Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I Don't Know Black

(Youtube version is here.)

A Bad Mama Jama

I just recently picked up Fresh Celeste's first album, and was surprised at how banging it was... except for side 2, which was all cheesy love songs except for one track. But side 1 was great. And probably my favorite number on that album turned out to be a single, and here it is: Fresh Celeste's "She's Bad" on JR Records, from 1989.

Now, I referred to this as Fresh Celeste's first album, but she'd really ben in the game already for a minute. She was originally one third of a group called The M-4Sers (like "enforcers" but with an M), who put out two albums and a bunch of singles from 1988-1989. But then they broke up (I'm not sure why, but she mentions on her album, "I had a group, but now I'm here all alone") and Celeste wound up putting out her own records on the same label. ...The M-4Sers did one more album, too, without her.

The M-4Sers always had bumping, up tempo beats - typical Miami, but high quality - and nice scratching. Well, Celeste kept the nice scratching, but (mostly) chucked the rest, and instead came with tough, bare NY-style drums and hard rhymes. She started with a political, pro-black song called "I Ain't With That," with a tiny chopped samples ans squealing horn sounds, a la Public Enemy.  Not exactly what heads were expecting from a Fresh Celeste solo record. But while that was a nice surprise, the next song is what really had be geekin' [what? Slang's changed in the last twenty years? Why no, I hadn't heard].

I mean, I suppose it's slightly more pop, because it's got a little electronic keyboard riff to the beat, but the drums are so perfect, and Celeste kills it. And yeah, she's got nice cuts all over this, with a DJ cutting up Keith Sweat's "I Want Her" (among others), like they're taking new jack swing to the streets of Miami. There's a little bit of singing on this, with a girl belting out "she's a bad mama jama," and that riff I mentioned before sounds fucking fresh combined with everything else. It's one of those rare, perfect songs where pop rap elements that shouldn't work on paper just perfectly combine with some real shit to make something better than either camp would on their own. And you don't have to be a bass-head to appreciate this either; heck, there isn't even all that much bass in it; just some thumping away behind the drums.

The production, like pretty much everything by Celeste, is by Calvin and Carlton Mills (who was also the show-stealing DJ, under the name Ready Rock C... no relation to Will Smith's human beatbox)- two producers who started out as a group called Rock Force, and wound up being the in-house producers who produced just about everybody on JR/Joey Boy Records, and generally, just about half of Miami bass in the 90s. They wound up getting pretty paint-by-numbers and frankly, seeing their name in the credits of an album can be more of a bad sign than a good one... it's easy to forget they were doing dope records like this back in the day.

The 12" just features the one song, but it's fully loaded in terms of pieces - you've got the Acapella, Instrumental, Dub, Radio (shortened edit) and Dance version (which is really just the album version). There was also a single for "Hardcore Rap," which was kinda cool too; but this is way better. This one's bad.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Zone Of Zero Funkitivity

When hip-hop started sampling P-funk, it was awesome. Listening to X-Clan's first album, for instance, was mind blowing (though P-funk admittedly wasn't the only mind-blowing element to their debut).  When Digital Underground came out, damn they were cool. Then everybody started sampling P-funk like crazy, gangsta rap completely transformed into G-funk, MC Breed started sporting a giant afro and bell bottoms, and the original P-Funk all stars from back in the day were popping up in every corner of music media, collaborating with rappers of all types and quality, and the same samples were being used again and again and again until you just wanted to rock back and forth in your closet, covering your ears and wishing it would all go away..The mothership had dropped the bomb and damn near killed hip-hop dead.

Somewhere in middle of all that was Ground Zero. I don't mean metaphorically, in the middle of the devastation of P-funk's shock and awe... I mean, there was a short-lived group literally named Ground Zero. They came out in '90/'91 on west coast label Lethal Beat Records, home of MC Twist, and their big single was "Lettin' Ya Know" featuring Bootsy Collins. Yup, this was the beginning of those guys turning up everywhere. It wasn't Bootsy's first comeback appearance, mind you - he'd already made his super huge, attention getting cameo on Deee-Lite's "Groove Is In the Heart" by then - but for a rap record, this was still a big deal. Especially since Ground Zero seemed to be nobodies who'd come out of nowhere.

