Thursday, February 28, 2013

Prince Paul + Chill Rob G = Greatness

Chill Rob G is definitely one of those artists who should've had more albums. It's one of those "the music industry screwed up" stories that he only put out one album in his heyday, because he definitely had the critical and fan following to support a fuller career. But because his output is so limited, it makes every rare B-side or remix all the more essential. Especially when it turns out he ventured outside of his safety zone of making incredible tracks with The 45 King to record with the one and only Prince Paul.

Yeah, this is his 1990 single "Let Me Show You," which features two tracks from his classic album, Ride the Rhythm. But they're not the album versions, they're subsequent remixes. It also comes in a fresh picture cover and includes instrumental versions, so it's pretty sweet.

So, yeah, the A-side: the "Let Me Show You Ultamix" is remixed by Prince Paul and Pasemaster Mase, a.k.a. Maseo of De La Soul. Now, it's hard to say that this is better than the album version, because we're talking about prime 45 King production here. But as you can imagine, their Ultamix is zanier, and uniquely fresh. While the original was tough with a killer horn sample, the Ultamix is upbeat, with a new horn sample, a piano riff that Paul used for somebody else and a crazy cartoon sound effect in the main loop. They two versions are totally different and don't feel like the same song at all... If Chill didn't have some memorable lines on this song ("the truth will set you free, let you see the light; there's no need to watch TV tonight"), they probably could've slapped a new title on this and nobody would've noticed (just like they did with "The Power!").

Now you're probably less excited for the B-side remix, the Midnight Remix of "Make It" by Nephie Centeno. That's understandable.  First of all, "Make It" is the album's token house track. And secondly, who the fuck is Nephie Centeno? But come on, you can't front on 45 King's house tracks. He had a way of making some of the few hip-house tracks that could stand alongside the purest of hip-hop tracks. Younger heads might not quite get it, but if you were their age back in the late 80s, I don't believe you were skipping over these tracks.

And as for who's Nephie Centeno? I have no idea (though he has a couple other credits on discogs); but he plays it smart by not spoiling DJ Mark's work. While Paul and Mase essentially made a whole new instrumental for the acapella; Centeno keeps pretty much all of the original version's elements... same key sample, same funky bassline, same vocal sample on the hook... he just adds some elements, freaks it a bit, and makes an even more club-friendly version of the track. He also extends it by an extra two minutes, repeating the second verse (just like they did with "The Power!") to make it a proper, three verse song.

A fun note about the Instrumental version of this remix, by the way... While it's naturally missing most of Chill Rob's vocals (being an instrumental and all), they've included some new vocal samples to flesh it out, including Mel Brooks' sleazy "come on, do it... you know you do it" as King Louis XVI from History Of the World, Part 1 (plus, I guess if we're naming vocal samples, that "okay, chaps, take it from the top" line The Fat Boys used on "Rapp Symphony (In C-Minor)").

Now, how essential this 12" is depends on which pressing of Ride the Rhythm you have. The original pressing just has the original 45 King versions of both songs. But later pressings added the "Let Me Show You (Remix)," transferring a lot of the value from the single to the album (just like they did with "The Power!"). The "Make It" remix is still exclusive to the single, though. So if you've got an original LP, you'll definitely want the 12"; but otherwise, it depends how highly you rate a tweaked house track.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Introducing... Dr. Dre!

Shout out to Darrell for this hooking me up for this post. :)
A couple years ago, I talked about Ice Cube's first appearance on wax... not as part of NWA, even before The CIA. So now I'm going to do the same for Dr. Dre... again, before NWA. Even before The World Class Wreckin' Kru: this is "Scratchin' 100 Speakers" on Saturn Records from all the way back in 1984.

Saturn was a cool, early West coast label that released stuff like Captain Rapp, Ice-T's earliest B-boy singles, etc. And on this record, they actually managed to score a couple of important debuts all on one 12": not just Dr. Dre, but also the great DJ Unknown, and also DJ "Gee."

Now, if you look at the label scan I posted, you'll see how the billing's kind of confusing. It says "Arranged and performed by Daniel Sofer," then the 12" is collectively titled "A Dr. Dre Scratchmix: 'One Hundred Speakers'," and then it goes on to list the specific tracks on the 12", which credits individual artists. Also, one side is labeled "side A" and the other "side AA," so we all get to decide for ourselves which should be considered the true "A" side of this record. The only way to really sort out what's what is to give it a proper listen and work it out.

