Saturday, December 28, 2013

Mr. Smith

Diggers With Gratitude has started to expand from a label specialized only in issuing unreleased hip-hop treasures of decades past to a more traditional label with a small family of artists. You're not just as likely to see another all new 12" by, say, Phill Most Chill, as you are another lost Tragedy track. And it's in the spirit of this newer mode that we're presented with their latest record: The Marc Smith LP by Emskee and The 5th.

Emskee, in case you've forgotten, is a deep-voiced Jersey MC who we first heard on Nick Wiz's Cellar Sounds compilations, who'd also been active in the late 2000s as a member of The Good People. DWG went to work and unearthed all his vaulted material from the early 90s - including a neat collection of radio promos - and now he seems to have found a spot on the DWG family tree. And The 5th? He's the DJ/ producer for Long Island's Sputnik Brown, another group that DWG's been rolling with.

So, this is a coming together usually separate acts under DWG's umbrella, though the focus seems to be on the MC half as Marc Smith is Emskee's real name. The 5th might just need a better agent. ;)  Because despite the title, this isn't a particularly personal album... he makes some reference to coming up in Jersey, but this is no collection of childhood memories, parental odes and tales of failed relationships. Thankfully. Instead, this is just Emskee calmly boasting and talking up his credibility.

It's really all about his voice professionally flowing over The 5th's traditional boom bap beats. Most are slow, deep and Earthy, with the stand outs being the few songs that get a little more high energy or feature especially choice vocal samples being scratched into the hooks... "Annunciate" makes some really fun use of The DOC over a simple but catchy sample.  "Fuck Shit Up" is a bouncy little posse cut. And "I'm Ready" is the liveliest, with some fresh Digable Planets cuts.

There are a couple guests on hand here, including The Good People's Saint, and two unknowns named Benn ILLA and Jesus Mason, who turn up on like three songs. No one really steals the show from Emskee, but they do provide a little variety to keep the album from feeling too monotonous.

If the album's weakness is that it plays things a little too safe, that does make a pretty nice comfort zone for the buyer. You didn't really need to read any reviews or hear any snippets to gather that this was going to be a solid LP, did you? You know you're not gonna be stuck with something poor from DWG. And as this is a new LP, it's not being sold at a "limited" price, but as a standard modern LP. Plus, it comes on a nice heavy wax in a very fresh picture cover. Good deal. 8)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Frohe Weihnachten," from Kurtis Blow!

When I wrote that article on "Christmas Rappin'" for HiLoBrow, and then backed that up with an extensive blog post talking about the record's history and dualistic format, you probably figured I'd told you all there is to know about Kurtis Blow's holiday classic. But no, there's more - a whole record more!  Yes, the man himself returned came back fifteen years later to update the song, now on Mascotte Music*. Ladies, gentlemen.... and lowlifes, it's "Christmas Rappin' '95!"

Yes, this is another 12" that Blow released in his German period, and this particular track is produced by Claude Schmidt and Christian Schneider. But it's worth pointing out right at the start that this isn't just some cheap, foreign remix of an old school hit scrapped together with a few old masters overseas. Kurtis Blow is here himself, providing all new vocals over this all new instrumental.

Now, they call this "'95" because it came out in 1995, but while they did update the old disco rap tune for slightly more modern times, it doesn't really sound like anything that would've come out in 1995.  Except for slightly more modern production style elements in the production, it sounds more like "Christmas Rappin' '85." It does have a very high BPM (surely the European influence), but otherwise it's still done with a lot of live instrumentation, which is definitely a good thing, because it doesn't betray the feel of the original at all. It's like a just a slightly newer disco band, fast and funky. It's got a piano solo right where the last one was, but it's a totally new one. There's new background vocals - something you may remember me highlighting as being pretty important to the song in my Herc Your Enthusiasm piece - it sounds like a much bigger crowd; it fits the new track. They almost sound too professional, like maybe they've been created by a sound studio; except later in the song he leads them in a shout and call response saying things like (just as in the original) "mucho macho," which could only have been brought to wax by Kurtis Blow.

And yeah, he does all of the original raps, the full song, but it's not the old acapella. He raps quicker for the new track; but you can tell they haven't just sped up his old vocals because he puts new stylizations on his lines (though he still pronounces "stereo" as "stere-ooh"), giving this some version some added flavor. But most exciting of all, since he's rapping faster, he gets to the end of the song quicker. So he makes up for that... by kicking an all new verse at the end! It's actually a fairly impressive showcase of skills, too; a fast rap with a lot of multiple short syllable rhymes. He's not saying much beyond "amateurs fear me just like adversaries" and such, but he comes off really well. He definitely shows the capability to pull off a more advanced style than he displayed on all his classics. Usually, you think of Kurtis Blow as having one of the most dated, almost silly flows by later standards; but apparently he could've held his own with the 90s generation of MCs just fine.

