Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sluts, Muppets and MC Craig G

In 1985, a B-side took off that almost managed to rival "Roxanne, Roxanne" in infamy. The Bad Boys featuring K-Love dropped their second single, "Mission" on Starlite Records. But it was the B-side, "Veronica," with the timeless "Oh, Veronica, Veronica; oh, Veronica girl" hook that everybody spun. Everybody except the radio stations, that is, because the song was filthy:

"She's a lovely lady, and she loves to fuck;
So I said, 'yo, Veronica;' she said, 'what's up?'
Said, 'girl, tell me something, if you're not a slut,
Then what's that thing, sticking up your butt?'"

And that's probably the only reason it didn't totally eclipse the "Roxanne" saga it was no doubt inspired by (it dropped in the middle of the whole "Roxanne wars" saga). Remember, 1985 was well before NWA and The 2 Live Crew*, and just after the controversy with Prince that lead to explicit lyrics warning stickers on albums. This is the original "talking nasty about a girl over a human beatbox" track that really changed the whole direction of hip-hop, from blatant rip-offs, like Just-Ice's "That Girl Is a Slut" to... a whole legacy of dirty raps. The fact that they spit it all over a crazy hip-hop version of Sesame Street's "Mahna Mahna" song just made the whole thing that much more bugged out and attracted more attention. Really, you had to feel sorry for any teenage girl named Veronica back in 1985.

So of course there had to be an answer record.

In 1986, Pop Art Records put out the female spin on the story of Veronica with "Oh! Veronica" by a duo called The Glamour Girls (their first and last record). And they actually got the same guy who produced the original, Tony D (not Tony D from NJ who produced The Poor Righteous Teachers, but the Tony D who Serch dissed on "Gasface"). But I guess they figured, if you're make the opposite of record featuring a group of guys rapping with a female beatbox, you didn't just need female MCs, but a male beatbox. So, even though Tony D regularly worked with K Love on his records, he brought in someone else for this one... he brought in MC Craig G.

Yes, that MC Craig G, the Juice Crew All Star. He's featured on this record, but only as a beatbox. The rapping is left entirely to the girls, who recount their own version of what happened when The Bad Boys met Veronica: "we were chillin' with Veronica, just hangin' out, When we met The Bad Boys - nothin' to brag about." But, interestingly, while they do use the opportunity to take a playful shot at the original "Veronica" rappers, they actually offer the same opinion of the fictitious Veronica that the Bad Boys had: she's just a huge slut. The verse ends, explaining what happened, "they thought they were slick; they all started illin'. Laid Veronica, now they're getting penicillin!"

I mean, usually when you have an answer record to a song like that, the idea is: sure, that's how so and so told you it was, but here's how it really happened! But this is an unusual case we're they're on message - they actually agree with the initial group's assessment. But then they wind up turning an easy excuse to tell "that girl's so slutty" quips into something a little more fun: hiking on the Boys for their inability to handle her:

"Bizzy walked in and he was coppin' a plea.
He said, 'I'm still a virgin; please don't hurt me!'
He went into a panic, and started to cry;
She said, 'it's okay, Bizzy, send in the next guy."

This version forgoes the Muppet music, and replaces it with a fresh whistle (sort of along the lines of the famous Good, Bad and the Ugly whistle) over a big, programmed beat (this was 1986, after all) and a lot of simple but loud scratching. And, no. No human beatboxing.

Craig G isn't on the Radio, Long or Instrumental versions of the song... the ones that most people are probably familiar with and that wind up on all the compilations. They save his contribution for a specific Beat Box mix which eschews the whole instrumental. It's all just Craig's mouth-made beats and Tony's cuts.

So, yeah, like I said, this was the one and only Glamour Girls record. At least together - the girls themselves both went on to other things. One of the MCs, Glamorous, went on to become an official Juice Crew member herself, featuring on the songs "Evolution" and "Juice Crew All Stars." She's still around, too, check out a track she dropped this year. And the other girl? She went on to release a string of hits by the name of none other than Sweet Tee; and more recently came back as Suga on The Show soundtrack. And if I have to tell you what Craig G went on to do, I think you're on the wrong blog. ...That's the (other) great thing about sluts - they wind up giving birth to so many interesting people! ;)


*Actually, technically, the 2 Live Crew was around back then... But it was before they hooked up with Luke & Brother Marquis and became controversial by rapping about sex.

