Sunday, September 24, 2023

Unagi, Too

You may remember me posting a review of an instrumental album by producer Unagi saying, "listening to this gets me more excited to check out a vocal album."  Well, I guess he was listening, because - while he has occasionally rapped on songs before - he's just dropped his first proper vocal album where he's both the MC and producer.  Now, real quick, just in case I've got any residual influence left, I want to say: I think Special Ed and Slick Rick should record an album together.  Okay, now watch this space in 2024.

Meanwhile, back to the new Unagi LP.  It's called Terminally Eel, and the title is one of several eel puns he's named his albums after.  I actually only recently got it now because I googled the name "Unagi."  It comes from the eel in Super Mario 64.  Anyway, Terminally's an album of mostly all new songs, each of which are 100% full vocal tracks.  I say "mostly" because a few of these songs are remixes of rare vocal tracks from his past: "U Stole My Heart" is from 2009's Reinventing the Eel, "Sunshine" is from 2011's All Set and I think "Excuse Me" was an online only joint from 2021.

So if you're new to Unagi as an MC, he's got a relaxed, low key voice and simple flow you're either going to vibe with or not.  The most direct analog, I think, is mcenroe, who's always kicked a pretty similar sound.  But his subtle yet jazzy production - which, actually, is also pretty in tune with the Peanuts & Corn gang - will be harder for anyone to dismiss.  There's more of a uniformity to the sound on this LP.  We don't really get any bouncy tracks, or high energy ones.  It's smooth, cool, but when you pay attention, they're pretty hearty, with a lot of rich samples.

An underlying theme of this album is aging, specifically in Hip-Hop, and some of the conflict inherent in becoming a mature artist in a genre often known for its brashness.  But Unagi approaches this in a considerably more wry way than, say, Whirlwind D.  He definitely has a penchant for punchlines like, "stay way underground like a Thai soccer team" or "you make me feel finer than the kindest grass in the winner's circle at the Cannabis Cup."  I think he's also intentionally using dated references and creaky old school style lines like "you got me flippin' like Mary Lou Retton" or "like The Jerk with the Optigrab and the special purpose" to sort of ironically emphasize the theme of an older head out of his time.  Or maybe that's just his tastes.

He gets away with it, in part, I think because of his droll flow, where if you're not in the mood, you can just vibe to the music and glide right over 'em.  And they're all in the service of more interesting contexts.  For example, "Baystate OGs" is at once a fond ode to his home state, listing out everything it's famous for, "originators, man, you know how we're living: so old school we invented Thanksgiving. Center of the universe and you know it's all true, started basketball, volleyball and baseball, too. Indian motorcycles, guns from Smith & Wessun, cranberry juice, Dr. Seuss teach you a lesson."  But it's not afraid to cynically point out its flaws and veer into scathing take-down territory, "Boston traffic nightmare like Wes Craven... where the witch trials caused widespread hysteria: Massachusetts, it's the spirit of America."

So as you can see there, I don't mean to imply this album is all on one topic.  He's got a song about rural life in the country, a song about being an overlooked artist, a love song, cars, weed, 80s nostalgia... "Worstworld" is specifically about crises in current world events.  But even then, it's sort of from a midlife "things used to be better than this" perspective.  And even that song can't help but get a little irreverent at points ("blue versus brown: shoot now, proof later.  Now there's more dead cops than in the first Terminator").  Yeah okay, maybe it does go too far at points.  But there's a sincere melancholy in and self-deprecation when he talks about his life that keeps things from feeling too whimsical: "I love making music but don't care to promote it.  Maybe that's why nobody noticed."  The only flat-out jokey song I'd say is the final one, "Old Man Rappin," which reminds me of novelty rap records like "Geezer Rap" or "You Didn't Use Your Blinker Fool" (lyrically, not sonically), by which point I reckon he's earned a spot of unrepentant silliness.