This 12" single presents us with three versions of the "Christmas Rappin' '95:" a concise three and a half minute edit, a longer six minute edit, and the complete nine and a half minute version. Really, there's no reason to mess the shorter edits on side A unless you're pressed for time; the full version is definitely the definitive version, not one of those drawn out "extended" mixes where they just let the beat ride for two minutes at a stretch.

This seems to have been completely overlooked - and somewhat understandably. A 1990s Kurtis Blow records, only released overseas, remaking an already beloved hit? You can't replace the original in peoples' hearts, right? Well, no; and I'm not suggesting you should replace the copy of "Rappin' Blow" in your crates for this... but this is a surprisingly good, catchy and genuinely enjoyable alternative. It's almost a waste that he put this much good music into this record, since it was never going to get a sliver of the recognition it deserved. He probably should've put that energy into an all-new record. But his mistake is no reason for us to miss out on it now. Track this one down and spin it one of these holidays when you find that the original is feeling, as Blow first put it, "played out."

*Mascotte Music is actually a French label, but Kurtis is working with the same German producers who made "Freak Rock 'Till the Break of Dawn" with him; and this was presumably also recorded in Germany.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Life and Times of Time

Remember Time? He's an MC from Denver... I reviewed his last album four years ago. Well, he's back with his next and third CD, Newstalgia on Dirty Laboratory Records. No autotune this time. But there's actually a lot to discuss on this one, so let's get stuck in.

Newstalgia is an autobiographical album. I mean, super autobiographical; it probably should've been titled Timestalgia. Each song is about his childhood, his family, etc. Consequently, how compelling you find the lyrics will depend a lot on how invested you are in Time's personal life. If you're a serious fan or know him personally, this digs deep enough to be some pretty riveting stuff, But as a casual listener, it started to wear thin pretty early and overall it felt too on the nose.

Like, take this quick bar: "The only things we know is drinkin' and fightin' and heartbreak. I was the one who started the brawl at Finnegan's Wake. I'm half English and half Irish; that's my first crime. It's also the reason I hate myself half the time." If you're feeling it... if you're like oh, it's so sincere and emotional, and yet the James Joyce reference shows it's intellectual at the same time.* Than this is the album for you. I'm going to keep discussing the pros and cons of this album; but you're probably going to decide in favor of this album on every issue I raise and I definitely recommend you take the time to track it down. But, if you're thinking more along the lines of cloying, pretentious, angsty, or you've just got the word "hipster" flashing across your brain in big, red letters, then you can stop reading here. Every moment and element of this album is going to rub you the wrong way, and you should stay well clear.

Not that every song is reaching for the artsy and profound. "8 Bit Memories" is a song about his childhood video games, "a joystick was the only thing I enjoyed holdin', because it let me save the world and keep my axe golden. I tried playin' Punch Out, 'till I found out you hit the band aid..." I mean, yeah, it's about a little bit more than just that... i.e. a child's limited outlook on the world. But at the end of the day, it's really just an excuse to play Catch All the References with the gamers in the audience, you know like "Pink Cookies In a Plastic Bag" or "Labels" meets Hot Karl's "Kerk Gybson." It's an intentionally - and not unwelcome - lighter moment.

He also opens it up a bit by bringing in a lot of collaborators. Almost every song features somebody even if a lot of 'em are just on the choruses, but almost all of them virtual unknowns. I did recognize a couple names, though, including producer Factor who has a track on here, Xiu Xiu who I just know from having done a song or two with Sole and Fake Four owner Ceschi, who's unfortunately now more famous for something completely unrelated to his music.

And the production has a very lush feel, featuring a lot of presumably live instrumentation (this might also account for some of the unknown collaborators). The self-produced "They Call Us the Irish," for example, has really heavy piano and horn running through it, that gives it almost a jazz fusion feel. This offers a really nice, warm energy that'll keep you listening to the entire record whether you're particularly feeling Time on the mic or not. It's clear that a lot of care went into this album, which you can't help but appreciate. On the other hand, there's no "this is my jam!" beat to really grab you like a lot of our simpler, sampled classics. There's no big single here, just a long, full album. Whether that's a plus or minus will just depend on your current relationship with music.

