Every successful rapper has an equally talented underground counterpart—emcees they are compared to for sharing some common history, creative influence, social inspiration or rhyme style—who, for varying reasons, never attain the same level of notoriety. Regardless, some maintain rewarding independent careers, trading fortune and fame for modest but loyal cult followings, often enjoying more longevity than the average mainstream artist.

Then there’s that special brand of underachiever—the extremely gifted kind whose talent and originality should help them easily break through the monotonous hordes of dime-a-dozen spitters, but inexplicably remains in relative obscurity, perpetually slept on, despite their undeniable skill.

Then again, not every emcee shares the same ideal of success. Some, as Al-Shid told Guerrilla Grooves Radio last year, don’t need fame; they “just want to be felt.”

In the roughly two decades that Shid’s been in the game, he’s never released a proper studio album. Although he did drop a couple of mixtapes with his Sound Bar Recordings crew in the mid 2000s, he’s mostly known for his earlier work with rapper, producer and breakbeat aficionado J-Zone—the super powered sample chopping wizard with an ingenious, albeit oddball musical aesthetic.

In fact, the majority of Shid’s available catalog is limited to guest appearances on Zone’s eccentric, sometimes straight-up ridiculous, but always inventive and masterfully produced projects—often appearing as the sole rapper on full songs, as opposed to just spitting single verses. Incidentally, his imaginative concepts, hard-to-catch punchlines and long-running multiple entendres have always left fans hoping he’d release his own full-length LP (preferably Zone produced). “As a producer I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a lot of great MCs, but Al-Shid is the only one I still have recordings of verses he left on my answering machine in 2001,” Zone posted on Facebook earlier this year. “By far my greatest musical chemistry ever with an MC and in my personal top 10 MCs of all time.”

Most of his fans were probably introduced to the Roosevelt, Long Island rapper on Zone’s 1998 debut, Music For Tu Madre. Both SUNY Purchase students, Zone met Shid in college and featured him on two tracks off his senior project turned first album—“So Pretty” and “S.H.I.D.” Reportedly written when he was only 17, the latter was the initial installment in a series of songs designed to showcase the emcee’s lyrical prowess—on which he revealed that the hyphenated section of his name is actually an acronym for “Still Holdin’ It Down.”

Shid has appeared on almost all of the rapping producer’s projects since, originally as part of the somewhat mismatched Old Maid Billionaires crew (alongside over-the-top Old Maid Entertainment founder Zone and offbeat label mate Huggy Bear). On their early records, Shid’s distinguishing cadence, effortless flow and complex wordplay stood out, often requiring back-to-back listens to catch every clever line. Take, for example, his solo offerings “Recess” and “The First Day of School” off Zone’s second album, A Bottle of Whup Ass, released in 2000.

Although clearly sharp-witted, Shid wasn’t known for social commentary or particularly thought-provoking content, however. In those days, the depth of his lyrics tended to lie in their construction, rather than the ideas they conveyed. Like a less flossy Big L or Eminem minus the temperamental introspection, Shid relied mostly on shock value and, of course, his verbal dexterity to turn heads. “Al-Shid was there to knock somebody out, to let them know we weren’t a novelty act,” Zone explained to the A.V. Club.

Shid was always a consummate storyteller, though, evident in songs like “190”—another track off Zone’s sophomore LP, on which he accounted some of the problematic outcomes of alcoholism.

Around that time, Shid joined Zone on tour in Europe, performing for only $70 here and (at most) $200 there. Regardless, rocking with Old Maid overseas became one of his fondest musical memories. “We were sleepin’ in promoters’ cribs [and] these small ass hotel rooms, doin’ these little small venues,” he told TheBeeShine. “It wasn’t the best financial situation, but it was the greatest experience I had in hip hop—’cause that’s when I felt like, you know what, I’m doin’ it.”