For all the artists making their debut on this single, one guy who wasn't appearing for the first time on wax is this Daniel Sofer guy. He'd been involved in funky electronic music since the 70s, and already had another 12" of his own under his belt. He did a lot of synths and drum programming for west coast artists who were transitioning from DJing to making records, including Ice-T, Arabian Prince, the Wreckin' Kru and DJ Unknown. He did the drums and bass on this record... In fact, he's the guy who wrote the manual and recorded the internal sounds for the DMX machine they all used. I highly recommend this interview with the man over at westcoastpioneers; a really important person in the development of west coast hip-hop who most people have probably never heard of. About this record specifically, he explains, "Cletus Anderson of Saturn Records had me come to the studio -- I'm not sure how I hooked up with him, probably he heard my demo -- but I was there in the studio and Unknown and Dre were rapping and scratching."

So, what we have here are essentially three variations of one song.  Not variations like on most 12"s where you'd have an Dub Mix, a Radio Edit and a TV Version, but three versions that could each stand on their own, which other early west coast singles did, too. Think of the Rappers Rapp label 12" of "When Doves Cry Rapp," which had essentially three different covers of Prince's "When Doves Cry" by different hip-hop acts from the same crew. Except in this case, the track they're all using is original to this 12", and it's by Daniel Sofer. And since this 12" is a double A side, I'll just arbitrarily decide which version to start with.

To make it interesting, I'll start with Dre's version, "Scratchin' 100 Speakers." Specifically, this is credited to Dre and Unknown (who, remember, was also making his debut here); but as he has his own version coming up, I'm pretty sure this version is mostly Dre's. The record is labeled as being his scratchmix, after all; and that's what this is, Dr Dre getting busy on the turntables over Sofer's track. The instrumental's exactly what you'd expect if you're familiar with west coast hip-hop from this era: big hand claps, cool electronic bass notes and big yet subtle drums. There are no vocals, just Dre (and Unknown?) laying some nice cuts for 1984, and bringing in a constant variety of fresh sounds. The cuts are played a little light in the mix, unfortunately, which places too much emphasis on the under-laying beat; but if you pay attention, you can hear he's already light years ahead of "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On the Wheels of Steel" in terms of turntablism. The second half of the song features less cuts and lets the beat ride and change up a lot more (I suspect parts of this might be Unknown's contribution, rather than the scratching); it's never just simple loops repeating, but a very alive track, altering and bubbling all the way through.

After that we get the other artist making his debut. He's not nearly as famous as Dre, and didn't have the long or influential career of Unknown, but he still merits a mention. He's DJ "Gee," also known as M C G, who released that funky "Friday the 13th" record I blogged about a few Halloweens ago. He uses the same Sofer beat but provides his own raps and scratches to his track, "Rappin' 100 Speakers." To be honest, his rapping is a little sloppy, but his cuts are cool. This is the weakest version on the 12", but I don't think it's all about Gee being wack (I like his style in general), so much as the track is just too staccato for him. Some smoother keyboards or something behind his vocals would've really held him up, and he probably should've re-recorded some of his lines.

Then, finally, we get the "Rhythm Rock Rapp," which is ostensibly Unknown's solo version. But if you look carefully, you see Dre is credited as a writer on this version, too. It actually uses a lot of the same scratches from Dre's version, but this time they're regularly interrupted to allow for full rap verses by Unknown. Perhaps these are Unknown's cuts, and the repeated cuts are the ones he's credited for on Dre's version, or more likely, he's rhyming with Dre's already recorded cuts from "Scratchin' 100 Speakers," which would be why he gets credited for this mix, too. Either way, the ultimate effect is that this turns Dre's instrumental scratch track into a "proper" song. Unknown's raps are okay - he sounds decidedly softer here than he would on his later projects, which of course used a lot of vocoder. Nothing fantastic, but since, like I said, Dre's version downplays the best elements in the mix, this version winds up with the most energy and feeling the most compelling.

So, yeah, this is where Dre got his start - the first time he went from DJing at Eve After Dark to working in the studio. Later that year, he'd start making records as a member of Telesis and of course the World Class Wreckin' Kru... then the rest, of course, is history. And while it might at first appear to be a humble debut, he actually acquits himself quite well and demonstrates a talent to watch out for.

Man, I can't believe this is my first Dr. Dre-related post on this blog.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Werner's Top 5 Sweetly Unromantic Hip-Hop Moments

It's Valentine's Day! So I thought I'd go back and listen to a bunch of old school love raps. 'Cause 'tis the season. Donald D's "A Letter I'll Never Send," Just-Ice's "I Write This In the Dark," Eric B's solo album... if you don't listen to 'em today, you'll have to leave them in your crates for another whole year, because there's no chance you'll break these songs out any other day. And while listening to all these songs, I started to reflect on some of my favorite lines and moments that've popped up over the years. Slowly, I came up with my Top Five Sweetly Unromantic Hip-Hop Moments.

