Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jersey Engineering

The latest release from DWG is finally here, and this time it's... Emskee The Complex Engineer? Who's that? Well, if you've been picking up the Nick Wiz double-CD compilations (and if not, you should be), he's already been introduced to you, "this was my first artist I produced for when I started making beats." On volumes 1 and 2 (Emskee isn't on #3), the Emskee tracks were demos they recorded together for Emskee, who was looking to get a deal. ...But it turns out those tracks weren't the the sum of his demo material.

DWG has unearthed a whole boatload of additional, vintage material from Emskee, Nick Wiz (then going by the name of Kayzee the White Soul), and their DJ, Slyce. And the first record they pressed up is DWG011, The Complex Engineer EP - six killer demo tracks (none of which repeat the tracks from the Nick Wiz albums... even though that would've been welcome, anyway, just so we could have them on vinyl, too). Most are produced by Wiz, but one or two are actually by Kid Capri... See, Emskee was hired to ghostwrite for Capri's second album on Cold Chillin'. But that album wound up getting shelved, so he used that material for his own rhymes (these were just demo tapes, after all, so it's not like he was screwing over Capri or anything).

So, here's what you'll notice as soon as you lay this on your deck. First, Emskee has a direct, forceful flow. Not that he's all Waka Flocka on here; but he has a distinctly tough way of enunciating every syllable. And the other thing you'll notice is that the beats here sound busier than Wiz's usual, minimalist tracks, where he seems to boil everything down to one smooth loop and a drum track. Here shit's always happening, and it goes a long way in keeping the tracks energetic and alive.

So that's DWG011, which is limited to your standard (these days) 300 copies. It comes in a sticker cover and, as always, comes with an informative press sheet. Naturally, I recommend it. ;)

But that's not the whole story here. For the more hardcore collectors, they also released DWG012 at the same time. This one's extra-limited (175 copies), is pressed on dope, marbleized dark blue vinyl, and also comes in a sticker cover. This one was off the market already even before it was released, so you'll have to go a little further out of your way to track it down now, but it's cool.

DWG012 doesn't consist of more demo tracks, exactly. It's actually eight radio promos that he recorded for different hip-hip DJ shows. There are demos for Funkmaster Flex, Stretch Armstrong, Doo Wop, etc. And they're not just radio drops or anything, but full, proper songs recorded for (and about) the shows... like Ultramagnetics' "Chuck Chillout" or those classic, exclusive cuts on Red Alert's albums. Again, it's all produced by Nick Wiz (one beat is even kinda recycled here), and while these maybe aren't quite as objectively good, uniquely written songs as the ones on The Complex Engineer EP (and a lot of time is spent on redundant, name-dropping shout-outs on every track), The Radio Promos EP is kinda more fun. I mean, if you're only going to get one release, The Complex Engineer EP is the way to go (which is surely why DWG gave it the wider release); but this is a neat little treasure for collectors.

By the way, the Nick Wiz CDs and these new 12" EPs aren't the only releases from Emskee... in more recent years, he put out an indie album and 12" on Goon Trax; and he's also one half of a group called The Good People, who got my attention back in 2006 for doing an EP featuring guys like Kool Kim and Cadence. So, if you've been bitten by the Emskee bug, you'll surely want to track all that material down as well - he still sounds the same.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Rock La France

Let me be the first to admit that there is something to the story of the following 12" I just do not understand. Now, I have been ranting about Rock La Flow since Dope Folks Records re-introduced him to the world. Thanks to them, and also Jamille Records, we've been given a whole catalog of fantastic music by this dope Milwaukee MC, and his equally impressive producer Tory Tee, that would've otherwise been completely lost to the ages. But what about the music that hasn't been issued from decades old vaults? What about his music that was actually released when it was meant to be?

To that end, I bring you today's record, "Proud By Choice" by F3. Who the heck is F3 and what do they have to do with Rock La Flow? Nothing, really, so far as I know; but it's a split 12"'; and the B-side is an original Tory Tee produced Mister Rock La Flow jam from 1990 called "The Harder the Better (Extended)." Where is there a non-Extended Mix for this to be in relation to? I don't know... as far as I know, this is all that's ever been released. Maybe he sold some cassette tapes of an original mix locally?

Here's a more compelling question about this record. Look at the label... Made in France? How/ why is a local, virtually unknown Milwaukee rapper making his vinyl debut in France? Ya got me. This record is on a label called Square Biz, a label that seems to otherwise only release club/ dance/ electro-type records in Europe, like this. But in 1990, apparently they dipped their toes in the underground Milwaukee rap scene, before the underground movement in hip-hop even took off. Either they were suddenly and briefly very progressive, or there's an interesting story there we don't know.

But why look a gift horse in the mouth? It's a banger! Interestingly, it opens with that same crazy vocal sample Raw Produce later used for "Mister Dope America." Then a hot, fast-paced track with a fresh rolling bassline - that sometimes switches up to a classic guitar sample - and non-stop scratching (uncredited, as Rock declares in the song, "my DJ, until further notice, remains unknown!"). And Rock just spits the same, non-stop, engrossing flow we've come to know him for. If you've been loving the Dope Folks releases, you'll want to have this one just as much; it's easily up there with the best songs on those releases. And the fact that this came out in 1990 means this is actually several years older than his Flowgram EPs or even The Ultimate LP; but that's definitely not a bad thing. Interestingly, this extended version is basically just the song from beginning to end which then blends into the instrumental replayed, replete with the same ad-libs and cuts. It's like the equally curious "Paper Thin" by MC Lyte.

