Saturday, February 22, 2014

Clear Lake Auditorium

So did you download De La Soul's "whole catalog" this Valentine's Day? I did, because I'm a journalist! Seriously, of course, I don't mean to suggest that downloading their catalog was some great hardship I endured; but I mean there was no benefit for me, since I've had all their albums since they first dropped (well except, maybe, for a few more recent bits I don't care about); so I only downloaded it out of Hip-Hop Blogger Curiosity.

What does "whole catalog" really entail? Sure, all their albums.... but all their remixes, too? Indie 90's stuff? White labels? Well, rap info hog that I am, I found out: the albums and... some extra stuff. Was there everything? No. The first song I checked for was "Stay Away," and it wasn't there. And you can see pretty quickly that an awful lot else isn't there... but some interesting stuff was, besides the basic albums. There's pretty much all of the 12" remixes for the first album, instrumentals for the AOI albums, a completely redundant(!) 'Best Of' album, an interesting folder of jpgs, a couple of random tracks like "Forever" from their Nike promotional EP. Oh, and yes, Clear Lake Auditorium Audiotorium (see comments).

If you don't remember, Clear Lake Auditorium was a highly sought after release for the hardcore fans that came out as a promotional freebie only in 1993/4, in conjunction with with their third album, Buhloone Mind State. I remember my friend, Kareem, who was a huge De La aficionado figured out he could get Tommy Boy to send him a copy because he edited our college 'zine, and how exciting that was. He was a hero, and I can't say I was completely 0% jealous. Dude was the only one any of us knew with it: a sweet greenishly clear vinyl that came in one of those clear plastic sleeves with a press sheet. Later, it was reissued in an also pretty limited black vinyl and CD, and there have been many, many bootlegs. I couldn't get my hands on a legit copy until many years later, thanks to the wonders of the internet.  And even then it used to sell for big numbers until Serato finally ate into vinyl sales.

So just what music is on Clear Lake Auditorium? Well, first of all it features four tracks from Buloone: "In the Woods," "I Am I Be," "Patti Dooke" and "I Be Blowin'." Fine tracks, but nothing exciting about them as they're right off the album, exactly the same. Never hurts to have some good De La Soul songs on a nice 12" pressing, but the jewels are the next two songs.

The first exclusive, "Sh.Fe.Mc's," features A Tribe Called Quest. Native Tongues weren't in the best place at this time in history, so it was pretty neat seeing them still doing a song together. The title is an abbreviation for "Shocking Female MCs," a title and hook which doesn't connect too strongly to the generic freestyle verses of the song. It's just a fun throwback song lyrically, but with a 90s style instrumental that reminds me of De La's later post-Prince Paul work, which was especially exciting back when this dropped and that kinda track was new. But it still holds up as a fun song today, especially thanks to the added charm of Phife.

But I have to admit, even back in 1994, I was too distracted by the other exclusive to really pay that much attention to "Sh.Fe.Mc's." "Stix and Stonz" features LA Sunshine of the Treacherous Three, Tito of the Fearless Four, Prince Whipper Whip of the Fantastic Five, and Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers. This was before so many of the true school artists started making (sometimes underwhelming) comebacks in the 90s and beyond, so it was really mind blowing. The beat was a cool blend of contemporary sampling styles and fun, throwback music, including classic 70s-style hooks and vintage-sounding cuts by Maseo. All these legends on one track, and they all came off well. Plus, they're combining with De La Soul, who weren't exactly traditional; but they made it work. On top of all that, it also featured this new cat, Superstar, who's turned out to be down with Prince Paul and done a lot of work with him. All in all, it was an almost 8-minute long monster jam, that frankly had me more excited than anything on Buhloone Mind State.

Some fans might consider that heresy, but I was a pretty devout purist in those days. And regardless of where you might stand on that debate, it was a great and exciting song.  That it came on a preciously rare vinyl EP just made it all the more exciting. It probably won't mean nearly as much to heads hearing it for the first time in their Valentine's Day download, but at least they included it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sadistik and the State of Contemporary Hip-Hop

When I first saw there was an MC named Sadistik who did a song with Cage I thought, alright, I know what this guy's about. But that set of expectatioms is not who he is at all. He's actually more in the vein of Slug. In fact, a lot like Slug. His voice, flow, writing style... all Slug lite. But instrumentally, his music isn't anything like ANT makes for Atmosphere, and that's where this album works. I mean, not that Atmosphere's music sucks... okay, sometimes it is their weakest element. But on their best songs, it can be great. But the difference here is good, because it keeps this album from just feeling like a cheap knock-off.

