Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ice-T Gets Wrecked

Oh, Ice-T. What to say about Ice-T? I really like his early B-boy stuff ("The Coldest Rap," "Dog'n the Wax"), and when he first developed the gangsta style it was sick. "6 N the Mornin'," "High Rollers," "Colors." But that's probably about where his career should have ended.

It didn't, though. In fact, for mainstream audiences, he was just coming onto the scene, with his big-time controversial material. And, to be fair, he still did some decent stuff in those days... I already blogged about one of my favorites from that era, and Melle Mel-did some solid song-writing for him on "The Tower." But as far as I was concerned, Ice may have been the masthead for The Rhyme Syndicate, but he was the least interesting artist on the roster. His almost spoken word style of delivery drifted further from more a traditional (and enjoyable) rap flow, and his schtick always struck me as pretty thin even before he wore it into the ground with album after album. Warner Brothers may've dropped him because of "Cop Killer," but I suspect, if that had never happened, his time would've been short there anyway.

But "Cop Killer" was a huge deal, and so Ice was immediately picked up by Priority, who ate that kinda publicity up, and Ice's career was sustained for years and years, despite never having another hit record. The biggest of those post-Warner Brothers albums was Home Invasion, because it was first - in fact, the first single ("Gotta Lotta Love") actually came out on first on Sire/Warners, and then again on Priority; that's right when the switch happened. So, when this third single dropped in 1993, the writing was already on the wall: he might push out albums for years and years to come (further aided by his later success in television and movies as an actor), but the days of him making "relevant" music was over.

But it's kind of interesting to see what he got up to when he was off the radar. Ice opted to jump into the trend of the time, and that trend was the east coast hardcore backpacker... You know, like Young MC put on the tough image for his What's the Flavor album. Okay, maybe that's a little harsh. Think more EPMD putting on their hoodies to diss crossovers or Run DMC when they hung up their iconic style to dress and act like Naughty By Nature for their practically final album (or, for that matter, The New Style dressing and acting like Naughty By Nature haha). This was that time. Black Moon and co. were jumping off, Tim Dog was getting wreck with Krs One, etc.

Now, "I Ain't New Ta This" is right off the album, and really only partially in that What's the Flavor mode. He actually manages to work the phrase "it's time to get wrecked" into two of his verses (that's not really a good thing, just to be clear), and the production is very much of that time and style, with deep but clearly strummed bass notes, and DITC-like drums (Lord Finesse was in The Rhyme Syndicate, so that kind of instrumental connection to his style makes sense). In fact, the production here is pretty tight, . It's by DJ Aladdin, who also drops in some nice but not too in your face scratching. It really sounds like a New York record, except Ice-T just isn't up to the track. I'd love to have heard Big L or Pun on this. Fortunately the 12" includes the instrumental, so if you're feeling creative, you can play with those possibilities. But on it's own terms, the beat feels like a missed opportunity, and you get the impression that some label executive accidentally released album filler as a single.

What compelled me to pick this single up, though, was the exclusive B-side: "Mixed Up" featuring SLJ of Wrecked Dialect. Now, that's a 90's sounding group name if ever I heard one. So, who are Wrecked Dialect? No clue, as they don't seem to have any records or other appearances. But I sure know who SLJ is. Heck, just look at the credits on this single and you'll get the idea - he's Ice and Aladdin's production partner, who produced the majority of this and their previous album with them. He has a few other west coast production credits from around that time, but he's much better known today as Shafiq Husayn of Sa Ra. Now, he just does R&B neo-soul funk kinda stuff, so it's not really my thing. But here he spitting like a NY hardcore backpacker, credited as a member of Wrecked Dialect. Who knows, maybe that was Sa Ra's original name before they established themselves. Or maybe Ice just made it up to give him some underground rep and compel east coaster heads to get curious and pick up the single. Hell, I fell for it.

And SLJ plays that role to the hilt. He even rhymes "mystical... spiritual... lyrical." They go back and forth trading verses with a lot of enthusiasm, but he's not all that impressive; and he winds up being outshone by Ice-T, who comes even harder on this one. So hard, in fact, it feels a little too over the top ridiculous, like he's fronting, especially since he plays it so straight and earnest:

"One, two, three,
It's time to flip with the O.G.
Gangsta, banga,
Underground slanga

Of the murderous rhymes your moms hates.
Motherfuck the KKK and Daryl Gates.
Give me the microphone now, god damn it,
So I can blow it, throw it,
Rip it, wreck it, pimp it, ho it!
I got a bullet with your name on it,
Want it?
Knock your grill out,
Fill it with gold and pawn it.
Oh my god!
This nigga's hard, call the bomb squad.
Too late, I detonate,
Obliterate three states!

I got a fucking slow leak in my damn brain
And this shit's drippin' out; I'm damn near insane.
What's up? You wanna try to focus your sights on the mic?
This nigga can flip scripts all night.
Yeah! I wrecks shit nice!
The microphone smokes like dry ice.

