Friday, January 31, 2020

Bad Rap?

Today I watched Bad Rap, a 2016 crowd-funded "feature documentary about the obstacles and successes of Asian-American rappers."  It starts out with a little history... Yes, they briefly summarize Jin and The Mountain Brothers, but they never even mention Fresh Kid Ice, Lyrics Born, Dragons of Edin, Key Kool or any of those Up Above cats, let alone Hip-Hop artists in Asia who've broken out here like DJ Honda or DJ Krush.  And it would be perfectly fine that their backstory was just so short that they breezed over most of the important figures, but their point was that the two or three artists they did name were all there was, as if they'd just thoroughly covered all there was to know.  So it got my back up that they were skipping over so much.  I mean, say what you want about Fresh Kid Ice, but 2 Live Crew were larger than all the guys they discussed put together.  A history of Asian-American rappers that doesn't seem to have even heard of the world's most famous Asian-American rapper?  Weak.  But you already knew I was gonna get hung up on this part, right?  Really, it's a small matter, because that part of the film turns out to be there only to serve as an introduction.

Because the film quickly devolves into a reality TV-style show where we follow four up and coming unknowns where we're asked to pick who to root for.  They only missed one trick by having them training for an "ultimate rap battle" that squares them off as the climax of the movie.  They get close, though, as we follow one of them through a tedious battle rap tournament that grinds the film to a halt for almost half an hour.  There are a couple interesting, genuine seeming moments, like one rapper struggling to convince models to sexualize themselves in his music video, or another who seems to find more success making cooking videos from his apartment.  There's a section where they show their four rappers to some prominent industry people, like Ebro and Riggs Morales, and they mostly seemed to be sincere and give legit criticism.
What'll make this doc of interest to most people today, though, is that one of those unknowns did break out and become a big celebrity - Awkwafina.  Even though this is only four years old (though I'm guessing most of this was shot at least a couple years earlier), it's already a historical artifact: pre-Crazy Rich Asians, Oceans 8, Comedy Central and all that, where we find her performing in local clubs and just starting to get noticed with Youtube videos.  On Netflix, they've changed their thumbnail to a giant close-up of her, even though her role's actually probably a little bit smaller than several of the other unknowns.  She's really a secondary character, even in terms of screen time; so if you're just coming to this as an Awkwafina fan, you're going to be disappointed.

Overall, the doc's pretty short and seems to end kind of arbitrarily.  I definitely would've been more interested if they just expanded the opening history into a full, rich discussion of the legacy and challenges facing Asian MCs, instead of trying to turn it into another sports-style "pick your favorite" doc.  But even if you dig that kind of thing, it gets meandering and sluggish with low stakes and zero tension.  Had the filmmakers kept rolling until after Awkwafina turned into a pop star and could've included that, they would've had more to work with.  Instead, this is the rise and fall of four aspiring rappers who never really rise or fall.

They also never explain why the film is called "Bad Rap."  It's tempting to make the crack that they're just telling on themselves; but to be fair, I wouldn't say any of these rappers are bad (leaving the jury out on how you feel about Awkwafina's skills, since she's clearly aiming for easy-to-follow joke songs).  I guess they mean it in the sense of Asian rappers consistently getting a bad reputation.  But that doesn't actually seem like the picture they've painted?  The movie presents them as being overlooked and ignored, but not exactly treated like hoods or whatever. 

So yeah, Bad Rap is streaming on Netflix.  It's on some other services, too, like Amazon Prime and Youtube, but for a fee.  If you really like the film, it's worth looking into the physical release, since that includes exclusive extras like deleted scenes and extended interview clips.  There are DVD and blu-ray options, though they're both Made On Demand burnt discs, which have shorter shelf lives and have trouble working with certain players.  Still, the blu is definitely the ideal option.  But that's only if you feel like this film is worth it, which I can't say it was for me.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Natural Elements' 1999, Give Or Take a Few

Hey, remember when Natural Elements were finally releasing their long-shelved Tommy Boy album on vinyl for its tenth anniversary through Traffic Entertainment?  And then Traffic dropped out, and they wound up releasing a CD-only version that included about two thirds of the album and filled the rest with a bizarre, patchwork mix of older material?  Well, now it's their twentieth anniversary and they're here to do it  It's still kinda screwy.  But they've made genuine improvements.  It's definitely good news overall.