Oh, and as for the A-side? It's pretty dope, too. F3 is a female group that comes nice and hard, with a serious message, "we have to send our love to the continent of Africa." The track, by somebody named D.A. Rock, outshines the MCing, with a nice blend of familiar samples (there are a lot of elements here previously used on Doctor Ice's "The Chillologist") mixed with new ones to form something original and edgy. It's bumping head-nodder, and these girls are kicking something serious - especially by 1990 standards. It would make for a pretty nice little pick up even if Rock La Flow wasn't on the flip side, but he is; so this record ends up being a real treasure. If you can fin it, I highly recommend it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dead Presidents To Represent Ace

In 1995, The Southern Conference put out their only album, Who Am I?, and this is the first (of two) singles off of that album. But Southern Conference aren't just some random nobody group that came and went in a quick minute. In fact, it was just the latest step in a hip-hop career that started back in 1989, and continued on his last album (to date) in 2005. The Southern Conference is none other than Dr. Ace, of Young and Restless fame - who also put out records under the names of Da Real One and Mr. Charlie - backed by a couple other guys collectively known as The S.C. Mafia.

Yeah, you remember Young and Restless, surely - "B stands for Broncos, Benz, BMW, bass, bangles, and a pair of bars!" They actually had a long and varied career after they broke up (I say "broke up" because they stopped putting out records as the group, but they remained friends and continued to work together). And in 1995 they both dropped their first solo projects: Prince of Power dropped "Give Me 50 Feet" under his new monicker, P.O.D., and Ace dropped this record, "Dead Presidents."

And this is a solo record, make no mistake. Despite it being credited to "Southern Conference," Ace is the only one rapping on here (though Alvin Rodgers adds the occasional background vocal and a strange Bugs Bunny impression), the song's sole writer and the song's sole producer. It starts out with a quote from the Christian Slater film Mobsters, "What's the secret of America? MONEY! Everything is money, Charlie." "Charlie" is an extra little in-joke, because, in addition to being the name of the main character in the movie, it's Dr. Ace's real name.

Anyway, it's a nice little record... Young and Restless meets 90's random rap indie vinyl. It's a fresh, but low-key instrumental with a super funky bassline - not a Miami bass ridiculous bassline, but a straight funky one - and a little live guitar by Rich Serrotta. There are some subtle, female background vocals by Grace, who's allowed to flex at the end of the song. And there's a cool little routine where Ace does some back and forth with her, very reminiscent of the records Grand Puba used to do with Mary J. Blige.

While P.O.D. went to the obvious route of making a pure dance track for the clubs, Ace made a slower, reflective hip-hop track. It's got enough live rhythms to still feel lush and upbeat, and there are still hints of the Ace's wit in his writing, but for the most part he plays it straight (though not too deep) with a mature song about the ups and downs of his financial issues. And just for the record, this came out the year before Jay-Z's "Dead Presidents."

This 12" just features the one song, but it is fully loaded, coming in Radio, Ride Out, Club, Instrumental, and Acapella Versions. The Ride Out mix isn't a remix with a new instrumental - it's just a slightly extended mix where the beat rides out. This record can usually be found pretty cheap - even though it's kinda rare - just because most people don't seem to know what the heck it is. But I recommend it - it's not exactly a random rap classic that should be commanding insane prices, but if you appreciate good hip-hop, you'll like this. It's just good.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 5 - The Last Message

It took ten years to get from "The Message" and "Message II" to "The New Message," and we would have to wait another fifteen years for the next installment. That's right, I don't even know how many people realize this, but Melle (sorry, Mele) Mel's last single, "M-3" is actually a new "Message" record. Yup, the "M" stands for "Message." And he's labeled it part 3, which I guess means that he's decided "The New Message" didn't count. Sort of like when Halloween part 7 (a.k.a. H20) came out, and they made it a direct sequel to Halloween part 2, and we were just supposed to pretend parts 3-6 didn't happen, so Jamie Lee Curtis's character never had a daughter and there was no crazy cult. You've got "The Message," "Message II (Survival)" and now "M-3." Anything else isn't canon, so forget about it.

"M-3" dropped on the 25th anniversary of "The Message," the first and only single off of Mel's most recent album, Muscles. The famous hook from the original and "New Message," has been shorted from the famous, "don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge..." to just the simple and declarative, "don't!" I'm not sure if abbreviating it like the title is meant to disguise the fact that this is the new "Message" or not, but it all ties together when Mel kicks the final verse, which is entirely "don't" themed:

"Don't act like you know so much;
You ain't cute enough to prostitute - don't try to ho so much.
Don't write a rhyme like the rest of your boys
'Cause them niggas is on stage making a bunch of goddamn noise.
Don't be so wild and loose; don't fall for the half truths,
'Cause it might be child abuse.
Pro-black ball player, yo man, don't marry a white woman,
Go and give your sister a chance.
Don't be afraid of the word 'nigga,'
Be a strong, rich, proud, healthy, well-educated nigga."

