Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Modern Milwaukee Rap

We've been getting a rich taste of Milwaukee's surprisingly flavorful hip-hop history from our looks at the musical restoration work of Jamille Records and Dope Folks Records' of recovery of Rock La Flow, but how about something contemporary? Not too long ago, if you pressed me, I could probably only have come up with The Rusty Pelicans... and I only really knew them because they scored an early collaboration with Slug (who, just to clarify, is from Minnesota, not Milwaukee) back in the day. But I've recently stumbled upon an artist whose work is definitely worth the spotlight, Kid Millions. His most recent album, Recession Proof Rap, is a nice, single LP (and CD/ digital release) from 2009.

So let's just jump right into it, because that's what I did: didn't know his history or his reputation or anything, just dropped the needle on the first groove of side A. As I did that, not expecting too much, I knew immediately this album was going to be a good time. Kid Millions isn't his own producer (though he co-produces two songs later on, when we flip this over for side 2), but the production on this album is distinct and... effective isn't strong enough a word. It's really compelling - and even though it's provided by a rotating roster of mostly unknowns - has a cohesive, original sound. It's the opposite of low-fi, rough production (Kanye could rap on this... and he'd get a lot of praise for it), but is still based in a sample-rich sound. That is to say, I don't know how these tracks were made, but it sure sounds like a lot of old records were involved, and not the old stand-bys we've heard a million times before.

"I Won't Help You Up," sounds, just instrumentally, like a Galactic-era Beastie Boys track, and "Trouble," produced by one of the aforementioned Rusty Ps, features some brilliant turntablism over a funky, ska-influenced base. This album has a cool, "what if hip-hop had been left to evolve free of outside, commercial interference" vibe. But evolve it still did, with a lot of layers and elements coming and going throughout each song. And, in contrast to that, Kid Millions keeps it all down to Earth. He's good at matching his voice and flow to the music (and could teach a lot of MCs today how to do hooks), but keeps things grounded with a pure, traditional hip-hop delivery. In other words, thankfully: no fancy shit.

And lyrically? Well, I didn't say this album was perfect. After spinning this album a few times (yep, right after finishing this album, I flipped it back to side A and started playing it again right away - how many albums can you say that about?), I started delving into Kid Millions' history, and apparently his older, self-released bio references being known for his, "often hilarious storytelling rhymes." Well, I'm happy to report that we've caught him matured past that. This album is gracefully free of juvenile story rhymes and contrived punchlines that plague so much our genre. The last thing I want an artist to tell me about the rap song he's about to play me is that it's "hilarious." But... I don't think Kid Millions has quite discovered what to fill his songs with in place of that kind of stuff.

If you asked me what most of his songs were about right after I listened to 'em, I'd just have to shrug. He's not saying much and he's not kicking complex wordplay. It's all very simplistic, oftentimes just describing the music you're listening to, or how hard he worked to make it. Grown man rap isn't just about excising all the silly kiddie shit, but replacing it with substance.  "I Made a Mixtape" is an exception, with a real anthemic, relate-able kind of concept... it didn't do it for for me either; but at least it's an example where it felt like he wrote a song, as opposed to just a lot of generic raps. I'd say that's typical of "a producer who raps," where the emphasis is just on vocals that support the musical soundscape he's creating, except, like I said, other people produced almost all of this. Weird, but oh well. Recession Proof Rap still works on a lot levels, and I definitely recommend it openly.

There's a single, too, on 7". The A-side is right off the LP, "Victim To the Beat." I'm not sure I would've chosen it as the single, but it does have a damn catchy old school vibe. It's got the exact sound later era Grandmaster Flash albums should've had. And on the flip is an exclusive B-side called "X-Files" by JTODD, who's the other half of a two-man crew with Kid Millions called Minus After, and who produced one of the songs on Recession Proof Rap. It gets some points for creatively minimalistic production, but for the most part it just kinda sucks. He's rapping with a funny, altered voice, with a style that feels like a bad attempt to be trendy, as opposed to listenable. And the parts where he actually brings in X-Files references (the song's just about himself repping Milwaukee, but the hook calls out "Mulder" and "Scully" over an interpolated riff from the show's theme song) brings the whole Lil B nonsense full circle.

