Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The First Virginia Hip-Hop Record?

Is this the first Virginia hip-hop record? That's what I've read about it online, and it seems to check out. It certainly comes long before any of the famous VA Hip-Hop acts we all know like Tha Supafriendz or Missy Elliot, and even before the oldest ones I've heard of, like the Too Def Crew. But then again, I'm assuming that's true based on the dates on discogs. I'm not exactly sure where they got them from, as there's no date on the label, and no other records by the same company have dates on their labels either. But assuming these dates are correct, then yes, M.C. Rockwale's "Cooley Tee" from Style Records and Tapes seems to be Virginia's first hip-hop single, released in 1986.

Happily, it's also a pretty good record; so it's worth looking into whether it's the first or not. The Cooley-Tee of the title is Rockwale's DJ, and he does some nice, old school scratching on the record. It starts out with Rockwale doing a corny London accent acting as a Cooley-Tee fan who's come to America to find him, but once he starts actually rapping, he's pretty good. I mean, it's very old school, so if mid-80s rap isn't your bag, this won't convince you with lines like, "hip-hop is hot, Liberace's not, so when you're hot you're hot and when you're not you're not!" But vocally he comes off well, very LL-inspired, over some well-programmed percussion and a funky bassline. And honestly, for 1986 and somebody who's coming out of a state that never made any hip-hop records before, Tee's scratching is pretty impressive. It's nice that he changes the samples he's cutting throughout the song rather than just making a consistent hook. "Cooley-Tee" actually holds up pretty well, and I'm disappointed they didn't seem to follow it up with any more records.

The record is produced by Grandaddy, who released his own record on the same label under the amended spelling Grand'Daddy. Again, there's no date on the label, and the catalog numbers aren't a huge help... would Style 1001 have come out before or after Style 112? I mean, presumably after, or else Grand'Daddy actually released the first Virginian hip-hop record. And that would be a shame because this record sucks.

The A-side is "Grand'Daddy's Party," and he doesn't quite rap on it. It's a dance record, for sure, with some rock & roll style saxophone and a girl singing the hook. Grand'Daddy just kinda talks for a while, without rhyming or a strict rhythm, about how great his party is. Then Grand'Daddy comes in for his part, just basically talking about how great his party is... he's kind of like Luke in that regard. He even leads a shout & call section, shouting, "New York, are you holdin'? (Yeah!), Chicago are you controllin'? (Yeah!)." I was going to say he definitely doesn't rap, but after a couple listens I realized his talking bit does actually rhyme. He also says everything twice, which is a little annoying.

But if you want to say that it's not rap-y enough to qualify as a hip-hop record to even be a contender for first if it does precede MC Rockwale, let me tell you about the B-side. It's called "Rap, Grand'Daddy, Rap," and he definitely does rap on this one. He's got presumably the same girls singing the chorus, and his rap is still pretty close to generic talking, but there is a more definite rap rhythm. His verses are as simple as, "Grand'Daddy is my name, rappin' is my claim to fame. You heard the rest, now listen to the best" with a flow like a clean Blowfly with a smoother voice. He tells a little story which makes it sound like he thinks Hollywood is in New York, because he flat out says, "I went to New York to make it good; gonna make my debut in Hollywood." This could almost be featured in my Wack Attack video series, but the B-side is actually listenable and kinda fun. The girls singing the hook are good, and once again there's a lot of saxophone. Maybe he's playing it himself and that sax is his real forte. Anyway, it sure is a strange reveal as the man behind MC Rockwale & Cooley-Tee.