The rest of the song's a little more straight-forward, what you'd expect from a "Message" rap:

"Broken dreams over the triple beam,
Go for the cream, niggas sellin' dope to the fiends
Young juvenile killers in jeans and white tees
Sayin' 'freeze!' Nobody can hear you scream.
Coulda swore that my broad was a normal chick,
Rented a video; the ho was in a porno flick."

Now I don't know, but that sounds like kind of an unfair double-standard to me. I mean, if he's so against porn, what's he doing renting them? I guess it's okay for the goose, but not the gander, huh?

But, seriously, it's interesting. He's switched the flow up from previous messages, where he's now kicking more, faster rhymes {"dreams, beam, cream, fiends, jeans") packed into the lines - it's an energetic, hyper flow, more like Kool G Rap (except with mostly just single syllable rhymes) than the kind of stuff he made history with. I wouldn't say it's an improvement, but it's certainly an acceptable change that works, though I could see some people being disappointed because they wanted to hear a "Message" that sounded more like the original. This one certainly doesn't.

But on the other hand, this lacks the power and imagery of the original. Some of that is definitely in the writing - he just doesn't say anything here that hits you as hard. In fact, I can't even really tell what on Earth he's talking about sometimes (what the Hell are the half-truths that "might be child abuse" in the portion quoted above, for example?) And the style change, which puts more of an emphasis on "clever" than "earnest" probably plays a hand as well. But the biggest point this one catches flack on is surely the production.

Of course, the previous "Message"s have always had the benefit of great, live musicians supporting the rhymes - even "The New Message." Here you've got a track produced by Joey Mekkah (a new alias of Romeo JD from The Boogie Boys), which just isn't very good. Part of the problem is that the music, along with Mel's different flow, makes it seem like they're chasing after "what the kids are doing these days." I'm pretty sure they listened to some new, corny rap songs, said, "this sucks" and then, "we gotta make a track like that to be relevant." I mean, it's not terrible; but it sounds like a leftover from a lame Hot 97 freestyle.

The 12" has our backs here, somewhat, with an exclusive remix by Kamanchi Sly. If you don't know, he's a member of Hijack, the British group that was a member of The Rhyme Syndicate (Mel was a member of the Syndicate, too, remember). It sounds a little more hip-hop, and the bass is deeper - it's a definitely improvement. Still, some of the musical elements sound a little too much like your typical, staccato "computer-made bloops and bleeps" of modern hip-hop production (the whole Muscles project is obviously crippled by not being able to afford to sample), and the hook sounds worse over this new track - they should've replaced it with something else. But, overall it's still an upgrade, and you can really appreciate Mel's MCing better on this mix.

"M-3" also comes backed with another album track, "Hip Hop 101." It's not a great song, but it's a fun homage to old school classics. He spits famous lines from hip-hop's most famous tracks over a classic breakbeat, and leaves the audience to finish the refrains in a shout-and-call kinda thing. It's like those medley records Doug E. Fresh put out around 2000, although he does spit a new, original verse towards the end. It's okay.

Ultimately, it's a disappointment. Reactions online (here, read some) seem to vary from "utter shit" to "the legend is back - all praise!" But I don't think anyone will say that this stands up to his previous outings. Mel proves he still has potential as an MC, and I appreciate the effort here; but this project ain't it. Not only do I naturally prefer the records from '82, but if I want to listen to a third, honestly, I'll play "The New Message." Just like when Halloween 7 came out, they arrogantly dismissed the earlier entries because of their flaws, and declared "we're making the only real, important sequel!" But fans prefer parts 4 and 5. ;)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 4 - The Silly Message

So, for a long time, "The Message" was done. Sure, there were remixes (Sugarhill's 1990 remixes... "The Message '95"... "The Message '97"... that 12" on P-Vine with a bunch of Japanese artists trying their hand at it, or the one on DeepBeats, which had a whole bunch of newjack remixes... jeez, there have been a lot), and compilation appearances. But there were no new "Message" records for a decade. Finally, all that would change on "The Message"'s tenth anniversary, when Danish pop rocker Nikolaj Steen came to New York in search of new, American audiences.

"Now, wait a minute, Werner," you may be thinking, "I thought you said in 'Day 1' that you weren't going to be posting about silly covers and junk; just the real, authentic stuff by Mel." Yeah, but this isn't one of those. This is Melle Mel (who'd now inexplicably changed his name to Mele Mel) back to record a whole new "Message" song. And while Duke Bootee didn't come along for this ride, Mel now had fellow Furious Fiver Scorpio in tow.

I used to watch Yo! MTV Raps (and Rap City, and Video Music Box) religiously in these days. I can only remember Dre and Ed Lover singling out two videos as being personal favorites of theirs, and this was one of them (the other was Rappin Is Fundamental's collaboration with Miles Davis). Now, that may be overhyping it a bit, but if you can get over the fact that they've got this corny rocker adding his voice to the proceedings, it's really not bad. And it was certainly pretty awesome to see Grandmaster Melle Mel back in the saddle again after having been pretty much out of the picture since the Furious Five's failed reunion album in '88.

If you've only seen the video for this (either back in the day or on Youtube), you've seen a bastardized edit of it. See, this song can essentially be broken up into three acts. In act 1, they reprise material from the original "Message" with a few updated twists. One twist is that Nikolaj jumps into to perform some of the lines, and the other is that they alter some of the lyrics. So,

"Rats in the front room, roaches in the back,
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat.
I tried to get away but I couldn't get far,
'cause a man with a tow-truck repossessed my car."