In 2001, Zone dropped his third project, an Old Maid label compilation of sorts called Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes, which included the fifth installment of “S.H.I.D.” The fourth was released on the b-side of the album’s first single, “Live From Pimp Palace East,” while parts two and three were presumably never put out.

Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes was significantly well-received, especially considering its 9/11 release date (which impacted the crew’s ability to properly tour the project). It even garnered the attention of Atlantic Records, who allegedly intended to re-release it. Zone, however, doubted the likelihood of their proposed plan and opted to remain independent—claiming they “weren’t sold” on Shid or Hug, despite their interest in the LP.

It wasn’t until early 2002 that Shid dropped his first solo 12”—a tongue-in-cheek cut titled “Ign’ant,” featuring Zone’s dynamic production. With razor-edged bars, like his assertion as the “hottest thing to hit the streets of New York since Building 7” only months after September 11, the song was a strong demonstration of the artist’s abrasive wit. It was on the single’s b-side, “Fight Club,” that Shid delivered some of his most elaborate puns, however: “I symbolize for simple eyes that can’t see the meaning / For coke heads that’d rather sniff lines than read between ’em / Your brain’s like a uterus, I provide the semen / Which means I’m fuckin’ with your head ’til you start conceiving.”

Shid really shines on his conceptual tracks, though. Later in 2002, for his second solo release, the rapper expertly employed mathematic terminology to berate gold diggers and the men that succumb to their seduction on “M.A.T.H.”—another b-side, and one of his most popular songs to date. Unfortunately, it would be his last Old Maid 12” record, as the trio amicably parted ways to explore other musical avenues soon after.

Although Shid would appear on Zone’s next two LPs—Sick of Bein’ Rich in 2003 and A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work in 2004—by 2006 he had established his own clique, Sound Bar Recordings. Together, the “SBR Animals” released a little-known, short-lived mixtape series ironically titled Fly Rap Money.

Besides guest spots on Zone’s Chief Chinchilla: Live at the Liqua Sto in 2008 and Peter Pan Syndrome in 2013, Shid hadn’t put much out since he dropped Fly Rap Money II: The Compilation a decade ago. That is until 2015, when he resurfaced to release a collaborative mixtape with lifestyle brand This Respek Wear (which became well-known for challenging Cash Money Records founder Birdman’s infamous use of the term a year later). They also shot a couple of videos to accompany the project, one of which was for Shid’s “Black Kings” song with Super Scott and Sound Bar affiliate Big Apple.

In 2015, Shid also dropped “Shotgun,” an ambiguously produced digital single featuring Zone’s drumming. Though still riddled with his trademark wordplay, both songs were a departure from Shid’s earlier music. “Black Kings” explored sociopolitical subject matter not typical for the emcee, while “Shotgun” was significantly more contemplative and introspective. For fans of his work with Old Maid, however, the absence of Zone’s distinctive production was brutally apparent. Still, Zone assured more music from the unofficial duo to come on Twitter—but did not specify in what form.

Unfortunately, they did not end up dropping a full-length Shid project (besides a catalog album of their previous collaborations), but they did still make good on the promise. Later in 2015, Shid released a familiarly braggadocios and punchline-heavy Zone-produced single, “Clubba Lang”—at the end of which Zone jokingly referred to the song as “‘Still Holdin’ It Down Part 47,’ [or] something like that.” “Clubba Lang” would also be featured on Zone’s 2016 Fish-N-Grits LP, along with a secondary track by the pair called “Dreamcrusher.”

Most recently, however, in the wake of the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of law enforcement, Shid released a poignant song about police brutality titled “Fire In My Heart”—once again straying from the formula of his early work.

Over the years, Shid has proven himself an increasingly well-rounded emcee who has yet to lose his integrity or artistic edge. Although he’s regrettably never been the “center of attention like the letter n,” contrary to his claim on the original “S.H.I.D.”—in regards to sheer lyricism, he has always managed to hold it down.

