Friday, November 16, 2018

EC Illa, the Kanye West Recordings and So Much More

This is an interesting one.  Indie Chi-town MC EC Illa is back with some new music, and some old school rarities finally debuting on vinyl.  Let's start with that vinyl.  Pictured above you see The Grade School Dropout, a brand new limited 7" single featuring production by none other than Kanye West (hence the College Dropout reference in the title).  It's a two song single of "Strugglin'" and "Mask & a Pump," both beats by Kanye and verses by EC.  They're not entirely previously unreleased.  In 2004, EC released an independent CD called Underground Classics which assembled a collection of then unreleased recordings EC had made between the years 1995-2003.   And this would've been a fairly rare CD even for its day unless you were really following EC... Like, for instance, Sandbox and HipHopSite didn't carry it.

So getting these tracks on a legit physical release is pretty rare, and this is their definite vinyl debut.  And yes, these two songs are the only Kanye-produced tracks from that album or any other EC Illa release.  The liner notes for Underground Classics marked them both as being from 2002.  That places these songs firmly in the period where he was adopting west coast gangsta rap influences, even changing his recording name to Whitefolks; and where I as a fan had already pretty well checked out.  The EC Illa I fondly remember was a scrappy underground Hip-Hop purist representing breaking and graf in his videos with banging production and nice DJ cuts.  Like "On Ill" or "Every Hood In the Ill?"  Those are the classics to me.  This "nigga, neva trust these scandalous hoes" period just struck me as a following of trends that never should've happened.

But with that said, going back to and listening to this material now, it's really the production that lost me more than the MCing.  EC always had that street edge to his lyrics, so I'm not really mad at him shifting away from always rapping about having skills.  And actually, him adopting a fast, tongue flipping Crucial Conflict element into his flows was kinda slick.  It was really the instrumental side that let the later music down for me.  And guess what?  The two Kanye-produced really stand out as superior to everything else on Underground Classics.  Not better than "On Ill," but these songs really do deserve to be singled out and rescued from obscurity by being preserved on vinyl.

Because, I'll be honest.  I had mixed emotions when I first saw this release.  EC Illa is an important Chicago artist with a legit place in Hip-Hop history.  And seeing Kanye's name being bandied about as the selling point certainly makes obvious commercial sense, but also rubbed me the wrong way.  As if listeners today should only be interested in these two songs because EC once rubbed shoulders with the celebrity we all know from Keeping Up With the Kardasians and the MAGA hat photo-ops.  I don't like the thought of EC getting relegated to a footnote in his shadow.   But now that I've taken the time to properly revisit this material, I've relaxed into it.  This record should come out now, and people should cop it.

Even if you've never heard these songs, you can probably imagine what to expect.  Yes, EC's in Whitefolks mode, but his delivery is definitely nimbler than his early material.  And Kanye's early work is a good fit.  Yes, we get some chipmunk soul, chopped piano loops, catchy samples and snappy percussion.

"Ya ain't gotta walk fast, sweetie,
I ain't tryin' to steal ya purse;
I'm a home owna,
I just wanna bone on ya.

There's no corna
On any block, in any city,
In any state,

Not bumpin' Whitefolks e'ry day."

This single's limited to 200 hand-numbered copies (mine's #15).  As you can see above, it comes in a nice picture cover, pressed on white (white) vinyl.  The back covers are personally signed by EC himself, and and for the ultra nerdy vinyl enthusiasts, I feel compelled to point out that even the inner sleeve has a nice, plastic lining inside the paper.  It also comes with a neat little Chicago Hip-Hop 45 adapter (since this is a "big hole" 45 7").  And it comes with one more special treat.
Okay, just the one on the right, but I added my copy of Common Sense's (yes, as you see, he still had the "Sense" on this cover) cassingle to show you what that artwork's riffing on.  "I Used To Live H.E.R. Pt. 2: Beautiful" by Griffen featuring EC Illa.  Who's Griffen?  I'll be honest; I had to look him up.  He's an up and coming Chicago rapper.  A lot of his stuff is slower, definitely not mumblecore, but not entirely free of those modern influences either.  I listened to some of his songs online, and I definitely liked some more than others.

Anyway, though, EC's been largely retired; and so the exciting part of this new cassingle is that he's come back to spit a verse on this sequel to Common's classic.  Now, this isn't the first time someone's made an unofficial sequel to this song... a couple artists had songs with titles like "I Still Love H.E.R." and "Death Becomes H.E.R.," all continuing the metaphor of addressing their relationship with Hip-Hop as if it was a girlfriend.  And I think I would've preferred it if they numbered it correctly as like, "Pt. 7" or whatever it would be.  But anyway. this one uses Common's line, "she was fresh, yo, when she was underground" as its hook and jumping off point, talking about it from more of a distinctly underground Hip-Hop angle.

Griffen has a very simple, slow flow that's a little too Future for my tastes, though he's clearly consciously doing that to marry his vocals to the track (he sounds livelier on some of the other songs I heard), which is a smooth, relaxed instrumental that manages to convey a genuine sadness.  But EC steals the show when he gets on for the middle verse, "if you hadn't fallen off, I'd probably dick you still; make you take me down your throat just like a delicious pill.  You used to love her, but me I used to bang it out, up in the studio or when we was just hangin' out.  You once was a down bitch, now you just a clown, bitch.  Can't believe all the phony studs that you get down with."  It's just cool to hear something new from EC.

As you can see in the picture, "Beautiful" is a blue tape that comes in a cover styled off of Common's original.  The cassette features four versions: the main mix, the instrumental, a slightly extended version and a clean edit ...which kinda sucks because they curse in the hook, so they have to really butcher the song to keep it clean.  But the other mixes are uncensored so it's all good.  The whole pack, The Grade School Dropout and "I Used To Love H.E.R. Pt. 2," are available directly from  He also has a slightly pricier version that also includes an instrumental LP, called An Old Soul, which comes in a picture cover and is also signed by EC.  200's a pretty slim run, so if you're interested, I'd jump on it.  Like I said, I was a little mixed on it when I first saw it; but now I've come down fully in support of this.