So skip the single unless you're an absolute collector. Kid Millions has a couple other albums, too, though, dating back as far as 2001 and still available on CDBaby. I haven't heard those, but can vouch for an earlier 7" he did with the Rusty Pelicans in '06; that's quite good. Overall, as a rapper, I think Kid Millions needs to carve out more of a distinct identity for himself (listening to this album, I kept daydreaming how Luke Sick or any number of other MCs would've sounded on these songs); but for those of us who can appreciate good hip-hop without it being dressed up in a perfect, marketable package; there's more than enough quality here to get genuinely excited over. Seriously, put this one in your crates.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Melonistic Theory: Not As Stupid As It Sounds

I remember seeing this album when it first came out, back when I was in high school and checking out pretty much everything. I was curious, but never actually bought this one because... it looked so damn stupid. I'm talking about Watch Ya Seeds Pop Out by Bustin' Melonz on Nuff Nuff Music/ Continuum from 1994. The use of the corniest slang ("busting melons" meaning blowing minds), with the cheesy watermelon colors, the giant pink sticker across the cover... I was certain this was some goofy fake hip-hop junk directed at kids. If somebody had told me this was some raw Flatbush shit with an uncredited appearance by Special Ed (the Buskwackass turn up, too), I would've bought it in a heartbeat. But it took the internet to clue me in to that years later.
Had I noted the record label at the time, things would've made a little more sense. Nuff Nuff is the same label that put out Raw Breed just before this. Remember, when their album was called Lune Tunez, and they had all those wacky cartoon images and samples on the album? Clearly, the same guy who marketed that was behind this. And also like Raw Breed, it's got that mix of crazy and the authentic. Just about about all the pros and cons from that album apply here.

Lyrically, they're okay, but nothing compelling. Their deliveries are nice, though, flipping a variety of lively yet grounded styles, at times very Leaders Of the New School-inspired. Freestyle rhymes that are meant to sound good, but not make you think (though "Unchain My Mind" tackles some serious subject matter). The hooks are kinda boring, but the production (mostly credited to random first names, like Karl & Will or Darren & Becky) is both gritty and funky, a few tracks in particular will especially have your head nodding. If you're big on 90's nostalgia, this is the perfect album for you.

There's only two guys on the cover, but the crew seems to consist of five members: MCs Squeechie Automatic, Freddy Dee and Tiquan,with DJs Kaze and AD. The guests are uncredited, I guess, because they needed all the room for their crazy liner notes. Besides a bunch of crew photos and thanks, there's a fold-out section that explains their "melonistic theory," which essentially boils down to the importance of "holdin' your melon." There's also a glossary (or "melonary") of slang terms, which I don't think they even really use on the album.

Still, fortunately, most of the silliness is confined to the liner notes and artwork. The songs can maybe be a bit silly in moments, but essentially, it's just some fresh, occasionally even jazzy, hip-hop. Overall, I like this better than Raw Breed's first album. The album has a couple of annoying skits, but others are actually some nice freestyles with fully produced instrumentals. They're essentially full songs except that they're short and fade out before they're finished. That manages to be a little irritating, but only because they were dope enough in the first place that I didn't want them to end so early.

There was one single off this album ("Flippin' Off the Tip"), but I never saw a video for it. I think there were the standard half-page Source ads, but that's about it. Like I said, I basically just saw it in the stores with no idea what kind of hip-hop it really was. And that's too bad, because I think some exposure would've helped these guys. I mean, I doubt Bustin' Melonz would've gotten a second album no matter what; but listening to it now, I'm surprised one or two of the members didn't at least go on to other groups or projects. They were clearly adept creators of hip-hop music.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Labteknology #7

Here's somebody I haven't talked about on this blog yet! Labtekwon. And this here is the 7th volume in his Labteknology series of full-length albums, Da Helpless Won, self released on his own label, Omar Akbar Breakdance Music in 1996. It also says Piankhi 7 on there because that's an alias he sometimes uses (named for an Egyptian king)... the fact that there's a 7 in his name and that this is volume 7 is, I believe, just a coincidence. There's going to be lots of little explanations like that in this post, because Lab has a long, complex and relatively undocumented history. Part of that's just because he's from Baltimore, a hip-hop scene that hasn't tapped much into the mainstream. His first release was in 1993, though he once put out a compilation of earlier recordings dating as far back as 1986; and he's still active today. I think he comes in second only to Infinito 2017, in all of hip-hop, for the greatest number of truly obscure self-released albums... you have to become a sort of dedicated biographer if you want to attempt to catalog his daunting music career.

