Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Lone Ranger On the Mic

Did you guys know that the real Long Ranger, like the actual legendarily historical figure, was black? Well, he was. People gave Disney a lot of (not necessarily unwarranted) flack for casting a white celebrity as Tonto, the Ranger's Native American sidekick. But how about how, even after all of the Ranger's incarnations on radio, television and film; Disney still felt the need to cast one of the most white-bread actors they could find to portray the Ranger? Hell, pretty much the only time in mass media we've had the Ranger portrayed properly as a black man is when Q-Tip took on the mantle in 1998.

Yeah, if you missed that little moment in history, it was after Tribe had released their final album, and before any of them had gone solo. Tip was the first to venture onto the market with a little white label 12" and a pseudonym. He probably chose it precisely because the Ranger was a famous secret identity, the masked man... even the real guy was considered a master of disguise. He then went on to release material as Kamaal the Abstract before finally re embracing his popular identity as Q-Tip.

So, there's actually two versions of this 12". One has a credited label: Walis Records, but it's their only release, so it's practically a white label, though they did have a mailing address. I believe the name is a reference to the teachings of Meher Baba, a spiritualist I gather Tip was/ is into. But anyway, then there's this version, which is better because it has both the one song and instrumental from the Walis version, plus a bunch more material unique to this pressing. So this is the one with everything and the one to own. Plus, I believe it came out first. And none of this material ever wound up on Tip's subsequent albums or projects.

So the first track is called "It's Yours" and yes, it's a(nother) remake of T-La Rock's classic.  Now you might be thinking, Q-Tip's a lot of things: a great producer, a smooth rhymer, a multi-talented artist... but he doesn't really have the hardcore punch of a T-La Rock when it comes to his flow. So how Tip hope to touch it? But it's actually because he has such a different vibe that it works. Typically, "It's Yours" remakes come off as close but not quite as compelling as the original, which leaves you ultimately wondering =: well, what was the point of that? But Tip gives it a whole new energy. Although he starts out with the famous opening lines, "commentating, illustrating..." and cuts in the famous horn stab of the original, after that it's completely different. Vocally and lyrically, it's pure Q-Tip. Calm, head bopping, addictive. But it still has tight turntable cuts. It keeps coming back to the original, with its famous moments like, "do you like? (Yeah.) Do you want it? (Yeah!)" or "I don't know... if it's true..." But they're totally transformed. I daresay, it may actually be one of the most successful hip-hop remakes in the genre.

Now comparing the labels, it would appear that only the Walis 12" has the instrumental. But actually, that's not true. Even though it's not printed on the label, this white label version actually has the instrumental, too. Again, this is the definitive of the two.

Next we have a track called "Moneymaker." It's similar in tone to "It's Yours" minus the T-La Rock elements. It's got a strong piano riff and some really bassy drums. It doesn't quite have the energy of the first song without the old school hardcore connections, and the "shake your moneymaker" hook isn't exactly inspired conceptually; but it's definitely another smooth head nodder for any Tip fan. And it's not at all sloppy, sing-songy and discordant like his subsequently shelved Abstract album turned out to be. No, this is what that album should've been.

Then on the back, we get an early Consequence solo track. Younger readers may not realize, but long before he was writing for G.O.O.D. Music and dissing Kanye West, Consequence was Tip's protege, having debuted on Midnight Marauders and becoming a much bigger part of Beats, Rhymes and Life, to the point where he was essentially the fifth Tribe member. Or, as one of my fellow bloggers would put it, before he was Kanye's weed carrier, he was Q-Tip's.  Here, I guess he's our Tonto.

In fact, I believe he's Tip's cousin. And so it's thanks to this connection that he gets to share this comeback 12", And yes, his song here is produced by Tip as well. He even provides the hook. It's called "The Consequences," and it's pretty good. The beat is simple and mostly effective, though the lead sample is weak and a little bit annoying. But it's all played low-key to showcase Consequence's rhymes, where he flexes a rawer, more punchline-y flow. Very 90s. The unspoken message is that he's the more lyrical, younger cat of the next generation. But he never really says anything that impressive (and like Necro, falls back on including a Dolly Parton bust size reference straight out of a 1970s kindergarten schoolyard). He's got a nice flow, though, and I wouldn't have minded hearing this remixed on a subsequent album. But as it is, it's mostly just serves as a collector's piece for Q-Tip completists. Oh, and there's an uncredited instrumental version of this song hidden away on the vinyl here, too.