I'd only recommend the Grand'Daddy record as a lark, but the Rockwale record's really pretty good. It's just the one song, with an Instrumental and shortened Radio Mix on the B-side, but it's worth picking up cheap, or if you're an aficionado of Virginian hip-hop history. This is Rockwale's only record, but apparently he's still in Virginia, now working as a dancer/ instructor under the name Pop-A-Dok. You can check out his website here, and he also does Michael Jackson impersonations. Pretty fun.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Great Peso Is Back

Maybe you remember a couple years ago, I talked about a new record by an old school guy named Chain 3, which featured The Great Peso of The Fearless Four. Now, Peso had done a couple things since those disco-era Fearless Four records... he had that single with Mr. Nasty and a couple 12"s on Tuff City. But that stuff petered out by the late 80s. And he did come back for the Fearless reunion album in 1994 [note to self: blog about that one of these days, too], but it's basically been an awfully long time since we'd heard from the man musically. But thanks to a reader named Matt, I've just found out he's actually been pretty active on that front.

This is a self-titled album by Peso simply going under the initials TGP. There's no date on it, but I'm guessing just from the sound it might be a couple years old, and it's on a label called Lake City Records. There are no guests and it's entirely produced by TGP and Karon S. Graham, who I think has done some of Mobb Deep's recent songs.

And there's no doubt this TGP is the same guy, by the way; he has his real name in the writing credits and even refers to himself as The Great Peso on one or two songs. He's now coming out of the Lake Champlain area of New York, I gather, because one of his songs is "Lake Champlain Anthem." It's an interesting little album. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, the interesting thing about the album is that it's uninteresting. If you didn't know TGP stood for The Great Peso, you'd probably write this album off as completely generic.

It's not terrible, Peso still sounds good on the mic, and there are a couple of attempts to add a little something extra to the production to be more creative. But with titles like "Hot Girl," "I Like the Way U Dance" and "It's Alright," everything just sort of feels like an attempt not to draw any attention to itself. Perhaps that explains the TGP thing, too; like he's flying under Hip-Hop's radar. I mean, I can't imagine why he or anyone would want to do that when releasing music, but nothing here stands out. At least it doesn't stand out as bad either; but it's probably mostly a case of the production really not suiting the MC. I'd really only recommend this for serious old school fans who feel they have to hear it when someone like Peso comes back with a new album. You know, like me.

Perhaps a little more interesting to a broader audience is his even newer, 2015 music. He's linked up with a local, up and coming hip-hop collective called The Plattsburgh Home Team. They've just released a new CD called the Summer Sampler 2015, which predictably features all their members on solo tracks and collaborative cuts. A couple of their songs are interesting... Two MCs named Zyon Soulsmyth and Phonix Dark have a cool, atmospheric KA-like joint, and there's a 21 MC posse cut where they loop up the soundtrack to Dario Argento's Deep Red.

But yeah, The Great Peso has a song on here called "My Universe." It's got a fun chipmunk soul loop, and admittedly half of the appeal is just hearing an old school legend back on the mic doing contemporary music; but it's pretty cool. And he turns up again towards the end of the album on "Weekend Cypher," which isn't really a proper song so much as a bunch of Home Team members live. It's a high energy performance, and Peso comes in with a great old school freestyle at the end that's the highlight of the whole CD.

You can cop the Sampler CD for just $5 here, or just casually listen to the tracks 'cause it's a bandcamp. I don't know where you could find the full TGP album without getting hooked up by someone who's met him personally. But now ya know it's out there, so if you're that hardcore Fearless Four fan, put it on your want list and happy huntin'.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Outsidaz Restored, Au Naturale

Here's a bit of good news for Outsidaz fans. In 2001, they put out an album called All Natural almost none of y'all have. I mean, you probably have mp3s you downloaded from one of a million shady sources, but you probably don't have a real copy of it. That's because you could only order it direct from the label Slang Doe Record's website, which was only up for short time (at least in that incarnation). And this was years ago before everybody Paypal accounts and bandcamp pages. You had to mail them a check or money order. I don't even have an original CD of it, and I've put in some effort.

But the good news is it's back. It's in print. I mean, it's actually been starting to pop up digitally here and there for a while now... You could buy the mp3s from Amazon if you're into that; and I think now it's on ITunes. But I just stumbled across new, official CDs out in the wild. These are legit, properly pressed (not CD-Rs) CDs direct from Slang Doe.

