Tuesday, January 19, 2016

So This Is What Public Enemy Meant...?

"As I ventured into the courtyard, followed by fifty-two brothers
Bruised, battered, and scarred, but hard.
Going out with a bang, ready to bang out;
But power from the sky: from the tower shots rang out.
A high number in dose, yes, and some came close;
Figure I trigger my steel, stand and hold my post.
This is what I mean: an anti-nigger machine;
If I come out alive, then they won't come clean."

That's just a small portion of Chuck D's powerful and dramatic verses from his classic, "Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos." It's a compelling, darkly cinematic narrative with a shocking but strong message. On their next album, Fear Of a Black Planet, Public Enemy expounded on one of that song's most explosive concepts with the song "Anti-Nigger Machine," a personal account of a rally he attended for another black victim of a police shooting.

And then in 1991, a rap group called ANM put out a record on Joey Boy Records.

And, no, ANM doesn't stand for Aimlessly Nonfunctional Magnifications, or any other silly combination the Backronym Generator might come up with.They make it explicitly clear on their album that it does indeed stand for Anti-Nigger Machine, and even sample "Black Steel..." on several songs. Of course, it changes the mean pretty drastically when they identify themselves as the ANM. To Public Enemy, it was a grave and pretty specific accusation directed at the US legal system, identifying our police, courts, prisons and even our military as working with frightening efficiency against one particular race of our people. So what does it mean when you say you are the ANM?

Well, thankfully it doesn't mean that Joey Boy uncovered some depressing neo-nazi skinhead rap group and decided they could be the next Miami bass novelty hit. In fact, despite the label they're on, ANM are actually from Houston, Texas, and have a bit of a genuine legacy. ANM are basically a trio: MCs Jameen and Brother Alquarr, plus a DJ named Mixmaster B. They stand in solidarity with Chuck D's messages, even claiming that he'll vouch for them: "word to life, you know I'm right, just ask Chuck."

Now, as you can see, their album, Let the Message Rize, has one of those covers with like 50 dudes on it (okay, eight), even though there only seem to be three members. And, no, I don't know who most of those guys are, though I'm pretty sure one of them is Lil Troy, years before he started putting out gangsta rap albums on Short Stop Records. Apparently, this was one of the first groups he ever produced. And if you need more legacy than that, Jameen went on to change his name to Mike D and join DJ Screw's Screwed Up Click. So ANM isn't some random rap nobodies act; they're still selling records to this day.

And so yeah, this album is dope. Production-wise, it doesn't have the PE vibe you'd expect. It's lots of very familiar, funky samples. Pretty much every groove here had been used on several hip-hop albums already, and are pretty obvious choices, but hey, they still sound good. Sorta like a later Rodney O & Joe Cooley album. And yeah, that means songs like "Trigger Happy Cop" (which was also the single, by the way), is actually set to "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll." So it really lacks the power of, say, "Arrest the President," it's more like... well, the sort of stuff you'd expect from Joey Boy in 1991. Bouncy, fun. Some of the samples are a little too big and heavy-handed, like the use of "Superstition" on the title track, but it always sounds pretty good, if a little corny. Except for "Cold Sweat" though, which is essentially Let the Message Rize's "Something 2 Dance 2," it's all heavy, message-oriented vocals. "Mind Trap" is an early hip-hop track about clinical depression. "Criminal Background" is about how dangerous a man becomes when he has nothing left to lose. That's a strange dichotomy.

The weakness of the album is unfortunately the MCs skills. These guys are young and I daresay still learning to rap a bit.  Don't get me wrong, the subject matter they choose is great, but the handling of it sometimes feels like a student project. The rhymes are pretty basic with some awkward structure, leading to basic, contrived lines like, "it's your life I will take," "people ride me like I don't have a prerogative; but who are you to say the way I'm not to live," or "my ass is what you're kissin', G." Like, try this on for size:

"Drug beats, but not the drugs you can get high on.
Hip-hoppers know what I'm sayin', so news reporters try on.
'Cause I can do the wild thing, but not the thing you're thinking of.
Your ears are to the speaker, glued to hear me sink a
Brother with the quickness."

So, 1991, "Wild Thing" is a Tone Loc reference. But he's saying he can't do the kind of wild thing Tone was talking about (which was sex, of course)? I'm sure it's not what he meant, but it sounds like he's saying he's impotent, but it's okay because he can really rock a mic. I mean, they have good voices and their flow is simple but fine. And they have got a couple freestyle songs, like "President" and "Junky That," where they sound a little less stilted. It might be tempting to just give them a pass, but being able to put words together in a slick or interesting way is pretty much what being a rapper is supposed to be all about. Plus, you can't really let them slide when they try to seriously deliver punchlines like, "yo, put an egg in your shoe, and just beat it."

The secret weapon of this album, on the other hand, is this Mix Master B. He's just getting hype all over this record. There's one or two songs with no scratching, but most of them utilize him a lot. He's regularly cutting up the group's name from "Black Steel...," in fact that's how the album opens; and it sounds great. And him cutting up a key line from "Fuck the Police" is absolutely the best part of "Trigger Happy Cop."

Overall, it's a pretty enjoyable listen for anyone on an old school kick, because its flaws will mix right in with its qualities for them. But more objectively, this is a listenable but weak album. This should've probably been their demo that paved the way to them releasing their more mature official debut album. It's a lot better than a lot of stuff, though; so it's kind of a shame ANM didn't hang in there. Well, of course, Jameen and Lil Troy did, which I guess proves my point. But I think I'd prefer their music if they stayed on the ANM path than where they wound up heading. If nothing else, it's an interesting album, which is more than you can say for most stuff coming out today.

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