Monday, December 26, 2011

How Awesome Is This? Original Guru Demo Tape Release

Man, I can remember a couple years ago, when a rap blogger (damn, I wish I could remember which blog it was!) posted pics of a cassette he found in a shoebox full of old cassettes: A crazy looking, handmade demo tape by Guru, back when he was going by the name of Keithy E. Man, that was the source of some serious online envy! But then it was nearly forgotten, as news broke of Guru's hospitalization, the beef between Solar and Premier and Guru's family, and eventually his tragic passing.

But it wasn't completely forgotten, because The X Label got a hold of it and is releasing replica copies of that original cassette, with the original music and artwork. The X Label is run by Justin Elam, Guru's nephew, who you probably remember from these videos.

Now, I talked before about the early, pre-Premier recordings of Gangstarr on wax, starting in 1987, and the different sounds they had with DJ 12BDown on the boards. Well, this is even before that - this tape dates back to 1986, and it's even further removed from the sounds we know as Gangstarr's. There's no Premier or 45 King, but Beatmaster Jay providing the music (as well as DJ 12BDown on the turntables and Damo D providing some human beatbox).

And I'm not going to front, it's really rudimentary. While those early 12"s showed us a birthing Gangstarr looking for its signature sound, this tape brings us them learning how to make rap records period. I'm not saying it's wack, but it's definitely very amateurish and clumsy, with cheaply recorded vocals over drum machine loops. And sound quality? Well, I think their focus was more on preserving than restoring here. It sounds like the hand-made demo tape they're presenting it as, not original recordings restored from their masters. And while other early demo releases by classic artists we've seen released (i.e. OC's on No Sleep, or Main Source's on DWG) have been as good if not better than most of their classics, this is definitely not the case here. This is a tape to be listened to and appreciated as a piece of history by a classic artist, but not so much for being a gripping musical masterpiece.

But it's still a pretty dang awesome release. It's a six-track EP, with five songs. The opening track is a radio interview with Guru and DJ 12 B Down as guests, which is pretty great to have, too. And one of the songs should sound familiar - it's "The Lesson," the first 12" they released on Wild Pitch. But, this is a completely different mix. The lyrics are the same, but the music is different with lots of keyboards, and in general it's kind of lighter, more pop.

The other four tracks are "Epitome Spree," "Cold World," "Not You" and "People Unite," none of which have ever been released before. Interestingly, in the radio interview, one or two other early Gangstarr songs are discussed that we don't hear here. So that means there's actually even more vintage, unreleased Guru music left to be unearthed (possibly 12 B Down has it?), "So What" and "Fresh Avenue." X Label, maybe that could be your next release. =)

This EP is only available on cassette, a full-on replica of the original tape, including the labels on the tape itself. There is one interesting change however. On the back of the original, it said "COPYRIGHT 1986, K. Elam, J. Johnson," with J. Johnson's name crossed out. In the pic to the right, the original is on top, and the new version underneath. I assume J. Johnson is Beatmaster Jay. Not only did The X Label add their own logo, which you'd expect; they also 'shopped out J. Johnson's credit. A little touch of rewriting history, I guess.

Anyway, these are reasonably priced at $15 - just slightly more than what you'd've paid for a tape release back in the day; and they're available directly from the label's site: thexlabel.com. Really, I don't know how anybody could look at that picture and not just immediately decide, "I need that!" But seeing it online does bring up some questions, so I hope I answered them all, and if this is your first time hearing about this release... pretty awesome, ain't it?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Record 4 All the Suicidalists

If you're only familiar with Esham from his material made in the last... fifteen years or so, you're not familiar with Esham. It's like only knowing Kool Keith as a solo artist, only having heard EPMD after they reunited or only being with Guru's material with Solar. To say you've missed all his best shit doesn't even begin to explain it. You're just witnessing the pale shadows of artists that embarrasses the fans who knew these guys back when.

