Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Is Hip-Hop Not Crazy Enough for You?

If you ever find yourself lamenting how hip-hop just isn't crazy enough for you, you'll probably be wanting this. This 12" is "Live From Death Row" by Memory Man, the first release on his own label, Angry Bee Records, from 2006. It features BusDriver and MC Paul Barman, and that line-up alone is probably giving you several ideas of what to possibly expect. And they're probably all correct.

Probably the best aspect of this is that it isn't the hopelessly juvenile joke track we've all come to expect from Barman. I mean, yeah, it's jokey and downright silly at times; but instead of the "I'm really bad at sex, ha ha ha" content that made him relatively famous, this song tackles serious subject matter. I don't know if there's really much direct connection to Mumia Abu-Jamal besides the fact that they've used it him as a title source, but this song is about capital punishment and all that entails.

In fact, actually, BusDriver's verse sounds jokier than Barman's. He raps in a confessional style of a victim of rape and incest turned murderer facing his last moments on death row... which I realize doesn't sound funny, but it's packed with lines like, "my last meal consists of chopped liver, pop singers and a chocolate chip cookie." Barman's verse is reminiscent actually of Lateef's verse on "The Wreckoning," where he graphically describes the process of decomposition of the human body. Here, Barman spends much of his time graphically detailing the experience of dying via lethal injection, though he carries it farther, following the prisoner all the way to Hell.

All I can say is that both verses are of the sort that reward repeated listenings, which seem to be fewer and fewer these days. This is enhanced because both MCs rap really fast, over a hyper-kinetic, ever-changing musical bed. The loops are constantly changing and in constant cheery defiance of the subject matter, playing circus horns one second and happy bells the next. You could easily listen to this song a dozen times and have no idea what it was about unless you were paying rapt attention.

The B-side, "Live From Death Row Pt. 2," disappointingly does not feature the MCs from part one. Instead, it's a new beat by Memory Man, covered in vocal samples of various news reports and soundbites about the death penalty. It's interesting, and the music, while decidedly different from the A-side, keeps the notion of pairing energetic, constantly changing up-beat vibes with somber stories of sanctioned death. In fact, Mumia himself is actually sampled at one point, reporting the case of a man convicted in an unjust drug bust. And unlike the first one, this one has a nice breakdown where Memory Man is given a chance to show off his turntable skills. But in the end, it still doesn't have half the appeal of the compelling A-side. Instrumentals for both parts are also included.

There's actually two versions of this 12". It was picked up and rereleased in Europe by Chopped Herring Records, and that 12" includes everything from the original Angry Bee release plus a bonus track. It's an instrumental called "No Smoking In the Gas Chamber," a slower, darker instrumental that still has a catchy upright bass tune and looped vocals telling us "there'll be no smoking in the gas chamber." It's a cool little bonus, but if you've already got the domestic release, this isn't worth going out of your way for. The real gem of this 12" is just the main track - the rest is just extra.

So I wouldn't be too fussed about which version you pick up, but you should definitely pick up some version. Even if you're someone who finds yourself exclaiming, "oh, I HATE Paul Barman" whenever he's brought up, trust me and give this one a chance. It's just a flat-out great, timeless rap song that deserves a lot more recognition than it gets.

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