And Terminally Eel gets the fully loved vinyl treatment.  It comes from his own 442 Records label in a color picture cover and also includes an insert with the complete lyrics and his discography.  Speaking of which, he also has a very limited edition LP release of his self-titled 2003 instrumental debut, Unagi, still available as of this writing from his bandcamp.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Two Gucci Crew IIs and a Lie

(Fake singles, a lost album and children's birthday parties? Youtube version is here.)

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

The Biz Doc

If you didn't know, Showtime has produced an original documentary feature about Biz Markie, which just debuted this week.  It's directed by Sacha Jenkins who did that Wu-Tang: Of Mics and Men thing (also for Showtime).   Biz Markie absolutely deserves a documentary, so I'm glad he got one.  I was worried going in that this would be a pretty superficial doc that said he made "Just a Friend" and starred in Yo Gabba Gabba and bounced.  Well, it absolutely does begin with a tribute to "Just a Friend" followed quickly by a clip of Gabba.  But thankfully this doc then proceeds to get it right.

And I went in with my arms crossed, ready to be disappointed.  We've been let down enough by these kinds of projects, and I can't say I place a ton of faith in... Showtime.  In the very beginning, I thought it might be leaning too heavily into big name celebrities and some silly animation, but really I have no complaints.  Juice Crew guys get more time than guys like Nick Cannon and Tracey Morgan; there's some great vintage footage.  They speak to his childhood friends and family, from Diamond Shell to the high school crush who inspired "What Comes Around Goes Around."   They dive deep into his earliest history, show us his famous collection, and even use a "Me & the Biz"-style puppet to reenact his final days in the hospital(!).  Then Masta Ace makes a little "Me & the Biz" sequel, his wife shows us his rhyme books, Craig G and Kane perform original tributes to him.  Pete Nice shows us the Biz pieces in his museum, Rakim takes us to his high school cafeteria where they first met, perhaps best of all, Marley Marl plays us a taste of the first demo he ever recorded with Biz.

Even if you feel like you already know all there is to know about Biz, you should check it out.  I was really pleasantly surprised.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Libra D

Whirlwind D is a really prolific artist, particularly on vinyl, which we especially appreciate here at Werner's.  He's basically been dropping a new vinyl release every year for a long time.  So it's surprising to think this is basically only his fourth album even when you include his rare 90's cassette.  He's been releasing singles, EPs and that nifty compilation that included his demos and stuff.  But this is actually his first album in seven years.

This album is split into two distinct sides, "Grey Matter" and "Dark Matter," which kind of mirrors the light and dark sided theme of his single, last year's "Lucky Number," which is featured on here (though its B-side, "Do It Now," remains exclusive to that 7").  It suggests two sides of the artist and also presumably is meant to suggest the two sides of the scales of justice that portray the Libra Zodiac sign, suggested in the cover image of the split brains on the two turntables.  Grey Matter consists of upbeat songs celebrating Hip-Hop, etc (we'll delve more into specifics as we proceed) and Dark Matter has another six with a more ominous sound and more serious subject matter.

Besides Dark Matter's "Lucky Number," the only other song returning to us is the ever-popular "Labels," which is naturally on the Grey Matter side.  "Labels" debuted on his 2018 EP Beats, Bits and Bobs, was featured on the aforementioned 2020 comp, and was later remixed for the B-side of his "Without Music" single.  You may recall that was the Smoove Mix 7" Edit.  Well, here we finally have the Smoove Extended Mix, which adds about 35 seconds, including some nice build-up at the start and letting the horns fade out at the end.  No extra verse or other elaborate additions, but it's a super catchy instrumental, so just letting it ride a little more is a welcome touch.

Grey Matter starts with a short instrumental Introduction with some nice little scratches.  Scratching, as ever in D's catalog, is going to play a major, hype part of this album, especially on Grey Matter.  In fact, the very next track, "When It's Fast" has Specifik going nuts on the turntable, totally living up to the title, D's ode to his love for fast, high energy production.  Of course, that can be setting yourself up to fail if you don't have a killer instrumental, but Djar One does, with a sample set that harkens back to the late 80s and early 90s, but put together in a way that feels fresh and not at all trapped in the past.

