Monday, August 25, 2014

Get On the Short Bus

The 90s was the decade of "the soundtrack movie," where some film deals were structured as much or more on the accompanying soundtrack album, and the profits that could make, than the film itself.  Having trouble getting your movie financed? Buy a couple original songs from some popular rappers and parlay that into a studio pick-up. It started with some hip-hop-related films having hugely popular soundtracks into films that didn't even necessarily have to exist because they were just an excuse to make high selling compilation albums. From Above the Rim to Tales From the Hood, the album's have longer lasting legacies than the movies themselves. Even Warren Beatty put one together (remember Bulworth? Or are you just picturing the music video for "Ghetto Superstar?"). The movies got cheaper and cheaper (consider Master P movies, and their knock-offs) because it became more and more apparent the movies were just excuses for record labels and Hollywood to cross-pollinate funds and eventually the well ran dry.

Now, it would be unfair to say every soundtrack movie is a poor film; but there was an ever increasing stigma attached to them, and it's hard to call that undeserved. And that stigma is probably why Spike Lee never really made a film with a fully hip-hop soundtrack. He was classier and careful to project the image of a higher profile film-maker. But because he was always in tune with hip-hop and working with some of its best artists, it put us heads into a regularly recurring rough spot: do I want to buy this full album of stuff I don't care about just for one or two good songs? If you're not a jazz fan, the buying the full soundtrack to Mo' Better Blues just for that (excellent) Gangstarr song was a tough pill to swallow. At least "Crooklyn Dodgers" and its sequel from Clockers were released as singles. Bamboozled had about four songs and one of them was a Charli Baltimore track; so you really felt like you had to grossly overpay anytime you wanted just one or two songs.

Get On the Bus is another perfect example. Anytime a Spike Lee joint comes out, you have to run and check the soundtrack to see what we've gotten; and in this case there were three rap songs amidst a see of R&B, from Curtis Mayfield to Earth, Wind and Fire. But what tempting rap songs... A Tribe Called Quest, Doug E. Fresh and Guru. And remember, this was 1996, back before seeing Guru's name meant "produced by Solar." Every time I went to a music store I'd pick it, reread the track-listing and consider it; but I never pulled the trigger. And I'm glad I didn't. Because when I got older and hipper to getting my hands on DJ vinyl, I found otu about this ideal promo EP.

Get On the Bus Sampler is an official promo release from Interscope which features all three of the hip-hop tracks. Plus the D'Angelo song, because I guess they wanted to fill out the side with something and they figured he was "pretty hip-hop." But let's get into the rap songs because all three are nice and exclusive ...though Tribe's would turn up on a compilation album or two down the road.

The Tribe song is "The Remedy." Again, even if you never heard the soundtrack you're probably familiar with this song; but this is where it originated from. The label (to the EP or the full soundtrack) doesn't mention it, but it also features Common. This was from Tribe's fourth album era, when the group was starting to split, so there's no Phife on here, and the track is co-produced by Jay Dee. Fortunately, Jay's talents were enough to rescue what might have otherwise been a sinking ship; and the fact that this is on the soundtrack of a film about the Million Man March seems to have inspired some extra thoughtful and substantive lyrics from Tip and Common. So troubles or no, this winds up being a very compelling, funky little Tribe song that could fit easily onto any 'greatest hits' compilation.

Doug E. Fresh's song is either called "Tonite's the Nite" or "Tonite's the Night," depending on whether you believe the label to the EP or the full soundtrack. Personally, I prefer the EP's dual-'Nite" titling, just for the consistency. 1996 would put this well after Doug's New Get Fresh Crew phase, but this song still features Miss Jones on the hook. It's definitely on the pop side, and the hook is a bit much, but it's nicely produced by Clark Kent who's made a really suitable track for Doug to rock over. with some fresh and catchy samples and an upbeat but funky vibe. It definitely sounds more modern, but none the less captures the spirit of The World's Greatest Entertainer album, especially when the Chill Will and Barry B start scratching over the funky bassline.

