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Forgotten Classics: Young Zee – “Musical Meltdown” (1996)

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How do you write about Young Zee? The scorned New Jersey rapper who was a prominent member of The Outsidaz, Eminem’s first group, has been almost completely wiped from the history books. Little information is known about him: he dated Rah Digga, another Outsidaz crew member; he’s been featured on a couple of Green Lantern’s “Invasion” mixtapes and the D12 World album; he was signed to Perspective Records, which released music from the likes of Lo-Key, Mint Condition, Pudgee Tha Phat Bastard, and many more until it closed in 1997; he put together an album called Musical Meltdown in 1996, but despite it’s reputation as a classic album, it was shelved and never saw an official release.

To add to his opaque profile, his music is overly typical ’90s rap. He wasn’t a game changer or a boundary pusher—he just had dope beats and dope rhymes. His strength was, like many MCs who stand out from the pack, in his voice, a high-pitched squawk that sounded like it was choking on a lollipop and probably influenced Danny Brown.

Musical Meltdown featured production by Ski Beatz, KRS-One and Twista with appearances by Lauryn Hill, Busta Rhymes, and KRS-One. There was a video, albeit low budget, shot for “Problems,” and Q-Tip even remixed “Everybody Get,” Zee’s very first single for Perspective from 1995. Yet still, the album hit a brick wall.

Perhaps it was because of his limited range. He was firstly a punchline MC, obsessed with wordplay more than any coherent message. There is no underlying agenda to Musical Meltdown; the album’s title hints at how Zee melts language down to the raw elements of sound. It’s surrounded by the haze of 90’s rap production without ever reaching for crossover appeal.

But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been popular amongst hardcore hip-hop fans. If ever there was a time for Boom Bap to flourish, it was in the mid-90s. There was a much larger event that loomed over the eminent release of the album, one handed down from rap’s most prestigious editorial institution of that era: an unsettling 2 mic review from The Source in the summer of 1996.   

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Above is the original review as it was printed in the June issue that had The Geto Boys on the cover. The Source was known for their rating system, which acted as a consumer guide both by design (a 3 mic record was defined as, “Good, worth checking out”) and by the people that read it, who often checked out albums off the strength of their ratings in the magazine.

A 2 mic rating was almost as rare as a 5 mic rating (for comparison, DJ Yella’s One More Nigga To Go and MC Brainz’s Brainwashed received gentle 2.5 mic ratings in the same issue), so a negative write-up might have prompted the record company to pull the plug on Young Zee. Perspective was apparently unhappy with the sales of rap records by artists like Pudgee Tha Phat Bastard anyway, and money was already becoming scarce in ’96. A terrible review of Young Zee’s album by the most respected rap magazine in the world might have been the final nail in the coffin for hip-hop at the label.

The review itself revolved around what the writer considered to be Zee’s fatal flaw—blatant unoriginality. Poluhoff can’t seem to get Redman and Erick Sermon out of his head as he listens to Zee, perhaps because Reggie Noble also hailed from New Jersey. Don’t forget, Redman’s third album, Muddy Waters, dropped in December of ’96, getting a 4 mic rating in The Source and forever cementing Redman’s deification. Two years prior, Dare Iz A Darkside had gotten the same amount of mics. To sound anything like the Funk Doc was probably a crime at The Source.

And so Young Zee was swiftly banished from the annals of greatness. He has never released a proper solo album, though you can peep what little material Noz dug up in recent years.

Perhaps this is what we rap nerds wanted in our heart of hearts. There are numerous versions of Musical Meltdown floating around the internet, some including posse cuts like “Hard Act To Follow” and “Macosa,” both of which feature savage Eminem verses, others missing key songs like the fun-loving “Throw Your Hands In The Sky.” For anyone looking to track down every version, it presents a challenge that’s rewarding if you can collect them all. The harder the search, the more enjoyable the discovery.

But deep down, it feels like Young Zee hasn’t gotten his due appreciation. Yes, he often utilizes the verbal acrobatics of Redman, but he’s also got a vocal delivery that’s unlike anyone else’s. Zee was more of an offshoot than a carbon copy. He was a charismatic MC who spouted deranged humor in a succession of quirky snapshots. Regardless of why he never got his shine, Zee’s music has gone underprivileged for almost 20 years. Either that, or I’m just kidding myself.

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