Let's build out the Kool Keith comparison. Esham's earliest releases are like those pre-Next Plateau recordings Ultramagnetic put out. There's some good material and they show promise, but they're still young and amateurish, and not living up to their potential. Kkkill the Fetus and Esham's crossings with the horrorcore boom would be the equivalent of Ultra's time on Mercury and Wild Pitch - dope shit for the fans, but the beginnings of a downhill slide were evident. By the time Esham was doing Natas and Maggot Brain Theory, that's like the Cenobite days. Still some good stuff, but you've got be willing to sift through the lesser releases. And by the time Esham and Kool Keith actually were making records together*... the less you hear of it better.

The Judgement Night albums are the Critical Beatdown and related 12"s. Seriously, I think even the purist of hip-hop purists would have to say the track for "How Do I Plead To Homicide," with its many change-ups, is pretty fresh, for example.

"Fallin' Angel" is the only single off of either Judgement Night album,. specifically volume 1. Or 2, depending which format you place your faith in. I'll explain.

Judgement Night vol 1 and 2, were released in 1992 and, like all of Esham's stuff until wayyy later, by his own label, Reel Life Productions. This was, I believe, the first double album in hip-hop, however unlike double albums by guys like Biggie, 2Pac or No Limit; these were sold separately. And most fans today are familiar with the Judgement Night CDs with the fancy painted covers, but back in '92, tapes ruled the scene. There was basically no artwork on these bad boys, just text... Vol 1 was subtitled Day and written all in red; and 2 Night, all in black. But besides tapes and a few CDs, Esham did manage to get some very limited vinyl pressed on his early releases, including today's 12" and one - just one - of the Judgement Day albums, Day.

At least, it says it's Day. But it has all the songs from Night on it. So, which is "correct," the vinyl or the cassette and CD track-listing? Well, since Esham re-released these albums in 2000 and stuck with the CD/cassette track-listing, I think we can say that's what he considers to be the proper one.

So since "Fallen Angel" (as it's titled on the album) was on Day, and the Day songs were all left off of the Day LP, that means this 12" is the only way to own the song on vinyl. So any Esham vinyl is already a rare collector's item, but that fact makes this 12" even more so.

"Fallin' Angel" takes the bulk of it's instrumental from some creative sampling of Funkadelic's "Cosmic Slop." What I like about it especially is that, although it uses a lot of the song - including an entire sung passage for part of the hook ("I can hear my mother call... I can hear my mother call. Late at night I hear her call; Oh lord, lord, I hear her call. She says, 'father, father it's for the kids. Any and every thing I did. ...Please, please don't judge me too strong. Lord knows I meant no wrong. Lord knows I meant no wrong.' You know the devil said"), it completely removes the zany P-funkiness of the song. If I didn't recognize the source, I'd swear the singing was from some old, Sam Cooke-style religious, R&B/blues song lifted off some ancient 45 nobody would ever hear of unless they found it in a dusty attic down south. The bass guitar notes sounds really organically smooth, and the use of snaps and bells in the percussion brings it all to life.

Lyrically, despite the predictable Devil and "I'm a crazy murderer" references ("'thou shall not kill' was my first, but then I broke all ten commandments"), it's barely a horrorcore track. The best way to put it is that it's removed enough from the worst elements that most heads don't have to dismiss it as cheeseball horror movie rap, but still true enough that fans of the genre won't feel like they were tricked into buying another one of those "we're only acting horrorcore on the surface to tap into the market, but really we're trying to be something different and safe" songs. Hell is clearly used here to mean the depression and poverty of a miserable but entirely Earthly existence, and references to the devil sound less like the way you'd expect Flatlinerz to use them, and more the way Poor Righteous Teachers would ("livin' in the ghetto, the devil is now a black man. I saw him standing on the corner with a crack man"). Combining that relative maturity of the darker and serious subject matter with the effective production manages to make this quite an effective well-rounded song. "My mother sings the blues and drinks the booze, and then she prays to save her soul from bad news. Tears fall; I hear my mother call on the Lord. At night, I be playing in my room on the Ouija board." See? It's like a serious, personal song that anyone can relate to... but still just horrorcore enough if that's what you're looking for. In interviews, he's said he made Judgement Night while going through a serious depression, and you can tell. Effective stuff.

