Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Celebrating Finsta's 20th On Wax!

In 1992, Finsta released his debut single, "Finsta Baby" on a little label called Cracd Records. Most of Finsta's singles are pretty rare, and all of them are highly respected and sought after by heads in the know. And this debut is perhaps the most of all of them. You can expect to pay a couple hundred for a copy nowadays. But it's become available again now, for the 20th anniversary of his vinyl debut, on the new label, Sergent Records.

The original 12" featured three versions of "Finsta Baby"  - Dirty, Clean and Instrumental, plus a B-side track called "Payday Is Bliss." Perfect, but who cares about the Clean version, right? Sergent knows we don't, so they replaced it... with a previously unreleased vintage Finsta track from the 90's: "Activate." We heard a good, tantalizing chunk of it on Finsta's Never Say Never mixtape from back in the late 90's, but now we're hearing it complete and unmixed for the first time, on this vinyl debut. This is gonna excite a lot of people.

What's that? You say you're not necessarily completely entirely familiar with Finsta's music history? Oh dear, what are we going to do with you? Quick, read the rest of this post before anybody cool hears you don't know who Finsta is!

Finsta is a Brooklyn MC, down with those Black Moon cats before they blew up.  He came out with his earliest material produced by Evil Dee and da Beatminerz, and then hooked up with his rhyming partner Bundy,. Finsta became his own producer, making tracks that can stand 100% alongside the best of Da Beatminerz, and released a series of 12" singles throughout the 90's, right in the heyday of the indie vinyl days, but always just slightly off the radar.  I don't think think anyone could say Black Moon was ever pop, but compared to Finsta, they were the mainstream to his underground realness. "Feel the High," "Who I Be," "Sunnyside," "Don't Stress Tomorrow"... If you see a Finsta Bundy record, pick it up; you will never go wrong.

So yeah, this is all pre-Bundy material, and produced by Evil Dee, not Finsta himself (including the unreleased "Activate."). Just real nice, underground flow, with a hyper, fast rap steez on "Payday Is Bliss." A terrific single that belongs in the crates of anyone who can get their hands on a copy, made all the better with the inclusion of the very worthy "Activate."

So, about the release. It comes in a fresh sticker cover, and is limited to 150 copies, never to be repressed. Unfortunately, it's also priced like one of those limiteds, which is to say many times higher the price of a standard, new 12" single. And the sound quality? Yeah, I can't close the books without touching on that.

Unfortunately, I don't have an OG copy of  "Finsta Baby" on Cracd to do a proper side-by-side comparison (have I mentioned how rare and expensive those can be? I'm lucky to have the Finsta Bundy 12"s I do have). So just based on hearing this 20th anniversary 12" alone, I'll say it ain't bad. I've heard that the original sounds better, but this sounds alright. The two B-side tracks fare a little worse than the A, it sounds like the levels are breaking over their peak or... some kinda distortion seems to have sneaked its way into the final mix.  It's... okay; you can certainly still listen to it and enjoy it (and obviously "Activate" here is a leap year ahead of its prior mixtape incarnation), but it's not really up to the exceptional, top quality, first class all-around level you expect when you pay the big money for these special, limited releases.

So, at the end of the day, I still recommend this one for sure. Music-wise, it's A+ all the way. And presentation-wise? Okay, the sound quality pulls the GPA down a bit; but the quality isn't so problematic that you should miss out. I'm still happy to have mine, and if this were a budget 12" sitting on a record store shelf somewhere, everyone would scoop this up and dance away in joy; but at the price it's selling for, I'm seeing some grumbling online and it's not entirely unwarranted. It's not stellar, but it's still dope.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

How Lord Finesse Pissed Me Off

[Disclaimer, right up front: this has nothing to do with Mac Miller. Not that I'm no longer interested in that case, but you know the court systems... it'll probably be ages before we hear any updates, and even then, there's a very good chance they might just quietly settle.]

So, I've had Lord Finesse & DJ Mike Smooth's album on cassette since it dropped; but growing up, I didn't really have access to vinyl, so I never got his 12" singles. It wasn't until like a decade later that I was looking online to see what there was, and I saw this - his second single from his debut album. The first single was just two album tracks with instrumentals, but look at this one - it's got a Premiere Remix of "Strictly for the Ladies," and a Vocal Remix of "Back To Back Rhyming" with AG! Awesome - ordered that shit (which, as you can maybe tell from my scan, was a repress) soon as I saw it.