"Sambuca" slows things down a little, but is still full of life, a light-hearted anthem for D's liqueur of choice.  It definitely reminds me of Gulp City's celebratory hedonism, but D brings his own personality to it.  The beat has a real smooth touch, this time by Specifik, with Djar One (they've switched places) slicing in a collection of choice vocal samples for the chorus.  In fact, it's all Specifik and Djar One for the rest of side A (apart from Smoove's remix of "Labels," but even that was originally produced by Djar with cuts by Spec).  "Everyday Hustle" has an especially catchy rolling piano loop and twangy funk guitar sample on the hook with another upbeat track and plenty of cuts as D talks about maintaining positivity in his daily struggles ("whatever the challenge ain't really a trouble; pick myself; it's an everyday hustle").  It reminds me of the best tracks by artists like Kwamé or Groove B Chill in the early 90s.

Finally, "Ocean's Breeze" is pure mood with some crazy flute and a brilliant horn sample on the hook, plus of course more cuts, but they're more subtly used on this track than the others, because they know they've already got such killer instrumental samples.  There's even this crazy little laserblast sound effect they quietly mix in that makes everything feel so full and alive.  This song brings to mind the vibes Brandon B was able to capture on his solo albums.  In fact, I could totally see Brandon and D working together someday.  The energy on this whole side is off the hook.

Not that the fun's all over when we flip this over.  Well, maybe in a way it is, but I like dark stuff in my music.  Let's have some real talk.  To that end, first up we have "Flames" featuring and produced by Farma G, who's one half of Task Force and a prolific solo producer.  Right from the opening notes, it's slower and heavy, could be the soundtrack to the tragic scene in a Mad Max movie with Whirlwind D starting off saying, "I see pictures of places and people dying in flames."  This isn't science fiction, though, it's about contemporary wartime, displaced refugees and the world being "on fire and we're all shrouded in flames" right now.  Specifik's cutting in the sounds of screams and news reports for the otherwise wordless chorus.

"False Prophet," with its extended bass notes feels like a Paris track.  Jazz T cutting in lines from K-Solo and Lone Catalysts adds some welcome glimmers of light to the grim tones.  "The Deep" starts with Sista Souljah's famous "we are at war!" line.  It's actually a posse cut, with Junior Disprol, B-Line labelmate Chrome and Specifik each taking turns on the mic.  But that doesn't make things any less political; each MC takes the opportunity to slam the far right and authoritarian ruling classes: "a true king in my own world, never cared about the royals.  Which god can save the queen?  The answer's obviously none of them."  "Sweat," with beats and cuts by Mr. Fantastic, picks up the pace again, which is appropriate as it's a first person narrative about pushing your physical limits in a marathon, "pressure pushes hard on my muscles and limbs, every step cries hard, washes away the sin."  That is exactly why I never exercise.

We conclude with "The Music (Dirty Mix)."  As far as I know there's never been a previous mix of "The Music" released anywhere, but maybe we should stay tuned for a Clean Mix on a future project.  Anyway, when I first heard it, I was driving myself nuts asking myself where do I recognize that from.  The next day it hit me: he's clearly paying homage to the underrated Just-Ice/ Grandmaster Flash collaboration of the same name.  I thought I was the only person who Stan'd that song!  Anyway, lyrically, it seems more like it belongs on the Grey Matter side, but it's got a deep, oddly chopped horn loop and deep beats by Simon S that sonically fit on this side.  Plus it kind of bridges the gap if you wanted to flip this album back to side A and start all over right away, which is something I've found myself doing several times already.

So Libra is a single LP in a full-color picture cover, co-released by B-Line and Hip Hop Be Bop.  It comes out on September 1st, which is just two weeks from now, so get ready.  It could be a long wait 'till the next one.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Eaze Back

Dear ChatGPT, please tell me all about the last record released by a member of C.E.B.

As of my last knowledge update in September 2021, C.E.B. (which stands for Cognitive Epicenter of Boom) is a hip-hop group formed in the early 1990s. The group was primarily known for its affiliation with Ice-T, with the members including hip-hop artists Cool Chuck, Evil E, and MC Overlord.