"Rats in the front room, roaches in the back,
Junkies in the alley just smokin' that crack.
I tried to get away 'cause life is a drag,
But the tow-truck man came and took my Jag."

This is admittedly the worst part. I mean, the changes aren't awful, but they are a small step down, and surely nobody but Nikolaj was thought it was important for him to make arbitrary changes to put his spin on it. It's not that he says anything embarrassing or especially wack, but so far it's pretty pointless. We're obviously better off just playing our old copies of the original "Message."

But the second act is more compelling, and stupidly, that's the one that gets chopped in the music video. Because in the second act, Mel and Scorpio (who have 100% of the writing credit on this song) write and kick all new material for the majority of the song. You did get some of that in the video, including:

"Took the train 'cause a cabbie got gunned down.
A water main broke; can't go downtown.
I shoulda stayed off,
Cops gettin' paid off;
Pops got laid off,
He tried to play it off.
Up at dawn, home at dusk; he's flippin',
Mad at the world so he gave me a weapon.
He ran out of cigarettes;
He went for another pack.
It must've been a good smoke,
He never came back!"

But, either for time or due to a politically incorrect reference to AIDS by Scorpio (probably both), they trim out a good chunk of the middle of the song, like:

"I'm in the bleachers with the Yankees fans.
Sayin', 'yeah, yo, you sucker,' as your boys got slammed!
DEA rolled up on the block,
And two little kids watched as their mother got knocked.
Didn't get bailed out, didn't have no clout;
Been locked up twice, now it's three strikes, she's out.
The city took the kids right quick;
Moms is upstate, sleepin' with a broomstick."

Then act three, predictably, is Mel kicking his "a child is born" verse. This time Steen jumps in and does a couple lines of it, but mostly it's just Mel doing his tried and true thing. And what can I say? Hearing Mel bring it back in '92 was pretty effective.

Now, this single actually has several mixes. Steen produced them all, but he has several co-producers, from punk rock guys (including a member of The Vomit Pigs) to house DJs working with him, and it's not really clear exactly who did what, especially since the credits seem to differ whether you're looking at the cassette single or the 12" label. So, we'll just say a mess of these guys collectively worked on these various versions. So there's talent on hand, but none of them are really hip-hop producers, which means, naturally, the results are mixed.

Surprisingly, it's not the Album version you hear in the video. That version's okay, but kinda boring until the guitar solos kick in - those are effective, and appear in pretty much all the mixes. The one in the video is the Smooth Mix, and I actually think that one's the best. It relies on a lot of drawn out synth notes, which is pretty cliche, but actually works surprisingly well with the harder elements of the song. Then you've got the Close To the Edge Mix, which is the most traditionally hip-hop of all of them, and that's pretty decent, but for some reason it just doesn't jive well with the vocals. Someone would need to go back in and rejig some of the elements to really make it work right; but as it stands, it's a little off. And finally there's the Hot Mix, which is more of a dance track and definitely the worst of the bunch.

So, how to call this in the end? The song obviously gets dismissed a lot just because it's got a corny rocker guy in an otherwise dead serious rap video... That would have a hard time flying today, much less back in 1992. And some of his input really does come off as silly, regardless of the times (hey, at least he doesn't human beatbox!). It's certainly not a song you'd proudly drive around blasting out of your jeep; and obviously it's not as good as "The Message," or even "Message II." But Steen is a genuinely talented musician. And having Mel and Scorpio on the mic giving an earnest go at hard MCing with socially important lyrics is certainly a good thing that real heads shouldn't entirely be sleeping on. This was a comeback I really wanted to happen, but unfortunately it took a bunch more years for Mel and Scorpio to get more projects off the ground. And this is definitely better than a lot of those.

If you appreciate Mel, you'll be down with this. But "The New Message" is certainly no substitute message.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 3 - The Sequel

Still 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the rest of The Furious Five have come around to "The Message" - it's a runaway hit, the title of their album. But now that it's time for the sequel, Melle Mel and Duke Bootee are still doing it on their own. Flash and the Five aren't even credited on the label this time, though Sylvia and Joey Robinson are still taking writing and production credits.

It's called "Message II (Survival)," and once again it's just Mel and Bootee rapping on this. But there's another MC who should have writing credit on this record. Check out these lyrics:

"In jail they got a game and they call it 'survival,'
They run it down to ya on your first arrival.
They tell ya what you can and can not do,

So if you ever go to jail, watch your (mm mm)."

Duke Bootee kicks that short verse near the beginning of the song. But now check out these lyrics to another rap classic, and see if you notice anything familiar:

"For you sucker sucker crews who commit the crime,
You wanna do bad but don't do the time.
I say you wanna be this but then you wanna be a crook,
You find and old lady and take her pocket book;
And then you steal your mother father's money on the sly;
You can run, but you can't hide.
When the cops grab you, your face turns pale;
And I'ma tell you a little story about the jail:
You see, in jail they got a game and it's called 'survival,'
And they run it down to ya on your first arrival.
They tell ya what you can and can not do,
But if you go to jail, watch your poo poo."