Ground Zero was made up of two guys: E-Smooth and 1/2 PINT (Discogs thinks it's the same 1/2 Pint who later put out a bunch of bass records on On Top Records, but I really don't think so - they sure don't sound alike), and their whole deal was using P-funk samples (hooked up by their producer $ Makin' Mike). "Lettin' Ya Know" had a video which got huge rotation and media attention, and they wound up releasing it as a 12" single, a second 12" with a bunch of remixes, and including it on their EP, Future Of the Funk.

So, yeah, this is the main 12" pictured. It comes in a sticker cover and just features two versions: Radio (simply a shorter edit), and the Extended P-Mix, which is really just the full-length version of the song, and not a remix like its name suggests. These are the same two mixes on the EP, too - the "Radio" is naturally the same as the "Radio Mix;" and the "P-Mix" and "Extended P-Mix" are exactly the same, despite the extra extension implied in the name.

And there's not too much more to be found on Future of the Funk... it's really a stretch to call it an EP. The cover lists six tracks, but there's really only five (that's because a tiny intro, "Grim Reaper's Prelude," is actually blended into one of the songs, not separated into its own track like the cover says), and remember, they've put "Lettin' Ya Know" on here twice. One of the other tracks is just shout-outs, so there's really only two additional songs besides "Lettin' Ya Know." Three songs = a single, not an EP, in my book.  :P

Anyway, for all my complaining, I like this joint. The instrumental is made out of a commonly used loop from "Disco To Go" by Collins' band Brides of Funkenstein (and I think "Atomic Dog" drums).  In fact, I doubt Bootsy had anything to do with the music on this Ground Zero record at all, apart from being the sample source. But he does add some vocal ad-libs to the track, and it does add some extra charm to have him shouting "boooombs away" and stuff during the breaks; but really, for all the stickers and labels throwing his name on the cover of the single and EP, him starring prominently in the video and CD artwork; this record is basically complete without him. And, no, he didn't participate at all on the other EP tracks (except, again, as a sample source). It's all just a glorified co-sign. But, while neither rapper are particularly impressive, they at least have voices strong enough to carry a really bumping track. It bumps.

I remember being really excited to pick up this EP based on the video. But the rest was a let-down. The only song worth repeating was "Lettin' Ya Know." But still, it was enough to keep me eager for their upcoming full length, Zero Tolerance, and their promised future collaborations with Bootsy. But they never happened. There was going to be a second single ("Nuthin' 2 It," which is actually also on the EP, and... meh), but that never came, and neither did anything else. Check out this interview on Video Soul, where they talk about how they're going to do a bunch more songs together - see?

So, where did these guys go? Bootsy declared them "the P Masters of the Universe" and seemed pretty locked into a long-term working relationship with them. I mean... I guess the death of Lethal Beat Records is what happened, but really,m this single was big in the back of the day, and Bootsy and the gang weren't so over-saturated and played-out in 1991; his co-sign was a big deal then. I'm surprised no other label picked them up, at least for another single. I mean, okay, looking back it's probably not such a big loss as I thought of it back in the day, always waiting and expecting them to turn up again. But I bet there's a story there... just what happened after that Donnie Simpson chat? I've been wondering that for over twenty years now. But at least I got a pretty cool P-funk rap record out of it all. You know, one of the good ones before it all went to pot.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

I'm No Fool; I Want My Record Played

There's a Doctor Ice record where he spends like, the last minute and a half or more doing shout-outs, including all the major DJs: Red Alert, Marley Marl, Chuck Chillout, and ends by explaining, "I'm no fool; I want my record played!"  Well the Def Con Crew had the same idea and they even took it one step further, by making the entire record a shout-out to all the DJs.

Def Con Crew only produced one record, and this is it. In 1988, this was put out on Ray Ray Records, the New York label that also dropped Sirocalot's killer single, but they get to DJs from all over, Greg Mack on the west coast, Ralph McDaniels on BET, and tons of presumably local DJs across the country from Philly to Texas. It's not all shout-outs, though. While they do a healthy dose of DJ naming shout-outs at the end, the bulk of the song consists of full rap verses praising the DJs - some famous, some generic. Conceptually, it's like a cross between "Hey DJ" and "Magic's Wand."

