Saturday, November 29, 2014

Demo Week 2, Day 5: Classic Unknown

Last Demo Week, I set aside one Day for a completely unknown artist, and it's tat time again. The group is called Fertile Crescent... at least I assume it's more than one guy, but I can't really say for sure. But I'll tell you one thing, I'm feeling this substantially more than last Demo Week's unknown demo; and as I said in my last post, better than Day 4's demo. Hell, I'm feeling this tape more than most albums, period. This is actually pretty great.

Pretty much what you see in the photo is all the info I have on this one. On the tape itself, underneath "Fertile Crescent," it also says "sampler." No date (though I know I picked this up in the late 90s), no label, no phone number with a helpful area code. Just the fact that this is, like any demo, meant to represent a varied sample of the kind of music these guys were making.

BUT, thanks to a couple of the guest artists on this tape, I was able to gleen quite a lot about it, though. Evidently, this is some Pittsburgh shit. That first guy, Davu Ayomi, is a Pittsburgh graff writer and he's described as a slam poet online. But he just rappity raps on here (thank goodness). He blends in perfectly with FC, to the point where I can't even tell which verse is his. And Rhesun a.k.a. Sha-King Ce'hum? He's from the Classic 1824 crew; and he's actually still active - he put out a mix-tape as recently as 2010. It could very well be that Fertile Crescent were part of 1924, or at least a directly connected off-shoot. They certainly have a similar sound and seem to share artistic ideologies.The other guests I don't know; but I can tell you Anna Kalantari is an actual female MC, not a hook singer; and she comes off really well. And Stretch, I dunno; he didn't stand out at all; but that's a good thing when working with artists of this caliber.

So if you like Classic 1824, I'd say this will definitely be up your alley. I mean, I actually liked this a little better than some 1824 tapes I heard... Or, at least, you'd really have to break down the comparison song-by-song. FC definitely has some songs that are stronger, but the reverse is also true.

And if, like most of the world, you've never heard Classic 1824? Because that's actually a pretty obscure, underground reference to expect people to get. I know about them myself because some Pittsburgh guys went to a lot of trouble to document a lot of that history online, including interviews and tape uploads, several years ago. Unfortunately, I think their site's dead now:/

Well, then, I think they can be best described as a group that completely lives up to the backpacker, underground intelligentsia of hip-hop that most indie groups talked about but never managed to live. it's definitely heady stuff, but despite a couple science fiction related titles ("2001 Space Odyssey" and I'm sure "Strange Days" is meant to reference James Cameron's goofy little sci-fi flick from the 90s), it's not just a bunch of nerdy comic book references strung together. It's real, substantive, and grounded in reality. And unlike a lot of their contemporaries, their stuff has aged well.

And the production is great, too. East coast, indie sounding... think Rebel Alliance, with some nice samples you haven't heard other places. The low budget does show through a bit.  I'm sure a major label could've polished a lot and beefed up a few thin moments. But that indie vibe helps as often as it hinders. The only thing they're lacking is some sick Skratch Piklz-style DJ to just go berserk on the turntables at the end of every song. It certainly would've sounded right at home amidst this material.

I really want to give this a strong endorsement and recommend everybody seek it out, except, frustratingly, it's Demo Week. Hard to find is one thing, but this shit's never been released in any public capacity as far as I know. And googling around, I can't find a damn thing about these guys or what's come of them (it doesn't help that "fertile crescent" is a ore-existing phrase, referring tot he area of Africa generally considered to be the "cradle of civilization," so it generates tons and tons of hits that have nothing to do with Pittsburgh rap). So I don't know what I can do here but hope maybe somebody who knows more about these guys, or the artists themselves, might possibly come forward and let the world in on the music they've created by releasing it on the indie tip or something. Anything.

Anyway, a lot of my "Weeks" end on Day 5, but not this one. I'll be coming back one more time, with a known group, and in video so you guys can hear it. It's a group I'm quite fond of, have blogged about a couple times before, and backed by a very major hip-hop producer.  Ciao!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Demo Week 2, Day 4: Some G.O.O.D. Unsigned Hype

I was going to feature today's demo(s) back in Demo Week 1, but it was so much to get a grasp on, I just let it slide. But this year, I'm going to tackle it. So here we go!

There was a 90s group out of Waco, Texas called Third Eye Militia. They were kinda like the Visionaries in the sense that it was a group that put out albums (well, one album, called Buried Alive, in 1999). But the membership also comprised smaller, sub-groups, who unlike the Visionaries, never put out any records. They collectively released a 12" single, which I've got, called "The Family" in 1998. The two B-sides of that, "Symbolic Seeds" and "Verbal Elements," focus on two of the Militia's subgroups, Symbolic Elementz and Verbal Seed. Notice how they switched up the words there? That's either slightly clever or arbitrarily and annoyingly confusing depending how generous you're feeling.

