Monday, May 28, 2012

Delivering Black, Rock and Ron To the Current Generation

Here's an album I didn't expect to get the big Sony re-release treatment: Stop the World, the first and only album by Queens trio Black Rock and Ron. Originally released on RCA/ BMG in 1989, the music was all produced by the group themselves, but has some noteworthy engineers, including Paul C., Jazzy Jay, Skeff Anslem and DJ Doc. I guess that's the big selling point over twenty years later - the sticker on the front boldly proclaims its, "Production by the Late, Great PAUL C",  which is dangerously close to the line of untruthfulness.  But, whatever the marketing reason, it's a dope album, and I'm glad to see it back on the market, giving younger audiences exposure to old school hip-hop beyond just the most famous, crossover hits.

All fifteen tracks are perfectly preserved here, but what I like like about these new versions is how they go the extra mile.  In this case, we're presented with a booklet which does a lot more than just carry over the track-listing, credits and dedications of the original booklet.  Most notably, it includes an all new interview with the group, the first with all three members in over twenty years. We're given some nice press photos and label scans, plus a full reprint of the Hip-Hop Connection cover story/ interview they did back in '89. And there's short quotes/ interview clips from various other hip-hop insiders about Black Rock and Ron, including Red Alert, Russell Simmons, Tragedy and even the guy who designed their logo! Basically, this will answer all your Black Rock and Ron questions and quell the lingering mysteries.

This CD - and yes, it's CD only... Sony always makes me sigh that way - mirrors the original CD release, thankfully including the two CD bonus tracks that weren't on the LP version, "My Hometown" and "Who's Got Next?" This is the really the best possible version of the US Stop the World on CD.

I specified "US" there, because the UK version of this album is wildly different, featuring many different songs and remixes (if you're wondering about the story behind that, you'll have to read the booklet's interview).* And here's another way Sony managed to make me sigh with this release... the second disc that almost was, but never got cleared. It would've included the songs from their debut 12" as The Vicious Four, and all the UK-only tracks.

I mean, just to illustrate how vast the differences between the two versions are, a rough CDR of the proposed bonus disc was sent to me, and it's 16 songs long.  Now granted, there's a little redundancy (two tracks seem to just be the bonus tracks on the official CD), and there's the two Vicious Four songs and an instrumental... but that's still over ten other songs and remixes - basically an entire second album!  There's remixes of songs like "Gettin' Large" and "I'm Tired," which interestingly are more street-oriented than the ones on the US album, which is geared more towards House tracks and stuff.  There's a track called "Cryin' the Blues," which turns out to be a remix of "Huffing and Buffing" from their Vicious Four 12", and remixes from their singles like "You Can't Do Me None" and "True Feelings." And there are all new songs like "We Be Wilin'/ Wild Thing" and "It's Raw." Even the UK-exclusive "Breaks" are here. Release both discs on vinyl, and you'd have the penultimate Stop the World experience any hip-hop head would have to add to their collection.

But let's not get too hung up on what could've been (though, if this sells like gangbusters, maybe an ultra-vinyl mega-set could still be in the cards down the line? Possibly? Extremely unlikely?). Even as a single disc set, this is a first-rate release that finds a deserving record that would normally be completely overlooked and gives it the first-class treatment. CD heads should be thrilled that this, of all albums, has been put back into print after twenty years. And even those of us with the original US LP in our crates should consider picking this up for the CD bonus tracks and the interviews, etc. Black Rock and Ron were some solid hip-hoppers from Queens who only occasionally veered too far into Run-DMC's lane, and the real disappointment is just that they never followed this up with a sophomore album.

*According to discogs, there's also a German version with an exclusive song called "Fresh" I wonder what the deal with that is...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Who's On the Payroll?

Roughly five years ago, a little label calling itself Madison Square Garage Recordings put out a nice, double CD set of Payroll Records' (almost) entire catalog of rare 12" singles and even a cassette-only promo tape.  All their great bangers from the late 80's and early 90's by guys like The Bizzie Boyz and Supreme DJ Nyborn are rounded up here, including the Instrumentals and Acapellas. I remember seeing another CD compilation by this label called Random Rap and thinking to myself, "there's no way they tracked down all those artists and rights holders and cleared all this stuff." And, yup, turns out I was right and despite the fact that they got their releases into some respectable outlets, these guys were straight bootlegging. And the real Payroll Records guys came in and put a stop to the shenanigans. So, it was a shame for a couple reasons... One, the right guys weren't getting paid for their music, and two - Payroll stopped MSGR before they could put out the vinyl EP that was supposed to accompany their CD set!