Bang nigga, bang nigga, I'm a known gang figure,
Catch so many bodies, need to my trunk bigger. (Ha!)"

This single actually kinda reminds of when Shaq started rapping (really, can't you just hear him kicking those rhymes above?), and was out to prove he could come as "lyrical" as any real MCs... He wasn't totally off-base, his intent was in the right place, and he got good collaborators and everything. But he just couldn't carry it off like said real MCs, and it wound up sounding just a little too corny to listen to unironically (you can almost make a drinking game out of the times Ice uses the word "wreck").

On the other hand, to its credit, it does feel like Ice is trying to lay claim to his more pure, hip-hop roots after having possibly drifted away with the pop success and heavy metal projects. The A-side in particular feels in some ways like the darker successor to the short "Fried Chicken" track from O.G. But unfortunately it's too clear that he's desperately cycling through all the tropes of what's popular at the time. It's cool if you're open-minded and interested in it as a semi-successful experiment that never quite takes off. But the instrumental's really dope (for the A-side; the B-side's alright but nothing special), so get this 12" for that if you're up to making a remix with somebody else's acapella.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Craziest Show

I'm not sure how many heads are really familiar with UTFO, beyond "Roxanne, Roxanne," these days. But certainly to anyone who was, it's pretty well known that Doctor Ice wound up leaving the group to pursue his solo career, and in 1991, for their final album, the famous four-man crew became three. But it's been well less publicized that, in 1986 for the period of their second album, the four man crew was also reduced to three when EMD, The Educated Rapper rather mysteriously went AWOL. He returned four their third album, Lethal. But for their one EP, Skeezer Pleezer, they were briefly one man short, consisting only of two MCs: Kangol Kid and Doc Ice, and their DJ Mixmaster Ice. But they still managed to produce one hit single, "Split Personality."

"Split Personality," like the rest of Skeezer Pleezer, was produced by their parent group, Full Force; and it's already a damn fun song. Kangol tells light-hearted anecdotes of being afflicted with not only split, but constantly reverting, personalities:

"Help an old lady across the street...
Then trip the crab by sticking out my feet!
But then I'd pick her up before she dirties her dress...

And charge her five dollars for all that mess!"

And Doc Ice in particular uses it as a platform to segue from one silly impression to another. He becomes Miguel, the Chief Rocker MC or his larger than life ragamuffin personality Dread Doc, which he actually maintained throughout the rest of his career.  He not only rocks crazy foreign accents, from Chinese to... Eddie Murphy, but even raps in foreign languages.

But the zany heights soar even higher on this 12" single, where it's been remixed by Howie Tee. It's about a minute longer, and most notably features the infamous organ refrain from Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," known throughout the world for being the theme of The Phantom of the Opera. Again, this dropped in 1986, and evidenced by the big programmed beats and crazy voices and free-for-all nature of the songwriting, this is clearly their entry in a long line of "The Show" knock-offs.  But the fact that they tie everything together with the concept of multiple personalities - there is a coherence to what the MCs are rapping, if not a lot of actual sense - plus some of the darker themes, lyrically and instrumentally with the Phantom theme, give this almost as much in common with songs like "Haunted House of Rock" and "Amityville (House On the Hill)." This makes it just as much of a Halloween party record as another record in "The Show" mini-genre.

So either version of the song is a good time, and most of the elements of the song are featured in both versions. But the 12" version just goes that extra but further, making it easily the definitive version.  I can still clearly remember back in the 80's when I bought Skeezer Pleezer, and being disappointed that the Phantom theme never played, "this isn't the right version!"

There's only the remix on 12". The B-side is the The Remix Dub. Fans should also know that Doctor Ice also wrote a bit of a sequel to "Split Personality," somewhat darker (but not without its own sense of silliness) for his second solo album in 1994. It's called "Possessed," and while it doesn't fully recapture the magic of this near classic, it's pretty enjoyable in its own right - especially if you're familiar enough with the history to appreciate it. But of course, nothing beats the original.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Where the Sidewalk Ends

There's been a hip-hop documentary floating around online for years now. I'm not sure I watched it all the way through, but there are pieces and snippets on Youtube and all over, and it had some nice freestyles and clips of unreleased music.  Released in 2003, the uncreatively titled Hip-Hop: A Tale From the Hood* followed indie favorite IG Off, and after his recent passing (if you haven't already, check out this piece by DJ Eclipse), I decided it was time to finally seek it out and watch it properly.

Unfortunately, that proved rather difficult. There is no DVD or official release of this film. It's actually a German film - filmmaker Harald Rumpf came to America to film this, and it aired on German TV, plus had various screenings throughout the world. And DVDs were definitely planned... Off the Block Entertainment, the indie label IG Off was associated with, still has a rough looking DVD cover on their myspace page. And I even found a photo showing the plans for the DVD's menu [right]... but no DVD ever appeared, here or in any other country.