Let me clarify what I mean by that real quick. We all get what a romantic moment in a song is... the music swells, or a really touching, poignant lyric graces our ears. But that's not what these are. These are unromantic moments. BUT. They're still sweet. So, not the opposite of romantic hip-hop moments, like some vile Akinyele song about kicking his pregnant girlfriend down a flight of stairs. These moments are still meant to be loving; they're sincere, they're earnest expressions of love, that also just miss the mark of being romantic by such a wide margin, they so fail at saying just the right thing in the right moment, that they become delightful for all new reasons.  With me? Okay, let's go!

#5) The World Class Wreckin' Cru's biggest, most enduring hit, "Turn Off the Lights." Each MC kicks a short, almost whispered verse to the woman he loves over an elegant, effective instrumental. Dr Dre, Yella, Shakespeare... they're a little hokey and simplistic, but they're fine. And every time the chorus comes in, Michel'Le astounds with an amazing voice that could stand right alongside the greatest hits of classic R&B. And then Lonzo, the frontman of the crew, comes in for the fourth and final verse, and kicks a cringeworthy verse about how, "like a male, exotic dancer, for you I'll dance," and just breaks the mood in half! The stilted language, the goofball concept... "Your kisses and hugs I'd slowly collect, for they will be my tips." What? This is taking bad poetry to new depths. And you can't help but picture it as he describes, "with nothing but a g-string upon my hip." Look at the picture cover and reread those lines. Just no. You know he means well... it's intended to be a genuine expression of sensual, erotic passion, but surely no one's ever gotten through a full listen for the first time with a straight face.

#4) The Fat Boys have a love song on their fourth album; their first really mainstream album on a major label, called "Falling In Love." It's sort of a love song, and sort of a cautionary, anti-love song, detailing heartbreak and how hard it can be to trust somebody... and ultimately hurtful when you do. It's well produced, but you know... poppy rap love song (well, as much as any song can be a love song while including the line, "now a skeezer's a skeezer, and a freak is a freak, 'cause I was all about freakin' every day last week"), so I doubt anybody ever checks for it. But there's a really interesting moment, which is both touching and utterly silly... a sort of skit, mid-song, where Buff Love calls up his girlfriend and beatboxes, "BRRRT! I! Pft ski-pft! Love! Pft pft pft! You! Pa-pa-pa-pfft! Pa-pa-pa-pfft! BUH-HUH-HUH, BUH-HUH-HUH!" The acting leading up to it is actually pretty sincere and compelling, you really feel like this guy is pouring every ounce of his heart into this, and then the begins with an epic fart noise and ends with his trademark, exaggerated huffing. It's all a bit mad. And then, in the song, the girl winds up laughing him off and rejecting him. Our Buff Love, who tells his girl he loves her for the first time through his beat-boxing. It's the most heart-breaking thing ever.

#3) I'm almost inclined not to include this one... to go back and pick something else. Because in this case, the artist is deliberately subverting the emotion. It's a joke song, and it's an intentional twist, which really kind of goes against the sincerity of this list. The other artists here are really trying to bowl the women in the audience over with how deep and romantic they can be. It just so happens they're charmingly inept. Except in this case. But ever since I was a little kid, the line where Bobby Jimmy, freshly signed to a major label after spending years on the indie west coast Macola, promises his sweetheart on his ballad, "Close the Door" that, "I'll even pop the bumps on the back of your neck." Both funny and scarring, it's permanently embedded on my brain since childhood, few lines in hip-hop have made such a last impression.

#2) Buskwick Bill is on this list! Yes, and maybe just in reading that sentence, you know where I'm going with this one. "Ever So Clear" isn't a love song; it's the disturbing, true story of how he lost his eye. It's meant as a cautionary tale... he specifically warns us not to follow in his footsteps. But the real life events are so fucking insane, there's really no danger of anyone taking his path. He got so twisted, he decided he wanted to shoot his girlfriend, but then concludes, "but you know what'd be sweeter? If I make her shoot me."
Again, this is a true story... the cover of the third Geto Boys album is a candid shot of him being carted out of the hospital. So, he tries to force his girlfriend to shoot him ("but I knew she wouldn't do it on her own, so I provoked her, punched her, kicked her and choked her"), but being at least somewhat sane, she refuses. "Damn near crazy, I ran and grabbed the baby; held him by the window and said 'I'm a throw his ass out, ho'!" So, only in the struggle to save the life of their baby does the gun eventually go off, and he then speaks his dialogue form the moment, not in rhyme, but just perfectly naturally, "Ahhh, my eye. I can't see. Why'd you shoot me in the eye? I woulda shot you in the body." It's probably the most insane rap song in all of recorded history. Yeah, there's horrorcore and shit, but crazy graphic gangsta rap songs, but this is real. And totally fucking nuts. It happened. But even at that worst moment, he tells her that he would've shot her in the body rather than the eye, because of how much more horrible that is. Because even deep within the complete throes of his mania, he still cared at least that much for her. It's like the nightmarish madman's version of saying something sweet. God help us.