And it's funky, using a chunky sample of "Strawberry Letter 23" for the bulk of the instrumental, every so often bringing in that wonderful keyboard riff. The hook is a sung sample of the phrase "last night a DJ saved my life" from the Indeep record of the same name (famously copied covered by Mariah Carey). And the production's all by the Def Con Crew themselves... though it's worth noting that this is an early credit for Keyboard Money Mike, who engineered this record and is better known today playing on records by Ultramagnetics, Lord Finesse, BDP, etc.

So, this record's just known as the DJ praising joint, but there's actually a B-side as well, noteworthy for being the only other Def Con Crew song. It's called "We Came Here To Rock," and it's got a fun, throw-back rap style even for the time. They almost rhyme like The Crash Crew without the harmonizing parts, and a hard drum track instead of a disco band. It's probably more enjoyable now that its old school nature is nostalgic... at the time heads probably dismissed it as having a kinda cool beat but that's it. But now the super simplistic rhyme patterns have an extra "aww, remember when?" appeal.

Still, the A-side's the one you'll be buying this record for.  It comes with Vocal, Instrumental and Bonus Beat versions of each song.  And while it may not have you pining for a full Def Con Crew album or anything, but it's definitely a nice little 12" on its own terms. 'Cause "there's Mr. Magic, without no doubt, and the cool, cool brother called Chuck Chillout. I can't forget about the trooper, Red Alert. Yeah boy, you know the score, he goes berserk."  :)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Return of Black, Rock & Ron

(Youtube version is here.  And the blog post I mention is here. And an important update/correction is posted here.)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Where The Hell Did Hi-Tech Go?

Hi-Tech was that dude. He was a master of that Queensbridge criminology style (even though I think he was actually from the Bronx) at its peak in the mid 90s, but was equal part backpack rapper; very few rappers could please audiences on both sides of fence at the same time. Even Nas has to visibly shift gears to reach both camps. Hi-Tech was a star artist on the indie label Mass Vinyl, and so he had killer production. His third single, "All Time Einstein," started a craze by sampling the theme to Hill Street Blues, and soon everybody was looking for television themes to sample. No, this wasn't the first record to sample a TV show - let us forget the days of Fresh Gordon - but his was an underground smash, and everybody from Lord Digga revitalizing his career with The Price Is Right theme to Timbaland and Magoo making a hit out of Knightrider. Everybody had to have a TV show theme, and underground rapper Hi-Tech was why.

This is his second record, though, and probably my favorite. "24/7" dropped on Mass Vinyl in 1996 in a pretty ill picture cover. The lead track is produced by the seriously underrated DJ Shok. Shok did a bunch of hot material for Mass Vinyl, and eventually went on to the Ruff Ryders camp where he kinda drifted off my radar. But his 90's stuff was terrific. Just listen to this track: it's got a perfect piano loop over a sparse beat and some nice cuts for a hook, and most producers would stop right there and declare victory. But Shok keeps breaking up the track, to add this dark, Wu-style distorted sound, giving the whole thing a really robust, dramatic life. This became one of those instrumentals, like "Tried By 12," where every MC had to freestyle over it at least a dozen times on mix-tapes, radio, etc.

The B-side is "Book Of Life, Page 2," a sequel to his first single. At first it sounds like it's just a remix, because the first verse is the same on both songs. But then the hook and subsequent two verses are all new. This version's produced by Jaybiz, and as great as the original was, this one's even better. It's deep and moody - the original was tight, a formula executed perfectly; but this one's creative. It's deceptively simple and brooding.

Meanwhile, the rhymes here bounce back and forth between personal reflection and throwback B-boyisms ("while taking my first fresh breath, the first words out my mouth was 'one, two, mic check'") and robust sincerity (when he talks about his father's drug addiction and says, "the more I think about it, I don't wanna talk about it," it's so damn genuine it doesn't sound like it can be a song lyric*). Some of the lines haven't aged so well and may sound a bit corny today; but you have to remember this was cutting edge lyric writing in the mid 90's, artists didn't really have a template of when a line got too jokey or contrived like they do today. Still, though, the majority of this is as strong today as it ever was, and puts your average Youtube rapper to shame.