Finally we have Guru's "Destiny Is Calling." And no, DJ Premier isn't on the boards. It's actually produced by... Permanent Revolution. Whoever the fuck that is. They've made a sitar-heavy track which is interesting but doesn't really click. It's okay, and Guru tackles some serious topics. But then again, his lyrics and delivery are pretty simple and choppy, with forced rhymes like "dollars" and "swallow." It's not bad, but definitely disappointing for all of us who've heard album after album of Gangstarr before this. You know this could've been a lot better and a really powerful call to change our society, ut instead it's just "meh."

But even with that little disappointment, this is a very sweet little EP. I mean, it's a must-have for the Tribe song alone, everything else is just gravy. And while I could see other heads not getting on board with it, I was pleasantly surprised by the Doug E. Fresh song. I'm really happy to have this in my crates, and extra pleased that I never wasted more money on the full soundtrack. And you know, eighteen years later, I honestly can't remember if I ever saw Get On the Bus or not. I can picture flashes of it, but those might just be from the trailer...? I'm not sure. But I'll remember "The Remedy" for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Raheem the Vigilante Raps for King Ad Rock

In 1989, when The Beastie Boys had just exploded into mainstream popularity with their Def Jam records, corporate America was watching. And just like they've attempted to cash in on young pop stars' popularity by casting everyone from Elvis to Vanilla Ice in their own films, so too did King Ad Rock get to star in his big budget star vehicle. And really, if you watch any of these movies - from Britney Spears' Crossroads or Eminem's 8 Mile all the way back to Mamie Van Doren's Untamed Youth and before - they're essentially the story. Underdog youth has major family issues and runs counter to the status quo/ authority and usually specifically the law, only to discover the specialness within themselves, choose good friends over bad friends and overcome their circumstances. It's pure teen pandering, of course, since that's who these movies are aimed at, since their casting their heroes.

Well, Lost Angels is no exception, it's got every cliché in spades. Ad Rock comes from rich Californian parents who don't understand him. They're divorced and treat him like an outcast because he's in a gang (who strangely pretend to be Latin), even though he really doesn't want to hurt anybody and is just following along because of peer pressure. He falls in love with a bored rich girl (her mom tells her to clean her car, so she drives it into their swimming pool), who seems out of his league, but really she's just another troubled teen in with the wrong crown. He gets into a gang fight and there's some legal scenes which really make no sense if you think about them (his father walks into juvenile court with a paper bag full of pills his mother is abusing, dumps them on the floor, and so Ad Rock is sentenced for having them, even though nobody even suggested he they were his). So he's sentenced to a silly juvenile detention center, where Donald Sutherland is the one good doctor who cares about the kids and teaches Ad Rock to be a good person, while ironically learning the same lessons apply to his own life as well... essentially the Robin Williams role in Good Will Hunting.

It's all dopey and trite and very 80s. It's full of voice-over monologue of Ad Rock pontificating about what jerks adults are, and gang members who look like the cast of Fame. Despite it all, some scenes are well directed: well shot, dramatically staged and with good use of music, probably because it's directed by Hugh Hudson who directed Chariots of Fire, as well as some more questionable films. But his talents are usually evident even if his stories are sub-par. Sutherland is easily the best actor in the show, when we finally get to him. Other cast members seem to be struggling with just how straight or broadly to play it: are they satirizing clueless parents and doctors or playing real people? Some seem to have chosen A while others tried for B. And Ad Rock himself? It's a pretty bland, low key performance, but for a non-actor, he manages to slip through most of the drama without embarrassing himself.

Lost Angels is a fairly obscure film these days, and most people who know of it only do because they're diehard Beastie Boys fans who've tracked it down .But in 2012, it was finally released on DVD... or at least DVD-R, in its proper widescreen aspect ratio through MGM's MOD program. So you can at least order it in its OAR from places like amazon.

