Friday, March 31, 2017

Dirty Jersey Week, Day 1: The Blaque Spurm Catalog

It's Dirty Jersey Week, folks!  I'm celebrating my home state with a week's worth of posts of underrated NJ Hip-Hop.  I've doing old stuff, I'm doing new stuff and I'm doing new releases of old stuff, like today's entry.

Blaque Spurm is some deep, underground Jersey legacy.  I first discovered front man B-Fyne on the Crusaders For Real Hip-Hop album.  Actually, I probably heard him first on the Fu-Schnickens first album, but I didn't pick him out as anybody of note until I started digging deeper into Tony D's career in the late 90s/ early 2000s.  Like, I grew up on YZ's first album, but I had no idea B-Fyne is the guy he was talking to on "Back Again," even though he clearly says his name.

Anyway, B's crew, Blaque Spurm, were briefly signed to American Records/ Ill Labels back in 1994.  Like every Hip-Hop act on that label, it was a short lived association, and they released their only other record on Tony D's indie label, Contract Records, the following year.  And apart from a couple other guest appearances and some self-released stuff you probably had to catch them at a show to cop, that was all they put out.  Two slick, well regarded underground 12"s.

That is until their Spurmacidal Tendencies album, anyway.  This is a collection of their previously unreleased 1994 recordings collected onto one, full-length CD released by Nustalgic Records.  And yes, that includes all three tracks from their two 12"s as well.  A couple of the tracks are produced by unknowns (including one or two from their singles, so you know those are still dope), but the overwhelming majority is by Tony D himself.  The crew is somewhat hardcore, but definitely on some serious 90s backpacker shit.  Songs like "Nonoxynol Rhyme'n" definitely reminds me of the days of collecting tapes by crews him Masters Of the Universe or Living Legends.  But those guys never had the benefit of the rich, polished production Tony D provides.

Is this album dated?  Oh yes, and that may add to its charm or be a serious weakness.  Lots of easy pop culture punchlines "I'm like that purple dinosaur Barney; I'm large" and nerdy super scientifical lines like "I hover over tracks using levitational skills."  Young artists today would never write songs like these, and that's not me being an old guy shaking my cane at today's generation; that's a compliment.  But if you lived through that period like I did, it's going to nicely swan dive into nostalgia value.  But even if it doesn't and hearing that stuff just makes you wince now, there's still undeniable skill on hand here; and most young MCs who have the advantage of living in more sophisticated times would still be lucky to write a verse half as compelling as B-Fyne does consistently here.  Like check "Awh Fuck It;" it's like his "Greatest Man Alive."  He kills it (and yeah, even though it's a group album, B-Fyne is definitely the star, with several solo songs).  My only criticism is that Spurm allowed themselves to be too influenced by the trends of their time.  Now, this CD's kinda been making the rounds for years on the down low.  But this new version has an unlisted bonus track called "Nearing the End;" so if you never copped it before, now's the perfect time.

And that's not the whole story.  Before Blaque Spurm was Blaque Spurm, they were known as The Funk Family.  They even had a 12" out in 1992, which I'm not gonna front, I knew nothing about until recently.  And in addition to Spurmicidal Tendencies, Nustalgic has also compiled a full album of The Funk Family's unreleased recordings from 1991 to 1993, called Everything'll Befyne.  Yeah, guess who's the star again.  Again, he has a couple songs, and again, Tony D produced almost the entire album.  Two were produced by The Baka Boyz.  But there's a big difference.  Despite the small gap of time between the two periods, The Funk Family stuff is much hyper.  They're yelling over faster, high energy beats with crazy, fluctuating styles, clearly influenced by crews like Fu-Schnickens, Rumpletilskinz, Das EFX and LotUG.  Some songs are slower, but it's still a big jump from Blaque Spurm.  Both albums are dope; I'm not sure I have a favorite; but they're definitely distinct.