So let's just stick to this one tape. In an interview with an indie Baltimore vinyl site (I'd link it, but sadly the site's no longer with us), Labtekwon described his album this way: "'Da Helpless Won' is an exotic journey into some of the most avante garde and abstract styles of Hip Hop. This album is a classic representation of true school 21st century Hip Hop, literary genius combined with sonic surrealism. This is definitely an album for the sophisticated listener. From the inspirational spiritual thesis 'Big Kid' to the strange Taoist jewel 'Shakra Rocka,' 'Da Helpless Won' is the epitome of next level Hip Hop, a precedent for the poetic generation of postmodern Hip Hop emcees. This album is Hip Hop’s answer to Coltrane and Sun Ra." One thing I took from that interview is that this man is not shy about digging his own stuff!

This album originally came out on cassette only, but it was rereleased, with his other Labteknology albums, in 1999 on CD-R. It features one of the tracks from his 1995 12", I Am Here." Several of the songs from this album appeared on other releases as well... "Wasteland" and "Rivah" were included on a CSD 12" single in 1997 (CSD is Lab's crew). "Get Down" was featured on 3-2-1 Record's Connected compilation album... I think they had plans to release future albums by his as an artist on their roster, which never wound up happening. "Sands" was featured on his 2003 vinyl EP Hustlaz Guide To the Universe. And finally, "Speak On It" and "Big Kid" (again), appeared on Labtekwon's 2002 retrospective album, Song Of the Sovereign on Mush Records, who I think also intended that to be a lead in to releasing new music by him as a roster artist; but that also didn't happen.

So, even if you've never heard this album, there's a decent chance you may've heard at least one or two of its ten songs. I think it also shows that Labtekwon regarded the material he recorded at this point pretty highly, even compared to his other stuff (I should point out that the interview I quoted above spoke equally glowingly about all of his other albums, so we probably shouldn't read too much into his self admiration there, other than taking away that he's a conscious self promoter) and continually felt it was worth featuring. This is a period he was proud of.

And with good reason. Right from the jump, Lab hits with you with dynamically intelligent rhymes and boom-bap beats with trippy, creative instrumentation on top of it. Yeah, a lot of it sounds budget and even amateurish... the keyboard horns on "Wasteland" make Slick Rick's "The Ruler's Back" sound like it was recorded by The London Symphony Orchestra. But if you just accept that - whether it's quite true or not - however it sounds is exactly how it's supposed to sound, it results in a damned compelling listen. The energy of the production coupled with the "next level" vibe of his lyrics leave the low-fi origins way behind.

Not that all the lyrics are mind-blowingly impressive... the punchlines and similes go way overboard, with the constant grabs for cleverness (some successful, some not) drawing heavy-handed attention to themselves. Stilted lines like "you're confused like dykes in drag" abound. But, hey, this was the 90s, and everybody's favorite rappers fell into this trap. All you staunch 90's diehards who express absolute contempt for any hip-hop recorded after 1999 have to at least admit it's a good thing the kids today aren't forcing, "you couldn't be blessed if your name was Ah-choo[get it? like a sneeze]"-style quips into every other line. And, yes, that's a real quote from this tape.

But if you can stop wincing long enough to get past those, it's worth it. Because there's plenty of (genuinely) clever wordplay, twisting rhymes, and thoughtful, even mystical, lyrics. Lab makes tons of albums not because he found he could make more money the thinner he spread himself (I'm looking at you, Hiero and Living Legends cliques), but because he has a lot of things to say, and he's not going to compromise to avoid alienating anybody in the audience. He's defiantly challenging, which is either going to put you off or be a big part of his appeal. And I don't mean challenging in the sense of being impenetrably abstract and esoteric, like Dose One or early Aesop Rock; but in the unapologetic way he tackles tough subject matter and expresses his opinions like, "back in the 60s, blacks wasn't scared to start a riot."

This album isn't all Professor Griff territory, though. Labtekwon is clearly a battle MC at heart, with lots of skill flexing, pure hip-hop that anyone can enjoy. And for all the corny punchlines I took him to task for earlier, there's just as many that genuinely caught me by surprise and had me laughing like quickly spitting, "I sound freaky like squids mating." For all his yin-yang symbols and obscure historical references, this album is surprisingly accessible (except "Shakra Rocka;" that shit is a failed experiment like Divine Styler's second album). Whether he's being political or playful, I'm feeling it all. Labtekwon is more diverse than people give him credit for.