IG Off and his partner Hazadous put a few nice tracks and a lot of freestyle appearances during the late 90's and the heyday of the DIY vinyl scene; but never really seemed to make much noise after that.  Well, this documentary details that "after that"period first-hand, capturing the creation of their labor of love, the essentially unreleased IG Off and Hazadous album, Where the Sidewalk Ends. Every element is here, from IG Off's home life and day job (working with the mentally handicapped), to late night studio sessions, radio appearances, securing guest verses (look for multiple cameos, including Killa Sha and Kool G Rap, who nearly becomes this film's Godot) and discussing the real specifics behind the budget of the album.

The filmmakers follow him and his crew for some time, as opposed to single interviews, so they capture a lot of insight and depth. Personal stories are shared, it manages to get very close. One disappointment is that, while IG occasionally speaks on the history of hip-hop, they never really talk about his own musical history, like his old school production work and writing for Antoinette. I'm sure there's a ton of great stories there, but while his mother briefly mentions that he had disappointments in the industry, that's it. I suspect the filmmakers really didn't know enough to ask, which is a bit of a sad missed opportunity.  But what they do get is certainly compelling enough and overall makes for a successful and rewarding film. It's touching. And one of those rare films that works just as well if you're a hardcore hip-hop head who knows all the players involved, or a film lover who never listens to rap.

Now, granted, the film is in German. Meaning, not just of German origin, but made in the German language. If you don't speak it, good luck understanding what the heck the narrator's talking about at any point in the film. But fortunately, 98% of this film is just off-the-cuff footage of IG and co speaking their native language in Queens. So you can just ignore the subtitles and follow the film with ease. ...Or, you could, if this film was ever actually released.

Maybe the slim silver lining to IG's tragic passing could be that renewed interest in his work leading to both a proper DVD release of this film and IG Off and Hazadous's Where the Sidewalk Ends album. Granted, some of the tracks found their way onto a compilation album called Burnin' tha Block, but I'm sure we'd all like one of those CDs (if not vinyl) of their whole album like we see in the movie. I know a lot of heads still hold down their early 12" singles and appearances on projects like the Lyricist Lounge album and Eddie Ill & DL tapes, so if the rights-holders could make it happen, I'm sure there would be fan interest to support the projects. Here's hoping.

*I believe the original title was going to be Where the Sidewalk Ends like the album, as implied by this trailer for the film on Youtube; but it was probably changed to avoid confusion with the famous Otto Preminger film.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Burger Bounce

Who knew Milwaukee had such a vibrant hip-hop scene back in the 80's, with such a deep well of smashing records to continuously draw from?  It turns out Jamille Records is the answer. They know, and they're back with another impressive repress of another funky dope group you've probably never heard of: the 20/20 Boys.

"Burger Bounce" was originally released on VU Records, the same label A-Tak debuted on. And indeed, their entire record was produced by Speech (in fact, I think he either owned or co-owned that label).  But these guys are nowhere near the Arrested Development lane; they have much more in common with groups like The Showboys or Worse 'Em. They're a four-man crew consisting of Jimmy "C," "D" Griff, Will Kill and D.J. Mad Dog, and they pack a lot of energy into pair of short songs.

Interestingly, Jamille has decided to make the original 12"s B-side their A-side.  Probably because it's the best song.  "My Position" is hard, LL-inspired, yelling over big echoey drums, rhythm scratches and catchy keyboard riffs. It's a lot of fun; one of them even starts singing "Why Have I Lost You" on the break. It has more of a low budget sound than its more professionally mastered Def Jam contemporaries, but in some ways that works in its favor, feeling even rawer and edgier. This is the kind of songs heads who spend big money on "random rap" are hoping to find.

Then we come to the eponymous dance theme, the "Burger Bounce." It's lighter, sloppily cuts up a healthy dose of "Atomic Dog" and features much more relaxed, bemused flows from the MCs explaining the graphic nature of their three-person dance. It's enjoyable, and it's easy to imagine this was the song that they would've gotten all the attention for on the local scene back in 1987.  It's still a good time if you're an aficionado of rap music's bygone eras; but "My Position" is the track that holds up (despite sounding equally, or even more, old school) and will impress heads to this day.

This is Jamille's tenth record, and the ninth in their series of colorful Milwaukee old school 7"s, making some practically impossible to find material available to own on wax. This one's pressed on white (white) vinyl and limited to 100 hand-numbered copies (mine's #36). And it doesn't intrude on the original VU 12"s collectability, since that features a third song, not included here, titled "Killer Will." Jamille is like the underdog in this limited game. Everything they put out is more than worth your time, so don't sleep. And unlike many limited labels, their releases are quite reasonably priced  If you think you don't care about Milwaukee rap, you probably just don't know what you're missing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

DWG Massive

So, yesterday, I talked about the near historic bonus record that came only with a direct purchase of all three of DWG's latest records, released concurrently. So today it's time to talk about those three projects in their own right. They're thankfully available separately, too, so we cab pick and choose.  So let's see what's good.