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Some music is so original, creative and straight-up good that it never gets tired or played out. Actually, timeless is such an appropriate one-word account of the Juggaknots’ catalogue that, despite only dropping two studio albums literally a decade apart, the all-sibling trio has managed to maintain their status as underground legends—still invoking excitement in the most dedicated hip-hop heads, even over ten years after their last release.

Juggaknots

In fact, their discontinued debut became such a sought-after cult classic that original vinyl pressings of the album supposedly sold for upwards of $100, before its eventual re-release. Unfortunately, while definitely celebrated within certain circles, the Juggs never achieved the widespread notoriety they deserved—remaining somewhat of a well-hidden secret, albeit a personal favorite for many.

Early in their career, however, the Bronx-bred group seemed destined for a different path—penning a major label deal with East West/Elektra Records circa 1994 and joining the ranks of signees like Das EFX and Missy Elliott. At the time, the Juggs consisted of brothers Breeze Brewin and Buddy Slim. Queen Herawin, their sister, “kind of fought her way in” later, as Breeze joked on Rap Is Outta Control with DJ Eclipse last year.

Incidentally, Slim had earned himself a reputation for producing R&B tracks, allegedly working with acts like Horace Brown and Missy’s seminal group Sista, which helped the Juggs secure their contract. Regardless, the siblings’ stint on the label was brief, and they lost their deal without even dropping a single. Toward the end of their tenure, the group was called into a meeting where various East West artists were instructed to share what they’d been working on. “You heard like a Missy joint, and this joint and that joint. 8-Off [Agallah] had ‘Ghetto Girl,’” Breeze recalled. “We played ‘Jivetalk’ … and it was like somebody died.”

Although East West may not have shared their vision, someone else did—Bobbito Garcia, who hosted the fabled Stretch and Bobbito radio show on WKCR in the ’90s and owned an influential, mostly-vinyl label called Fondle ’Em Records (a “division of Tickle ’Em Label Group” and “subsidiary of Squeeze ’Em Entertainment,” as was proudly printed on their early 12” records). Bobbito built his brand working with artists who’d been dropped by majors, and would eventually help launch the indie careers of emcees like MF Doom (another Elektra castaway) and Cage (who was previously signed to Columbia). Following their first release, a project by Kool Keith and Godfather Don as the Cenobites, the ragtag label put out the Juggaknots’ 1996 debut—a roughly mixed nine-track masterpiece of material that East West hadn’t known what to do with.

While Slim definitely held his own trading “Troubleman” verses with Breeze, it’s a shame he didn’t rap more on the project—as his gruff baritone voice and in-the-pocket delivery perfectly juxtaposed his brother’s higher-pitched timbre and frenetic, multisyllabic rhyme schemes. That being said, the Brewin established himself as an exceptional lyricist and songwriter throughout the LP. With advanced wordplay, strong punchlines, original concepts and a distinguishing flow, it’s not hard to understand why in-the-know fans consider him one of the best lyricists to ever touch a mic. Most impressive on that album, however, was his knack for imaginative storytelling. “Breeze should write movie scripts, with his intuition and wit,” Bobbito affirmed in the liner notes of the indie’s 2001 closure compilation, Farewell Fondle ’Em.

According to the label on the original pressing of the Juggaknots’ first LP, the album was technically self-titled. It has also been referred to as Clear Blue Skies, however, after one of the project’s most revered cuts. The de facto title track featured Breeze rapping as both a white father and his son, arguing about the latter’s interracial relationship.

The harrowing song “Loosifa,” another poignant hip-hop mini-drama, told the tale of Smokey—a reformed stick-up kid who got a job in a maternity ward and lost his shit after being forced to discard a stillborn crack baby. He then decided to dole out some street justice and take down a local crack house, sacrificing himself in the process and leaving his pregnant wife a widow.

Breeze’s personal favorite, however, was a thriller titled “I’m Gonna Kill You”—on which the rapper accounted a torrid love affair and ensuing death threat, resulting in a paranoid episode with an unexpected plot twist.