I never considered myself a huge fan of his back in the day; but the more I go back and revisit, the more I see him holding up better than most of his contemporaries. Dude's definitely been underrated for a long ass time, and I've certainly been as guilty of that as anyone. But in 2013, I'm really appreciating having this tape in my collection. 8)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Remember Foolblown?

Who remembers Foolblown? Apparently, it's a site about diabetes now (odd name choice for that!); but back in the late 90's, it was a key outlet for the best indie hip-hop, especially from the west coast. Yeah, you had the big guys like Sandbox and HipHopSite locking down the indie vinyl scene and the NY artists; but for  those amazing four-track tape releases... it was pretty much Atak and Foolblown. Foolblown was based out of Texas and got everything straight from the artists, on consignment. So if you wanted, say, all 200 of 2Mex's super obscure tour CDs, you had to cop it from there or catch 2Mex on the road.

I miss that site like crazy, but with the advances in technology (meaning: mp3s), those days are over now. But Foolblown's legacy will far outlast its operational time on our internet thanks to an one terrific album: Inside Out, on Blown! Recordings.

Yes, Blown! Recordings was Foolblown's move into becoming a little label, and it featured pretty much all the major players that they carried as a store. I'm pretty sure all the artists did it for free (though, to be clear, the CD wasn't free)... it was essentially a sampler. But it featured a lot of their best work, and almost all of it remains exclusive to this day.

Who's represented here? Project Blowed, Afterlife, Anticon, Atoms' Family, Shape Shifters... Yeah, that means it's a lot of "experimental" and artsy stuff that many heads will balk at. But if you appreciate challenging, creative hip-hop of this style; Inside Out presents some of the best the scene ever had to offer. And this was just at the cusp of these guys taking off. This was Cannibal Ox and Aesop Rock, for example, before Def Jux existed. In fact, if you look at Aesop's debut on Def Jux, there's a song called "Tugboat Complex part 3." "Part Two" was on his rare, self-made indie CD, Appleseed.  And where's the original from? Right here! And it's still one of his best songs in my opinion.

Anticon fans should consider "I Love Art!" a minor classic. It's essentially a cLOUDEAD song - though I guess technically you'd call it an Object Beings song, since it has a tiny cameo appearance by The Pedestrian mid-song. But it's Dose and Why? at their most avant-garde, over a terrific, constantly shifting, soundscape by Odd Nosdam that stands up as one of his best tracks.

Braille is here, again with one of his best songs, in the style of his first album. SixToo has a nice song about a twenty-something midlife crisis. Representing Project Blowed, you've songs from Ellay Khule and CVE. Really, like, everybody's on here: Illogic, RadioInactive & Subtitle, Greenhouse Effect, OddJobs, even the elusive Dragons of Edin.Vixin even has one of her only solo songs on here (Vixin's one of those femme MCs like Lioness or Penny, who had a lot of people fiending for their music based on a handful of nice guest verses, but for whatever reason, never capitalized on it by releasing a project of their own).

A couple of those songs have later turned up on mixtapes or "rarities"-type collections, but a lot of it is still unique to this album, and at the time, I think pretty much everything was except the Atmosphere song ("The Abusing of the Rib" was included on Seven the same year... it's still one of their best songs, too, though).

So, if you look at the spine of this CD, it doesn't just say Inside Out, but Inside Out Vol. 1. Yeah, Foolblown had big plans... not only a second volume of this series, but another series of compilations called Leaving Tracks, plus a Blockhead album, featuring Slug & Percee-P! A lot of songs were collected for those projects, but sadly, they never came to be. I don't know the exact behind-the-scenes story (though I bet the short version is "pirate mp3s killed the dream"), but apparently Foolblown stopped paying the artists, who I can still remember openly complaining about it on forums... Greenhouse and Atoms' Fam even rapped about it in a song called "Friction" (check it out... it's on their Life Sentences album). But, back in the days, I ordered many times from them and they always came correct. And, of course, I love their album.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Buck 65 Situation Demos

So, a few months back, DJ/producer Skratch Bastid posted the original demo versions of Buck 65's Situation album (which he produced - it was a collaborative project between the two of them; though DJ Signify did add a couple extras on there). As of this writing, the link still works\, so go for it, Buck fans. But you all know me; I'm not just here to post a link that's already been around, I wanna break down exactly what's there and explore this more deeply.