I get the record in the mail, lay it on the tables, and... it's the same beat.  And the same scratches on the hook. And all the way through it's the same shit as on the album. I mean, not that the album version is shit; it's a fantastic track, produced by... Premier. Right. Still, though, he must've done something different for this 12", right? I mean, you see it right there in the pic I've uploaded, don't you? I'm not crazy. It says "Radio Remix," and in tinier letters, "remixed by DJ Premier."

Well, maybe it's just slightly mislabeled, and the next Full Version is really the remix. No, well, maybe it's majorly mislabeled, and the Full Version is actually the remix? Okay, maybe the label is totally fucked and the Instrumental...? Nope. But now I get it. The first version is just your standard, shorter radio edit of the album version, it's called "Radio Remix" as opposed to "Radio Version" or "Radio Edit" because... Wild Pitch enjoys playing cruel mind games on the fans, presumably.

Oh well, disappointing, but we still have our exciting Vocal Remix of "Back To Back Rhyming." No "Radio" nonsense on that side of the label.  It's probably gonna be the same beat, but all new lyrics. I wonder if both of them will have new rhymes, or just one of... what... the... Hell? It's the exact same thing as the album! Same beat and both verses are the same, with the same hook, same everything. And yeah, the Instrumental's just the instrumental. It took me ages to figure out what technically's different.  The 12" version is a a few seconds longer. At the end, when Finesse says "see ya," the beat loops a couple more times on the 12". That's it. I don't even prefer it to the LP mix, because I think it sounds better when it ends when he says "see ya." The album version could even end 3-4 seconds earlier, in my opinion.

So, yeah, it's still a fine 12". It's got two great album tracks, plus instrumentals... kinda like the first single.  It's just... just not the super kick-ass 12" the label would have us believe. Oh well.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Keepin' Up the Funky Beat is the Holland Crew

Hey, you guys remember Bivak Records? I did a video about them a year and a half ago, they were the guys that put out that nice unreleased Chain 3 and Great Peso 12" from '84, and then they had that mixCD I talked about. Well, they're back in 2012, unfortunately not with killer unreleased old school on wax, but with a second mixCD, which is still good.  I mean, honestly, mix tapes/CDs don't generally get me too terribly enthused. Even when the DJ's really talented (which, sadly, most aren't), I'd just generally rather hear the original records being spun.

But this mixCD I'm actually really enthused about and am recommending. It probably helps substantially that I don't own a single one of the records involved, and also just because it's coming from a really compelling angle. Bivak refers to it as "a non-commercial slice of pure edutainment.," and it's essentially a chronological history of Holland hip-hop from 1983-1992. Now, my knowledge of Holland hip-hop basically extends from MC Miker G to DJ Sven...  meaning, just those guys (actually, Urban Dance Squad, too; but I forgot they were from Holland until I saw them on this). But it's a scene I was already curious about... I subscribed to their blog, dutcholdschoolhiphop.blogspot.nl, ages ago, but you only get so much out of it when you don't know any of the players involved. So, this was perfect for me, as it's a as thorough as you can possibly get on a single disc (since it's a mix, they can cover a lot more records than a straight compilation). And even if you're thinking, "you know, I'm not sure I actually give a flying fuck about the Holland hip-hop scene, Werner, to be honest," I'm telling you, stick with me on this.

First of all, starting all the way back in 1983 means they've got a pretty extensive, classically old school period. If you've ever started to feel like you've heard all the best old school rap records out there, this is like a fresh start. Hip-hop records from all the great stages in old school hip-hop, disco style, electro, hardcore drum programs to the early sampling... and you've never heard any of it before! And, granted, there's not really any Melle Mels or Rakims about; but there is some really good stuff here.

I think the earlier stuff is the most exciting. It's really fun, and even the flaws or weaker MCing work in that "charming super old school" way, where any silliness on-hand just makes it all the more endearing. One song, "Papa Joe," is bordering on flat-out novelty rap (it's about a man with an unhealthy obsession for Italian food), but damned if it isn't catchy and entertaining as Hell. And as the mix progresses, you hear the music slowly evolve, and get more serious. There's some solid production and DJs with some serious turntable skills.