Well, thanks to Dope Folks, both of these injustices have been set to right. Here we have the vinyl EP, Rare Tracks '88-'91 (limited to 300 like all Dope Folks records), that contains the rarest tracks from the CD set (the ones that didn't wind up on the artists' full-length albums and stuff).  And unlike MSGR, Dope Folks' aren't bootlegging.

So we've got eight killer tracks.  Supreme DJ Nyborn is represented the hardest here, with three of his rarest cuts and remixes, including "The Smooveness," "Versatile Extension (Remix)" (a 12"-only remix of his single "Versatility") and "Breathless." Plus there's "It's Time To Get Paid," the Superb DJ K-Nyce 12" he's featured on that, interestingly, was absent from the MSGR CDs.

The Bizzie Boyz just have one song on here, but it's fresh. It's the remix to "Hype Time." Not to be confused with the Club Mix from their "Hype Time" 12" (which really isn't very different from the original mix), this is an even rarer remix, which adds a bunch of energetic scratching to the original instrumental. It's not a huge change - it's basically the same rhymes over the same track, just with some extra bits. But it's better with them than without them, effectively making it new definitive version.

Then you've got a song from The Original MC Spice called "Take It To the Stage," where she's dissing The Real Roxanne.  I'd never heard of this MC Spice (there are other "MC Spices" out there, which I guess is why this one decided to add "The Original") before the CD set; but it turns out this a rare early venture by N-Tyce, who would later sign with Wild Pitch and join the Wu-Tang Clan's girl group, Deadly Venoms!

There's also MC Capone, who only released one song on a split 12" with Nyborn, and this is it - "Smoove Style." And finally there's B.A.D. Rep, a.k.a. DJ Def and Dizzy Dee, with a rare song called "Uphill Peace of Mind." While most of the material here is about just flexing and sounding dope, this one's about kicking knowledge and uplifting.  It features another MC named KSB Fresh, who had a song on the highly sought-after Back To the Lab album on Overdue Records. And DJ Def, meanwhile, went on to greater fame under the name Mark Sparks, producing all kinds of big stuff, including Grand Puba's "I Like It" and Will Smith's Men In Black song.

But nothing here is anything like "Black Suits Comin'." It's all hip-hop in its purist form, which is why Payroll's original 12"s are so expensive and hard to find, making this a pretty handy compilation. Better still, several of the songs here are making their first ever appearance on vinyl, so even the hardcore collector who already has everything will be adding this to their collection.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Misplaced A-Town Rushes

Kilo is an Atlanta pioneer; one of the first to ever do it, along with cats like Shy-D and Hitman Sammy Sam; and he started pretty young. He dropped his first album (America Has a Problem Cocaine) at the age of 15, and it was some seriously raw, hardcore shit. He had diss tracks for Shy-D and Sam. But he also had a kind of unique production sound... it just kind of mixed Miami bass with more traditional hip-hop in an interesting way, and he wound up signing to a major and releasing a whole grip of albums over the years.

But in between his debut and signing to a major to release his second album, A-Town Rush, on Wrap/ Ichiban, he put out a rare, indie version on his local label, Ariva.  Now, for the most part, it's the same album... it just came out indie first, and then Ichiban picked it up and gave it major distribution.  But, before making it nationwide, they made some changes.  Predictably, these were for the worse.  I guess there's the rare exception, like when Jive picked up E-40's Mail Man EP, and added two extra tracks without removing or ruining anything.  But 95% of the time, it's the same old story: label execs who don't know shit about hip-hop tinker around with an album when they shouldn't, and so the album most heads wind up owning isn't the good version, and they need to seek out the rare, original version.

