On “Crate Classics,” Album Operator dusts off the records of his college radio sets in Boston (’96-’00) and his days DJing NYC in the early ’00s.

I can’t lie, I was a straight up “backpacker” in the latter half of the ’90s. My college friends and I were obsessed with “underground” hip-hop (a term that just sounds funny today), so it’s no surprise J-Live was on our radar. Nearly every MC not talking about money and jewelry was.

The NYC rapper had released a few great singles in ’96 and his debut album was slated for ’99, before being shelved when he left his label. We got our hands on a burned CD of the album in ’99 or early 2000 and would play it constantly. A very official looking bootleg surfaced on vinyl in 2000 (see pic below), but the album didn’t see official release until May of 2001.

The left is the official release of 2001 and the right is the earlier bootleg (probably put out by J-Live himself). According to Wikipedia, the bootleg started circulating in early 2001 but I bought that shit at Newbury Comics, and you see that price tag sticker with the date on it: 12-14-00.

If you don’t know it, it’s definitely an album worth checking out. And if you do, it’s worth revisiting. Prince Paul, DJ Premier, DJ Spinna, Pete Rock and 88 Keys all contribute top-shelf production. J-Live has a clear flow, a politically conscious mentality (when being woke was called “keeping it real”) and an unwavering drive to push himself forward artistically.

Like on “Braggin’ Writes,” when he DJs and rhymes at the same time. Or when he seamlessly transitions from double time to single time rhyming on “Them That’s Not.” Or when he tells the story of a heist involving two characters that turn out to be personified turntables on “Wax Paper.”

On “Don’t Play,” 88 Keys incredibly makes a sample of Brazilian singer Rosinha De Valenca singing in Portuguese sound like the words, “Don’t play games with J cause you’ll see / on the sidelines your fans be all mine.” It has to be heard to be believed.

Most memorably, J-Live interviews all kinds of people on the street, asking them, “What does it take to make a great MC?,” sequencing their immensely entertaining answers together on “Play.” (I much prefer my burned CD version that has the answers woven throughout the track list.)

The album isn’t perfect. It’s a bit bloated at 19 tracks, 6 of which are over 5 minutes. Not every beat and verse hits as much as it did in 2000, but most still do. J-Live with the mic is like a chef with the blade!