Friday, March 25, 2016

Phife's Strongest Solo Joint

A Tribe Called Quest's last album, The Love Moment, dropped in 1998, and Phife Dawg's first solo record was out in 1999.  Nobody reading this blog needs me to tell them about "Check the Rhime" or "Can I Kick It?" And most of you can probably quote "Buggin' Out" better than I can. But I've been reading through all these mainstream articles and retrospectives, and haven't found one yet that even mentions he had a solo career. Maybe because it wasn't covered in the documentary; or maybe nobody wants to touch it because it wasn't nearly so well received, and we all want to remember him at his best right now.

And that's more than fair. Certainly, the dynamic between Phife and Q-Tip was a key factor in Tribe's success, which is why none of their solo endeavors were going to touch the success of Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders. But I've got a Phife solo record here that I've always liked, that's definitely not so well known as the classics that are getting bumped up to front pages of Youtube this week. If anybody actually discovers a new song they feel at this point, that'd be pretty great.

So, this 12" is all about the A-side, but I'm going to talk about the B-side first. It's called "Miscellaneous," and it's third single from his 1999 album, Ventilation, da LP. Supa Dave produced it, and I usually like his work, from his unreleased single with Invincible to some of the best work on Kool G Rap's last album. But this is exactly the kind of early 2000's, generic bloop-bloop beat that I felt ruined Phife's solo album. It's not really his fault, that was the latest thing at the time, and there was something effective in boiling down a hip-hop instrumental to its barest minimum the first time somebody did it. But after that, it was just weak, easy and boring.

But you can't release a two year-old song without putting something new on it. And that turned out to be a brand new Luv Boat Mix by Hi Tek. No, thankfully, it doesn't use the theme song from The Love Boat. This isn't Hi-Tech; this is Hi Tek, the Ohio guy from Reflections Eternal and all that. This has a much more natural, substantive feel, thanks to Tek essentially just looping up a fresh old soul record, original vocals, big hand claps and all. And suddenly, even Phife's rhymes, which are unchanged from the original mix, sound so much better. It's essentially just a series of light-hearted similes and punchlines, which I guess is why the song's called "Miscellaneous." Listening to the hook, "The Joint" would've been a much more natural association. "Rock to the joint, roll to the joint, smoke to the joint, get crunked to the joint. Spike Lee to the joint, get wrecked on the joint," with multiple variations.

But anyway, it doesn't matter, because it sounds great. It's simple, but it's funky. "shorties sayin' my name like Destiny's Child," "love the night life like Sonny loves Cher." It's never particularly clever, but it's got all of Phife's charm. It's like Biz Markie's "I watched Star Wars just to see Yoda" verses; just bringing that care free B-boy freestyle vibe like he did on the Tribe albums, anchoring Tip's jazzy explorations to hip-hop's foundation. And it just sounds enjoyable. They're simple, easy to memorize lines that you want to rap along to the funky beat, couched in a couple silly little stories about meeting different girls at a party. One's from the South and is kind of a playful reference to the rise of Southern hip-hop, and one turns out to be an infamous character from some other records: "wanted to give me a hickey, but something's kinda tricky. Looked at the broad, oh shit, it couldn't be! The J to the A to the N to the E! You don't understand, ask EPMD. Thinkin' to myself, goddammit, why me? Thinkin' to myself, goddammit, why me?"

This record re-captures his essence the way his whole solo career should've. This is what we wanted to find when Tribe broke up. But it came kinda late and so it got overlooked. So this is definitely a 12" worth revisiting now. It's got a picture cover and includes Clean, Dirty and Instrumental versions of both versions of the song: the album version and the hot, exclusive remix.

R.I.P. Phife Dawg.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Other Side of Whirlwind D

Whirlwind D is back with, actually, only his second album. He's been steadily releasing vinyl singles and building a pretty full catalog, especially if you factor in the Solid 'N' Mind 12"s, it feels like this must be around his fourth album. But no, this is the sophomore LP. And I think we find him coming into a more confident veteran sensibility. There's more of a feeling that instead of just doing the best hip-hop that he can and throwing it together to make an album (which is in itself a pretty great way to make a record, mind you), he's got a more refined cohesion to the material. There's a lot of variety on this album, which I'll certainly get into, but it feels more like everything was carefully selected and designed to form an album with a purposeful mood, rather than just being "here's what I got!"

