Sunday, January 18, 2015

When Sly and Robbie Met BDP

In 1989, we saw a new side of Boogie Down Productions when Krs-One teamed up with Sly and Robbie to collaborate on their twentieth or so album, Silent Assassin. I don't mean reggae-influenced instrumentation or ragamuffin vocal stylings Krs sometimes broke off into... he'd already been doing that before this album. No, what we saw were some of the other members of the crew we barely knew. Like, name some BDP members besides Krs: Scott La Rock of course, D-Nice, Ms. Melodie... Kenny Parker... Did you say Willie D or Shah of Brooklyn? I think it's safe to say the only people who might've are the people who had this album.

I know hip-hop; I don't know other genres of music. But even I knew Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare were big. They've won Grammies and shit. And they're known for innovating and pulling reggae forward into each new decade. And so it made since that they would take the dive into hip-hop in the 80s, bringing in Krs-One to produce their entire album and getting American rappers on every single song.

Anyway, just look at that great album cover. Sly and Robbie (and... is that Sidney Mills?) up front and Krs reaching up out of the smoke behind them. This is no token "let's get a guest rapper on a song" thing, this is a real blending of their styles. Krs produced every single song on here, and (unfortunately) Sly & Robbie have no other record like this.

The big single was "Dance Hall." I just remember Yo! MTV Raps playing this every single day without fail. You had BDP stomping through the streets of Jamaica in full 80's American rapper gear. They're not trying to show how reggae they can look or sound here (as, again, BDP had done a couple of times in the past). They're in full-on New York rap crew mode. Meanwhile Sly & Robbie are jamming a very hip-hop sounding instrumental with a fast, funky bassline, popping drums and killer horn stabs. And on the mic is Willie D doing actually fairly average party rhymes. Yeah, this isn't the kind of song where it's rewarding to sit and contemplate the lyrics; but he sounds great over a brilliant instrumental. And on the album the song runs almost twice as long, letting each of the instrumental elements break out for solos and come alive to show that they're not just programmed sound-bites.

The only programmed sound-bite, really, is the hook, where they've got the one line ("just dance, y'all, to this dance hall beat") on a sampler so they can keep repeating it, stuttering it and changing the pitch. The 80s kinda got enamored with the technology, as you do, and went overboard with that production technique; but I think the pendulum has swung too far since then to where nobody ever uses it anymore and I miss it. If you want to discuss the current rap generation and if this is a good or bad time for hip-hop, just check and see if they've got any records like "Dance Hall." Nope. They're missing out.

The rest of the LP isn't necessarily as strong as the single. It's up and down and we'll get into all those peaks and valleys in a minute. But one cool thing is that it isn't an album trying to be eleven or twelve "Dance Halls." The album is more varied and often darker, more street and serious. More like a BDP album.

So WIllie D has one other song on here... And no, I don't care what discogs connects; this is not the guy from the Geto Boys. This song, "Ride the Riddim" doesn't actually sound reggae at all. Willie's just kicking freestyle rhymes over a sparse drum track with a little DJ cutting in the background and some electric, guitar riffs. Sort of like a softer version of "Ya Slippin'." You'd never think it was from a Sly and Robbie record, but it's presumably Sly behind those funky drums.

There are a couple of non-BDP members on hand as well. Queen Latifah does a nice little duet with Krs called "Woman for the Job" where she both raps and sings her own hook. Krs doesn't actually rap proper verses on it, but he does ad-libs and back-up vocals all over the joint. In fact, he does that all over this album. He's actually only properly featured as the lead MC on one song, "Party Together" (which, yes, is a rap/sing-songy track where they cover the tune of the original 60's song "Happy together" - or, as my generation knew it, the theme song to Golden Grahams cereal). Everything else is just him tagging p the album to make sure you know it's his project.

So, anyway, Queen Latifah is one, and Young MC is the other. Hey, it was 1989 and I guess they really wanted him, but they shouldn't have bothered. The instrumental to "Under Arrest" is surprisingly R&Bish, with Young rapping in full "Principal's Office" style. It's alright if you're in the mood for a pop rap tune; the hook's catchy and even though it's simple and superficial, there is a message to it. But it sure sounds out of place surrounded by the Boogie Down. And "Living a Lie" is even worse.

So, tallying it up so far, that's two Willie D songs, one Latifah, one Krs and two Young MCs. That leaves five more songs, or eight if you have the CD version with three additional bonus tracks, all of which are fronted by Shah of Brooklyn. Yeah, this obscure BDP guy who I don't think has ever rapped on any of the BDP albums or anything else, has the majority of this album all to himself. You could practically replace Sly & Robbie's names with Shah's and no one would blink.

And how is he? Pretty dope. He's obviously replicating a lot of Krs-One's flows and mannerisms, but that's not a bad thing at all. He sounds a little younger and his voice isn't as deep. He's like a Krs-One junior, or "Krs-Two" from "Poetry." He's pretty good, and he's rapping over BDP records with Sly & Robbie adding extra instrumentation. It's kind of hard to lose. Like I said, there are a few valleys. "Adventures Of a Bullet" is a great concept for a song (years before Organized Konfusion's "Stray Bullet"). The lyrics kill on paper. But the style of delivery they go for is like a weird, jazzy thing that just doesn't work. "Steppin'" is cool, but it sounds like he should've passed the mic to Kris who could've done it better. And "Letter To the President" is on some corny, sappy "We Are the World" sung bullshit.

"Man On a Mission," is a little poppier than your typical BDP album, like maybe they had younger audiences in mind. But it's still pretty fresh. It's a really good overall album, in fact. The CD version especially, because it actually features most of Shah's strongest tracks. "Come Again" is tight, with loads of funky scratching, too. It really has me wondering about Shah Barrett... who is he, where did he go? Why didn't he ever get a project, even a single 12" of his own after this huge, major label showcase? After listening to tracks like "No One Can Top This Boy," I just think yo, this guy could've made a good album. I would've bought it.

Well, regardless, this is still a pretty great lightning in a bottle-style moment for hip-hop. Yeah, there's one or two tracks that should've been dropped. But especially if you get the CD version which adds a lot more raw BDP flavor, it's great. I used to regret that Sly & Robbie didn't try another album like this, but I guess it doesn't matter as Krs-One didn't miss a step and kept putting out great music at a steady pace. But yeah, man. If you somehow missed this, don't sleep on the Silent Assassin.

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