Monday, February 21, 2011

Black History

For Black History Month, I thought I'd look at a cool piece of black history called "Black History" about... Black History Month. Back in the 80's, Johnson & Johnson gave away a free cassette single with jeri curl kits. It was an exclusive song by Run DMC called "Black History" b/w "Famous Firsts" by Kurtis Blow. Until recently, it had only existed on that ultra-rare cassette, but around the end of 2009 or so, it was pressed onto this nice piece of vinyl. Now, clearly, it's a bootleg. There's no way Profile (Or Johnson & Johnson) issued this. But since I also can't see them ever digging this out of their vaults and giving it a proper, official 12", it's hard not to recommend this.

"Black History" is an epic (over 10 minutes long) ode to black history.They kick literally dozens of short verses about important black historical figures. It's really rudimentary old school stuff, with beat-box beats, handclaps, and a simplistic but funky bassline. Run and DMC have constant interplay throughout their verses, essentially each MC taking every other line, with the key, dramatic lines shouted in unison. It injects a lot of energy that keeps things from getting dull or plodding. The lyrics are pretty simple, but this predates anything like "You Must Learn" by years and you there aren't many rap records by legit artists that are as flat-out educational as this one:

"There was another great man from ancient Africa."
"Earned his name as a warrior."
"Great military strategy was the key"
"To this army commander's victory."
"Hannibal of Carthage led the way."
"Hannibal of Carthage was his name!"
"Yeah, Hannibal of Carthage was his name."

"In a hot July evening of 1893,"
"A black doctor performed historic surgery."
"The person had a knife-wound in his heart;"
"And the doctor knew it was a shot in the dark."
"But he went ahead and opened his chest;"
"And the operation WAS A BIG SUCCESS!"
"Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was his name;"
"And open-heart surgery was his claim to fame."
"You say open-heart surgery was his claim to fame?"
"Yeah, open-heart surgery was his claim to fame."

...That's pretty much how they all go, with the name finally revealed at the end of each verse. To spice things up, they keep going back to a lively hook ("Black! Black! Black! Black history!") and they have some other random voices appear throughout... sometimes girls pop in to sing a bit and sometimes somebody does a silly impression of a voice referred to in a verse. There's even a human beatbox breakdown about midway through the record. Finally, it ends with them kicking a rap about the importance of knowing your roots, and somebody plays some funky, spacey keyboards.

But the B-side to this 12" isn't "Famous Firsts." Instead it's another Run DMC rarity seeing its first time on vinyl, "Slow and Low." As you'll recall, "Slow and Low" was an early hit record by The Beastie Boys in 1985, but it was originally recorded, though never released, by Run DMC. They wound up giving it to The Beasties, and the original version was shelved. The Run DMC version uses the same beat, rhymes (except for a few lines where they mention themselves) and hook, though it's a little slower and Run DMC's delivery is naturally not quite as frantic. Now, this 12" isn't the first time it's been heard; it saw an official release (finally) in a five-disc Run DMC compilation album called Original Album Classics. But it's never been available on vinyl before this 12".

Finally, there's an uncredited third bonus track. It's a short mega-mix of Run DMC songs, and a nice scratch tribute to Jam Master Jay. Unlike the other two songs, this is new (though, of course, mixing old records), made by the DJ who pressed this 12".

So, yeah those are the songs, but you all want to know how the sound quality is, right? Well, thankfully, it's pretty good. Obviously "Black History" has been taken from the cassette and not the original masters, but some effort seems to have been put into making this sound as clean as possible, and the pressing is solid and can handle substantial volume. The B-side sounds even slightly better, as it was surely taken from a CD source. So short of Rick Rubin pulling some reels out of his closet and pressing up a top-notch official pressing (don't hold your breath), this is as good as you're gonna get, and it's really pretty good.

The presentation is nice, too. It comes in a sticker cover and is pressed on clear vinyl. The label itself is blank, except for a handwritten number, as this is a limited, numbered run of 200 copies (mine's #117). I mean, I don't know how much value collectors put in a numbered, limited edition of a bootleg; but still, it's kinda cool. Short of, you know, actually paying the artists and licensing the music legally, the label that pressed this up* did it just the way you'd hope they would, a quality preservation of an important piece of hip-hop - and black - history.

*Jamille Records, a label that's gone on to specialize in rare and unreleased old school rap from Milwaukee. You can expect a post on them in the coming weeks. 8)


  1. How have I never heard of this Black History track? Gotta find me an MP3...though my search earlier today yielded nothing. Oh, and Slow and Low also appeared on a CD reissue of King of Rock.

  2. where can i find this vinyl?

  3. There's one on discogs at the moment for a good price.

  4. I used to listen to this tape over and over again as a kid. I'm now 38 years old and would love to have a copy so that I can share with my kids. If anyone know how to obtain a copy please send me the details. Thank you in advance for your help!