Above the Law - Murder Rap

The 100 Best Rap Singles of 1990: Above the Law

Throughout the 90s, Above the Law would score bigger and better music. But they never matched the impact of their first two hits.

Above the Law
“Murder Rap” (Ruthless Records)
Billboard chart position: Hot Rap Singles (#1)

Above the Law
“Untouchable”/”What Cha Can Prove (Mega Mix)” (Ruthless Records)
Billboard chart position: Hot Rap Singles (#1)

Throughout the 90s, Above the Law would score bigger hits (“Black Superman”) and chart bigger albums (1993’s Black Mafia Life), but they never matched the impact of their 1990 debut, Livin’ Like Hustlers. Much of that had little to do with quality. Ruthless and major-label distributor Epic Records groomed them as successors to N.W.A., resulting in a promotional budget (and two number-one Billboard rap hits) they’d never quite enjoy again. To the public, they seemed like thuggish enforcers, thanks to widely reported scrapes with ex-labelmate Ice Cube’s Lench Mob at sundry industry functions. In retrospect, that reputation overshadowed their genuine musical talent, and group leader Cold 187um’s legacy as a key figure in the development of G-funk.

“Murder Rap” is a maelstrom of rippling bass that barely coalesces into a rhythm, scratched cuts and a whirring siren reminiscent of the Bomb Squad. Despite the title, Cold 187um’s rhymes are strictly MC cipher boasts, and he’s “taking out posses, causing bodily harm.” The late KMG only adds a few spoken words; but he takes a more prominent role on “Untouchable,” kicking parts of the second and third verses as well as the chorus. “Untouchable, it’s not what you know it’s what you can prove,” he says. The track is built over a sample of Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Light My Fire,” just like De La Soul’s “A Roller Skating Jam Called ‘Saturdays’” would be in 1991. Future efforts would find Above the Law charting a wholly unique path, whether a national audience followed or not.

Read more: The 100 Best Rap Singles of 1990


Kings from Queens: The Run DMC Story

The tale of Run-DMC has been told many, many times in numerous forms, from autobiographies to a VH-1 Behind the Music episode. The appeal of Kings from Queens: The Run-DMC Story, beyond its commentary from sundry golden-age legends like MC Lyte and LL Cool J as well as familiar music-doc talking heads like Questlove, is to give testimony about a history that most fans of a certain age will know by heart. The three-part documentary debuted on Peacock on February 1 and, without commercials, lasts around two-and-a-half hours. But it isn’t exhaustive and tacitly avoids some of the group’s controversies. (Run and DMC are listed as executive producers.) Jam Master Jay is rightfully memorialized, but the doc avoids the murky circumstances surrounding his 2002 murder. Jay’s famed protégé 50 Cent is also absent. The group’s final album, 1999’s Crown Royal, goes unmentioned, as does Rev Run’s disappointing solo excursion, 2005’s Distortion. Even their battles with record label Profile, documented in books such as Raising Hell: The Reign, Ruin, and Redemption of Run-D.M.C., are glossed over. The filmmakers rightly conclude that old heads will enjoy throwback clips of the trio performing at Live Aid in Philadelphia, and DMC’s heart-rending confessions about struggling with substance abuse and finding solace in Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” But where are the post-millennial voices like Joey Bada$$, Fivio Foreign, or Nicki Minaj? Where are the scenes connecting Run-DMC’s sound with modern-day shouters like Meek Mill? While the filmmakers don’t need to pander to the kids, failing to illustrate why younger audiences should care about these 80s hip-hop heroes seems like a missed opportunity to burnish their legend. Kings from Queens is directed by Kirk Fraser and produced by Believe Entertainment Group.

May the Lord Watch: The Little Brother Story

A common trope of authorized music documentaries such as May the Lord Watch: The Little Brother Story is that the filmmakers tend to deliver lengthy, single-camera interviews instead of a compelling, dynamic story. It opens promisingly enough with photos and camcorder footage of Little Brother’s rise in North Carolina during the turn of the century and the making of their 2003 classic The Listening. Animated clips, courtesy of Creative Junk Food studio, as well as talking heads such as The Roots’ figurehead Questlove and journalist Dart Adams fuel the narrative. But eventually, the doc slows to a crawl as Phonte Coleman and Big Pooh go back and forth, detailing issues with former labels ABB Records and Atlantic Records as well each other, leading to a 2010 breakup, a reconciliation, and an anticipated reunion album, 2019’s May the Lord Watch. Fans who have followed the Little Brother story won’t be surprised by the absence of producer and group co-founder 9th Wonder. More damaging is that the filmmakers fail to show instead of tell us how Little Brother are part of a “bridge” between Native Tongues and current superstars like Kendrick Lamar and Drake. Fewer scenes of the duo sitting in separate rooms, talking into a camera would have helped. And did you know that Big Pooh featured on Lamar’s breakthrough mixtape, Kendrick Lamar EP? Look it up because this film won’t tell you, although it manages to include an unexplained clip featuring Pooh, Lamar, and Ab-Soul. May the Lord Watch is directed by Holland Randolph Gallagher, and was released on YouTube last November. Little Brother and the company Rap Portraits, a collaboration between Gallagher and Yoh Phillips, produced it.