I almost didn't notice it until midway through the first season, but one of many reasons I like The Shield so much is that it creates drama with the acting; the music doesn't tell you when you should be tense. In fact, all of the music on that show comes as ambient noise: someone is playing a boombox or music is coming from a store.
Some of the great mid-'90s hip-hop-soundtrack-driven films did this in much the same way... or maybe what I remember is that these soundtracks actually had a lot of dudes on 'em that I wanted to listen to, as opposed to today, when Michael Bay just picks five of the Top Ten Billboard artists and has them do a track for his newest soulless, flatline action flick (full disclosure: Transformers was pretty fuckin' cool, and funny too).
Some of my favorites:
• Clockers - This one gets the most props for having "Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers '95," featuring one of Primo's greatest beats as well as one of Jeru the Damaja's few unclunky verses (again, full disclosure: Wrath of the Math is still one of my favorite records), but it's got plenty of other gems: Mega Banton's "Bad Boy No Go a Jail" got me into dancehall, Rebelz of Authority's "Blast of the Iron" is horrorshow hip-hop, and there was a pretty sweet song by a group called the BrooklyNytes, who promptly disappeared completely into the ether of the universe.
• Above the Rim - Again, best known for "Regulate," the original White-Boy Summertime Hip-Hop Jam ("Nuthin' But a G Thang" scores a close second), but it's also a who's-who of prime-era Death Row Records. I still maintain that "Big Pimpin'" is the greatest song of the G-Funk era... "Pour Out a Little Liquor" introduced me to Thug Life, which was largely a waste, but it's still a great summertime song... but the best parts to me are the unknowns: who is this deep-ass voice dude CPO Boss Hog rolling over "Jus So Ya No"? And who's this B-Rezell fellow, who drops one of the dirtier G-funk beats I've heard with "Blowed Away"?
Of course it's got Lady of Rage singing about her afro puffs, but what I think really makes it stand out is Jewell's "It's Not Deep Enough," which not only cribs a sweet Black Moon sample from like, two years earlier, but also gives us this gem in the chorus of the song, which opens with Jewell letting someone know, "Hey you got money in your pocket 'cause you're an engineer; I'm tryin' to get paid so quit playin' back there," and is presumably about how she's not just a ho, but a ho that likes rough sex:
Oooh I, have a piece of pie
I'm so sweet, have a piece of meat
Meat's so tough, I'm beggin' for more
It's not deep enough
• Sunset Park - Now, you're not going to sell me on the concept of Carla from Cheers coaching a Queens hoops squidder... not really ever. But fuckit, it's still a decent movie, particularly due to my mainest man Bizzy Bee.
It's also the soundtrack that probably sold you on Ghostface Killah as the Wu-Tang's underappreciated gem with "Motherless Child." I can't remember if this came out before or after Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (I'm pretty sure it was after), but I just remember blasting "Motherless Child" and 2Pac's "High 'Til I Die" over and over again on my cassette copy. It's also got solid joints from Mobb Deep ("Right Back At You") and Junior M.A.F.I.A. ("We Don't Need It"), as well as the last good songs heard from Onyx ("Thangz Changed") and Tha Dogg Pound ("Just Doggin'").
• New Jersey Drive, Vols. 1-2 - Oh, I see how it is... NOW you can get both volumes on one album... figures.
This is my favorite of the bunch, both the film and the soundtrack. So much so, in fact, that I went and shelled out the fourteen-fucking-ninety-five for Vol. 2, an EIGHT-TRACK EP. The only song that really blew up off this soundtrack is the Total song with Biggie, "Can't You See?" (any mid-'90s R&B collectors out there? Total had a decent solo debut on Bad Boy)
Doesn't matter, though:
• "Don't Shut Down on a Player" completely misrepresents how bad Ill Al Skratch was. I heard this track and went right to buy their album. What a mistake...
• Redman's "Where Am I?" is a chunk of demonic P-Funk before he started letting Erick Sermon produce a dozen tracks with the same gawddamn bassline for every album from Doc's Da Name 2000 on...
• Blak Panta's "Do What U Want" is another song that helped me get into dancehall - of course, this is the only Blak Panta song I was ever able to find. Why is it always like that with great dancehall? I was going to do The Show soundtrack on here, too, but it's a documentary, not strictly a movie... and there's that sweet Kali Ranks track on there, "Kill Dem All," with the heavy acoustic guitar loop. The only other Kali track I've ever found is some bootleg, no-high-end bullshit called "Da Jam." There's another dude, Major Mackrel, who's got a sick take on a classic riddim called "Bad Ras." But I can only find two other songs credited to him anywhere. I know they press a ton of vinyl singles in Jamaica, but man...
• I'll admit it, I was sleeping on Outkast until I heard "Benz or Beamer." Then again, ATLienz came out a year later, and I had that the day it came out, so maybe I was just snoozing. I've never really thought Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was the landmark record a lot of other people do.
• "Thru the Window" is probably the last good Coolio song. Actually, this, "It Takes a Thief," "On My Way to Harlem" and the obligatory guilty-pleasure, "Fantastic Voyage" are the ONLY good Coolio songs. (honorable mention to "Ghetto Cartoon")
I can keep going... "Headz Ain't Ready" is classic Beatminerz, Funkmaster Flex manages to not shout the whole time during his track... even the West-Coast "All About My Fetti" is a decent track.
• Soul in the Hole - Not strictly a movie, same as The Show, but it's got some great tracks. Big Pun made a splash with "U Ain't a Killa," the Mobb Deep track is some of the starkest shit Havoc and Prodigy have done, and "Against the Grain" fooled you into thinking that Sauce Money might actually be a good rapper. But you heard his solo... Primo tricked you with that shit.