The album I'm talking about is called Flowers For My Father, and it's Sadistik's latest on Fake Four Inc, available both on CD and a nice double LP. How is it, exactly? Well, it's certainly interesting. I googled around a bit for other reviews, which I don't normally do, because I know what works for me and what doesn't pretty instantaneously. But I was curious what kind of reaction this album was getting from the hip-hop community*, and it seems to be all positive. Unanimously, praising glowingly, 9.5 out of 10 positive. And, uh, I kinda think that says more about the state of hip-hop and its fanbase than the album itself.

Yeah, there's a lot to talk about here. Where to begin? Well, I think this album is okay. Sadistik certainly has a fine idea of what a really good, compelling hip-hop should be like in 2013. And his collaborators are more than able to get him there. Guys like Blue Sky Black Death (I have one of their albums... good shit), Kid Called Computer and Raised By Wolves (whoever they are) provide a really vibrant, at times ethereal soundtrack. There are a bunch of sung hooks, which is often a misstep, but here work really well, including one girl who sounds like she's channeling Bjork; and even some live drums and violin on a track or two. This is where the album manages to reach deeper than your typical Atmosphere album, and where it excels. You could just sit back and sink into these instrumentals.

But the critical praise for Sadistik also carries over into his lyricism, and this is where we kind of part ways. Look, this album is ambitious. He writes about interesting topics and is definitely striving to be more than the typical. And I'm all for that, really I am. But I think we're all a little too desperate to hoist someone onto our shoulders for simply not rapping about bling, drug dealing, hoes and whatever other stereotypical topics we can spout off. But first of all, rappers have been rapping about infinitely more than that since before The Sugarhill Gang... since before rapping was done on records. I know the major label music industry is supplying us with a massive load of brainless garbage, but that doesn't make everyone who can make a banal literary reference the next Poet Laureate of our generation. If we're going to take the genre seriously, we have to raise our bar for ticker tape parade throwing higher than just "not as dumb as the worst shit on vevo."

But that's my commentary on the critical response, not Sadistik. As far as he goes, well, like I said, I think he understands what a good album should be. I'm just not sure he has the writing talent to achieve his own vision. The concepts all have potential; but he just never brings them home with any powerful lines; it all just feels generic. It bugs me when someone talks about about a really strong song writer, like Josh Martinez, who pours a lot of thought and substance into his songs, and talks about them like they're the same as Drake or somebody "because they both rap about the same kind of things." The details matter. Two songs can be about "a breakup," but when one song is full of insight and originality and the other is just a bunch of hackneyed Hallmark Card cliches, that distinction is key.

And no, I wouldn't describe Sadistik as Hallmark Card cliche. That would be too harsh. But he's also not saying anything that makes you think, "damn, I wish I wrote that," or better yet, "boy, he's really inside my head." It's all just surface level going through the motions, albeit with some added effort put into clever wordplay, which sometimes pays off and sometimes backfires. :Let's look at his opening verse:

"they talk about their neighborhoods intersects and boroughs/but I love instead in my head William S. Burroughs in my hands/I burrow with my hands on a burrow in the sand
'til it's purple and collapsed from the digging/searching for a path to the virtue that I had/surfaces will crack from the circles that I've ran in the city
City of the Living Dead wishing they could live again/rip me into little shreds I'm filthy/admitting all my differences drifting into bitterness"

...By the way, I've copy & pasted the above from his digital booklet (when you get the album, it comes with a link to download a pdf booklet of lyrics and song credits... pretty neat).  But I think there are errors here.  Listening to the song, I'm convinced he says, "but I live instead in my head" in the second line there. It not only makes more sense, but he's really pronouncing a soft i sound rather than a hard o. So I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest he's getting his own lyrics wrong here; but we can work with it.