The B-side, "Cake Mix" (titled "Finger In the Cake Mix" on the album) is one of Esham's many sex raps. He was good at making them sound sleazy, but otherwise, I never felt they fit in well with the rest of his material, and that goes double here, because the lyrics are so childish and goofy. The premise is just turning the act of baking a cake into a series of sexual innuendos and puns ("upside-down cake, rattle and roll; the cake mix runs down the side of the bowl. I dip my face in the bowl just to get a sniff; kinda smells fishy once I get a whiff"). It's just... you're not going to listen to this really except to laugh at it (as opposed to with it), and that's a shame, because the instrumental actually makes great use of another funky sample that really could've been something more in the hands of another rapper.

"Finger In the Cake Mix," by the way, was on Night, and as such is also available on the LP.

One downside of this 12", however, is that despite the big "PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT LYRICS" sign on the label, these are actually clean versions that reverse the curse words. There's only one instance in "Fallin' Angel" ("fuck the teacher and fuck the preacher"), so it doesn't totally ruin the track, but it's definitely sub-optimal. And of course, there's more on the B-side. Still, though, it doesn't stop be from recommending this record to any head who's open to somethign a little off the traditional, beaten path.

*Yeah, they actually did a couple together. Esham even signed Keith to his label briefly, for the Spankmaster album.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

She Drank Champagne... and I Drank Milk!

Little Shawn's career has flown kinda under the radar. People may remember him as a crossover, love-rapper kinda guy who was clearly trying to appeal to a more mainstream audiences with his singles "I Made Love (4 da Very 1st Time" and "Hickeys On Your Chest." Sort of like a Candyman or Mellow Man Ace without that break-out hit to get his brand emblazoned into the fleeting attention-spans of the MTV audience. He certainly managed to garner some fans, and I'm sure there are people who will big up his only album, Capitol Records' The Voice In the Mirror. But even they probably think of him as a flash in the pan who made a little noise and then disappeared.

But, actually, Little Shawn's was contributing to the game for a good chunk of time. Did you know he's one of uncredited guest MCs on Special Ed's "5 Men and a Mic" or that he had a song out with Maxi Priest in 1992? But more than that, after his brief stint on Capitol, Puff Daddy brought him into the Uptown camp where he wrote for everybody from Father MC to Mary J Blige. He even recorded a song for the NY Undercover soundtrack that got enough buzz Uptown turned it into the single. But despite the fact that the label promised the original version would appear "on the upcoming Little Shawn album," Uptown never found the time in their schedule for him and eventually it all seemed to fizzle out.

So those are the two big phases in Little Shawn's career, but there's actually a third, from back before he "came out of nowhere" and started putting out big budget videos through Capitol. Five years earlier, he dropped an obscure record on Select Records. See, back then, he was one of Howie Tee's acts (in fact, Howie produced that whole Capitol album), and just about all of Howie's acts came out through Select. So, in 1987, this little 12" came out (co-produced by Chubb Rock, no less), testing the waters.

Despite it's title, "Heartbreak Hotel" isn't the smooth, romantic song you might expect from Little Shawn. I mean, granted, it's about love (sort of... basically, the premise is that he gets involved with a girl who he doesn't realize is a prostitute), and it's even got a girl crooning the chorus, "Heaaaartbreak Hotellll." But musically, this is pure old school Howie with warbly synths over huge, programmed drums that bang as loud possible. And Shawn's flow goes right along with it... He sounds like Kool Doobie on the angry, rap side of the second Whistle album. And, lyrically, the emphasis is on being funny rather than trying to placate the ladies - one line that genuinely makes me laugh every time, "when I kissed her in the car, she couldn't behave, 'cause I had on my father's aftershave!"

This song has everything 80's you can imagine in it: stuttering vocals played on the keyboard ("hea-hea-hea-hea-hea-heart heartbreak!"), hand-claps, a rock guitar (by Spanador of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam!) that only appears for a big solo on the breakdown, keyboards, a punchline stolen from The Fresh Prince, references to Donahue and Janet Jackson, a moment where he sings an old song to an almost ragtime-style piano. You could dismiss this as some corny-ass, outdated rap... or you could say, this is one of the greatest, ultra-outdated rap songs ever!

It's followed by a Dub, mixed by Omar Santana, that's almost as fun to listen to as the song itself. And if that's still not enough, there's a B-side called "My Girl's Mother." And this song's just as good/terrible as the A-side... it's like a cross between Whistle's "Just Buggin'" and "Barbara's Bedroom," with some super catchy synth lines, big beats, and a silly chorus. And it's another fun story, this time about Shawn trying to ditch his girlfriend ("send her to McDonald's to get a large order") so he can spend time with her sexy mother.