Still with me? Here, let me break down the full Militia line-up, maybe that'll help. You had Symbolyc Elementz, which was a sub-group consisting of Tha Symbolyc One and Myth, Verbal Seed, a sub-group consisting of brothers Oneself and Focus, plus solo members Mony Mone and Buttafinga. All six of those guys are MCs, but at least three of them (One Self, Symbolyc One and Buttafinga) also produce. Oh, also Verbal Seed later added another guy named Tree, who was also brothers with Oneself and Focus. And the two guys from Symbolyc Elementz later added a guy from Indiana named Myone, and changed their name to Strange Fruit Project, a group you may've heard of since they've had a number of albums and 12" singles out over the years, and I believe are still recording together to this day. Symbolyc One also released a couple solo albums in the 2000s, and a collaborative album with Braille. Symbolic went on to sign with G.O.O.D. Music, as S1, and shared a Grammy for co-producing "Power," so the line goes from real obscure to major. And the Militia also have, or have had, a strong internet presence over the years, so there's a whole bunch of mp3-only songs, albums and mixtapes scattered around from all these guys, collectively and separately, if you're keen to dig around.

Now, in addition to the album and 12" which were released commercially - albeit underground and independently - I've also got a demo CD by the Third Eye Militia. It includes "Symbolyc Seedz," which is a different spelling but the same song as the one on the 12", and a song called "Anytime, Anyplace," which was included on the Buried Alive album. For the record, so were "Symbolyc Seedz" and "The Family," but not "Verbal Elements," which was exclusive to the 12".

That sounds like a Day 1.5 post, right? Just a little demo featuring songs already available on existing releases. But I'm just throwing that in there 'cause it's an interesting little item I've come across. We haven't even gotten to the demo I'm here to cover today. See, before all of this '98/'99 stuff, one of the Militia's sub-groups, Symbolic Elementz, got featured in The Source's 'Unsigned Hype' column of May '96. Reading that column, I don't seem to have the songs they're writing about ("Style of the Godz," "Mental Ejaculation" or the particularly promising "Acrobatmatics"). But I DO have a Symbolic Elementz demo tape from 1997 called The Dynasty. It features three different songs, all produced by fellow Militia member Buttafinger.

Wow! We finally made it to today's demo! Unfortunately, we're all out of space - so, goodnight!

Just kidding. Actually, this is an interesting mix of styles: Southern, gangsta-rap inspired tracks with backpacker lyrical inspirations. But it's not just that; it's much more fluid and intangible. There's elements of Dre's Aftermath on here... Suave House... Supafriendz. Especially the low budget feel from that last one. Being a 90s project, the punchlines get a little corny ("can you take me away like Calgon?"); but for the most part it's well-rounded and effective. The production on "Temptation Got Me Hostage" "What Dreams Are Made Of" is understated but really effective. The dynamic between the two MCs passing the mic is strong and lively. It almost feels beneath them when they bring the lyrics back to "sucker MCs."

It is all a little too polished and smooth for my tastes, though. It sounds like the kind of thing record labels like more than the actual man on the street. Like the one Supafriendz aspect its really missing is the fun. This is good music with little to criticize about it, but I can't honestly say this is a tape I go back to revisit much. Maybe it's too middle of the road, style-wise; instead of being a jack of all trades they should settle on being a master of one. You can certainly see why these guys have had a long career, but but it'll be fun to contrast with tomorrow's demo, which I like a lot better; but it didn't seem to get them careers...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Demo Week 2, Day 3: Hurby Luv Bug's Forgotten Clan

Today's demo is a full, unreleased album by the Mau Mau Clan. Now, this isn't to be confused with the Mau Maus, that brief "super group" consisting of Mos Def, MC Serch, Charli Baltimore, Canibus and whoever else. That was a one--off for a Spike Lee soundtrack. It's also no connection to the contemporary punk band, The Mau Maus, the German new wave band from he 80s called Mau Mau, the electronic artist Mau Mau who releases records on Mau Mau Records, DJ Mau Mau, the UK punk band from the 80s known as The Mau Maus, the Italian funk band Mau Mau, Mau Mau Productions, the reggae band Mau Mau from Jamaica, the African rapper Mau-Mau, or the Brazilian funk singer Mau Mau. It's also not any winners of the Most Original Band Name competition, obviously.* But it is connected to a preexisting "Mau Mau" group you might remember: The Mau-Mau Clan Overlords - it turns out they have a whole, unreleased album!

Who? Gentlemen, please cast your recollections back to the album on your left: The House That Rap Built, by Hurby's Machine. In other words, the producer album by Hurby Luv Bug back in 1987, when his groups like Salt-N-Pepa and Kid 'N' Play were just starting. Antoinette had some dope songs on there, and also, uh... a bunch of groups who never went on to do anything else. Including the Mau Mau Clan Overlords. Or so we all thought; but it turns out they came back, or tried to. Is that a good thing? I think so, yeah! Most of that album was fresh, and not as pop rap or corny as you might expect based on some of Hurby's later output. I mean, "Just Go" by Future Shock is, but not the rest of the LP. The Overlords had two solid songs on there, including the title cut and a stronger joint called "Contact Sport." And I think this lost album shows they were capable of substantially more.