So let's start on the positive side.  1999: 20 Year Anniversary is on vinyl!  Yes, you can now finally, after all these years, get these songs on wax.  A double LP even.  And it comes in a cool gatefold cover, and if you really want to splurge, you can order the more limited colored vinyl options.  Specifically, there are 100 copies pressed on three striped color vinyl, 100 pressed on blue, white (white) and orange splatter vinyl (the stripes are the same three colors), and another 300 on your basic black.  Oh and there's also a CD version.

Now let's step into the disappointing... it's still mostly the same weird track-listing they made for the tenth anniversary CD, where they leave off several of the still unreleased Tommy Boy songs and fill that space with their most common, greatest hits material most NE fans already have (the credit in the liner notes saying, "all tracks recorded in NYC in 1999" is just wrong).  And the ones that don't could get them if they chose, unlike the still unreleased songs, which none of us can get.

But I said "mostly," because they did make an interesting change or two.  First of all, they've re-arranged the track-listing to put the intro back at the beginning, a nice little correction of the tenth anniversary, which curiously stuck it at the end.  But more critically, they've taken off the song "MTV (More Than Vocals)" and replaced it with the never officially released "Life Ain't Fair."  To be clear, this is the original version with the hook sung by Bridge that I first wrote about in my article for Hip Hop Connection and that wound up on that hard to find bootleg with the Truck Turner songs.  This is not the version Chopped Herring gave a proper release to on the first of their amazing Demo EPs.

This is a strange decision, which on the scales I suppose leans more to the pro than the con, but could've easily been a lot more pro.  This is the first official release of that "Life Ain't Fair," and it's on vinyl, so that's pretty sweet.  And taking "MTV" off makes sense, since it was never intended to be on that Tommy Boy album (it was recorded years later).  But "MTV" has never been released on vinyl, and it would've been nice to get it on wax now, even if it's not really a proper 1999 track.  After all, about a third of what's on here, including "Life Ain't Fair," isn't a proper 1999 track.  And again, there are plenty of songs on here that have been readily available on vinyl already for decades that they could've swapped off instead.  "Bust Mine" or "Paper Chase," for example, are super easy to find on 12", nice and inexpensive, and they weren't from 1999 either.  With that said, though, since "MTV" was at least on the CD, and "Life Ain't Fair" has never seen a proper release, I do prefer getting "Life" to "MTV."  It's a change for the better.  It's just a Sophie's Choice we shouldn't have had to make.

But don't let my criticisms land too hard.  A new double-LP of incredible Natural Elements music, most of which has never been released on vinyl before?  That's awesome news and everyone reading this should cop it.  I just wish they had the courage not to buoy these up with their greatest hits.  They definitely don't need to, and it means those last six songs from their 1999 Tommy Boy album are still abandoned in the vault.  Of course... just one more, little wafer-thin 12" EP could fix all that for all time, and we fans would gobble it up.  Just sayin'.  😉

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Fat Boys' Hardest Gangsta Raps

(I hate when critics of Hip-Hop lay "Cop Killer" on our doorstep.  That's a heavy metal song on a heavy metal album by a heavy metal band.  I don't listen to that noise!  But, to be fair, it's not like we haven't got a few violent gangster tales of our own... like these, told by The Fat Boys.  Youtube version is here.)

Friday, January 10, 2020

U521 - The Comeback Of the Decade, and More!

You might say that "the comeback of the decade" is a pretty left-handed compliment to throw at somebody on January 10th, 2020.  Well, allow me to be "that guy" for just long enough to point out that there was no year 0 in our calendar, so the decade doesn't roll over until next January.  So me declaring somebody just made the comeback of the decade, I'm talking about on the last ten years, not ten days.  Or, to put it in a less irritatingly nerdy way, hell yeah, I'm excited about this!  Just who's back?  Unique!

Just a couple months ago, I wrote about how DWG had unearthed and released a little bit more from Unique's vault of lost recordings.  It had been a long time since they first brought him back into the scene.  And I guess now in retrospect, the timing was because Unique was planning this all along.  Maybe/ maybe not, but it's all good news for Hip-Hop fans regardless.  First we get more vintage 80's material, and now we get all new music from him!

