Tuesday, January 30, 2018

That Time Havoc Kicked Coolio and Blondie Off Their Own Record

Say, did you guys watch Kendrick Lamar perform with U2 the other night on The Grammys?  Me either.  Who ever wanted to see those two collaborate?  More big money, bad idea, cross genre noise pollution that's, hey, just like today's record!  But unlike last week's post, this is a real collaboration that actually happened, and not a patch-worked fakery.  I'm not sure if that necessarily makes things any better... in fact, given my choice, I might prefer more Hip-Hop artists faking their team-ups with rock bands rather than actually going through with it.  But in this case, it at least made things a little more lively and interesting than Wyclef's sleepy mess.  I'm talking with Blondie's comeback single "No Exit" featuring Coolio, Mobb Deep, Inspectah Deck and U-God.

In a way, this is more awards show generated nonsense, since the big performance of this song took place on a 1999 broadcast of The American Music Awards.  But they did release an properly studio-recorded version of this as a single on Beyond Records, plus as the title track of the Blondie comeback album (their first album in 17 years according to Wikipedia, who I'll trust, because I don't know or care about these non-Hip Hop groups) and even a music video.  But the only version most of us are apt to care about is this particular 12" on LOUD Records, where Havoc decided to take things in hand and make a good version of the song.

So let's talk about the main version first.  Strictly speaking, this 12" draws a distinction between The Loud Rock Remix and The AMA Performance Version, but the latter is really just a slightly extended version of the former with about twenty extra seconds of instrumentation.  Basically they're the same song.  And it's a pretty eccentric song, which I suppose makes sense when you think about the personnel.  Unlike the Small Soldiers version of "Another One Bites the Dust," this song clearly features the band members playing their instruments on the song, which definitely injects a lot of energy into the song if nothing else.  I mean, they're talented musicians, so it's not bad in that sense, though they make some really weird choices, using riffs from "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and Bach's classic Phantom Of the Opera theme, with a loud, distorted rock guitar style.  It's actually very much like the Goblin soundtrack for Lamberto Bava's Demons, to the point where I honestly believe they're deliberately cribbing.  But at least that's fun.

So Deborah Harry not only sings the chorus, she raps.  And her rap style hasn't changed at all since we last heard it on 1980's "Rapture."  As you can imagine, when on the same track as Mobb Deep and them, that flow comes off pretty stilted by comparison.  And she's followed by Coolio, who sounds kinda silly warning us against putting "whimpin' and simpin' up in your pimpin'."  Then the rest of the song is Harry singing the hook between verses by Havoc, Prodigy, Deck and U-God, none of whom deliver career-topping performances, but all come off a lot slicker and more listenable than Deborah and Coolio.

That's the version most people have.  In fact, I think there's actually an even more milquetoast version that features Coolio but none of the other guests.  But if you're a real head, the only worthwhile version is on the B-side.  Havoc produced The Infamous Hip Rock Version, which actually aims to please some Hip-Hop fans.  First off, it's got an stripped down, pure Hip-Hop beat, with none of that guitar noodling or any other live instrumentation.  It's a classic, 90's New York street style track, with a break beat and a bassline and that's pretty much it.  It has no connection to Blondie's music at all, which is A-O-K with me.

Even better?  It jumps right to the Mobb and Wu.  Blondie's rap?  Deleted.  Even Coolio!  Deleted.  Off the record.  Perfect!  Now it's just a Mobb Deep record featuring some second string Wu players (collectively dubbed the "LOUD Allstars" on the sticker) that sounds like it was recorded for any of their mixtape projects from that time.  Harry's chorus is still used for the hook, and there is a brief guitar solo tagged on at the end; but if you just heard this version you'd never suspect it was an off-shoot of some bizarre goth rock hybrid record.

Unfortunately, if you remember Mobb Deep's Koch Record solo albums from that time, though, you remember they were a little lackluster and the production was pretty dry.  So even this version is no awesome masterpiece.  So don't come in expecting "Shook Ones" meets "Protect Ya Neck."  It's closer to some Golden Arms Redemption material... but it would definitely be one of the better songs on there.  No Greatest Hit, but actually a record Wu and Mobb fans might want to have in their collection, unlike the A-side.