Look, I could nitpick this album all day. The hook on "Writer's Shot"... the preachy spoken word skit that I think is meant to be a homage to Common Sense's "Pop's Rap"... the lazy list style song ("Shout for the Voiceless") that Buck 65 likes to stick on each of his albums, where you just read off a list of things with a common theme for three and a half minutes and pretend you've written a song... The title. And they are genuinely irksome - I would like this album twice as much if he could just wire-brush all those little bits away. He's like a good author who just needs an editor.

But after a little while, getting mired in the faults is missing the point. This album is a pleasure to listen to if you're a fan of this kind of indie, semi-avant garde hip-hop, and it shows real talent. Newstalgia is eighteen full-length songs, so each flaw is like a little buoy floating in an ocean of quality stuff. Or at least a lake. Is it the kind of album I'll revisit time and again for years? No, but I think this one shows Time has the potential to make that album down the road. And that's a lot more than you can say about most of these guys out there doing it.

*And he is making a genuine point with it... I've written about references for references' sake. But Time is actually saying something besides just pointing out that he knows Joyce exists.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Keep Your Head Up, Paula Perry Interview

We first heard Paula Perry as a member of Masta Ace, INC, where she proved to be far more than simply a token female crew member. She struck out on her own with her debut single "Paula's Jam," which was a monster underground hit. And she soon released a slew of singles, including "Extra, Extra" produced by Premier. She eventually wound up on Motown Records, but her album, Tales From Fort Knox, got lost in the system. But she's stayed in the game, and fifteen years later, you'll find that there might be hope for Tales yet, and she's got a hell of a story to tell...

So to start, tell us how you first got started in hip-hop, making that transition from just a listener to doing it yourself.

Well, me bein' young and rapping outside the jams and stuff like that, you know. And Eric B & Rakim came to Fort Greene back in those days. And that kinda made me wanna become a full-fledged rapper. Because he, Eric B, was semi-managing me and my old partner. So that's how it started, really. But you know, it wasn't something that I really took seriously back then until I met Masta Ace.

And how did you meet him?

I met him through a friend of mine. He was telling me he was looking for a female rapper and stuff like that. So he called me to his house one day; and I rapped for Ace and he took it from there.

Is that how Lord Digga came in, too?

I think him and Lord Digga had went to high school together. So that's how they met. I'm not sure how he started rapping, but they knew each other for a long time before that.

I don't know if you've heard, but a label called Chopped Herring has been putting out the tracks Master Ace's unreleased second album, the one he would've recorded for Cold Chillin'.

Oh yeah?

Yeah, and you have a track on there.

I have a track on there? That was the first time... When I first met Ace, he was still on Cold Chillin'. So he did record an album. But I don't actually remember recording anything for that album specifically. Anything he might have on there would just be something he did outside of the album.  I have to find out about that.

Oh ok, so that was separate?

Right, right. To my knowledge.

Wait, I've got the record here. It was called... "Kick it On the One" [on Shelf Life vol. 1].

Oh! "Kick it On the One." Mm-hm. That was like the first recording I had with him. No album. That was like a demo, or maybe it was for like one of Mister Cee's freestyle tapes.

So you were already there with him for the shift from Warner Brothers to Delicious Vinyl.

Yeah. I was working with him in the studio, but I wasn't with him behind the scenes, as far as like or the office meetings, anything like that.

So as part of the INC, were you really considered, like would the label have considered you a member? Were you signed with them?

No, and that's something that I didn't really understand back then. You know, I was young and there was a lot about the business side I didn't truly understand. So actually we were on the records, but we never really got paid for being on the record. We just got paid for going on tours and doing shows with him.

But at least the touring must've been pretty successful, right? Because "Born To Roll" had sort of opened him up to the west coast and more of the rest of the country outside New York...

Mm-hm. Yeah, we did do a lot of touring. Like I said, you know, it was a lot of underhanded stuff that Masta Ace was doing that wasn't quite fair to the INC.

Another thing I wanted to ask you about with The INC, or the Action Posse. was Ice U Rock. You hardly hear anything about them.

Right. And they were actually part of the INC before me and Lord Digga was. Both of them was rapping, Ice and Uneek, and I think one of them started making beats. But after me and Lord Digga came on the scene... You know, everybody was in the crew, but they weren't traveling or anything with us.

Oh, like they wouldn't be on the tour?

No, nope. And even Steadypace. Remember, he had Steadypace DJing for him first, and he had that changed up... I never really knew what happened with that situation.

After he left Delicious Vinyl?

Yeah. Sittin' On Chrome he was around more.

So would you still be working with Masta Ace these days? It sounds like not.


So, when you came out with "Paula's Jam," that came out first through INC then again on Loose Change, right? Well, first of all, what even was Loose Change exactly? Who ran it?