There's a big variety on here, from rap/hair band hybrids to a freestyle session where some guys are really, shamelessly imitating Run DMC, but the mix manages to make it all sound very cohesive and natural. And I should point out (as this was a concern of mine when I first heard about this disc), that it's pretty much all in English.  Out of thirty-something songs, only one is in Dutch, and some of the interludes (which are basically all interview clips from the period). It's a little disappointing we can't understand those skits - this CD would be even better without the language barrier, I think we'd get even more out of it; but seriously, 97-98% of this is in English, so nobody who can read this should feel too left out.

Like their last disc, this is credited to Chris the Wiz and another DJ (DJ Foxx); so I"m assuming it's situation as the last one, where the DJ is mixing records from Chris's collection.  Also like their last disc, it's limited (which seems a little off, considering the nature of this project... it's educational, no one interested should miss out) to 100 copies, so don't hold off if you think this might be up your alley. Really, it's better than just about any other album coming out in hip-hop right now, mixed or not. And definitely keep an eye on Bivak... hopefully they have another vinyl treat in store for us next.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Ultramagnetics' Greatest Hits - Ruined!

By 1997, Next Plateau had issued and reissued Critical Beatdown many times. And they did so with good reason - it's a terrific and important hip-hop album that's really held up over the decades.  But, still, how many times can you keep repackaging and reselling the same product to the same audience? Sometimes you've gotta do something different. And Tuff City was making a lot of noise with their multiple compilations of unreleased Ultramagnetic MCs material around that time. Dr. Octagon was beginning  to cross over to mainstream, non-hip-hop audiences... the time was right to cash in. But, unfortunately for the label, Ultra only ever released one album on their label.  So Next Plateau came up with The B-Sides Companion.

From the title, this doesn't seem like a bad idea at all. Ultra may've only recorded the one full-length for Next Plateau, but they released a slew of classic singles for them, almost all of which include remixes and exclusive B-sides as good or better than anything on the album. Compiling them all onto one album that all the new, younger Ultra fans who couldn't get their hands on all the original 12" singles could get and appreciate sounds like a safe and solid idea.  How could you mess that up?

Well, I guess the label decided the new fans weren't a big enough market, so they had to reach the die hard fans, too. But if the die-hard fans have all those B-sides already, what could Next Plateau do?  They made new, 1997 remixes of every single one of them. Unfortunately, remixing a classic ten years later is generally like painting a new expression on the Mona Lisa. Even if you're talented, you're fucking around with something that's pretty much perfect and spoiling it.

So, now we have what is probably the worst Ultramagnetics album short of Best Kept Secret. Ced Gee and William "Spaceman" Patterson (a studio musician who's played guitar on gajillions of hip-hop tracks over the years) take all of Ultramagnetics' rare 12" B-sides (well, mostly just the ones that came out on Next Plateau, of course) and make new, modern versions. "Break North" (not a B-side, by the way, but I guess we'll let that go) becomes "Break North '97 (Rmx)," etc.

Now, to be fair, they don't completely make all these great songs terrible.  Let's take "Break North." It's still basically the same rhymes over the same beat with the same samples. They just add some extra instrumentation noodling around on top of it.  And they replay some samples, so they're essentially the same, but just a bit off (the horns on "Watch Me Now ('97 Rmx)" are downright funny if you've heard the original). It doesn't fit, and it makes it worse than the original one; but for the most part you're still able to listen to and enjoy "Break North." Imagine you're listening to a fantastic album, and then your kid sister comes into the room and starts talking to her Barbies on the floor behind you.  You can still listen to the album, appreciate it, and enjoy it. It would just be nicer if she shut the Hell up. That's pretty much the experience you paid for if you bought this album.

But wait, there's more.  Next Plateau must've figured kids wouldn't be too thrilled with just a collection of old songs, remixed or not. So there's a new song: "Ultra Reunion" (spoiler: only Keith and Ced showed up) and a brief clip of Keith rapping live at Tramp's. It's nothing special... pretty bland, in fact.

But there are two songs on this album that are actually quite exciting. "Kool Keith Android Model #406" ("yo, man, I want you to bust this beat out like a rappin' android, you know what I'm saying?") and "I'm On" sound like genuinely vintage, never-before released song from the late 80's. They're dope, and they don't even have the cheesy, replayed production sound of the remixes here - I don't think Ced and the Spaceman fucked with 'em. They're really great Ultra tracks!