Still, If you're going in hoping for any Beastie Boys music, prepare to be disappointed. He doesn't rap at all in the film. They do show that he's a graf writer and so still kinda hip-hop, and his gang always hangs out in a big nightclub. So there's heaps of opportunity to shoehorn in the ol' typical scene where his buddies shove him on stage and he shows us how he's this artistic phenom, and at the same time makes the girl fall for him (he instead does this just by dancing with her). But no, there's none of that. There's also no original Beastie Boys song written for the title theme, or even a teensy clip of "Fight for Your Right To Party" playing in the background.  No Beastie music at all.

There is a lot of pop music and even a soundtrack album, but it's all stuff by groups like Happy Mondays, The Cure, Soul Asylum and The Pogues. There's only one rap song on there at all, and it's actually by Raheem. The Raheem who used to be in The Geto Boys. Fortunately, it was also released as a single, so you don't have to buy the whole crappy soundtrack album to check it out.

The song is called "Self Preservation," and it's not on either of his albums, though it's still been released by A&M Records and Rap-A-Lot. 1989 would put it a little closer to The Vigilante than The Invincible, and it has more of that vibe to the song. Produced by Bryan New, who did a lot of big stuff for Jive Records, and Rap-A-Lot regular Doug King, it's pretty hard and message-oriented, though a little too guitary for my hip-hop purist tastes. But it's got nice, huge drums and the guitars are at least scratched in samples (Jimi Hendrix, I believe), not some studio musician noodling around. It's sort of like early Paris or Esham would use guitars in their early work - in fact, I'm pretty sure they both have sampled these exact same riffs - and they're cut up during the hook; so overall it's actually pretty strong.

Raheem raps from a more negative perspective of a disenfranchised youth fed up with the system... I'm not sure I fully subscribe to this theory, but it's possible that he's specifically written this song for the film and is rapping as the main character. But he does refer to himself as a "vigilante," and he doesn't really follow the film's plot or get too specific with the references. In other words, he doesn't rap, "my crazy girlfriend actin' the fool, just drove her car into a swimming pool," which is good not just because that line would be awful but because it makes the song relatable and effective outside the context of the Lost Angels movie.

The 12" features a couple different mixes. They're all essentially the same music and lyrics, but you get an Instrumental and a couple different edits of the track. Most notable is the Dirt Cheap Edit, which is a pretty substantially extended version, doubling the length of the song. So that's just another reason you're better off with the 12" rather than the full soundtrack album. Because "Self Preservation" is definitely at least worth checking out, which is more than I can really say for Lost Angels.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Neila and Vrse... Finally in 2014!

Holy cow - it's finally here! That Neila and Vrse Murphy EP they've been promising for years and years... Here's a post I wrote in 2009 saying that it had been so long, I guessed the EP was never coming. So it's been five years since I was giving up hope on it, I don't even remember how many years it's been coming in total. And it just dropped now. I'm still mentally processing it.

Undedicated (or Udnedicated, as it's spelled on the front cover) is an eight-song EP, though the intro and outro are under two minutes each, so maybe you could count it as seven songs. They're not just little skits, though. The closer is a full vocal and instrumental song, the title song in fact, and it's actually one of the best songs on the album. It's got a really rich sound, a simple but effective hook... it's just based around a single verse as opposed to the traditional three. The intro, on the other hand, really is more on an "intro" than a full song. Again it features some of the strongest production, but instead of Neila rapping it just features a fascinating spoken word poem over the track, which does a great job setting up the tone for the album.