For one thing, this album is widely diverse. I think it was meant more as a showcase of the variety of songs they could potentially deliver if a label signed them, rather than an album meant to be released as is. There's an upbeat love song, a track dissing girls, there's a Kid 'N' Play-style dance song that freaks "Got To Be Real," rougher freestyle tracks, even a song called "Uncle Tomic Bomb" that... lives up to its name. It all sounds rich and really well produced, thanks in small part to the fact that Hurby Luv Bug and The Invincibles clearly worked on this project. Steevee-O, the other guy on the Hurby's Machine cover, gets shouted out more than Hurby, but they both do. So while there's no liner notes with this tape unfortunately, I'm convinced they both produced for this.

There are also some guests... a reggae guy chats no a couple hooks, a pair of female MCs (not Salt-N-Pepa, but maybe None-Stop[sic]?) do a little back and forth with the Overlords, and Hallelujah, the Fifth is here! Yeah, "Mischievous" is a fun song greatly bolstered by a collaboration with The Fifth Platoon, who once again sound great. I have to admit, I would've rather found a lost Fifth Platoon album than Mau Mau Clan one, but this is good too, really. I'm really surprised these guys never came out, because clearly the Invincibles made spent some serious time and effort into making this project. I mean, if the album were to come out, I could imagine some of the edgier songs like "Da Niggaz Are Comin'" would've gotten cut off (which would've been a shame, 'cause that's a hot one). But some of these songs could've been singles and handed directly to MTV.

I mean, some songs are better than others, and a few are corny (the hook for one song is sung, "I can't front on my girl, 'cause she knows how to do me")\, just like you'd find on most Invincibles' albums from that period. And by that period, I'm guessing... 1991? That song with the Fifth Platoon has a real Leaders Of the New School vibe, in no small part to the fact that they sample Busta's line from "Case Of the PTA" for the hook. So it has to be at least that new.

I mean, look, this is an Invincibles crew album. if you don't like records by groups like Kid N Play, Joeski Love or Dana Dane, you're not gonna like this. This tape's a little more rugged than Joeski's, but this ain't no "Shook Ones." But if you enjoy any of those albums, especially from that 1990-1991 period, this is good shit. And again, it's really surprising this all stayed shelved and unheard.

It's also a bit odd that this is so many years after The House That Rap Built. Like, they never came out in all that time, but Hurby still kept working with 'em? I was searching around online, though, and I noticed that the Mau Mau Clan are credited with background vocals on Salt-N-Pepa's Very Necessary album. So I'm guessing after Hurby's Machine, they just stayed in the background, working with the Invincibles behind the scenes rather than as recording artists. And these guys are fine as commercial rappers, but they're not ill MCs, so maybe they got into the industry right where they fit in and it all shook out right. But it just goes to show... we have no idea what music is out there that we'll never hear.

*If you're wondering why so many groups would all choose to call themselves the same, unusual thing; it's all in the name's origins. The Mau Muas were a small, African militant group that formed to fight colonialism in the 1950s. Just read the wiki. So you can see why it'd make a pretty great name for a group... Except, dammit people, the name's been taken!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Demo Week 2, Day 2: The Audio One

How about a strictly instrumental demo? We haven't had one of those before! Well, here's one from Gizmo, one half of the famed duo The Audio Two, of course. We all know what happened to Milk Dee after the pair failed to release their mysterious third album, First Dead Indian - he signed to American Records and released a pretty nice EP which featured Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys. Then in the 2000s, he started working with random guys like Eamon and Jason Downs, and he cameo'd on that 50 Cent remake of his.

But Giz? I mean, you'll see him continue to rack up some credits on sites like discogs; but that's just because people can't stop sampling "Top Billin'." But for actually doing new work, I don't think he's done anything since the days of the Two. Where'd he go?

This tape answers that question, at least to a fair degree. He was at least shopping himself as a producer with this tape of his own beats sent out in 1998.

If look closely at the photo, you'll see this tape is ostensibly divided into two sections: Hip-Hop on side 1 and R&B and Hip-Hop on side 2. In fact, side 1 is full of hip-hop beats, over a dozen. And side 2 just has 4 beats, only one of which sounds like it's meant for R&B. I mean, maybe he had ideas of someone singing over one or two of the others - after all, he positively invented the penultimate R&B-singer-over-a-hip-hop-beat track. But only one has the cheerful, soft, only Raven Symone wound be down with this keyboard riff on it. The rest are all pretty dark and clunky.