The elements I always look for on any of D's projects are happily here again. First and foremost, that means some really slick scratching my some clearly skilled DJs. Basically every song has some really hot scratches that could almost carry the beats by themselves on an purely instrumental album. Sir Beans OBE, Jabba the Kut, Mr. Fantastic, Miracle, and DJ Tones all put in great work on this LP. Seriously, not a single song doesn't have a turntablist cut loose on it; I love it.

Another element you can always count on D for is some solid production. It's all top quality craftsmanship here. Anytime I see Mr. Fantastic's name in the liner notes, I know not to worry. And he pops up a lot here. There's not a lot of guest MCs, though. D takes most of that weight on his own shoulders. He has one duet with Oxygen of Sputnik Brown, and he's got a posse cut with his crew. But most of Other Side consists of more personal, conceptual material with D on his own, and I raises to that level with more natural, nuanced rhymes and definitely an uptick in creative imagery from his last album.

Like, the title cut has a really dark, slow beat. It's by Specifik, but it's almost feels like one of those crazy tracks Vooodu would make for Ras Kass when he wanted to get really serious. It's about the ills of the world as viewed through the lens of our looming mortality. So yeah, it's painting all these dark pictures, but on the other hand it's kind of a traditional message joint. In fact, Whirlwind D is now officially the first rapper I've heard use the word "transphobic" in a song.

Then "Hate Makes Hate" puts a cool aggressive spin on message songs. Not quite 2 Black 2 Strong, but getting there.  heh  Don't get the wrong idea, though. It's not a big preachy album; Other Side is full of all kinds of stuff. D pairs up with a live guitarist, both going hard to create a rock/rap song a la the 80s' "The D.O.C. and the Doctor," "S&M" or "Beautiful But Deadly."  It's called "7 Eyed Monster," which is a clear metaphor for anger, but going hard about rage is pretty much the ideal subject for this kinda song. It's cool even that he tackled this type of song, plus the cuts at the end amp the tone up perfectly; but I'm glad he only did one like this. These rock 'n' rap songs are fun once in a while, but you wouldn't want a whole album of "Rock De La Stet"s. One and done, get back to the real hip-hop instrumentals. Actually, there is one more song with that guitarist, but it's got a totally different, non-rock vibe.

You've also got a more traditional hip-hop-referencing track called "Pioneers," and a trippy one called "Avenger of Death." Conceptually, I can't even figure out who the titular avenger is supposed to be, but it's really about the grim, nighttime crime scene he describes anyway. And I like how D opens with that kind of classical hip-hop clever wordplay into his lyrics, but not for a punchline fueled battle rap. Instead he's using it for this moody crime piece. More like this please! But I think my favorite cut might be just the a light-hearted one he saves for the end. A few rappers have done that turn-your-closing-shout-outs-into-an-actual-rap-song before, but have any ever made it a posse cut? The mic is passed over an upbeat jazzy track with a deep groovy bassline, horn stabs and, of course, finishing with more tight scratching.

As you can see above, Other Side comes in an attractive color picture cover and also includes one of those old school inserts, like you used to see a lot in the day, with credits and thanks on the other reverse. This album includes his last single, "B-Line Business," but not the B-side, "Battle Tip 2015," leaving that exclusive to the 7". And everything else here is all new. If you haven't heard any of his material yet, I'm not sure I'd start out with this album... maybe the WD40 EP would be a better introduction. And then come back to this album later to hear the interesting direction he's taken since then. But if you've been following him all along, you're definitely going to be pleased and will want to jump on this right away.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Greatest Killarmy Song They Forgot To Release a Single For

Killarmy's first album had a lot of hot songs. Killarmy was dope. They were Wu-Tang juniors, of course; and maybe the official Wu were generally more talented. But pretty quickly, the core Clan started getting a little cartoonish. You know, they had their mafioso aliases: Lou Diamonds, Joey Bananas, Method Man starting calling himself Johnny Blaze. Then RZA started doing the sci-fi thing, and it was just like they were marketing themselves as toys for kids. "Now get Batman in is ice climbing suit!" etc. So the cool thing about Sunz of Man and them is that they were like additional Wu artists who weren't doing all the mainstream persona stuff. Then Sunz started making records like "Shining Star" and Shabazz left, and they were taking major label image direction, too. And I don't need to even talk about the direction Deadly Venoms took. So Killarmy was like the next group of Wu guys that were just real, raw MCs making records without trying to sell to the Saturday morning crowd.