For the most part, this project is a waste. It feels like, as Ultra fans in the 90s, we were almost tricked into buying this. An actual compilation of the original B-sides would've been redundant for the hardcore fans, but a lot more desirable than the collection of inferior remixes we have here. The time Ced and Patterson spent remixing all this stuff would've been better spent reading magazines; and the "Reunion" is just a half-assed cash grab.  But in the end, two un-highlighted songs tucked away on the B-side manage to turn this lifeless dud into a must-have gem. It's too bad they didn't make a 12" single for just those two tracks, but hey, whatever. We susceptible fans may've gotten snookered by Next Plateau, but we got something great out of it in the end.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


So blogging about Ice-T the other week has got me revisiting all his old albums. Lots of fresh production on Rhyme Pays, and Power still has me wanting to skip right to "High Rollers." But what about the stuff even further back than that? Before he was a gangsta rapper on Warner Bros/Sire Records?  Well, fortunately, I have a compilation of a bunch of that stuff I could rock in the car, and... it's more interesting than I remember it.

The compilation I'm talking about is called The Classic Collection, released on Rhino and Excello Records in 1993. It's pretty cool. It compiles the early singles Ice-T released on Saturn, Electrobeat and Techno Hop Records before he signed with Warner Bros and became the icon he is today.  These records are a lot of fun, because he's on some really old school breakin' stuff, which at first seems pretty far removed from his more famous Iceberg Slim-inspired styles (though, listening to all his early material, you can hear him bridge that gap pretty naturally). This is the Ice-T who dressed in crazy outfits, rapped about graffiti and performed elaborate break dance routines in early hip-hop movies. It's really good times, and would probably surprise the heck out of people who only know him for songs like "Colors." "Body Rock," in fact, is probably my favorite Ice-T song ever.

But for some reason - maybe rights issues, or maybe Rhino just wasn't up on Ice's history well enough to know about them - they leave out all the stuff Ice did as a member of The Radio Crew and the records where his producer, Chris "The Glove" Taylor got top billing. So, it's not a terribly complete collection. In fact, it winds up being pretty short.

So, what is Rhino to do? Fill! Now, they don't go quite as far as Macola Records and steal an entire other group's songs and pass it off as the main artist; but they still manage to come up with some pretty quirky padding. First off they include some extra 12" stuff, which is what you'd expect a compilation to do when it's short on material (or, like Traffic, just looking to be as completist as possible)... So, not only is his 1983 track "The Coldest Rap" on here, but so is "Cold Wind Madness (The Coldest Rap Pt 2)," even though "Pt 2" is really just the dub mix of the original, and not a new song with new lyrics, etc. We get "Dog'n the Wax (Ya Don't Quit Pt 2)" which actually is a proper, new song that follows "Ya Don't Quit" (also present), but then we get "Iceapella" as well, which is just the acapella mix of "Dog'n the Wax" from the original vinyl (even though the rather extensive liner notes write about it as if it's a proper song on its own).

But there's nothing unusual or unwelcome about that.  I mean, I'd rather have the Radio Crew songs than dub and acapella mixes; but still, you expect that stuff.  Now, here's what you don't expect.

The album starts off with "Ice-A-Mix." This is an original mix recorded for this compilation, produced by Al Eaton (who's produced a bunch of west coast stuff), with cuts by DJ Rob-Scene (whoever that is). They basically make a little mega-mix of the Ice-T records you're going to hear later on this compilation, something Rhino Records did a lot of on compilations they put out in the 90's. Did I say Al Eaton produced it? Well, that's what the liner notes say. But, interestingly, this mix was actually released as a 12" single (okay...), and there the credit is given to DJ Flash. This makes more sense, because he did a bunch of this stuff for these compilations around this time (including those Rock On Crew ones). It's not bad, but not too exciting, as it mostly just features beats and verses we're about to hear in a few seconds anyway. The most noteworthy thing about it is the very dramatic trumpet solo that jumps in about midway through by a guy named Tim Larkin. I can't exactly say it blends in seamlessly - it sticks out like a sore thumb against these simple, old school programmed drum patterns; but it's not bad. Just odd.

But that's not as weird as what we get on the B-side, "Ice-O-Tek." This one's an original dance track that throws in a couple of random Ice-T vocal snippets "my name is Ice-T" and sporadically drops them over a very unrelated, poppy techno track. Seriously, even Technotronic would be like, "this isn't street enough to be on our album." It's not bad, though, in a very upbeat, bubbly sort of way; but man has it ended up on the wrong side of the streets amid Ice-T tracks like "Killers" and "6 In the Mornin'."