There are some weird moments, like when they group does a very disharmonious rendition of a Sequence routine.  And Tony takes the mic a couple times.  Disappointingly, this leaves off one of the four songs from their original 12"; and curiously, the previous version of this compilation had a very different track-listing, with a bunch of different songs.  I wish we could just get everything; but I guess they just have too much music from this period.  maybe they'll do a Volume 2 down the road.

And that's still not the end.  Nustalgic has one more CD: Wake Up Call by Baby Chill.  Baby Chill is a member of Funk/ Spurm and actually B-Fyne's brother.  He's tragically passed away, but this CD brings back a full album of material he recorded in 1993 with his Secret Squirrels crew.  Production is entirely by Tony D, so it has a real nice sound as Chill seamlessly transitions from smooth to playful to serious.  It's more in tune with the Blaque Spurm sound than the Funk Family; but it's definitely it's own thing.  Really good.  The album's thirteen tracks long and has been floating around the internet for ages; but now it's got an official pressing with a bonus track: the "Good Morning Vietnam" posse cut from Tony D's album.

It would be nice if there was vinyl for all this; but these CDs are packed, so at best we could've probably just hoped for EPs missing a bunch of the tracks anyway.  The CDs also come with some stickers and postcards with group photos and stuff, but they've also added all this stuff to ITunes and probably some other mp3 outlets if that's more your thing.  Me, I still demand a physical copy for my collection, so I had to have the CDs; and it helped that they were on sale (still are as of this writing) from their official online store.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Learn Along With Werner, part 9: One and One More

Several years ago, I blogged about the two records by a somewhat obscure, 90s duo called One and One.  It was actually sort of a secret comeback record for UTFO's Doctor Ice, who signed with a new label (Next Plateau) under a new name with a new, updated style.  The other member was his cousin, and they called themselves Harry Balz and Sonny Boy (Doc = Sonny), which he later changed to Sonny Bumz.  The records were hot, especially their debut single "Phenomenon," but you know Next Plateau wasn't exactly launching careers in the late 90s, so they never got the recognition they deserved, and they just had the two records.

...Or so I always thought.  But recently I got to have another one of those awesome moments where the internet showed me a record I never knew existed back in my day.  Apparently, before signing to Next Plateau, they pressed up their lead single independently, and used that to get industry attention.  It makes sense, as that's exactly what Doc Ice had done just a couple years prior, releasing his first solo comeback single on his own label, Rely On Selph Records, before getting it picked up on Wrap/ Ichiban and coming out with his second solo album.  It's actually pretty impressive that Ice could keep resetting his career and with a single 12" get a new record deal, considering most rappers go their whole careers struggling to get signed once.  But even if you don't like his style, think he's too old school or maybe some of his humor's corny; that guy's an undeniably talented MC.  And so here we have "Phenomenon" by One and One on a little label owned by Tyrone Thomas called Streets Of Sound Records.

So, "big deal," I hear you say.  "A rare, early pressing of the same single that came out wider a little later on?  Maybe you can get your collector jollies on, but otherwise it's just the same song, right?"  And it is.  I listened to them back to back, and the it's not even an alternate rough mix or anything.  "Phenomenon" is exactly the same, including the spoken intro.  It even features the same four versions: Radio, Album, Instrumental and Accapella.  But this original, indie pressing has something the later records haven't got: an exclusive B-side.

So forever, I thought One and One only had three songs to their name (well, unless you count that weird, Absolut vodka compilation album).  But no, there's a fourth!  And by the way, this record also teaches us something else very interesting.  The Next Plateau single always credited the production of "Phenomenon" to Swing Of Things Productions, whoever the heck that was.  But this early record label spells it out; it's Mark Spark, along with a partner named Hasan Pore.  And they produced both the tracks on this 12".  And the instrumental's on here, too, for those wondering; though it's more of a TV track.