Now, I didn't pick this section because it's the worst; it's actually one of his stronger sections. But okay.  William S. Burroughs; it didn't take long to get to our first banal literary reference. I get what he's saying... his mind is complicated and troubled like Burroughs' was, as depicted in his works like Naked Lunch. And that's all Burroughs has to do with anything, besides the rhyme/pun. It's the same, stupid and transparent ploy in contemporary hip-hop writing to attempt to get credit for simply knowing who Burroughs is. And read the reviews, it works! I tell you what, though, Melle Mel wouldn't stoop to that silliness (at least not in his prime). And City of the Living Dead? I get it. I own the blu-ray, too. But come on, if this shit was in a book of poetry, it would be some flat-out bad poetry.

I do appreciate that he's bringing back MC Marvelous's "double words/ words double" style. I really do - I'm not being facetious; that's my favorite part of the above quotation. "boroughs/ Burroughs/ burrow /burrow?" That's smart and it works poetically. I'm not just trying to totally trash the guy here.

Honestly, he's probably smarter, or at least trying harder, than a ton of old school MCs whose work I tout on this blog. But this is where a lot of contemporary artists get into serious trouble. If you're just writing a simple, old school song with lines like "I put the oogie in your boogie," that's easy to pull off. That's why Big Bank Hank could go from a rhyme-biting poser to making successful records. Because it doesn't take a special brilliance to write that stuff. I'm not saying anybody could; but certainly a lot of people could. ...And the same goes for any of the old standards: generic battle rhymes, gangster rap-isms, bragging about money... all you have to do is add tiny little twists to what everybody's already said on a million previous songs. That's why people like Kreayshawn can write successful raps. That's why Rick Ross just keeps on rapping about pushing weight over and over again. They don't need to reinvent the wheel to make songs people like.

And so when underground MCs decide to set themselves apart by elevating and taking it to "the next level," they take a much bigger risk. Sadistik is really ambitious here. And instrumentally he pulls it off. When I first heard Sadistik cite City Of the Living Dead (a delightful but schlocky Italian zombie movie from the early 80s) in his supposedly heavy, emotionally devastating song about the loss of his father, I just thought, "ugh, lame." I don't have that "ugh, lame" reaction to most, oh I don't know... MOP songs, because they don't put themselves out their in the position to trip over themselves lyrically. They're not reaching for anything, and therefore never failing to grasp anything. Sadistik is over-reaching like crazy.

And that's my issue with this album. How can I recommend - or continue to re-listen to - an album that keeps hitting me with the "ugh, lame"s? Not just the pop culture references - I just chose those to highlight. There are cutesy puns, stilted deliveries, cliches... You can't enjoy an album that keeps making you wince. I can give him some props for trying (though I'd argue he's received more than enough already), I appreciate the sentiment; but if you want to write music in the upper echelons, you've got to be a writer in the upper echelon, and most of these up and comers can never be that. Maybe Sadistik will mature into it... his guests, like Cage and Astronautalis demonstrate how not to stumble in these kinds of songs (other credited guests, like Ceschi and somebody named Child Actor, just provide hooks). Slug doesn't stumble. But a lot of today's MCs like Drake, Kanye and yes, Sadistik, should work on mastering the simple songs before they try to tackle the advanced material. And a perfectly written simple song can be a masterpiece in its own right anyway. The pretensions of this album wind up boxing it in.

And the worst part? Sadistik can't make me give a damn about his sincere issues at the core of this album. Instrumentally, it does. Again, that's doing an amazing job; it's a roller coaster of feelings. But I defy you to listen to the acapellas of this album (in the unlikely event that they're available anywhere) and wrench up any interest in his girlfriend's drug abuse, clinical depression, friend who died, or any of the rest. "Teeth marks on the skin. The greatest trick the devil ever played was to take away my friend. I got your face engraved into my flesh so I can try to make amends with that day." It's like anti-emotion. And yes, I get that he's opening by quoting "Burn Fetish," but that doesn't make this song any more moving. It's just an added bit of arbitrary trivia that winds up pulling you out of it.