"Lyrical Assault" is a 2-song 7" from Hip Hop Be Bop Records, the same label that brought us the equally dramatic returns of Silver Fox and Sugar Bear.  And thankfully, producer Clandest does as good a job of capturing the spirit of the original artist as he did on those previous efforts.  It doesn't quite have the polished, 80s vibe of his earlier material, the main loop of "Lyrical Assault" feels has more of an indie 90s vibe, but it still suits Unique to a tee.  And the man himself?  He definitely has a raspier voice, but otherwise, hasn't skipped a beat, in his lyrical styling or delivery, since '88.  He certainly sounds older, but when he hits the line, "hold your ear, I'ma press the detonator, creepin' like a sniper, sorta like a terminator," this is unquestionably our Unique, just like he never left us.

"I'm a Always Shine" is a bit slower, but has the best scratches (as always, by DJ Credit One).  Except for his smoker's voice, "Lyrical Assault" sounds like a song he would've recorded for his classic, essentially unreleased '89 album.  And this sounds like the slightly more relaxed and mature kind of song he would've recorded for a second album in 1990.  Like, to put it in Kool G Rap terms, the A-side is from his "Men At Work" phase and the B-side comes out of his "Bad To the Bone" era.

This is a 45 7" (as I recall, the Sugar Bear was 33 1/3) and as you can see, comes in a picture cover designed, like the interior label, to match the classic New Day color scheme of his original 12"s. I'm not sure what the exact numbers are, but according to the HHBB's site, "limited press photos included while stocks last, some signed by Unique."  So if you're interested in bonus swag, you might want to jump on this sooner than later.  And while you're at it, Hip Hop Be Bop has another new record for you at the same time.

05:21's "Without Warning" represents HHBB's first release by a contemporary artist.  In fact, even by contemporary standards, they're kinda brand new.  05:21 is a UK duo comprised of MCs Koba Kane and T1 Vega.  This is their first physical release, and their "debut single" online seems to've just been released three months ago.  So yeah, they may as well have just popped out of nowhere, though they are managed by Blade (because T1's his son).  Blade's an MC with a deep history, dropping his first single back in 1988 and making albums ever since.  But I'm definitely not as up on my UK Hip-Hop as I should be... I think the only records I actually have of his are a Herbaliser appearance or two.  Maybe that'll be my homework after this post, to track down at least one of his early records.  But anyway, management isn't generally up there with writer or producer in terms of being a strong creative influence, so I'm not sure it's even particularly relevant here.  Like, Professor X used to manage Positive K, but "Quarter Gram Pam" sounds nothing like an X-Clan record.  So let's just take these guys on their own.

This one's just the one song, not produced by Clandest but by somebody named Sinikal (who also does his own scratching).  The 05:21 guys have pretty strong, aggressive flows and deliver well constructed rhymes at a steady pace.  Despite being new, you can hear a lot of the sensibilities of their old school label-mates in how they attack the mic.  I don't know if they're deliberately taking an influence from them or if HHBB picked 'em because they fit in with the rest of their roster despite the different generation.  Either way, it means if you've liked their previous singles, you should be happy with this one; they just don't come with the established reputations of the other artists' legacies.  Not that I'd quite put them on the level of a Silver Fox; these guys get a bit silly with their nonstop "like a" similes, but for 05:21, the emphasis seems to be more on their impressive deliveries than whatever freestyle lyrics they happen to be spitting.  Instrumentally, my only criticism is that the main twangy loop is mixed a little too loud over the break and vocals.  I would've liked it a little more subtle, but it still works, and the cuts have a slick DJ Premier feel when they come in for the hook.

Like the Unique single, "Without Warning" is a 45 7" in a picture cover, with the instrumental on the B-side of this one.  You can just cop the Unique or 05:21 singles by themselves, but they take a few extra £s off if you order them together.  I have to admit, 05:21 is not one I would've selected for myself (having never heard of 'em and all) - unlike Unique who I'm thrilled over - but now that I've got 'em, I'm glad to have both, and I can't wait to see what Hip Hop Be Bop comes up with next!