Friday, April 29, 2016

Melle Mel In Spaaaaace!!

Here's an interesting record that doesn't know where it's from. The label says "Made In the U.K." and the back of the picture cover says, "Made In Germany." It's also a 10", one of those rare, nebulous records that lives somewhere in between the common 7" and the ideal 12". But who cares? It's a neat, obscure record by possibly the greatest rapper of all time, Grandmaster Melle Mel.

Well, as you can see, it's not just by Mel. It's also by Keith LeBlanc. If you don't recognize that name, he's the drummer from the original Sugarhill Band/ Fats Comet, and who's been involved with a ton of projects since then, including this one. This single's on his own imprint, Blanc Records, and all the B-sides are by him without Mel, so even though Melle gets top billing, I suppose this is really more of a LeBlanc record. But his name comes first, 'cause he's the man we're all here to hear, right?

All of Mel's records were of course on Sugarhill and backed by the in-house band, so he's no stranger to working with LeBlanc. But it gets a little more complicated when we flip this record over and see on the back that the song is actually credited to Interference, featuring Melle Mel and Bee La Key. Interference is a duo LeBlanc formed with a UK DJ named Tim Simenon. And Bee La Key is some guy who also sang vocals on Interference's previous record a couple years before. Basically, he's the hook guy here, Mel does all main verses, LeBlanc does the production and percussion, and there's some very sparse scratching by Simenon. Also in the credits you'll notice bass is played by Doug Wimbash, who's also from the Sugarhill Band.

So what's this song like? It's pretty cool! Melle Mel was sort of working his comeback around this time... not that he ever entirely left the game at any particular point; he's always kept his name in there. But this was right before his album on Str8 Game Records with Scorpio, and well before Die Hard. He was already resurfacing to do guest verses here and there, but this was something we weren't getting from him. Really serious, conceptual raps that weren't just "hey it's me, here to represent the old school" tag, but a song with a message and creative ideas. This was a real, new Melle Mel record proper.

It's about, uh, the world order and the dangers of dystopia, I guess. It reminds me a lot of Afrika Bambaataa's Time Zone record, "World Destruction." Not quite as punk, but kind of a futuristic theme in the instrumentation, ominous vocal samples and warnings about "the hand that reaches across the land." There's a lot of imagery, religious references you have to be pretty plugged into to get fully and plenty of poetic license (like, I needed google to figure out that "the man that shares his birthday with Nimrod" means Jesus Christ), so I don't know if it's possible to take it as seriously as the artists probably want you to. It feels more like a science fiction experience when we're meant to be relating to the problems of our times (he's actually rapping about real social issues, of course, not beings in outer space); but Mel shows he can still paint some vivid pictures with his words. His style reminds me of his most famous verses from "Beat Street" and "The Message," and it's not any worse for being dark and spacey.

And the instrumentation has to take more than half the credit or blame for the futuristic vibe anyway. It's pretty original, with a lot of live guitar and stuff, but thankfully never straying too far from a traditional hip-hop groove. The cuts are nothing, though. I mean, there isn't anything wrong with them, but they're so minimal they barely have the opportunity to enhance or distract. They could've just sampled a little scratching sound and pressed the button once every two and a half minutes and gotten the same effect.

And that takes us to song #2. No Melle Mel this time, unfortunately. It's just an instrumental. But it's still worth a listen. This time it's not Interference, but just a LeBlanc solo record: "Point Blanc (A. Sherwood Remix)." I've never heard the original, though I looked it up. It's from his 1992 album, Time Traveler. Anyway, it's another dark, semi-spacey kind of track, but a bit more down to Earth. The hook comes from a recurring Rakim "Let the Rhythm Hit Em" vocal sample, and there's some rudimentary scratches. But it's mostly some interesting drums and keyboards and stuff. It kind of works as a cool "What Order" reprise, though it doesn't actually technically reprise that instrumental.

Then the B-side is a bunch of original, not very good break beats. Listening to them once was more than enough for me. But side A I recommend. Side A is dope and interesting. Instrumentally, what these guys were doing strayed a little too far from the hip-hop formula to ever be a hit record. But Mel killed it, and these guys gave him some pretty compelling background music. It's definitely not for the mainstream, but if you've ever wished Mel kept making serious records and not just token efforts and name checks, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by this. Something a little off the beaten path.

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