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.

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