Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sluts, Muppets and MC Craig G

In 1985, a B-side took off that almost managed to rival "Roxanne, Roxanne" in infamy. The Bad Boys featuring K-Love dropped their second single, "Mission" on Starlite Records. But it was the B-side, "Veronica," with the timeless "Oh, Veronica, Veronica; oh, Veronica girl" hook that everybody spun. Everybody except the radio stations, that is, because the song was filthy:

"She's a lovely lady, and she loves to fuck;
So I said, 'yo, Veronica;' she said, 'what's up?'
Said, 'girl, tell me something, if you're not a slut,
Then what's that thing, sticking up your butt?'"

And that's probably the only reason it didn't totally eclipse the "Roxanne" saga it was no doubt inspired by (it dropped in the middle of the whole "Roxanne wars" saga). Remember, 1985 was well before NWA and The 2 Live Crew*, and just after the controversy with Prince that lead to explicit lyrics warning stickers on albums. This is the original "talking nasty about a girl over a human beatbox" track that really changed the whole direction of hip-hop, from blatant rip-offs, like Just-Ice's "That Girl Is a Slut" to... a whole legacy of dirty raps. The fact that they spit it all over a crazy hip-hop version of Sesame Street's "Mahna Mahna" song just made the whole thing that much more bugged out and attracted more attention. Really, you had to feel sorry for any teenage girl named Veronica back in 1985.

So of course there had to be an answer record.

In 1986, Pop Art Records put out the female spin on the story of Veronica with "Oh! Veronica" by a duo called The Glamour Girls (their first and last record). And they actually got the same guy who produced the original, Tony D (not Tony D from NJ who produced The Poor Righteous Teachers, but the Tony D who Serch dissed on "Gasface"). But I guess they figured, if you're making the opposite of record featuring a group of guys rapping with a female beatbox, you didn't just need female MCs, but a male beatbox. So, even though Tony D regularly worked with K Love on his records, he brought in someone else for this one... he brought in MC Craig G.

Yes, that MC Craig G, the Juice Crew All Star. He's featured on this record, but only as a beatbox. The rapping is left entirely to the girls, who recount their own version of what happened when The Bad Boys met Veronica: "we were chillin' with Veronica, just hangin' out, When we met The Bad Boys - nothin' to brag about." But, interestingly, while they do use the opportunity to take a playful shot at the original "Veronica" rappers, they actually offer the same opinion of the fictitious Veronica that the Bad Boys had: she's just a huge slut. The verse ends, explaining what happened, "they thought they were slick; they all started illin'. Laid Veronica, now they're getting penicillin!"

I mean, usually when you have an answer record to a song like that, the idea is: sure, that's how so and so told you it was, but here's how it really happened! But this is an unusual case we're they're on message - they actually agree with the initial group's assessment. But then they wind up turning an easy excuse to tell "that girl's so slutty" quips into something a little more fun: hiking on the Boys for their inability to handle her:

"Bizzy walked in and he was coppin' a plea.
He said, 'I'm still a virgin; please don't hurt me!'
He went into a panic, and started to cry;
She said, 'it's okay, Bizzy, send in the next guy."

This version forgoes the Muppet music, and replaces it with a fresh whistle (sort of along the lines of the famous Good, Bad and the Ugly whistle) over a big, programmed beat (this was 1986, after all) and a lot of simple but loud scratching. And, no. No human beatboxing.

Craig G isn't on the Radio, Long or Instrumental versions of the song... the ones that most people are probably familiar with and that wind up on all the compilations. They save his contribution for a specific Beat Box mix which eschews the whole instrumental. It's all just Craig's mouth-made beats and Tony's cuts.

So, yeah, like I said, this was the one and only Glamour Girls record. At least together - the girls themselves both went on to other things. One of the MCs, Glamorous, went on to become an official Juice Crew member herself, featuring on the songs "Evolution" and "Juice Crew All Stars." She's still around, too, check out a track she dropped this year. And the other girl? She went on to release a string of hits by the name of none other than Sweet Tee; and more recently came back as Suga on The Show soundtrack. And if I have to tell you what Craig G went on to do, I think you're on the wrong blog. ...That's the (other) great thing about sluts - they wind up giving birth to so many interesting people! ;)

*Actually, technically, the 2 Live Crew was around back then... But it was before they hooked up with Luke & Brother Marquis and became controversial by rapping about sex.

Monday, December 26, 2011

How Awesome Is This? Original Guru Demo Tape Release

Man, I can remember a couple years ago, when a rap blogger (damn, I wish I could remember which blog it was!) posted pics of a cassette he found in a shoebox full of old cassettes: A crazy looking, handmade demo tape by Guru, back when he was going by the name of Keithy E. Man, that was the source of some serious online envy! But then it was nearly forgotten, as news broke of Guru's hospitalization, the beef between Solar and Premier and Guru's family, and eventually his tragic passing.

But it wasn't completely forgotten, because The X Label got a hold of it and is releasing replica copies of that original cassette, with the original music and artwork. The X Label is run by Justin Elam, Guru's nephew, who you probably remember from these videos.

Now, I talked before about the early, pre-Premier recordings of Gangstarr on wax, starting in 1987, and the different sounds they had with DJ 12BDown on the boards. Well, this is even before that - this tape dates back to 1986, and it's even further removed from the sounds we know as Gangstarr's. There's no Premier or 45 King, but Beatmaster Jay providing the music (as well as DJ 12BDown on the turntables and Damo D providing some human beatbox).

And I'm not going to front, it's really rudimentary. While those early 12"s showed us a birthing Gangstarr looking for its signature sound, this tape brings us them learning how to make rap records period. I'm not saying it's wack, but it's definitely very amateurish and clumsy, with cheaply recorded vocals over drum machine loops. And sound quality? Well, I think their focus was more on preserving than restoring here. It sounds like the hand-made demo tape they're presenting it as, not original recordings restored from their masters. And while other early demo releases by classic artists we've seen released (i.e. OC's on No Sleep, or Main Source's on DWG) have been as good if not better than most of their classics, this is definitely not the case here. This is a tape to be listened to and appreciated as a piece of history by a classic artist, but not so much for being a gripping musical masterpiece.

But it's still a pretty dang awesome release. It's a six-track EP, with five songs. The opening track is a radio interview with Guru and DJ 12 B Down as guests, which is pretty great to have, too. And one of the songs should sound familiar - it's "The Lesson," the first 12" they released on Wild Pitch. But, this is a completely different mix. The lyrics are the same, but the music is different with lots of keyboards, and in general it's kind of lighter, more pop.

The other four tracks are "Epitome Spree," "Cold World," "Not You" and "People Unite," none of which have ever been released before. Interestingly, in the radio interview, one or two other early Gangstarr songs are discussed that we don't hear here. So that means there's actually even more vintage, unreleased Guru music left to be unearthed (possibly 12 B Down has it?), "So What" and "Fresh Avenue." X Label, maybe that could be your next release. =)

This EP is only available on cassette, a full-on replica of the original tape, including the labels on the tape itself. There is one interesting change however. On the back of the original, it said "COPYRIGHT 1986, K. Elam, J. Johnson," with J. Johnson's name crossed out. In the pic to the right, the original is on top, and the new version underneath. I assume J. Johnson is Beatmaster Jay. Not only did The X Label add their own logo, which you'd expect; they also 'shopped out J. Johnson's credit. A little touch of rewriting history, I guess.

Anyway, these are reasonably priced at $15 - just slightly more than what you'd've paid for a tape release back in the day; and they're available directly from the label's site: Really, I don't know how anybody could look at that picture and not just immediately decide, "I need that!" But seeing it online does bring up some questions, so I hope I answered them all, and if this is your first time hearing about this release... pretty awesome, ain't it?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Record 4 All the Suicidalists

If you're only familiar with Esham from his material made in the last... fifteen years or so, you're not familiar with Esham. It's like only knowing Kool Keith as a solo artist, only having heard EPMD after they reunited or only being with Guru's material with Solar. To say you've missed all his best shit doesn't even begin to explain it. You're just witnessing the pale shadows of artists that embarrasses the fans who knew these guys back when.