And how are all these beats? Certainly professionally crafted. There's not a lot of samples, or if there are, they've been filtered to the point of sounding like studio-created sounds, which is what most of them probably are. There's an MC Lute vocal loop on one track to make you feel at home with the Giz you know. But none of it sounds like their classic records; it's clearly meant to have a modern vibe, and is trying to fit in rather than stand out. If I were a label head, this tape would tell me that Giz is a pro, and I might hire him for some in-house work; but I certainly wouldn't go into a bidding war for any of these beats like "my artist needs this!" In other words, Ras Kass wouldn't have to worry about Jadakiss stealing any of this music from him - there's no makings of a hit here.

And as a fan, I can't say I'm bothered than this work wasn't capitalized on and made into full songs. It's like ah, okay, so that's what Giz was up to in 1998. But the world hasn't missed out on any masterpieces.

As you can see, Tracks From Giz came with a business card. "You can ask Giz" is of course a line from "Top Billin'." His production company listed there, Gee Off Productions, is the label Lyte credited for her song "Wonder Years" a couple years ago, so he's clearly still using that. All in all, a pretty interesting little find. Not one that needs to be rescued and delivered to the fans, per se; but a cool one to learn about. And tomorrow we'll get back into full-length demo albums, complete with vocals.  :)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Demo Week 2, Day 1.5: Harmful Venoms

Last Demo Week had a Day 1.5, and so too does this one. Like last time, Day 1.5 is for a minor, disappointing demo, that just barely is maybe worth telling people about, but really isn't compelling enough to warrant a proper "Day." And today's entry receives the .5 status for pretty much the same recent the original did: all the songs on it wound up getting released commercially. So whoop-de-doo, right? But, still, it could be an interesting artifact, especially for serious fans of the artist, so let's have our .5.

It's Deadly Venoms! As in the official, all-girl sub-set of the Wu-Tang Clan. I got this tape during my time at The Source, and it represents the time after their first indie 12", which was really good and had people excited about the prospect of Deadly Venoms... and their eventual major label releases, which weren't terrible but pretty much let the air out of the world's collective enthusiasm. And this is a tape of seven songs from when they were still shopping for a major label home to follow up that 12". All songs that quickly found their way onto their A&M Records album, The Antidote.

Now, granted, The Antidote was pretty much shelved and "lost," making these songs still unreleased. But there were promo copies released, and of course it was all leaked onto the internet. And all of those promo copies, etc were of the full LP, not just these seven songs. It's interesting to see which seven songs they had prepared first, and which were made later... and this tape was nice to have before any of their stuff came out.

But I've listened through it plenty (for a while, it's all that was available, after all) and none of the songs are any different than the ones every Wu fan who cares enough has heard. I remember when I first went back to this tape after the full-album leaked online decades ago, hoping to find some lost LinQue verse that was edited out from the final retail version, or a different beat or an extended intro or anything. But nope. A few of the titles are slightly different; "D-Evils" here is simply "Evils." But that's it. Nothing special.

So there ya go. Check out the photo posted above, and you've probably extracted all their value there is from this tape. But check back for Day 2 and I'll have something meatier again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Other Mark Seven

I was digging through my old tapes (you'll see why on this blog soon) and came across this neat little gem I'd manage to nearly forget about: The Bizarro Theory EP by Kram Neves, The Evil Twin. Kram had originally come out as Mark7, but when Mark Seven started blowing up with the rest of the Jurassic 5, he changed his name (read it backwards). I assume the "bizarro theory" title is at least partially in reference to that.

This came out in 1997 on INRPOL (like "interpol?") Records; and at eleven songs deep, you might think this is more of an LP than an EP. But just about every other song is actually a skit. That might sound annoying, but these aren't your usual blah blah blah can't-skip-it-fast-enough album skit. They're musical skits, or at least crazy DJ vocal samples, full of crazy snippets, including lot of super hero themed vocal clips that are responsible for a good portion of this tape's fun vibes. They tie all the songs together, often serving as thematic introductions to the proper songs to follow.

Kram has a slightly unusual style, just enough match the sonic landscape his producers and DJs (unfortunately, there are no production credits on the J-card) hooked up for him, but not enough to sound goofy or distractingly weird. It definitely sounds underground - you could never imagine this sort of stuff becoming a Top 40 Rap charter; but if you like that underground, semi-intellectual, creative west coast 90s music, then this'll be a great time.

You've got a lot of basic freestyle, slightly battle tinged rhymes, and a handful of cool guests including Zen (of The Visionaries' Writers Block), Droop Capone aka Dr. Oop and Fletch the Praymantis, who I don't know but comes off well. You know, they're those kind of west coast but not quite as artsy as the full-on Project Blowed types.

And when he does dip into "concept" songs, there's a cool old school hip-hop feel to the whole thing. "D.E.F.E.C.T." samples the bit where Wize starts singing John Denver's "Leaving On a Jet Plane" on Stetsasonic's "Faye" for a hook. And "In the Dark" (taking its title from a line of MC Shan's "The Bridge") and "Side Show Strugglas" are cool, smart reflections on the past and current (well, for 1997) state of hip-hop, respectively. It lends the proceedings a nice purist appeal.