Since I introduced the discussion off already with the one Jorun Bombay record, I guess I'll talk about the other Jorun Bombay record here: Remixes: Vol. 1.  Where Jorun dutifully applied himself to recreating the past as accurately as humanly possible, here he's gone back to classic hip-hop songs from the late 80s and early 90s, but allowed himself creative freedom. He's remixing eight of the greatest hip-hop hits, like "Ain't No Half Steppin'" and "The Symphony," but still in keeping with the production styles of their era.  In other words, his remix for "Mama Says Knock You Out" sounds like the kind of remix that would've been produced for it in 1990, not 2012. Some of the remixes give you practically entirely new instrumentals (though they'll still keep some elements, like the "Ain't No Half Steppin'" still retains the subtle "UFO" riffs in the background of this new groove), while others, like Run DMC's "Beats To the Rhyme," become a great excuse to just add to the fun and throw new scratches and sounds into the mix without taking so much away from the original. My favorite actually turned out to be his remake of The Beastie Boys' "No Sleep 'Till Brooklyn," where he gives it a new, more traditionally hip-hop vibe, but still keeping it predominantly driven by grinding rock guitars. But different rock guitars, more mellow, grungy ones.  Really, it's fresh, and only 200 copies were made, so decide fast.

And speaking of remixes... You may remember their big TDS Mob release a couple years back. At that time, they also announced a remix competition, where producers could request the acapellas of any of the Mob's songs, either from their original singles or the unreleased tracks DWG was introducing to the world in 2010. The eight winners were chosen and given a pretty sweet vinyl release (limited to 300 copies), including a dope picture cover and press sheet with notes from each producer, giving details on how/why they did their mix.  It took ;em a long time to get this out, but in the end it was probably worth it, because it gave everyone the chance to twerk and rework their songs to fully professional-level mixes. This isn't a bunch of random myspace teens playing with Fruity Loops for the first time. You've got some pretty established artists contributing, including, yes, Jorun Bombay, and even a five piece band. My favorite is probably DJ Format's mix of "Bounce," which keeps all of the original elements, including "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll" as the main thrust of the instrumental, but continually mixes in classic break after classic break into the track.  DJ Arok's "Dope For the Folks" is really hot, too; it wouldn't have sounded at all out of place on the original 12", while Will C's rocks and takes his song in entirely new directions.  People might write this EP off as a little vanity project, but they'll regret it years later when heads are asking, "that's a hot track, but wasn't there another version...?"

Finally, we have a more traditional style DWG release, in that it's a compilation of older, unreleased tracks by a single group. It's That Brown Underground EP (though with ten tracks, it's more like an LP) by Sputnik Brown, and it's kinda like their Damu or Cadence 7"s, in that they're relatively newer songs (the songs here were recorded between 2005 and 2011), that've gotten attention online as mp3s (and, in one case, a limited edition cassette), but never had a proper vinyl release until now. SB has a cool sound going, kind of an interesting blend between NY backpacker rap and a more soulful, almost Goodie Mob kinda vibe or something. Guests include Wyld Bunch and the magnificent DJ Jazzy Jeff, who breathes fresh life into an earlier single of theirs.  This one's limited to 350 copies, 100 of which are pressed on appropriately brown vinyl, which you can see in my photo [above].

I'm not sure what's still available at this point. I'm pretty sure all three are still readily on hand as individual releases; but I don't know if it's still possible to get them as a set with the bonus record. DWG's already announced their next record, though (a 7" of DJ Format and The Good People), so they're clearly not gonna slow down and wait for anybody dragging their heels.

Monday, June 18, 2012

You've Been Waiting and Debating For Oh So Long

I just got a big, sweet package in the mail from DWG.  Three separate, completely unrelated records by different artists, all released at once.  And if you ordered all three from DWG direct, you got an awesome fourth, bonus record (not sold separately) that's possibly the most exciting of them all.  It's an instrumental release by Jorun Bombay.  You probably know him as the guy behind Haltown Projects and a lot important, early releases by some major Canadian artists like Buck 65 and Classified.

That sounds like a release that's very easy to write off, and I'm the first to say "instrumental equals 'who cares'?"  But just wait 'till you hear what this is... four words: lost Def Jam classics.

Back in the days, Def Jam released some serious, cornerstone of hip-hop records, without instrumental versions. LL Cool J's catalog specifically is missing some critical pieces.  "Rock the Bells," yeah there was a 12" - but it just had the two mixes, one on each side.  It's one of the most important hip-hop records of all time, used as heavily by DJs today as it was in 1985, and yet no instrumental has ever been released of "Rock the Bells."  Until now.

