Sunday, July 15, 2007

Mobbed Up

West Street Mob is actually a fairly mysterious little group in the history of hip-hop; virtually nothing is ever written about them. Best known for "Break Dancin' (Electric Boogie)," they actually put out a bunch of singles and had a succession of modest hits, but it's not even really known just who the heck was in the group. None of their liner notes ever really say, or apparently give proper credit even when they do say (more on that later), and there are no MCs helpfully name dropping themselves on each track... These guys were among the first hip-hop (if not strictly rap) groups putting out records, and they stayed in the game, putting out pretty high-profile releases for several years, all on the infamous Sugarhill label. So I'm gonna take a look at one of their more overlooked releases, their debut, self-titled LP from 1981, and see if we can't shed at least a little light into this dark corner.

There's a great old school hip-hop site (really, it's one of the best, and I'm adding it permanently to my links column) where host Jayquan interviews a ton of hip-hop pioneers... I still haven't finished reading through all of them. Well, in one interview, one of Sugarhill's in-house producers/musicians (and later one of Melle Mel's Furious Five), Clayton Savage had this to say about the West Street Mob, "But the West Street Mob, whatever their last album was [I believe that would be Break Dance (Electric Boogie) in '84 - Werner] - that was most of my work. They may have sang, but the music was me. I was more West Street Mob than they were." [Click here to read the whole thing - I'll be quoting from one or two other interviews on that site a little later on, because it's really the only place anything is written about the West Street Mob at all.... and even then, only in tangents drifting from other topics.]

Anyway, the album opens with their first single, "Make Your Body Move." The writing credits are given to, "Pleasure, W. Henderson, A. Johnson and J. Peters;" and the production credit for the entire album is to Joey Robinson Jr. It's a great jam by the Sugarhill band, with very few vocals (basically, a few hooks sung by the girl of the group or repeated on the vocoder); and it's probably the only one most readers would be familiar with off this album. Duke Bootee, of the Sugarhill Band and who would later make a name for himself as a solo artist, was asked about this song and replied, "Joey [Robinson Jr., son of Sylvia Robinson, then president of Sugarhill Records] might have tried to do the vocoder on that. He didn’t play on anything, but he was involved in the song selection. Craig Derry, Sabrina Gillison & Cindy Mizelle sang on those West Street Mob Records. They were all talented people." [Click here to read the whole thing.] Master Gee of the Sugarhill Gang had even more to say about Robinson's involvement in the Mob, "Joey Robinson – no talent at all. I don’t give a damn what anybody says. He is a duplicator and that’s all." When Jay agrees that he'd also heard that Joey didn’t do anything in the Mob, Master Gee went on, "He didn’t. He will tell people that he and his mother produced those songs but he didn’t produce that sh*t, his mother did! He was there in the studio, and may have pressed a button 1 or 2 times, but his mother produced those songs on all of us!!! Was he smart enough to be a student, and be perceptive and learn how to make moves? Yes. But as an artist he didn’t touch those West St Mob records. He didn’t perform on that West St Mob sh*t. He is not even on the tracks!!! The vocoder on 'Make Your Body Move' is done by Reggie Griffin!!! Then he is on stage with a fake vocoder, that’s not even hooked up!" [Click here to read the whole thing.] Of course, Master Gee is in a better position than anybody to speak on the fakery of Joey Robinson Jr., (see my previous post for that story).

Now, a lot of Sugarhill acts (and other hip-hop artists of the time, like Kurtis Blow) seemed to feature a lot of ballads on their albums that were never - or hardly ever - released as singles. Sure, harmonizing was a key component to early hip-hop performances; but this was something different: some straight, non-hip-hop sung R&B tunes. It's hard to say if this temporary phenomenon was a case of rappers wanting to show they had more musical talents than just rapping, for when the rapping fad blew over, or labels pressuring them into something safer and more generic to hedge their bets since rapping was so radical in the beginning. At any rate, it sure filled some great, early albums with a lot of real clunkers. And it's worth noting that all but one of the songs on this album that weren't already released as singles fall into the category. This is that one. "Get Up and Dance" (writing credits: T. Armstrong and J. Smith) is another primarily instrumental, but definitely hip-hop oriented, jam. It does feature some female vocals on the chorus, but otherwise it's all about the Sugarhill Band rockin'. It's my favorite song on the album, and you'll immediately recognize the breakdown in the middle of the song as it was used in Grandmaster Flash's classic, "Adventures On the Wheels of Steel."

And now we get into the ballads... and "Natural Living" (writing credit: Sabrina Gillison) is probably the hokiest, cheesiest example of corny ballads in all of hip-hop. This sounds like the sort of song a ride sponsored by a wheat germ company in Epcot Center would play to you over a made-in-the-70's video about happy nuclear families eating healthy and breathing clean air. Not that there isn't talent on display... Sabrina (I'm assuming she's the one singing here, given the writing credit; but of course, there's no real reason to assume she who wrote it sung it) has a great voice, and the chorus actually sounds pretty nice when the vocals double up. But for most, this is more the sort of song you endure rather than keep in heavy rotation.

"Never Again" (writing credits: Joey Robinson Jr. & Gary Henry) is a more traditional, and a bit more enjoyable, R&B tune. It's still a little bland and not the sort of West Street Mob most fans are after, but it at least has more soul than "Natural Living." And pretty much exactly the same could be said for "You're Killing Me" (writing credits: Eric Thorngren, B. Hocer & J. Tori). The tunes are pleasant enough, and the musicians are certainly capable, but there's a reason these songs are pretty well forgotten.

The second single, "Got To Give It Up" (writing credits: Joey Robinson Jr., Billy Jones), finally comes in here. It's back to the lively, hip-hop instrumentals, and it's got a really catchy bassline and some nice horns. But the weak, male vocals still make this one of the West Street Mob's lamest singles. It's good, and you'll like it. But it's no breakdancing anthem like their best work.

Finally, the album ends with "Sometimes Late At Night" (writing credits: Carol Bayer Sager & Burt Bacharach) So Burt Bacharach was down with the West Street Mob? Ha ha No. "Sometimes Late At Night" is actually a cover, originally written and composed by Bacharach on ex-wife Carol Bayer Sager's last album, also titled Sometimes Late At Night. Interestingly, that album came out in '81, so the Mob sure didn't waste any time getting their version out. You can probably imagine what this one sounds like. Very dentists' waiting room. Certainly an odd choice for an already eclectic mix. But I guess that's what the West Street Mob sort of was, and why so little was ever written about its line-up: a sort of dumping ground for all the tracks that Sugarhill didn't have a place for anywhere else. Songs they wanted to release as singles without giving them to the Furious Five or the Treacherous Three to do, a chance to let various in-house musicians and vocalists do whatever they wanted to and get them out there in the music shops.

So, yeah. There's no myspace or anything, as the West Street Mob seems to have dispersed anonymously into the crowd a long time ago. Just who were they? Well, it sure doesn't help that the writing credits for each song name a plethora of different people, and the only recurring name is the most dubious credit. I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that the line up did NOT stay the same from record to record, either. A few years later (specifically, '84) Joey Robinson Jr. would be listed as a featured guest (along with Cheryl the Pearl, of The Sequence, who apparently produced a lot of the West Street Mob's later material) on a West Street Mob record called, "I Can't Stop," which certainly suggests that he wasn't considered an official member. But maybe he was for a while, and then for a while he wasn't. I don't know. But I sure would like to be able to interview somebody who was there (the only people who could know it all for certain), and find out for certain. Or, more likely, Jayquan will beat me to it. ;)

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