And the Number One Most Sweetly Unromantic Hip-Hop Moment ever?

#1) Comes from a true pro of the hip-hop love song. Big Daddy Kane. A lot of this comes from his earnest desire to bridge the gap between hip-hop true R&B soul music. I mean, many rappers have worked with the great acts of yesteryear How many rappers have gotten George Clinton to come out of retirement to appear on their records, for example? But Kane did a song with Patti Labelle that actually made her song better. His pairings weren't desperate cash-ins of struggling rappers with old school performers whose careers were in the dregs. His collaborations (usually) actually worked. They wound up making good new music together, not just cheap knock-offs of past hits.

And one such collaboration was "To Be Your Man" featuring Blue Magic. Kane's spoken word delivery is a little flaccid, admittedly, but the merger of hip-hop beats (and, on the album version at least, the bold use of a high-pitched screeching sound) and authentic, smooth grooves has a live, classical feel. And Blue Magic's singing is beautiful. Kane shares nice memories of times he spent with his girl, it's all cool until it starts to make an odd little turn when he decides to hip things up for his more modern audiences. Instead of rolling out a cliche like vowing to climb any mountain or swim any sea to be with his true love, he switches it up to talking about "that time I called you long distance on my car telephone." Already, it's a bit jarring to the mood, especially as he caps it with, "now that's what I call reaching out to touch somebody in the million dollar zone." I mean, it's real, and he's saying something sweet. Long distance on a car phone from the 80s? That's the down payment on a house! If you were going to do that with your girlfriend, she'd say "hang up the phone! Do you know how much money you're throwing wasting?" That's actually quite a big gesture to make. It just lacks the emotional punch of traditional songwriting about a great sacrifice to end your broken-hearted loneliness to say that you're willing to rack up a large phone bill.

But okay. We've hit a bump, but I'd just let it slide if he didn't keep going with this... He continues, "but you see, it don't matter, baby, because I'd call Mars for you." He'd call Mars? That's so... goofy! And yet totally awesome; I love it. It's my favorite line of any love song ever, hip-hop or otherwise. Big Daddy Kane, out on tour at night in his limousine, calling Mars on his car telephone (which he can do because he's the god damn Big Daddy Kane) to connect with his true love. Can you imagine if the music video had just a tiny, brief cut-away to a Martian answering the telephone for that one line? Kane has won romantic song writing. No one can or will ever top this moment. When I get married, no joke, it's going in my wedding vows. My pick for the most sweetly unromantic hip-hop moment of all time.  Happy V Day!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Rap To Burn Your Flag To

I really don't understand why 2 Black 2 Strong MMG didn't last longer. I mean, don't get me wrong. I understand why they weren't embraced by widespread, mainstream audiences like MC Hammer. Angry, militant, extremist... these are not adjectives that appeal to the 10-13 year-old middle class market that had become hip-hop's primary market. Or their parents. But there's a wealth of gradients between Katy Perry and abject obscurity. And these guys had appeal... some of the hardest rap records going, solid production and messages that you could at least sometimes get behind. I'm just saying, if Professor Griff could have five solo albums; I'm surprised these guys didn't at least last long enough to put out two.

But, then again, they sort of did, if you're willing to split hairs between EPs and maxi-singles.  Before Relativity adopted them to their main imprint, they put out a little, controversial rabble-rouser on their sub-label, In Effect Records. It was a disco parody record about flag burning, featuring Chuck D! ...Okay, maybe I do understand why 2 Black 2 Strong's career was so short.

But, no, seriously, Burn Baby Burn is some good shit. I used the word "militant" earlier, but really, MMG had a way of being as no-holds-barred political as any crew to grace the industry, but always from a more authentic "every man" stand-point. There's more than a little Willie D mixed into their PE. As 2 Black told Spin magazine in 1990, "I don't consider myself a politician or activist, but when I heard all that controversy about flag burning, I was like, Fuck that, I'm burning the motherfucker."

The first track is just an intro - the "Joey Johnson Prelude" - but it's an interesting one. Don't feel bad if you don't recognize the name; it's a bit of an obscure reference in 2013. But it's one you should know if you want to fully appreciate this record. Gregory "Joey" Johnson is the guy who burnt a flag at the 1984 Republican National Convention, and whose case wound up going to the Supreme Court. He's the guy from the ultimate flag burning case, and this intro features Johnson quoting his own speech to the court, "we live in a sick and dying empire, clutching desperately at its symbols." That case didn't end until 1989, so bear in mind: this record was pretty much an immediate response  - a response which did actually include them burning a US flag with Johnson himself when they performed this in NYC. You can read more about that incident in this vintage interview with Bomb magazine, and this old Village Voice article on the incident.

