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(1) I Shot Ya Freestyle (2001) H Money Bags, Beanie Sigel, Freeway (intro by Jay-Z and Funkmaster Flex)

One of the best experiences in hip-hop is that moment when you first realize that you’re listening to a unique voice (or set of voices). It’s like the scenes in movies about pop/rock stars when everything finally gels and the band/star show flashes of their future as the next big thing, except stardom is besides the point in hip-hop. I still remember when I heard Royce da 5’9” and Eminem freestyle on the Stretch and Bobbito Show in 1998 and felt like I was watching the birth of a star and a legend. There are also the moments when you first realize the strength of a local scene or movement, like the Cam’ron/Dipset mixtapes from the early aughts, the Bad Boy freestyles from 96-97 (which introduced many of us to the LOX and the talent brewing in Yonkers) or the Clipse’s We Got It For Cheap mixtape series in the mid aughts. This track (and the longer one later in this mix) are from a mixtape that has elements of both – it served as an introduction to Freeway (who had a brief guest spot on 1-900 Hustler from Jay-Z’s Dynasty: Roc La Familia album a few months before) and  the State Property crew from Philly. It was also the moment when I realized the true potential of Beanie Sigel.

The track starts with a classic Funkmaster Flex station id and some quick banter between the DJ and Jay Z. Flex puts on the instrumental for the I Shot Ya remix (from LL Cool J’s 1995 Mr. Smith album). H Money Bags’ verse is a great warm up – he says all the tough guy things that one might expect, from “side blocks and dumpsters, that’s where I leave niggas” to “put three in your liver, leave you leaking cheap liquor”.  It’s entertaining but there’s not a lot to distinguish it from any other verse from the era.

Sigel and Freeway arrive on the track next. Sigel had that super clear ‘voice of god’ flow that conformed to my notion of ‘good rapping’ throughout most of the nineties and the early aughts. Freeway was the revelation. He had a strangely high pitched melodic flow that complemented Sigel’s aggressive percussion, particularly when the two exchange verses. The duo start with a dialogue about a robbery scheme (“man, I’m dying to see if my face still work in this mask…”) and transition to individual stories about their transition to adulthood. Beanie emphasizes every word in a way that helps me build momentum during a run. He starts with “sixteen, dog/and I ain’t talking bout years/I’m talking bout bars/I’m talking bout tears” and I find myself tapping into a reserve of energy that I didn’t know I had. Freeway follows with a truncated verse mirroring Beanie’s sketch of his teenage years. It’s a good verse, but it becomes great when Free pivots into a freestyle that is so impassioned that I barely notice when the beat changes. Check out the Youtube video here.