And so even though they never made any gold-lined swimming pools for the Priority Records executives, their 1997 album Silent Weapons for Deadly Wars was in every head's deck. And they had three singles off of that, which is pretty good: "Camouflage Ninjas," "Wu-Renegades" and "Swinging Swords." And they had six rappers, which is a lot for a single group to get to know all at once; so at first it was hard to even keep track of them all and who was rapping which verse, especially since they didn't have the over-the-top personas or Milk D-like voices. Like now we know, because the Wu family's become legendary and half of Killarmy got solo albums and all But back in '97, it was just like they really were this army of privates the Clan had ready to record more albums. So maybe individually they weren't quite the well-rounded artists the bigger Wu stars were...

I still remember the first time I heard "Blood for Blood" and two of 'em used the same punchline. The one guy says, "slaughter tracks like Chainsaw Massacre," and then two verses later, another guy says, "we create a massacre like Texas Chainsaw." Like, don't you guys even check with each other in advance about what you're going to put on the record? It's not even a clever line to say once; it's just an easy reference. ODB already had a better line like that on his album. But having it twice on the same song, it's like two friends showing up their high school reunion in the same dress.

But that didn't matter, because it was like they had all these guys ready to come out and kick gritty NY verses over these incredible Wu-Tang tracks (RZA gets a mountain of credit, but most of their stuff was by the criminally underrated 4th Disciple). And so they had three singles, but they had another song, my favorite song on the album: "Fair, Love and War." They shot a music video for it and everything, which, you know... you can't even say about "Camouflage Ninjas" or "Wu-Renegades" (though the B-side "Wake Up" got one). This should've been big for them. Not Z-100 big, but at least mixtape big. The track is ill, but they never put it out as a single. Not even a white label promo 12". I think there's only been like two or three times in hip-hop history where a song's had a video and no 12" single (excluding this modern mp3 era). And Wu was putting everything out on wax in those days. Like I said, Killarmy had all these other non-video songs on 12", but not this one.

"Love, Fair and War" is one of 4th's tracks, and it's insane. What the heck sample is that? It's like a 70s war movie meets a video game with screeching bagpipes and classic Wu drums. Over the break, they lay in these dark, wartime newscasts saying things like, "it's very hard to maintain the emotional and political zeal that is needed to kill lots of people." Yeah, they also incorporate a lot of terrorism imagery that people would probably back away from in today's climate; but in a way that actually makes it even more effective in 2016.

But don't misunderstand, this song's not really about anything. This isn't social commentary, it's just brilliant imagery incorporated into freestyle rhymes. Killa Sin (he stood out even at the time for how he used his name as part of an impressive multi in his verse) sets the tone with a little narrative about how they'd all spark it at the end of the day, "share a giggle and a Heineken" and have a cypher. Then the next three dudes (Dom Pacino, Beretta 9 and Shogun Assasson) just spit crazy ill verses with this military imagery and no hooks in between them, like, "Nightmarish visions of death, catch a flashback. This gunfire out of control; I'm getting sent back. Hell no. Make my way back to the foxhole for ammo. In enough shit to bury Rambo." It's what we used to call a monster jam, it could go on for twice as long and not wear out its welcome. In fact, I really wish it kept going and 9th Prince had gotten on there as well (I understand Islord was indisposed), and maybe even a guest or two.

But yeah, no single. I was going to say it's even more of a shame, because it means we never got that instrumental. But now that I think about it, there was an instrumental LP version of Silent Weapons. But still, somebody at Priority messed up not making this a single. I would trade a dozen junk "Wu Wear," "Say What You Want," "Killa Beez" and "America" 12"s for a "Fair, Love and War" sticker cover.

Monday, March 14, 2016

A More Teddy Riley "Pump It Hottie?"