If you're a hardcore fan, you've heard two of the songs before. Neila shared her then unreleased collaboration with Vrse, "Stone," on her Youtube channel four years ago... Something else I took as a sign that this full EP would never come out. A moody track that reminds me of Neila and Vrse's first song together from her debut EP all the way back in 1998. And at another stage, a song called "Felt Again" (sometimes titled "Felt Dos") was set loose on the internet. It's an updated version of their stand-out track on Neila's 2004 album For Whom the Bells Crow, naturally called "Felt." I call it an update more than a remix, because it essentially retains all of the same music from the first version, but adds new instrumentation and singing to it, fleshing it out even further. It's also about double the length. The original vocals are carried over to this new version, but she's also sneaked an all new verse into the middle. Anyway, it's great that these two songs have finally found a home besides simply "out there" on the 'net.

And so that leaves four more songs, and some of us might've been a little apprehensive, expecting some half-assed studio scraps culled together to fill out an album. But no, these are all top shelf songs that stand alongside the best of their work on past albums. Well, mostly. Personally, I wasn't really feeling the music for "Swamp," which stands far afield from the rest of the EP, replacing the lush musicality with a main loop that sounds like it's made out of computer sounds from some 80s sci-fi movie. Don't get me wrong, over the years Vrse has already proven himself a master of more than just the one style heard on the rest of this EP. Plus, there's a funky little breakdown where the beat changes up for the last verse, giving the song some life for the finale. And it's all technically done well enough, with a fresh drum break underneath it all. Neila's still rocking it. It's just not... enjoyable? It's just the kind of loop to make you think, eh, what else is on this album?

But that's alright, because the answer is plenty.  When Neila raps about feeling hung over in "Blue," it feels like she's crossed over into Hoop world. Meanwhile, the pair is never more in sync than they are on "Fence." And "Black" may be the break-out song everybody falls in love with like "Felt" was for the Bells Crow album.

Taking all these years to release an album is really setting up your audience for disappointment. It's why Dre is scared to release Detox. And as a fan who's been touting Vrse and Neila as one of the best possible match ups since Jeru and Premier, I'm thrilled and relieved to report that this is it. This is in no way a let down, but exactly what we've been waiting for. An Illmatic not a Stillmatic, and finally having it in my hands has me smiling like the drawing on the CD cover.

Oh yeah, that reminds me... The difficulty is that it's apparently an extremely limited CD, so you'll have to put in some serious due diligence to actually obtain a copy. Neila's been selling copies to her fans through facebook; but I haven't seen them available anyplace else yet. But if you're a Neila and/or a Vrse fan, I can assure you that it'll be worth the effort.  =)

Monday, August 11, 2014

LeJuan Love, The Comeback That Just Barely Was

Is this a controversial opinion? I think LeJuan Love put out pretty much the best kid rap album ever. Da Youngstas had some nice tracks, and admittedly LeJuan's album was a little uneven. But overall: killer production, a fast but tough 80s style rhymes, brilliant scratching by DJ Man. "Everybody Say Yeah," "My Hardcore Rhymes," "I Still Feel Good." You'd never guess it, but Luke put out the best kid rap act. Really, the only drawback to the album, even by adult artist standards, was that he still sounded like a little kid, and maybe a couple details haven't aged so well.

And that was pretty much solved in 1992 when LeJuan Love came back a little bit older. He was smoother and more adept and ready to grow past an already hype album with an even better one. Unfortunately, it never came out.

All we got was a compilation EP called Luke's Hitmen for the 90s. It featured some of Luke's line-up for its second era, where you could really see the label expanding beyond just the formulaic bass records they'd mastered in the late 80s. You had a track from PreCISE MC's album, one from Jiggie Gee's, and one from 2AWK's ultimately shelved Konflic Uv Interest. There was also a new group called Two True and a token 2 Live Crew "Mega Mix." Oh, and a comeback track by LeJuan Love.

And how is that track? It's brilliant! "It's Been a Long Time" is produced by Mike Fresh (who was just on the cusp of ruling the label, at least artistically) and DJ Toomp. It's high energy, fast but tough, with some killer samples. It continues Love's tradition of featuring terrific scratches, too. I'm not sure if they're by Man - since he's not credited - but whoever's doing them does a bang up job. And Lejuan sounds great on it. He's got everything going for him he had before but no he no longer sounds like a child. I mean, it's only a few years later so he must've still been pretty young, but he no longer sounds specifically like a "kid rapper." Which is great, because his first album already showed he deserved more than to be just that kind of novelty act.

