Sunday, August 7, 2011

Marley Marl Meets Kurtis Blow

In 1988, Marley Marl made history with by assembling one of the greatest collective of hip-hop artists ever, The Juice Crew, and releasing perhaps the most legendary posse cut of all time, "The Symphony" off his debut album. And on practically the complete opposite end of the hip-hop spectrum, that same year, Kurtis Blow put out his eighth and final album, Back By Popular Demand. But for a brief moment, those diverse paths crossed, as the lead single and title cut of Blow's album featured none other than Marley Marl.

To be clear, Marley didn't produce this "Back By Popular Demand;" it was co-produced by Blow and Van Gibbs and Eddison Electrik, with "Music By" credit going to Kurtis himself. Also, interestingly, big-shot producer Salaam Remi gets "Concept By" credit ...which is odd because "hey, I'm back" isn't really the sort of clever or complicated concept you'd think you'd need to bring in another guy to come up with. I'm sure it has more to do with the fact that Salaam is Van Gibbs' son.

Now, let's talk about the production for a minute. Like many, many hip-hop records, this one is based on a slamming James Brown sample, specifically "Give It Up Or Turn It Loose." But where a lot of hip-hop tracks will base their entire on instrumental on that record ("Give It Up" is a cornucopia of fantastic samples), Blow and co. (heh) just take their drums from the breakdown at the end of the song. And making that loop seems to be the majority of the work Electrik, Gibbs and Blow really did here.

The bulk of the rest of the music, certainly the stuff that really stands out here, is the "Scratch Production," done by none other than our man Marley Marl. The hook is all vocal samples being cut up: "Kuh-Kuh-Kuh-Kurtis Bluh-Bluh-Bluh-Blow!" mixed with a little "Al-Naaflysh" and a few brief distorted samples taken right out of the Marley catalog. It's certainly possible that any of the other producers added the "Back! By popular demand!" vocal sample or something, but it's sure got that classic Marley Marl sound. One really cool element is that the song has looped crowd cheers throughout... you know, like those early Run-DMC records where they're faking like the song was recorded live? But then at the end, the crowd sounds get cut up, and it sounds fresh!

Unfortunately, Blow the MC isn't up to the track. Gibbs and Blow share credit for the lyrics (the album just says "Written by: K. Blow/V. Gibbs/E. Sainsbury," but the 12" specifies credit to those two for the lyrics. It's a bit mind boggling that it took two men to come up with such simplistic, corny stuff as, "I know you missed me, so don't diss me; be down with the history... of rap! So let your fingers snap. Or whatever makes you move... to the groove," or one-liners like, "I'm sure to deliver... like US mail!" And before you say, "oh, it was the 80's, all raps were corny," bear in mind, not only was Marley bringing Kane, Tragedy, Master Ace and G Rap at the same time as this; but this was cornball even for the oldest of old school. Caz, Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel wouldn't ever have spit silliness like that; and even Blow himself was capable of much smoother rhymes on earlier stuff like "Rappin' Blow." I really don't know what Blow was thinking putting those bars over this track; it's like he wanted to be written off as hopelessly old school. And that wish that came true with this album's reception.

So, this 12" has the 12" Version, which seems to be exactly the same as the album version, and the 7" version, which is just a shorter edit. But there are some more interesting mixes on the B-side.

If you read the credits of the album, you'll see a "Trumpet Solo" credited to Marc Leford on this song. I was quite baffled by this as a kid, because there is no trumpet or anything resembling a trumpet anywhere to be heard. But they must be crediting the work recorded exclusively for this 12", because here there are two instrumental mixes called "Black[as opposed to Back] By Popular Demand," the first of which is the Trumpet Mix. While there is absolutely zero trumpet on the 12"/album version, there is a ton here. Blow's entire vocal track has been replaced by a trumpet. Then there's also an Organ Version, where his vocals are replaced by a plectrum banjo. ...I'm just kidding, it was replaced by an organ, of course. Nobody is given credit for an "Organ Solo," so I'm guessing it was played by Blow or Electrik, who share that "Music By" credit.

By the way, this isn't the only work Marley did for Blow. Also on the Back By Popular Demand album, Marley is credited with "Keyboard/Horn Arrangements" on the light-hearted tune, "Love Don't Love Nobody." It's also the only other song on the album also produced by Gibbs and Electrik (Blow produced most of the LP by himself). But unlike "Back By Popular Demand," you would never recognize "Love" as Marley's work if you didn't read the liner notes. In fact, the soft keyboard tones sound a lot like the stuff Blow put on a ton of records he produced back in the early 80s.

So, to wrap things up, this single is like the whole album. Sure, on one level it's wack and easy to dismiss. But it's all strangely endearing and catchy. And it's certainly got a unique mixture of musical sounds that nobody else was brave or goofy enough to match. This is a time capsule not only of the wild, unrepeatable 80s, but a brief period when rap albums were starting to get big budgets and no idea what to do with them. I mean, seriously, where was the Organ Mix of "Back By Popular Demand" supposed to play, exactly? And some of the stuff on the album ("Blue Iguana," anybody?) is even weirder. And, hey, it comes in an awesome picture cover! What's not to like?

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