So there you have it, folks. Pretty much the one time in our American, cultural history that the Long Ranger was done right. If anything, it might've set the bar a little too high for Tip's solo career. So it definitely belongs in your crates. Lasso one up and have a happy Thanksgiving.

Hi-Yo Silver, and away!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Nick Wiz Interview

(Fifth in the video interview series conducted by The Custodian of Records and edited by yours truly. Youtube version is here.)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Kool G Rap and Necro Have Arrived

It's out now: Kool G Rap and Necro's collaborative album, The Godfathers: Once Upon a Crime. I've joked a few times that the only prospect I'd look forward to more than a Kool G Rap album with Necro is a Kool G Rap album without Necro. But let's be real - how is this album, really?

Actually, Necro does a pretty decent job of living up to G Rap. I haven't spent the years following his output too closely. I enjoyed his debut 12", "Underground (Rules4Ghouls)," albeit as almost more of a novelty record than a serious hip-hop piece of art. And once he got even jokier, with his parody of LL Cool J's "I Need Love," "I Need Drugs," I was pretty much done with him. I'd catch a video here or there; but it wasn't until I got a mixCD compilation of his stuff (Origins) free a ughh record order that I thought he might even have the lyrical abilities to be taken seriously. And even then, that didn't have be running out to purchase all his albums I'd missed over the years.

Wait. Let me get even more real. I first heard of Necro when he produced Cage's debut 12". They were never actually a proper group, but they'd done radio appearances and freestyles together before that, and it sort of seemed like they had an ideal pairing going on. When they parted ways after, I always thought Cage - though he'd certainly had an impressive list of producers making tracks for him - had lost his ideal producer. And Necro had lost his ideal MC.  "Underground" was fun, but his corny, forced punchlines ("you'll be blinded like Rosie O'Donnell jumped up ten feet in the air and flashed her tits") and obvious reaches for shock value made him look like a cheap Cage knock-off. They were like two Prince Pos with no Pharaoh Monche; they never should've split.

For Necro, it's like he's finally found his Cage again. Both in being top shelf writers, and also in keeping Necro in on the right path. Not too jokey or too juvenile or too trashy.  Necro, with Kool G Rap, is pretty on point.

And I've never been mad at Necro as a producer. He keeps things simple, with pure, raw hardcore hip-hop tracks that are just perfect for a guy like G Rap. I definitely wouldn't've been mad to have seen his name on Riches, Royalty, Respect. It's a good combination, and again, Necro even shows that he can share a mic with G Rap, too. Yeah, you can still see Kool's the stronger lyricist (Necro still has jokes about Dolly Parton's breast size, if you can believe it); but Necro more than treads water with some slick, angry multis and turns in a better performance than most indie guys who've gotten Kool G Rap on their tracks.

One big thing that separates this from Riches, Royalty and Respect besides the additional rapper is the lack of variety. Where Riches had a variety of topics, styles and tones; this album basically has one speed the entire way through: hard spitting. Whether that's a good or a bad thing is just a matter of preference. On the one hand, the album can a bit endless by the time you're at 10 or 11 (there's 18 total, and none of them are skits). The formula is so locked: one indidivual verse apiece from Necro and G Rap per song. They never go line-for-line or spit multiple, shorter verses or anything. Just one verse apiece, plus a hook.

On the other hand, if you're only going to do one type of the song, this is the best type to do. And it's probably a wise move to keep Necro from attempting sad songs about the loss of a relative or heartfelt material about his love life. It's just a perfect machine-gun like delivery of skill flexing and gangster talk, and you can't go wrong with that. And they don't.

The only mistake I think they make is actually a repeat of a misstep from Riches, Royalty, Respect. It front loads all the weakest material. I appreciate that you don't want your album to run out of steam, but the first song is one of the worst - indeed, it opens with a verse from Necro much weaker than pretty much anything else he does on the album. As the goes forward, the momentum increases and you get to the hotter material but it makes me think people who are on the fence about this album - again, like Riches - won't give it a full and proper chance and wind up passing on what's a stronger album than they realize.