Loose Change was an existing label, the president was Lisa Cortes, she did the movie Precious; she executive produced that movie. And, you know, I don't think it was a real good label for me to be on, because they were going through their problems. And of course the label folded... which shifted me to Mercury. And then something happened with Mercury, and then that shifted me to Motown.

What did happen with Mercury?

I'm not sure, but something happened where everybody got fired off the label. A lot of people lost their jobs. And they merged.

So back to when you came out with "Paula's Jam," were you like...

Signed? No. I didn't have a deal yet quite yet. So he decided to put a white label on me. And actually the labels were calling my house directly. People would give them my phone number, and they were trying to have a bidding war with me over the phone. I let Ace know, and at first he didn't really believe it. I had to put it to his attention: labels wanted to sign me to a deal. And like the next couple of weeks, that's when we started going up to labels, and I got my deal.

But I think, if I wouldn't have brought it to his attention... I think he knew, but I don't think he was planning on getting me a deal that quick. Of course he wanted me to still be with the INC and travel with him on his tours; but yet I wasn't getting paid off the album.

So then when you landed with Motown, that must've been sort of a weird situation, too. Because up 'till then, they had sort of an unusual relationship with hip-hop. It took them ages to start signing acts, and then it was always more pop stuff like Wrecks-N-Effect or Doc Box and B Fresh...

Yeah, it was weird. A lot of people up there. The only person who really knew what they were doing up there with hip-hop were Mister Cee and Shakim, Latifah's manager. You know, with Shakim and Mister Cee, there was a lot of competition going on with me and her album and stuff like that. Me and her are long time friends, but you know, in this business there was a lot of bullshit going on.

The reason why my album never came out with Motown - and I'm letting this out now; you're the first one I'm telling this to - is because they gave my money for my promotion to Laitifah for her deal. by the time the were ready to release my second single, I didn't have no money in my budget to promote. On top of that, Mister Cee stole fifty thousand dollars out of my budget.


And then you have Masta Ace, he had the promotion payments. He was taking money. They were giving him like ten grand a month to do the promotions and stuff. He wasn't doing anything.

So between Mister Cee... Shakim & Latifah and them... And Masta Ace... My deal fucked up. Excuse my French. I'm not gonna be quiet about it.

So, when you did "Getta Grip Muthaphuckas" on MIster Cee, was that during that time too?

Oh, that was way before that. That was before I even had the deal. So, you know this business... With Mister Cee, I haven't spoken to him in years; I haven't spoken to Master Ace in years. So it was like the greed. And in the end it was so messed up because a lo of labels didn't really want to deal with Masta Ace because of his activities, you know. So they were telling me to get off of Masta Ace's - because I was signed to his production deal. so they wanted me to get off his production deal in order to even deal with me. Def Jam included; they wanted me bad. But they didn't wanna deal with him.

And I guess you couldn't get away from him because of contracts, is that right?

Yeah, because of the contracts. My lawyers told me to get off him, but I couldn't bring myself to  do it really until when I got to Motown I realized, wow. You know? I knew they were jerkin' me all along, but I didn't know to what extent it was.

So not to get too dark here, but when did you realize that Tales From Fort Knox wasn't actually going to come out? Because it got pretty close, it was even reviewed in magazines.

I realized that after Kedar [Massenburg] took over. After he took over and he let Jay-Z and Bleek and all of them get in there and do what they wanted to do, you know, I knew that was it.

And then a couple of the tracks from the album came out on a label called Buds Distribution...

Oh yeah, yeah. I was dealing with Lyvio [R. Gay]. Just really "Six Pack" and "BQE." Everything else was outside the album. I didn't put out anything else off the album.  I knew the album wasn't coming out, so I knew I had to get money some other kind of way. So I just started dealing with them, putting out little singles here and there; just to keep my name alive and keep money in my pocket.

And then you came out on Fully Blown, which is probably an interesting story.


What was it like working with them? Who even ran that label?

Fully Blown, that was Bud's. too. Lyvio, I forgot his last name. And Tariq [Nelson]. And actually, he put out another single of mine, and just skipped town. I haven't heard from him and Lyvio either. That was the end of that. There's a lot of people lookin' for 'em. (Laughs)

So then you came out with another 12", on Familiar Faces, which I know is also your management team? Or what is that exactly?

Yeah. that's something me and my baby's father built from the ground up. You know, it's like a production slash management label; and that's where Lil Mama came out of.

Yeah, I was going to ask about that.

Yeah, so it's still working now, but we just have to put a lot of things back in order. We got couple of vans, got a studio, put out some CDs, got some packages and stuff together on some artists, landed Lil Mama a deal. And we got hopes for our other artists coming out of the label, but we have to see about that.