So I've probably wound up coming down on this album a lot harder than it deserves. Sadistik's heart is in the right place, unlike a lot of people coming out with rap albums these days. But this is my honest reaction. And I can't see myself changing my mind about this album down the road. In fact, I think it's all the people rating this 9.5 who are going to drop this over time, once they get past the production and grow out of the awkward writing. At least, I hope we all grow out of this stage.

*I also found a couple hip-hop reviewing websites I never knew about in the process, though; so it proved worthwhile.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Remember Biz Markie's Lost Album?

There was a solid, ten year gap between Biz Markie's fourth (All Samples Cleared, 1993) and fifth (Weekend Warrior, 2003) albums. Of course, part of that had to do with the end of the Juice Crew/ Cold Chillin' pairing; so he was no longer recording and releasing LPs routinely for Warner Bros. But still, nobody expected him to stay away quite so long. Not even Biz himself. See, in the mid 90s, he was due to release an album called Remember Me? Even that was a reference to how it had been a couple years since his last record. But still, a couple years, not a decade.

So it's an unreleased lost album. From the Biz. Sounds like a perfect candidate for Traffic or one of those labels to resurrect for us, right? Except the popular opinion seems to be that we've heard it, and that Weekend Warrior IS Remember Me? after having spent many years on the shelf.

But just how sure are we of that? I mean, we know from press that Puff Daddy was supposed to be on Remember Me? And he is on Weekend Warrior. So that's probably a carry-over. And it doesn't help that there are essentially two Weekend Warrior albums adding to the confusion. But from what I gather, not all of Remember Me? survived into the 2003 release.

I mean, first of all, there's "Studda Step." "Studda Step" is a wonderful Biz track (it even made it onto his 2000 Greatest Hits album) that came out as a promo only 12" in 1996. Biz kicks nothing but a long succession of really fun old school style lines like, "check out, check out, check out where I'm coming from. I'm long lasting like chewing gum!" And it's all over a traditional beat crafted by Salaam Remi out of Art of Noise's biggest hit "Moments In Love" (a song Biz is also quite well known for having a made a brilliant human beatbox routine out of).

It was really popular, popping up on every mixtape under the sun, appearing on many bootlegs and dubplate compilations, and got the world excited for the return of the Biz just like it was supposed to. Of course, instead of striking while the iron was hot, nothing came out until 2003; but it's worth noting that "Studda Step" isn't on Weekend Warrior. So that's one missing song... not such a travesty, since it got spread around so much anyway; but it just proves if nothing else that Weekend isn't 100% Remember.

Now let's look at a Biz Markie interview from '96 by none other than Cut Chemist, from the August issue of Rap Pages:

"What's up with your album?
It's done. I'm just waiting for Puffy to finish the last track.

How many tracks?

Going to be 14. I did everything myself. I got different people to program for me, to help me out. Like I got Salaam [Remi], Pete Rock, Large Professor, my man Rashad."

So, okay. First note that it was already completed in 1996. Also note Salaam Remi... He produced "Studda Step" but nothing on Weekend, which just further confirms that "Studda" was supposed to be on Remember. And most glaringly of all, there were certainly no Pete Rock or Large Professor tracks on Weekend!

...Of course, that promo version of Weekend with the different tracks doesn't have production credits on it, so in theory they could be on there, possibly. But nothing on that album sounds like their work, does it?

And listen to this Amsterdam radio interview with the Biz from 1998 (it's a whole radio show, you have to skip to the interview bits). They ask him "when is the new album supposed to drop?" And he replies, "I'm startin' the album now. I'm looking for the records now. Now I'm writing, so..." The host jumps in, "and you're gonna do the whole production?" To which Biz answers, "No. Erick Sermon and, uh, Premier." Well, of course, Erick Sermon did appear on Weekend (albeit as an MC, not a producer) and the Premier reference is surely alluding to the 2000 song he did for Biz "And I Rock," which came out in 2000/2001 on Next Level. Perhaps that was meant for the album, but then when the album sat for another three years after "And I Rock" came out, they left it off Weekend because they felt it was too old by then.

Either way, though, the big take away is that Biz had a finished album in 1996, and was just beginning to write an album in 1998. So, okay, a song or two may have carried over; but by and large there have to be two separate albums.