On the one hand, it's disappointing Kram didn't put out more material back in the day. You might remember him from a couple strong guest spots, including Tony da Skitzo's South West Co Lab compilation. But most of his releases, including this one, are so rare, that he never even got the limited recognition as the obscure indie rapper from the 90s that he deserved. ...But, on the other hand, dude is still around today; and you can find him on myspace, facebook, twitter etc. Granted, those links don't show him to be the most active or prolific MC you'll come across online, but he has got new material out there, like this song from 2011, and he's also keeping his old music alive, too. I just ran across a couple songs from this tape on CDBaby.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Sugarhill Gang's Message

In some ways, this is The Sugarhill Gang's last record.  Strictly speaking, it's not the last record released under the Sugarhill Gang monicker. I mean, even if you discount all those represses, compilations and foreign remixes, there were a couple more singles on released by the group in 1985, the year after this one. But by those '85 records, Kory O had already come in and replaced Master Gee. And of course, for their 1994 record, Joey Robinson had inserted himself into the group, making the famous trio a quartet. So "Troy" was the last new record released by the full, original trio.

And it's one of their best. By 1984, both the Sugarhills - the Gang and the Records - were no longer the hip, new thing in hip-hop. The next generation was taking over the genre and all the guys were breaking up and/or out. Melle Mel split from Grandmaster Flash, The Treacherous Three broke up and Kool Moe Dee reinvented himself as a solo artist on Jive, The Sequence broke up, etc etc. The records were no longer selling; it was over for those guys. So, no matter how good a record the Sugarhill Gang made at that point, it was going to get slept on. It's just unfortunate timing that they took so long to create "Troy."

One thing to note is the production credits on the label. Yeah, Sylvia Robinson gets credit, of course. But then you'll see that the first three producers' credits are actually the three members of the Gang themselves. The timing was bad commercially, but the good thing about this being later in their career is that they were given more artistic freedom to follow more of their own creative drive. And they used that to make possibly their most socially conscious record (you could say it's neck and neck with "Living In the Fast Lane," which they released that same year), and absolutely their darkest. It's certainly unique and different enough, but in some ways, you could certainly say that this is their "The Message." Even their voices sound like they're channeling some Melle Mel.

The Gang got into some more traditional/modern hip-hop style production by creating the beat using the core elements of Malcolm McLaren's "Buffalo Gals," but stripping the upbeat and silly stuff and replacing it with moody instrumentation. The opening keyboards remind me of "Thriller" more than anything. And then it gets a little more rock-ish and upbeat towards the end. There are still live band members playing on this track, but there's also a super 80's drum machine, electric guitars and police sirens. It's a real hybrid of an instrumental, which I think works in its favor. It can't be called "too disco-y" like their earlier records, or too mechanical and programmed like a lot of mid 80s stuff. It's a very alive, slightly unusual mash-up.

Big Bank Hank sets the stage with a narrative about a vicious, nighttime gang fight. He might not've been a writer like the other two, but his voice and delivery are top shelf and he really dominates this record, "the leader called Blade still standing tall, his shadow cast big on the bloody wall. He faced the death with the life he chose, and his sweat ran thick to drench his clothes. He rules the street with an iron claw; and everybody knows that his word is law." Like, holy shit, this is coming from the Sugarhill Gang? The second verse details a nightmare Blade has of getting shot dead in the streets; it's some pretty seriously evocative stuff.

Well, as I said, the song does take a more positive turn. Blade decides to focus on break-dancing as a way out of the ghetto, and soon this song starts to feel more like Melle Mel's "Beat Street" than "Message." But both are great songs, so there's nothing wrong with that. And this song doesn't just take the easy way out to a happy ending, as it comes back from the breakdown to tell us, "Blade tried hard to become a break dancer; just couldn't cut it so it couldn't be the answer." And when the story finally does get to his moment of triumph, just listen to the Gang's performances: their rapping is intense, they sound like an entirely different group than the guy's who brought you "Rapper's Delight." Like, I think that last verse is by Wonder Mike but honestly I'm not even sure because he's on such a different, harder vibe.

Unfortunately, the B-side is perhaps the Gang's worst and corniest. It's "Girls" with short, almost embarrassing rap verses lightly peppered between an admittedly catchy chorus that dominates the song. It's based, heavily, on a 70s funk song, also called "Girls." Craig G made a version of it, too, called "Girl Fever" on his second album, and Ultimate Force had a "Girls," too. It's a super catchy hook and instrumental riff, and so in that regard all those songs do work to some degree. But again, particularly on the this Sugarhill Gang version right here, the shit is so corny. In fact, I think at least some of their raps are literally the actual lines that were sung in the original version, just turned into short raps here. So, I suppose at least some of the fault in the writing can be kicked back to the original group. But where ever you choose to lay the blame, "hey, well I tried to swim the whole ocean, just to see the girls in motion. When they were those black mesh stockin's, my heart goes a tick-a-tockin'," "even ones that ain't good lookin', they're the ones that do the best cookin'," or "I wish I was a magician, so I could start with this wishin'," are fairly cringe-worthy. Especially with the over-the-top, cheery enthusiasm they deliver them all.