Let's build out the Kool Keith comparison. Esham's earliest releases are like those pre-Next Plateau recordings Ultramagnetic put out. There's some good material and they show promise, but they're still young and amateurish, and not living up to their potential. Kkkill the Fetus and Esham's crossings with the horrorcore boom would be the equivalent of Ultra's time on Mercury and Wild Pitch - dope shit for the fans, but the beginnings of a downhill slide were evident. By the time Esham was doing Natas and Maggot Brain Theory, that's like the Cenobite days. Still some good stuff, but you've got be willing to sift through the lesser releases. And by the time Esham and Kool Keith actually were making records together*... the less you hear of it better.

The Judgement Night albums are the Critical Beatdown and related 12"s. Seriously, I think even the purist of hip-hop purists would have to say the track for "How Do I Plead To Homicide," with its many change-ups, is pretty fresh, for example.

"Fallin' Angel" is the only single off of either Judgement Night album,. specifically volume 1. Or 2, depending which format you place your faith in. I'll explain.

Judgement Night vol 1 and 2, were released in 1992 and, like all of Esham's stuff until wayyy later, by his own label, Reel Life Productions. This was, I believe, the first double album in hip-hop, however unlike double albums by guys like Biggie, 2Pac or No Limit; these were sold separately. And most fans today are familiar with the Judgement Night CDs with the fancy painted covers, but back in '92, tapes ruled the scene. There was basically no artwork on these bad boys, just text... Vol 1 was subtitled Day and written all in red; and 2 Night, all in black. But besides tapes and a few CDs, Esham did manage to get some very limited vinyl pressed on his early releases, including today's 12" and one - just one - of the Judgement Day albums, Day.

At least, it says it's Day. But it has all the songs from Night on it. So, which is "correct," the vinyl or the cassette and CD track-listing? Well, since Esham re-released these albums in 2000 and stuck with the CD/cassette track-listing, I think we can say that's what he considers to be the proper one.

So since "Fallen Angel" (as it's titled on the album) was on Day, and the Day songs were all left off of the Day LP, that means this 12" is the only way to own the song on vinyl. So any Esham vinyl is already a rare collector's item, but that fact makes this 12" even more so.

"Fallin' Angel" takes the bulk of it's instrumental from some creative sampling of Funkadelic's "Cosmic Slop." What I like about it especially is that, although it uses a lot of the song - including an entire sung passage for part of the hook ("I can hear my mother call... I can hear my mother call. Late at night I hear her call; Oh lord, lord, I hear her call. She says, 'father, father it's for the kids. Any and every thing I did. ...Please, please don't judge me too strong. Lord knows I meant no wrong. Lord knows I meant no wrong.' You know the devil said"), it completely removes the zany P-funkiness of the song. If I didn't recognize the source, I'd swear the singing was from some old, Sam Cooke-style religious, R&B/blues song lifted off some ancient 45 nobody would ever hear of unless they found it in a dusty attic down south. The bass guitar notes sounds really organically smooth, and the use of snaps and bells in the percussion brings it all to life.

Lyrically, despite the predictable Devil and "I'm a crazy murderer" references ("'thou shall not kill' was my first, but then I broke all ten commandments"), it's barely a horrorcore track. The best way to put it is that it's removed enough from the worst elements that most heads don't have to dismiss it as cheeseball horror movie rap, but still true enough that fans of the genre won't feel like they were tricked into buying another one of those "we're only acting horrorcore on the surface to tap into the market, but really we're trying to be something different and safe" songs. Hell is clearly used here to mean the depression and poverty of a miserable but entirely Earthly existence, and references to the devil sound less like the way you'd expect Flatlinerz to use them, and more the way Poor Righteous Teachers would ("livin' in the ghetto, the devil is now a black man. I saw him standing on the corner with a crack man"). Combining that relative maturity of the darker and serious subject matter with the effective production manages to make this quite an effective well-rounded song. "My mother sings the blues and drinks the booze, and then she prays to save her soul from bad news. Tears fall; I hear my mother call on the Lord. At night, I be playing in my room on the Ouija board." See? It's like a serious, personal song that anyone can relate to... but still just horrorcore enough if that's what you're looking for. In interviews, he's said he made Judgement Night while going through a serious depression, and you can tell. Effective stuff.

The B-side, "Cake Mix" (titled "Finger In the Cake Mix" on the album) is one of Esham's many sex raps. He was good at making them sound sleazy, but otherwise, I never felt they fit in well with the rest of his material, and that goes double here, because the lyrics are so childish and goofy. The premise is just turning the act of baking a cake into a series of sexual innuendos and puns ("upside-down cake, rattle and roll; the cake mix runs down the side of the bowl. I dip my face in the bowl just to get a sniff; kinda smells fishy once I get a whiff"). It's just... you're not going to listen to this really except to laugh at it (as opposed to with it), and that's a shame, because the instrumental actually makes great use of another funky sample that really could've been something more in the hands of another rapper.

"Finger In the Cake Mix," by the way, was on Night, and as such is also available on the LP.

One downside of this 12", however, is that despite the big "PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT LYRICS" sign on the label, these are actually clean versions that reverse the curse words. There's only one instance in "Fallin' Angel" ("fuck the teacher and fuck the preacher"), so it doesn't totally ruin the track, but it's definitely sub-optimal. And of course, there's more on the B-side. Still, though, it doesn't stop be from recommending this record to any head who's open to somethign a little off the traditional, beaten path.

*Yeah, they actually did a couple together. Esham even signed Keith to his label briefly, for the Spankmaster album.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

She Drank Champagne... and I Drank Milk!

Little Shawn's career has flown kinda under the radar. People may remember him as a crossover, love-rapper kinda guy who was clearly trying to appeal to a more mainstream audiences with his singles "I Made Love (4 da Very 1st Time" and "Hickeys On Your Chest." Sort of like a Candyman or Mellow Man Ace without that break-out hit to get his brand emblazoned into the fleeting attention-spans of the MTV audience. He certainly managed to garner some fans, and I'm sure there are people who will big up his only album, Capitol Records' The Voice In the Mirror. But even they probably think of him as a flash in the pan who made a little noise and then disappeared.

But, actually, Little Shawn's was contributing to the game for a good chunk of time. Did you know he's one of uncredited guest MCs on Special Ed's "5 Men and a Mic" or that he had a song out with Maxi Priest in 1992? But more than that, after his brief stint on Capitol, Puff Daddy brought him into the Uptown camp where he wrote for everybody from Father MC to Mary J Blige. He even recorded a song for the NY Undercover soundtrack that got enough buzz Uptown turned it into the single. But despite the fact that the label promised the original version would appear "on the upcoming Little Shawn album," Uptown never found the time in their schedule for him and eventually it all seemed to fizzle out.

So those are the two big phases in Little Shawn's career, but there's actually a third, from back before he "came out of nowhere" and started putting out big budget videos through Capitol. Five years earlier, he dropped an obscure record on Select Records. See, back then, he was one of Howie Tee's acts (in fact, Howie produced that whole Capitol album), and just about all of Howie's acts came out through Select. So, in 1987, this little 12" came out (co-produced by Chubb Rock, no less), testing the waters.