No, the original elements weren't just made available somehow.  Jorun actually went back and found all of the original samples (apparently with some assistance from Bobcat and 2 Live Crew's Mr. Mixx).  Then he hooked up two Technic 1200 turntables, an original 808 beat machine, and remade the instrumental from scratch, exactly the same way it would've been made  They're timed out so the cuts (freshly made but sounding exactly like the original record), drum rolls, etc all come in at exactly the same times as they did on the original record.  Finally, in 2012, "Rock the Bells" instrumental is available on vinyl for the very first time.  ...It's really hard to believe we've gone this long without it.

And it's not just "Rock the Bells" on here.  This is an EP of five of LL's most indisputable classics (well, okay, maybe four indisputable classics, and one good but largely forgotten album track from Bigger and Deffer).  There's no track-listing spelled out on the label, but you guys shouldn't need one.  This isn't just a really dope record, it's an important record.  Hip-hop, it's about time.  Thanks to Jorun.  And I couldn't help but notice the title is Instrumentals: Vol. 1  ...implying a Vol. 2.

Oh, and all those other records in the set?  That'll be tomorrow's post!  =)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Casanova Without The Super Lover

Back in the days, I used to go to the music stores each week and look for any new hip-hop cassingles (new tapes hit the shelves on Tuesdays). When I saw a hip-hop single but didn't recognize the artist, I'd always check out the credits to look for recognizable names. I'd still be doing that to this day, I'm sure, if music stores existed today like they did back then. It's what lead me to pick up these seemingly random cassette singles by artists who never released anything else... T-Roc and Pop Megga.

Both these tapes debuted the same week in 1996 on Profile Records. Again, I had no idea who either artists was (although I knew Miss Jones, who guest stars on the T-Roc single, because she was just blowing up as a solo R&B singer after leaving The New Get Fresh Crew). But I immediately recognized one of the names who appeared on the back credits of both singles, so out of curiosity, I had to pick 'em both up.

That name, of course, was Casanova Rud, famous for making some super dope records with Super Lover Cee in the late 80's. The pair of them had last appeared on the scene with a comeback EP on Wild Pitch in 1993; but here he was, three years later.  I'm guessing he scored some kind of producer deal with Profile and these were the artists he brought to the label; or maybe he was just brought on as an in-house producer, and the label found these guys. Either way, he was paired up with somebody named Spunk Khadafi, and together they produced these two singles, and apparently nothing else ever again.Neither single mentions a "forthcoming album" either, which is unusual.  ...So let's see what my haul yielded.

Pop Megga's A-side is "Ghetto News." Despite it's decidedly topical sounding title, it's all freestyle raps. He even assures us at the opening of the song that it's all off the top of the dome. And I believe him, because it's very free-form and natural sounding. To the point where it's not even terribly impressive. But the beat here is pretty cool. It's dark, with deep bass notes and a sparse piano loop with random-sounding notes (which was in vogue at the time, following hits like Jeru's "D Original").

Then he stops and the beat is completely replaced with an all new one. Suddenly it's a full, polished song. It's got a very Duck Down-type bass rhythm (actually, the exact bassline's been notably used before - I wanna say Mobb Deep? - but I can't think of which song it's from at the moment*), but the rest of the music's a little lighter.  I'm really impressed with the production here, in fact.  And this is the one with the message, with pop telling us the kind of ghetto news we can probably already imagine just from seeing the title: crooked cops, hookers, drug dealers... Not bad, but you've heard it before and better.

His B-side is "Raw." Just from the title, you know what this is about. Megga sounds good here, though his lyrics aren't anything special. The instrumental is a little more disparate, but Megga's flow holds it together. He's got a good voice, too.  All in all, it's a nice single, but Pop Megga doesn't come off as a particularly compelling artist.  I'd've checked for a follow-up, though.

Next up is T-Roc. His A-side, "Citi Never Sleeps," almost feels like a Miss Jones song featuring T-Roc than the other way around. The music is very up and R&Bish, and Jones is all over this, stealing all the attention. Like Pop Megga, he has a nice (though higher) voice and engaging flow, but the lyrics are pretty simple and unimpressive. This is a pretty soft, radio-pandering joint. So maybe the B-side will be more compelling for us heads...

Well, "Mirages" is definitely more hip-hop and raw. Again, the beat is pretty nice and original, flipping samples and sounds I've never heard elsewhere. And despite the title, he's just spitting raw and angry. It's pretty nice; but neither MC here comes off as a noteworthy lyricist. And considering this was the time of Natural Elements, Wake Up Show freestyles, Chino XL and everyone's attention being devoted to the cleverness of the rhymes, these guys were destined to get lost in the wash.

That's kind of a shame, because these guys were sort of generic, but they also both proved they were capable of making worthwhile records. I'm glad to have both of these in my collection, and I recommend 'em if you see them around cheap. But the production is what really shines across all four very different songs, and the real shame is that Casanova Rud didn't get more momentum out of this. A compilation album of tracks like this would've been hot, or if he'd just gone on to produce for more artists. I'm sure he could've racked up a couple hit singles over time. But as it stands, it's an interesting little footnote in his career, that at least showed he had more in him than just his Paul C-assisted classics.