Now, All Natural is often billed as an Az Izz solo album. Even the old covers[pictured right] had his name and photo right on the front. And for good reason; he produced the whole thing. He's been both an MC (with some sick lines on here) and a producer for the Outz, doing some of their better known songs like "Rush Ya Clique" and "Do It Wit a Passion." And there were actually two singles off the album, under Az Izz's name, which are easier to find, since they were pressed on vinyl and managed to circulate around the vinyl community. But the full-length CDs are much more scarce. And whether you consider it a proper Outsidaz album, or an Az Izz producer's album that just so happens to be 100% of Outsidaz appearances, it's a hot little album that any Outz fan will want.

It's definitely got a more low budget sound to it, raw and unpolished, which is either a pro or a con depending on your tastes. Either way, it makes a cool alternative to the more official studio album, The Bricks. The song "So Low" sounds like you're right in the studio with the guys while they take turns kicking verses. Hence the title All Natural, I suppose. And there are songs you'll recognize, since all four songs (the A- and B-sides) from both those aforementioned Az Izz 12"s are one here, and so is "Do It Wit a Passion," which originally came out on vinyl in 1999, and was included on the pre-release version of The Bricks, but ultimately got left off the retail version.

And, except for the Detroit guys, every Outsida you know is on here: Young Zee, Pace Won, D.U., Axe, Yah Yah, Loon One, Nawshis, Denz One, S.A.S.S.... Yes, Slang Ton is on here; he's on four songs(!). Even Rah Digga comes through. There's one or two Az Izz solo songs (although even those have background vocals by other members), but it's definitely an Outsidaz family affair. Most songs are posse cuts with multiple members spitting bars. And there's also a couple outsider (see what I did there? That's why I make the big bucks) appearances by some guy with a bugged style from Newark named Nom, and Artifacts' OG Tame One.

A pleasant surprise, too: this new pressing features an all-new bonus track. Now, don't get too excited. It's not an unheard, vintage Outsidaz posse cut. It might be vintage, I guess; but it sounds new. And it's not a big Outsidaz posse cut. It's just a short freestyle by BSkills.

Wait, who's BSkills? I'm glad you asked. He's an Outsidaz affiliate from Brazil (hence the B in his name), who linked up with the crew when he was living in New Jersey. I used to think Az Izz ran Slang Doe Records, since all they put out back in the day was his stuff. In more recent years, they put out a couple other guys, but strictly online stuff, no CDs or vinyl. But, yeah, apparently it's actually Skills not Az Izz. And he's the one making the new CDs happen now... which explains why they're shipping from Brazil.

Whoops. Yeah. But if you're not in Brazil, you can get them normally priced on EBay. He's selling them direct on there, and thankfully you don't have to pay crazy overseas shipping that way. I think you can get it from some Brazillian stores if you're actually over there; but for most of us, that's the way to go. Just search for "All Natural Outsidaz" or "Slangdoe" and you'll find it. Maybe it's not quite as exciting as the big Musical Meltdown revival, but I was pretty happy when I found this.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ah, the Halcyon Days Of Anticon

Man, remember the great days of Anticon Records? When they were hip-hop and ingenious and releasing great records and CDs as fast as you could collect them? It seemed like you never had to worry about them running out of material, and even if some of their hand-made, limited CDRs were sub-par, you could be confident it would still be full of compelling moments and great samples. But man, I just had to check right now to make sure they were still in existence. I don't even know who's on the label anymore - just a bunch of folk singers and Alias making techno beats I guess. But all you guys who spent the early 2000s hating on them missed a Hell of little thunderstorm in Hip-Hop, at a time when the rest of the genre was going through a slow drought.

What about the time they all came together to do a track for DJ Krush's album called "Song for John Walker?" That was his 2002 album, The Message At the Depth; but you can just do what I did and get this sweet little 12" single of it. There are a couple other non-rap album tracks on the 12", too, but who cares? I sure don't. I only listen to "Song for John Walker."

