allah’s instrumental isn’t spectacular, but it will grow on you after a few listens.
Caught Up In The Flizny – Everything about this song is rashtay.
Magnum Opus – This title track was the only song that I was familiar with before this post. Keivan Mack builds a beautiful instrumental around a smooth loop from a Roy Ayers/Wayne Henderson record, and TQ plays it pretty straight with the rhymes, for most of the song. This song never really took off back in the day, but the instrumental sounds even better today than it did twenty-five years ago.
Check The Credentials – Black Zone (which is an ill ass hip-hop moniker) hooks up an instrumental that sounds like an incomplete EPMD idea, while are host talks trash, nonsense and goes on a short Pig-Latin rant during the middle of the song. Next…
What – Jesse West, who was going by his alter-ego, 3rd Eye at this point, gets the production credit and contributes a verse to the song. 3rd Eye (who manages to uses “nigga” nine times in a sixteen bar verse, which is a bit excessive) sounds a lot more grimy and animated than the smooth and conscious Jesse West from No Prisoners (read my thought on that album here), and even though his rhymes are sub par, his grimy persona fits his dark and gutter production work well. TQ bats second and for the first time of the evening he refers to his weirdo abstract rhyming style as that “Helen Keller shit”, which I find hi-larious, but I’m sure if this album came out in today’s super-sensitive society he’d get murdered by the court of public opinion, forcing RCA to shelve the project or at least pull this song from the album (Google Helen Keller if you’re not familiar with who she is). But I digress. All in all, this was pretty enjoyable.
You Gotta Check It – As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not crazy about Top Quality’s flow or rhyming style, but he actually rides this sick Charlie Marotta produced instrumental, beautifully, leaving his swag dripping all over it. This is dope.
Something New – I didn’t care much for this one.
I Can’t Hear You – Long time Das EFX production duo, Solid Scheme get their only production credit on Magnum Opus, and they make sure it counts. They hook up this slightly dark mid-tempo groove for our host, who continues to spew his Helen Keller shit. TQ doesn’t say anything memorable, but the hook is catchy and the instrumental is dope.
Graveyard Shift – Over a boring Charlie Marotta instrumental our host discusses being mistaken for a drug dealer by both crackheads and cops when he hangs out on the block in the wee hours of the night drinking and smoking weed. Hey, I have an easy solution for that problem: keep your ass off the block at night and get drunk and high at the crib!
U Know My Name – The final song of the evening finds TQ reppin’ for his hometown, talkin’ his shit, and random other shit. Like the rest of the album, Top Quality’s rhymes and flow are all over the place, but Jesse West’s dark and smooth instrumental comes with a bass line similar to how I like my women: nice and thick.
I’m curious what the demo sounded like that made Parrish Smith want to sign Top Quality to a deal, because I’ve been living with Magnum Opus for the past few weeks and I don’t get him. His self-proclaimed “Helen Keller shit” has the White Plains bred emcee rhyming in Pig-Latin and going on random Tourette like fits throughout the album, and his antics feel forced and gimmicky. On the flip side, the handful of producers recruited to shape the sound of Magnum Opus do a solid job handcrafting a batch of quality hip-hop instrumentals, for the most part. It’s too bad TQ didn’t make the most of them. Needless to say, Top Quality doesn’t live up to his moniker, nor does the album to its haughty title.