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.

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