Situation, to me, was always a good but underwhelming Buck 65 album. Buck is a lot of things - a great lyricist, nice on the turntables... whatever you think of his aesthetic choices or artistic decisions; he's a damned talented hip-hop artist. And one of those talents, too, is production. So when I hear that an album of his is going to be produced by somebody else, that's already a red flag. And predictably, this album, while still undeniably good in a lot of ways, disappointed me on the production end. ...Although, I have to say, revisiting it now for the sake of comparing it to the demos has given me a stronger appreciation for it. I think I was getting spoiled by all the great work he'd been putting out, that music that would ordinarily be graded a solid B felt more like a C-. But, still, as a full-length, it doesn't rank among his greatest hits.

So when I read about this original demo version, I was amped. Here's a truncated version; be sure to read the whole story on SB's blog, "[Warner Bros] liked it and wanted to put the record out as Buck’s next major label release... Until we told them that pretty much the entire record was made from samples. Without a massive budget, the record was not going to come out in the style that we had initially made it," So yeah! This must be why the album never quite clicked! Now we're going to hear the rich, uncleared instrumentals that will sound so much more natural and better, right?

Well, first of all, the song titles and sequencing are completely different, so if you're used to the official release of Situation, it can be a bit confusing. It's easy to guess that "FiftySeven" is "1957" or even that "Photographer" is "Shutterbuggin'," but other songs you'd never guess from the titles alone. "Battered" is "Cop Shades," "TheCity" is "The Outskirts," "TheLaws" is "Heatwave." But basically, every song is accounted for and has an alternate version, except for "Intro," and the single "Dang," which I guess was recorded a bit later.

But here's the thing... most of these songs are pretty much the same. Often, the only noteworthy difference is that they're missing some scratching elements. "OldDays"/ "Back In the Days" is just missing the "All the Way To Heaven" vocal sample being mixed in to the hook. "Benz," too, is missing all the frantic cuts throughout the song, and it just winds up feeling duller. Listening to this underwhelming revelation, I was beginning to wonder why they bothered posting it.

Rereading SB's blog offers some explanation, "I went back to the studio a few times with some session players and made new versions of most of the songs." Yeah, so some of the songs I guess are exactly the same, or just less polished... but the main difference is that samples have been replayed to sound like the originals. So the differences are barely perceptible. It's most obvious on "The Rebel," where the main riff is similar in tone and vibe, but distinctly different if you play them back to back. Actually, the official, cleared version kinda sounds better to me. So much for my visions of a lost, masterpiece version of Situation; what a let-down. I mean, he's just releasing free mp3s of something fans have been asking for, so I'm not mad at it; but it's pretty disappointing.

Only one song sounds really different: "Cube," or as you know it: "White Bread."  That piano and all that music (even the underlying drums, though the same rough bpm, are different) on the album version are gone on the demo. Instead, you've got a plodding but atmospheric instrumental. It's  darker, and fits the lyrics better. Still, the newer version sounds rich and really nice, so I'm reticent to declare a definitive winner. But both versions are are definitely worth your while.

So, if you're a curious, amateur producer and really want to analyze the details to see how a major label release can rework its instrumentals to make them clearable, then check this out. It's a pretty compelling educational experience if you're that into the inner-workings of hip-hop production. But for everybody else, even serious Buck 65 fans who have all his tapes and records, I'd say download it, save "Cube" in a folder with your other rare Buck 65 mp3s, and delete the rest. There's just the one song to get excited about here.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Top mp3-Only Albums I Wish Came Out On CD

The title says it all... these are the mp3-only albums would press up on wax... or more realistically, at least CD! It's great that the artists released all these (with one exception) for free... but the material is so damn good, I would definitely pay to have a more permanent copy. Hell, I'd go to Hot Topic to pick any of these up Kreayshawn-style. Surely, at least a small number could've been made as some kind of promotion? Maybe a label like DWG, Dope Folks or Fat Beats could start a budget CD label, where they're limited pressings in cardboard sleeves?  Make it happen, somebody!