I enjoyed Shawn's album (at least, I remember liking it the last time I listened to it, which was probably ten or so years ago), and I don't hate on his later stuff... but it's a damn shame Little Shawn couldn't stay in 1987 forever. He could just keep making records like this, without feeling compelled to change with the times, and it would be like living in Santa's village where Christmas never ends.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dimples D, Bewitched In Germany

Dimples D has earned a place for herself in hip-hop history with just one record, her classic "Sucker DJ's (I Will Survive)." Yes, it was an answer record to Run DMC's first hit, "Sucker MC's," and it's full of vocal samples that DJs have used for decades like, "he cuts the records with so much class." but it's more than that - it was a change in style and attitude, especially for female MCs, and it was a signature ode to scratching. It helped immensely that her DJ she was bigging up was the legendary Marley Marl, essentially making his debut as a DJ and producer (though technically, that honor goes to an obscure break dance record from the previous year, where he worked on the B-side dub mix). Dimples released her record in 1983 on Partytime Records. And then she disappeared, never to make another record again - she changed the game up and then vanished in a hot second.

At least... that's how the story's generally understood to have ended. But actually, she came back. In 1990. In Germany. She signed with ZYX Records, a label that has an surprisingly deep history of signing old school US artists who'd otherwise dropped off the scene. She dropped three or four singles (depending how you count it... more on that later) and a full-length album, mostly but not always with a new partner MC, collectively known as Dimples and Spice.

They recorded all new songs and released them as singles... but before that, Dimples tested the waters with her first (since 1983) single by remixing her hit. She called it "Resucker DJ."

Lady Spice is not featured on this 12", and Dimples doesn't spit anything new; she just uses her original acapella. And she didn't produce it either. You could almost call this a separate remix project - one of crappy those Run DMC Vs Jason Nivens-type dance singles that flooded hip-hop in the later 90's - except this was released by the same label, around the same time, and wound up on her Dimples and Spice album.

Now, if you're looking at the picture cover, you may've noticed the big "REMIX" and the small note underneath, "Original produced by Ben Liebrand." And you're probably thinking - wait, I thought Marley produced the original? You're right; he did (along with Andre Booth). What I eventually figured out this cover means is that there are two remixes on this 12"... the "original" remix of "Sucker DJ" on the B-side, which Ben Liebrand did produce, and then another remix, which actually pops up first on the A-side.

So, let's start with the A-Side. This is "Resucker DJ (Remix)," and it's not entirely clear whether they mean to say that this is a remix of another mix of "Resucker DJ" or just to generally inform us that "Resucker DJ" is a remix of "Sucker DJ's." Welcome to the world of ZYX; you'll get used to confusing labels like this if you stick around. Regardless, this is just a pretty enjoyable, very busy, more modern-sounding remix of "Sucker DJ's." It's pretty much what you'd expect, except that it doesn't suck. This version is mixed by Sanny X, an old school Swedish hip-hop artist. The fact that they keep it pretty hip-hop, as opposed to getting all trancey/ ravey like they usually do - is a huge boon. i mean, it's nothing essential, and it doesn't replace the original, but you definitely won't be mad at it - it's good times.

Then, flip it over, and you've got "Sucker Drums," which is essentially just a Dub Mix of what we've just heard, and then finally, "Sucker DJ (A Witch for Love)" (note, not "Resucker"... and why did "DJ's" become singular?). This is the one Ben Liebrand, and this one's pretty catchy. In fact, I understand it was a bit of a hit in Europe. So much so, that this B-side was also released as a separate, stand-alone single (which is why I said you could say Dimples either released 3 or 4 singles depending on how you keep score). Again, the acapella is just the original "Sucker DJ's," and again, they thankfully keep it to a regular, hip-hop beat that doesn't forget the scratches (after all, that's what this song is all about). But this time around, they add a few extra little samples and elements, but the body of this remix is the theme to "Bewitched." Yes, exactly the same silly sitcom refrain that DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince used for "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble." And, yes, it's a pretty transparent gimmick, but dammit... it just works perfectly with Dimples' voice and flow - perhaps more so than Will Smith's. I won't argue with any criticism you care to level at it - you'd probably be right - but damn it, it sure is fun to listen to.