This album features only one guest: regular Necro cohort Mr. Hyde, who drops a quick verse near the end of the album. He holds up his end, too. There's also a female R&B vocalist named Mitch Matlock, who sings hooks and back-up vocals on three songs, and she's used very well. It never feels like a tacky crossover moment; it's subtle and effective, and gives the album a richer feel. One track has a pretty awful "what were they thinking?" hook (not by Mitch), but apart from that the album is pretty solid from beginning to end. Especially once you get a few songs deep.

This album's CD only, but it comes with a nice 25-page booklet including all the lyrics and a bunch of art pieces that clearly had care put into them. If you order it direct from Necro's site, you can get various bonuses from signed copies to t-shirts, hats and posters. Personally, none of it did anything for me apart from the basic CD and possibly the sigs, so that's all I went for. But I'm definitely happy with what I've got. I was a little worried how this project would turn out; but I think it came out the best it possibly could. I mean, I was confident we'd at least get some nice, new verses from Kool G Rap, but it's a very pleasant surprise to learn that the whole project holds up. Sure, it's not for everybody; but if you think this duo might be your speed at all, I definitely recommend it. And I'd love to see a Godfathers Part II. Meanwhile, what's Cage doing now? Dubstep? Oy vey.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fierce interview

Another in our series of interviews with some of NJ's rawest underground artists by The Custodian of Records, and edited by myself. Fierce talks about his indie 'Unsigned Hype' roots to working with D-Dot and The Hitmen.

Friday, November 8, 2013

New. Essential Juice Crew History

Masta Ace's Shelf Life Vol. 2 has just landed from Chopped Herring; and I think it's even better than the first one! There's three more tracks from that second Cold Chillin' album that never happened, a super early demo track, a late 90's joint and another unreleased Take a Look Around instrumental.

The first track is called "Scared Of the Dark," and it just seems unbelievable to me that a song this well written could ever have been shelved in the first place. Granted, even back when this track would've come out initially, I think that break and bassline had been heard before. But it sounds fresh, and Ace specially sounds incredible on it. And lyrically, it's a concept I'm actually surprised ahs turned up in hip-hop more often than it has: "I often wonder when I sit up on the train, what makes a white man so scared of me?" And it's done in the style of a classic Ace internal narrative, where we hear it through the thoughts of a black man taking the train home after work one night.

Interestingly, it's produced by The Young Disciples. an R&B, new jack swing kinda group from the UK. The connection makes sense, though, when you realize Ace also appeared on their album in 1991. And anyway, "Scared Of the Dark" sounds nothing their stuff; I'm almost tempted to think CH got the credits wrong, switching their production credit with Outloud's, who's credited with the next song.

Outloud's the guy from Blahzay Blahzay, of course. And his track, "Younger Generation" starts out with a deep, kicking breakbeat. But then over that is more upbeat singing and instrumentation, including a scratched in reggae chorus. This really stands out as something different in Ace's catalog, but it's undeniably dope regardless. And Ace comes off as strong as ever, "trying to hold me back is gonna take more than just a nation."

What else is on here? There's a DJ cut by Steady Pace. DJ cuts have been much too few and far between in our generation. You know, those songs like "Touch of Jazz" or "DJ Premier In Deep Concentration," where the DJ is given a track all to himself to show and prove. If this had come out, I think Pace would've gotten a little more recognition than he has in his career. It's not a total instrumental, though; Ace does come on for a real short verse towards the end of the song. But since when is an extra Ace verse a bad thing?

Masta Ace self-produces a slower groove called "One Two, One Two." This is the late 90s tracks. 1997 places it in the stretch between Sittin' On Chrome and Disposable Arts. That "Top Ten List" period. It's really a shame he didn't drop a full-length then, because he seemed in a great, darker lyrically inclined mode at the time.