What? "6 In the Mornin'" is on here? Yup. Even though it's on Rhyme Pays on Warner Bros, it's here, too. That actually fits, because before it appeared on Rhyme Pays, it was released as the B-side to "Dog'n the Wax" on Techno Hop. And it's one of his greatest hits, so I'm not complaining that it's here, although it's a little redundant having it on both albums. I'm just surprised they could put it on here, since it's now the property of Warner Bros.

Plus, redundant or not, like I said, Rhino needed to pad. Honestly, if you took all the random shit like that and "Ice-O-Tek" off of here, you'd have a one-sided tape. It's that short - five songs. The fact of the matter is that, if you don't include the stuff Ice did with Chris Taylor/ Radio Crew, Ice just didn't release enough unsigned material to fill an album. In fact, if not a one-sided tape, I wish they would've at least put those five songs all on one side, and the odds and ends on the flip. That way you could listen to all that stuff through in a quick listen like an EP (and visit the other stuff on those rare days you're feeling adventurous). But instead, they mix it all together, so you're constantly having to fast-forward or skip ahead on your CD player. But still, unless you're going to collect all the original 12"s, this is worth picking up.

Now, interestingly, Blue Dolphin released an alternate version of this in 1996 with a different track-listing called Cold As Ice. I call this an alternate version, as opposed to just another compilation of early Ice-T tracks, because not only are many of the songs the same on both albums, but it even includes the "Ice-A-Mix" recorded specifically for Rhino's album. Cold As Ice includes those Chris Taylor/ Ice-T tracks from the the Breakin' and Breakin' 2 soundtracks like "Reckless" and "Go Off" (titled "Party People" here), which is a big plus. In fact, I'd say forget about The Classics Collection and rock this, except, frustratingly, they don't include "Ya Don't Quit" or "Dog'n the Wax," which are great, essential Ice-T classics. Why on Earth did they include shit like "Ice-O-Mix" and the dub version of "Coldest Rap" and leave those off? It could've been the definitive version, but instead it's just a weird, alternate version that's less desirable than the first Rhino comp, because it's missing two of the five most important songs. Bad, dolphin, bad!

Oh well, like I said, this is still a pretty handy, definitely enjoyable, collection if you aren't quite prepared to go digging for all the original 12"s. There's still room for a really definitive collection, though, that would include all this stuff, the Breakin' stuff, and the Radio Crew songs into one really solid album. And those crazy, original mixes do add to the fun, even if they're cheesy as Hell. And I don't think anybody's going to dig for that 12"!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Rime Force Most Illiln'!

Yo, this tape is frrresh!  Rime Force Most Illin' (hereafter RFMI) is the newest group of Luke Sick (Sacred Hoop); and it's got a great sound.  This is definitely one of his first tier projects, like The Hoop and Grand Invincible, as opposed to second tier stuff like Motel Crew and Brougham that's still worth checkin' if you're a fan, but otherwise nothing essential.  This is essential.

Like the name suggests, RFMI is a throw-back/homage to classic B-boy hip-hop. But, of course, with Luke and those Gurp City cats, it's through a slightly twisted, demented lens.  The crew consists of Luke and partner Rob Rush spitting over some really impressive production by G-Pek and some slick cuts by DJ Raw B. Some of it's really old school - 80's drum tracks with cowbell and the whole nine - but other tracks are more contemporary, boom bap mixed with lush original samples, more in the vein of the Hoop or the last Grand Invincible project. All of it sounds really good, and just works. I mean, honestly, it's one of the most compelling releases of 2012. I've been playing it over and over since it arrived, it'll be your loss if you sleep.

Then, flip it over, and the B-side is a live set featuring all new RFMI tracks. The sound quality is good (you hear the music, not drunken people in the audience), so it does a good job of capturing the live, old school energy RFMI is going for without ruining the songs by a poor presentation. This set features the underrated DJ Quest on the wheels, and production by Vrse Murphy (yay!), Fatees and of course G-Pek.

