Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ras Kass Demos Remastered

If there's one thing Ras Kass is consistent at being, it's uneven. For every amazing rhyme, there's a weak beat. For every strong album track there's a generic west coast cliche. Even if you're a strictly east coast head and not a fan, you have to begrudgingly admit he's had some really impressive moments in his catalog. And even if you're a die-hard Stan with "Ras Kass" tattooed across your belly, you have to admit there are a few low points you can't bring yourself to cosign. Every time he releases an album, you can't help feeling you're missing out on something else that could've been tighter and more exciting had it been released differently, like a master chef's immaculate souffle that burnt for being left in the oven too long.

So it's only natural for us to hope that this release of Ras Kass's Pre-Soul On Ice Demos from Dope Folks Records will finally be the answer to our hunger for a flawless masterpiece. But as we should've expected by now, it's not... but still pretty damn compelling.

So where to start? Ras Kass demos have been circulating the tape trading circuit before most of us even knew what the internet was. Complex, of course, included some of them in their famous "Greatest Demos" article in 2011, and back in 2008 Rap Reviews reviewed his demo tape, calling it, "a poorly preserved album-length [tape] that, allegedly, was even better than his official debut, at least lyrically, and certainly better than any of his new stuff. ...a few great tracks, and a lot of mediocrity fabricated into whole-cloth greatness." In short, a potential masterpiece marred by unevenness. The track-listing typically looked like this:

1. Everything I Love
2. Core Audience
3. High IQ
4. Won't Catch Me Running
5. Capital R-A-S
6. Blood Is Thicker Than Water
7. Interlude
8. Take a Deep Breath
9. Remain AnonymouS
10. Take a Deep Breath (Remix)
11. Walk the Walk

A large part of why people might've been nonplussed Ras's demo tape certainly has to be that much of it was turned into Ras's debut album, Soul On Ice. So rather than being a collection of completely unheard songs, it was a collection of a few unheard songs and a lot of rough drafts of songs we already heard. So any given song might be slightly weaker lyrically, but have harder production... or the inverse. And it didn't help that a number of the demo tracks, though not featured on any of his albums, were pressed on vinyl as his earlier singles. "Remain AnonymouS" is great, but any head dedicated enough to track down his demos has already got a much better copy.

So Dope Folks has made the wise move of making more of a "best of" demo EP, which includes the only strongest tracks from that original tape... plus some other stuff.  There's really no better away to explain it any further than to dive right in, track by track, so let's go:

1) Capital R.A.S. - As you can see from the track-list above, this is right from that tape. And what's more, it's one of the tightest tracks, with some of Vooodu's cool, original production. Lyrically, the punchline heavy flow (every other sentence has a "like" line like "so get to steppin' like the Delta Sigma Thetas") does sound dated and wouldn't really fly today. But for all of us fiending for vintage Ras Kass material, it's a welcome artifact of its time. Plus Ras did it better than almost anyone, so no one checking for this release should get hung up on it.

2) "Core Audience" - Also from the original tape and probably the strongest one. It's got a dark, rugged track by Bird and some serious, compelling rhymes from Ras:

"We all lick shots with unregistered burners,
And at one time or another played Ike Turner.
Ain't shit to be braggin' for,

Ass backwards actors pack gats for show and tell
So they can sell and certify gold,

Chart billboard claimin' they killed more niggas.
Underground hardcore.

But far more mainstream than Hammer.
Poppin' trunks, stuffin' pumps and smokin' blunts

Sells more records than 'Pumps and a Bump.'
Violence is a new platinum gimmick.
Call it the double-cross crossover;
A rose by any other name is Seal.

You claimin' that you represent the real niggas' life,
But only represent it for a price.
'Cause if next week the new fad was hip-hop fags,
You'd find a lot of hardcore niggas in drag.
Shit is bad; and we acknowledge this,

But after a certain point, you only perpetuate it.
So next time you rhyme about physically buckin' somebody.
Instead of 'nigga' say 'white boy'
And see how quick the devil protest it.
Wanna see your ass arrested?

Your label wouldn't suggest it.
They say it's best if you're stickin' niggas,
So some 10 year-old can claim he pimps hoes.
Find his daddy's glock nine and give his sister a 2 inch hole
Between the eyes. The influence is obvious.
Music ain't supposed to be raisin' your kids,

But in nineteen ninety-five it is."

See? That's the kind of must-have shit we've been needing on wax!  ...If only we could surgically excise that contrived line about Seal and "Kiss From a Rose." But it'a still a fantastic verse on a fantastic song, and it's flat-out crazy to think that this has lived only as a revered, unreleased dub until now.