The Take a Look Around instrumental this time is for the "Brooklyn Battles," definitely an impressive production. PreCISE MC also flipped it on her album for the song "Don't Even." "Brooklyn Battles" had been released as a single (the B-side to "Letter To the Better"), but it only featured the same album version. Unfortunately, the version here is a Dub mix, not a true instrumental (which the label does accurately stipulate), where every other line of Ace's verse is on the track, and then the next is absent. So I don't know how much people will get out of that, definitely the weak spot of the EP for me; but here it is for those who want it.

However, I've saved the most exciting song for last: "Sold Out." This is an unreleased demo by Ace from 1987; making it Ace's oldest known recording. And hell yes, it is a Marley Marl production. It's a pretty hype, fast paced number - it sounds like, after the song was completely finished, they might've gone back and sped things up a bit more. It's got a nice, deep bassline and the kind of wonderful sparse horn stabs we love Marley for. It's also got an interesting use of skit-style dialogue mid-song, which you really wouldn't expect in a song as old as this. The whole EP is pretty great, but this song
flat out makes it essential, serious Juice Crew history right here.

Once again, this is limited to 300 and comes in a cool sticker cover. Actually, most Herring releases these days are pressed at 350; but for some reason this one's back to 300. And again, some of those 300 were also pressed on colored vinyl, which you only stood a chance at getting if you pre-ordered this literally within the first 15-20 minutes it was listed on the Herring website. Specifically, the first 75 were pressed on clear (clear) and purple vinyl, the second 75 are black and purple; and the other 150 are on your basic black wax. Whatever version you wind up copping, though, you should be thrilled to own this.

And to end on an even higher note, I'll just point out that Chopped Herring's site says, "Next Volume 3..........."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Darc Mind

The 90's fucked up when they didn't put out Darc Mind. They were a serious NY duo; with the ultra-deep voiced Kev Rock dropping hard but intelligent rhymes over dark, ominous boom bap production by GM Web D. Together, their style smoothly bridged the gaps between backpacker, thugs and Dead Prez. Unfortunately, we barely heard them.

They had a song called "Visions Of a Blur" on LOUD Records' flagship soundtrack album, Soul In the Hole with a killer bassline that definitely managed to get heads attention despite being placed between many NY giants in their prime, including The Wu-Tang Clan and the solo debut of Big Pun. LOUD also released a promo-only single of theirs called "Outside Looking In," produced by Nick Wiz. But that was it. Darc Mind was on their roster, and they even recorded a full album for them called Symptomatic of a Greater Ill; but it never came out.

Until 2006, when an indie label got in touch with Kev Rock, recovered the masters, and pressed them up as a proper double LP for the first time. Which label? An early venture by Diggers With Gratitude? Or maybe Freestyle Records sounds like a better guess? No, believe it or not, it was Anticon. Pedestrian was actually - like most of us who had the Soul In the Hole tape - a fan since the 90s. He made it happen, and the rest of the album turned out to be exactly what we'd all hoped it would be: just as dope as "Visions of a Blur."  Dark and heady. Smooth yet hard. The album's still available on their site, by the way. I absolutely recommend it.

This isn't the only time Anticon's ventured into this arena, by the way. You know those Grimm Teachaz EPs that Chopped Herring's been putting out? You know, with Son Doobie and all? Well, if you're digging those EPs, you should definitely check out the cassette full-length album Anticon put out of theirs in 2011, also still available on their site.

Anyway, that's only half of this Darc Mind story. Thanks to the buzz around Anticon's release, plus the credibility GM Web D earned under the aliases of X-Ray and King Ceasar (yeah, they're both actually the same guy) producing for MF Doom and the Monster Island Czars, of which he's also a member, Darc Mind reunited and started putting out limited CD-only releases through their website (I think one also came free if you bought their album off of Sandbox or something). And in 2013, Dope Folks pressed up some more of their lost music on vinyl.

Now remember, Symptomatic of a Greater Ill, Soul In the Hole and all that was 1996-1997 era. This six-song EP, called Antediluvian vol. 1 [I assume that means there's a part 2 coming!], is all from 1990-1992. I mean, holy crap, who knew the pair went back that far?!