In case you've forgotten, or just aren't a big news follower in the first place, John Walker Lindh is the white kid from California who got shot and captured while fighting against the United States during our invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. What was he doing there? Well, some kids join the school marching band and some kids lean towards something a little edgier, like the taliban. He shot some Red Cross workers while he was over there, plead guilty when he was brought back, and President Bush (the first one) got in trouble for calling him "some misguided Marin County hot-tubber."

The song surely shares inspiration with the piece Black Like Me that The Pedestrian had published in the East Bay Express a little while after the song was released. That article uncovers the surprising and under-reported fact that John Walker was, prior to leaving the country, a huge hip-hop fan who wrote battle raps on newsgroups and pretended to be a black man named Mr. Mujahid, calling out rappers who didn't live up to his ideals of blackness, i.e. calling Dr. Dre a "sellout house nigga living honkey dory," and "a disgrace selling out to the talcum. He'll be left dead and naked in the outcome; word to brother Malcolm." Yeah, you won't learn about all that in many other sources; you should totally go read the whole article.

Ironically, the song focuses less on Walker as a hip-hop figure, though; and more as a political icon. Like all of their best work, it's both directly sardonic and perplexing abstract at the same time. At one point, Dose One is chiding, "he wanted Hammer pants. He joined the tali-hey-ban. He sought an absolute truth, the alpha cliché; But he got the omega and fucked," at another you'll be struggling to decipher what he means as he repeatedly sings, "again we use the magnets poorly; again we use the magnets poorly." While Why? comes in, getting at least close to rap (longtime Why? listeners will know what I mean) to represent the non-voting, slacker generation:

"Well, I heard the two parties split platforms at the turn of the century;
But. I. Know. I'm. A. Mer. I. Can. By the coins I carry.
And that's fuckin' scary.
Bla-bla-bla-bla-blah blah blah.
And even the worn-wigged hard news anchors are un-affected;
And every psychic and small-time prophet is aloof.
We've been injected to the point of immunity;
It takes an F load of S to stimulate the desensitized taste buds of the sugar expecting community,
'Till we can barely detect... the weather man's insincerity."

Passage and Sole team up, reminiscent of their classic duet, "Isn't It Sad How Sad We Are?" ("Become a smart happy healthy pet rock if you can eat like us; you'll make great soup and hot new imports for domesticated devils. Don't worry, in thirty years we'll all be Johns and Sarahs"), while Alias provides a more omniscient perspective a la his great "Divine Inspiration." The Pedestrian only really chimes in for the song's opening lines, but I'm sure he was deeply involved with the writing of the whole thing, which has often been his role. The whole gang really pulls together, often with quite divergent styles, into a cohesive whole, thanks in no small part to DJ Krush. At the time, I know Krush's production for the Anticon collective received a lukewarm welcome by fans; but I actually think he does an excellent job capturing the dark, bitter joke; and subtly shifts the music to fit the different segments of the song, rapped or sung in styles you'd otherwise think could never be parts of the same song.

Krush remixed this song on an album called Stepping Stones years later, but it really doesn't retain the energy or effect of the original at all. It's kinda cool once or twice as a variant - he adds some slick scratching during one of the breakdowns. But the newer, earnest instrumentation takes things too seriously, losing the feeling that these are courtroom jesters singing a coded message of our extinction. Stick with the original, which is conveniently available on 12" already. The idea that Anticon has been moving on without Sole for years feels like some kind of a morbid joke. But that's the great thing about records, they last even as the times change. We can plop 'em on the turntable and go back whenever we want.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Who Is the Queen of Ghetto Madness?

The Queen of Ghetto Madness has to be one of the best rapper names in Hip-Hop history. And fortunately, she lives up to it. Plus, she's from Jersey, so bonus. And If you're just causally searching, it may seem like she only had the one 12", but there's actually more to her story. But let's start with the obvious 12".