Grand Daddy IU: Self Made Man - You can download this album for free off his site... It consists af all the incredible bangers he'd been posting on twitter for like a year and a half, plus some brand new stuff. A couple the tracks come up a little short, but for the most part this is all incredible material. All told, I'd say this is better than his last couple albums (which did get CDs). So give us this one! He also seems to have another mp3-only full-length already, but it ain't free. Oh, and there's a lost EP called Long Island's Finest that he had up on ITunes a while back.  Never heard it, and I doubt hardly anybody caught it... Now that IU's got more of an online presence, maybe it needs a second chance to find its audience.

Buck 65: Dirtbike 1-3 - Great, triple mega album, which again were just released as mp3 freebies.  But they were some of the best work of his life.  Granted, it was three very long albums, so I can't say it's all 100% the very top shelf, but overall, I (and most Buck fans, I believe) would rank this higher than many of his official albums of more recent years. Realisitcally, it's probably too much music to even consider for wax, but a couple CDs? This is some of his best work, so it would be nice if it was a "real" album.

Chubb Rock & Wordsmith: Bridging the Gap - Alright, I might just want this one 'cause I'm mad. This was SUPPOSED to come out on CD. You might remember me blogging about it. And holy crap, a new Chubb Rock album? If it exists, I need it! But then, apparently the distributors stuffed up and there was a long delay, and Wordsmith said fuck it, the mp3 release was enough (after all, I think he just made Bridging the Gap to promote his solo album that was coming out at the time). I even lost $15 ordering this from FYE, who to this day have refused to send me a refund (#BoycottFYE). Being honest with myself, a new Chubb Rock album that's only half a Chubb Rock album, and watered down with Wordsmith's lesser material probably wouldn't have been too exciting. I never did bother getting the mp3 version. I want that CD or nuthin', bro!

Snagglepuss: Legendary Throwbackz - The only mixtape on this list, because usually I don't have time for mixtapes. Crappy DJs messing up songs with useless radio blends, material we've already got elsewhere... Sure, there are the rare stellar mixtapes: created by the great DJs to actually showcase their amazing DJ talent. But 99% of mixtapes are the lowest quality bootlegs or cheap, half-assed mini albums. Pass. But not this time. First of all, it's suited to be a mixtape - it's a collection of freestyles (mostly) originated on and for mixtapes. And it's all killer material that's (mostly) never seen a more official release. It's the classic Snaggapuss freestyles from the old Doo Wop mixtapes (and a couple tracks from his last CD)! I mean, Hell, this collection was my idea, so of course I'm all behind it! The only thing that could be better? Press these babies up for posterity!

Kool G Rap: Offer You Can't Refuse - I almost like this better than Riches, Royalty and Respect. There are definitely some tracks on here that are better than some tracks on there. This would've made a great EP exclusive, which you could only get if you ordered the album direct from Fat Beats' website or something. Now the EP's mostly been forgotten as a freebie advertisement for the album. But only one song was repeated ("American Nightmare"), the rest were some really nice, exclusive KGR tracks. I still have it on my phone; but this would make a sweet collector's item.

All those wild, early Anticon projects that never quite made it out the gate - I know North American Adonis was never finished and the sound quality sucked because the original DATs got damaged or whatever. But I'd still love a CD of the best I could get, and I know from the old Lunchroom forums that I'm not alone! Also Stuffed Animals, Pick me for President... even "Digital Lydias"... All that stuff Anticon knows they've got rotting away in their vaults. Run that shit, bitches! 

Father MC: Fambody - It's a sickness, I'll admit it. But if there were a physical release, I would buy this in a heartbeat. And then blog about it. Which reminds me, I have other Father MC records waiting to be blogged about...

Edit 1/12/2013: Whoops! Can't believe I forgot this one!