Well, we sorta had a hint that they went back at least a few years earlier than Soul In the Hole. A couple years ago, Dope Folks released another GM Web D production: the Legion of D.U.M.E. '94 EP. That EP was a sweet combo of the rare Legion of D.U.M.E. 2-song 12" on Darc Mind Records[!], plus six more never-before-released other D.U.M.E. recordings. In fact, Legion of D.U.M.E. consists of both Web D and Kev; the difference is just that it also includes two other members: Prime Time and Scott Free.

But still, Darc Mind material from as far back as 1990 is kind of a mind blower. Two of the songs - "Smooth Wit the Roughness" and "Fine Brown Frame" - are actually from those self-released CDs Darc Mind put out on their own. But this is still their debut on vinyl and the first a lot of us are really getting to hear them. And the other four, as far as I know, have never been released in any capacity.

Anyway, you'll be pleased to know that this material, even though it's way older, still has the same ethos as Symptomatic. Dark, smooth, hard. Kev's younger but basically sounds the same, and GM's production sounds pretty much the same, too; albeit with more recognizable samples than his later work. And "Fine Brown Frame." That song has a lighter, bouncier, more old school feel. It's still good, but it doesn't sound like the rest of their material. Overall, it's just different enough to be fun in a "isn't it fun to hear how they used to sound" kind of way; but similar enough not to disappoint any of their fans.

Like all Dope Folks releases, it's limited to 300 copies, and comes with a cool sticker cover. However, in this instance, there's also a cheaper, limited CD option available only through Darc Mind's Mindbenda site. So the 90's dropped the ball, but the 2000s and 2010s have once again swooped to catch it and score a slam dunk... or something. I'm not good at sports metaphors. All this Darc Mind material is quality stuff.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Second Era Chill Rob

This is the first of Chill Rob G's comeback singles after his separation from Wild Pitch Records, The Flavor Unit and The 45 King's production. This dropped in 1996 on Echo International. I love Echo. I mean, it was terrible for its roster's careers. They had zero promotion, and every artist I've heard mention it has had horror stories about not getting paid, or even that their releases through that label were unapproved bootlegs. But they put out so much material by so many artists who had otherwise totally dropped off the map. And while it usually wasn't their best stuff, being low budget and all; it was usually on a nice, underground east coast boom-bap tip.

And that's what this is. low budget, raw 90's boom bap from a classic NY MC who'd long since disappeared. It's a two track 12", "Let Me Know Something" b/w "Know Ya Place." Both songs are produced by a guy named Storm who knows the right thing to do: provide solid but low-key beats. consisting of a hard, no frills looping drum beats, sparse basslines and head-nodding piano loop and one other subtle sample (a horn in "Know Ya Place" and a snippet of a female R&B singer on "Let Me Know Something"). The loops have basically no change-ups or deviations through the entire length of the song. The hooks are also just simple, lightly scratched vocal samples. They're good enough to keep you feeling the track, but small enough not to distract from the MC. If you've lost your access to classic 45 King loops, this is what you do. Keep your head down and do just enough not to distract. Anything corny or superfluous would just kill the whole song, as so many producers have been proving through the 2000s and 2010s.

But of course, that strategy only works if your MC is strong enough to carry the weight. This is fucking Chill Rob G, so of course he is. He's got the classic, deep voice that could carry a record acapella if he had to. And while he definitely keeps things simple here - really basic concepts and a straight-forward delivery with a true school aesthetic - he's also updated his rhyme writing just enough for the 90's. He's got some clever rhymes in there like:

"I ain't never been a fan of yours, I make a list and check it twice; I'm like an evil Santa Claus. And I ain't bringin' no gifts and toys; I got a bag full of hard times, black eyes and mad noise." 

He doesn't go full "punchline rapper." He definitely is putting some updated 90s-style cleverness into the wordplay, but still keeps it hard. He definitely proves that he's an artist with more than a couple classic Wild Pitch singles in him.

Several years later, he would include both of those on his very rare, self-released Black Gold CD. But this 12" has the added bonus of an Accapella, in addition to Radio and Street Versions of each track, plus an Instrumental for "Know Ya Place." And the nice thing is that Echo singles are hardly ever rare, so you can add this to your crates pretty easily, which I recommend. Chill Rob G should never have been allowed to drop off, he could've produced a much longer, richer and genuinely worthwhile catalog. But at least there was Echo to give us a little bit more.