Which brings us to the main course: the Club Mixx of "Burn Baby Burn." It's a pretty tight track, with the funky bassline Gangstarr used for "Positivity" but paired up with a rugged break, blaring horns, and a generally more Bomb Squad inspired production sound ideal for 2 Black's signature, forceful delivery. It 's really alive with ever-shifting samples and high energy elements, as 2 Black boldly declares his lack of allegiance to the flag. Eventually he starts to announce "the places we'll hit," and the mic is passed to Chuck D himself to list off a bunch of cities... nice to hear his voice, but kind of a waste not to have him actually rap.

Then, the rest of the tracks on side A are really just elements of the main song. Titles like "Strike a Match" suggest all new, unique songs, but they're really just the TV Track, Radio, Dub version, etc. of the one song. So, time to flip it over.

Did I mention "disco parody" earlier? You betcha! Now, "burn Baby Burn" did wind up appearing on the crew's 1991 album, Doin' Hard Time On Planet Earth, but this B-side is exclusive. "Imperialist Inferno." Amusingly, it's a parody of the old Saturday Night Fever stand-by "Disco Inferno." Yes, girls known as NP4R sing "burn baby, burn, imperialist inferno" in the exact key and tune of the original disco hit. The instrumental, however, is a house track, with some light cutting and a bunch of sporadic vocal soundbites. Guys like Jimmy Cliff and Shaba[sic.] Ranks are credited as appearing n this record, but I think they're just samples.

Anyway, you know who doesn't appear on this track? MMG. Yeah, it's easy to see why 2 Black 2 Strong left this off the album... it only makes me wonder why they recorded it and put it on their single in the first place. Not that it's junk; it's actually a lot more enjoyable than it should be, and its subversive message lets you feel like you're listening to something more substantive than your standard, brainless club track. I'd say this was the pet project of its producers Kurt Norval and The Dub Organizer, who were associated with Clappers Records, whose imprint also appears on this single. They produced the A-side, too, so I guess they insisted on this B-side (and on dedicating this project to Peter Tosh), which really doesn't fit in at all with 2 Black 2 Strong's catalog.

Then this second side does what the A-side did in terms of song titles. There's titles like "Could We Really Win?" and "Yes! Yes! Revolution To Pass," which imply additional, original songs, but are really just names for alternate versions. In fact, most of them are more versions of "Burn Baby Burn," not "Imperialist Inferno." So I really don't think you can call this a proper EP... essentially 2 songs with a brief intro. But it's a dope, fully loaded single with an exclusive (if silly) B-side. The liner notes feature quotes from Bob Marley, art by Keith Haring, and a full color picture cover... a pretty posh release for a group that were complete unknowns at the time. I like it. And I reckon they should've put out more records like it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Boo-Boo Of Smooth J. Smoothe?

Last year, I did a special week of posts about DJ Magic Mike's Royal Posse... specifically about the "Royal Renegade" members, including MC Madness and MC Boo, who left the Royal Posse to put out albums of their own. They dissed Mike, Mike dissed them, it was an on-going sage.  That's why I gave them a whole week.Today's post is about another Royal Posse member, whose story is a bit different... in fact, kind of the opposite: Smooth J Smoothe.

Smooth J Smoothe started out apart from the Royal Posse. He had a pretty hot record with DJ Nasty called "Hard Rhyme Composer." DJ Nasty had done a series of tight, slept on records with Breezy Beat MC, where his cuts and production really stole the show. Now Nasty had hooked up with a new MC who seemed focused on vicious flaws and hard rhymes. Instead of songs about light girls, this was raw hip-hop, flowing over a hype track while Nasty killed it on the turntables.

But for some reason, they ticked off Magic Mike.  In 1991 on his album with MC Madness called Ain't No Doubt About, they dedicated a skit to dissing him, "The Boo-Boo of Rough J Rough." I wish I knew what the story was there. I don't hear anything in "Hard Rhyme Composer" that could be taken as a diss to Mike or Madness. And they don't break down their reasoning on the skit, they just laying into him:

"Yo, this is going out to that Orlando rapping sucker (uh-oh!)... that sucker who made one twelve inch, and he is now history. (was always history!) Oh yeah, I got some shit to talk to you. (hey!) Your rhymes kickin' like a one legged man in an ass kicking contest."

And he goes on listing a litany of insults like that for another full minute.