So what exactly did Wrap do? Well, first the good news. They added two songs. Don't get too excited, though, as these are both lifted off of the first album.  They included "My Ding-A-Ling," which was the fun, party record off the original album (seriously, I don't think it's possible not to smile and bop along to the hook on this one), and "America Has a Problem," which was the single, but probably not one of the tracks serious Kilo fans hold closest to their hearts.  I have no complaints about bonus songs, but if you have the first album (and if you only have one Kilo album, that's the one to have), it's just redundant.

At least one song isn't completely redundant, because "America Has a Problem" has been remixed. They've added a jittery sample and generally made the song hyper, with the DJ busier on the breaks. It might actually be an improvement; and even if you don't think so, it's at least cool to have something a little different. Plus this newer version fits in better with the more modern production style of the rest of the second album.

But the problem is that, in order to get these additions, we trade away two songs!  And the remix is cool; but not that cool. When it comes at the cost of original material that actually belongs on this album? Fuck it, take it back!

So just what did we foolishly trade away? Well, first off, we lost one of the most important songs, "The Piz," where Kilo kicks a flow and slang that Atlanta heads revere as an innovator in the city's style.  On paper, the main conceit sounds pretty corny (and maybe this is what the label execs thought, too): he throws an "iz" syllable into all his key words, like Das EFX did with their "iggidy" stuff: "Cobay is my mizan; he's down for his crizown."  But, damn, his flow is so smooth, the story is so cold and sounds so right over the super cool beat.  It's one we've heard before, but I daresay we haven't heard it sound this good.  And when the DJ starts cutting up The Beasties' "It's the new style!" on the hook?  This is one of those songs I could play for a NY head who would look at a Kilo album like, "this looks corny as Hell; why would I want to check for this dude?" And immediately after, he'd be buying the album.

Then the other lost song is "Ain't Nothing Like Kilo." Kilo flips the instrumental for "Just the Two of Us" a decade before Will Smith or Eminem,and frankly his beat sounds better than either of theirs, because he gives it the Kilo treatment, adding new, minor but consequential elements to the instrumental. Horn samples, extra snare... it's fresh. Kilo's back on his smooth "Piz" flow again... it's not quite as impressive here as there, but it still sounds really good.  It's got some really nice scratches, and the sung hook is juvenile (like a lot of Kilo's stuff... he was a teenager, after all) but funny, and a cool follow-up to one of his earlier songs.

Finally, just to seal the deal, they've cut off the opening of "She's Got Me Eatin' (Pussy)." Now, it's one of the weakest songs on the album, so if they had to mess with one song, at least it's this one. But the intro is probably the coolest part; where they loop the same Anita Baker sample Ras Kass used for "Understandable Smooth" (the opening scatting of "Caught Up In the Rapture") but at the original pitch. Afterwards, the song's just an excuse to talk dirty and put his boys (Red Money and Cobay) on record; but that intro was cool.

Breaking it down, it seems like the label, for whatever reason, just wasn't comfortable with Kilo using his ultra-smooth flow.  He kicks several different styles on this album, but the two they cut are the only two he rhymes like that on.  Maybe they figured his fans would think he'd gone too soft (it would explain the removal of the Anita Baker bit, too)?  The album as a whole is definitely softer than his debut, which was legitimately a disappointment.  But these two songs are some of his best, and if anything go a long way towards selling Kilo as an MC who can rap in a way other than just like a young LL.  They make the whole album work, and taking them out is like removing key support beams from a bridge; they're holding the rest up and it collapses without them.

So, yeah, the original album is better. The second version might have a more "cohesive" sound or or something, but who gives a crap? Cohesion, if it's worth anything at all on an album, isn't worth two of its best tracks. Serious, dedicated fans might want to pick up both, just for the exclusive remix, but most heads only getting one should definitely pass on the Wrap version and put in the extra effort to secure the original.

One final note: looking on sites like discogs and Amazon, it looks like there are also versions of Wrap's A-Town Rush that are missing either "I Wish I Was Kilo" (just a skit anyway, so no great loss) or "Baby Take a DH." I'm not sure if either of those listings are possibly incorrect, but I own the cassette, and it features both of those, for a total of 13 tracks, not 12.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Master Fuol's Secret Samurai Clique

You remember Master Fuol, right? He's that guy from all of Thirstin Howl's releases with the crazy flow. Howl had a lot of guys on his record from his Lo-Life gang, but Fuol was the one guy who didn't fit in with the Ralph Lauren gimmick, and the one guy who could really hold his own against Howl, spitting wild, tongue-twisting, punch-line packed lines. "Frogstyle Meets Drunk Fist," "Keep Cluckin'," "Spit Boxers," etc. Then he started hanging around with ODB and became one of the many Wu-Tang Junior Affiliate Friend Associates.  The guy we always wanted to release his solo album, but for some reason never did. Eventually, in 2002, he put out a very indie solo album on Howl's label, but he never really came out like he should've; and he seemed to just completely fall off the map when ODB passed.