Who else do you have?

We have Negus, we have Vidal, which is Lil Mama's brother. We have Kadar, another artist of ours. And then we have the young producer Laron. I don't know if you've heard of Astronomical Kid? He did X-Factor. And LA Reid signed him to a label a couple years ago, but I don't know what's going on with that. But he came out of our camp as well.

And is Lil Mama still an artist now, or has she stepped away from that?

Well, she's still recording and stuff like that. I know MC Lyte's manager is supposed to be managing her now. And she's supposed to be part of a new reality show they got coming out now called Hip-Hop Sisters. Hopefully I can be a part of that, too. She's supposed to be part of that. And, outside of that, I know she's doing that show America's Best Dance Crew. They have a place for out in LA. She's livin'.

And I know you put out a mixtape in 2009, and releasing tracks on Youtube and stuff for a long time. So you've been staying in it.

Yeah, you know, when you have access to your own studio, you know I record myself. (Laughs) So I record a few songs there, I and Lil Mama record a few songs. It's just something so I can let people know I'm still a little bit active.

So are you coming back to that - putting together a new album?

Well, actually I started shooting videos for a lot... like all of Brooklyn, basically. And a little managing and stuff like that, a few shows on the side.  So I kinda like took a back seat; I was behind the scenes a lot. So somebody approached me a couple years ago and said I should put out a mixtape, which I haven't really finished yet. So I was just throwing out random songs here and there. But, you know, maybe if the right opportunity comes my way, I might think about putting out some more stuff.

But I would like to put out the album. From my understanding, Motown gave me the reels to the stuff, you know; they said I could do with it as I please. That's why I was putting out a couple of  singles through Lyvio, and I never had a problem.

And, and this is a good time for it, too; because a lot of labels have been releasing previously lost albums and all.

Yup, I noticed that.

So this re-release - or first release I guess, actually - is it locked down yet, or where is it at?

Well, I'm still pretty much shopping it around.

I know you had a lot of big stuff on there people haven't heard yet. I know you had like Brian McKnight on there...

Yup, Brian McKuight, Kelly Price, Lost Boyz... And the song I did with Kelly Price, I mean, it still bumps now, to me. It'll do good I think. It's danceable, it's R&B mixed with hip-hop. Radio, definitely radio. "I Wanna Be," the song with Kelly Price, it has a message, you know. Like you can be what you wanna be.

That's interesting, though. Because when you were reviewed in The Source, I know you got a lot of flack for that, having the R&B and radio elements to it that you mentioned.


Was that your decision, or like a Motown influence?

It was my decision. Really, it was mine and Mister Cee's collab. We just thought it would be the best strategy for the album, just to keep it more radio oriented. Although the first I put out was "Extra, Extra" because I wanted to stick to my underground roots. And which to me, looking at it now, was a mistake. Because Motown didn't want me to put that out. And a record label is behind you as long as you do what they want you to do. (Laughs)

Actually, they wanted the first single to be "Ghetto Vows," with Brian McKnight and Que 45.

Let me ask you about Que 45. Because I only really know him from appearing on your records. Who is he, or what's his story?

Okay, well he's actually my son's father. I got him into rapping years ago, and he started writing for Latifah and a couple more artists. And he was helping manage Lil Mama, which is his niece. So that's how all that comes to play.

So you're still working with him now?

No, not really. He's not really into the rap business anymore. Really, I'm just working for myself right now.

Well it would be great if this album could finally come out. I remember seeing the "Extra, Extra" cassette single in stores, and I didn't buy it. Because I was like: I'm gonna buy the album instead, like it's gonna come out in a few weeks...

...And it never came out. And I was hearing about everything that was going on in Motown and the other labels and stuff. And you know, I was like: wow, I can't believe it. So I pretty much knew what was coming. So when I started seeing a lot of people get fired off of labels, and other people coming in, they didn't really have no knowledge about my album. They were going in a new direction, and it was just crazy. And then to find out from Shakim himself what happened to my budget, which shook me.

And I could have worked with him, too, after the fact. My lawyer wouldn't let me sign the contract with him after what they did. And they were having a lot of problems with their other artist, and then they were one point four million dollars in the hole with the hip-hop industry, so that's why they started doing so many movies.

Right. I guess that would've been about the time they re-did The Flavor Unit as just The Unit, with all those new artists?


And when you said you could've worked with them, too; do you mean they would've signed you to that Unit?

Yeah, they were gonna sign me to The Unit, but I would've been able to own my masters. They weren't offering an advance. So really I don't know what type of deal that would've turned out to be.