This tape, sometimes referred to as The Supalove Tape, is a prelude to their upcoming EP, The Force Is Slammin', and is sorta presented as a mixtape - at least the A-side is - but all the songs are pretty separate and distinct as opposed to mixed together. It's limited to just 100 copies (though their bandcamp says 250 copies confirmed, definitely 100 - see comments), so move quick (rimeforcemostillin.com). As a prelude, the tape's a little short (about 25 minutes, with the live set playing longer than the A-side); but it's all great material and there are enough unique songs on here to leave you feeling full.  The tape also comes with a download card (props! Still too few physical releases are doing this these days)*, so if rocking a cassette isn't always convenient for you, you can throw it on your ipod, burn it to CD or whatever.  I still have a tape deck in my car, though, so I'm all set.  8)

*You could also just buy the digital release; but the tape is so cheap (literally, the same price either way: $5; except the tape requires $3 shipping), and comes with the digital download anyway, so there's really no reason to pass on it unless you've waited too long and the 100 are sold out.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Marisco Fever

Another release from DWG? Didn't I just review four releases from them, like, last week? Well, considering they've been pretty much setting the standard for hip-hop releases in the last couple years (a standard very few labels have managed to live up to, even), I'm happy.

This one's being heralded as their first "new" release... that is to say, a release of brand new music, as opposed to their usual vintage gems. Sure, past releases like the Damu or Sputnik Brown records were contemporary hip-hop; but this is the first time the music's been specifically commissioned by DWG for release on the label.

It's an upbeat, perfect-for-summer party jam by a couple artists who could be said to be DWG regulars There's DJ Format, the DJ for their Lungbutters mixtape, who also produced for one or two of their past releases. And he's partnering up with The Good People, the duo of Saint and Emskee. Emskee, of course, released two records on DWG already, and they've already announced their next record to be a Good People EP.

The song's called "Marisco," named after a London Woolacombe nightclub, and it's a fun, ocean-crossing collaboration between a UK hip-hop producer and US (east coast) MCs. The lyrics are smart without being clever; it's not about flexing skills here; it's just a song about going out for a night of good times. Format kills it, not so much on the turntables this time - there is a bit of cutting, but just barely - but as producer. It's got some cracking drums and a funky bassline, but it really comes alive when the horns come in. Remember when people used to describe a record as being "live?" Not literally, like a concert recording, but just as a way of describing that energy captured in a hip-hop track? Well, this record is live.

Flip it over, and The Good People's own Saint takes a stab at a remix. What's cool about it is that it's totally different, using these funky xylophone kinda riffs to capture a totally different vibe. It's gives the proceedings more of a second era Tribe Called Quest feel. For me the original Format mix still wins, but this is a nice alternative when you've started to play the A-side out a little too much.

You might be inclined to pass on this because you've never heard of Marisco's nightclub and therefore this release doesn't "apply" to you, like "oh, it's a local thing." But hey, how many of us Biz fans have been to Albee Square Mall? Most NWA fans have probably never stepped foot anywhere in the city of Compton. And how many of us Egyptian Lover fans have been to The Alezby Inn? Well, I have; and let me tell you. It's weird... but I like it. Wait. What was I talking about again? Oh yeah, I'm just saying you don't have to have been to a location to feel the song. Yeah, it's a local thing, and the fun is in letting the song take you there. That's how these things become iconic.

So, am I saying it's another essential must-have DWG event release? Well, no, not compared to The Juice Crew EP or something. But it's good; that's what I'm saying. And it works just as well whether you're from the UK or not.

"Marisco" is a 7", but it comes in a really nice picture cover. It also comes with a poster of Marisco's flyer for their 45th anniversary, when Format and The Good People performed (and where this record debuted). It's limited to 500 copies, which is actually a pretty big run; and as you can see in the photo, it's pressed on cool, blue wax.

"Speaking of what we see in the photo," you might now be thinking to yourself, "what's that other record back there?" Well, you're being silly. There is no other other record; this is a single vinyl release. "Yes there is. See that 12" hiding behind all the other stuff on the right-hand side." Alright, you got me. That's the show vinyl. If you don't know what "show vinyl" is, it's the very limited wax that is pressed up specifically for the artists themselves to tour with. A lot of times, artists will have show vinyl pressed up with exclusive instrumental mixes and stuff, just for their own use... as is the case here. This 12" features vocal and instrumental mixes for both versions of the song, and as you can see DWG even made it a sticker cover (the first sticker cover show vinyl ever?). If you were quick, you could order the extra copies of this direct from the DWG site, but it's too late for that now, so it's really just a bit of a collector's item.  But the 7" is still readily available all over, and it'll be a nice companion piece for that Good People EP they're about to drop any minute now.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Hoodlum II Soul

Soul II Soul was one of those UK groups that managed to cross over into the US with a really big single or two, and then essentially disappeared back to their own country. You saw this phenomena in pop music mostly; but really it's happened in all genres. Soul II Soul's particular genre was, uh... funk/ R&B/ dance/ soul, and their big single was "Back To Reality" (and to a lesser degree, "Jazzie's Groove") in 1989. I'm sure serious fans could tell you about albums and albums worth of material and singles; but for most of us in the US, it was basically just "Back To Reality" playing on the radio and BET day in and day out.