At least, I thought he did.  It turns out I totally slept on a 2010 comeback, where Master Fuol brought out a whole new crew called The Fortyseven and released a full-length album called The Day the Sun Bled. The name of the crew is a reference to a legend where leader of samurai was forced to commit seppuku (suicide), and his forty-seven samurai soldiers killed the politician who ordered their leader dead. Then they all committed seppuku themselves for the revenge murder they committed. It's one of those maybe true but probably greatly embellished stories told to illustrate how super loyal and dedicated to their code the samurai are. Supposedly, Keanu Reeves is going to star in a movie about it next year, because nobody screams "authentic historical, Japanese samurai" like Keanu Reeves. Anyway, for the most part the crew just rap as themselves, or some sort of generic "we're hardcore killer samurai tough guy" stuff; but they do actually have a song detailing the events of the tale, which is... actually, not one of the better songs, but it's something different anyway.

There's not a lot different about this album. It's quite long, and essentially unchanging. It's 15 songs and an intro (cut up by Jabba tha Kut). The only guest is a guy named Obtuse on the very last song. Every song pretty much consists of hardcore or clever punchline rhymes over rough, Wu-inspired beats. You can just imagine a major label A&R screaming for club tracks, a love song, a Southern song, variety, variety, variety! Even the Wu have adopted this policy, which is one of the appeals of their junior crews like Killarmy - at least their won't be any crossover stuff on these albums. This is nothing but the pure, rough stuff. And for the most part that's a good thing, though the songs do have a habit of all running together, especially considering the length. You'll hear a line or verse you really like, and then won't be able to find out which song it was on later. But, hey, as long as you keep hearing lines and verses you like, what's to complain?

Fuol is easily the strongest MC on here. Though most of them have also established themselves outside The FortySeven, I'm not really familiar with most of the others (Hochii, Monk Liverfish, DJ Illnaughty, and Swiss Precise, who I actually have heard on another project or two, as one of the HalfwayHouse MCees); so it's hard to say who's better between the rest - one guy seems a bit cornier than his mates - but they all carry their own weight, at least, until Fuol can return and steal the show. It's like Fuol needs an injection of self-confidence; he never comes out unless he's playing support for somebody else... Howl, ODB, FortySeven. The man is easily strong enough to carry his own series of albums and singles.

But regardless, this is a nice album. There's no big, stand-out singles or anything. Just a solid, hardcore hip-hop album, through and through. The kind of thing that's becoming increasingly rare these days. And it's really good to hear Master Fuol again.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Exhuming Latee

(Your Youtube version, sirs and madams. patiently awaits you here.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

JVC Force, Hot Damn!

Remember when The JVC Force returned, after their masterful run on B-Boy (and Idler) Records, with a new single called "Bix Trax" in 1992?  Remember how it was on Big Beat, with big ads in The Source, etc, and we all thought, now they're on a major, the new single is sick, and this album's going to be incredible? And then... nothing. Eventually Curt Cazal came out on the indie tip with his new partner Q-Ball, and they had a fruitful indie career; but the Force had just vanished from the map like they flew into the Bermuda Triangle.

Well, hey, here ya go. Look what just dropped! The 1992-1993 Unreleased EP on Chopped Herring Records is five choice cuts that would've come out after on Big Beat/ Atlantic had the group not split up (AJ Rok cites "creative differences" in this interview for Platform8470) and gotten themselves dropped. We only had to wait twenty years. But I'll tell you what: it one hundred percent lives up to my expectations I had back in high school, expecting to see their album appear in stores any day now.