*Update 6/15/12: Yes, it was Mobb Deep (see the comments - thanks, step one).  Specifically, "Back At You" from the Sunset Park soundtrack, which also dropped in 1996.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

UK Hip-Hop for Adults

Previously, I've made a couple of posts about the early 90's UK hip-hop duo Solid 'N' Mind releasing top quality vinyl 12"s of their vaulted material from back in the day. Well SnM's MC, Whirlwind D, is back... this time with new material. But the quality's just as high.

The release is titled WD-40, as it embraces Whirlwind's new role as a representative of grown man rap. In other words, Whirlwind D is turning 40, and it's time to celebrate with a limited release of 300 slabs of wax in a smart picture cover.  WD-40 is a three song 12", plus instrumentals, so let's jump right in.

Regardless of which side you decide to start on, the first thing you'll notice is that the production is really vibrant. Solid 'N' Mind's Johnny F may not be along for this ride, but the relatively inexperienced Waxer (who, appropriately enough, is also turning 40) proves himself more than ready to take the wheel.  Music starts out sounding like a Phillip Glass film score, then explodes as crisp old school break drums drop like dynamite. Instrumental samples are rich and original, sometimes jazzy and sometimes cinematic; and they combine forces with instantly recognizable vocal samples for the choruses (from the opening to "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On the Wheels of Steel" to Ferris Bueller), giving us an an epic sense of the old school returning without simply retreading old ground. It's the old school back on new terms.

"32 and Tea" is a nice, concise moment of reflection over some rich piano. But just in case that's too mature for you, "Stronger" takes it back to the rough, fast-paced battle delivery. Lyrically, however, it's an ode to UK hip-hop, including short (non-rhyming) appearances by MC Duke, Original One and Bandog of Killa Instinct. And "Hunter" has a nice PM Dawn vibe going for it.  That might not be a comparison anybody involved would embrace [there's an ocean between us, though, so I can say what I want  haha], but I'm talking about that all too brief period before Prince Be and Minute started lean towards house and pop music (much less that sappy, new age-y R&B stuff further down the road), and they were actually producing some nice, innovative hip-hop that made you chill and think.

Oh, and on "Stronger," they've enlisted a DJ named Theory 77 to provide the needle work. His work is really sharp and  precise; I could've done with a scratch mix, with just him cutting up over the beat. And I want to hear this guy on a lot more records in future.

If you're into UK hip-hop, this has gotta be one of the best new releases in a while. It's a limited, and the pre-orders have shipped, but you can still order copies (and listen to clips) from D's bandcamp page for a reasonable 6.99.  ...That's pounds, though, not dollars.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Mysterious Rock On Crew Exposed

This post is unusually long, but I promise you it's worth it.  :)

In the early 90's, a lot of labels wanted a piece of The 2 Live Crew. They had mega-hit records like "Me So Horny" and "Banned In the USA," genre defining dance classics like "Trow the D" and "Move Somethin'," and they were possibly the most controversial rap acts of all controversial rap acts - their music was declared so obscene they were arrested for it, records were seized, and it went all the way up to the Supreme Court. Where they won.

And, at the same time, Luke's penchant for failing to pay his artists meant the group was fraying. Mr. Mixx put out solo albums, Brother Marquis formed a new group called II Nazty, and Luke formed a whole New 2 Live Crew. So, not only did every record label want a piece of the 2 Live Crew, but there were enough pieces to go around.

One such label to get lucky was the great, left coast monopoly, Macola Records. Pretty much every rap group to come out of the west in those days, from NWA to Digital Underground, put out records through Macola. And that included The 2 Live Crew... before they moved down South to Miami. Back before Brother Marquis joined and they hooked up with Luke, Mr. Mixx and Fresh Kid Ice put out two singles, for a total of three songs - "The Revelation," "2 Live" and "What I Like" - with another founding member, Amazing V.  All the hits The 2 Live Crew recorded with Luke were locked up with Luke Records, but Macola could capitalize on these early tracks and release them in the 90's to their hordes of new fans.  Perfect, except... three songs wasn't enough to fill up an album, even when they tacked on original 12" instrumentals.

And so The Rock On Crew was formed. Macola apparently enlisted the disenfranchised original 2 Live Crew members Fresh Kid Ice and Mr. Mixx to record new music under a non-contract-violating name. Thus the very unusual 2 Live Crew/ Rock On Crew featuring Fresh Kid Ice split album, Deal With This, was conceived. And just who is that on the cover? There's no way that's Ice and Mixx. They're just some mystery dudes. But that's not the half. This album would go on to have a long and fanciful journey, which only starts here, on Macola Records, in 1992.