So, really, what did happen to Hi-Tech? Well, I'm sure Hi-Tek's come up didn't help at all. Just as Hi-Tech was starting to solidify his name, here comes this other guy from Ohio and becomes an indie darling, hooking up with Rawkus. Sure, their names are spelled differently, but when you're standing around Fat Beats and you hear the phrase "hi tech," you know they're probably talking about a Black Star record. And when Mass Vinyl predictably went the way of all those awesome little NY indie vinyl labels, Hi-Tech seemed to vanish right with it. Dude put out a bunch of records, both his own and appearing with his crew, but never on another label ("Continuously" doesn't count, because it was an old track that was sitting on a shelf until Creative dusted it off and put it on his record years later); I guess he went down with his ship. Hi-Tech is one of those artists that represents the 90's so thoroughly he's practically an abstract symbol of it. And I could see some people then arguing that he's such an iconic 90's guy that it's just as well we haven't had to watch him fumble and chase terrible fads throughout the 2000s. But I don't know... I can't believe it's really a good thing to never again hear from any artist who was once so compelling.

*Okay, that quote's from the first "Book Of Life," but as far as the points I'm making go, it's the same difference.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Biz Goes Schizo!

So Don Byron is kind of a big time, contemporary jazz guy, I guess. He's on (or been on) Blue Note, which is like the Def Jam of jazz labels, and he's been putting out albums for decades. I think his main instrument is the clarinet. I know hip-hop, not jazz, so that's all I got for ya on him.  Except for this: he released an album in 1998 called Nu Blaxploitation (on Blue Note/Capitol Records). I don't think it got much of a release here in the US (you can only get it from Amazon as in import) like it did overseas, but a promo copy found its way to The Source magazine, where it lived unwanted  But I saw it and asked if I could have it because look who's featured on it - the diabolical Biz Markie!

So, skipping right over the rest of the album (that's not a criticism or saying that it's bad or anything, that's just what I do when presented with non-hip-hop albums), we go right to track #6. It's called "Schizo Jam," and it's over fourteen minutes long, so this is a little more than your typical, negligible "he's only on one song" single verse cameo. It's a fucking jam, a... schizo jam?

To be honest, even being familiar with the long and having listened to it a bunch of times, I can't really figure out why it's called "Schizo Jam." The word is never used, the concept of schizophrenia is never brought up, and Biz isn't acting particularly erratic.  At least, no more than he usually does. At the beginning of the song, the Biz is introduced by saying, "in the whole history of African American entertainment, there is nobody like this cat," which is both absolutely true, and I guess the closest to an explanation for the song title as we're gonna get.

Like the title does suggest, though, the song isn't about anything... Biz just kicks freestyle verse after freestyle verse the way only he can:

"I'm the original,
Eatin' peanut butter and jelly.
Look at my big belly!"

And the audience reacts with perfect enthusiasm. Yeah, there's an audience. Usually, I'd be disappointed to receive a live track as opposed to a proper studio song; but for this jam, it's actually perfect. The live, free-form instrumentation, Biz's equally free-form personality, and the way the audience screams when he rhymes, "on my t-shirt is SCOOBY DOOBY DOO!" just couldn't be recreated in a recording booth.

Oh, and Don Byron raps, too.  Biz does most of the rhyming on this song, but Don gets on at more than one point, and one of his verses is actually really nice. He doesn't have the flow or naturalism of Biz, though, and he sounds like "somebody who shouldn't be rapping," but I actually really dug the lyrics to his second verse. The band is kickin', there's lots of nice horns and shit throughout the full fourteen minute jam, never getting redundant or repetitive. It's really a cool song, and you'll definitely want to track this CD (pretty sure there's no vinyl) if you're a serious Biz Markie fan.