So, of course, somebody had to make the rap version. And, surprisingly, that somebody was Tragedy. This was his debut on A&M Records as The Intelligent Hoodlum (of course, not his actual debut on wax by any means), and to this day it remains his most pop, mainstream record. The fact that it's pretty serious, lyrically substantive, and not really what you'd consider a pop hip-hop record, then, is to his credit. So, in 1990 we saw the debut single off of his first full-length album, also titled "Back To Reality."

Produced by Marley Marl, you know him and Trag aren't just going to add an extra drum beat to Soul II Soul's instrumental and call it a day. In fact, while this song copies Soul II Soul's keyboards, and of course their unforgettable hook (I say "copies" rather than "uses" or "samples," because they actually have their own keyboardist and singer replay the material), this track is almost more dominated by George McCrae's classic breakbeat "I Get Lifted." I say almost, because while heads may be able to focus their attention on the snapping drums, you really can't get past the fresh but borrowed hook and the chintzy keyboard riffs that sound like they might be more at home on a hip-house record.

I'm sure Marley and Trag knew this - the main mix was surely a concession for the label looking for their MTV track.  And so Marley takes another stab at redeeming himself with the B-side only Marley's Mix. It's definitely funkier, using only a short keyboard riff that works and ditching the rest in favor of other snares and horn samples that come straight out of Marley's bag. By that I mean, he's used 'em all before, multiple times. They're his staple, go-to sounds, and so they sound good, but none too fresh. And the whole thing sounds busier than really cohesive. It's kind of a better version for the heads, but really neither version are all that exciting and can be considered some of their weakest catalog material. Essentially, in a land where "Arrest the President" exists, why would you bother listening to either mix of "Back To Reality?"

That's also because, in addition to the track, Trag's flow sounds more devised for mainstream audiences. It's just kinda simpler and pausing after each line so the mainstream audiences can keep up. It's a nice little story of his youth, with a lot of fun, nostalgic references; but clearly meant to be kept inoffensive and safe. I mean, did you ever expect Tragedy to spit the line, "so I pushed up on a cutie and started to move?" It's like he borrowed a rhyme book from MC Brains or someone.

And, that being the case, it means the UK mix actually winds up working best. Did I just say a CJ Mackintosh mix was better than a Marley Marl one? I know it's crazy, but it's true. It actually kinda bridges the gap between Trag and Soul II Soul by bringing in more of their kind of sound. He uses some really prolonged, steady synth sounds to give it a dramatic vibe, and other riffs from the original record with more of a house vibe, and he stutters the hook in a way that's more interesting and catchy than the previous versions, which just let the stolen hook play.

But, really, most heads have this single for one reason, and it has fuck all to do with Soul II Soul or anybody's mix of the song "Back To Reality." Besides the remixes, there's a whole new exclusive B-side song on here called "Live an Direct From the House of Hits." It features Craig G, and he and Trag just go off, spitting really fun, memorable freestyle rhymes over the same sample that GrandDaddy IU and Hi-C had hit singles with the same year: "Something New" and "I'm Not Your Puppet," respectively. Fans of each artist would probably claim their particular version as the best use, but where ever you fall in that debate, you have to admit all three are pretty great. Trag proves surprisingly capable to forgo his usual, more serious tough style to just get loose and creative with one of hip-hop radio's greatest freestylers of all times. We see that Tragedy could've gone into a totally different direction and been a whole different artist if he wanted. The energy and the fun of both the beats and rhymes hear actually totals up to being one of The Juice Crew's over all greatest hits.

I'm showing my cassingle here, but the only difference between this and the proper 12" is that the latter also includes the UK Dub Mix. And while I did say the UK version actually suits the song the best, there's still no reason to want that Dub. But there's absolutely a reason to want some version of this single, because regardless of how forgiving you are of "Back To Reality" (it is a good song, but you could be perfectly happy just having it on the album and not bothering with it as a single); "House of Hits" is an absolute must-own. So get the 12", get the cassette, heck get a CD single. But you lose if you don't have some version of this in your crates.