So how's the new song?  It's cool.  It's definitely not clear to me why Next Plateau didn't choose to include it.  I mean "Phenomenon" definitely stands out as the cut that could really make noise in '96; but both are solid tracks; there's definitely no reason to bury "What's On Your Mind."  It's got some cool, moody production.  And it's a relationship song, but it's much closer to "Looking At the Front Door" than some pop love rap.  It's about the frustration of not being sure what your partner's really thinking even when she's saying all the right things.  Is she really cheating on you or just doesn't want to see you?  Doc does his first verse from the perspective of a man in jail writing to his woman at home, and he ends with a pure sex brag.  The whole record is on a surprisingly street tip you never would've expected from the UTFO guy in a lab coat and stethoscope.  Werner approves.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Return Of the Box Cutter Brothers

So, late last year I did a video about the ill, Vietnam-themed records MF Grimm has started coming out with.  As a bit of an addendum in that video, I talked about another project his producer put out on their label: a CD by The Box Cutter Brothers.  The Box Cutter Brothers is the duo of producers Ayatollah (who's worked with everybody from Mos Def to Moka Only to Rakim) and Drasar Monumental (Grimm's producer), and it was a breakbeat CD, where Ayatollah produced the first half of the beats and Drasar did the second half.  The one I had in my video was their first album, but they'd actually put out two more by the time I made by video.  Part 2 was also on CD, and I think Part 3 was mp3-only.  But now Part 4 is dropping, and they're putting it out as a proper, vinyl LP.

But if you've kept up with this blog, you probably know I tend not to get terribly excited over strictly instrumental hip-hop.  It can feel like holding the blueprints instead of living in a house; I want vocals, I want the full song experience!  I've discussed this before, so I won't carry on about it.  But if you want to see why Box Cutter Brothers 4 really got my attention, look at the bottom left-hand corner of the picture cover... "Vocal Version."  Yeah, every track on here is a full, vocal song!  And they didn't go the expected route of wrangling all their friends and connections to make a producer-themed compilation album, like Marley Marl In Control or that DJ Bazooka Joe album on Dope Folks.  They're doing all their own rapping; like when Diamond D decided he didn't need Master Rob anymore.

And I'd say the Diamond D comparison is fairly apt, because neither of them are going to make anybody's Top Fives, they both know how to flow over their own work enough to make a solid record.  Ayatollah goes for a very low, literally whispered flow over his smooth, somewhat dark beats.  It's got a very atmospheric, organic feel that draws you right in.  He re-uses his vocals for two songs at one point, but it all sounds good, which is what counts.  Drasar, on the other hand, takes a very different approach.  Here, each song is very distinct, and he has a more bombastic style.  I'm not talking Mystikal or Waka Flocka levels here, he's actually got kind of a Pete Nice style; but after the A-side, you really feel the extra energy.  And instrumentally it's the same; he rocks some pretty crazy loops on his side.

And it's not just rapping over breaks.  There's cutting, plenty of vocal samples and hooks.  These are full fleshed out songs.  But, still, the production is primarily what's on sale here.  I recognized a few samples... a stray piano loop on the Ayatollah side, and they sampled by homeboy 2XL.  But even when I was familiar with something, it was completely re-purposed and contextualized into a new, unique instrumental.  The only weakness to this album is that there's no real single to grab you.  You know, like JVC Force's whole album was hot, but "Strong Island" was that amazing joint that immediately got everyone hype.  Drasar hits some nice, head-nodding peaks (and substantive topics); but there's still no "Strong Island" equivalent here.  The whole album is one tight listen, but you have to be prepared to settle in for something subtler than quick thrills.

So yeah, this is a full LP in a picture cover available directly from Vendetta Vinyl, and I assume will start appearing at the usual online retailers soon.  AccessHipHop had the first two CDs, after all.  And there is also a CD version of this one, for those who'd prefer that over wax, plus an LP/ t-shirt combo.  The fact that this is labeled a "Vocal Version" does suggest to me that an instrumental version might follow one of these days; but nothing's been announced so far, and this is the ideal version for me anyway.  I was impressed by this record - you can listen to soundclips here - and I hope BCB 5 is a Vocal LP, too.