At that time, the last record released by a member of C.E.B. was likely to be "Countin' Endless Bank" (also known as "C.E.B."), which was the group's debut album. It was released in 1993 under the label Atomic Pop. The album received some attention and featured guest appearances by prominent artists like Ice-T and Everlast.

However, it's important to note that the information might be outdated, and I do not have access to real-time data to provide updates beyond my knowledge cutoff date. To find the latest information on C.E.B. or any of its members' recent releases, I recommend checking music streaming platforms, official websites, or music news outlets for the most up-to-date information.

Nope!  AI's not ready to replace me yet.

So, I don't think readers of this blog will need me to recap how Countin' Endless Bank turned out to be the last bank Cool C and Steady B would ever count.  But there's actually one last chapter to the C.E.B. story on wax.  C and B went away, but E was uninvolved with that awful incident, and so free to come back.

DJ Eaze started out as Steady B's DJ after Tat Money left the Hilltop Hustlers for Kwamé and a New Beginning, billed then as DJ Ultimate Squeeze Eaze.  He'd shortened it to Ultimate Eaze by the time he started MCing with C.E.B., and in 2003 he got it down to just DJ Eaze, for his final record (to date) on Sabre Records, "I'm a Come Through."  I gather Sabre Productions was Eaze's own venture.  And we can be confident it came out in 2003, despite not having dates on the label, because some copies came with a helpful press sheet ("This particular single... is one of exception to our planned repertoire for Sabre Entourage"). 

It's kind of a clubby beat that shows some versatility, but is basically the kind of style that had me checking out from a lot of early 2000s pop Hip-Hop, though it has an admittedly funky bassline.  The Sabre Entourage is not actually on "I'm a Come Through;" it's just Eaze going solo with a very Puff and Mase kind of flow, which he's perfectly open about: he shouts P Diddy out in his second verse and has girls singing, "bad, bad boys" for the hook.  Anyway, it's a good opener for fans, because he catches us up from where he last heard him, "no time to kill, now it's the time to build.  Didn't even have to sign a deal.  Didn't even want to let me in; had me standin' outside of the labels like 'let me in.'  Now I'm knockin' down they doors, lockin' down they tours, now this sound is gonna cost 'em more."  Did I mention how clubby it sounds?  It's well made, but not really the kind of sound I think most of us C.E.B. fans were hoping he'd come back with.

The B-side, which does feature the Sabre Entourage, fills that role.  "Got My Gloc Cocked" is exactly the kind of rough street song it sounds like.  It actually starts out by declaring, "this here is the remix," but I daresay it's the first and only version to ever be released.  Spoiler alert: this is the first and last record released by Eaze or Sabre.  And that's a bit of a shame, because I suspect I'd prefer the original version.  The beat sounds very software-based.  But it has a catchy keyboard loop, deep dark bass notes that compliment the subject matter, and the sound of an actual glock cocking as part of the percussion.

Anyway, these three Sabre guys (and one woman) have an appealing, unpolished hardcore flow.  Eaze doesn't rap at all on this one, just laying down a few lines for the hook and leaving it to his team to set it off with lyrics like, "I gotta keep this thing cocked; niggas wanna try my chin.  They think it's all fine they in 'till they find they men.  Rib cage exposed all through the bottom, Mossberg.  They tongue kissin' curbs for shootin' the wrong words."  With a better instrumental, this could be a killer cut.

But that's it; there's just those two songs.  You also get the "Come Through" instrumental; and it technically comes in a sticker cover, with that little "Sabre Records" address label on the sleeve.  It's not an amazing 12", probably mostly just of interest to us old Hilltop Hustler fans who need the whole story.  "Gloc Cocked" is the better song, but "Come Through" is more interesting, given the history.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

It Takes a Million Midnights To Hold Him Back

Out of the blue - or perhaps more appropriately, the black midnight sky - Drasar Monumental is back with a new EP entitled Darker Than a Million Midnights.  That's the kind of title you hear and say to yourself, well, I hope he can live up to it.  But given Drasar's last couple releases, I think if anybody in 2023 could, it's probably him.  Because an easy trap you could dig for yourself with a title like that is to just dive immediately into raw, stripped down hardcore beats and menacing lyrics, giving yourself nowhere to go after the first couple songs.  But Drasar, using nothing but his own personal record collection, regularly concocts a lush, vibrant soundscape that's anything but minimalist, despite his purist methods (this record comes with a paper explaining, "no digital 'digging' methods were employed in any of the production sourcing").