Earl Sweatshirt: Earl - Can't believe this isn't purchasable. Somebody missed out on a lot of money there. I'd love to see a legit, physical release of this one. I'd even happily trade any of the other Odd Future releases that did get nice, physical releases for this one. Even better than a CD, though... I want this on cassette! If you forget that this came out in 2010, it fits in so perfectly with the those great, ultra-underground 4-track tapes from the 90s. You might consider that a lost era now (though those Gurp City guys are keeping it alive), but actually Tyler and co. have brought it to a whole new audience without even realizing it... no wonder 2Mex dissed 'em! Couldn't you just picture this as an Atak exclusive?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Restoring Honor To the Fam

The internet can be an excessively snarky place. I'm all for taking the air out of the ridiculousness that increasingly pervades hip-hop... but the tide shifts from completely undue reverence to an utter lack of appreciation of real talent with dizzying abandon. Blogs will hail every teenager with a glossy Youtube video as the Second Coming the first week, and then a few months down the line, they're just the punchline to a joke, "ha ha, remember him?" This isn't about old school artists who can't equal their 80's and 90's material anymore; it's just about trendy trends and the culture letting clueless teens with no analytical ear determine what's "relevant."

Kool G Rap has definitely fallen victim to this... I think his insistence on plumbing the depths of gangster rap after it stopped being a fad because he still mining great art from it cost him a lot of fair-weather fans who really need to go back and rediscover what they've been missing. But while the scales may be tipped unfairly towards his older material versus anything he's done after the mid 90s, he still gets his respect. But what really gets maligned? His 5 Family Click album.

Back when this dropped, it was a pretty under-the-radar little gem, which Jay-Z famously called his favorite album of the year on the radio. Now it's regarded the way Ramones fans regard Dee Dee King's rap album. Granted, Click of Respect isn't G Rap's best long player - it's probably in the running with Half a Klip for his worst - but there is no wack G Rap album. Mediocre artists today get so much praise for going back and recapturing the spirit of material like this, when their bars aren't half as viciously, multi-syllabically ingenious as the ones on this album:

"Giacana gambino wit it.
Rollin' with gorillas 'n' chrome
Ballers stand tall like the pillars in Rome
Still a stone, still prone to kill alone
Still in zone, chest stuck out like they filled it with silicone
Killer, it's on
Retaliate like Italiano
Leave a hollow slug lost in your head like the Econo
Too live Five Family shit, clique of black Sopranos
You get the money, roll through your hood
You ain't thug cause you dress grimey, nigga; I'll put a hole in your hood

Wanna cop somethin'? I'm holdin' the goods
Pop a shotty, drop a body, snatch my hottie and lay low in the woods
Somebody violate my premises, some shells spit off
Pitbulls in the yard, nigga get his tail bit off"

And yes, I admit that a song with a verse by G Rap and two of his friends isn't as desirable as a song with three verses by G Rap on his own. But let's be real... you know G Rap had to have had a big hand in the writing of everybody's stuff on here. And G Rap is all over this album; it's not like one of those projects where you're starved for the real artist and given nothing but inferior weed carriers. There's tons of great G Rap material on here... and when he passes the mic, everybody holds their own. Again, that's presumably because he's carrying them in the writing department, just like he's done for so many artists he's worked with in the past; but 40 Cal and Hammerz carry their weight better than a lot of bigger name collaborations have in the past, that's for sure.

But maybe the production is really to blame for the reception this album got? Granted, this isn't Wanted: Dead Or Alive; but what's so disappointing here? Tracks by Buckwild and DR Period? Hard drums and sped up soul that everybody still sweats Kanye for (when did we stop crediting RZA for this style, by the way?), even though these guys sound infinitely fiercer spitting over it?

Again, I'll acknowledge the flaws... some of the instrumentals do feel a little undercooked, and the less compelling songs can sound too similar. There's also a track or two that try to emulate the poppy, in vogue club styles of the time that should've been cut. And a little less Ma Barker would've gone a long way. Every G Rap fan, including myself, was starting to get pretty sick of Ma Barker jumping onto every single record by the end there. She was never a bad MC, and with G Rap behind her, she even managed to spit some crazy impressive bars.  Yeah, she really over-saturated his records with herself, and indeed, "no Ma Barker" might've been the biggest selling point of Riches, Royalty and Respect. But at least a couple of her (probably ghostwritten) verses here are fucking killer, and you're seriously missing out if you let her online media image get between you and the material.

So it's not his penultimate masterpiece; but this album still belongs in your crates, or at least a cheap copy of the CD. I'd much rather replay this than the latest, half-as-skilled knock-off just because his mixtape is on the front page of datpiff this week. You don't impress me when you take cheap shots at this. Albums this good are too rare, no joke.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

More Thawed Out Saafir

Years after Unreleased Boxcar Sessions, Saafir cooked up another self-released collection of unreleased material that had been left in the freezer. This material was more modern though, so less exciting; but Saafir's always been a compelling talent, so I jumped in with enthusiasm. And this release is notable because, unlike Unreleased Boxcar Sessions, this one came out on two formats: CD and vinyl. That might not sound terribly noteworthy at first, but the thing is: both versions feature completely different track-listings, with actually only two songs in common. ...So, of course I had to get both.