Let's start from the bottom up. The B-side isn't quite as compelling, in my opinion, though it's all good stuff. "Pump It Up" has some nice drums and subtle cuts, plus a few simple samples and an okay bassline. Actually the bassline's a little soft. But the Force just don't quite sound like themselves on this joint. In fact, one or two of the verses almost sound like an uncredited guest spot by some new kid who didn't come up in the JVC school. More likely, one of the original's just updating his style in a less than preferable way. But either way, it's a good song, but nothing to get excited about.

Then the other B-side track, "3 Ways To Rip It," is their reggae-influenced track. It's mostly to their credit that the JVC were always exploring different styles and sounds on their albums, but it did usually wind up leading them astray from their best work.  Plus, everybody had to have one in those days, and this is theirs. Not that they get all crazily raggamuffin on here, mind you. They pretty much stick to their standard, American flows; but the bassline and the little horn sample are pure reggae flavor, and B-Luv does some straight-up reggae chanting on the chorus. It's good, it works, and it could fit right in with the music on their past albums... it just wouldn't've been one of the stand-out cuts on those albums, like it isn't here.

Now we come to the A-side, which is the material we're really here for. First up is "3 the Hard Way" and NOW they sound like the JVC Force we know and love. They come with the voices and flows that made them great over a tight break beat and some scratchy jazz samples. When the bass notes come in, they dance with the drums and the MCs voices in that funky staccato style JVCs pioneered. There's some cool cuts on the hook, and once B-Luv gets on the mic for the second verse, it's over. We're in JVC heaven.  =)

And we don't come down for the next track. "Fun" actually uses the same I Dream of Jeanie sample Jazzy Jeff used for "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble," but they chop it shorter so it sounds more raw and purely hip-hop. If you didn't recognize it, you'd never guess it was from some campy 60's sitcom. Plus the big drums they lay it over, and the way JVC kick their signature flows, this is Greatest Hits material, dammit; I can't believe this has been sitting on a shelf gathering dust. I didn't even mention the points where the beat changes up to entirely different sample sets, which sound brilliant. This is even better than the last song.

Finally, "An Episode of My Favorite MC" isn't quite as great as the last two songs, but it comes close. Once again, they're really on a different tip here, definitely embracing some more modern 90's styles - at the beginning it struck me as being very Funkdoobiest inspired; and B-Luv has a Phife thing goin' on for his verse. And this track definitely DOES have an uncredited guest rapper on it - an early appearance by Q-Ball! In fact, I'm not so sure he isn't on one or two of the previous songs I mentioned (although this is the only one he has a writing credit on)... While all composition, arrangement and production here is solely credited to JVC Force, he's certainly shouted out as being "behind the boards" on "Pump It Up." But if his influence was a contaminant there, it isn't on this track. This is a different style song that completely works. It's an upbeat, catchy song with light-hearted rhymes, playful flows, and an addictive horn sample that sounds like it's been lifted off some serial or cartoon from the 1930's. But somehow that adds up to being kinda smooth at the same time.

Now, my understanding is that JVC's third album was completed before the split, so either Chopped Herring has just cherry-picked their favorite joints, or they're planning a volume 2 in the future. Either way, it's is an absolute must-have for any JVC fan.  And, really, isn't being a JVC fan an absolute must for being a hip-hop head? So this is an essential release. And one that makes me very happy - I'm smiling just holding it.

And, of course, Chopped Herring's consistently top quality presentation doesn't hurt. The sound quality is crisp and clear - it probably wouldn't have sounded as good on wax from Big Beat. It's limited to 300 copies, 75 of which are pressed on marbleized gold colored wax, 75 are platinum (platinum), and the remaining 150 are on classic black. It comes in a fresh sticker cover, and oh yeah - it also includes the Instrumental version of "Favorite MC" as a bonus.

The "limited labels" have been putting out many of the best hip-hop releases (in every way) in recent years, and this stands out as one of the best of those. Get on it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

It Takes Two

"It Takes Two" is a hell of a record. Over surprisingly street edged beats, it defined the concept of dopey but catchy lyrics, not just to rap audiences, but to the popular culture as a whole. Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds were able to bond over it 20 years later in a major studio romcom, and the writers didn't even have to explain it. It not only predates similarly effective crossover mega-hits like "Bust a Move" or "Ice, Ice Baby;" Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock frankly did it better. This is a song that had one of the earliest bleeped out curse words in MTV's history, just so Rob could say, "I like the Whopper; fuck the Big Mac." Not even Greg Nice or The Beastie Boys could make meaningless non-sequiturs so memorable.