So, ever since my "New Jack Swing" post, I've been on a bit of a new jack swing kick. And tonight I've been rocking some Redhead Kingpin 12"s, and I went right to one I usually skip right over: "Pump It Hottie." The Hip-Hop purist in me, the one that just capitalized "hip-hop" because Krs-One says to, is always like, that's his mainstream dance song. You know, usually "We Rock the Mic Right," "Superbad Superslick," or even "Do the Right Thing" are my go to's. But now I just want some good ol', thumpin' Teddy Riley instrumentation, so today is "Pump It Hottie"'s day. And there's every reason to blog about this 12" here, because it's got some exclusive 12" remixes not found on the album. It's almost more surprising I didn't write about this one in 2008 or so. But what can I say? There's a million great rap records, it's taking me a while to get through all of 'em.  8)

So anyway, 1989's "Pump It Hottie" is like pure Yo! MTV Raps. It's a dance song before dance music separated from hip-hop, and I can still picture the music video with the FBI Crew on a little stage performing for a room full of bicycle short-wearing models. At the end, each member walks off with a girl in arm, and Redhead taps his girl on the shoulder and it's a bearded guy in a dress, so he runs away. Times were simpler then...

In a lot of ways, the song's simple, too. Red's just rapping about girls dancing in a club, and the beat's a loop of Krafwerk's "Numbers," the same break used on "Planet Rock," "Traveling At the Speed of Thought" and 75% of early Miami bass records. What makes it compelling is the extra Teddy Riley music on top of that, the killer horn riffs and the funky bass... except, it's not quite as Teddy Riley as a lot of his classics of the time, like "My Prerogative" or "I Get the Job Done." The horns, as dope as they are, sound more like simple repeating loops; and actually if you look at the credits, Teddy isn't credited as producer. Redhead and Riley's brother Marky Mark are. Teddy is listed as mixer and arranger, though, so who can really say how that really adds up in terms of who played what notes and who decided where they should be placed in the song?

Those credits are also exactly the same for the 12" Mix, which is quite different, and maybe even more what I was after. Because this version keeps a lot of the core elements, like the bassline and famous horn riffs. But it drops "Numbers" from most of the beat (it does fade back in at times) with a new break, which sounds like live instrumentation. This one has a big horn solo in it. Over all, maybe it doesn't thump quite as hard, but it sounds much more like an original funk creation. If you're in a new jack swing mood, definitely seek this version out.

There's another remix on here, too. The Street Mix is by Joe the Butcher. His version is back to "Numbers," but replaces all of the other music with a some cool funk guitar samples and stuff. It's a little more minimal, too barren even. It's kinda interesting, but it comes up short compared to the other two versions. It's interesting to have, though.

And speaking of inferior but interesting to have, we also get Teddy's A Capella. Now, the acapella of "Pump It Hottie" has to be one of the least desired rap acapellas I can think of. Nobody was thinking, man, I need that verse where a girl tries to get Red to go home with her and he tells her no, just dance instead - I've gotta put that over something jazzy! But this isn't Redhead's A Capella, it's Teddy's. What does that mean? Well, first of all, it's not acapella; it's full of music. But you know the intro to the song, where they're going, "we got Philly hotties coming to the party tonight," etc? Well, it's basically that stuff an the hook laid over the a dub mix. In fact, it's largely the hook just repeated a billion more times, but there's more little improvised dialogue like, "we gotta get the girl with the afro outta here." There's also sound effects of cats meowing mixed into the track. Kind of a weird curiosity piece.

Finally, this 12" also includes "Kilimanjaro Style," which is an album track. It's a good 'un, though, and not at all a crossover dance track like "Pump it Hottie." This is his reggae-style track; but what I like about it is that it's got a sick reggae-inspired beat with the famous "Bam Bam" horns, but Redhead doesn't attempt a faux-Jamaican accent. He takes a bit of the style, mixes it with his own, and just kicks some freestyle rhymes in his own natural voice, and it sounds great. DJ Wildstyle has a nice and subtle scratch session at the end. When you've decided it's time to come down from your new jack swing high, this is a great track to get you off it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Your Definitive Guide To The World Class Wreckin' Cru Line-Up