In fact, the same Amsterdam DJs ask him what took so long for him to drop an album (not even suspecting that Weekend was still five more years away!), and Biz answers, "well, Warner Bros was having a fight with Cold Chillin'... and my album got crushed. But this album, this time, I'm coin' out with the right stuff." So yeah, definitely two different albums. Hell, it's actually quite possible that he's talking about yet another lost album that he recorded for Cold Chillin' immediately after All Samples and before Remember.

So how about it? A whole album on the level of "Studda Step" that the world has never heard? Does it exist? And could be yet be delivered to the people? Maybe that's a little optimistic, but I'd love to find out exactly what there is still sitting on the shelves. There's gotta be at least a sweet 'Unreleased EP' or two to be crafted from that stuff.  But it sounds like, if nothing else, there's pretty much an entire Remember Me? just waiting.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Amen Rahiem

Hey, here's a pleasant surprise. I totally slept on this record, and I suspect almost all of you guys did, too; seeing as how there is virtually no coverage of this record anywhere out there.  No blog posts, no soundcloud links, nothin' - even though this seems to have dropped back in July. And just what is this record? Amen Ra? And is that Ex-President Jimmy Carter I see photographed on the label? Well, yes, it is. What we have here is a solo EP by Rahiem of the legendary Furious Five. And it's hot.

Now, this isn't one of those collections of lost recordings from back in the day. This is modern stuff. And it's not just modern in that it's new material; it's modern in that it doesn't sound old schoolish at all. If you didn't know it was Rahiem, yeah, you can tell from his voice he's no teenager (something I would consider a plus, but the general music buying public seems to take as a definite minus), but he doesn't at all sound like somebody who came up in the 70s with the Funky Four* and disco hip-hop. Nor does it sound 80s or 90s. But, on the flip side, I can thankfully say that it also doesn't sound trendy. It's timeless, true school hip-hop.

A chunk of the credit for that certainly has to go to Rahiem himself. He's updated his flow since the old days, and actually comes off rather well, lyrically. You know, one tends to think of Melle Mel as the real lyricist of the crew, and everybody as just his back up. But Rahiem proves himself more than capable of flying solo. He kicks freestyle rhymes with a deft flair for high energy multis on "Vintage," but also serious, substantive songs. "No Regrets" is a surprisingly frank autobiography dealing with his long-term struggle with coke dependance: "I blew more dough than most adults see in a lifetime at eighteen... I was coppin' when shit was a hundred a gram, in the back room of The Fever gettin' dumb with my man." And you just won't hear a lot of rappers admit, "my career took a nosedive."

It's not all perfect, however. There are a few bumpy lines and references that stick out. I mean, also in "No Regrets" he refers to the pipe having "me obeyin' my thirst." A line which on its own could be pretty effective if it weren't obviously a pointless and silly reference to those old Sprite commercials. Also in the same song he references The A-Team and other superficial pop culture stuff that's quite typical in hip-hop, but really undercuts the dark, personal earnestness of the song as a whole. Don't get me wrong, it's not so bad that it ruins the song to anything... it's not like when you catch Lady Gaga say the lyric, "I'm fluffin' with my muffin" and realize you can never again listen to her record without face-palming. It's never more egregious than I've cited and isn't enough to spoil the song... but it does take a couple notches lower than the heights it could've achieved.

Anyway, I said a "chunk" of the credit for this new sound goes to Rahiem. That's because probably an even bigger portion probably goes to producer Dextah, who produced this record. I can't say I was familiar with him, but looking him up online I see this is not his first project on the label. He's got a very dark, atmospheric feel to his work... it kind of reminds me of DJ Krush when he first blew up. There's a bit of a "clangy" cymbal-heavy sound to his percussion I could do without, but that's my sole complaint. His music is vibrant yet moody, even sinister, and still true to pure hip-hop rhythms at its core. The music is also very original... only the opening track uses recognizable samples we'd heard before on BDP's "My Philosophy," which is given a cool update here.

And another nice touch I have to highlight is that there are no hooks. It's just the MC and his music. He either raps straight through the song from beginning to end, or takes momentary pauses between his verses, and that's it. It's a very refreshing step away from the hackneyed pop formula, just giving you what works. There's also a really powerful change of music midway through one of the songs (again "No Regrets") that hits hard. It actually reminded me of Siah and Yeshua DapoED's masterpiece "A Day Like Any Other," except instead of an upbeat song about teaching Pokemon to freestyle (or whatever was supposed to be going on in that song haha), it's a black, harrowing rhyme about a man's life crumbling over a somber track.