As you see, this 12" comes in a sticker cover, and also contains both instrumentals, not that you'd really want either.  Also on the B-side is a Talvin Singh Rhythmic Radio Edit of another song from Blondie's comeback album, called "Maria."  No rappers on this one, and Blondie barely even sings.  It's mostly four minutes of synth-y ambiance over high bpm club drums.  I suspect the original was more traditional pop rock song with guitars and singing, but I don't intend to find out.  It's the exact opposite end of the spectrum of what anybody buying this record wants to hear.  They should've included the "No Exit" acapella instead; and then I'm sure we would've heard the LOUD Allstars on a lot more mixtapes.  But, oh well; no great loss either way.

This is the kind of record you can always find dirt cheap, and for that price, I recommend it.  Fans will be pleasantly surprised by the B-side, and the A-side is at least a novelty, which I guess is all the AMA's really wanted in the first place.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Wyclef and Canibus Spendin' Spielberg Money

Major record labels just have too much money.  That's the only records like this exist: "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen with additional vocals by Wyclef Jean featuring Pras and Free.  Or the way it's credited on the version I bought: Queen/ Wyclef Jean featuring Pras, Canibus and Free.  I don't know jack about musical genres outside of Hip-Hop, but even I'm familiar with Queen's rock classic "Another One Bites the Dust" from 1980.  It's the one that reprises the bassline from Chic's "Good Times," which Grandmaster Flash famously mixed together on "The Great Adventures Of..."  But this one's from 1998 on Dreamworks Records.  DreamWorks is the label Steven Spielberg co-owns with two other media moguls.  DreamWorks is much better known for their DreamWorks Pictures division, which makes blockbuster movies.  But yeah, they have also have a record label for nonsense like this, when their films aren't burning through enough cash on their own.

Now, the way they write that: "Queen with additional vocals by..." sure makes it sound like a historic rap/ rock collaboration of the giants, along the lines of when Bob Dylan made a record with Kurtis Blow, or more recently when Kanye West teamed up with Paul McCartney, when Eminem remixed "Stan" with Elton John, that time LL Cool J made "Accidental Racist" with Randy Travis, or... wait a minute.  These collaborations aren't historic; they're terrible!  Massive miscalculations of celebrity culture and ego that should always be shot down at the conception stage.  But hey, this record isn't actually one of those; it's a fake rap/ rock collaboration.

Not that it was a serious hoax.  Anybody who'd be interested in laying down money for a Queen record would know that the band's lead, Freddie Mercury, had been dead for years.  And another core member had also passed away before this record.  That just leaves two guitar players or whatever, and I'm pretty sure they didn't play on this record either.  It doesn't sound like there's any new, live instrumentation at all.  Really, this is just Wyclef remixing Queen's old record to put himself on it.  That was really his entry way into hit records... after Lauryn's "Killing Them Softly" - which was cool but still kinda pointless as far as I'm concerned since Roberta Flack still sang it better - he just started doing "covers:" "No Woman, No Cry," "Gone 'Till November, "We Trying To Stay Alive," etc.

I know Hip-Hop has a legacy of making rap songs out of big records that were hits at the time, like Spyder D and Nu Shooz.  But I honestly think the fun of those records was that audiences were of course fans of those songs, and it was fun to hear the raps on the breaks.  "Erotic City Rapp" was made for fans of Prince's "Erotic City."  But in the 2000s, making hits off of records that were decades old, feels pretty sneaky, selling them to kids unfamiliar with the original.  The people most impressed with Coolio's "Fantastic Voyage" were the people who'd never heard of Lakeside.  So when I see Wyclef releasing "Guantanamera" as a single, it just feels like he's trying to pass off another song writer's talents as his own to kids who are encountering that chorus for the first time.  Especially since, like "Fantastic Voyage," he was just making versions worse than the originals.  Like, I'd rather listen to "I Can't Wait (To Rock the Mic)" than "I Can't Wait," because that's adding all these great rap elements which I love.  But Wyclef barely even raps; he just kind of mumbles a few low energy lines over the lulls.  I'd certainly rather hear Freddy Mercury belt out the lines, "how long can you stand the heat" than 'Clef, wouldn't you?