3) "Handle the Truth" - This is not from the same demo album, but an equally legendary unreleased track that's been a jewel in tape trader's collections for just as long. You don't need production credits to tell it's produced by the same man (Vooodu) who produced "Nature Of a Threat" and other greats. It's a sick posse cut featuring Saafir, Vooodu and The Almighty Arrogant that's been in desperate need of a legit release for decades. As a matter of fact, I'm proud to say I suggested this one to Dope Folks when they were still conceiving this project. Another 100% absolute must have.

4) "Blood Is Thicker Than Water" - Back to the O.G. tape, this is the song where he kicks the punchline "like Jeru's enema, I come clean," which he later re-purposed for his Chino XL guest spot, "Riiiot!" as "I come cleaner than Jeru's enema." Actually, it's unfair that silly lines like this overshadow what's otherwise a killer song with some nice, rare production by Bird, with a phat piano riff and Marley Marl-style echoed horns. It's also got a pair of R&B chicks crooning on the hook and background, one of whom, from her last name, I'm guessing is a close relative of Ras Kass. That, of course, would fit in perfectly with the song's theme.

5) "H20 Mash-Up" - Now we veer off into oddball territory here. This isn't really a proper Ras Kass song, and certainly not a demo song circa or pre- Soul On Ice. As its title suggests, it's a mash up, presumably taken from a mix-tape by Ras V, since he's credited as a featured guest. The first half is just "H20 Proof," a single off of Ras Kass's Rasassination album, then mid-way through, it cuts to an old Big L freestyle. It's the Kay Slay one that's been featured on several of L's unauthorized albums. I'm not exactly mad at having this as long as you think of it as a sort of random bonus; but it's crazy to think one of the many other demo songs - even if they aren't quite as good as the ones we do get - was left off for this. The two aren't even artfully blended, though at least the cut between the two pieces is timed so that it remains on beat. It's a pretty big WTF moment for this EP, but oh well... it doesn't take away from the rest of it.

6) "Deep Breathe" - Finally, we're back on track with one last cut from the original tape. Personally, this is one of the most exciting inclusions for me, simply because it features some of the other Western Hemisfear guys who sadly never got enough material out in their prime. It's a little posse cut with Vooodu, Meen Green and another beat by Bird. I'm not sure why they altered the title, especially since the vocal sample they use for the hook clearly says "take a deep breath," but this is the song known as "Take A Deep Breath" - #8 on the track-list above, not the remix below it. I actually kind of preferred that remix, but both are dope and I"m happy to get either one on wax. This is exactly the kind of song I was pining for back in the 90s.

Unfortunately, now I must address one more point before I can wrap this up with a 100% recommendation. Right in Dope Folks' item description, it says, "We've cleaned up the demos as much as possible, to give you the best versions of these rare tracks. Taken from Ras Kass' own personal archives." So yeah, these are not crisp new masters taken from original DATs or reels. These are remastered by their guy (Justin Perkins, who always does impressive work for DF) forced to work with the same kind of crappy recordings we've all been stuck with for decades. Now I've got the vinyl right here and have compared it with my old tape from the 90s, older Youtube uploads and an old folder of mp3s I downloaded from SoulSeek years ago. I invite you to compare along with me by checking out Dope Folks' Youtube uploads (which, now having the wax on hand, I will say are highly accurate representations of what you get on the EP) directly to past Youtube uploads from previous sources.

On the one hand, I am pleased to report that this new EP sounds buttloads better (to use a technical term) than anything we've heard before. It tramples the worst sounding copies and even exceeds the best. But on the other hand, even if you just placed this record on your turntable and knew nothing of the history or what was sourced from where, it's immediately apparent these are taken from old tape and digital recordings. They do not sound perfect or even great. They sound like old demos pressed on wax, so if you're expecting the usual limited on vinyl, top notch sound quality, buyer beware. But again, there is a definite, substantial improvement. And what can you do? Dope Folks was working with Ras Kass himself on this release, and even he didn't have anything better.

Now who knows? It's possible someone will track down Bird for an interview and it will turn out he's got a closest full of original recordings. More likely, if they still exist at all, they're dissolving into a puddle in Priority Records' basement, never to be shared with the public. So basically, this is likely to be the best we'll ever hear them. And they are mostly (I don't know what to say about "H20 Mash-Up") terrific, must-have songs that are finally making their debut on wax. And Dope Folks doesn't exactly charge One Leg Up prices. So while the sound quality issues have necessarily diffused much of the excitement that would've otherwise surrounded this release, it's up to you to decide if it's still worth the purchase. For me it certainly was, despite being traditionally uneven.

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