Hard as it may be to imagine nowadays, there was a time when you needed more than just an Internet connection and a liberal dose of self-delusion to launch your career as a professional rapper*. You needed the skill to concisely channel your talent into a few choice songs, the resourcefulness to get that material into the hands of the record label gatekeeper who possessed the key to your hip-hop dreams, and a liberal dose of self-delusion. You needed a demo.
True, dropping a noise-making independent single, adding a hot guest verse on yourmansnthem’s record, or being the beneficiary of some good ol’ fashioned show biz nepotism could be more direct routes to getting on. But the traditional demo tape—an industry calling card in the form of a TDK60; that romantic relic G Rap and Erick Sermon once devoted crisp-lisped verses to—was still key to sealing the deal with any potential A&R suitor, and provided the unconnected masses perpetual hope of a seat on the express from ashy to classy.
They don’t make demos like they used to because, well, they don’t make demos anymore period. Blame the Interwebz for saturating cyberspace with more rap “projects” than New York City public housing. Yet as the Web taketh away so doth it giveth, regularly gifting us beaucoup vintage demos and lost OG versions of tracks from the classic hip-hop era like every day is rap nerd Xmas (or at least Kwanzaa). Here are the best in circulation, rap rarity bliss laced with crazy tape hiss.**
* Actually, feel free to replace “rapper” in this sentence with any other vocation (save for maybe doctor or astronaut) and the sentiment still basically applies.
** Pre-debut LP material only. (Well, almost.)
Written by Chairman Mao (@chairmanmaonyc).
#30. J Rock, Six Song Demo (1990)
J Rock "Drug Dealer"
#29. DMX, Four Song Demo (1991)
DMX "Spell Bound"
A January 1991 “Unsigned Hype” winner (may wanna get used to reading those last three words), DMX’s demo featured Earl No-Shirt rhyming in a cadence that relied more on Treach-esque dexterity than the gruffer tone of his Ruff Ryders heyday, landing him a brief single deal with Ruffhouse/Columbia. Fond as X would eventually become of barking, biting was still a no-no. On “Spellbound,” he attempted to re-claim the letter-man rhyme style K-Solo rode to fame, accusing Solo of stealing the technique while the two were fellow inmates and sometime rhyme battle foes in the same correctional facility years earlier.
28) Artifacts, Four Song Demo (1993)
Artifacts "Attack of New Jerusalem"
Stretch Armstrong Show
#27. Last Emperor, Four Song Demo (1997)
Last Emperor "Bums"
#26. UGK "Underground King" (1990)
UGK “Underground King”
The Southern WayToo Hard to Swallow
#25. Tha Alkaholiks (p.k.a. E.S.P.), Six Song Demo (1991)
Tha Alkaholiks “L.A. Law ”
#24. Big L, "Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous" Demos (1991-2)
Big L f/ Terra, Buddah Bless, Big Twan, Killa Kam, Trooper J. & Mike Boogie “8 Iz Enuff”
LODP&D’sThe Demo EP
#23. Show & A.G., "Runaway Slave" Demos (1990-1)
Show & A.G. "Diggin' in the Crates (Original Version)"
Broken ChainsRunaway Slave
#22. Mudbones (featuring Cage) "Crazy Man Ahead" (1992)
Mudbones "Crazy Man Ahead"
Stretch Armstrong Show
#21. Brand Nubian, Pre-"All For One" Demos (1989-90)
Brand Nubian "How Ya Living?"
#20. Casual, "Fear Itself" Demos (1992)
Casual "Can U Feel It?"
