Sunday, April 8, 2012

Smooth Connection

Thanks go out to Jamille Records for hooking me up for this review. I've come across Smooth Connection plenty on EBay and been curious, but never took the plunge. They're a local rap and R&B duo from Arizona, consisting of Ako Mack and KaPenda Anderson. For the most part, the girl sings and the boy raps, but sometimes the girl raps, too. I don't think the boy ever sings, though I'm not sure... they occasionally have sung male background vocals; but they also use multiple background vocalists, so I'm pretty sure they account for 100% of that. They feature big, programmed drums and a fair amount of live instrumentation. And over the course of 1990, they put out three singles on Gemini Records.

The first (judging the sequence from the catalog numbers) is "Cry of Freedom," their message song, featuring Lost European, a techno-rt rock band of aerospace engineers (their bio says they worked on "the B-2 Stealth Bomber, the all-composite Starship, the Space Shuttle, the Concorde, the Apache Helicopter, and other top-secret aircraft") also from Arizona. This collaboration yields is actually what we get on all of Smooth Connection's singles: hip-hop that sounds like it was created by non-hip-hoppers. There's a very British, 80's Euro MTV vibe going on here... even in 1990, this would've sounded dated. There's a big sax solo by Gemini staffer Jimmie McElroy, and the rest of the production, including plenty of keyboards of course, are handled by Gary Strausbagh, the man behind all of Smooth Connection's releases.

KaPenda really gets her new agey-groove on singing for this one. And when the background vocalists join in, it has a real "We Are the World" feel, but still with a post-modern bent, like the pop stuff Bambaataa drifted into when he wasn't with The Soulsonic Force. But Ako is here to sort of fill the Soulsonic role... or maybe more like MC Tee to the group's Mantronix, but with less dexterous wordplay, kicking the straight-forward rap verses about how, "never will the struggle for peace be done, until I reach freedom."

There's your basic Radio Mix main version, and then a 7+ minute Long Version, which draws out the chorus and instrumental bits. But for this song, that tactic actually kinda works. And when I first listened to it, I thought hey, this version gives us an extra rap verse; but then I realized they're just repeating one of his verses from earlier in the song, which is kinda weak.

Second, we have "Oh How I Love You," which, like the title suggests, is their schmaltzier love song. Jimmie McElroy is back with some major sax, and Strausbagh provides most of the rest of the music, though there's also a guitarist and several more background vocalists. The best part is hearing KaPenda trade rap verses with Ako, in sort of the love version of a Kid N Play back-and-forth exchange. The hook and music is nice if you go for that early 80's "modern" romantic R&B sound. I mean, all this Smooth Connection stuff is cheesy as can be - it's amazing how dependably picture covers can accurately tell the whole story of a record before you hear it - but it's well done if you're up for that kinda thing.

Finally, we have their best single, "Diamonds Aren't Forever." This is their more upbeat dance song... KaPenda here seems to be channeling 80's freestyle singers like Debbie Deb or Connie, and when she raps, she sounds like Samantha Fox minus the accent. The back-up vocalists even do Full Force-style back-ups. Akon gets on the mic, too; and it spices things up to add his voice into the mix (and it's pretty funny when he tells the girl who cheated on him that "the mink coat I bought you? Yeah, that was dog skin"), but this is really KaPenda's show. She could make this a solo song if she wanted to, and it'd still work.

There are a couple versions of this song, mostly just edits of slightly different lengths, plus a Dance Mix which adds more traditional club percussion. But the one that stands out the most is the Spanish Mix, where all the rap verses are in Spanish.

So, I believe these three singles are the sum total of Smooth Connection. These singles feel more like demos than commercial singles, but I guess that's local music for you. The back of the "Oh How I Love You" single mentions a Smooth Connection LP, but I'm pretty sure that never surfaced.

If you're looking for the next obscure random rap jewel for your crates, this stuff definitely ain't it. In fact, you could easily dismiss this as some incredibly wack, corny shit and get no arguments from anyone. But if you're open to some light-hearted, dusty rap history that's probably more connected to 80's pop music than anything hip-hop was doing at the time, then get 'em cheap and these singles will keep you genuinely entertained. Especially "Diamonds Aren't Forever" - that one's really pretty fresh.

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