Well, that was 1991. And it was true, by 1991, Smooth J Smoothe only had one 12" out. But that didn't hold true forever. By 1992, he had two more records out, including "Lick the Candy" on Magic Records. Magic Records, as in the label DJ Magic Mike formed after he left Cheetah. Then, in 1993, he was a full-on Royal Posse member, appearing on their posse cut "Royal Brothers In the House" on Magic Mike's This Is How It Should Be Done album, as well as Mike's "Rhyme After Rhyme." And he wrote Mike's famous DJ Fury diss, "Fury Who?"

In the credits, Mike sends a special dedication Smoothe's way, saying, "Thanks for being there in the clutch. You're a damn good person to have on your side. Glad you're there. I owe you a million, G. Now Let's Get Wreck." Madness even included Smoothe in his epic Royal Posse diss track, "Final Words," saying, "Smooth J Smooth, ya blood is gonna ooze. Do you get used to the smell of shit when you brown nose? Mike dissed yo' ass on 'Ain't No Doubt About It,' need I say more?"

But when it came time for the Royal Posse to retaliate with their 1994 EP, Represent, Smoothe was nowhere to be found.  He's not featured on any tracks, doesn't seem to be a member of the crew anymore... he's not even mentioned in the shout-outs, where extended crew family guys like J-45 still got upped. And he wasn't on any of Mike's subsequent albums either. He just kinda snuck out as mysteriously as he snuck in. He also never released anymore solo records, and neither did DJ Nasty.

Oh yeah. I was going to blog about a specific record, but I got so caught up in telling Smoothe's story...  Well, real quick. This is "Addicted" by Smooth J Smoothe and DJ Nasty on Maniac Records. I picked this one because it's the least known... it's not his famous debut, and it's not the one on Magic Records. There's no date on the label (not even a run-out groove), so we can't be sure exactly when this came out, but at a guess I'd say about 1991 - after "Hard Rhyme Composer" but before the Royal Posse stuff. He's still paired up with DJ Nasty here, after all.

This is also the only release on Maniac Records, which just makes it all the more enigmatic. So I ordered this online one day just to find out what the deal was... plus, I like both the artists involved, so I had high hopes. But yeah, I just wanted to know. So here's the scoop: it's pretty damn disappointing. It's a bland, R&Bish attempt to sound mainstream... you'd never know it was from Miami if you didn't recognize the artists' names. And yeah, Breezy Beat did a bunch of raps about girls and relationships, but Nasty always made them fresh and exciting. But this one isn't. It features an R&B hook with almost a gospel vibe, dramatically belted out by someone named Ezell Carter.  There are a couple different mixes with substantially different instrumentals, but they're all boring. Nasty doesn't get busy, Smoothe doesn't get busy... it sounds professionally produced alright. I guess this shows they were capable of making the kind of bland pop rap records that were coming out nationwide at the time, which may well have been the point. But yeah, it sucks.

So there, now you don't have to track this one down. At least I was able to save you the trouble. Even fans can skip over this footnote in their career. But it's still a pretty compelling story. I'd love to find out exactly what went on with them and the Royal Posse, and what became of these two after.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Fat Boy Back In Effect

In 1991, when FS Effect came out, I had no idea who they were or what their music sounded like. But I bought their album anyway. Why? Because this was after The Fat Boys had broken up. Prince Markie Dee said he was tired of being in a group people looked on as a joke. Also, he really wasn't so fat, at least compared to the other two - if he lost anymore weight, he was gonna stick out... but that probably wasn't so much on his mind. Anyway, he left, and we fans were left wondering what was he going to do now... We eventually found out that he was going to become a surprisingly successful, R&B-fused producer who'd even score a couple solo hits, more suited for Video LP ("kiss it or diss it?") than Rap City.  But this was in that void, between The Fat Boys and The Soul Convention. He made his first appearance doing a guest verse on FS Effect's debut album.

Well, the group turned out to be a decent but fairly generic new jack swing group; and the reason Markie Dee chose to start his comeback here is pretty easy to guess. He was producing them. He didn't do their whole album, but he did several tracks, including their lead single and, of course, the song he appears on. I found out years later that I could've just bought the single, because Markie Dee's guest verse is the B-side. Oh well. Here it is now.

So the A-side is "Your Luvin'." It was also the first song on the album. They did have a second single ("I Wanna Be Your Lover," which features Christopher Williams singing circles around them) and a some exposure on the New Jack City soundtrack, but you can really tell Giant Records figured all of FS Effect was predicated on this one song. The full-length, So Deep It's Bottomless, was really just a formality to make the single more official. If this song was a hit, then maybe they'd put some more money into these guys and maybe stick with 'em for a while. But it wasn't, and their story's a pretty short one.

