New York MC J-Live caught a good break in 1995, when the hip-hop magazine The Source singled him out for its Unsigned Hype column. A couple of independent singles the following year bolstered his rep and eventually won him a contract with Payday/London. But his debut album, The Best Part, which was supposed to drop in 1999, was lost in the shuffle during corporate restructuring. Bootlegs of the record circulated constantly until it was finally released officially in 2001 on Triple Threat/Seven Heads. But his first disc to receive widespread distribution was last year's All of the Above (Coup d'Etat). Here the onetime middle school teacher evokes a previous, more principled era of hip-hop--the heyday of New York's Native Tongues posse, when De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Black Sheep were the music's vanguard. But though "Like This Anna" clearly salutes Quest's "Bonita Applebum," J-Live's deft wordplay, straightforward beats, and lyrical celebrations of creativity prevent the album from becoming a retro bore. Newark rapper El Da Sensei, who released his solo debut, Relax Relate Release (Seven Heads), in 2002, has also made a serious impact on the underground--he was a member of the Artifacts, a duo that recorded two minor classics for Big Beat/Atlantic in the mid-90s. The twosome was savvy in its choice of samples (Grover Washington Jr., David Axelrod, and Bennie Maupin), and its lean, gritty sound became influential after tracks like "C'mon wit da Git Down" and "Dynamite Soul" became underground hits. As its title suggests, Relax lacks some of the intensity of the best Artifacts work, opting for a jazzier sound, but the MC rhymes about old-school virtues with the best of them. This impressive bill also features Djinji Brown, Diverse, members of Family Tree, and producer Dug Infinite, who's just released a split album with No I.D. on the All Natural label. Friday, January 3, 9 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203. El Da Sensei and Djinji Brown will also appear Monday, January 6, 11 PM, at the Note, 1565 N. Milwaukee; 773-489-0011.