There's four songs here in total, with instrumentals for each on the flip. Also on the B-side is a Justoleum Kingspitter Remix of "No Regrets" by none other than Big Juss of Company Flow. It blends in nicely with the rest of the EP, heavy with a choral vocal sample all twisted up in the background. It's quite good, with the sort of drums you'd associate with a Juss project, and distinct enough that it almost feels like a fifth song.

So this is described as a limited release, but I can't find it stated anywhere just how limited. Again, there's virtually no information about this record's existence at all, and few hits there are all have the same, short write-up. I'm gonna guess the pressing was very small, though (shit's not even on discogs), considering how obscure this record is. It seems to only be available from accesshiphop and Midheaven Distribution directly. So I would snatch this one up while the opportunity is there. Oh, and did I mention that this is on Grandgood Records? It's great to see them pressing up another vinyl release, and this makes a very worthy follow-up to their old 7" by DJ Signify and Grandmaster Caz. Don't sleep!

*Rahiem was also an original member of The Funky Four, but left before they started making records. Sort of like how Raheem left The Ghetto Boys before they established their famous line-up and blew up.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Good Morning, Righteous Teacher

Nitty Gritty was a major reggae dancehall artist in the 70s and 80s who started in Jamaica but eventually found his way to both London and New York, where he recorded some of his biggest hits. In 1991, he was shot and killed outside a record store in Brooklyn. And in 1995, one of his earlier Jamaican classics called "Good Morning, Teacher" was included on a pretty generic compilation called Dancehall Days: The Old To the New on Profile Records.

That last sentence sounds like a big load of "who cares," and it basically is... It's just one of the many forgettable compilations that used to get released back in the 90s, full of previously released songs - all obvious song selections by obvious big name artists. But one thing makes it worth bringing up in 2014: the single they released for it.

The single Profile put out was "Good Morning, Teacher" by Nitty Gritty. But, it's not the version he originally recorded in 1984, which is the only one he ever made and also the one that's actually featured on Dancehall Days. No, this is a new, unique version that isn't even from the compilation. It's a new Crush Sounds Poppa Fred Mix by Wise Intelligent of Poor Righteous Teachers (who, of course, were signed to Profile at the time).

According to the back cover, this is "'LIV'ICATED TO THE MEMORY OF NITTY GRITTY." I guess because dedicated sounds like it has the word "dead" in it; and, um, they're telling us the artist who made this version is still alive? Well, okay, eye-rolling pun aside, what we ultimately have here is kind of a little dedication project that came out well under the radar. And it's... fucking terrific.

Seriously, this is right up there alongside any of PRT's greatest hits. The production is fantastic. It has the feel of the stuff they were doing with Tony D, but it's actually produced by King Jammys. It's really atmospheric and kind of dark. it uses just the right amount of the original, including Nitty Gritty's own voice for the hook. But it's also very different and original. Wise's delivery is also perfectly brilliant; he's at the top of his game for sure. And just to seal the deal, it ends with some really affecting scratches by a then unknown DJ EV, who went on to DJ for The Def Squad. Even if you're not in love with the point where reggae and hip-hop meet, this is going to be one of the rare exceptions for you.

The B-side is just a generic Bounty Killer song. I mean, it's not bad... it's "Cellular Phone;" if you're a BK fan, I'm sure you remember it. But, you know, it's just one of his singles that has nothing to do with Nitty Gritty or anything (although, coincidentally, it is another King Jammys production). It's just another obvious choice for Profile's fine but bland Dancehall Days CD, previously released on his Down In the Ghetto album and even as its own single. He had a video for it and everything.

The artwork is just an isolated piece of the artwork for the Dancehall Days cover. Seriously, this version of "Good Morning, Teacher," which is really its own, original song, rather than just the cheap remix it appears to be, was completely thrown away under the radar. This is the kind of song the phrase "best kept secret" was coined for, and you'll be doing yourself a favor by seeking it out.