But this one song on this one compilation is it. Nothing more came of it. Jiggie Gee's album came out and it was crap. But this they didn't follow up on? "It's Been a Long Time" should've been a single; it's that good. And who knows what happened. Maybe the label finally wrote him off as a gimmick, maybe there was behind-the-scenes legal drama along the lines of MC Shy D's famous law suit. Or maybe Luke Records just ran out of money and failed to back the right horse. Is there a whole shelved second album, or did they just make this one song? It's a story we'll probably never know unless I manage to interview him. ;)  But what I do know is that this is a dope track and pretty much the sole reason to buy this Hitmen EP.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Killer Kool G Rap Cameo #8079

You know, a lot of rappers made some dope records, but didn't necessarily kill it on all their guest verses. Craig G released some classic singles with Marley Marl, but do you really need every record by Snowgoons, Woogie, Kollabo Brothers, Tommy Tee, Track 72, and a billion others who got a few quick bars from Craig on them? We all saw the man on myspace selling verses to every nobody producer who could cough up a small Paypal donation. And call me a philistine, but somehow I don't think we're missing out on some great, life-altering epiphany by not spending month after month filling our hard drives with every single mp3 that made it to nahright.

But there are some artists who are so dynamic, so creative and so dedicated to maintaining a top shelf standard that it really is worth tracking down all of their cameo appearances. Do I want to hear every Money B verse out there? No. But every Saafir verse? Maybe. How about Big L? I mean, if you discount all those records where somebody recycled L's vocals from other peoples' tracks, which is admittedly at least 50% of them. But if there was an authentic Big L verse on a record you hadn't yet heard, you'd damn well want to hear it and stop missing out, right? And Kool G Rap is definitely right up at the top of any list like that. If G Rap is rappin' on it, I gotta have it.

That's why, when I first stumbled upon this record, it didn't matter than I had no idea who UNI was. A white label 12" of a Kool G Rap collaboration is already a necessity regardless. But, okay, now I am curious who this guy is. So let's look into the matter.

This song is a white label carry-over from another 12", a 2001 release on LOUD Records. I thought I knew about every record that came out on LOUD, but apparently not. Ike Jackson was... a producer? I think. And he was briefly signed to LOUD. He released a single called "Dollar Bill" and was set to have a full-length called Hustler drop; but it never got that far. But anyway, "Dollar Bill" was a three-song 12" all featuring some rapper named U.N.I. And the last of those three was "I Know What You Want" featuring Kool G Rap.

This white label 12" blows that LOUD Records single out of the water, though, because the LOUD single only featured the Clean version of this song, which suffers a lot from the editing. This white label dumps the other UNI songs - which were pretty mediocre anyway - and instead gives us Main, Instrumental and even Accapella versions of the song with G Rap. So this white label (which feels more like an official promo than a bootleg) is the essential one for sure.

And how is the song, anyway? It's a pretty solid street track. No production credit is given, but that's presumably because it's by Ike, who got top billing on the LOUD single. Instrumentally it's nothing to freak out over, but it's a solid, well-crafted instrumental that could definitely gotten placement on any credible soundtrack or mixtape at the time. It's a dark but not slow paced, New York gangsta kind of beat a lot of Queens cats were rocking back then. The hook is decent and UNI comes pretty nice. Even without Kool G Rap, I wouldn't be mad at this. But he gets outshined to the millionth degree once G Rap comes on with his complex rhyme patterns and rugged rhymes.

Honestly, his verse on this is better than some of his own records he's put out at some stages of his career. And Ike and UNI, whoever they were, at least held up their ends enough to make this a worthwhile G Rap placement.