But I still whole-heartedly recommend this single, especially if you only know the Gang for one song. This one might change your mind about their artistic credibility and the longevity they had to offer if hip-hop wasn't unfortunately as ruled by trends. I'd even suggest their whole last album, Livin' In the Fast Lane, for serious listeners. Songs like "Space Race" and the afore-mentioned title track will probably surprise you. But "Troy" is the real essential. It's the stand-out on the album for sure, and one of their best singles over-all, so if you're at all appreciative of rap from this era, you should really check out this 12".

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Beware the Prince Of the South

Mystikal kinda came out like E-40 and The Click, in that they all had indie albums first, and then they signed to Jive who re-released them with bonus tracks. Except it Mystikal's album, they also retitled it, so Mystikal and Mind of Mystikal looked like two different albums, messing with consumers when really they were the same.

Anyway, "Beware" is Mystikal's third single, and second through Jive, and his best from that era. His pre-Jive single, "I'm Not That Nigga" came the closest. "Y'All Ain't Ready Yet" had Mystikal rhyming over a "Flavor In Ya Ear" knock-off track and forcing a lot of silly pop culture references into his verses: doing an impression of Urkel ("did I do thaaaat?") and making his most memorable rhyme the contrived pairing of "b-i-e-otch" and the children's clothing brand Osh Kosh B'Gosh. And "Out That Boot Camp Clicc" was his prerequisite weed carrier posse cut that had no business being a single.

"Beware" features some sort of dark but still pretty funky and catchy production by his regular producer in those days, Precise. It reminds me of something Rap-A-Lot would've put out in their post-Ready Red period. It's also the first single that was actually produced for Jive, as opposed to being taken off the original, indie version of the album.

And perhaps most importantly, Mystikal tones down the silly Fu-Shnickens shit I was talking about, shouting "damn, Gina!" like Martin or that goofy Michael Jackson impression. Instead, he uses his distinctive delivery, which is after all what makes Mystikal Mystikal, to turn really simple lines like "I'm hard as an armadillo" personal and great. It helps that this is ostensibly a diss record (apparently this song triggered UNLV's Mystikal diss, "Drag Em 'N' tha River," but everything in "Beware" is pretty generic and could apply to any ubiquitous you), so he's making more of an effort to come off fierce.

I mean there's still too many bad similes and pop culture references ("mild mannered like Clark Kent... evil like Cruella"), but at least those are all buried in his tongue-twisty style where they're hard to even make out, as opposed to the ones in "Y'all Ain't Ready" which he cuts the music out for and shouts or sings, effectively clearing the stage to swing a huge spotlight on 'em. He only did THAT once on "Beware," with his infamous Captain Caveman impression. Of course, that kind of song writing has aged terribly, but even at the time, "Y'all Ain't Ready" lost serious points for being corny. You could tell he was just a little too young yet to really have come into his own.

The B-side is "Here I Go" which is another decent album track and Jive exclusive. The track (also by Precise) is just more boring. That three note bassline starts out effective but winds up feeling plodding and redundant pretty fast. There's just not enough variation, so Mystikal almost feels like he's just freestyling over a quick loop rather than recording a proper song.

Overall though, it's a solid single, especially the A-side, thanks primarily to Mystikal's original and impassioned New-Orleans-to-the-nth-degree style. But it really feels like this is just the beginning to something greater than never quite happened. I believe if Mystikal had a top producer and a little career/ song-writing guidance, he could've been a respected hip-hop giant right alongside guys like Redman and Meth. And as it is, it's not like he's some forgotten nobody. He certainly has fans, a long string of albums to his name, and even a Grammy nomination (for Tarantula); but of course he went with No Limit, and I think he did a lot more for them and they did for him. And now he has to take sole responsibility for any troubles his career has had more recently (i.e. abusing women and going to prison for it).

Maybe his moment's still coming. He certainly wrote circles around Lil Wayne in his comeback video a couple years ago (but then again, even Paris Hilton has done that). I know I'm not alone in hoping that the penultimate Mystikal album is just around the corner. But, in the meantime, this 12" is a cool throw-back that at least comes in a sticker cover.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Crazy Wisdom Remedy

So, the Jungle Brothers were signed to Warner Brothers. Their first album was in 1988, their second was in 1989, and their third ...wasn't until 1993. Why'd it take so long? Well, the Brothers had actually finished their album, called Crazy Wisdom Masters, and were prepared to release it in 1992. They wanted to shake things up and do something different, and instead of working with any of the big0-time producers you might expect, they worked with rock guys David Williams (of The Vomit Pigs) and Bill Laswell, plus an up and coming rapper/producer named Torture, who became better known shortly after as Sensational. The album was so wild and unorthodox that, when Warner Brothers heard it they said hell no, we can't release that! So they made the JB's re-record the entire album, and that became The J. Beez Wit the Remedy, which was kind of a flop and their last album for Warners. Even personally, I'd recommend picking up the single "40 Below Trooper" but leave the rest for the enthusiasts.