Yeah, it didn't seem like that Unit went too far anyway, so maybe just as well.

Exactly. But you know, everything else came with that. Like, oh you can get some Cover Girl commercials, and you can be in a movie, you can do this and you can do that. But I wanted to be a rapper. I was just a hardcore rapper.

And they knew what to do with that back on Motown? Or was that an issue with them?

No, it wasn't an issue with them, because I did a lot of R&B oriented songs, like the Kelly Price, Brian McKnight and all that. All of them had dance beats. The only real hardcore songs I've done were like with Jesse West, "Extra, Extra" with the Primo beat, and a couple other songs. But the rest of them were for radio. I think they knew what they were doing and had in mind what they wanted me to do. And I was comfortable with it. Because I was still rapping like myself, but the beats were more dance-oriented and the hooks were more broad. And that's why i think the songs will survive today.

Yeah, in a way, the scope of hip-hop has really widened up.

Yeah. It did, it did. And that was part of the dilemma as well. (Laughs) Because I was a hardcore rapper, and they wanted to clean up a lot of stuff. And now they just trying to turn everything to sex, money and drugs.

So if you were to do an album today, with a big budget and everything, is that the direction you'd be headed in again?

Something definitely for radio. I mean, I learned that from Biggie Smalls. You know we all used to rap together. I knew it took Puffy a while to convince him that this was the way to go, but I see that's where the money's at. You know, so if I can keep my hardcore edge, and rap the way I rap just over some nice danceable beats with broad singing hooks or whatever, it's fine with me. And do the other stuff as well.

Well, hopefully people get to finally hear the whole scope of what you wanted to get out there with Tales From Fort Knox...

Yup. Call it Unfinished Business, because I think the album would have done real, real well. And Motown was actually real happy with the album, and I'd done the album the cheapest in Motown's history.

Basically, all the struggling artists out there, just keep your head up. Keep going; don't give up.

Thanks again to Paula for taking the time to talk to me... it's really great to finally get the answers to questions I've been wondering about as a fan for years and years. You can find Paula Perry on Twitter and especially Youtube, where she's got a lot of content up.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Monday, December 9, 2013

Venture Into...

Parts Unknown are a very obscure Palo Alto group with a hot, underground album. I first heard of it the same way many of you readers probably did: when it was touring the rapidshare blogs and selling for big bucks on EBay. Time for Turmoil was a cassette only release, and heads have been asking for a proper release since it first started burning up the internet. And just like they answered my call for Young Zee's lost album, Dope Folks Records swooped in and provided.

The full ten-song (well... eight songs and two skits) album is now here, remastered on vinyl, with a cool sticker cover preserving the original J-card image. You might notice the track-listing is different, but everything's here, the order has just been reshuffled into a new sequence.

Never heard these guys before? Well, they're a nine man crew, but could basically be boiled down to MC Kilo G, who's the main vocalist on almost every track, and producer Studio B, plus their extended crew (C-Dub, Code Z, Top Dog, Shawn T, Paco, Young Mack & K-9). And when I first heard them, I thought they really sounded like early Paris. Kilo's voice and flow, the dark production. I thought that even before getting to "Radio Version Of the Underground," which jacks the instrumental for "The Devil Made Me Do It." So the similarity is more than coincidental, but that's okay, because who wouldn't want to hear a hardcore crew that sounds like early Paris with a rawer street edge?

Granted, they trade away a little of Paris's compelling social and political commentary, but in return they get a rougher, old school sound, plus a livelier variety thanks to the other MCs. For instance, Young Mack lives up to his name by sounding like a kid on "Another Day In EPA," and Shawn T & Top Dog bring a more traditional gangster rap influence to the table on "Trademark." "911 Funk" disses Rated X over EPMD's "You're a Customer" beat, with an anonymous female guest MC on the last verse. "NewTack Remix" is a remix of their earlier single "Classified NewJack" (amusingly, Dope Folks carries over the typo from the original cassette sleeve). Whether it's preferable or not is debatable... this version probably sounds objectively better, but relies more on familiar/ overly used breakbeats, whereas the original was fresher and had (appropriately) a slightly more new jack feel to it. Vinyl heads will probably prefer the one they're getting here, so that works out.