Midnights comes right out the gate with some classic heist raps, looping up a vocal sample of Master Killer from "Snakes" just in case it wasn't already immediately obvious the spirit it's meant to be taken in.  "Guns don't argue, hand over your wallets, empty out your pockets, give me all your watches.  Carnage, because the motherfuckin' rent's due."  Not exactly innovative, but excellently executed... sort of like how I can listen to Grand Daddy IU rap about pimpin' all day every day.  But it also turns out to be the set-up to a more complex lyrical trick, where two songs later (broken up by some more traditional battle raps), the subject matter has transformed into a serious condemnation of our economic system.  He starts out stating, "the free market doesn't exist if you don't have the capital," and cutting up Double X Posse's "Money Talks" before settling into even darker truths, "no love, no sympathy for the downtrodden.  We've seen so much death, now our hearts have turned rotten."  It ends with a authentic(?!) recording of someone broadcasting their immediate intent to commit suicide, news reports on the growing homeless population, and a grimly ironic MC Shan vocal sample from "Left Me Lonely." 

Part of what keeps Drasar's work so dynamic is his how he regularly shifts tones and samples sets mid-song, so it's always much more packed than a predictable loop, and this is definitely on display here.  Or just his ability to pack together a host of sounds that all delicately piece together.  For example "Disco Razor Tag, Part 2" (Part 1 was on Box Cutter Brothers 5) feels as alive as if he'd collaborated with a full-on disco band, packed with interludes and crowded instrumentation.  But anything but soft, it's actually a direct challenge to producers who don't take their work dead seriously or appreciate Hip-Hop's disco roots, including an intro explaining that  weren't always as family friendly as we may remember them today and where you could end up, "hit upside your head with a bottle; now your brains are hanging out."

This is an angry record in all the best ways, the way only Hip-Hop can talk with no punches pulled.  He saves the most personal blow for last with "The Numb Out:"

"Life ain't the same since my brother died.
Sometimes I wanna run and hide; can't look my mother in the eyes;
And then take time to breathe.
Pardon me if I wear my heart on my sleeve.
The world took my dreams...
And shattered them;
Took all my aspirations, and then they laughed at them;
Stabbed me in the back, in the abdomen.
That's why I treat you like an unwanted pathogen."

The next verse starts out similarly, "life ain't the same since my father died."  Like, remember when we first heard Sister Souljah going off on Terminator X's album, and then she signed to Epic and we all thought, wow, this album is going to be crazy?  The production was there, but then it turned out she basically just did this stiff spoken word thing, with Ice Cube and Chuck D rapping circles around her?  This record is like the promise of that album delivered upon, if she had the skills to "turn the booth into Pearl Harbor," as Drasar puts it.  And yeah, there's more nuanced artistry and less didacticism; I'm not trying to say this guy's literally the male Sister Souljah or anything.  I'm just saying he's giving us now what we wanted then.

All up, it's six songs with the instrumentals on the flip.  Keeping it a tight EP was probably a judicious decision, so there's never a lax moment.  It comes in a full color picture cover and yeah, it's out now.  Grab one while you can.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

It's Yah Yah, the Outsidah Who Moved To Floridah

(Plus a bonus look at current, under the radar Hip-Hop publications. Youtube version is here.)

Sunday, June 18, 2023

It's Father's Day!

Today is Father's Day, so let's talk about "Father's Day" by Father MC from his 1990 debut album, Father's Day, because it's Father's Day!  No, "Father's Day" wasn't one of the many singles he released off of that album, but it was the title cut, and it stands out because it's the only hardcore track on the album... and kind of the only hardcore track he'd release until many years later.  And though it's still not on par with his early First Fleet Crew material, I'd say it's one of the best songs in his career... like Top Ten-ish?  Top Twenty for sure.