Now, if you're familiar with the original 2 Live Crew stuff, you know it's nothing like you'd expect from the famous 2 Live Crew. It's not hyper, it's not dirty - it's the antithesis of As Nasty As They Wanna Be. "Revelations" is a slow, plodding message rap with Ice and Vee talking poverty and the bible over early electro rap beats (the cow bell and the whole bit):

"You see, the road to vanity
Is filled with flowers,
You'd better be careful
Of its hypnotic powers.
While the road to truth
Is long and full of distress;
But if you make it through,
You're truly the best!"

Granted, the other songs are a little closer to what you'd expect... both "2 Live" and "What I Like" are more upbeat, with Fresh Kid Ice kicking fast-ish raps over big TR-808 drums and a ton of cuts by Mr. Mixx. They're still far from what you'd expect as a kid raised on "We Want Some Pussy" and "Fuck Shop," but they effectively bridge the gap between "Revelations" and "Trow the D."

And the new music recorded by "The Rock On Crew?" Well, on first crack, it definitely sounds designed to be a throwback to that earliest material. It starts out with "Serious Conversation," which might as well be called "Revelations Part 2." It uses a lot of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" (used a lot in hip-hop, but most notably by Scarface for his single, "A Minute To Pray and a Second To Die"), and features the album's only guests, The New Born Clan. Whoever that is - it sounds like one of the members says his name is "Dice Spliff?' Anyway, they're pretty good... they have a much more natural flow than the original 2 Live Crew which is good because... they don't seem to be on this song at all. The liner notes may say, "Performed - Rock On Crew Featuring - New Born Clan," but this seems to be The New Born Clan all on their own.

Then "What I Like" is properly attributed to the 2 Live Crew, but for reasons unknown they re-title it as "Fresh Kid Ice Is Back." Later on the album, they still call the instrumental "What I Like (Inst.)," so really, who knows?

The third song is "Tab Ski Cuttin' Up." Now, who the heck is Tab Ski? I thought Mr. Mixx was the DJ for both groups? Well, the liner notes say it's performed by the Rock On Crew, produced by Mixx and Ice and written by Ice. But now they've just gotta be straight up lying to us. Because this song is actually "Tad-Ski [note the spelling] Cuttin' It Up" from Balli and the Fat Daddy's 1990 album, The Master Plan on Miami Bass Records. That's right, Tad Ski was their DJ and this was his song on their album... Mixx and Ice didn't perform this as Rock On Crew or any other name; this is crazy! Interestingly, Fat Daddy was very associated with Fresh Kid Ice around this time, producing and rapping many songs on his 1992 album for Luke, The Chinaman, and is even credited as a featured guest on "2 Live Freestyle" by The New 2 Live Crew (though, for a final irony, he doesn't seem to actually appear on that song at all).  Confused yet?  Let's press on.

Next up is "Revelations" and then another Rock On Crew song called "Dead Ass Broke."  Wait a minute... That's a Balli and the Fat Daddy song, too! And let's just jump ahead... another Rock On Crew song called "Jack Boy Story?" Yup, another one from their Master Plan LP.

What's left? Well, there's a 2 Live Crew song called "It's Gotta Be Fresh." Never heard of it? That's because it's another random re-titling, this time of "2 Live." And there's a final Rock On cut called "Freestyle," No, there's no song called "Freestyle" from Balli and the Fat Daddy's album. ...But there is one called "Miami Bass," [Whoops! A little correction here; for an explanation, read the comments below] a song called "Before the Tape Is Over" on MC Smart (another of Fresh Kid Ice's artists signed to Miami Bass Records)'s album, Straight From the South, which just so happens to feature Balli and Fat Daddy... and that's what this is. All three MCs say their names an amazing number of times in this song (it's literally over 20), so it's a terrible choice to try to pass off as another group. What's more, they end the song by saying "Balli and Fat Daddy recording for Miami Bass Records." On this album, they reverse that line so you can't hear them name the label!

So where did we even get the idea that this Rock On Crew was Mixx and Ice? Let me show you the big notice they publish (in large text taking up the whole page; this is no obscure "small print") inside the tape sleeve: "This is a new release featuring Chris (The Chinaman) Wong Won AKA 'Fresh Kid Ice' and David (Mr. Mixx) Hobbs. They were the original "2 Live Crew", Fresh Kid Ice (Chris Wong Won) is still an integral part of 2 Live Crew, and both these artists are performing on this album as 'Rock On Crew' by special arrangement with Luke Records. This album contains 5 newly recorded songs (recorded in Miami) and 5 previously recorded songs (recorded in Los Angeles)" [.sic on all that funky punctuation]. What an incredible web of lies - practically none of that is true! Amazing.

Oh, but we're not done. That was just the first incarnation of this ridiculous album. Now let's jump ahead to 1995, when Blue Dolphin Entertainment and Hitman Music collaborated to bring us a self-titled album by The Original 2 Live Crew. Here's what their liner notes have to claim, "WHAT YOU'RE HOLDING IN YOUR HANDS IS A COLLECTORS ITEM! Carefully compiled for the first time ever on CD [yes, it says that on the liner notes for a cassette], 'The Original 2 Live Crew' contains fourteen rare recordings from that notoriously controversial rap group."