Well, because Sensational rapped on the one well-regarded single, he generated enough of a buzz to get signed to the indie label WordSound, where he released a whole line of budget albums, and even a couple singles on Matador. And in 1999, he and WordSound dropped a little 10" vinyl EP by a group called the Crazy Wisdom Masters on their subsidiary, Black Hoodz. Hey, you might say, isn't that the name of the Jungle Brothers unreleased album? Why, yes! In fact, this was a four-(or five-, depending how you choose to count it; but I'll explain that in a bit) song EP of lost tracks from the shelved Crazy Wisdom Masters album.

Two (or three) of these songs we've heard before, on J. Beez Wit the Remedy, but in a different form. And the other two songs are totally unheard tracks. And why this two/three four/five song count? Well, on the Warner Brothers album, you had two songs in a row, called "JB's Comin' Through" (which was a short minute and a half) and "Spittin' Wicked Randomness;" while, on the Black Hoodz EP, both those songs are combined into one longer song, just called "Spittin' Wicked Randomness." So you decide how many songs that is.

By the way, I've seen this EP referred to as The Payback EP just about everywhere online (and even, as you can see in my pic, on the price tag of my copy). But that title isn't anywhere on the label or the artwork, so I'm not really sure where that comes from.

The big question, after waiting six years to finally hear the Crazy Wisdom Masters, is how is this stuff? It's basically... very busy. Like tons of samples on top of each other. And they sometimes do that thing where the vocals are filtered to the point where they sound like they were recorded over a telephone line. Sensational once explained that he went by the name Torture because people always said listening to his music, with its broken and frenetic break-beats and disparate sounds was like torture. So as you can imagine, then, the style isn't necessarily a good thing.

"Battle Show" has a live feel, with fast drums and a ton of percussive sounds and squeaks. Sensational takes the mic again, and if they're not exactly kicking battle rhymes, they're at least tough freestyle verses. "Ra Ra Kid," which sounds like it should be titled "Ra Ra Caper" based on the chorus, starts off sounding a little more down to earth, but as the song goes on, it features more and more sounds coming and out of the track until it eventually culminates in a complete overload.

One issue I had, is with the instrumental sounding sort of "advanced," even if we're letting busy standing in for avant garde, the JB's lyrics feel especially pedestrian. Sensational, who's not an especially amazing lyricist himself, sounds more at home over these tracks than the JBs themselves, who feel like they're getting left behind. It both helps and hurts them that the tracks are so loud and the mics questionably mixed, that it's hard to follow their raps. 

"Spittin Wicked Randomness" and "Hedz At Kompany Z" - or "For the Headz At Company Z" as it was called originally - actually... sound a lot like they did on the Warner Brothers release. In fact, if you think about it, the whole chaotic vibe of The Payback EP is already what the Remedy album was kind of known for. If you didn't like the Remedy album, you probably dismissed it as being "weird" and "noisy." So it's not so much that the JB's went in a completely new direction for their remake; they just smoothed it out a bit. And here on these two tracks, they don't even sound un-smoothed out, they sound like the same damn songs.

And that's weird because, fun fact: the entire shelved Crazy Wisdom Masters album was eventually leaked online. So I've heard the rest of it. And not all the songs that have been carried over sound the same like these two. For example, "Troopin' On the Down Low" sounds remarkably different than "40 Below Trooper." It's actually worse, but at least it's totally different and would sound like you'd gotten something new with this EP. I honestly can't even tell you the difference between the "Kompany Z"s besides the titles. It sounds like all the same samples brought in and used the same ways to me.

So do I recommend this EP? It's alright. You're basically getting two early 90's Jungle Brothers and Sensational songs which are pretty good. It's certainly cool that these songs got released, considering how badly some fans (especially Bill Laswell fans, apparently) have wanted to hear it. Overall, comparing the full leaked album to the official release, I do think it was mostly superior. "40 Below Trooper" improved for J Beez, but overall Crazy Wisdom works better. It's got more energy and gets a stronger grip on your attention. I still don't know that it would've gone over that well commercially, or even stand up to their first two albums; but it would probably be better regarded than the compromise we got, and it would probably enjoy a sort of Paul's Boutique reputation among production nerds who really like that rock stuff.

To bring it back to the EP itself, it comes in a plastic bag with generic label art and a sticker cover. The label never mentions that the CWMs are the JBs, even in their official press release, which makes me think they were trying to slip this out under the label's radar. I'm lukewarm on the music - it's good but not amazing - but I'm very pleased about the release in that this got released at all. And while I'm not a fan of toy records, a 10" at least trumps a 7"; so overall this is a pretty neat pick-up, especially for those heads with an eye for our genre's history.