So Mark Morales and Mark Rooney, b.k.a. Prince Markie Dee and the Soul Convention, produced most of the album (and yes, executive produced by Puff Daddy and Dr. Jeckyll), but this is one of the two tracks actually produced by the Hitman Howie Tee.  And while we're having fun reading the liner notes, it's definitely also worth noting that this is one of three songs where the lyrics are actually written by Little Shawn, here credited as Lil' Shawn.

Honestly, I don't know if Shawn did Father any favors; the lyrics aren't amazing or better than what Father had already proven himself able to pen in his indie days.  But Howie Tee definitely did.  He's cooked up one of the hottest tracks on the album.  And it's the song that really showcases Father's DJ, DJ G. Double E.  Did you even know he had a DJ?  Yeah, he's credited in the notes and name-dropped on this cut.

"Everybody think Father MC is on that R&B tip.  'Ey yo, Father, just cold get it," are the introductory lines to this song.  I have to admit, I can see where people got the impression that Father is on the R&B tip, since this album is packed with love songs in collaboration with R&B singers like Jodeci and Mary J Blige.  But Father is out to tell "everyone who think I went on that R&B tip, take that!"  I feel like maybe they should be saying "everyone who thought I was ONLY on that R&B tip, seeing as how I clearly am definitively on that R&B tip at this stage, and indeed most, of my career."  But hey, why get hung up on semantics?

Howie Tee starts out with a solid, but a little bit old school and not terribly groundbreaking breakbeat loop.  I'm not sure exactly what record they're looping, but I know The Jaz had rocked it the same year on his second album, and I feel like it's just one of those late 60s or early 70s funk records a million rappers have used.  So a stalwart classic, but a little stale.  Except then he starts blending in the theme song to Police Woman, sirens and all, which is a banger.  And remember, this is like a full decade before "All Time Einstein" kicked off that craze of rappers looping up the themes to shows like Knight Rider and Magnum PI.  Of course, Bambaataa had already sown the seeds with "Bambaataa's Theme," but still, this was rare and incredibly dope.

Father kicks off with an interesting, sometimes playful (especially given the hardcore nature of the instrumental) style that he seems to struggle with a little bit.  "Yes, yes, y'all, so forth and so on, I grab the microphone and give ya one to grow on.  Don't sleep on me, 'cause I keep, keep it on, see.  Don't call me uncle or daddy, it's Father MC.  When I make 'em up I'm makin' sure that you can hear me, 'cause I speak very clearly.  There's not another like me, so more than likely, you'll watch then but in the end you'll try to bite me.  But you'll get bit back 'cause it's an eye for an eye.  Oh yeah, and one more thing, I'm fly.  The M-I-C means a lot to me 'cause when I'm on, the rappers that shouldn't be there flee.  I'm new, I know that, and now ya know to stay back.  So save that, yo, I ain't even tryin' to hear that.  Go on the bench, back off with that play, allow me to let ya know that today is Father's Day." I feel like Little Shawn may've delivered it real smooth and it sounded great, but then Father had a hard time recapturing that magic, so it sounds a little clunky.  But it's still fairly fresh, and the closer you pay attention, the more you'll appreciate it.

Still, his later verses work a little better when he's kicking simpler but tougher rhymes like, "come find out what Father's made of!  I'm not bulletproof but grab a mic and I'll light this whole place up tonight.  Like a match hittin' another, I'll burn a brother like a condominium, 'cause I'll crush anyone schemin' to take what's mine and that's wild.  And anyone bitin' that same old style."  Father just feels more confident, and it fits the instrumental better with the more aggressive energy they're clearly trying to lay down.  This isn't the time to get all Original Flavor on us.  Father may not be blowing our minds, but he's holding it down.

And that's all you need to keep the record working until Police Woman and G Double E drop in again.  When was the last time you heard scratching on a Father MC record?  I could almost believe this was the only one, except strictly speaking, there's one or two other harder-edged track on this album with cuts, too (see also: "Ain't It Funky").  But it sounds great here, slicing up the line "give me that title, boy" from "Raw."  It goes a long way to selling this as a strong record not to be dismissed.