Although its original run was limited, the Juggaknots’ LP grew so popular that the group decided to put it back out as Re:Release in the early 2000s, along with eleven new tracks. On CD format, the album was more accessible than its predecessor and flew off the shelves of indie record stores like Fat Beats (where, incidentally, Breeze worked for some time). It has since been reissued twice more, most recently as a blue vinyl double LP with three new mixes earlier this year. The 500-copy limited edition may be worth investing in, even to owners of the original, just for the nod-inspiring “Supaman Original Tape Mix” of “Watch Your Head.”

In between reissues of their classic debut, the Juggs have managed to stay considerably relevant—although only releasing music sparsely, mostly in the form of singles and guest appearances. They formed a short-lived supergroup called the Indelible MC’s with J-Treds and Company Flow (El-P of Run the Jewels, rapper Bigg Jus and DJ Mr. Len), dropping two singles in ’97 and ’98, respectively—one of which (“The Fire In Which You Burn”) was featured on Co Flow’s influential Funcrusher Plus LP, as well as Rawkus Records’ famed Soundbombing mixtape, and the other (“Weight”) on the first Lyricist Lounge compilation.

Breeze has typically been at the forefront of the effort to uphold their legacy, appearing on projects by J-Zone, Marco Polo, Tame One of the Artifacts, Cannibal Ox, Homeboy Sandman, Aesop Rock and as one of the Weathermen (alongside Camu Tao, El-P and more). Most memorable, however, was Breeze’s work with legendary producer Prince Paul—starring as Tariq on his sophomore album A Prince Among Thieves, the bar-setting hip-hopera, in 1999.

Breeze got the part after sending Paul an early Juggaknots demo while still signed to East West, hoping to enlist his services on their would-be label release. Much to the Brewin’s surprise, years later, it was Paul who would recruit him—supposedly seeking him out and finally getting in touch through Eclipse at Fat Beats, who hired Breeze to work at the iconic store.

Although the concept album featured guest spots by legends like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Sadat X, Kool Keith and De La Soul, Breeze was selected to be the classic LP’s protagonist—and the honor was not lost on the grateful MC, who killed the role. Unfortunately, though well-received, the Tommy Boy gem failed to propel his career in any significant way, however—and he didn’t end up dropping another proper studio album until seven years later, with his brother and sister.

Following a few dope singles, as well as a 2004 conceptual compilation mixtape called The Love Deluxe Movement, the Juggaknots finally put out their second LP in 2006. Use Your Confusion was noticeably different than their first, in that everything about the project seemed more polished, marketed and deliberate—from celebrity features (Slick Rick and Sadat X) to expertly-executed thematic concepts (like a whole song about smiling). Even its advertised “hologram cover art” was a far cry from the Juggs original Fondle ’Em white label.

Herawin also really came into her own as a lyricist, on the project—skillfully going bar for bar with her brothers. Eventually, she even beat Breeze to a solo release, dropping her own album, Metamorphosis, in 2015.

Of course, the Brewin has remained active over the years, himself—sporadically dropping singles and videos. He even penned a response to Kendrick Lamar’s infamous “Control” verse a couple of years ago, triggered by Kenny’s line “the juggernaut’s all in your jugular” (most likely intentionally taking it out of context), as well as the Compton emcee’s claim to be the king of New York. Unlike some of his peers’ attempts, Breeze’s diss was more the good-natured imparting of elderly wisdom from an underground veteran to a relative newcomer than it was a straight up schooling.

In fact, as a whole, the Juggaknots have aged gracefully—never seeming out-of-touch, despite prolonged hiatuses, perhaps indicative of their shared vocation as actual school teachers. Their last project, however, was another collector-oriented vinyl release, a 2015 compilation of pre East West demos called Baby Pictures (c. 1989-1993).

They really haven’t put a body of new music out together since 2006, considering, making them a year overdue on their one album per decade average. It’s all gravy, though, because their existing catalogue is ageless enough to hold the group’s legacy down for a lifetime.

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