But okay, maybe that's just me being sour because I don't really vibe with Wyclef's energy.  Here, he obviously uses the instrumentation of the original, including its iconic bassline.  He chops it up, and swaps out the drums for a more traditional breakbeat.  But he is definitely trying to make it sound like he recorded this in the studio with Mercury, which is weird.  He'll say "Freddie Mercury, where you at, yo?" and then some old acapella of Mercury's vocals will play, as if the two were standing right next to each other in the vocal booth and 'Clef just cued him to sing his next line. The whole thing just feels like a strange endeavor.

And why is it on DreamWorks of all labels?  I mean, it probably took DreamWorks to buy Queen's name, and release it like a new Queen record (it even later wound up on one of their greatest hits albums, if you can believe it).  But Wyclef and Pras were signed to Columbia, and EMI had Queen.  DreamWorks were involved in this instance because this song is from the soundtrack to Small Soldiers, a CGI children's movie about action figures coming to life in a kid's bedroom, like Toy Story.  If I ever get the chance to interview Joe Dante someday, I'm just dying to ask him if he insisted that his film needed a song by Queen and Wyclef on it and made it happen; or if he even had any say in his movie's soundtrack at all?  What was he thinking as he saw this project unfold?

But yeah, this is already a long post, and I've got so much more to go into, so let's keep things moving.  Like I said at the top, there are multiple versions of this 1998 cover, with or without Canibus.  This came out just as Canibus was blowing up (and before his career just as quickly deflated), so there was still a craze to own every 12" single with his name on it.  But you had to be careful to get the version with the run-out groove PRO-A-5118 instead of the one with PRO-A-510, because that one doesn't have Canibus on it.

See, originally, the song featured Wyclef, Pras and Free.  That's what's on the soundtrack and the original single.  I said that Wyclef just mumbles some lines, which he does through the bulk of this song and much of his output; but to be fair, he does have a full rap verse on here, as do the other two.  These guys are pretty all over the map.  Wyclef starts shouting out "the kids on the blocks shootin' at the crooked cops," which gets cut out of most versions, because Small Soldiers is a children's movie like Toy Story, and what was he thinking?  But really, nothing he says in one line connects to what he says in the next, talking about Idi Amin, then doing a Woody Woodpecker impression.  It's like he's just stringing together buzz words for an easy pay check.

Meanwhile, Pras and Free are dropping terrible lines like, "believe me, you gotta let me fly like R. Kelly. Bite another dust with my man Freddie Mercury," and "I don't go down 'cause I'm a vegetarian," respectively.  I really don't understand why Free didn't go back and say write me another line that isn't a third grade schoolyard blowjob joke for my big major label debut.  Because it's painfully obvious, with bars like, "practically, I tactically destroy; deploy more decoys than a presidential convoy," that she's just delivering another verse written for her by Canibus.  Another "Patriots."  I was interested in her as an artist and hoping for an album until I realized she was being puppeteered like A+.

Anyway, that's the version on the soundtrack album.  This 12" features a bunch of remixes and alternate versions, including some where Pras is taken off the song and substituted with Canibus, who was the only reason to care about this song in 1998.  So, first version on the 12", LP Version, is the same as on the soundtrack, but the Small Soldiers Video Mix is the one with Canibus.  Yes, there was a music video for this song, too.  I never saw it back in the day - I don't think the Hip-Hop shows ever played it; but it's on Youtube.  It's a weird, silly video where Wyclef is a security guard at a wax museum with a display dedicated to Queen.  None of this has anything to do with Small Soldiers, by the way; but at least the video doesn't try to keep up the charade that Queen actually somehow recorded this track with Wyclef; they recognize that he's passed on.  Anyway, a dance party breaks out because this is a music video after all, and the Freddie Mercury statue gets stolen.  So Wyclef goes on a secret spy mission to recover it.