Update 1/8/14: I forgot I wanted to tag the story with this interesting linkCWM producer David Williams made a kickstarter a couple years ago (which didn't get funded) where he was going to reunite with the Jungle Brothers to record three(!) new albums. One was going to be "a more 'commercial,' Native Tongues-style Jungle Brothers album, a more 'out,' Crazy Wisdom Masters/Jay Beez Wit' Da Remedy-style advanced hiphop record, and......a 120+bpm club banger album that starts with the hiphouse style of 'I'll House You' and updates and advances it to the current state of the art and beyond." So the spirit of the Crazy Wisdom Masters endures, even if it doesn't get a lot of money behind it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Last(?) Piece in the Natural Elements Demo Puzzle

I first found out about this record in 2009. And I just finally got a copy today. It's a very bootleggy white label 12" that features the two most prominent, as yet officially unreleased Natural Elements demo tracks. It's also a split 12", and those NE tracks are on the B-side.  So since I want to give thorough coverage to every record I write about, let me just go over the A-side real quick before we get to the juicy stuff.

The A-side features two songs by Truck Turner, an indie artist named after an Isaac Hayes blaxploitation flick who came out under Krs One's wing and wound up signing to Jive. In fact, it's an exact copy of his first, indie 12" [see: left]. The first track, "Bring It To the Cypher (Main Mix)," is exactly the same as the original A-side, "Cypher Street," and the second track, "Can I Bitch (Main Mix)," is of course that 12"'s B-side, "CanIBitch." "Cypher" is a cool duet with Krs One over a traditional old school Kraftwerk sample, that's been used by everybody from Afrika Bambaataa to Dr. Dre; but it's usage here sounds the most like Kool G Rap & DJ Polo's "Rhymes I Express."

And the second song, or the B-side on the original 12", is Truck going at Canibus just as he was coming up, presumably to cash in on the attention and controversy he was generating for beefing with LL Cool J and others; but in the song he claims he's "striking back" because Canibus said something about BDP. It's not a particularly effective diss track at any rate, Canibus certainly never bothered to respond, and he's the guy who's recorded eleven hundred songs at Eminem, desperately trying to get just one answer record's worth of publicity back.  It's moderately interesting, though, that one of the lines in the song is, "look both ways before you cross me," which four years later became the title of his album.

Despite this white label referring to its songs as "(Main Mix)"es, neither record features any other version or mix of the two songs. They're both the full, vocal and uncensored mixes. And comparing the sound quality, there's really no discernible difference, except the pitch is a little slower on the bootleg. I've heard it described as being bassy, but I think that's just because it's playing a little slower, so all the voices and beats sound a bit deeper. If you've got a turntable with pitch control, you can make them sound identical. And while the difference doesn't exactly take a trained ear to detect, you probably wouldn't notice it's slower unless you were directly comparing the two versions like I've just been doing.

I wanted to pay careful attention to the sound quality there because we're going to be a lot more concerned with it now that we've gotten to the songs on the B-side.

Now, I've mentioned in my write-ups of Chopped Herring's EPs that these two songs were as yet unreleased and would look nice on one of their Lost Demos EPs.  But this 12" is probably at least part of the reason the gas hasn't bit hit so hard to get them out there.  They're already on vinyl and sound fine.

First up is 'Life Ain't Fair (Main Mix)." Yeah, they keep up that "Main Mix" thing on the NE side, but this time the "Main Mix" moniker might inadvertently mean something. Because, as you'll recall, while "Life Ain't Fair" dates all the way back to my old Natural Elements snippet tape from early in their career. it's only full release has been on Chopped Herring's The Lost Demos EP Vol. 1, where it was included as a very different "Original Mix" in 2011. That version was quite different with a tough, hip-hop beat and alternate hook compared to the one I'd heard a portion of on my tape. Well, I'm happy to report that this white label gives us that missing version, the smoother one with the R&B chorus sung by a guy named Bridge.

And the other song is "Knick Knack!" Erm, "(Main Mix)." Yeah, the song that's been floating around, often split into two tracks, ever since the old tape trading days. The one where they rock EPMD & K-Solo's classic, throwing their skillful, modern flows over the old school's banging track. The fan favorite that had never been released.

And the NE tracks sound just as good as the Truck Turners. You might want to pitch it up a percent or two (it's harder to say since I don't have a mirror image 12" to compare the NE side to), but otherwise it sounds more than acceptable. There's no tape hiss or distorted bass, volume issues or any of the other problems that often plague bootlegs. If Chopped Herring got their hands on the original masters, could they make it sound better? Probably a little. And of course that hypothetical release would be an official, legit record that the artists would get paid off of and all. But honestly, this sounds just fine, as good as many legit releases. I certainly wasn't expecting something of this quality.

Of course, you'll have to find a copy. Remember how I said I heard about it in 2009 and got my hands on one in 2014? Granted, I passed up an opportunity or two to pay crazy high prices for it during that time, but still. This record is definitely not abounding and plentiful. But is it worth it for the serious NE fans - two exclusive, vintage gems on wax? No question.