As always with Dope Folks, this is limited to 300 copies. Sound quality-wise, you can kinda tell that this was taken from the cassette or a rip as opposed to original master reels, but they've done a nice job beefing up the music in the remastering, giving it a rich, warm quality with some deep bass. Plus, who knows if pristine sounded reels ever existed in the first place, considering what a low budget album this seems to have been? Basically, it's a dope album that sounds better here than you've ever heard it. And it's very cool to see one of our limited vinyl labels venture into some grittier gangster hip-hop, which is just as hot as anything despite being outside of the NY-sounding boom-bap comfort zone. Who knows what awesomeness this could be opening the doors for?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Long Time Coming, Young Zee Interview

Regular readers may have noticed - I mean, I should hope! - that I've been involved with a very exciting upcoming release on Dope Folks Records: Young Zee's long-shelved Musical Meltdown album, originally scheduled to be released in 1996 on Perspective Records. To help celebrate, I interviewed the artist himself, Young Zee.

(Disclaimer: unfortunately, as wonderful as modern technology is, it's still wonky & unreliable, and consequently, much of the audio of this interview was fucked.  The conversation is fresh in my mind, and I took notes, so I've written his answers to those questions as closely as I remember them, but a good deal of paraphrasing was required.  The important thing to me, though, is that I've finally gotten the answers to many of our long held questions, and I can still share that with you guys. So here goes!)

So, with Musical Meltdown finally dropping, like, seventeen years after it was meant to, I wonder if you could talk about that... why it didn't come out in the first place. There was that infamous Source review, but then of course, Perspective also seemed to be closing its doors around that time.

Yeah, it was like a year after. They had the money to keep it open if they wanted, though.  That label was owned by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; they could've done whatever. But the thing was, they had a lot of acts; they just weren't successful with rap. Do you remember Pudgee?

Yeah, he had "On the Regular" and all.

Yeah. they put out his records and others but it just wasn't doing what they wanted. They had a whole rap department, and when the head of that went elsewhere, the guy who brought me in, when he left, that was basically it. My singles didn't do well... "Problems."  They didn't really sell that big.  They had a lot of R&B, like Mint Condition. They didn't really know what to do with us.

Of course you stayed in the game and went on with The Outsidaz and all... Pudgee went on, Rufus Blaq did. One guy who didn't, though, was Arrogant. Do you know what happened to him? He was tight, and he seemed to totally disappear after Perspective.

Yeah!  Arrogant was nice, real lyrical. I don't know what happened to him. We were like good friends. Perspective would throw parties, they had all this money, and they would take us places, and i'd always get together with Arrogant. I don't know what happened to him.

So after Perspective...

After Perspective, we were shopping deals. We were driving and we just saw Chris Schwartz in the street. We ran up to him like, sign us! He heard a tape and like the next day he signed us. We signed with Ruffhouse because they had all the artists we were fans of: Cypress Hill, The Fugees...

Do you have any of the demo material from back then? Because some of that stuff, there's just these low quality versions floating around, but it's like classic material.

I don't have any of that stuff. My house burnt down in '97, so I don't have any of that Outsidaz archives anymore.

Damn! At least you can keep making new material, though. A lot of artists, you're fans of them in the 90s, but hearing them today and it's just not the same. Even some of the other Outsidaz, they're not on the same level or just different. Pace's stuff kinda changed, or like Azz Izz. His new stuff is like totally different from the MC he was in the Outz.

Well, Azz Izz was a DJ.  A lot of those guys weren't rappers, they were just the guy with the car or whatever, down with the group and we let them rap.  Sometimes you've got to have filler, guys who rap while you're waiting for Meth to come back. They can't all be Method Man. Azz Izz wasn't a rapper, he was a DJ. We had like three DJs.

And he was a producer. I know he did some tracks on the Outsidaz album before doing his own album.

Yeah, he was a producer. And he was a DJ; he was never a rapper.

You've stayed 100%, though. Like stuff you're dropping know, like your album with Mr. Green, you're still on par with your best material. Even a lot of the stronger MCs from the Outz, since you split, it seems like they're not quite as strong as when you were all a group. Is that because you were all writing together, or...?

It was competitive. That's why when the Outz went our separate ways, everybody didn't keep it. When I laid a verse, or Pace, everyone said was sick. So when they did one, they wouldn't pay attention. Or they would cut it off the song. So they knew they had to spit something really ill to keep up. So didn't want to get taken off the album. Now when they're on their own, they just think whatever they're saying is enough.

I'm not saying I was the nicest. You know who I was worried about was Slang.  I used to go hard because he would show me up. I thought he was the illest, so I had to spit my best because he was on the same track.

One thing that separated The Outz was you had the hardness and the edge but also the humor. Another who really held up is Yah. I always felt like he was the most under appreciated in the group.

Yah's my brother.

Yeah, and he had a style similar to yours. I was wondering if...

Yah used to be in the house, listening to me rap. I'd be spitting verses, he'd be like, "yeah, that was tight!"  He was like me in the way he brought all the syllables.