You actually need to know that to understand this version of the song, because otherwise Canibus's verse doesn't make sense.  A lot of it is him doing his typical, complex battle rap with exotic imagery schtick like, "My rhymes cut through the radio waves like machetes; the predator becomes the prey in the Serengeti."  But he's the only one who plays along with the movie saying, "I'm a small soldier."  And later he talks about how, "I breach national security purposely to safely return the statue of Freddie Mercury."  I'm honestly not sure if he wrote that verse on the set of the music video to make it actually relate to the song, or if maybe the director heard that line in Canibus's rap and was inspired to make the video about that.  It's got to be one of those; it's too much to be a sheer coincidence.

But either way, it's kind of a shame, because Canibus spoils his own verse with these crazy, silly tangents.  You just can't get lost in a fierce, sick lyrical attack when he's talking about Small Soldiers.  But the whole mess has way too much talk about shooting and murdering people for little kids to just enjoy it as a silly theme song to their movie like Will Smith's "Here Come the Men In Black."  So it's like a song for nobody.  In the music video, the song is censored to pieces, with long stretches of protracted silence over the instrumental, which just adds to the feel that Wyclef is half asleep the whole time.

Anyway, there's also a Team 1 Black Rock Star Main Pass mix on here.  It's the Pras version again, but this time with the instrumental varied up a bit, thanks to Wyclef's cousin, Jerry Wonda.  It's a little more interesting, because "Another One Bites the Dust" is so over-familiar even the first time you hear it; but the bulk of the song is still based around the same basic bassline and all.  There are also both instrumentals, a clean edit of the Black Rock mix and an A Cappella (With Pras, not Canibus).  Now in the days of discogs, it's easy; but back in the 90s, it was tricky to find this particular 12" version with Canibus instead of the normal one.  Unfortunately, now that the Canibus craze has passed, I can also see it wasn't really worth it.  But at least it makes for an interesting curiosity piece.  The Small Soldiers soundtrack also featured a song with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Black Flag, Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers... and I believe they actually did record it together for real.  I don't know if anybody actually likes that song either, but what else was DreamWorks going to do with their excess millions?  Give to charity?

Friday, January 5, 2018

Chino On Metro

So I thought I'd follow-up on my recent Chino XL post, about his brief stint on Warner Bros with this one about his one 12" on Metro.  So, like I said then, Metro is the indie label he wound up putting his second album (I Told You So) out on after Warner Bros, well, changed their minds.  Essentially, Metro didn't bother with any singles for that album, since Warner Bros had already done that job for them.  They just released the CD.  But there was this one, little promo 12" for "What You Got."  And the B-side?  "Let 'Em Live" with Kool G Rap again.  What makes this 12" interesting, besides being the only way for serious Chino fans to get "What You Got" on vinyl since I Told You So was CD-only?  Exclusive remixes.  But before yo get too excited, let's have a closer look.

I'll start with the A-side, since A comes after B, even though I'm sure we're all much more interested in "Let 'Em Live."  But "What You Got" is actually a pretty fun track.  It's just Chino going off showing off his skills in full braggadocio freestyle mode, naturally packing in as many punchlines as he possibly can.  Yes, that gets a little corny.  "Give ya more blood clots than two Jamaicans arguin'," "what I do to push your hairline back Rogaine won't help," "I'll turn on channel 2 if I wanna see B.S.," etc.  I mean, that last one might get a pass in some kind of politically minded song where he was actually commenting on the media; but here it's just a cheesy pun that has nothing to do with anything, thrown in because he fills his music with every pun he can think of.