Released in 1990 on Scorpio Music with a great picture cover, The Queen's single (also released on cassette without the alternate mixes) is a two-song 12" produced by I.Q. You probably don't realize who that is, especially since there are a number of people who use some variant of "I.Q." as their rap name, but once I tell you... You know how Tony D produced the Poor Righteous Teachers' early albums? Well, he produced most of them. Actually a couple of their early tracks, right down to their debut "Time To Say Peace" 12", are produced and/or co-produced by I.Q. He was also a member of Northside Productions and did their tracks, and has stayed in the industry as a producer and artist over the years. So seeing his name on a record, especially a 1990 Jersey street rap record, is a good thing.

So the first song is "Run the Rhythm," which is pretty decent, our Queen certainly comes off nicely; but it's her prerequisite hip-house song, so probably not the song that's going to get anybody excited today. Her flow here reminds me of Queen Latifah's first album, though, and that's definitely not a bad thing, and I.Q. lays in some funky, danceable samples. There's a Dance Mix here, too; but that turns out to just be a fancy/ misleading name for the instrumental. She's got an acappella, too, which is always nice.

It's the B-side that will draw most heads, though. If "Run the Rhythm" was her "Come Into My House," this is her "Ladies First" (she's even got a higher pitched friend who jumps in on the hook), but with a darker, tougher beat. Hard drums, tortured horns and a funky bassline. It's classic hip-hop and the Queen kills it. There's also an Acappella and Instrumental for this one. But what isn't on here, is this mix. Where did this come from? It's hot! It's nowhere on the vinyl, and I can't find any alternate, promo or remix 12" out there. Of course, the 12" had an acapella on there, and all the mix I just linked to, dope as it is, does just use familiar elements we've heard on other hip-hop tracks. So maybe it's just something a DJ put together for a mixtape? But if it is, it's well done, because it sounds pretty legit. Maybe there is a remix single out there somewhere? I don't know, but like I said, there was more to this story. And that's just the tip.

The credits on this single aren't too detailed - they don't even say who that other girl on "Time For Me To Ruin" is - but there is one interesting detail: "Lyrics by Gladys Graham - A.K.A. MC DRASTIC." Well, hey, I bought a single by an MC Drastic once... I didn't know who it was, just saw they were from New Jersey so I picked it up on a whim for cheap. She turned out to be a female MC, could it be... Yup. 1990, also on Scorpio Music, so there's no question of it just being a coincidence. This is the same person.

It's another two-song 12", and checking the catalog numbers, this one came out after "Run the Rhythm." "Men Will Say Anything To Get Over" is the a-side, a fun relationship song; and "Grab a Hold Of Yourself" is the b-side, another hip-house song. Again, it's another better than average house joint. It starts out sounding super club-oriented, with a "Pump Up the Jam" sample. But once she starts rapping she comes off real hard over a darker, ominous sound. Both tracks are produced by Troy Wonder, and if that name sounds familiar, he was Tony D's DJ back when he was signed as a rapper to 4th & Broadway. It's another pretty nice single. And the Tony D connections don't end there, because the year before these two records, Tony produced one called by "Competition Is None" by A-O-K Productions featuring MC Drastic.

So there's more to the Queen of Ghetto Madness than meets the eye. And what met the eye was already an ill, slept on female MC who's tighter than a lot of those who got deals in her era. I'm definitely a fan.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Blowing the Dust Off Mr. Voodoo's Long-Lost Demos

Woohoo! Chopped Herring is back with their, umm... fourth?  Wait, let me count. One, two, three and now four. Yup, their fourth Natural Elements EP release! This time around, though, it's focused on just one member. They've uncovered, cleaned up and pressed Mr. Voodoo's 1994-1995 demos on wax.

Now, any NE fans how've been in this for the long haul probably thought to themselves, well, I'm familiar with some great, unreleased Mr. Voodoo demo songs - are these them? And the answer is yep, pretty much!  =)  As the emoticon there suggests, though, that's a very good thing. This is some seriously long-awaited material that's been floating around the tape trading fringes for a long time. Most of these songs are online in terrible, low quality and have been for years. And I mean really low quality, where the hiss is actually louder than the song itself, the kind of Xth generation dub of a radio broadcast of a cheap cassette that literally hurts you to listen to it, but you did anyway, because Mr. Voo was blowing your mind as a lyricist.