That's right. That's from Spoonie Gee's debut single "Spoonin' Rap" on Sound of New York (1979). Of course, Spoonie took it a little further...

"'Cause when you go in the shower, he's a-pullin' his meat,
And he's a-lookin' at you, and say you look real sweet.
And at first there was one, now ten walked in,
Now how in the hell do you expect to win?
I said you better look alive, not like you take dope,
And please, my brother, don't drop the soap.
And if you get out the bathroom and you're alive,
Just remember: only a man can survive."

For ages, I just assumed the lines were bitten. After all, Bootee is a musician first and foremost. He rhymed on these records, but he never really made any claims of being a serious MC. The original intention was for his vocals to be replaced on the original "The Message," and he was only rapping on this one because of the success of the last one (and the growing divisions within the group over the whole mess). So I assumed he had a little trouble coming up with some rhymes and figured he could sneak a lifted passage or two under the radar.

But, actually, in an interview with The Foundation (by the way, have I mentioned that The Foundation is fucking awesome, and if you haven't gone there and ready every single interview than you're really missing out?), Rahiem, explains that, "Spoonie G wrote that song to get out of his contract [with Sugarhill]."

The beat should be familiar, too. There's some new instrumentation by the usual players on top, but the basic track is Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's earlier hit, "Scorpio" with the fast, electronic sounding beats and sound effects.

Still, this is a pretty great song. Some of the added music, especially the super funky bassline, really elevates this above "Scorpio" IMHO, which gets kind of monotonous and dull. And it sure doesn't hurt that Mel's simple vocoder effects have been replaced by some great new lyrics by Spoonie, "you've got to lock all your windows, chain up all your doors, to protect what's inside of your houses, stores. Beware of the food - it might be no good, 'cause there's someone trying to poison the whole neighborhood! Today they found something in somebody's store they said, killed ten people, and hurt four more."

Mel also changes up his flow for majority of the song, and instead of giving his usual, ultra-aggressive delivery, gives a very earnest, softer, almost pleading delivery for most of his lines. You might almost think it was another member of the Five doing his parts, but no, that's Mel. He only really switches back to his traditional style for the ending, when he brings back a portion of his famous, "a child is born with no state of mind" verse for an encore performance.

Of course, this record didn't have quite the impact the original did. A lot of the recycled elements feel like quick cash-grabs, and you just can't have an important, musical and cultural First twice. The hook, while effective, didn't become the anthem that "The Message" or even "New York, New York" did. But it's still a really great record that stands up to the test of time a lot better than many other records from that era, even other hits by Flash and the gang. If this record had gotten formulaic, it was at least a terrific formula.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 2 - The Actual Message

So, three years later, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five built a song around that famous verse from "Superrappin'." Or, rather, Melle Mel did, almost on his own. Apparently the rest of the group weren't convinced at all of this bold concept: to make a hip-hop record that was serious and political as opposed to light and bouncy. Little could they imagine the world of Public Enemy, NWA and Edutainment that hip-hop was about to define hip-hop - "the black CNN" as Chuck D famously described it - for the latter half of the decade.

So Melle Mel hooked up with one of the members of Sugarhill Records' house band, Duke Bootee, and they crafted this song on their own (note the billing on the label... Flash and the Five developed a long history of confusing and ever-changing billing on their records like pretty much no other group). Bootee didn't just work on the instrumental for song, he actually wrote and performs one of the verses - the only one not by Mel. In fact, it even goes further... according to an interview with Bootee at The Foundation, he wrote all of Mel's verses, too (except for that famous, final verse).

While "Superrappin'" may've had the famous verse first, and other rap records managed to make some social and political points, "The Message" turned out to be revolutionary. While the instrumental is still by The Sugarhill Band and contains your standard disco/ funk elements, it's much darker and atmospheric, and it's set to a drum machine instead of live percussion. Instrumentally and lyrically, it lead hip-hop into a whole new direction. Not that every rapper took it (care free party rap remains a staple of the genre to this day), but it opened the door to so much, from the post-Run DMC era of stripped down beats to pretty much the whole concept of serious and "hardcore" MCing.

I have a fun memory of this record. In high school, we had to do a presentation where we typed up the words to a song, played the song in class, and discussed the lyrics. Most of the kids were surprised I listened to stuff like this, considering it was so old school - I'm not so old that I went to high school in the 80's, guys. But one of my best friends had already called dibs on The Geto Boys' "Chucky," so I figured I had to go in a different direction.

Anyway, my English teacher was impressed I figured out Duke was saying "sacroiliac," but marked me wrong on another line of the song, where Mel tells the tale of the "Zircon princess" who, "seemed to lost her senses. Down at the peep show, watchin' all the creeps so she can tell her stories to the girls back home. She went to the city and got so, so siditty, she had to get a pimp; she couldn't make it on her own." She was convinced the song had to be saying she got "social security." So, since I'm looking back at this record, I decided to do a little research and see what the rest of the world thinks about this line.

The original hip-hop anthology, Rap: The Lyrics actually has it as "social security." But the later Anthology of Rap agrees with me. Being on the side of "the big book of plagiarism" was almost enough to make me rethink my stance on the subject, but it occurred to me that whatever they had must have originally come from the internet, so I checked The OHHLA, and they also have it as "siditty". Actually, they have it as "seditty." In fact, googling around, I've found literally over a dozen spellings of this word. But however you spell it, I'm convinced they meant the term found in this Urban Dictionary link. This is just one of those old school slang words everybody was using back in the days, and it hadn't even occurred to me that they could be saying anything else.