Despite that, though, it's actually a pretty good song.  Like "Let 'Em Live," the beat is again created by Nick Wiz without any instrumental samples.  I specify instrumental samples because the hook actually makes use of some great vocal samples from Carlito's Way, which is a huge part of the song's appeal.  The rest of the track is carefully constructed studio sounds.  It's got more of a catchier, upbeat feel than "Let 'Em Live," but it's the same kind of thing.  And that upbeat feel might throw you off at first.  It sounds like something better suited for a junior member of Terror Squad to boast about his bling on than a battle rapper like Chino.  But I kind of like the unexpected merger of a hardcore rapper over a poppy beat; like Yah Yah with 5th Lmnt.  A pop rapper over a pop beat is crap; but there's a cool contrast on songs like this, with Chino flowing ruthlessly over the track, both elements feeding energy into the other.  It works.

It's obvious why Warner wanted it to be his next single.  I mean, I'm not sure it would've been a great idea even if they had done it.  Putting Chino on more of crossover track would smell like mainstream appeal to a corny label exec, but I think a more savy Hip-Hop A&R would realize the two elements would probably cancel each other out commercially.  The kids who were making "Wobble Wobble" and "Whistle While You Twurk" the #1 rap songs of the year weren't going to latch onto Chino XL rapping about how, "at a lynching I smile, cut myself down, murder your guest list."  But the whole thing's too damn jiggy for the underground screwfaces and purist backpackers who would've been interested in listening to complex battle rhymes.  Especially with that music video.  No wonder why Warners quickly drew back like whoa, we made a mistake with this one.

Oh yeah, did you know there was a music video?  As far as I know, it never aired, but it was included as an Enhanced CD bonus on Chino's next album, Poison Pen, which came out in 2006 on another short-lived indie label, Activate Entertainment.  I got the autographed "2 DISC COLLECTOR'S EDITION" there (sorry, the shiny silver lettering doesn't scan very well), but the video is on disc 1, so even if you've just got the standard release, you've got the video.  And by the way, I've got a lot of shit to say about Poison Pen, but that's a whole 'nother blog.  So for now, just take a look at this video:
And yeah, that image is the full picture quality.  We're talking about an mpg hidden as a bonus track on a music CD in the year 2000, so it's relatively decent.  But the actual video?  It's clearly where all the label's budget went instead of clearing samples, with a dozen bikini models dancing in sandals around a rented mansion's swimming pool and driving around Miami in a company sports car.  Who would have listened to Here To Save You All and thought all it needed was a "Pumps and a Bump" make-over to blow up?  Well, somebody did.  It ends with a giant "© 2000 Warner Bros Records, Inc" screen, making you wonder if it was even legal for Activate to put it on their CD.  Probably not.

So, finally what we're really here for: the exclusive remixes!  Both songs feature Beat Shop Mixes in addition to the Album versions ("What You Got" also has the Instrumental), and despite the billion and one "Let 'Em Live" remixes I talked about last time, these official remixes aren't online anywhere.  Beat Shop is an alias a producer named Taurus occasionally used around that time, and he produced some stuff for guys like Guru and B-Real, so I assume he did these remixes.  Here's the thing, though.  They use the exact same instrumentals (and vocals, naturally).  Basically, they just beat juggle a little bit.  Like at the end of "Let 'Em Live," when they're saying, "knock 'em out the box, Chi?"  Well, now "Let 'Em Live" has about twenty seconds of that at the intro before going into the first verse, too.  That's the only difference.  It's maybe a one percent improvement for "What You Got," and I actually prefer the album version without that bit on "Let 'Em Live."  So don't all rush out and track this 12" down for the exclusive remixes.

The only other thing on this record, is at the end of side 2, is a short track called "Beat Shop Samples."  It's just little vocal soundbites that you used to see on those DJ battle tools records.  Like, a line from South Park and the sound of a gun shot.  None of these samples were used in the Beat Shop Mixes of the two songs or anything; they're just a random little bonus tacked on at the end.  So, all in all, an interesting footnote of a record, but not much more.  I don't know; it might seem like I'm bagging on Chino a lot here and last time, but I enjoy his stuff.  I bought his records for a reason.  Maybe I've grown out of them somewhat;...I think the whole genre's grown out of that jokey punchline simile style; but I wouldn't be going back to these records if I wasn't enjoying it.