It was such a success, Rob & Rock wasted their entire careers trying to sequelize it. Whether it was a pretty flat-out sequel like "Get On the Dance Floor," or just an attempt to recycle the rhyme pattern (on "Outstanding" - listen to the bit about how he showers with "soap on a long rope" - it's total flow xerox) or the the famous "woo! yeah!" vocal sample* (the remix of their "Joy and Pain" single). Even "I Wanna Rock" on the Rocky V soundtrack was sampling his famous line from "It Takes Two" (well, one of many) for the hook. But this is hip-hop; we don't want knock-off sequel records. We want answer records.

And for some reason, girls always seem to make the best answer records. From The Symbolic Three to Super Nature (later known as Salt N Pepa) to Dimples D to Pebblee Poo to Evette Money to Ice Cream Tee to The Real Roxanne to Rappin' Roxy to Tricky Nicky to The Ghetto Girls to The Glamour Girls to PreC.I.S.E. to the queen herself, Roxanne Shanté (just to name a few).  There's just something purely hip-hop in the way that one gender rises to challenge of the other. Whenever the guys get too big and full of themselves, the girls come out to tell the other side of the story and take 'em down a few pegs.

And entering the to square off against "It Takes Two" is Florida's Icey "J" with her debut response, "It Takes a Real Man" on JBM Records. She uses the same "woo! yeah!' break as Rob and Rock, but subtly adds some faster, hyper, Miami-style beat elements to the mix. And lyrically, she answers and parodies Rob line for line. "I wanna rock right now; I'm Rob Base and I came to get down. I'm not internationally known, but I'm known to rock the microphone," becomes, "I wanna rock right now; you're Rob Base and you tried to get down. Now you're internationally known, but you still can't rock a microphone." And she keeps it up the whole way through, it's a constant, direct line-for-line response.

I mean, damn, look at this brief comparison. There are more words that are the same between the two songs than there are that're different!

"My name is Rob;
I got a real funky concept.
Listen up,

'Cause I'm gonna keep you in step.
I got an idea
That I wanna share.

You don't like it, so what?
I don't care."


"Your name is Rob,
You got a real weak concept.
Listen up,
I'm gonna put you in check.
You had an idea

That you wanna share?
I don't like it, so what?
You better care."

That bit might sound corny, but more often than the disses are cold enough to be genuinely amusing:

"You don't like Buddha?
That's okay,
But you can't stand sex;
You must be gay!"

"You're nothin'.
Yeah, that's what I say,
Rob Base,
You and your fat DJ!"

"I heard you flirt
With DJ Red Alert;
Took off your shirt

And laid you in the dirt."

She even opposes his bold fast food declaration: "I like the Bic Mac, fuck the Whopper!" Jeez. And just to seal the deal, Icey's brought along her own DJ to nimbly out-perform EZ Rock's closing cuts. Okay, admittedly, that wasn't tough to do... is he even using the turntable, or just repeatedly pressing the sample button? But Icey's DJ actually cuts it up really nice.

This 12" includes the full version, a shorter Radio Edit and the Instrumental. Better still, it features the all-original B-side cut "Icey 'J' Is On Wax," which really showcases Icey's skills, flexing her really impressive fast rap delivery over a banging beat and more nice cuts by her DJ. It shows she wasn't just a one-trick novelty rapper with an answer record; she and her DJ were the better artists (and Icey did go on to release a couple more records under the modified moniker, Icey Jaye). That's probably the hardest diss of all, and it also serves to make this record a lot more desirable even after the novelty of the A-side has worn off. ...Not that it's worn off for me yet, after 24 years. lol

*Not that Rob and Rock were the first to use it, mind you. It's part of a classic Lyn Collins break they borrowed from Shanté and Marley Marl's "Go On Girl."

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Thor Rap

You kids are all excited about your Avengers movie this weekend, are you? Well, how about a rap song to go with it? No, this isn't from the official soundtrack - in fact, there are two: the proper soundtrack by the composer, and a collection of pop rock songs that's actually intended to succeed commercially. And neither have any rap on it. So instead I've dipped into the vaults to find a suitable hip-hop companion, and decided upon this: "God of Thunder" by Virtuoso.

