History usually remembers Common, Da Brat, and Twista as the first breakout stars from Chicago, but that’s only part of the equation. During the summer of ’96, many were first introduced to Midwestern music (non-Bone Thugs edition) via The Box, where “Po Pimp” and “Hay” battled it out all summer as two of the most requested anthems. It’s bizarre remembering a world where a music video on a request line could propel a group to national stardom, but that’s exactly what happened with Crucial Conflict.
Signed to Fab Five Freddy’s Pallas imprint, the quartet from the Westside of Chicago suddenly became ubiquitous on Yo! MTV Raps, Rap City, and The Box — re-popularizing the one-strapped overall for the first time since Cross Colours fell off a few years prior. Comparisons to Bone were obvious, but in hindsight, it was probably just the cumulative effect of Midwestern speed rap. Hip-Hop was at an interesting crossroads, as Freestyle Fellowship, Bone, Triple Six, Do or Die & Twista, and Crucial Conflict blew up in their home regions for rapping in high velocity double and triplicate time, while in New York, Jay Z slowed it down to finally erase memories of the “Originators” era.
Produced by Wildstyle, the beat for “Hay” sounds like few I’ve heard before or since. He chopped a vocal sample from Funkadelic’s “I’ll Stay” into “Haay,” and the beat almost sounds like proto-Timbaland crossed with G-Funk to make sinister rodeo music — with a video featuring vixens making it rain with hay and a fumbling gunslinger dressed as Zorro. If Crucial Conflict came out today, they’d probably end up something like Migos — a bunch of rappers who never get enough credit for being monsters at rapping, but who lack a clear-cut lane in the polished major label system. At the time, CC got forced into the pressures of trying to produce a hit as big as “Hay,” which never happened. Maybe it was also the politics of being from Chicago, which never produced its Rap-A-Lot, Sick Wid It, or Hypnotize Minds. When Pallas folded, they got shifted to Uptown/Universal, Andre Harrell’s label, best known for Father MC, Mary J Blige, Jodeci, and for firing a young Puffy Combs.
Uptown had little clue how to market street rap (see also: McGruff), and the Box was already out of vogue. Hip-Hop was firmly entrenched in the jiggy era and there was little oxygen for a song like 1998’s “Scummy,” which still slaps. Or Good Side, Bad Side’s other single, “Ride the Rodeo,” which is probably the best rap song to ever equate breakaway roping with rouge sex. But “Hay” will forever go, celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, one of these timeless sleeper anthems that will be played until people stop smoking.