I think also in his writing style, too; the way he'd pull in these references... but not like jokey or typical 90s punchliney.

Yeah, Yah was dead serious when he spit. That was the difference, he spit the kind of shit I liked, but dead serious.

There's only like 500,000 people in the world that are in this for the lyrics. When you hear songs on the radio you don't even like it but you know all the words because you be hearing it. That's a manager or somebody who could put them there. Most people aren't in it for the lyrics; they're in it for the money. And that's what ruins it. That's how I feel.

You know who I'm feeling right now? What's that dude from The Clipse, you know who I mean? With the braids, signed with GOOD Music... It shows how much I partied last night that I don't remember his name now. [I realized afterwards he's talking about Pusha T] That's who I'm into right now.

I got a son who rhymes. He's got a little group, the NJ Rebels. I go to radio stations and when I get in I get asked about him now. He knows he's gotta bring it with me being his father, he can't just be like these guys, only talking about what they're wearing. These guys always want to bring us to these expensive shopping malls and shit we can't afford. We don't want to hear that! Or you can talk about it, but then at least bring the syllables, say it with some skills. But they're not in it for the lyrics. There's only 500,000 of us.

So, speaking of former Outz, what happened with Eminem? I know he didn't get the Outz on his first album, but he was definitely shouting out the group like crazy on there. It was the hook to one of his songs even. Kids who didn't even know who The Outsidaz were knew he was one of them.

Yeah, we were supposed to be "Amityville." Me, Pace, Bizarre, we were all on there. We left, it was done, and Em called, there was one small part of his verse he didn't like. He asked Pace to change that part. Pace said no, he wouldn't do it. He spit it and he should use it, that's just what it was. I was like man, just change it. It was just that one thing.

Pace knows. If somebody had spit a verse on his album and he wasn't feeling, he wouldn't use it. He would take him  off the song. Or ask them to change it... if he likes you.

Yeah, I've met Em, and I definitely got the impression he was like a loyal guy. When he was just coming off the Slim Shady EP, he brought Royce with him, just to promote him. This was before Em was established himself. He always kept D12, he kept shouting the Outz. Like, even if he didn't get you on his first album, I always felt like he would've gotten you on his second through sixth.


But Pace kept dissing Em. He made like three different records going at him.

That's why Em fell back. He wouldn't answer him.  I told Pace just change your verse!

And what about Bizarre? I interviewed him twice in those days, and he was a hardcore Outsida. He was repping it hard. I remember him saying he'd be all over the Outz album. It kind of went the other way, too. Em was supposed to be on an Outsidaz song called "Mama I Said" that got taken off. He thought he and Em would be all over The Bricks album.

Bizarre's my man. I'm still down with him. i just laid a verse for Bizarre four days ago for his next project.

Oh, nice. Yeah, because when the Outz and Shady separated, you were still on that D12 album... and the 8 Mile soundtrack.

I still fuck with Em. When me and Em talk, we talk big money. And I've always been like just his friend. We would just hang. When they called me in to be on that, they called me and Digga. She drove and I was sleeping in the car. When we got there, she went in, and I was still asleep. I woke up like half an hour later, got out the car to smoke, and I saw Em's bodyguards. I was like what's up? And they said Em was upstairs, go on. So I went up in there. They said it was my track so I spit once through and they said that's it, it was done. I thought I'd come back to redo it, but everyone said that was it. Some people said I had the nicest track on that album. But I don't know about that.

I would say so.

I don't call myself the nicest; I'm just a lyricist.

Some people didn't want me on there. Em came to me saying these guys at the label or managers didn't want me on it. I said man, they work for you. If you want me on it, I'm on it. They work for you. And he was like, you right. So I'm on it. But some people didn't like that.

But at some point you signed with Shady. You had another album that was supposed to come out, which I heard at least most of...

Actually, I signed with Denyne. I thought I was signing with Em. Denyne called me, was like you're gonna be on Shady. He came with his manager, I signed the papers, got the money. Then I see Em and I told him I signed and I'm coming out on Shady, and he didn't know anything about it! It was done without his involvement. But he said okay, do it. Let's see what you do. And I recorded, but it wasn't with Em.

I'm just in it for the music now; I just want to work with whoever's about the music. The money can come, but if it doesn't, it doesn't have to. I'm in it for the lyrics. I already have a nice life.

This interview was a crazy struggle. From the audio dying, to Zee's phone dying on us mid-interview. It turned out to be way harder than it should have been. So big thanks to Zee for his patience. Be sure to follow him on twitter. He told me he's got a new album done, can't wait to hear that. And of course Musical Meltdown Part 1, with Part 2 soon to follow.