Now, this isn't the first or only rap record to reference a Marvel super hero, or even an Avenger specifically. When Ghostface Killah adopted the alias Tony Starks, he even titled his debut solo album Ironman, just in case we didn't get the reference. But despite using the Ironman cartoon theme song (and getting sued for it), he doesn't ever really rap about being a superhero in a giant robot suit, a la the famous Avenger. I wanted a song that was actually about an Avenger, not just borrowing some names, or slipping a reference or two into a punchline.

And this song fits the bill. Thor, of course, is the god of thunder. But this song doesn't ask the listener connect the dots. The hook consists of the phrase "I'm the mighty Thor" taken from The Beatnuts' "Off the Books," being cut up by producer Panik of The Molemen. And Virtuoso keeps it going with his verses, explicitly rapping about himself being Thor, "Virtuoso and The Molemen, lurking in the Trojan horse bringing the force of the Norse king Odin." I mean, granted, he seems to be confusing the Trojan horse, which is from Greek mythology, with Thor and the Nordic stuff; but he clearly means to be rapping about our Thor when hr refers to himself as the son of Odin and such. He even mentions, "when I swing Mjolnir" (that's his famous hammer).

And before you say it, let me respond. You might argue that Virt's rhyming about the original character from Norse mythology and not the comic book character. But first of all, the comic book is explicitly about the Norse god, from Asgard and the ancient mythology and all the trappings that brings with it. The comic just puts him in modern times,a nd so does this song, as he brags about "shifting the sands of California." Plus, in the song, he raps about "battling prehistoric dinosaurs" and shit that never happened in the old myths, but probably happened in the comics. Hell, maybe Thor even rode around in the Trojan horse at some point in the comics - a lot of randoms hit happened in the many decades Thor has been a super hero, especially in the 60's.

Anyway, let's not get too hung up on the tenuous connection I'm drawing between this record and the Avengers movie. This is a pretty cool, vinyl-only song that I've been meaning to blog about for a while anyway.  I've always felt that Virt never recovered from the time he changed his voice and flow between his Brick Records and Omnipotent Records releases. That's not to say all his later stuff is bunk - I still check for his newer material; but compare anything from the 2000s forward to "Incinerator," "Orion's Belt," "Omnipotence," etc and there's just no comparison.  Like he was replaced by a different guy. But this single is some of the best "second era" Virtuoso, and comes closest to capturing the lightning of his early work.

And The Molemen aren't really one of my favorite production teams. Part of my issue with them is that they seem to have one production sound for whoever they're producing. In other words they make beats that fit EC, but feel flat when it's, say, Grand Daddy IU. But here they've produced a track that's not only pretty good and energetic, but that really firs with the vibe Virtuoso was going for with this more dramatic, epic subject matter. These are the last guys I would've asked to produce this song, but it turns out they had it locked.

"God of Thunder" is the third and final single off his World War One: The Voice of Reason album, following "All We Know" and "Beatdown." But, interestingly, the song itself isn't on the album. The B-side, "Smashtapiece Theater" is, however - it's also one of the strongest album cuts, despite the cringe-worthy pun. So, what we have here is the rare "A-side exclusive."

"God of Thunder" in the full set of Clean, Evil (dirty), Beats (instrumental) and Words (Acapella) versions, and "Smashtapiece Theater" comes in Clean, Beats and Words - you'll have to buy the album if you want to hear the proper, unedited version, which is a bit lame. It also comes in a pretty wicked picture cover with some amusing "crazy credits" on the back.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lean Invincible

Grand Invincible are back. And if that cover looks familiar, it should - it's the same image as their last single, "Winter 365." That was the limited single off of this, their just-released and even more limited CD EP, also titled Winter 365. "Even more limited?" Yup, the vinyl was limited to 300 copies, and this EP is limited to just 100 hand-numbered copies (mine's #19). It's not often the CD is more limited than the wax!