Can you identify these men? Hint: these are the easy ones. Answer below!
So, pretty much everybody knows that Dr. Dre got his start making records as a member of The World Class Wreckin' Cru. Well, after that Sofer record. Many also know that fellow NWA-member DJ Yella was there with him. And if you know your stuff, you know the leader of the crew was named Grand Master Lonzo. But here's thing: on every single record, their line-up changed. And I don't think there are a lot of people out there who could tell about all those subsequent members over the years. So let's go chronologically, member by member:

Cli-N-Tel) The World Class Wreckin' Cru started out as a DJ collective, but when they actually started putting out records on their own imprint, Kru-Cut Records, they were a four-man crew. Lonzo, Dre, Yella and Cli-N-Tel. In fact, since the other three were essentially DJs, Cli-N-Tel was basically their lead MC, rapping on their earliest singles "Surgery," "Slice" and "World Class." Not that he wasn't a DJ, too; he was often credited as D.J. Cli-N-Tel even. He does most of the vocals on "Surgery," too; although Dre does finally have a mini-verse on there. So the four of them was the line-up for their first album, World Class. But he quickly broke out as a solo artist, releasing records like "It Ain't Mine." He didn't release a full-length album until 1996, though; and that was overseas only. So I guess you could say his solo career never took off; but he's made little appearances here and there over the years.

Mona Lisa Young) Mona Lisa wasn't a member of the Cru originally, though she sang the hook to the song "Lovers" on their first album. She had already released a solo R&B album on Motown, though, so in a way she was bigger than all of them. So when they released their second album, the less electro-oriented Rapped In Romance, they had her on a bunch of songs. And while she didn't make the album cover, she's listed on the back as one of the five members, so she was official for a minute there.

Shakespere) I said five members on album #2, right? That's because, when Cli-N-Tel left, they brought in their dancer Shakespere. Remember, the other three weren't really rappers, so he got promoted straight to lead MC right away. He did make the album cover. He's the guy with the gruffer voice who's doing all the rapping on their singles "The Fly" and "He's Bionic." Since they'd singed to Epic Records at this point, though, I guess they all felt compelled to rap more, and they started releasing these love songs where everybody does a soft almost spoken word rap. So two of their singles, "World Class Freak" and "Love Letter" essentially became remakes of "Lovers," which was the song Mona Lisa sang for on the first album.

Michel'le) Unlike Mona Lisa, Michel'le wasn't really official, but you can't not talk about her. Like I was saying, these slow, four-way love ballads were becoming a Wreckin' Cru trademark. And after their second album they released one of their biggest singles, "Turn Off the Lights," which was another one of those, except instead of Mona Lisa, they had Michel'le singing the hook. And man did she hit it out of the park! Of course, you all know what happened to her. Produced by Dre, she put out a hit solo record, then they got married and things got dark after that.

The Uzi Bros) The Wreckin' Cru was more or less breaking up at this point. They still put out Dr. Dre's "House Calls" in 1987, but Shakespere seemed to be out and never went on to anything else. Meanwhile, more and more outsiders were being brought in to make the Cru's records. Their single "Must Be the Music" was an R&B duet with Mona Lisa and a guy named Derrell Black, who doesn't seem to have recorded anything else. They brought in Ice Cube's CIA posse for "The Cabbage Patch." And they brought in The Uzi Bros.

The Uzi Bros were a 3-man band consisting of Will Roc, Ken Strong and Bob Dog. They mostly played instruments, but when they put out their own album in 1990, Will Roc rapped. By 1988, the Cru was totally broken up, Dre and Yella formed NWA, and the latest Wreckin' Cru album was billed as Lonzo and The World Class Wreckin' Kru. Lonzo's sitting by himself on the album cover for Fast Lane, and for good reason. Will Roc wasn't rapping yet, rapping-wise, it was essentially a Lonzo solo album, although the Uzi Bros sung a few choruses and stuff. Mostly they handled all the music though. And since Lonzo still wasn't much of a rapper either, this album has a lot of instrumental stuff, and they slightly remixed "Lovers" with the original line-up's vocals. The credits say "featuring Mona Lisa and the Uzi Bros," but it's definitely Cli-N-Tel and everybody's vocals. They were really stretching on this album. Mostly Lonzo does spoken word stuff on this album, like Luke on his LPs, but without a JT Money in his pocket.