I mean, I can understand the logic of wanting to think it must be "social security." Rapgenius has it as "seditty," but then if you click the word, they say, "My guess, from listening to the song and given the context ('she couldn’t make it on her own'), is that what’s actually being said is 'Social Security' — which maybe is being used euphemism for welfare, or disability given that she’s a 'crazy lady'" - it makes sense. But I think that's just a case of us trying to re-edit the song afterwards. I mean, just listen to the song: there aren't enough syllables for it to be "social security." I can hear "so so" as "social," but "security" has a whole other, distinct syllable with a definite "your" sound in there. And Mel's not exactly a midwestern mumblemouth-type rapper. He comes from the old school tradition of enunciating the Hell out of whatever you're trying to say. Hell, Maya Angelou even uses the term in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: "St. Louis teachers, on the other hand, tended to act very 'siditty' and talked down to their students from the lofty heights of education and whitefolks' enunciation." ...I wish I had that Angelou quote back in English class; I think that would've gotten that incorrect mark off my paper! hehe

Anyway, I apologize for the long tangent. It's a powerful song, from Mel's dynamic opening, "broken glass everywhere!" to the mature and heartfelt lyrics of all the verses, including Bootee's, talking about, "the bill collectors that ring my phone and scare my wife when I'm not home." It works and holds up on every level. Even today, you're not going to find many rappers with metaphors and imagery like, "rows of eyes disguised as windows, looking down on the poor and needy." And, of course, it has one of the most famous and bitten hooks in hip-hop history: "don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge... I'm tryin' not to lose my head. It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under."

There are multiple pressings, of course, but pretty much only the one version of the song (not counting remixes made by other artists long after the fact), about seven minutes long with the instrumental on the B-side. Unlike songs like "Superrappin'" or "Rapper's Delight," no one really pares this one down. I mean, maybe a compilation or two will shave a bit of the extended instrumental at the beginning or the skit at the ending (that Newcleus famously imitated on their classic, "Jam On Revenge"), but you'd be hard pressed to find any versions that cut any of the verses, all of which are iconic and essential. This song is one of the few real game changers, even moreso than other songs that managed to set trends. And Grandmaster Flash and the rest of the Furious Five, who originally didn't want to get down with this song, wound up making it the title of their debut album.

Some Unearthed Sah-B Shit

Whoa - we interrupt 'Mel's Message Week' to bring you a breaking post on Sah-B! Fifth Element Online has just posted an in-depth review (and a complete mp3 rip) of her unreleased '94 album for Reprise Records, Some Ol' Sah-B Shit! Go check it out. I'll wait here. Come back when you're done.

Okay, so here's the cover of the tape he posted (you already saw it there, but I'm re-posting it here for comparison's sake).

I've been on the hunt for this album ever since it was announced on the back of the "Summa Day" cassingle as coming soon. Of course, it never did. But I knew that promo tapes existed, and I've seen a few fly by on EBay. In fact, six or so went up relatively recently. I never got 'em because they wound up going for ridiculous money. But what's interesting is that they're not all the same.

First of all, there's this version:

It's not really too different from the one FE posted, except that it's four tracks shorter. Those missing tracks are just the skits, and otherwise the track-listing is identical, so no big deal.

Okay, but how about this:

If you look, it's dated about three months earlier than the one FE posted, and has an entirely different (and shorter) track-listing. This definitely looks like an unfinished version. "Funkmaster Flex" might just be a radio freestyle or a drop/skit. But some titles like "Tell Me Something Good" and "Don't Stop" seem to have gone missing from those later versions posted above.

The same could be said for this 3-song tape:

"Do You Love Him Enough To Do the Time" persists through all the versions we've seen, and ties it to the Reprise album; but the other two songs, again, seem unique to this tape. Somebody must have some pretty deep vaults of unreleased Sah-B shit.

Especially since it looks like Reprise was also considering releasing some singles that never saw their way out the gate... check these out!

...That last one, of course, did come out as the B-side to "Summa Day." I just included it because it includes an Acapella version that was never released.

But how about those other songs? "Merciless" (plus a possibly alternate "Final Mix"), "Sah-B Show" and "Can't Let Go?" And these look like singles, too - so there's a good chance they're hotter than many of the album filler songs. Apparently they made a lot of passes trying to please Reprise, and none of them succeeded.

Now, it's important to note, I don't actually have any of these tapes... Is it possible that one or two of these seemingly different songs are actually the same but alternately titled? Sure. Maybe the song on the single "Sah-B Show" is "Sah-B" on that eight-song tape.

But one thing's for sure. There is a crap-ton of unreleased Sah-B material - much of which we can now hear thanks to Fifth Element Online and much we cannot; but all of which needs to be given a proper, official release. Who can make this happen?