I really picked this 12" up on a whim - hardcore collector that I am, of course I need a horrid, useless dance remix of an old Dimples D record that I just randomly stumbled across - but I wound up being quite pleased with it. It might rile purists a bit, but hey; it turned out she was directly involved with it, and even wound up making a whole album of new material to go along with it. If you like "happy rap," I think you'll be pleased with it, too.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

And the Award for Most Pleasant Surprise Goes To

CSJQ is one of the many groups we've never heard of who us bloggers only find out about when we get promotional e-mails in our inboxes. But this one immediately made me take a second look because of the line up: Clayton Savage and JayQuan. And if those names didn't make you take a second look just now, I'll explain.

The email (and their website, press-kit, etc) claim Clayton Savage is one of the Furious Five. Probably, your first reaction is: hey, I can name all of the Furious Five - Mele Mel, Scorpio, Rahiem, Kid Creole and Cowboy - and Clayton ain't one of them!" Ah, but what about after they split up and formed two separate groups? There was a new Furious Five line-up then, right? Well... you're closer. Rahiem and Creole stuck with Flash and formed a new five-man group of MCs with new members Broadway, Lavon and Larry Love (of the famous "Larry's Dance Theme"). And Mel had his new Furious Five, which was made up of Scorpio, Cowboy and new members King Lou, Kamikaze and Tommy Gunn. All of whom... still don't include Clayton Savage. So I daresay they're stretching the truth a bit by calling him a member of the Furious Five.

But it's not entirely bogus claim or anything. When the original Furious Five were making records on Sugarhill, they recorded with The Sugarhill Band (Fats Comet)... and when the groups divided and Mel's new formation of the Furious Five started putting out records on Sugarhill, one of the key musicians they worked with was Clayton Savage. In fact, on one single ("We Don't Work for Free") he's downright competing for the title of lead vocalist with Mele Mel. He also put out a solo album in 1986. So while he may not technically have ever been one of any of the Fives, he's certainly an established old school artist with a genuine legacy. And he's someone who perks my interest when I hear he's got a new hip-hop project coming out.

And that's just one of the guys - the other's story is just as interesting. Jayquan is the founder of The Foundation website. You've heard me sing its praises before... if there was a nuclear war and I could only save one hip-hop website, it would probably be The Foundation. And hes an MC who I've covered before with his 12" featuring Mel and Grandmaster Caz. He has a musical legacy that goes back, too - during the heyday of the indie 12" scene in the mid 90's, he was a member of The First Sons, and even put out a record as far as back as 1987 as one of The Too Def Crew. ...So, if nothing else, this new collaborative project is going to be an interesting footnote in hip-hop history.

But, fortunately, it's not nothing else. Like the title says, their four-song debut EP, The Life, turns out to be quite a pleasant surprise. Yes, after all that back-story, we're finally getting to the music; and I'm happy to report that the music lives up to the back-story. What I like the best is how they manage to make something that takes elements from every era of hip-hop, bridging the gap from the Sugarhill Band days to Pink Friday; and it all works. It's got rich and varied instrumentation thanks to Savage, who also sings in a couple different styles, that has a lot of old school integrity but sounds modern enough that if you replaced Jay with Drake (for Drake's name, not his MCing skills), most of the songs could easily be one of those break-out hit singles on Youtube with the kids. But one difference is that Jay stays a straight rapper on here - not in terms of his sexuality, but in the sense of pure MCing without all that sing-songy autotune, computer generated stuff (though they do utilize ALL of those tricks and more for Clayton's vocals).

Not that it's entirely flawless... sometimes Jay's rapping might be a little too straight, by way of being generic. A little boost in the writing, Kool G Rap or Rakim style might go a long way. And one of the songs on here, "Beautiful Girls," feels under-cooked. Musically and lyrically, it's just not quite up to par with the other tracks on here. I think they maybe should've kept tweaking this one in the studio for a while before releasing it alongside the others. Of course, that's not because it's bad, but because they set the par pretty high with the other songs.

And there's a reason I thought of Pink Friday when I first heard this, and not just because they share some really engaging musical vibes. The hook to the EP's title track, "The Life" ("I wanna live the life... the life... the life") sounds so much like the one for "Moment 4 Life," that if this song ever did become a break-out hit, I'd be quite worried about hearing from Nicki's lawyers. But, hey, that hook sounded good then and it sounds good now, so as a listener and not a copyright attorney, I'm not mad..

