Rappers from The Empire State have always taken great pride in their craft, to the point where it’s tough to argue about where hip hop’s poetic standards were set. They didn’t revolutionize the game and raise the stakes by trying to create the catchiest hook, it’s about who can hit the hardest with the mic in hand. When you think about New York rap, you think of a gritty underground flavor glorified by raw cuts and elite lyricism that attacks the microphone’s proverbial jugular.
One of the unquestioned leaders of elevating that bravado is The Bronx’s own Lord Finesse, whose talents were introduced to hip hop in the late 80s on the strength of his vigorous microphone presence. When Lord Finesse grabbed the mic, he did it with a level of confidence so supreme that it transferred from his vocal cords to the soul of his listeners. The lyrical assassin captured his aura and constantly turned heads with strong wordplay, metaphors, similes, seductive multi-syllable rhyme schemes and a prodigious ability to concoct punchlines with the best of them.
He had all the tools an emcee could ask for, and then some, including the support of some of hip hop’s most creative minds. By the time Finesse landed his first deal with Wild Pitch Records at the ripe age of 19, he had already built connections with a group of captivating revolutionary hip hoppers that united to form the Diggin’ in the Crates Crew, commonly referred to as “D.I.T.C.” Finesse acted as the head of the snake to the group that showcased Diamond D, Showbiz, A.G., Buckwild, O.C. Fat Joe and the late great Big L. These guys were no joke.
Finesse isn’t anything to play with on the breaks, either. As raw as he was on the mic, he was equally impressive of a producer. Aside from producing a large portion of his own music, he worked with some of the top names in the game along the way. You can thank him for putting Big L on and also producing five tracks on L’s debut album Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, including “‘98 Freestyle,” “Street Struck” and hit single “M.V.P.” The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts” was also done by Lord Finesse and you can find him on cuts from O.C.’s first two albums as well as “Add On” from Showbiz & A.G.’s Goodfellas. For a more recent example, Finesse created “Funky Ho’$” from Joey Bada$$’ highly publicized mixtape 1999.
On Lord Finesse’s 1990 debut album Funky Technician, his focus was strictly geared towards coming correct on the mic while he left the production to DJ Mike Smooth, Diamond D, Showbiz and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier. If you can’t bob your head to this record, there is something wrong with you.
Diamond D ate his Wheaties and showed up to play on “Funky Technician,” “I Keep the Crowd Listening” and “Here I Come,” a funky soul track behind a well-placed James Brown sample. Finesse spits heavy bars throughout, highlighted by clean sequences of flows such as: “the rap professional, so intellectual, go against me and I’ll get the best of you, ’cause getting funky is no coincidence, Finesse can flow to any musical instrument.”
“Bad Mutha” is the fourth and final cut from Diamond D on the album, and he hits us with another James Brown sample. This time, he breaks up Brown’s “The Boss,” which is also well-known for showing up on “Get Down” from Nas.
Of the six tracks produced by DJ Premier, standouts include “Baby, You Nasty” and “Keep It Flowing” as well as “Track the Movement,” which is carried by KRS-One’s voice over the hook. It would also be foolish to go without mentioning “Slave to My Soundwave” or the high-energy, back-and-forth collaboration with A.G. on “Back to Back Rhyming,” produced by Showbiz.
Two years later, he and Giant Records (Warner Bros.) followed up strongly with Return of the Funky Man, and this time he had a heavy hand in the album’s production. Finesse showed up on the breaks in more than half of the album’s tracks, but the funky man was once again accompanied by D.I.T.C.’s Diamond D and Showbiz, amongst others.
One of the album’s hardest hitting tracks is “Praise the Lord,” where Diamond D throws Finesse into the fire to attack Quincy Jones’ “Main Squeeze.” The funky technician rose to the challenge and delivered his signature style by continuously connecting with advanced punchlines that painted the picture of his sharp lyrical skill.
The entire album features quality poetry and outstanding soulful samples, which your ears will appreciate on “Fat for the 90s” (featuring A.G.), “Isn’t He Something,” “Hey Look at Shorty” and “Stop Sweating the Next Man.” Finesse lays down smooth bars that profile his pimp game behind uplifting production on “That’s How Smooth I Am” and “I Like My Girls With a Boom.”
In 1996, Lord Finesse produced 14 out of 16 songs on his third and final solo album The Awakening, displaying a much darker tone than previous projects had captured. The Awakening‘s raw resonance complemented his microphone presence beautifully and left underground heads particularly pleased.
Finesse, KRS-One and O.C. leave your head banging on “Brainstorm/P.S.K.” as the trio combine to attack the mic with three hard-hitting verses behind a beat that makes you want to fight. KRS-One also shows up with Finesse on top of a booming drum pattern on “No Gimmicks.”
Single “Hip 2 Da Game” is often viewed as the most complete track on the album on the strength of its full instrumental and bars that remind you of the name Lord Finesse made for himself. The vocal sample of Big Daddy Kane’s “mmm, mmm, mmm” set the tone for the inspiriting vibe siezed in “Food For Thought,” another one of The Awakening‘s better records.
Lord Finesse comes rude and lyrically puts himself on display on “Flip Da Style,” “True and Livin‘” and “Speak Ya Peace” (featuring A.G. & Diamond D). The only complaint anyone can have about the cut exhibited on “Words From Da Ak” is the fact that it is only one minute and 34 seconds in length.
After roughly three years of recording, the D.I.T.C. album was officially released by Tommy Boy Records in February of 2000, a week following the one-year anniversary of Big L’s death. D.I.T.C. delivers the grimey goods and even includes features from Big Pun, KRS-One and Cuban Link.
While he was heavily involved in D.I.T.C.’s formation and production, Lord Finesse unfortunately contributed just four verses on the album. On the bright side, Big L layed down 11, highlighted by “Way of Life” and DJ Premier’s “Da Enemy” and “Thick.”
Finesse, Big L, O.C. and A.G. collaborate over one of the best Showbiz cuts on the album in “Stand Strong,” and they get the job done with Diamond D and Fat Joe on single “Day One.” You may have also heard that instrumental on Puff Daddy’s 1997 track “Young Gs” with Biggie and Jay-Z.
Lord Finesse is one of the best rappers and producers of his time and generally speaking, it’s a shame how little he is mentioned. His sales simply do not reflect on how good he is at his craft or the influence he had on the come up. He never conquered the commercial scene, but make no mistake about it, Lord Finesse is one of the all-time greatest punchline rappers and lyricists to ever grace the mic.
Hip hop wouldn’t be the same without him. As he notes on “Hip 2 Da Game,” “rap without Finesse is like life without oxygen.”