Despite it's title, "Heartbreak Hotel" isn't the smooth, romantic song you might expect from Little Shawn. I mean, granted, it's about love (sort of... basically, the premise is that he gets involved with a girl who he doesn't realize is a prostitute), and it's even got a girl crooning the chorus, "Heaaaartbreak Hotellll." But musically, this is pure old school Howie with warbly synths over huge, programmed drums that bang as loud possible. And Shawn's flow goes right along with it... He sounds like Kool Doobie on the angry, rap side of the second Whistle album. And, lyrically, the emphasis is on being funny rather than trying to placate the ladies - one line that genuinely makes me laugh every time, "when I kissed her in the car, she couldn't behave, 'cause I had on my father's aftershave!"

This song has everything 80's you can imagine in it: stuttering vocals played on the keyboard ("hea-hea-hea-hea-hea-heart heartbreak!"), hand-claps, a rock guitar (by Spanador of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam!) that only appears for a big solo on the breakdown, keyboards, a punchline stolen from The Fresh Prince, references to Donahue and Janet Jackson, a moment where he sings an old song to an almost ragtime-style piano. You could dismiss this as some corny-ass, outdated rap... or you could say, this is one of the greatest, ultra-outdated rap songs ever!

It's followed by a Dub, mixed by Omar Santana, that's almost as fun to listen to as the song itself. And if that's still not enough, there's a B-side called "My Girl's Mother." And this song's just as good/terrible as the A-side... it's like a cross between Whistle's "Just Buggin'" and "Barbara's Bedroom," with some super catchy synth lines, big beats, and a silly chorus. And it's another fun story, this time about Shawn trying to ditch his girlfriend ("send her to McDonald's to get a large order") so he can spend time with her sexy mother.

I enjoyed Shawn's album (at least, I remember liking it the last time I listened to it, which was probably ten or so years ago), and I don't hate on his later stuff... but it's a damn shame Little Shawn couldn't stay in 1987 forever. He could just keep making records like this, without feeling compelled to change with the times, and it would be like living in Santa's village where Christmas never ends.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dimples D, Bewitched In Germany

Dimples D has earned a place for herself in hip-hop history with just one record, her classic "Sucker DJ's (I Will Survive)." Yes, it was an answer record to Run DMC's first hit, "Sucker MC's," and it's full of vocal samples that DJs have used for decades like, "he cuts the records with so much class." but it's more than that - it was a change in style and attitude, especially for female MCs, and it was a signature ode to scratching. It helped immensely that her DJ she was bigging up was the legendary Marley Marl, essentially making his debut as a DJ and producer (though technically, that honor goes to an obscure break dance record from the previous year, where he worked on the B-side dub mix). Dimples released her record in 1983 on Partytime Records. And then she disappeared, never to make another record again - she changed the game up and then vanished in a hot second.

At least... that's how the story's generally understood to have ended. But actually, she came back. In 1990. In Germany. She signed with ZYX Records, a label that has an surprisingly deep history of signing old school US artists who'd otherwise dropped off the scene. She dropped three or four singles (depending how you count it... more on that later) and a full-length album, mostly but not always with a new partner MC, collectively known as Dimples and Spice.

They recorded all new songs and released them as singles... but before that, Dimples tested the waters with her first (since 1983) single by remixing her hit. She called it "Resucker DJ."

Lady Spice is not featured on this 12", and Dimples doesn't spit anything new; she just uses her original acapella. And she didn't produce it either. You could almost call this a separate remix project - one of crappy those Run DMC Vs Jason Nivens-type dance singles that flooded hip-hop in the later 90's - except this was released by the same label, around the same time, and wound up on her Dimples and Spice album.

Now, if you're looking at the picture cover, you may've noticed the big "REMIX" and the small note underneath, "Original produced by Ben Liebrand." And you're probably thinking - wait, I thought Marley produced the original? You're right; he did (along with Andre Booth). What I eventually figured out this cover means is that there are two remixes on this 12"... the "original" remix of "Sucker DJ" on the B-side, which Ben Liebrand did produce, and then another remix, which actually pops up first on the A-side.

So, let's start with the A-Side. This is "Resucker DJ (Remix)," and it's not entirely clear whether they mean to say that this is a remix of another mix of "Resucker DJ" or just to generally inform us that "Resucker DJ" is a remix of "Sucker DJ's." Welcome to the world of ZYX; you'll get used to confusing labels like this if you stick around. Regardless, this is just a pretty enjoyable, very busy, more modern-sounding remix of "Sucker DJ's." It's pretty much what you'd expect, except that it doesn't suck. This version is mixed by Sanny X, an old school Swedish hip-hop artist. The fact that they keep it pretty hip-hop, as opposed to getting all trancey/ ravey like they usually do - is a huge boon. i mean, it's nothing essential, and it doesn't replace the original, but you definitely won't be mad at it - it's good times.

Then, flip it over, and you've got "Sucker Drums," which is essentially just a Dub Mix of what we've just heard, and then finally, "Sucker DJ (A Witch for Love)" (note, not "Resucker"... and why did "DJ's" become singular?). This is the one Ben Liebrand, and this one's pretty catchy. In fact, I understand it was a bit of a hit in Europe. So much so, that this B-side was also released as a separate, stand-alone single (which is why I said you could say Dimples either released 3 or 4 singles depending on how you keep score). Again, the acapella is just the original "Sucker DJ's," and again, they thankfully keep it to a regular, hip-hop beat that doesn't forget the scratches (after all, that's what this song is all about). But this time around, they add a few extra little samples and elements, but the body of this remix is the theme to "Bewitched." Yes, exactly the same silly sitcom refrain that DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince used for "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble." And, yes, it's a pretty transparent gimmick, but dammit... it just works perfectly with Dimples' voice and flow - perhaps more so than Will Smith's. I won't argue with any criticism you care to level at it - you'd probably be right - but damn it, it sure is fun to listen to.

I really picked this 12" up on a whim - hardcore collector that I am, of course I need a horrid, useless dance remix of an old Dimples D record that I just randomly stumbled across - but I wound up being quite pleased with it. It might rile purists a bit, but hey; it turned out she was directly involved with it, and even wound up making a whole album of new material to go along with it. If you like "happy rap," I think you'll be pleased with it, too.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

And the Award for Most Pleasant Surprise Goes To

CSJQ is one of the many groups we've never heard of who us bloggers only find out about when we get promotional e-mails in our inboxes. But this one immediately made me take a second look because of the line up: Clayton Savage and JayQuan. And if those names didn't make you take a second look just now, I'll explain.

The email (and their website, press-kit, etc) claim Clayton Savage is one of the Furious Five. Probably, your first reaction is: hey, I can name all of the Furious Five - Mele Mel, Scorpio, Rahiem, Kid Creole and Cowboy - and Clayton ain't one of them!" Ah, but what about after they split up and formed two separate groups? There was a new Furious Five line-up then, right? Well... you're closer. Rahiem and Creole stuck with Flash and formed a new five-man group of MCs with new members Broadway, Lavon and Larry Love (of the famous "Larry's Dance Theme"). And Mel had his new Furious Five, which was made up of Scorpio, Cowboy and new members King Lou, Kamikaze and Tommy Gunn. All of whom... still don't include Clayton Savage. So I daresay they're stretching the truth a bit by calling him a member of the Furious Five.

But it's not an entirely bogus claim or anything. When the original Furious Five were making records on Sugarhill, they recorded with The Sugarhill Band (Fats Comet)... and when the groups divided and Mel's new formation of the Furious Five started putting out records on Sugarhill, one of the key musicians they worked with was Clayton Savage. In fact, on one single ("We Don't Work for Free") he's downright competing for the title of lead vocalist with Mele Mel. He also put out a solo album in 1986. So while he may not technically have ever been one of any of the Fives, he's certainly an established old school artist with a genuine legacy. And he's someone who perks my interest when I hear he's got a new hip-hop project coming out.