#19. O.C., Three Song Demo (1993)
O.C. "Step Into the O-Zone"
Word… LifeO.C. OriginalsWord... Life
#18. Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, "The Lost Demos" (Late ’80s)
Del Tha Funkee Homosapien "Mr. Lovable"
I Wish My Brother George Was Here
#17. Ras Kass, "Soul On Ice" Demos (1995)
Ras Kass "Capital RAS"
Soul On IceIllmatic
#16. DJ Shadow, "Hip-Hop Reconstruction From the Ground Up" Demo (1991)
DJ Shadow "Hip-Hop Reconstruction From the Ground Up"
#15. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, "C.L. Strikes Again" (1989)
Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth "C.L. Strikes Again"
In Control ShowAll Souled OutThe Basement Demos
#14. Cypress Hill, Six Song Demo (1990)
Cypress Hill "Caliente"
#13. Eminem, "Kid Chaos" Demos (1988-1992)
Eminem f/ Chaos Kid "Artificial Flavour"
#12. Hurricane G "Milky" (1991)
Hurricane G f/ Erick Sermon & Red Man "Milky"
#11. Lord Finesse, Two Song Demo (1989)
Lord Finesse "Bust a Lil' Something (Nautilus Version)"
Funky Dope Manuever EPFDM
#10. 213, Untitled Demo (1991)
Snoop didn’t have to go too far to meet Dr. Dre, considering his LBC group, 213, included the good Dr.’s half-brother, Warren G. But the story of how they got Dre to check out their demo is still pretty cool. As the Doggfather told CNN’s Larry King last August: “We had a cassette tape [demo] and Warren G took it to Dr. Dre’s bachelor party. And the music had cut off from the bachelor party. So he slipped my tape in and when my tape came in, people was dancing to it. And Dre was like, 'Who was that?' [Warren] was like, 'That's my homeboy, Snoop.' He introduced me to him and the rest is history."
And though the untitled demo here doesn’t feature Nate Dogg (R.I.P.), it does present Snoop rapping his ass off for five straight minutes over a tricked out James Brown sample. The young’uns’ rough G-Funk draft was just the traveling music Dre required to move his practice over to Death Row.
#9. Jay-Z "Reach the Top" (1995)
Jay-Z "Reach The Top"
#8. Wu-Tang Clan, Pre-"Protect Ya Neck" Demos (1991-2)
Wu-Tang Clan "After The Laughter"
Demo Cuts Deluxe Edition
#7. Organized Konfusion (p.k.a. Simply Too Positive), Six Song Demo (1990)
Organized Konfusion "Cooling One Day"
#6. Mobb Deep (p.k.a. Poetical Prophets), Four Song Demo (1991)
Poetical Prophets "Flavor For the Non-Believers"
In an era rife with kiddie rappers and R&B singers, Havoc and Prodigy (then doing business as the Poetical Prophets) showed the world that juveniles could roll just as hardcore as any of their degenerate grown-up counterparts. Anchored by a snaking electric piano loop, the OG run-through of “Flavor For the Non-Believers” actually trumps the subsequent released version for grimy appeal. After claiming “Unsigned Hype” honors in July of ’91, the demo attracted the attention of 4th & Broadway A&R (and world famous music journalist) Bonz Malone, paving the way for a name change, and Mobb Deep’s debut LP, Juvenile Hell.
When Mobb Deep’s 4th & Broadway situation deteriorated Havoc approached Matty C—transitioning out of his editorial post at The Source (where he wrote the “Unsigned Hype” column) and into an A&R gig at Loud Records—with a new demo track, “Patty Shop.” It was off the strength of this single demo track that Mobb Deep signed a new deal with Loud. (The remainder of what’s recently circulated as The Infamous Demos consists of fascinating early versions of songs that would later make up the bulk of Mobb Deep’s landmark second album.)
Schott Free on the creative leap the group had made: “On the [first] album Prodigy was more or less the dude choppin’ up [beats]. And Havoc was more or less the lyrical dude—even in a lot of instances writing a lot of Prodigy’s shit. But you see the dynamic switch with the demo. Havoc is the one that’s trying to chop beats and learn the MPC now, and Prodigy has this new style which is calm: ‘You got a lot of heart, boy/All that yappin’/Acting like it can’t happen/It’s niggas like you that fail to realize the realness/So now I gotta deal with this.’ That was a whole ’nother style for him. He [told me], ‘Yo, man, I just decided I want my style to be like I’m talking to these motherfuckers. I’m rappin’, but I want my style to come off like I’m having a conversation.’ And that’s when we love P the best: real calm and just conversatin’ with you.”