Anyway, The Uzi Bros went on to release their own album in 1990, like I said. They had a couple singles and a cool song on The Return of Superfly soundtrack; but they stopped making records after that. They stayed in the industry, though, producing and playing instruments for other west coast rappers, and Will Roc even released an instrumental album in the 2000s.

Tebo and Kim Brewer) Fast Lane also brought in a couple other vocalists. and they brought in more guest vocalists like Tebo and Kim Brewer. Kim's really only on one song, so it's tempting to just treat her like a guest, but Tebo's got credit on a solid half of the album. Meanwhile, Brewer's got far more music credits as a studio singer down the road, adding vocals to albums by tons of big artists from Whitney Houston to KD Lang.

Willie Z and Al Foote) In 1989, Lonzo and The Uzi Bros parted ways and he was left without a crew again. So he released the Crew's second greatest hits album (there had already been one in 1987) called Dance and Romance. This was re-released with broader distribution in 1991 under the title Turn Off the Lights (Before the Attitude) (a reference to NWA, natch). Anyway, it's just a bunch of their old records, except Lonzo does a little intro and outro to it. On the intro he says the group had split up, but on the outro, he said, "the World Class legacy is being carried on by Lonzo and two brand new brothers: Willie Z and Al Foote. Look for us in local record stores."

Bambi and Donette Williams) And sure enough, in 1990, there was a new World Class Wreckin' Cru album, called Phases In Life, with those three dudes on the cover. Al Foote's a French singer, and Willie Z plays the sax, and actually has a lot of credit as a studio musician in hip-hop and other genres. But as you can tell, that leaves them stupidly lacking in the Actual Rappers department. So you've got a lot of singing, including guest female vocals by Bambi and Donette Williams. And the raps are mostly just clunky spoken word patches again. Try and listen to the rap verse on "Love Lovin' You" without wincing. This album had a cover of "I'll Be Around" for a single, again with mostly singing (so why not just stick to the far superior original by The Spinners?), and they recorded a remake/sequel for "Turn Off the Lights" called "The Lights Are Out" with Bambi singing the chorus now. Ouch.

Curtis Bray) So, that looks like it's the last World Class Wreckin' Cru album, but not quite really. In 1994, they released Gold, which is ostensibly another greatest hits album. And it does feature a couple of their greatest hits. But more than half of is new material. There's another "Turn Off the Lights" sequel, this time with nothing but R&B vocals by Curtis Bray. All the new songs are by Lonzo and Willie Z. Al Foote seems to be out of the picture now, and in his place is Bray, who sings and writes on a couple of the new songs. This seems to be all he's done, however.

Meko) And that seems like the end of the Cru's recordings. It almost is. Remember when Thump Records was going hard on the reissue game, putting out tons of old school funk and hip-hop compilations, and albums by artists like Toddy Tee and JV The Nayba Hood Queen? Well, they also released a WCWC greatest hits album in 2001 called Greatest Hits Plus. Why "Plus?" Because the last two songs are new! One is an R&B song by a new R&B vocalist named Meko and produced by someone named G. Claiborn. You might wonder what the WCWC connection even is, but Lonzo is credited as co-writer of the song. I guess he was making a demo for her when Thump Records came to him so this is what he gave them.

Oh, and the other song is called "Boo Yaws." It's produced by a somebody named N Deed. It's a terrible dance song trying to move into the Southern rap song, with a hook that goes, "bounce ya boo yaws like ya do down South!" Lonzo does his own rapping, though, and it's the last Wreckin' Cru song to date.

So that's all of the WCWC rappers and singers. I wouldn't call all of them official members, more like affiliates or contributors. But Lonzo, Dre, Yella, Cli-N-Tel, Shakespere, Mona Lisa Young, Willie Z and Al Foote were definitely official members at different stages, and I think the Uzi Bros earned it for the 1988 album, too.

Oh, and that photo up top is the original line-up, from the back cover of their first album.
So left to right: Dre, Yella, Lonzo and Cli-N-Tel.