And that's just one of the guys - the other's story is just as interesting. Jayquan is the founder of The Foundation website. You've heard me sing its praises before... if there was a nuclear war and I could only save one hip-hop website, it would probably be The Foundation. And hes an MC who I've covered before with his 12" featuring Mel and Grandmaster Caz. He has a musical legacy that goes back, too - during the heyday of the indie 12" scene in the mid 90's, he was a member of The First Sons, and even put out a record as far as back as 1987 as one of The Too Def Crew. ...So, if nothing else, this new collaborative project is going to be an interesting footnote in hip-hop history.

But, fortunately, it's not nothing else. Like the title says, their four-song debut EP, The Life, turns out to be quite a pleasant surprise. Yes, after all that back-story, we're finally getting to the music; and I'm happy to report that the music lives up to the back-story. What I like the best is how they manage to make something that takes elements from every era of hip-hop, bridging the gap from the Sugarhill Band days to Pink Friday; and it all works. It's got rich and varied instrumentation thanks to Savage, who also sings in a couple different styles, that has a lot of old school integrity but sounds modern enough that if you replaced Jay with Drake (for Drake's name, not his MCing skills), most of the songs could easily be one of those break-out hit singles on Youtube with the kids. But one difference is that Jay stays a straight rapper on here - not in terms of his sexuality, but in the sense of pure MCing without all that sing-songy autotune, computer generated stuff (though they do utilize ALL of those tricks and more for Clayton's vocals).

Not that it's entirely flawless... sometimes Jay's rapping might be a little too straight, by way of being generic. A little boost in the writing, Kool G Rap or Rakim style might go a long way. And one of the songs on here, "Beautiful Girls," feels under-cooked. Musically and lyrically, it's just not quite up to par with the other tracks on here. I think they maybe should've kept tweaking this one in the studio for a while before releasing it alongside the others. Of course, that's not because it's bad, but because they set the par pretty high with the other songs.

And there's a reason I thought of Pink Friday when I first heard this, and not just because they share some really engaging musical vibes. The hook to the EP's title track, "The Life" ("I wanna live the life... the life... the life") sounds so much like the one for "Moment 4 Life," that if this song ever did become a break-out hit, I'd be quite worried about hearing from Nicki's lawyers. But, hey, that hook sounded good then and it sounds good now, so as a listener and not a copyright attorney, I'm not mad..

So, you get four songs total on this EP, plus a Clean Version of the song "F.U.N." The language censored from the Clean Version runs right through the chorus as well as the rap verse, however, so I'd skip that one. Kinda ruins the whole thing. Fortunately the Explicit Version's here too, so it's not a drama. This is primarily an mp3 release (boo!) but you can get CD hard-copies from, which is what I recommend.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Doorbell Rap

Black, Rock and Ron released a hard, highly regarded album in 1989 on RCA Records (in fact, it's recently been released). They mostly produced their own material, but they did have that Midas-like connection with Paul C, plus a famous remix by Prince Paul. They had several singles and videos, but I guess they didn't quite break that mainstream sales barrier for their label to commit to a second album.

But their legacy isn't entirely limited to their all-too brief time RCA. See, before RCA, they were signed to Next Plateau, and even appeared on one of Red Alert's famous mixtape albums. Now, the single they released on Next Plateau ("That's How I'm Living") was carried over to their RCA album, but there's more to the story than that. Because they were signed to Next Plateau before they even became Black Rock and Ron. They released their first single under the name Vicious Four.

"Hard Rap" was released in 1986, and here's the first thing you'll surely notice about this. They sampled a doorbell. It's got your traditional programed drums, hand-claps and other funky sounds - it's a dope beat. But the signature tune they play on the hook is obviously the chimes of Big Ben as played by a doorbell. The people I house-sit for have this doorbell; it sounds exactly the same! It's even got that slight distortion towards the end of the refrain. I mean, this was the mid 80's, where it wasn't at all uncommon to have rappers rhyme over interpretations of cartoon and sitcom theme songs, so it doesn't sound that ridiculous (at least, comparatively) to hear these sorts of tunes in a rap track - they do actually pull it off, I have to say - but I'm still pretty sure these are the first guys to rap over a doorbell.

Now, this record does bring up a question I can't answer. Black, Rock and Ron are obviously a three man group. So who is the fourth on this track? Lord Black and Master Rock are the lead and only MCs here just like they were on Stop the World, and they repeatedly shout out Ron Scratch as their DJ. ...They don't name anybody else. Only Black and Rock get writing credits, and Rock did the production. It seems to be a very clear-cut three man operation. But they're calling themselves Vicious Four! Who the Heck is the fourth?? I think it can only be the doorbell.

They've also got another song on here called "Huffing N' Buffing," a more narrative-style song, where they relate various anecdotes of people working harder rather than smarter. It's fun, sort of a bemusing precursor to "You Be Illin'," with a slow, bassy keyboard riff over a beat that's otherwise very reminiscent of "Hard Times," particularly in its use of aggressive, isolated hand-claps. It's fun, but these little story raps are never (with the admitted, rare exception) as engaging as songs like the A-side, where they just spit their hardest.*

If you listen closely to the track, you will hear some silly, out-of-breath human beatboxing mixed into the track. I assume it's to illustrate the "huffing and buffing" of the title, but possibly whoever performed this is the mysterious fourth guy? Ha ha. I mean, I'd assume it's just one of the three members who recorded it real quick, but damn it, somebody's gotta be the fourth!

Anyway, this isn't a hard record to track down, and it's well worth it. It's definitely got that Hollis sound. And while it does sound more "old school" than their RCA material, it's no less fun for that fact. Both instrumentals are included on the flip.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Queens of Civilization are On the Mic.

Since the very beginning, hip-hop has had its share of strong sisters. From Invincible today to Lady B back in 1979 - hell, we can take it back even before hip-hop was recorded music, with the likes of Sha Rock and the Mercedes Ladies - forward-thinking females MCs have been spitting hard enough that I believe they can take genuine credit for advancing the feminist movement in the global culture. But interestingly, when you say "feminist rap song," the exact same rap will immediately come to everybody's mind. It's not the first, and it's not the most recent, it's just... the one.

"Ladies First" dropped in 1989, and it's as terrific now as it ever was. It made the careers of both its MCs, Queen Latifah and Monie Love. Eleven years later, Latifah even titled her book Ladies First. Latifah showed us a whole other side to her from her previous, clubby dance tracks, proving she could be the lead vocalist on a rap song equal to the genre's all-time greats. And while "Monie In the Middle" is a fun crossover record with a brilliant instrumental, this is easily Monie Love's best performance of her career.

But as much, if not more, credit needs to go to the DJ Mark the 45 King for laying down one his best, all-time instrumentals. In many ways, it's right out of the King's playbook: a funky break with random, dusty horn samples he unearths and brings to the table over and over again, always to the our delight. But here he takes different horn samples, from different records of different styles, and together they form something even stronger than most of his other records. Some are blaring, turning the hook into a rallying cry, and others are funky loops that couch the vocals. All that paired with a live, thumping bassline played by engineer Shane Faber, adds up to one of hip-hop's all-time great instrumentals. And then it's really no surprise to see the great Paul C's name turn up in the credits for this one as well, since he seemed to have a hand in nearly every true classic from this period.

Now, I've heard it said a few times, on the internet, that "Ladies First" was written by Apache. This is usually pointed out by a male making the bigger point that: ha ha, these women needed a man to write their big, feminist anthem. I don't know if that's true or not, but there are writing credits on this 12", which credit several people, not including Apache. Specifically, they credit Latifah, Monie, The 45 King and Shane Faber. So, I would assume Latifah and Monie wrote their own lyrics, and 45 King and Faber are getting credit for the instrumental, and dismiss the Apache thing as internet rumor, except I was able to find something to support it. According to discogs, two pretty random compilation albums* credit Apache as a writer, alongside Latifah, Love and 45 King (but, interestingly, not Shane Faber). Of course even in those cases, Monie and Latifah are still credited as writers, but it does lend some credibility to the notion that he at least had a hand in it.