#5. Souls of Mischief, "'93 Til Infinity" Demos (1992)
Souls of Mischief "Batting Practice"
#4. Common (p.k.a. Common Sense), Seven Song Demo (1991)
Common Sense "2 The Temple"
Matty C recalls the process by which Common got his deal with Relativity after his demo won “Unsigned Hype” in October 1991: “[The Source] decided to do an “Unsigned Hype” compilation album. It was [going to feature] Mobb Deep, Common, Biggie, DMX, Top Quality, and a few other groups. The [proposed] deal with Relativity was: $5000 per artist, and there was a clause that said, ‘You’re signed [to Relativity] once you do this. So we’ll give you five grand now for this album, and we’ll give you some more money for [your own] album. But we’ll negotiate that later—just sign here.’ And that’s why it didn’t happen. I was like, ‘Hell no, I’m not doing that—I got people ready to pay a hundred grand and more for one or two of these groups at different labels, forget it.’
“Right at the [negotiating] table [the label] broke down and [Relativity execs] Peter Kang and Alan Grunblatt were like, ‘But we’ll take Common.’ Because [Common’s] demo was mad polished. It was the cleanest demo I ever had that won the “Unsigned Hype” and got a deal. It was fully produced out of a studio. [It had] also won the New Music Seminar demo contest that year. It was that [high in] quality. These guys at Relativity didn’t know [about rap]. Peter Kang—he wasn’t really a rap head, he was some Asian kid [into] rock n’ roll. Alan Grunblatt—not really. But the sound quality was so good on that demo, and the music so good—you had the Roy Ayers sample, the Eddie Kendrick sample, real rich sounds—that [Relativity] was just so [impressed].”
#3. Public Enemy "Public Enemy No. 1" (1985)
Public Enemy "Public Enemy No. 1 (WBAU Promo)"
Yo! MTV Raps
#2. Nas, Two Song Demo (1991)
Nas "I'm A Villain"
The Nasty Nas 1991 Demo Tape—sometimes referred to as Prematic—is a great collection of early, largely unreleased Nas material, but accuracy-wise it’s problematic. Of the ten tracks included more than half (including “Déja Vu’s” test run of the guest verse from Raekwon’s “Verbal Intercourse”) were recorded post-1991, some even post-1994. What remains appears to be of more convincing vintage. “Number One With a Bullet” (featuring Kool G Rap and White Boy) was, according to Illmatic executive producer MC Serch, a byproduct of unconsummated business flirtations with Cold Chillin’. In part an early draft of “New York State of Mind,” the superb “Just Another Day In the Projects” previews the storytelling sophistication so intrinsic to Illmatic.
However, as Serch recalls only the dual Large Professor productions “I’m a Villain” (a JBs-sampled beat Extra P had originally reserved for Rakim, but gave to Nas when the Mic God was a no-show at Power Play Studios that particular session) and “Nas Will Prevail” (a.k.a. the OG “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”) are from Nas’ actual demo. The former features lyrics later used on Illmatic’s “One Time 4 Your Mind” and “Represent.” The latter, a signature Stretch and Bobbito exclusive, remains one of the all-time demo classics, as a teenaged Nas flows with a charisma and assuredness far beyond his years.
#1. The Notorious B.I.G., Three Song Demo (1991)
The Notorious B.I.G. "Guaranteed Raw"
Originally recorded in B.I.G.’s DJ 50 Grand’s Bedford Ave. basement before being re-recorded at DJ Mister Cee’s crib, this is the big poppa of rap demos. Forget the fact that it won “Unsigned Hype” honors in March 1992, thus piquing the interest of one Sean Combs and leading to B.I.G.’s deal with Uptown (and consequently) Bad Boy. Forget the fact that it represents the start of one of the most comet-like careers in hip-hop history. Just listen and appreciate the beauty in its simplicity: single-take performances, no overdubs, not even any samples. Just a DJ going back and forth on two copies of classic breakbeats, and an emcee ferociously spitting heat, his burgeoning talent only exceeded by his hunger.
Ironically enough, when B.I.G.’s demo was initially aired on WKCR back in the day the reception was less than enthusiastic. Bobbito: “Me and Stretch did a demo battle around ’92 with a group called Bronx Zu and an unsigned artist named Biggie Smalls [with the winner decided by the listeners]. The phones lit up and... Bronx Zu won by a landslide! Obviously, no one ever heard about them afterwards and Biggie wound up being one of the biggest selling artists of the era. Crazy, right?” No such shenanigans in this countdown, though. Now and forever, B.I.G. is king.