(By the way, I love it that there can be "breaking news" on Sah-B's album in 2011. hehe)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 1 - A Verse Is Born With No State of Mind

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's classic record, "The Message" is easily one of the most important rap records in hip-hop history. And that's why I'm dedicating a whole week to it - or, rather, its many iterations. And I'm not even talking about funky remix 12"s, like the one by Stunt Nuts, where they turn it into a trance/ Euro/ electro/ whatever/ dance record, or random covers by unrelated artists like Motiv or this guy. This week is dedicated solely and specifically to Melle's Mel's "Message." ...You'll see, by the end of the week, it'll all have made sense. ;)

Now, the primary reason "The Message" is held up as so important is because it's known as the first record to have, well... a message. It's regarded the single to take the hip-hop from hip-hoppin', show-stoppin', body-rockin', poppin' and lockin' party rhymes to rebellious street music with a serious bent. And it did. But to be fair, it's not really the first rap record to have any kind of socially conscious message in it. In fact, Melle Mel had already done it a few years before. In fact, he did it with many of the exact same lyrics before.

"The Message" is a great song with many great verses from the Five, but certainly the signature, most memorable verse is the final one - hell, I don't even need to play the song now to type it out:

"A child is born with no state of mind,
Blind to the ways of mankind.
God is smilin' on you, but he's frownin', too,
Because only God knows what you'll go through.
You'll grow in the ghetto livin' second rate,
And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate;
And the places you play and where you stay
Look like one great big alleyway.
You'll admire all the number book takers,
Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big moneymakers,
Drivin' big cars, spendin' twenties and tens;
And you'll wanna grow up to be just like them.
Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers,
Pickpockets, peddlers, even panhandlers.
You'll say, 'I'm cool, huh, I'm no fool,'
But then you wind up droppin' outta high school.
Now you're unemployed, all non-void,
Walkin' round like you're Pretty Boy Floyd.
Turned stick-up kid, but look what you done did:
Got sent up state for an eight-year bid.
Now your manhood is took and you're a Maytag,
Spend the next two years as a undercover fag,
Bein' used and abused and served like hell,
'Till one day you was found hung dead in your cell.
It was plain to see that your life was lost,
You was cold and your body swung back and forth,
And your eyes sang that sad, sad song
Of how you lived so fast and died so young."

That's a hard verse. But another reason it might stand out as being particularly memorable is that we'd heard it before. Melle Mel kicked that exact same verse three years earlier on "Superrappin'."

"Superrappin'" dropped in 1979 on Enjoy Records, before they made their move to Sugarhill Records where they released the majority of their hits. It's often referred to as their first record, although strictly speaking, they released another single earlier: "We Rap More Mellow," under the alias of The Younger Generation. The version pictured here, by the way, is the second pressing Enjoy put out after their small initial run was such a success. I don't actually have this pressing but I stole the picture from discogs because I love the spelling error on this pressing - they title the song "Supperrappin'," ...as in the meal after lunch.

Now "Superrappin'" is one of those classic, marathon golden age rap records where the MCs just spit and spit for well over ten minutes to the accompaniment of a live band. Man, they don't really don't make records like that anymore. But I especially bring it up to point out that, because it's so long, many (most, in fact) hip-hop compilations over the years would edit this song and all the others like it to a more manageable 5-minute or so length. That way they could fit a lot more songs on the album and it'd be more marketable. But that means a whole lot of you may've grown up knowing "Superrappin'" in an abbreviated form without that final verse (and plenty of other parts).

Now, "Superrappin'" isn't a particularly message-y song for the most part. In fact, after this verse, Melle passes the mic right back to Rahiem who rhymes about how, "all the fly girls, you got to beware, because Rahiem will be in your hair!" But you can't deny that any song that has that verse in it has a serious (albeit homophobic) message in it... years before the actual "The Message." It also features tons of memorable lines, including the famous count up, count down hook that so many other rappers have borrowed over the years, "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, rappin' like Hell but make it sound like Heaven. Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, come on, _____, come and get some!"

I have one little anecdotal memory about this record... when I was working at The Source, I had to write a brief biography for Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five for their awards show. It was just a couple short sentences, like, "responsible for such influential songs as 'The Message,' 'White Lines' and 'Superrappin'." But the owner of the mag contacted me, indirectly through my supervisor, like, "what is this kid doing? Grandmaster Flash didn't do Superrappin'!" You couldn't contact this guy directly, his door was always locked and you couldn't call him... so I had to run out, buy a copy of this record that day, and fax him a label scan. I never heard back from him; but I saw "Superrappin'" was in the final copy of the bio when it came out.

Anyway, "Superrappin'" was followed up by "Super Rappin' No. 2" on Enjoy the following year. But it's really just an abbreviated version of "Supperappin'" that cuts about five minutes of (great) material out of the song and adds nothing except very minimal instrumental changes - the body of the music is the same. And no, it doesn't have the famous, "a child is born" verse.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Premier Commits Sewaside

I don't have any Das EFX posts yet, so I figured I should make one. I mean, I'm not a HUGE Das EFX fan, but I've always liked 'em enough to pick up their albums as they dropped back in the day, and they definitely had some nice singles. But it's just one of those things where I look at the increasingly long list of artists featured on this blog in the right-hand column and see all these crazy names like Dr. T and the Klinic, Bobby Jimmy, Sabado Gigante, MC Frontalot, two entries for Tricky Nicky and so on... and none for the artists who've been basic hip-hop staples of the genre. I feels like I gotta patch some of these guys in. So here we go: Das EFX.