Still, there's at least one lyrical moment Apache night not have wanted to take credit for even if the ladies were willing to give it to him. That's because this song is one of those rare, infamous examples of misspelling in a rap song, ranking right alongside Warren G's "What's Next," when he famously asked, "what's N-X-E-T?" In this case, Monie Love ends her final verse by saying, "And next up is me, the M-O-N-I-E L-O-V-E; and I'm first 'cause I'm a L-A-D-I-E." I hope nobody reading this actually needs me to point it out, but the singular of "ladies" is in fact "lady."

That embarrassing gaff aside, this is one of hip-hop's purest, most perfect song. I mean, how could anyone ever hope to improve on it? What more could you ask for, a Crazy Extended 45 King Remix? Oh shit. The 12" has a Crazy Extended 45 King Remix on it!

Wisely, this 12" doesn't replace the already ideal 12"... it just adds a few things. Stab scratches, Malcolm X vocal samples, an extended opening (the famous "muuuusic 45 King, muuuuusic Latifah and the King, muuusic from a nation supreme" acapella that King would re-use regularly), all just help make the proceedings even hyper. It's over a minute and a half longer, and while it may seem a bit excessive during the opening - the chorus repeats and the beat rides for almost too long before the MCing kicks in. But you'll be glad for the extra length at the end of the song, when it allows for an extra, all-new verse by Latifah:

"Step out into the night;
Queens of civilization are on the mic.
The scene is ripe; the crowd is hype.
I expel the wack and those who bite.
Why? 'Cause I'm that type.
Swaying with beats 45 King style;
He wants me to sing but I'll swing, so meanwhile,
A footnote for the opposite sex:
Monie ripped the mic; I rock it next.
Flex - you'll never catch me at my worst.
You catch the drift? It's ladies first!"

Latifah's debut album was already a crate staple thanks to songs like this; but the remix makes this an essential 12" as well (plus, picture covers never hurt). And what else is on here? Well, there's the LP and a slightly tightened Radio Version. The Instrumental is on here, and if you care about instrumentals at all, this is definitely one to own. And finally, there's the Queen Latifah - Monie Love Bonus Beat, which has the pair shouting out the top female MCs of the day over the break, with Latifah using her silly French accent from her cameo on De La Soul's record. It's short, and they could've just edited into the ending of the Remix, to make it even more Crazy and Extended. But whatever - this is definitely one of those 12"s you just can't complain about.

*1990's Tanz House 2 on BCM Records from Germany and 2004's All That Urban on Warner Bros from Australia.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jersey Engineering

The latest release from DWG is finally here, and this time it's... Emskee The Complex Engineer? Who's that? Well, if you've been picking up the Nick Wiz double-CD compilations (and if not, you should be), he's already been introduced to you, "this was my first artist I produced for when I started making beats." On volumes 1 and 2 (Emskee isn't on #3), the Emskee tracks were demos they recorded together for Emskee, who was looking to get a deal. ...But it turns out those tracks weren't the the sum of his demo material.

DWG has unearthed a whole boatload of additional, vintage material from Emskee, Nick Wiz (then going by the name of Kayzee the White Soul), and their DJ, Slyce. And the first record they pressed up is DWG011, The Complex Engineer EP - six killer demo tracks (none of which repeat the tracks from the Nick Wiz albums... even though that would've been welcome, anyway, just so we could have them on vinyl, too). Most are produced by Wiz, but one or two are actually by Kid Capri... See, Emskee was hired to ghostwrite for Capri's second album on Cold Chillin'. But that album wound up getting shelved, so he used that material for his own rhymes (these were just demo tapes, after all, so it's not like he was screwing over Capri or anything).

So, here's what you'll notice as soon as you lay this on your deck. First, Emskee has a direct, forceful flow. Not that he's all Waka Flocka on here; but he has a distinctly tough way of enunciating every syllable. And the other thing you'll notice is that the beats here sound busier than Wiz's usual, minimalist tracks, where he seems to boil everything down to one smooth loop and a drum track. Here shit's always happening, and it goes a long way in keeping the tracks energetic and alive.

So that's DWG011, which is limited to your standard (these days) 300 copies. It comes in a sticker cover and, as always, comes with an informative press sheet. Naturally, I recommend it. ;)

But that's not the whole story here. For the more hardcore collectors, they also released DWG012 at the same time. This one's extra-limited (175 copies), is pressed on dope, marbleized dark blue vinyl, and also comes in a sticker cover. This one was off the market already even before it was released, so you'll have to go a little further out of your way to track it down now, but it's cool.

DWG012 doesn't consist of more demo tracks, exactly. It's actually eight radio promos that he recorded for different hip-hip DJ shows. There are demos for Funkmaster Flex, Stretch Armstrong, Doo Wop, etc. And they're not just radio drops or anything, but full, proper songs recorded for (and about) the shows... like Ultramagnetics' "Chuck Chillout" or those classic, exclusive cuts on Red Alert's albums. Again, it's all produced by Nick Wiz (one beat is even kinda recycled here), and while these maybe aren't quite as objectively good, uniquely written songs as the ones on The Complex Engineer EP (and a lot of time is spent on redundant, name-dropping shout-outs on every track), The Radio Promos EP is kinda more fun. I mean, if you're only going to get one release, The Complex Engineer EP is the way to go (which is surely why DWG gave it the wider release); but this is a neat little treasure for collectors.

By the way, the Nick Wiz CDs and these new 12" EPs aren't the only releases from Emskee... in more recent years, he put out an indie album and 12" on Goon Trax; and he's also one half of a group called The Good People, who got my attention back in 2006 for doing an EP featuring guys like Kool Kim and Cadence. So, if you've been bitten by the Emskee bug, you'll surely want to track all that material down as well - he still sounds the same.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Rock La France

Let me be the first to admit that there is something to the story of the following 12" I just do not understand. Now, I have been ranting about Rock La Flow since Dope Folks Records re-introduced him to the world. Thanks to them, and also Jamille Records, we've been given a whole catalog of fantastic music by this dope Milwaukee MC, and his equally impressive producer Tory Tee, that would've otherwise been completely lost to the ages. But what about the music that hasn't been issued from decades old vaults? What about his music that was actually released when it was meant to be?

To that end, I bring you today's record, "Proud By Choice" by F3. Who the heck is F3 and what do they have to do with Rock La Flow? Nothing, really, so far as I know; but it's a split 12"'; and the B-side is an original Tory Tee produced Mister Rock La Flow jam from 1990 called "The Harder the Better (Extended)." Where is there a non-Extended Mix for this to be in relation to? I don't know... as far as I know, this is all that's ever been released. Maybe he sold some cassette tapes of an original mix locally?

Here's a more compelling question about this record. Look at the label... Made in France? How/ why is a local, virtually unknown Milwaukee rapper making his vinyl debut in France? Ya got me. This record is on a label called Square Biz, a label that seems to otherwise only release club/ dance/ electro-type records in Europe, like this. But in 1990, apparently they dipped their toes in the underground Milwaukee rap scene, before the underground movement in hip-hop even took off. Either they were suddenly and briefly very progressive, or there's an interesting story there we don't know.

But why look a gift horse in the mouth? It's a banger! Interestingly, it opens with that same crazy vocal sample Raw Produce later used for "Mister Dope America." Then a hot, fast-paced track with a fresh rolling bassline - that sometimes switches up to a classic guitar sample - and non-stop scratching (uncredited, as Rock declares in the song, "my DJ, until further notice, remains unknown!"). And Rock just spits the same, non-stop, engrossing flow we've come to know him for. If you've been loving the Dope Folks releases, you'll want to have this one just as much; it's easily up there with the best songs on those releases. And the fact that this came out in 1990 means this is actually several years older than his Flowgram EPs or even The Ultimate LP; but that's definitely not a bad thing. Interestingly, this extended version is basically just the song from beginning to end which then blends into the instrumental replayed, replete with the same ad-libs and cuts. It's like the equally curious "Paper Thin" by MC Lyte.