I always thought this was would've made a way better final single than "I've Been Watching You," but I guess Puff didn't think they could really sell the image of Father as a hard rock.  Maybe they were right.  But this is still a fun song, especially one to play today of all days.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Nobody Ever Talks About Warp 9

I used to love Warp 9 as a kid, but these days they seem to have been completely memory-holed.  I guess that's because they made more break dance music than strictly Hip-Hop.  But I dug that stuff, too, and I used to play their tape to death.  And honestly, they did both.  There are songs where they're straight-up rapping, the DJ's cutting... sure, it's electro disco-era stuff.  This is not made from the staple two turntables and a microphone, and you weren't checking for their MC's skills.  Even for 1983, nobody would put them alongside the Grandmasters Caz or Melle Mel.  And they're not delivering a serious "Message."  It's just a fun, "we're chilling the most" good time music, somewhere in between Break Machine and Newcleus.  In fact, if you appreciate Space Is the Place, you'd be totally in It's a Beat Wave.

And we'll get to Fade In, Fade Out, but It's a Beat Wave is what it's all about.  It's so good.  Every song on this album was a single!  These guys were a studio group, put together by their label like Timex Social Club, but their stuff is really well done, and pretty versatile.  Connie Cosmos, Dr. Space and Mr. C (not that Mister Cee) on the turntables.  The production on "Nunk (New Wave Funk)" is a killer, with a little help from Jellybean.  "Beat Wave" and "Master Of the Mix" are my favorites, if only for being the most straight rappy cuts.  I think Connie actually left after "Nunk" and it's a new girl, Ada, on the rest of this album.  But she sounds real cool rapping on "Beat Wave" regardless.  "Master Of the Mix" is all about the DJ skills, and no, the cuts aren't amazing.  But this was the era of "Rockit," well transformer scratches were invented, so this was about all you could hope for.  The fact that they put scratches up front at all was exciting.

"Light Years Away" is low-key pretty fresh, with a spacey vibe, their most Newcleus-y song, even dropping in a vocoder to deliver some words from the future towards the end.  But the songs on side 2 definitely got lighter and a little more mainstream pop.  "No Man Is an Island" is easily my least favorite, basically a flat out disco song, but it's still upbeat and catchy with a zippy little breakdown.  It's all well crafted.  But honestly, half the time I would just rewind side 1 back and give the side 2 stuff a pass.

But yeah, the second album was a disappointment.  They basically pulled a Whistle, who lost their main rapper guy, then later their DJ, and just carried on with the singers.  In this case, Ada left and the other guy took a back seat (he's just credited with Additional Background Vocals along with five other people now) for a new female singer, leaving the new official line-up of Warp 9 to be Katherine & Chuck.  I think you're meant to see those two on the cover with the shadowy drummer figure in the background and assume it's the same trio, but it's all different now.  Three years had passed since their 1983 album and they'd switched labels from Prism to Motown, too.  The older white couple who produced the group (Lottie Golden and Richard Sher) stayed the same across the album, but otherwise Warp 9 was just a totally new beast on a totally different vibe.

It's not bad, mind you.  The music is still well produced (I spotted The Sugarhill Band's Doug Wimbish playing bass in the album credits) and the new pair could still sing.  But they're just aiming for a sappier, duller R&B thing.  Their one single, "Skips a Beat" is probably the best song, that or "Big Fun."  The rest is pretty boring.  "The Cutting Edge" has a cool, little breakdown, but you can tell the musicians are on more of a rock vibe.  "King of Hearts" straight up sucks.  But otherwise, you could totally bop along to this in your car on the commute to work.

Apparently, I wasn't alone in being disappointed.  Fade In, Fade Out was the end of Warp 9.  Everybody went on to other projects in the music industry, though.  After all, it was a studio group.  But nothing else really Hip-Hop.  I wish we could've gotten a couple more "Beat Waves" while they were in that sweet spot, but I can at least hang onto what they did give us.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Saukrates Says Freeze

(Unreleased, unheard Saukrates music from the late 90s, courtesy of a(n admittedly unwitting) rap publication legend!  Check out The Underground Vault here.  And Dig Mag here.  Youtube version is here.)

