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.

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