So how is it already? It's not bad. It's certainly well produced, with a lot of keyboards and smoothed out funk guitars played over a solid break beat. And there's some really nice R&B vocals for the hook, which all blends together seamlessly. I mean, a lot of heads are going to outright hate this just for being a new jack rap/R&B hybrid; but if you're open to the style, it's certainly a well put together example of it. Really, the only weak spot is the rapping. But that's a pretty big weak point, because all the MCs have super simple, stilted deliveries, and weak, contrived rhymes: "I like to think back to the days when I used to be trippin' about bein' engaged at a tender age. That made me remember the stage of years, when I was still wet behind the ears." They're clearly all trying to be Father MCs (who Markie Dee would also successfully produce for), but they just can't do it like he could.

But none of that shit's what we're here for, anyway. Flip this over to the B-side and we get "Mentally Stable." It's the album's hardcore track (think of the title track to Father MC's Father's Day), and it's the one where Markie Dee shows all these FS Effect guys how to rap. If you're interested, by the way, there were four guys: Joeseph Brim, Rich Love, Amery Ware and Carmel DJ EZ Lee. Yeah, surprisingly, they had a DJ, and he was probably the best part of the group. Certainly, his scratching on "I Wanna Be Your Lover" was the highlight of that single.

So yeah, think "Father's Day." It's hardcore, but not "Protect Ya Neck" hardcore. It's hardcore within the parameters of new jack swing: rolling piano loop, funky horn stabs, plenty of scratching by their DJ. Everybody says "motherfucker" at least once in their verse. And Markie Dee grabs the mic first to kill it. True Fat Boys aficionados will know that Markie Dee was always the beast of the trio in terms of rhyming. Granted, times have changed, bars have been raised... this surely isn't as impressive to fresh ears as it was back in '91, corny references stand out more now that everybody isn't doing them quite so much; but it was a genuinely exciting verse at the time. It was also still genuinely shocking to hear one of the Fat Boys declare "I'll kick your fuckin' ass" on a record. And the FS Effect guys... well, Markie clearly left them in the dust, but they do manage to pull their own weight at least enough to fill up the song without having it feel like it's hit any lulls or soft spots.

Now, the 12" features several mixes of both tracks, with promising titles like the Down Low Mix, Hip Hop Show or DK EZ Lee's Jeep Style... but, disappointingly, they're just overly fanciful ways to describe really basic radio, street and instrumental mixes. I was excited to hear the Bald Head version of "Mentally Stable" when I first brought this 12" home, but oh well. The song itself is still worth having, and the 12" single at least saves you the trouble of getting the whole album, which I'd reserve exclusively for die-hard new jack swing fans. Though if you like that kinda stuff, there are some well-sung hooks, fresh cutting and old school samples on there.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bootleg Special: Big Daddy Kane Vs. Ultra-Magnetic M.C.'s!

Remember when amazing, one-of-a-kind Ultramagnetic MCs acetate of a classic, unreleased Ultra jam from the 80s popped up on EBay and blew everybody's mind?  And how, shortly after, a bootleg 10" of it appeared, giving us drooling fans a chance to own that killer cut on wax? And then, remember how another one-of-a-kind Ultra acetate appeared featuring another amazing unreleased 80's jam popped up on EBay?  Well, guess what's followed!

Yes, now "Simple Metaphors" has surfaced on bootleg vinyl, and this time it's not alone. We also have a killer, vintage remix of "Ain't It Good To You" ...the original of which was on Critical Beatdown, not to be confused with "Ain't It Good 2 U" from their vastly inferior Best Kept Secret album. And that's just half of what's included! The sticker cover labels this record as Big Daddy Kane Vs. Ultra-Magnetic MC's because, yes, there's two Big Daddy Kane joints on the flip! First we get "Sing My Song," a terrific unreleased Kane track that's been floating around the internet for years. And secondly, we have "Give a Demonstration." "Give" was recorded back in 1991 (we know because they say so in the song), but was only released on CD in the 2000s on a greatest hits CD. This 12" marks the song's debut on wax, albeit illegitimately.

The 12" starts with the Kane side, so let's go there first. As I said, "Sing My Song" has been floating around the 'net for years, and it's been included on a couple mixtapes. I'm not sure of the song's actual origins, but I'm happy to report that this hasn't just been lifted off a mixtape with radio blends n either end and some DJ shouting his name out over the song. It's the full, unabridged song. Kane is just flexing fun but rugged freestyle rhymes over a cool, New York track with some subtle scratching on the chorus.

"Give a Demonstration" has a big and dark, atmospheric beat, that only relents for a fun and funky "Mr. Big Stuff" hook. Unfortunately, the song's ultimately kind of a gimmick, where every single line rhymes with "demonstration." It wears thin pretty fast, and Kane's flow is really simple, basically a complete rhyming line on every bar followed by a pause. You keep waiting for him to finish with that and finally spit for real, but he never does. The whole song just goes plodding on like that, until the very end, when Scoob Lover kicks a couple lines. It's interesting, and nice to have for the serious Kane fan; but you can see why they didn't feel that it needed to be included on their final album in '91.

