Saturday, August 20, 2011

Rappin' Is Cretaceous

Here's one of the jewels of my collection: "Ain't No Smoke Without Fire," the debut single by Rappin' Is Fundamental. This one's certainly rare - I've only ever seen it, or even heard of it, once - and that's when I bought it. This dropped in 1989, two years before they came out on A&M Records with their album, video and widely released single. Interestingly, this came out on Khafra Records, a super obscure west coast label, whose only other release was the debut 12" of Prodeje, before South Central Cartel and Havoc and Prodeje* even came out. That was their second and final release, and this is their first.

Now, the few of you who are as familiar with RIF's catalog as everyone ought to be (they are seriously under-appreciated) are probably saying to yourselves, "Ain't No Smoke Without Fire? I know that song!" Yes, "Ain't No Smoke (Without Fire)" was on their 1991, major label album. But this 12" features a different version. The lyrics and the primary looped riff of the instrumental is the same - plus Big Daddy Kane's uncredited cameo appears on both, though it's a bit shorter on the LP - but the vocals and the music are different.

You notice it instantly. Again, they're rapping the same lyrics over the same break, but the delivery is different and the mastering is different. JR sounds more laid back and the beat feels simpler. Even the ad-libs sound audibly more raw. And as the song progresses, the changes are more obvious - the first mini-hook, where RIF sing, "smoke, smoke, ain't no smoke" after JR's verse is absent, and instead the break is signified just by a subtle vocal sample of Kane going "Mm, mm, mm" from the intro to "Ain't No Half Steppin'." And the freestyle singing at the end of the song is completely different - at that point, they don't even sing the same words.

The album version has a whole just sounds bigger - they seem to have taken another pass at it to make it sound "more professional." The album version features some subtle "lead guitar" by one Shlomo Sonnenfeld. When I first read that in the credits, I thought, "there's guitar in that?" But when I played it back with my ear to the speaker, I was like, "ah, yeah, it's in there." Well, it's not in here, the 12" version.

So, the question becomes, "well, which is better?" It's hard to say, actually; it's going to just come down to the listener's personal taste. There's definitely something to be said for the epic feel of the album version, and the horns sound less chintzy. The 12" version, on the other hand, feels more natural, like you're in the same small jazz club with RIF as they rap and sing over a dope track. When you hear them both, you realize how much the album version's vocals have been processed, and the 12" version has a nice, organic appeal.

I say "12" version," but technically there are two versions on this 12" version. The Club Mix, and a shorter Radio Version, which shaves a couple minutes off the song's running time.

The B-side is another album track, "You Wanna Trip," and as with "Ain't No Smoke," it's another alternate pass at the A&M version, though the differences aren't so distinct. Where "Ain't No Smoke" has a remarkably different feel, the distinction here is more trivial; you mostly notice it in the background ad-libs, plus the extra drums that come in behind the chorus on the album version haven't been added to the 12" take. Again, it's essentially the same deal - the album version sounds more professional and polished, the 12" feels more low-fi and real. The differences just aren't so strong. Also, again, the 12" features two versions: The full-length Club Mix, and the tighter Radio Version.

But it's not just the alternate versions that make this 12" such a treasure (although they'd be enough), it's the fact that this dropped in 1989, showing that the guys who invented and their own musical genre, Doo-Hop, were even more ahead of their time than anybody realized. Heck, they'd still be ahead of their time if they came out today, considering still nobody else has been able to pick up their torch. And on an obscure west coast label? This record is some serious history.

And it's a treasure because, as you see, it comes in such a fantastic picture cover... although the designers went a little conceptually overboard by designing it to look like a picture printed on the cover of a book printed on the cover of another book (look closely - it's a mock, 3-d book cover on top of another mock, 3-D book cover lol). And as a bonus, my copy is signed by the group to a guy named Charlie. I don't know who he is, but i thank him for parting with his copy so it could wind up with me. =)

*No, there's no connection to Mobb Deep; it's just a strange coincidence.

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