Monday, May 15, 2023

Contemporary Rhythmic American Poetry

Last year, when I had a little technical problem with the Brandon B CD I was reviewing, he was good enough to not just send me a replacement copy, but hit me off with a CD of his first album, Rhythmic American Poetry, from 2018.  Of course, when I say first album, I mean as a solo artist, because of course he's had plenty of albums as a member of different Gurp City groups like The Yole Boys and Official Spill, actually going all the way back to Supermarket with their famous, underground Dump Koch album in 1996.  So the history goes way back.  But lately he's been striking out more on his own as well.

The title of course comes from The D.O.C.'s "The Formula," where he devised the perfect acronym for rap.  And if you're familiar with Brandon, you know he's not just the MC but the producer.  So this album is essentially all him, albeit with a healthy helping of guest spots, from those you'd expect and even someone you wouldn't.  Luke Sick, yeah, he's on here, as well as fellow Trunk Dank member Eddie K.  And Z-Man appears twice.  Official Spill's Dev Rambis is also here, Philo from The Flood, Jaymorg, fellow Gurp MC TopR and DJ Quest.  So those're all the usual crew guys you'd expect.  And Equipto, who's been collaborating a lot with these guys.  And production-wise he's got some help from DJ Eons One, Brycon, Elliot Lanam, Philo and somebody named Uncle Buck.  That's a lot of people to call an album "all him," but Brandon still manages to make this feel like a distinctly personal project.

I mean, nobody bridges the gap from early Electro-Hop to the classic 90's 4-track era like Brandon.  This is the direction Gen Z should've taken Hip-Hop, instead of whatever they've done instead.  Hearing the intro track, "A Little Wine Cooler" on a new record is pretty mind blowing, and damn catchy.  Honestly, this album is a fat collection of highlights.  I was already familiar with the track "The American Riviera," a mellow anthem for his hometown he'd made a music video for.  It's super laid back and inviting.  I mean, hell, it makes me want to go there.  "Rhymes Too Funky (Live At the Pointe)" is a funky, upbeat posse cut, and yes it's a homage to Compton's Most Wanted's classic.  It has a different, more electric track; but if the adlibs didn't already bring the CMW version to mind, the ending where they cut up "man, fuck my neighbors" erases any doubt.

This album is full of vibes.  "Midday Wasted" sounds exactly like you'd expect from the title, "California Livin'" is a fun party record and "Dark Blue Camaro" owes its hook and its spirit to a classic Click joint.  My favorite, which is saying something on a packed project like this, is "It's Like Vegas."  It has a hype, old school dance vibe with big horns and some funky intoxicated vocals by TopR and Z-Man, "fuck a Motley Crew, we're the party crew; we'll sedate you with liquor and barbecue.  I may be on Adderall but I'm all for 'shrooms, and I'll do 'em both at once like some mom would do.  I'm armed with two, placin' all bets with cheaters 'cause I'm full of a lotta liters out in (Gurp City!).  A lotta pre-drinking before the weekend evenings.  Yes, I am recording in my forties drinking a forty, pouring another forty, yeah I'll tell 'em a story: about a culture with low self esteem, American dreams, veteran MCs with liver disease."  It's both celebratory and tragic with serious dance-in-your-chair energy all at the same time.

Oh, and didn't I promise a guest you wouldn't expect that?  Yeah, this album closes out with a banger called "Cash In Advance," which is at once smooth and high energy.  It's got a fast, funky groove that Brandon rides excellently.  And its hook?  Sung by Michael Marshall, the main vocalist of The Timex Social Club!  And damn, he sounds just as good now as he did in '86.  This album is a strong recommend, even if you're not sure about Brandon, give this album a chance and you will be.  And as of this writing there are still exactly 2 copies of the CD available on his bandcamp.  Get 'em!