Wow. Neat. Let's look at some featured songs... "Jack Boy Story," "Dead Ass Broke," "Freestyle"... Excuse me, I lost consciousness for a second there. Yes, this album has picked up all the "Rock On Crew" songs (and the New Born Clan song) and now accredited them to The Original 2 Live Crew.  It's the entire Deal With This album all over again. My favorite part is when the liner notes explain, "contained within this collection are distinctly different styles of songs that bridge the gap of the group's early days to from a decade ago." Yeah, the new songs sure sound different than the old ones, don't they? Almost like they were written, produced and performed by entirely different people!

What separates this version is the bit about "fourteen rare recordings." Deal With This had ten, so what's new here? There's "Cuttin' it Up," "2 Live Nasty Mixx," "Nasty Mix" and "From the Vaultz Megga Mixx)." Plus there's a fifteenth track, "Intro." Interestingly, the credits for these songs include not just Mr. Mixx, but distinguished west coast producers DJ Unknown, Tony G, Julio G and DJ Flash. DJ Flash even raps on the intro - whoah! Granted, "Nasty Mix" and "2 Live Nasty Mixx" are essentially two different edits of the same track, but I'm still impressed. How did these guys all get tangled up in this mess?

"The Original 2 Live Crew," you might say if you're a fully blown rap nerd like me, "that name sounds familiar. Wasn't there a previous album credited to an Original 2 Live Crew?" Why yes, in 1994, 2 Live Bass by The Original 2 Live Crew came out on Boomin' Records (home of DJ Whiteboy and Sheep Doggy Dogg). This is... another weird album. I can't wait to read you what these liner notes have to say!

"Motherphuckers talk that shit about Luke and The 2 Live Crew, but if it wasn't for those 4 Niggers... Bass Music wouldn't be shit right now. 'Tryin' To Get Paid Like Luke' is a bad ass track that is showing that a Nigger from the Ghetto 'will get paid'. The original 2 Live Crew was some bad motherfuckers and that shit was dope. Then Luke came along and took that shit to another level: Special thanks to Luke, Brother Marquis, Fresh Kid Ice and Mr. Mixx!" No, that's not a Youtube comment; that's what's written in the J-card.

The tape starts out with an original remix of "2 Live" called the LSD Remix, where they basically just loop a very short, repetitive keyboard riff over the entire original song. It's kind of an awful, half-assed attempt to give it a g-funk flavor. They also include the original "2 Live," "Revelation" and "What I Like."

Then there's two original instrumental mixes by DJ LSD, which are admittedly a lot better than his "2 Live" remix. They're very derivative of the "Mega Mixxes" Mr. Mixx did on 2 Live Crew's Luke albums, only simpler and not nearly as good; but hey, at least they're listenable. And there's a new vocal track called "Jackin' 4 Bass," which is actually the best song on here despite it having absolutely no connection to any formation of the 2 Live Crew. But you want to hear about that last song, though, don't you? "Tryin' To Get Paid Like Luke" is also produced by DJ LSD, and features lead vocals by World Famous DJ Spankx. In it, he mostly just raps about having a lot of money and wanting more of it, with very little reference to our man Luke except for dropping his name on the chorus. The beat uses a lot of "Triggerman" with some other stuff scratched on top. It's actually kinda enjoyable in a shady, low-fi kinda way.

And, just in case this whole story wasn't convoluted, crooked and insane enough for you, the Deal With This album was released one more time, in 1998. Street Dance, a label that specializes in these kind of dodgy "before they were famous" rap compilations (they have about fifty by Dr. Dre) put this out as a Fresh Kid Ice solo album. They call it Fresh Kid Ice Is Back, after Macola's curious re-titling of "What I Like." And they do also name the 2 Live and Rock On Crews on the cover, just to perpetuate the confusion, I guess (the lies have been cited verbatim on every site from AllMusic to Wikipedia). The track-listing is 100% exactly the same as Deal With This, right down to the "Tab Ski" title.

Blue Dolphin released their version again in 2000, as one third of a 3 CD set called Legends of Hip-Hop, again crediting all those Balli and Fat Daddy (and New Born Clan) songs to the 2 Live Crew, and there are a bunch of overseas albums by labels like Dance Factory and Street Dance that feature some or all of these songs credited to 2 Live Crew, with nutty titles like Dr. Dre Presents Mega Big Gangsta Rap.  Balli and Fat Daddy, I hope you got paid for all these albums... but somehow I suspect you didn't.

Update 12/4/12: Found out The New Born Clan is a misspelling of The Nu Born Clan, a short-lived Miami group that was a part of - unsurprisingly - Fresh Kid Ice's Ice Cold Productions. They had one single called "The I.C.U."