Original Artist: Jay-Z
Original Album: The Black Album (2003)
Historian: Dan Purcell
From its humble beginnings in the late-70s South Bronx, hip-hop has grown into the dominant cultural force in modern America. The music and its associated lingo and fashion have crept into every nook and cranny of our lives. Fairly often, rock and roll fans wonder what happened to all the rock stars, those shining avatars of rebellion who used to terrify the Powers That Be and send thrills up the legs of teenagers. They're still here; these days, they're just called "rappers." Like it or not, rock and roll has long since been assimilated into the mainstream cultural narrative. Hip-hop's assimilation is underway, too, but for now – mostly because of the inevitable racial subtext of the genre – it still has the power to unsettle in a way that rock does not.
Jay-Z, "99 Problems"
From their humble beginnings, Phish has always been as musically omnivorous as any band out there, but for the first 15 years of their existence they never really tried to incorporate hip-hop into their repertoire (unless you count "Punch You in the Eye," which you really shouldn't). This is unsurprising; for all the rap records they buy, suburban white people have always stood on uneasy footing when actually performing hip-hop. Phish, as Trey candidly admitted in Bittersweet Motel, are most certainly suburban white people. To the extent it has paid any notice at all, hip-hop culture's response to the white emcee has generally been mockery, often for good reason. There have been just a couple of exceptions – the Beastie Boys and Eminem – but their popularity only proves the general rule. Even today, hip-hop's many white emcees are typically confined to the underground backpack scene, where their audience consists mainly of other white folks.
Phish's first attempt at bridging this gap came during its cover-heavy 1998 summer U.S. tour, when they tried their hand at the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." But "Sabotage" isn't really a hip-hop tune; it might lack a real melody, but it's a fairly garden-variety riff-rock song, played live by a traditional power trio. It wasn't until the epically sloppy first night of the spring '04 Vegas run that Phish tackled an honest-to-gosh hip-hop jam, when "Girls Girls Girls" emerged in the middle of "Scent of a Mule."
"Girls" was a 2001 hit for the most popular emcee of the era, Brooklyn's own Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z. Trey gave Jay's lyrics a good go, but his modest flow and limited breath control did not suggest he had missed his true calling. It was much more aesthetically pleasing when Phish finally hit Brooklyn for the first shows of their "final" two-leg tour in the summer of 2004 and they invited Jay-Z onstage with them to speak for himself.
At this point Jay was "retired" from actual rapping, having quit the game after the 2003 release of The Black Album to pursue a career on the management side of the music industry. (Bad timing; having since seen the writing on the wall re the fate of that hidebound industry, Jay has since returned to active rhyming.) At the time, the decision smacked of an ego trip, but it also kinda made sense: what else did Mr. Carter have to accomplish? Long gone from Brooklyn's Marcy Projects, he was a multi-millionaire. He had a half-dozen number-one albums to his name. He had engaged in a nasty battle for the mythical title of King of New York with his more artsy but less commercially-viable rival Nas; many people felt he had come out on top, and even Nas partisans had to give it up for "Takeover," one of the most brutal and commanding dis records in the genre's long and storied tradition of dis records. When he took the stage with Phish in Brooklyn, Jay did so as the recently-anointed president of hip-hop's most mythical and still-leading label, Def Jam Records. In other words, Phish was sharing the stage with royalty. The crowd responded accordingly.
Phish w/Jay-Z, "99 Problems," "Big Pimpin'" – 6/18/04, Brooklyn, NY
"99 Problems," one of two songs Phish played with Jay-Z that night, was both a good fit for the band and a fine piece of traditionalist hip-hop. Produced by Rick Rubin, who co-founded Def Jam and helmed the Beastie Boys' multi-platinum debut Licensed to Ill, the original Black Album track was built on two of the most-sampled songs in the genre's history. The pounding two-chord guitar riff came from "Long Red," the leadoff track from 1972's Live (The Road Goes Ever On), by the power trio Mountain, featuring ex-Cream producer Felix Pappalardi on bass and guitarist Leslie West, who had a way with a riff (see also e.g., "Mississippi Queen") but today is mostly remembered for being morbidly obese. (He once released an album titled The Great Fatsby.) The massive drum break was taken from the aptly named "The Big Beat," the debut single by omnipresent late 70s/early 80s hit maker Billy Squier. Both "Long Red" and "The Big Beat" were included on the legendary Ultimate Breaks & Beats collection, which gathered many of the tunes favored by deejays at the 70s South Bronx house and rec-center parties that birthed hip-hop music and culture. Rubin didn't just rely on the Squier tune's big beat; he also spiked the studio version of "99 Problems" with assorted percussion – including cowbell! Phish wisely called on Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista (a sometime member of Trey's solo band) to replicate those polyrhythms. Finally, Jay borrows the title and chorus from a more recent influence: the song of the same name by West Coast proto-gangsta Ice-T from Ice's Home Invasion LP. (Pappalardi and Squier land songwriting credits; Ice does not.)
Unsurprisingly, Phish has yet to revisit "99 Problems" since that night in Brooklyn. One would assume they won't unless Jay-Z joins them onstage again. He just might – in his advancing years, Jay has become pretty omnivorous his own self. In summer 2009, he (along with his equally famous wife, Beyonce Knowles) was spotted bopping his head in the wings at a show by hipster chamber-pop act (and Brooklyn homies) Grizzly Bear. And the emcee seemed genuinely impressed by the Phish audience's fervor during his guest appearance. Surveying the crowd after "99 Problems," before his impromptu backing band broke into "Big Pimpin," he said, "You guys was hiding all this, huh? You was hiding all this from me." On my audience tape, I can hear a really inhospitable person yelling "Fuck Biggie!" and "West Coast!" at the top of his lungs. If Jay heard it, he took the high road and focused on the applause. "I felt it," he affirmed. "I felt it."