Oh, and as for the A-side? It's pretty dope, too. F3 is a female group that comes nice and hard, with a serious message, "we have to send our love to the continent of Africa." The track, by somebody named D.A. Rock, outshines the MCing, with a nice blend of familiar samples (there are a lot of elements here previously used on Doctor Ice's "The Chillologist") mixed with new ones to form something original and edgy. It's bumping head-nodder, and these girls are kicking something serious - especially by 1990 standards. It would make for a pretty nice little pick up even if Rock La Flow wasn't on the flip side, but he is; so this record ends up being a real treasure. If you can fin it, I highly recommend it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dead Presidents To Represent Ace

In 1995, The Southern Conference put out their only album, Who Am I?, and this is the first (of two) singles off of that album. But Southern Conference aren't just some random nobody group that came and went in a quick minute. In fact, it was just the latest step in a hip-hop career that started back in 1989, and continued on his last album (to date) in 2005. The Southern Conference is none other than Dr. Ace, of Young and Restless fame - who also put out records under the names of Da Real One and Mr. Charlie - backed by a couple other guys collectively known as The S.C. Mafia.

Yeah, you remember Young and Restless, surely - "B stands for Broncos, Benz, BMW, bass, bangles, and a pair of bars!" They actually had a long and varied career after they broke up (I say "broke up" because they stopped putting out records as the group, but they remained friends and continued to work together). And in 1995 they both dropped their first solo projects: Prince of Power dropped "Give Me 50 Feet" under his new monicker, P.O.D., and Ace dropped this record, "Dead Presidents."

And this is a solo record, make no mistake. Despite it being credited to "Southern Conference," Ace is the only one rapping on here (though Alvin Rodgers adds the occasional background vocal and a strange Bugs Bunny impression), the song's sole writer and the song's sole producer. It starts out with a quote from the Christian Slater film Mobsters, "What's the secret of America? MONEY! Everything is money, Charlie." "Charlie" is an extra little in-joke, because, in addition to being the name of the main character in the movie, it's Dr. Ace's real name.

Anyway, it's a nice little record... Young and Restless meets 90's random rap indie vinyl. It's a fresh, but low-key instrumental with a super funky bassline - not a Miami bass ridiculous bassline, but a straight funky one - and a little live guitar by Rich Serrotta. There are some subtle, female background vocals by Grace, who's allowed to flex at the end of the song. And there's a cool little routine where Ace does some back and forth with her, very reminiscent of the records Grand Puba used to do with Mary J. Blige.

While P.O.D. went to the obvious route of making a pure dance track for the clubs, Ace made a slower, reflective hip-hop track. It's got enough live rhythms to still feel lush and upbeat, and there are still hints of the Ace's wit in his writing, but for the most part he plays it straight (though not too deep) with a mature song about the ups and downs of his financial issues. And just for the record, this came out the year before Jay-Z's "Dead Presidents."

This 12" just features the one song, but it is fully loaded, coming in Radio, Ride Out, Club, Instrumental, and Acapella Versions. The Ride Out mix isn't a remix with a new instrumental - it's just a slightly extended mix where the beat rides out. This record can usually be found pretty cheap - even though it's kinda rare - just because most people don't seem to know what the heck it is. But I recommend it - it's not exactly a random rap classic that should be commanding insane prices, but if you appreciate good hip-hop, you'll like this. It's just good.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 5 - The Last Message

It took ten years to get from "The Message" and "Message II" to "The New Message," and we would have to wait another fifteen years for the next installment. That's right, I don't even know how many people realize this, but Melle (sorry, Mele) Mel's last single, "M-3" is actually a new "Message" record. Yup, the "M" stands for "Message." And he's labeled it part 3, which I guess means that he's decided "The New Message" didn't count. Sort of like when Halloween part 7 (a.k.a. H20) came out, and they made it a direct sequel to Halloween part 2, and we were just supposed to pretend parts 3-6 didn't happen, so Jamie Lee Curtis's character never had a daughter and there was no crazy cult. You've got "The Message," "Message II (Survival)" and now "M-3." Anything else isn't canon, so forget about it.

"M-3" dropped on the 25th anniversary of "The Message," the first and only single off of Mel's most recent album, Muscles. The famous hook from the original and "New Message," has been shorted from the famous, "don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge..." to just the simple and declarative, "don't!" I'm not sure if abbreviating it like the title is meant to disguise the fact that this is the new "Message" or not, but it all ties together when Mel kicks the final verse, which is entirely "don't" themed:

"Don't act like you know so much;
You ain't cute enough to prostitute - don't try to ho so much.
Don't write a rhyme like the rest of your boys
'Cause them niggas is on stage making a bunch of goddamn noise.
Don't be so wild and loose; don't fall for the half truths,
'Cause it might be child abuse.
Pro-black ball player, yo man, don't marry a white woman,
Go and give your sister a chance.
Don't be afraid of the word 'nigga,'
Be a strong, rich, proud, healthy, well-educated nigga."

The rest of the song's a little more straight-forward, what you'd expect from a "Message" rap:

"Broken dreams over the triple beam,
Go for the cream, niggas sellin' dope to the fiends
Young juvenile killers in jeans and white tees
Sayin' 'freeze!' Nobody can hear you scream.
Coulda swore that my broad was a normal chick,
Rented a video; the ho was in a porno flick."

Now I don't know, but that sounds like kind of an unfair double-standard to me. I mean, if he's so against porn, what's he doing renting them? I guess it's okay for the goose, but not the gander, huh?

But, seriously, it's interesting. He's switched the flow up from previous messages, where he's now kicking more, faster rhymes {"dreams, beam, cream, fiends, jeans") packed into the lines - it's an energetic, hyper flow, more like Kool G Rap (except with mostly just single syllable rhymes) than the kind of stuff he made history with. I wouldn't say it's an improvement, but it's certainly an acceptable change that works, though I could see some people being disappointed because they wanted to hear a "Message" that sounded more like the original. This one certainly doesn't.

But on the other hand, this lacks the power and imagery of the original. Some of that is definitely in the writing - he just doesn't say anything here that hits you as hard. In fact, I can't even really tell what on Earth he's talking about sometimes (what the Hell are the half-truths that "might be child abuse" in the portion quoted above, for example?) And the style change, which puts more of an emphasis on "clever" than "earnest" probably plays a hand as well. But the biggest point this one catches flack on is surely the production.

Of course, the previous "Message"s have always had the benefit of great, live musicians supporting the rhymes - even "The New Message." Here you've got a track produced by Joey Mekkah (a new alias of Romeo JD from The Boogie Boys), which just isn't very good. Part of the problem is that the music, along with Mel's different flow, makes it seem like they're chasing after "what the kids are doing these days." I'm pretty sure they listened to some new, corny rap songs, said, "this sucks" and then, "we gotta make a track like that to be relevant." I mean, it's not terrible; but it sounds like a leftover from a lame Hot 97 freestyle.

The 12" has our backs here, somewhat, with an exclusive remix by Kamanchi Sly. If you don't know, he's a member of Hijack, the British group that was a member of The Rhyme Syndicate (Mel was a member of the Syndicate, too, remember). It sounds a little more hip-hop, and the bass is deeper - it's a definitely improvement. Still, some of the musical elements sound a little too much like your typical, staccato "computer-made bloops and bleeps" of modern hip-hop production (the whole Muscles project is obviously crippled by not being able to afford to sample), and the hook sounds worse over this new track - they should've replaced it with something else. But, overall it's still an upgrade, and you can really appreciate Mel's MCing better on this mix.