Now, if you've been following my blog closely, you probably already heard the snippets of "Simple Metaphors," so you know what to expect from that jam. It's exactly the kind of banging track we wish they'd still make today. Kool Keith kicks a sick, broken flow over thumping break drums and a constantly scratched in sample. I think the audio that's been going around from the EBay auction only included Keith's first verse, but TR Love actually gets busy on here the most, with two verses. And he kills it. They shout out Kiss FM on here, too, so I guess the song was recorded to be another Chuck Chillout exclusive.

The "Ain't It Good To You" is an awesome mix. It's pretty busy with a lot of samples, but still huge beats and deep bass notes quaking through. It's really high energy, like the original. Unlike the original, it's a complete lyrical remix as well, with all new verses. Damn, what a jewel! It's hard to believe that music this good has been sat on, unheard for all these years. On the one hand, one doesn't want to promote bootlegging, but clearly nobody else was going to do right by this music, and a track this amazing needs to be heard. And on wax. XD

So, how's the sound quality? Pretty good. Obviously, these aren't freshly mastered off of original DAT tapes. So temper your expectations. But for bootlegs, these aren't disappointing. The Kane songs sound better than the Ultra ones, with "Simple Metaphors" faring the worst, distorting at the level extremes, sounding like it was taken off of a tape... or a worn acetate. Unless the original artists and/or labels come out with the original recordings and give them a fully professional remastering, I daresay these are all presented the best we'll ever get. The wax is on a nice, thick grade. The labels are completely blank (draw your own!), but it has a cool sticker cover. This can be tricky to find [link removed because it's sold out anyway]. Unless you have a die-hard, "I will never allow any bootlegs into my collection, ever" policy, though, this is an absolute essential piece.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

20/20 Hindsight

Last year, Jamille Records reissued a rare, old school single by Milwaukee's 20/20 Boys  (or two thirds of it, anyway). That was a really fun, if sort of rudimentary single, and you can go back and read about it in an earlier post. But it's not the whole 20/20 Boys story. The Boys returned as simply 20/20 a couple years later to release one more single. I don't know whose decision it was to print pale gold writing on an even paler gold background; but if you can't read the label there, it reads: "Underground Railroad," on SOTS Productions.

SOTS is an acronym for Students Of The Struggle, and the label gives thanks to Southern University, so I think it's safe to assume that at this point in 20/20's career, the Boys were college students. And clearly, they were looking to do something more mature and higher minded than "My Position" for their second outing... likely also why they dropped the "Boys" from their name. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a historical diatribe about the struggles of Harriet Tubman. The "underground" of the title refers to their status in the music industry. But they're definitely looking at it from a sociopolitical - and dare I say "collegiate?" stand-point than their first outing. I mean, no one was warning the listener about the dangers of "wind[ing] up in a racist jail cell" on "Burger Bounce."

The production sound has also changed in tone along with the subject matter. The instrumental's funkier in a way, but more subdued, almost west coast sounding. It's got a familiar bassline and some samples we've heard before (and a tried and true "Funky President" vocal sample for the hook); but I've never heard them fused together the same way they are here. And the MC's vocals have an echo effect, which definitely brings to mind Chuck D. This doesn't have the wild fervor of a PE record, though... but would fit in nicely alongside their second string acts like Chief Groovy Loo and the Chosen Tribe or Prince Akeem 

Does it work? Yes and no. It does sound like they've progressed, both lyrically and production-wise. They've not only changed with the times, but have mastered new techniques to make more "advanced" hip-hop records. But there's also sort of a muddiness to the whole thing. Part of that might boil down to just low budget mastering; but it's more than that. It lacks the vitality of their earlier work. It's a cool record, I like it; but despite its raw, amateur vibe, there's just something compelling about "My Position." You can see why Jamille brought it back. Somehow I doubt Jamille will give this one the same treatment.

This actually reminds me of Success N Effect. Remember them? Their first album was like a straight-up Miami bass album, with silly songs about girls and "Cruisin." Good times. Then their second album slowed it down, and stripped away all the light-hearted stuff to deliver anti-drug messages and stuff. Finally, they came back with their third album, Drive By Of Uh Revolutionist with Chuck D, a hard, militant, banging album. So,applying that story to the 20/20 Boys, this is like their awkward, growing pains middle record... not bad - hey, I'll still revisit Back-N-Effect. But I'm saying, if they had only stuck it out for one more record, they probably would've come up with their best music of their careers. And it would've had Chuck on it.