Heck, I'm almost tempted to listen to the rest of this album.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Untold Tale of E-Marvelous

When Latee's lost demos were given the crisp vinyl treatment this Spring, one of the songs on that EP - the best - featured two guest rappers, including a guy named E-Marvelous. Well, on the label's forums, Smoov pointed out that it could be a guy named E-Marvelous that was down with D-Nice. I said it probably was, because D-Nice was one of those already established artists who joined the second generation Flavor Unit when Latifah and co. changed the line-up and dynamic of the original crew. And Latee hadn't quite been phased out of it at that point.  ...So here's the whole E-Marvelous story.

Remember D-Nice's crew, The Rescue Squad?  What's that? No? Nobody does? Well, The Rescue Squad was the name of his posse at the time of his second album (1991), which is why it was called To tha Rescue, and why he had a big red cross symbol on the back cover.  The Rescue Squad consisted of: McBooo (a producer who was also down with BDP), Tone, Robo-Cop, J-Boss, L'il Lowe, our man E-Marvelous and of course D-Nice.  I don't know who most of those cats are, or what they've done, if anything... except that a lot of songs on "To tha Rescue" mention "backgrounds" by the Squad as a whole, so they must've just been the generic voices on some chanted hooks.

But E-Marvelous actually did something noteworthy on that record - he performed a duet with Nice at the end of the album. The track-listing only credits the big-name guests (Krs One, Naughty By Nature and Too $hort. who must've gotten lost while wandering around the offices of Jive Records that day), but there's one more MC who spits on this album, one who doesn't get his name listed on the back-cover. "And There You Have It" is co-written and co-performed by E, with D sharing the mic with "my man from Uptown," E-Marvelous.

E went on to appear on D-Nice's final single, the independently released B-side to "Nice, Let Me Know It," that Nice put out on his own label (Nice Records, natch) called "All Out" in 1994. And that same year, he appeared on a single by R&B singer Roz, who D-Nice was also producing. Don't remember her? Roz sang back-up vocals on the token love song off To tha Rescue called "Get In Touch With Me."* Roz's solo career lasted for two singles - one featuring D-Nice, and the other, called "U Can Be My Lover," which is more of a clubby drum 'n' bass kinda thing, featuring E-Marvelous.

And that's the whole story of this mysterious Harlem MC until those Latee demos were unearthed earlier this year. He just had verses on those three songs, but - oh no, wait!  E-Marvelous came out with his own, super rare record. It's not on discogs and no place else online seems to even make an off-hand reference to it. But I'm sitting here looking at it, so it exists.

It's a 12" single called "Let 'Em Know" on Grand Sounds Entertainment (who only seem to have done this one release, but from the credits, I gather it's run by McBooo) in 2002. That's a good chunk of time passed since the other music I've been talking about, but just in case you're doubting it's the same guy, read the label credits: "Mixed by D-Nice and McBooo." This is our man, no question.

So "Let 'Em Know" comes in three flavors: Street, Radio and Instrumental, and it's produced by some guy named Mike Wrecka. Flip it over, and there's a B-side called "Move To This," which comes in Radio, Main and Instrumental, and is produced by McBooo.

So, how is this single? Well, even all the way back on "And There U Have It" and the Latee demo, E came off nice enough, but he wasn't exactly a mind-blowing MC. He was pretty neck and neck with D-Nice. He has a solid voice and fine, basic flow which sounds good over super hot, 90's jazzy production. But this is a 2002 single, to its detriment. E sounds good, but none of his lyrics stand out as especially above average. Over a better track he has the potential to be a compelling MC, but the beats are, well, at least kinda underground style for the time, and New Yorkish.  They'll get your head nodding when you listen to this, but once it's over you're not going to be in a hurry to hear it again.  "Let 'Em Know" is dark and tough, but it's all sample-free studio sounds. And "Move To This" is more of a club track, with an uncredited male singer half-crooning in the background - interesting, but again compiled entirely from out-of-the-box studio sounds. At the end of the day, it's a good, respectable indie 12"; but nothing to get excited over.

 And now, finally, that's really the end of the E-Marvelous story.  An interesting, extended footnote in the history of - wait a minute! What's this? The one in the white suit who raps second. That's gotta be a different E-Marvelous... right?