"M-3" also comes backed with another album track, "Hip Hop 101." It's not a great song, but it's a fun homage to old school classics. He spits famous lines from hip-hop's most famous tracks over a classic breakbeat, and leaves the audience to finish the refrains in a shout-and-call kinda thing. It's like those medley records Doug E. Fresh put out around 2000, although he does spit a new, original verse towards the end. It's okay.

Ultimately, it's a disappointment. Reactions online (here, read some) seem to vary from "utter shit" to "the legend is back - all praise!" But I don't think anyone will say that this stands up to his previous outings. Mel proves he still has potential as an MC, and I appreciate the effort here; but this project ain't it. Not only do I naturally prefer the records from '82, but if I want to listen to a third, honestly, I'll play "The New Message." Just like when Halloween 7 came out, they arrogantly dismissed the earlier entries because of their flaws, and declared "we're making the only real, important sequel!" But fans prefer parts 4 and 5. ;)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 4 - The Silly Message

So, for a long time, "The Message" was done. Sure, there were remixes (Sugarhill's 1990 remixes... "The Message '95"... "The Message '97"... that 12" on P-Vine with a bunch of Japanese artists trying their hand at it, or the one on DeepBeats, which had a whole bunch of newjack remixes... jeez, there have been a lot), and compilation appearances. But there were no new "Message" records for a decade. Finally, all that would change on "The Message"'s tenth anniversary, when Danish pop rocker Nikolaj Steen came to New York in search of new, American audiences.

"Now, wait a minute, Werner," you may be thinking, "I thought you said in 'Day 1' that you weren't going to be posting about silly covers and junk; just the real, authentic stuff by Mel." Yeah, but this isn't one of those. This is Melle Mel (who'd now inexplicably changed his name to Mele Mel) back to record a whole new "Message" song. And while Duke Bootee didn't come along for this ride, Mel now had fellow Furious Fiver Scorpio in tow.

I used to watch Yo! MTV Raps (and Rap City, and Video Music Box) religiously in these days. I can only remember Dre and Ed Lover singling out two videos as being personal favorites of theirs, and this was one of them (the other was Rappin Is Fundamental's collaboration with Miles Davis). Now, that may be overhyping it a bit, but if you can get over the fact that they've got this corny rocker adding his voice to the proceedings, it's really not bad. And it was certainly pretty awesome to see Grandmaster Melle Mel back in the saddle again after having been pretty much out of the picture since the Furious Five's failed reunion album in '88.

If you've only seen the video for this (either back in the day or on Youtube), you've seen a bastardized edit of it. See, this song can essentially be broken up into three acts. In act 1, they reprise material from the original "Message" with a few updated twists. One twist is that Nikolaj jumps into to perform some of the lines, and the other is that they alter some of the lyrics. So,

"Rats in the front room, roaches in the back,
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat.
I tried to get away but I couldn't get far,
'cause a man with a tow-truck repossessed my car."


"Rats in the front room, roaches in the back,
Junkies in the alley just smokin' that crack.
I tried to get away 'cause life is a drag,
But the tow-truck man came and took my Jag."

This is admittedly the worst part. I mean, the changes aren't awful, but they are a small step down, and surely nobody but Nikolaj was thought it was important for him to make arbitrary changes to put his spin on it. It's not that he says anything embarrassing or especially wack, but so far it's pretty pointless. We're obviously better off just playing our old copies of the original "Message."

But the second act is more compelling, and stupidly, that's the one that gets chopped in the music video. Because in the second act, Mel and Scorpio (who have 100% of the writing credit on this song) write and kick all new material for the majority of the song. You did get some of that in the video, including:

"Took the train 'cause a cabbie got gunned down.
A water main broke; can't go downtown.
I shoulda stayed off,
Cops gettin' paid off;
Pops got laid off,
He tried to play it off.
Up at dawn, home at dusk; he's flippin',
Mad at the world so he gave me a weapon.
He ran out of cigarettes;
He went for another pack.
It must've been a good smoke,
He never came back!"

But, either for time or due to a politically incorrect reference to AIDS by Scorpio (probably both), they trim out a good chunk of the middle of the song, like:

"I'm in the bleachers with the Yankees fans.
Sayin', 'yeah, yo, you sucker,' as your boys got slammed!
DEA rolled up on the block,
And two little kids watched as their mother got knocked.
Didn't get bailed out, didn't have no clout;
Been locked up twice, now it's three strikes, she's out.
The city took the kids right quick;
Moms is upstate, sleepin' with a broomstick."

Then act three, predictably, is Mel kicking his "a child is born" verse. This time Steen jumps in and does a couple lines of it, but mostly it's just Mel doing his tried and true thing. And what can I say? Hearing Mel bring it back in '92 was pretty effective.

Now, this single actually has several mixes. Steen produced them all, but he has several co-producers, from punk rock guys (including a member of The Vomit Pigs) to house DJs working with him, and it's not really clear exactly who did what, especially since the credits seem to differ whether you're looking at the cassette single or the 12" label. So, we'll just say a mess of these guys collectively worked on these various versions. So there's talent on hand, but none of them are really hip-hop producers, which means, naturally, the results are mixed.

Surprisingly, it's not the Album version you hear in the video. That version's okay, but kinda boring until the guitar solos kick in - those are effective, and appear in pretty much all the mixes. The one in the video is the Smooth Mix, and I actually think that one's the best. It relies on a lot of drawn out synth notes, which is pretty cliche, but actually works surprisingly well with the harder elements of the song. Then you've got the Close To the Edge Mix, which is the most traditionally hip-hop of all of them, and that's pretty decent, but for some reason it just doesn't jive well with the vocals. Someone would need to go back in and rejig some of the elements to really make it work right; but as it stands, it's a little off. And finally there's the Hot Mix, which is more of a dance track and definitely the worst of the bunch.

So, how to call this in the end? The song obviously gets dismissed a lot just because it's got a corny rocker guy in an otherwise dead serious rap video... That would have a hard time flying today, much less back in 1992. And some of his input really does come off as silly, regardless of the times (hey, at least he doesn't human beatbox!). It's certainly not a song you'd proudly drive around blasting out of your jeep; and obviously it's not as good as "The Message," or even "Message II." But Steen is a genuinely talented musician. And having Mel and Scorpio on the mic giving an earnest go at hard MCing with socially important lyrics is certainly a good thing that real heads shouldn't entirely be sleeping on. This was a comeback I really wanted to happen, but unfortunately it took a bunch more years for Mel and Scorpio to get more projects off the ground. And this is definitely better than a lot of those.

If you appreciate Mel, you'll be down with this. But "The New Message" is certainly no substitute message.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 3 - The Sequel

Still 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the rest of The Furious Five have come around to "The Message" - it's a runaway hit, the title of their album. But now that it's time for the sequel, Melle Mel and Duke Bootee are still doing it on their own. Flash and the Five aren't even credited on the label this time, though Sylvia and Joey Robinson are still taking writing and production credits.

It's called "Message II (Survival)," and once again it's just Mel and Bootee rapping on this. But there's another MC who should have writing credit on this record. Check out these lyrics:

"In jail they got a game and they call it 'survival,'
They run it down to ya on your first arrival.
They tell ya what you can and can not do,

So if you ever go to jail, watch your (mm mm)."

Duke Bootee kicks that short verse near the beginning of the song. But now check out these lyrics to another rap classic, and see if you notice anything familiar:

"For you sucker sucker crews who commit the crime,
You wanna do bad but don't do the time.
I say you wanna be this but then you wanna be a crook,
You find and old lady and take her pocket book;
And then you steal your mother father's money on the sly;
You can run, but you can't hide.
When the cops grab you, your face turns pale;
And I'ma tell you a little story about the jail:
You see, in jail they got a game and it's called 'survival,'
And they run it down to ya on your first arrival.
They tell ya what you can and can not do,
But if you go to jail, watch your poo poo."

