Thursday, May 7, 2015

When Common Cheated On Just-Ro With Saukrates

In 1996, Common was in his prime. His last album out had been Resurrection, after his early "wacky" Can I Borrow A Dollar flow material and well before he started turning off fans with his Electric Circus "it's me and my R&B singer girlfriend against the world" stuff. 1996 was the year he leaked his "Bitch In Yoo" diss track to Ice Cube on white label vinyl. You couldn't get more credible and respected than Common at that point, so it was a big deal when he did a guest appearance on a pretty obscure 12" by an indie Chicago MC named Just Ro. And it felt like an even bigger deal when he rapped the same verse he kicked on that record on Saukrates' record a little later in the year.

Now, granted, this isn't the first time a rap verse had been recycled by an MC. You can trace it back to the very oldest rap records, like when Melle Mel repeated his greatest verse from "Super Rappin'" on "The Message." Busy Bee almost made an annual tradition out of telling us the story of how he won the lottery with his fly limousine "and the space antenna on the back of the car." And very shortly after the Common incident, you started to see a lot of credible MCs do the same thing, like Kool G Rap and Krs One. And obviously (and sadly) there have been a ton of MCs taking guests verses by deceased artists and including it on their own projects, like Chino XL re-purposing Big Pun, Trapp jacking Biggie and Tupac or Royce da 5'9 using them all. And all those crazy fake 2Pac albums with a million and one producers trying reusing the same handful of acapellas over and over.

But when this happened, it was pretty rare. It was at the time when miixtape freestyles started outshining everything else on mixtapes including the mixes; and you started having freestyle compilations like the Wake Up Show's and Tony Touch's "50 MCs." And you invariably heard those freestyle verses turn up on the artists albums a couple months later. So I guest reusing those same freestyle verses on song cameos was just the next step. But it was surprising when it happened; it felt like we'd sorta caught someone in the act of getting away with something they shouldn't. In the past, the rare rap songs with repeated vocals tended to be intentional references or semi-sequels to past songs. Sure "Tanji" and "Tanji II" repeated lyrics. But this kinda felt like: hey! He can't do that! And frankly, even now that those doors have been long open, it's still pretty dodgy.

So "Souldiers" b/w "Confusion" was Just Ro's debut, so nobody outside of Chicago had heard of this guy before this record. We all bought it really for Common's verse. He put out a longer cassette and CD release at the same time or shortly after, too, called Make It Happen (where he changed the spelling to the more conventional "Soldiers"), which featured the songs from the 12" plus a couple others. But it didn't really get out there like the single, because again, it was really moving on the strength of Common's contribution. It helped that 1996 was before Common and most 90s MCs, really started flooding the market with guest spots on smaller rappers' indie label singles. Fans would still be excited at the prospect of "ooh, another Common song!" at that point.

Fortunately, it turned out Just-Ro was pretty good, and he made a solid beat, too. Even the song without Common on it was worthwhile. I'm so used to getting burned by mediocre to worse MCs when I pick up a 12" for a guest spot. Still, there's no question who out-shone who on the 12", and I can see why audiences continued to Common rather than Just down the line, though the fact that it took Just Ro four years to put out any kind of follow-up surely didn't help his career.

Meanwhile, Canadain rapper/ producer Saukrates (pronounced like Socrates, get it?) was having a surprisingly successful come-up. He'd just dropped his split 12" with Choclair where his song "Father Time" got a lot of buzz. And at the end of '96* he dropped what is still probably to this day his signature release, the Brick House EP. It included "Father Time," again, along with a new remix, and a songs with big and highly respected American MCs: Masta Ace, OC and Common. But the song with Common, "Play Dis" featured a surprisingly familiar verse:

"Stimulated by a tree of drama,
I advance on a branch of respect and honor.
A patient of the Ill state
Centered in trauma. Never been one to side with homi-.
For Armageddon, I'm gettin' armed plus armor.
The karma of a martyr on the rise like the temp
In this Southside sauna.
The preface to the book of life states to pack human.
To it I react by staying strapped with the mac of courage.
Parallel to a carrousel of murders,
I prefer to make a life than take a life.
Stopped at the street called Wise and made a right.
Sort of how I play my broads is how I play the mic:
First I cuff it, then finger fuck it.
Check it, spit something rugged, other niggas be reluctant
To touch it after me.
Passively they strike, never matchin' me.
Rapidly though placidly,
I fabric the verbal tapestry;
Tap the keg of you conscious;
Navigate niggas like Farrakhan with a compass."

One thing that's interesting is that the two songs have pretty different tones, and yet the verse feels at home on both. You can also tell, from Common doing adlibs or mentioning Sauk's name on the song, that he actually went into the studio and recorded specifically for both songs. No one just took a finished acapella and ran with it.

And Just wasn't totally short-changed; Common actually laced him with two verses on "Confused," so only one turned up on Sauk's record.  Unfortunately, it was kind of the most impressive and memorable verse, not just on that son but from Common in a while...although to be fair, part of the reason it's so memorable is probably that we heard it on two consecutive songs. That's a bit of an unfair advantage. But, still, did Just know Common was going to lease the same material out a second time? For that matter, did Sauk know the material he was getting was used goods? If not, no matter how much some of us might hand-wave the practice, they must've felt ripped. I felt ripped, and I was just a fan.

Both "Confusion" and "Play Dis" feature additional - and unique - Common verses, though. So if you bought both records solely for Common, at least you'll be getting some new material of his on both records. In fact, Brick House also has a "Play Dis" remix which not only features a catchier instrumental, but even another, more playful bonus verse from Common. So it's by far the definitive version, to the point where Sauk really could've left off the original entirely.

At the end of the day, I tend to favor Just Ro's "Confusion." but the Brick House is really nice all around. Just Ro comes off more as the street dude with realer things to say and rawer tracks. Sauk has a more polished and fun feel, and he served up a great EP. So despite Common having been the biggest draw on both records, and despite him repeating the same material on both, both records are really worth having in your crates. And, hey, if you have to hear a verse twice as often, this is a good pretty good one.

*There's no date on the label. Discogs puts it at '07 and diskunion listed it with a release date of 1/1/7, but I kinda remember it dribbling out a little before that.  So I say '96, and either way, it was certainly right around that time.

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