*...which, amazingly, they chose to be his second single.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ego Trippin' Part Zero

A lot of De La Soul fans were probably confused in 1993 when they dropped their single "Ego Trippin' (Part 2)." Where was Part 1? Did I miss it? You could pretty much separate the real heads from the mainstream by who actually knew that Part was actually the Ultramagnetic MC's classic single on Next Plateau Records in 1987. And since then, other artists have made their own sequels and homages... Tech N9ne did a song called "Ego Trippin," MCJ and Cool G did, Waka Flakka Flame did, Steady B did... Snoop Dogg titled one of his latest albums Ego Trippin', and there's some electronic band called Ego Trippin' that's been putting out records for years and years.  I've never heard 'em, but I keep seeing their records all over the place.  Kool Keith made his own sequel (and that's not counting that silly "Ego Trippin' 2000 (Rmx)" from Bootlegs and B-Sides), called "Ego Trippin' '99" on a Sway and Tech project.  The title first appeared as a 70s funk record with a little break in it called "Ego Trippin'" by a group called Please, though I think it's more likely Ultra got it from Marvin Gaye's later record "Ego Tripping Out" Ultra just made an incredible record, that turned out to be powerfully influential on the genre, something they surely never anticipated when they were recording it.

But it's not rap's first "Ego Trippin'" record.

Two years before Ultramagnetics or anybody else touched the title (1985), Super-Wolf and Company released "Ego Tripping" on Big Bad Wolf Records.  If you've ever heard of Super Wold, it was probably on one of Sugar Hill Records' bajillion rap compilations, because they'd released his debut single "Super Wolf Can Do It" back in 1980.  That record's great, I love it.  Very funky and pure disco era, with Super Wolf rapping in that pure old school, Frankie Crocker radio DJ style with the bass-y voice and everything. After that one single is when he drops off the radar for the most part, but he actually continued to relaease records for years on his own label, Big Bad Wolf (which also released the original "Super Wolf Can Do It" before Sugarhill picked it up and gave it major distribution), and this was one of his later ones.

Super Wolf seemed to find himself caught in that weird phase a lot of disco-era rappers were in 1985. Whodini, Run DMC and drum programs changed hip-hop forever, and no one was checking for guys who rapped like The Sugarhill Gang anymore. It produced final records like Jimmy Spicer's "This Is It" or anything Kurtis Blow did after America... stuff that completely fails compared to their classic work, and yet fails to fit in with the new style of the day either.  But, actually, Super Wolf pulls through alright.

The new sound is definitely here musically. Simple cuts, big beats, fake horns, ringing telephones, fake handclaps and silly human beat-boxing right out of The Fat Boys' "All You Can Eat." And, meanwhile, Super Wolf is still rapping like it's 1980.  It's really goofy and should be a huge embarrassing disaster on paper, but... it kinda all works somehow. The beat is as silly as anything was in that period, but it's still funky; the bassline is actually fresh, and there's some funky guitar tucked away in this track. And Super Wolf is smart not to leave his comfort zone as a rapper, sticking to what he's good at, which is what most rappers who try to change with the passing fads generally fail to do.  The beat throws you off at first, but when you hear the familiar wolf howl comes in, it's a relief to know that the Super Wolf I'd been hoping to hear again is back, being himself. He's basically just here to kick some simple cautionary tales about letting your ego trip and encourage the break dancers in the audience, but he sounds as good as ever.

Despite the record being billed with "and Company," the rapping is all Super Wolf.  The Company presumably refers to the girls who sing on the chorus ans scratch mixer Terry Alexander (KX-96 - he's really not at all impressive, but having the cuts still adds to the energy of the song). And whoever the human beat box is.

In a way, this is as rare you'd expect an obscure 80's rap record from Tennessee (that's right, Memphis was putting out rap records as far back as 1980) to be. But Super Wolf must've been big enough to press up more than just a super tiny run; because I see these around online, relatively inexpensive.  If you're a fan of "Super Wolf Can Do It," this one is pretty different, but I recommend it anyway; I still don't think you'll be disappointed. And, hey, it's rap's original "Ego Tripping" - that's gotta count for something, right? Ultra did the classic, and De La did part 2, so that must make this... part 0. The rare first chapter in what's become a long, surprisingly enduring legacy.  ;)