That's right. That's from Spoonie Gee's debut single "Spoonin' Rap" on Sound of New York (1979). Of course, Spoonie took it a little further...

"'Cause when you go in the shower, he's a-pullin' his meat,
And he's a-lookin' at you, and say you look real sweet.
And at first there was one, now ten walked in,
Now how in the hell do you expect to win?
I said you better look alive, not like you take dope,
And please, my brother, don't drop the soap.
And if you get out the bathroom and you're alive,
Just remember: only a man can survive."

For ages, I just assumed the lines were bitten. After all, Bootee is a musician first and foremost. He rhymed on these records, but he never really made any claims of being a serious MC. The original intention was for his vocals to be replaced on the original "The Message," and he was only rapping on this one because of the success of the last one (and the growing divisions within the group over the whole mess). So I assumed he had a little trouble coming up with some rhymes and figured he could sneak a lifted passage or two under the radar.

But, actually, in an interview with The Foundation (by the way, have I mentioned that The Foundation is fucking awesome, and if you haven't gone there and ready every single interview than you're really missing out?), Rahiem, explains that, "Spoonie G wrote that song to get out of his contract [with Sugarhill]."

The beat should be familiar, too. There's some new instrumentation by the usual players on top, but the basic track is Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's earlier hit, "Scorpio" with the fast, electronic sounding beats and sound effects.

Still, this is a pretty great song. Some of the added music, especially the super funky bassline, really elevates this above "Scorpio" IMHO, which gets kind of monotonous and dull. And it sure doesn't hurt that Mel's simple vocoder effects have been replaced by some great new lyrics by Spoonie, "you've got to lock all your windows, chain up all your doors, to protect what's inside of your houses, stores. Beware of the food - it might be no good, 'cause there's someone trying to poison the whole neighborhood! Today they found something in somebody's store they said, killed ten people, and hurt four more."

Mel also changes up his flow for majority of the song, and instead of giving his usual, ultra-aggressive delivery, gives a very earnest, softer, almost pleading delivery for most of his lines. You might almost think it was another member of the Five doing his parts, but no, that's Mel. He only really switches back to his traditional style for the ending, when he brings back a portion of his famous, "a child is born with no state of mind" verse for an encore performance.

Of course, this record didn't have quite the impact the original did. A lot of the recycled elements feel like quick cash-grabs, and you just can't have an important, musical and cultural First twice. The hook, while effective, didn't become the anthem that "The Message" or even "New York, New York" did. But it's still a really great record that stands up to the test of time a lot better than many other records from that era, even other hits by Flash and the gang. If this record had gotten formulaic, it was at least a terrific formula.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 2 - The Actual Message

So, three years later, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five built a song around that famous verse from "Superrappin'." Or, rather, Melle Mel did, almost on his own. Apparently the rest of the group weren't convinced at all of this bold concept: to make a hip-hop record that was serious and political as opposed to light and bouncy. Little could they imagine the world of Public Enemy, NWA and Edutainment that hip-hop was about to define hip-hop - "the black CNN" as Chuck D famously described it - for the latter half of the decade.

So Melle Mel hooked up with one of the members of Sugarhill Records' house band, Duke Bootee, and they crafted this song on their own (note the billing on the label... Flash and the Five developed a long history of confusing and ever-changing billing on their records like pretty much no other group). Bootee didn't just work on the instrumental for song, he actually wrote and performs one of the verses - the only one not by Mel. In fact, it even goes further... according to an interview with Bootee at The Foundation, he wrote all of Mel's verses, too (except for that famous, final verse).

While "Superrappin'" may've had the famous verse first, and other rap records managed to make some social and political points, "The Message" turned out to be revolutionary. While the instrumental is still by The Sugarhill Band and contains your standard disco/ funk elements, it's much darker and atmospheric, and it's set to a drum machine instead of live percussion. Instrumentally and lyrically, it lead hip-hop into a whole new direction. Not that every rapper took it (care free party rap remains a staple of the genre to this day), but it opened the door to so much, from the post-Run DMC era of stripped down beats to pretty much the whole concept of serious and "hardcore" MCing.

I have a fun memory of this record. In high school, we had to do a presentation where we typed up the words to a song, played the song in class, and discussed the lyrics. Most of the kids were surprised I listened to stuff like this, considering it was so old school - I'm not so old that I went to high school in the 80's, guys. But one of my best friends had already called dibs on The Geto Boys' "Chucky," so I figured I had to go in a different direction.

Anyway, my English teacher was impressed I figured out Duke was saying "sacroiliac," but marked me wrong on another line of the song, where Mel tells the tale of the "Zircon princess" who, "seemed to lost her senses. Down at the peep show, watchin' all the creeps so she can tell her stories to the girls back home. She went to the city and got so, so siditty, she had to get a pimp; she couldn't make it on her own." She was convinced the song had to be saying she got "social security." So, since I'm looking back at this record, I decided to do a little research and see what the rest of the world thinks about this line.

The original hip-hop anthology, Rap: The Lyrics actually has it as "social security." But the later Anthology of Rap agrees with me. Being on the side of "the big book of plagiarism" was almost enough to make me rethink my stance on the subject, but it occurred to me that whatever they had must have originally come from the internet, so I checked The OHHLA, and they also have it as "siditty". Actually, they have it as "seditty." In fact, googling around, I've found literally over a dozen spellings of this word. But however you spell it, I'm convinced they meant the term found in this Urban Dictionary link. This is just one of those old school slang words everybody was using back in the days, and it hadn't even occurred to me that they could be saying anything else.

I mean, I can understand the logic of wanting to think it must be "social security." Rapgenius has it as "seditty," but then if you click the word, they say, "My guess, from listening to the song and given the context ('she couldn’t make it on her own'), is that what’s actually being said is 'Social Security' — which maybe is being used euphemism for welfare, or disability given that she’s a 'crazy lady'" - it makes sense. But I think that's just a case of us trying to re-edit the song afterwards. I mean, just listen to the song: there aren't enough syllables for it to be "social security." I can hear "so so" as "social," but "security" has a whole other, distinct syllable with a definite "your" sound in there. And Mel's not exactly a midwestern mumblemouth-type rapper. He comes from the old school tradition of enunciating the Hell out of whatever you're trying to say. Hell, Maya Angelou even uses the term in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: "St. Louis teachers, on the other hand, tended to act very 'siditty' and talked down to their students from the lofty heights of education and whitefolks' enunciation." ...I wish I had that Angelou quote back in English class; I think that would've gotten that incorrect mark off my paper! hehe

Anyway, I apologize for the long tangent. It's a powerful song, from Mel's dynamic opening, "broken glass everywhere!" to the mature and heartfelt lyrics of all the verses, including Bootee's, talking about, "the bill collectors that ring my phone and scare my wife when I'm not home." It works and holds up on every level. Even today, you're not going to find many rappers with metaphors and imagery like, "rows of eyes disguised as windows, looking down on the poor and needy." And, of course, it has one of the most famous and bitten hooks in hip-hop history: "don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge... I'm tryin' not to lose my head. It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under."

There are multiple pressings, of course, but pretty much only the one version of the song (not counting remixes made by other artists long after the fact), about seven minutes long with the instrumental on the B-side. Unlike songs like "Superrappin'" or "Rapper's Delight," no one really pares this one down. I mean, maybe a compilation or two will shave a bit of the extended instrumental at the beginning or the skit at the ending (that Newcleus famously imitated on their classic, "Jam On Revenge"), but you'd be hard pressed to find any versions that cut any of the verses, all of which are iconic and essential. This song is one of the few real game changers, even moreso than other songs that managed to set trends. And Grandmaster Flash and the rest of the Furious Five, who originally didn't want to get down with this song, wound up making it the title of their debut album.