So do we want to get into this song by individual song? Well, I don't know if we really need to get into every tiny little detail of - are you kidding? Of course we're going to break this down song by song! Let's go!

"New York Straight Talk" - I don't really remember this one, but it has been around in those junky rips. The track has a really cool, interesting sound that's a little richer and more musically layered than you'd expect from an old Voodoo track, and a nice EPMD vocal sample for a hook. It's a great foundation for a calmer, more introspective flow than we're used to from this man. The drums are pure traditional NE-style, though; and the old sleigh bells are in full effect.

"G.L.O.C.K." - This is the one I really remember. This is the one, when I first heard Chopped Herring was releasing Mr. Voodoo's demos, I immediately checked if this was on there. Spoilers: it is. He kicks a tight "Lyrical Tactics"-style flow over a dark, grumbling bassline. There's a g-funk inspired whistle sound over the hook; but otherwise this is very gritty NY-style that couldn't be further from Warren G or those kinda guys. Heavy sleigh bells again, too. Ha ha

"Runnin From My Magic" - This is the obvious chorus, sampled from the classic Brother J vocal sample you know nobody named Voodoo could resist using. I definitely remember this one, too, and I'm really happy to see it restored here. It's got an almost eerie, ominous vibe, not even any sleigh bells.

"New York Straight Talk (Remix)" - An alternate version of the A-side opener, also produced by Charlemagne. This is a more smoothed out version, with very early 90s vibes that a ton of artists were using for a very brief period of time. I prefer the original, but this is a nice alternative, and 90s heads will probably get an extra nostalgic kick from the sample selection.

"Pen Hits the Paper" - Yeah, I remember this one, too. It's got the slightly jazzy vibes of the last track, but couples it with a more boom bap sound and Voodoo just spitting freestyle rhymes. Listening to this pressing for the first time, I just thought yeah, this is exactly what us fans are here for. This EP is 100% delivering. ...Or maybe 90% in this case, because this version is only two verses long, and past versions have had three. But 90 is still great!

"I Come With Skills" - This is the only one not produced by Charlemagne. DJ LDR provides a good backing for Voodoo, too; but it does stand out from the rest, lacking that signature NE sound the rest of this EP has; so it's good that they saved it for the end. Last but not left off, because it's still a dope Wu or "Tried By 12" inspired track with Mr Voodoo killing it.

"Betta Duck" - Okay, technically THIS is last; and it's back to Charlemagne production again. But this is labeled as a bonus track, and that's because it's not a '94-'95 demo track like everything else on here. It's a 2001 recording, and isn't as good as the rest; but it's still a nice little cut with some cool scratching on the chorus.

Like all the previous EPs, this record is limited to 350 copies. 75 copies were pressed on white (white) vinyl, 75 on gold, and the remaining 250 on standard black. They all come in the sticker cover, pictured above, and sound great. I mean, there is a little bit of a limited range, muffled feel to the audio which suggests these tracks were taken from a cassette. I noticed it most on "G.L.O.C.K." It's not a perfect, crystal high fidelity sound, but it's clearly been mastered to sound the best it possibly can and is a huuuuge, huge, huge improvement on the terrible recordings we've heard before. We're talking about the difference between a little imperfect vs. awful; fans will be very pleased with this vinyl.

Now this EP doesn't represent ALL of Mr. Voodoo's vintage demos. I've heard stuff like "Magic," an alternate version of "Hemlock" with different lyrics, and "Chryme Life" comes to mind. [Oh, and if you're thinking, waitaminute, didn't he release that in 2000, Werner? That's right, but there's an older demo version that's even better.] And there's like a whole unofficial Mr. Voodoo album that's been floating around that's a little bit newer (end of the 90s, early 2000s) that never got an official release. One thing I've learned about following these guys is they recorded an incredible amount of killer material, even though they didn't release so much back in the days. So Chopped Herring's work isn't done; there's still more for them to track down, polish off and get out into the world. And I'm here rooting for them to pull it off. But this was just a great big step forward, that's for sure.