But the compelling aspect of this disc isn't its rarity; it's the fact that the vinyl was a 2-song single, and this is a 9-song CD. It includes both songs from the single, so 7 songs are all new. You might say 9 songs is a lot to be labeling this an EP as opposed to an album; but a lot of the songs are pretty short (five, more than half, are under two minutes long), and two of them are just instrumental. But the brevity works in its favor. It's lean, no filler - a tight, compelling listen straight through, which you'll want to start over again as soon as it ends.

A couple guests are on hand here. Besides the posse cut from the 7", there's "Gigantic," a fun duet between Luke and an MC named M.D. who seems determined to steal the spotlight with clever line after clever line. Then you've got "Eric Isley" by... Eric Isley, given a whole song to himself. I'd never heard of him before, but I felt compelled to check him out - here's his myspace - and he's pretty dope.

But the real stars are Grand Invincible themselves. Eons One's production just seems to be getting better and better with each release. And Luke Sick feels very at home over,, his style blending with Eons' production more naturally than ever. Tracks like "Undertaker of Mics" and "Detachable Hood" are at least as good as the two songs we already heard on the single.

Winter 365 comes in a stickered gatefold sleeve and includes some bonus stickers, a fold-out booklet and a "freight outline mini-zine" (uhh... just google "mini-zine"). They're only $8, including shipping, so I'd definitely move to score one while you can.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Caged Heat: Rappers In Prison

Rhyme and Punishment isn't really a good documentary film. If somebody came up to me asking for a good documentary recommendation, I wouldn't show them this. But, if a hip-hop fan specifically was looking for a quick rap doc to watch, then I might point them in this direction.

Rhyme and Punishment is about rappers who've committed crimes and been sent to jail. Strictly speaking, it may just be about rappers who've been to jail; but while many said they were unfairly prosecuted or excessively sentenced, I don't think anyone said they were strictly innocent. So it winds up being about both. So it's a series of interviews where each rapper - including some big names, so the documentary doesn't come up short in that department - tell their stories of getting locked up.

It's directed by the guy who did the Beef documentaries, and it is very similar in style and presentation to those. Except, where each story of beef usually involved a group (or at least two) artists telling their stories; most of these are solo stories, which make the proceedings less fun and engaging. The piece on Prodigy near the beginning is a little richer than the others... they interview him on more than one occasion, and also interview his wife and 40 Glocc. But most of the rest are quick, single interviews - some just recorded over the phone from the inside, which tend to wind up being the most interesting - propped up by a lot of narration (by Krs-One). A LOT of narration. One entire segment, on the Prison Industrial Complex, consists of nothing but Krs explaining the film's theories on the concept. Not that what he's saying is stupid or anything... but no interviews, no figures or research or footage or experts... the narrator just talks us through the whole chapter, like a lecture except we don't even get to see Krs talking. That's not really the way to do a riveting documentary.

And a lot of the stories are frankly pretty similar. Spoiler alert: a lot of them broke parole, possessed guns they shouldn't've had, felt the judge was unfair, liked getting letters from the outside and hated the food. By the fifth guy making the same observations, it feels a bit redundant. So what winds up happening is whatever rappers you're a bigger fan of probably wind up feeling more interesting. But one or two do wind up being more interesting on their own terms, specifically Shorty and J-Dee of Da Lench Mob, one of whom apparently had a cheerful, fun time in prison, and the other who's mad at his crew for not holding him down (you'll have to watch the doc to find out who is which). And Big Lurch and his mom steal the show simply on virtue of how insane his story is - he ate his girlfriend's lungs while wacked out on PCP. Yeah, that's the bit that sticks with you long after seeing this film.

This isn't completist; in fact, some of the most famously imprisoned MCs aren't featured (Cool C & Steady B, X-Raided, Lifer's Group, etc; and Slick Rick's just here briefly in footage from some old interview seemingly taken from another source)... I suspect the filmmaker is thinking he'll get them in R&P 2, just like with the Beef films. But unlike Beef 2, I'm not sure I'm looking forward to a sequel to this. The stories just aren't as interesting. And in the Beefs, the stories of the battles are the glorious and historic stories of hip-hop art. Here, it's the crap they get into on their off time when they're not representing hip-hop. Like some celebrity gossip junk. So... I don't know. If you're a rap fan, it's worth a quick watch. But it's not worth adding the DVD to your collection or anything.