So, you get four songs total on this EP, plus a Clean Version of the song "F.U.N." The language censored from the Clean Version runs right through the chorus as well as the rap verse, however, so I'd skip that one. Kinda ruins the whole thing. Fortunately the Explicit Version's here too, so it's not a drama. This is primarily an mp3 release (boo!) but you can get CD hard-copies from CDBaby.com, which is what I recommend.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Doorbell Rap

Black, Rock and Ron released a hard, highly regarded album in 1989 on RCA Records (in fact, it's recently been released). They mostly produced their own material, but they did have that Midas-like connection with Paul C, plus a famous remix by Prince Paul. They had several singles and videos, but I guess they didn't quite break that mainstream sales barrier for their label to commit to a second album.

But their legacy isn't entirely limited to their all-too brief time RCA. See, before RCA, they were signed to Next Plateau, and even appeared on one of Red Alert's famous mixtape albums. Now, the single they released on Next Plateau ("That's How I'm Living") was carried over to their RCA album, but there's more to the story than that. Because they were signed to Next Plateau before they even became Black Rock and Ron. They released their first single under the name Vicious Four.

"Hard Rap" was released in 1986, and here's the first thing you'll surely notice about this. They sampled a doorbell. It's got your traditional programed drums, hand-claps and other funky sounds - it's a dope beat. But the signature tune they play on the hook is obviously the chimes of Big Ben as played by a doorbell. The people I house-sit for have this doorbell; it sounds exactly the same! It's even got that slight distortion towards the end of the refrain. I mean, this was the mid 80's, where it wasn't at all uncommon to have rappers rhyme over interpretations of cartoon and sitcom theme songs, so it doesn't sound that ridiculous (at least, comparatively) to hear these sorts of tunes in a rap track - they do actually pull it off, I have to say - but I'm still pretty sure these are the first guys to rap over a doorbell.

Now, this record does bring up a question I can't answer. Black, Rock and Ron are obviously a three man group. So who is the fourth on this track? Lord Black and Master Rock are the lead and only MCs here just like they were on Stop the World, and they repeatedly shout out Ron Scratch as their DJ. ...They don't name anybody else. Only Black and Rock get writing credits, and Rock did the production. It seems to be a very clear-cut three man operation. But they're calling themselves Vicious Four! Who the Heck is the fourth?? I think it can only be the doorbell.

They've also got another song on here called "Huffing N' Buffing," a more narrative-style song, where they relate various anecdotes of people working harder rather than smarter. It's fun, sort of a bemusing precursor to "You Be Illin'," with a slow, bassy keyboard riff over a beat that's otherwise very reminiscent of "Hard Times," particularly in its use of aggressive, isolated hand-claps. It's fun, but these little story raps are never (with the admitted, rare exception) as engaging as songs like the A-side, where they just spit their hardest.*

If you listen closely to the track, you will hear some silly, out-of-breath human beatboxing mixed into the track. I assume it's to illustrate the "huffing and buffing" of the title, but possibly whoever performed this is the mysterious fourth guy? Ha ha. I mean, I'd assume it's just one of the three members who recorded it real quick, but damn it, somebody's gotta be the fourth!

Anyway, this isn't a hard record to track down, and it's well worth it. It's definitely got that Hollis sound. And while it does sound more "old school" than their RCA material, it's no less fun for that fact. Both instrumentals are included on the flip.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Queens of Civilization are On the Mic.

Since the very beginning, hip-hop has had its share of strong sisters. From Invincible today to Lady B back in 1979 - hell, we can take it back even before hip-hop was recorded music, with the likes of Sha Rock and the Mercedes Ladies - forward-thinking females MCs have been spitting hard enough that I believe they can take genuine credit for advancing the feminist movement in the global culture. But interestingly, when you say "feminist rap song," the exact same rap will immediately come to everybody's mind. It's not the first, and it's not the most recent, it's just... the one.