So let's start with the CD, since that was actually released first. The title for this EP (both versions) is One of the Hardest and the cardboard sleeve helpfully explains that this is "Limited Edition Archived Material 1997-2002."  Right off the bat, this doesn't have the jazzy feel of the UBS, but still has the rugged, bass heavy style of production The Junction's been rocking since the beginning. It does feel trendier, rocking elements of west coast production of its time... but I guess you could say Boxcar Sessions only had the jazzier elements because that was the style of its time. Fair enough, but that style was better - more sample based and less studio sounds.

There's still some good stuff on here, though. "Bad Bitch" might not grab you off the bat, since it's a concept song rather than a battle rap; but it's a pretty well-written twist on both pimpin' and relationship songs.  "Touch Somebody" is harder, with an effective appearance by Xzibit. And since the sleeve promises in big text that this EP features Golden State, yeah there's another track with X and Ras Kass. It's no "Plastic Surgery" or "3 Card Molly" (hell, Xzibit's verse is about Brittney Spears!), but it's still a respectable outing.

The stand out track is "King Sizzle," though. This is one of those songs that, still to this day, I'll put on repeat and listen to multiple times in a row. In some ways, it's the Hobo Junction version of "The Ruler's Back." It's even got a silly voice member of court talking about "Sire" at the beginning.  But this song's version of royal instrumentation is deep, west coast thumping sounds as opposed to Casio horns. It's not quite a masterpiece; Saafir doesn't kill it lyrically like he does on his greatest hits, but he still spits thoroughly enjoyable braggadocio rhymes over a really fun track with a super catchy hook.

So now let's look at the vinyl. One weird thing you'll notice right off the bad is that the first three songs - "Crispy" "Cash Me Out" and the title track of this set, "One Of the Hardest" - are also the first three songs on Saafir's 2007 album, Good Game: The Transition. I mean, let's just count the ways that this is weird. One, I'm guessing this means all the tracks - on the vinyl at least - aren't strictly from 1997-2002. Two, "Crispy" was even the single... and "Cash Me Out" was the B-side! Yeah, given the concept of the Good Game album, it's possible that we were meant to see some of the songs on that album as old material, but did his label realize they were previously-available-on-wax material when they pressed it up as their 12" single? Also, the title track of this EP isn't even on the CD version, which is a little weird, too.

But it gets deeper than that. The version of "Cash Me Out" on here is actually different than the version released in 2007. The instrumental's exactly the same, but this earlier version features an nncredited (most of the MCs on this set of dual EPs are uncredited, so that's no surprise) female MC. To be honest, though, her verse was corny (you might think lines like "I'm not a hater but a congratulater," haven't aged well, but I for one always thought that shit was terrible), and I believe Saafir did the right think getting rid of it. Especially since he replaced it with a new verse of his own.

So the OG "Cash Me Out" might me worth having for the die-hard completists. But basically, they're three tracks taken off the already unremarkable Good Game album. Also, I mentioned at the beginning that two songs here were also on the CD version. "Left Work" on the vinyl and "Less Work" on the CD are actually the same song... and I think they're both actually supposed to be titled "Let's Work," given the context of the song. Also the Golden State posse cut, which was probably considered the big deal selling point even though it's pretty meh, is on both.  So that doesn't leave a whole lot exclusive to the vinyl version.  The final track, "The Day," about judgement day, is pretty cool, though.

We're not given much by way of production credits here. There's nothing on the vinyl, and the CD slip case credits the producers: J-Z, Jelly, Protest, Saafir himself, and Khalil; but doesn't say who did what. And like I said, the guest MCs aren't credited either, except to tell us that Golden State appear somewhere on the CD and the vinyl credits their appearance on "Back Up." So it's all left pretty muddy.

Overall, I'd say the wax is for the hardcore collector. However, even if you're a vinyl head, or already have the other version, you should try and track down the CD. It's not his best work, but it's solid Saafir. And you're missing out if you haven't heard "King Sizzle."