So the obvious choice would probably be to grab something off of Hold It Down, or maybe go ultra-purist and take it all the way back to their first single or two. But I figure I'll shoot somewhere for their more neglected zone, a dope single from their second album, Straight Up Sewaside. Straight Up Sewaside is interesting, because it did much better overseas... here in the US, most heads were already sick of their "diggity riggidy" gimmick and had written them off as copied and played out, one album wonders, even the source of punchlines by other MCs.

But before the days of the internet, kids in other countries didn't know know about their declining rep and still ate it up. I remember a segment, I think it was on Video Music Box, about how kids in Europe still loved Das EFX and considered them the #1 rap group, and it was like "wha?" We'd all moved on to The Wu-Tang Clan and didn't pay Das anymore mind. But those kids held them down long enough for the duo to re-invent themselves with the Premier-laced "Real Hip-Hop," and their Hit Squad association during the Erick and Parrish rivalry; so they got some of their buzz back. But Straight Up Sewaside is one that's usually left to the hardcore fans.

More interesting than most of the stuff from that album, though, is this little single. See, after their bigger singles off that album, "Baknaffek" and "Freakit," they snuck out one last single, a little more underground and actually one of the best in their whole careers: "Kaught In da Ak." It was already one of the better album tracks, darker and more serious - even "BakNaffek," which showcased a deliberately harder instrumental, was still full of "diggity wiggity" lines and references to Chris Kringle and Beavis and Butthead. This is more on some street shit:

"I check this nigga that I used to snatch jewels wit' back in the day; but nevertheless the kid's ass' slingin' gas to pay bills to afford some pills that kill stress."

Compare that to "Freakit:"

"Hot damn! I got more props than that Fox, Samantha. The hickety-dick slickest nigga wit the raps that sound nifty. Weight around a pound sixty."

...and it's no competition. The only pop culture reference they make here (if you can even call it that), is a comment on the infamous Tawana Brawley case.

But the real selling aspect of this one is the remix - an unheralded production by Premier that pre-dates their celebrated single "Real Hip Hop" by two years. The main "bomp bomp" sample sounds just like the stuff Premier would overuse in years to come, but it was fresh and new in '93. Plus, anyway, the way he chops the drums and lays in the more subtle elements (is that the sound of a toy laser gun laid in there?) sound great in any decade. And the way he starts the song off with the infamous "Bum-stiggidadee bum, stiggadee" vocal sample suggests Premiere was already consciously trying to move these guys away from their limiting reputation, or at least playing with it.

On the B-side, you get another album track, "It'z Lik Dat," and another exclusive remix. Again, it's another one of their better joints, with a darker, atmospheric beat and some more straight-up battle-style rhymes. The remix isn't by Premier this time, however, but by Solid Scheme, who also produced the original versions of both tracks, and most of the rest of EFX's stuff. It's okay, and a nice bonus; but in this case, the album version's better.

But even just the album version makes a nice companion piece to "Kaught In da Ak," two highlights from an otherwise forgettable album that's usually left to the hardcore fans. So even if you dismiss the group as generally being too corny, this is a respectable piece for your crates. ...And I apologize for the stupid pun in the title - couldn't help it. lol

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Rap Artifact On Wax

A self described "archival record label" by the name of Numero Group has released the latest (ninth) 12" in their disco series, "Practitioner Of Rhymes" by Doc Rhymin'. Their first release was in 2006, so apparently they don't rush these things. Anyway, only a handful of these releases (four, I believe) are actually hip-hop records. And of those, only this one has (probably) never been released before on wax. The label speculates on their site, "we're comfortable assuming this came out on maxi-cassette in 1987."

This single comes from the vaults of a tiny Cleveland label, essentially a one-man recording store set up in the back yard, of Boddie Recording Company. After years of trying, Numero was able to persuade the widow of BRC's founder, Thomas Boddie, to let them release music he'd recorded from the 60's to the 80's - there's a terrific article on the whole story of the BRC here - including this one rap single.

So, here we have three practically unreleased songs by one virtually unknown MC. How is it? It's pretty good. It sounds super dated, but so much so that it might almost add to its appeal. The Doc rhymes like a simpler version of T-La Rock, and the beats are all super sparse, drum machine creations with no samples and lots of snare, echoey handclaps and reverb. They're so similar and his flow is so unchanging, that the three songs might as well be one long song, really, with the drum patterns just slightly changing around the 33% mark.

But they've got a great non-stop rappin' quality. dude doesn't even have hooks on his songs. He just kicks brag/battle raps with a respectable, hardcore delivery. Lyrically, by 1987 standards, he's actually pretty good - "Dictionary Rap" is an effective exercise in alliteration. Two of the songs, "No Title Can Describe" and "Dictionary Rap," also feature an uncredited female MC, who adds some welcome diversity to the proceedings. This isn't a great record - even if a lot more heads heard it in '87, they probably would've just ignored it in favor of more dynamic and exciting mainstream records. But if you want some no frills, no gimmicks, pure old school rap, this is it in spades.

Unfortunately, the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. It's very flat and hissy. Fortunately, the music is simple and hard enough that it all comes through pretty okay, but it does rob the songs of a lot of their potential energy. I don't know if this problem roots back to how this material was originally recorded, if Numero Uno just did a poor job mastering this, or even if they just ripped this from a cassette. In any case, the music of Doc Rhymin' isn't likely to pop up a second time,s o get it while you can if you're interested.