"Ladies First" dropped in 1989, and it's as terrific now as it ever was. It made the careers of both its MCs, Queen Latifah and Monie Love. Eleven years later, Latifah even titled her book Ladies First. Latifah showed us a whole other side to her from her previous, clubby dance tracks, proving she could be the lead vocalist on a rap song equal to the genre's all-time greats. And while "Monie In the Middle" is a fun crossover record with a brilliant instrumental, this is easily Monie Love's best performance of her career.

But as much, if not more, credit needs to go to the DJ Mark the 45 King for laying down one his best, all-time instrumentals. In many ways, it's right out of the King's playbook: a funky break with random, dusty horn samples he unearths and brings to the table over and over again, always to the our delight. But here he takes different horn samples, from different records of different styles, and together they form something even stronger than most of his other records. Some are blaring, turning the hook into a rallying cry, and others are funky loops that couch the vocals. All that paired with a live, thumping bassline played by engineer Shane Faber, adds up to one of hip-hop's all-time great instrumentals. And then it's really no surprise to see the great Paul C's name turn up in the credits for this one as well, since he seemed to have a hand in nearly every true classic from this period.

Now, I've heard it said a few times, on the internet, that "Ladies First" was written by Apache. This is usually pointed out by a male making the bigger point that: ha ha, these women needed a man to write their big, feminist anthem. I don't know if that's true or not, but there are writing credits on this 12", which credit several people, not including Apache. Specifically, they credit Latifah, Monie, The 45 King and Shane Faber. So, I would assume Latifah and Monie wrote their own lyrics, and 45 King and Faber are getting credit for the instrumental, and dismiss the Apache thing as internet rumor, except I was able to find something to support it. According to discogs, two pretty random compilation albums* credit Apache as a writer, alongside Latifah, Love and 45 King (but, interestingly, not Shane Faber). Of course even in those cases, Monie and Latifah are still credited as writers, but it does lend some credibility to the notion that he at least had a hand in it.

Still, there's at least one lyrical moment Apache night not have wanted to take credit for even if the ladies were willing to give it to him. That's because this song is one of those rare, infamous examples of misspelling in a rap song, ranking right alongside Warren G's "What's Next," when he famously asked, "what's N-X-E-T?" In this case, Monie Love ends her final verse by saying, "And next up is me, the M-O-N-I-E L-O-V-E; and I'm first 'cause I'm a L-A-D-I-E." I hope nobody reading this actually needs me to point it out, but the singular of "ladies" is in fact "lady."

That embarrassing gaff aside, this is one of hip-hop's purest, most perfect song. I mean, how could anyone ever hope to improve on it? What more could you ask for, a Crazy Extended 45 King Remix? Oh shit. The 12" has a Crazy Extended 45 King Remix on it!

Wisely, this 12" doesn't replace the already ideal 12"... it just adds a few things. Stab scratches, Malcolm X vocal samples, an extended opening (the famous "muuuusic 45 King, muuuuusic Latifah and the King, muuusic from a nation supreme" acapella that King would re-use regularly), all just help make the proceedings even hyper. It's over a minute and a half longer, and while it may seem a bit excessive during the opening - the chorus repeats and the beat rides for almost too long before the MCing kicks in. But you'll be glad for the extra length at the end of the song, when it allows for an extra, all-new verse by Latifah:

"Step out into the night;
Queens of civilization are on the mic.
The scene is ripe; the crowd is hype.
I expel the wack and those who bite.
Why? 'Cause I'm that type.
Swaying with beats 45 King style;
He wants me to sing but I'll swing, so meanwhile,
A footnote for the opposite sex:
Monie ripped the mic; I rock it next.
Flex - you'll never catch me at my worst.
You catch the drift? It's ladies first!"

Latifah's debut album was already a crate staple thanks to songs like this; but the remix makes this an essential 12" as well (plus, picture covers never hurt). And what else is on here? Well, there's the LP and a slightly tightened Radio Version. The Instrumental is on here, and if you care about instrumentals at all, this is definitely one to own. And finally, there's the Queen Latifah - Monie Love Bonus Beat, which has the pair shouting out the top female MCs of the day over the break, with Latifah using her silly French accent from her cameo on De La Soul's record. It's short, and they could've just edited into the ending of the Remix, to make it even more Crazy and Extended. But whatever - this is definitely one of those 12"s you just can't complain about.


*1990's Tanz House 2 on BCM Records from Germany and 2004's All That Urban on Warner Bros from Australia.