The simple joy that was the B-side of a rap single is something that has moved out of the popular lexicon as a result of technology moving on, but still hasn’t been adequately replaced. Sure, we have ‘exclusive digital bonus tracks’ for those of us who choose to purchase through a particular retailer, but it’s hardly the same thing. Many of rap’s greatest moments were first brought into the world on the flipside of a less impressive song—MC Shan’s ‘The Bridge,’ Public Enemy’s ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ and Run-DMC’s ‘Sucker MCs’ being three examples that immediately spring to mind.
The dynamics of selecting the flip of a single have varied over time, but previously allowed an artist to hedge their bets by offering a different style of record, as Notorious B.I.G. did with ‘Juicy’ b/w ‘Unbelievable,’ which serviced both the radio and the streets in equal measure. For the second or third single from an album, it allowed rappers to showcase some brand new material to keep things fresh, which was important during the era where they may have had long lead times for the label to release their music. And, of course, the B-side remix allowed, for a while, new interpretation of a record before the trend of just throwing a bunch of guests on a popular beat took over.
Now that singles rarely get a physical release, the only place you’re going to find these bonus tracks are on iTunes or on the ‘deluxe’ CD edition. What this means is that if you’re a Roc Marciano fan, to pick a recent case study, the only way to get ‘Jaws’ from the Greneberg EP is as a digital exclusive and ‘Bozak’ as a CD bonus on the re-release of Marcberg. You can buy both releases on vinyl, but if you wanted what were arguably the best songs from either project on wax? You’re shit outta luck.
The flipside of this is that, freed from the constraints of the major record label machine, rappers aren’t restricted by release schedules and marketing budgets. Now you can drop a collection of your more experimental material (or, more importantly, the stuff that you can’t get sample clearance for) as a ‘mixtape’ or ‘street album,’ therefore quenching your fans’ thirst in between ‘official’ projects, but this lacks the focus and curation of selecting two or three songs for the public’s digestion.
Vinyl sales are on the rise, but these are generally reissues, limited edition specialty labels and collectible special editions. Vinyl as a medium for the long-playing album is alive and well, but the 12″ single is well and truly dead. Looking at the ‘Best Sellers’ chart of Boston-based online record spot UGHH, the top 25 is made up of 7″ and 10″ singles, with but one full-size single among them (released in 2013). While rap on 45 is experiencing a new-found popularity, it’s primarily a novelty item/collectible rather than a viable way to test new music.
Perhaps it’s simply nostalgia on my part. There are still hidden delights to be discovered, buried 13 tracks into a Dat Piff mixtape, but trawling through folders of music is no match for that first-time thrill of dropping the needle on LL Cool J’s ‘Jack The Ripper’ (the B-side of his Less Than Zero contribution, ‘Goin’ Back To Cali’) or Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s ‘La Di Da Di’ (the flip of ‘The Show’). As the saying goes, we’ve now become victims of having too much of a good thing. There is now far more new rap being made and distributed than any human can properly consume, and without the unifying force that once was the local record shop, the chances of the something unusual, different or ground-breaking getting lost in the sauce is more likely than ever. The B-side was the great leveler, and without it we are left to drift aimlessly between email blasts and Soundcloud reposts forever more.
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