Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Original Goodfella Gangster Rapper

I have a bit of a fascination with The Unit, by which I mean the third iteration of The Flavor Unit, where Queen Latifah finally and truly ran the classic legacy into the ground.  You know the deal already I'm sure; I've written about it before: first you had the 80s, with DJ Mark the 45 King producing a seemingly endless series of records, mostly on Tuff City, with a whole pack of strong MCs, which included Latifah as the "Princess Of the Posse."  Then, generation two in the 90s, when Mark's drug problems drove him out and Latifah took over with manager Shakim, forgoing most of the original members, letting only a handful hang on as she made deals with all sorts of big, established names like Heavy D, D-Nice and The Almighty RSO, all of whom were also quickly forgotten after the explosive debut of Naughty By Nature (not counting The New Style).  It was definitely way more commercial, but still a lot of good stuff.  Finally, there was the third wave in the 2000s, where she dropped the "Flavor" and signed a whole pack of new jacks and the whole thing was a corny disaster where they dressed in matching outfits and danced around imitating Bad Boy (they even made a "Benjamins 2002").  That disaster is what's fascinated me.

Partially because, after all, it wasn't 100% garbage.  They had DR Period producing for them, and several of those artists were perfectly average, not terrible, and might've even made a few notable records under completely different circumstances.  Storm P went on to put out a single on Fully Blown, a label I like, though I've never actually heard that one; and Rowdy Rahz actually had a couple 12"s under his belt before joining The Unit.  But then you had these other guys really diving headfirst into every early 2000s cliche with corny lines and no impressive bars between them.  And weirdest of all, you had this group called Confidential.

If you remember The Unit's only video and single, The Confidential guys are split up.  First is the rowdy DMX-sounding dude who looks like a pro wrestler.  Apparently, he's from Body Count and went on to play in other rock bands after this stint in his career?  And then best/ worst of all, is this utterly wild final verse where the song stops so they can do a skit where one of the supporting cast members from The Sopranos, and always played a gangster in movies like Carlito's Way and The Jerky Boys - he was a bit player in Goodfellas - to introduce the final MC, this white guy who raps essentially about being a Martin Scorsese character, full mafia cliche.  In fact, it turns out his name is G Fella (get it?), and the 100% Hater Proof liner notes explain their whole schtick as venturing "into mafia territory, where no rap artist has dared to go."  He has lines like, "Leave 'em sleepin' with the fishes like Hanks in the Splash."  And on the album they go even further with it on their song "Calzone."  Oh boy.

And being so fascinated, I've of course googled these guys.  Confidential as a group (which also apparently included other members Chiqui Tin, E Que and Lou E. Fingaz) didn't last longer than The Unit project.  But look on Youtube, and G Fella's never stopped making mafia-style music.  He even has another video with that guy from The Sopranos made, like, then years later.  He's got songs like "Guido Christmas," "Guido Wonderland," "Guido," "G Thing," "12 Days Of Guido Christmas," "G Fella's Christmas," "G'd Up," "Mobbed Up," "Mob Wives" and "10 Mob Commandments."  Sensing a theme?  And yeah, of course that last song's rapped over Biggie's classic beat.  He also has a bunch of tribute songs, including more with Biggie, Big Pun, 2Pac and Derek Jeter.  He has "official" songs for The Yankees, The Jets and The Rangers.  It's not just over a decade of stuff on his channel, he's got multiple collaborations and a super group called The Vintage Dons with a couple other mafia-themed gangster rappers, calling themselves, "THE PIONEERS OF THIS ITALIAN HIP HOP!!"  Guys, I have dived so deep into this rabbit hole.

But this got me thinking, are they really the pioneers of this?  Has no rap artist dared to go here before?  If you readers know me at all, you know that's just the sort of thing I can't leave called out.  Of course, Italian Hip-Hop has existed before, but that's fine.  We all know they don't mean actual Italian artists in Italy rapping in Italian, which there's a whole packed scene of going all the way back to the 80s.  They mean this heavy-handed mafia guido stereotype stuff, and this 2002 debuting G Fella definitely didn't start that either.

That's right, this was all just a crazily round-about intro for me to talk about Goodfella Mike G, who's absolutely been in the same lane years earlier, first appearing on wax in 1996.  And even he wasn't really the pioneer.  We had Tony D digging deep into all that on a couple of songs, most notably 1993's "La Cosa Nostra," who packs the song with cheesy references to famous Italians from Joe Buttafuoco to Body By Jake and drops lines like, "it's only right for me to say 'mama mia papa pia;' you suckers get tossed like dough at a pizzeria!  Holy-moly ravioli roly-poly, I'm not Mr. Hand and of course I'm not Spicoli. Fags at the coffee wearing wigs and mascara while I'm home eatin' mama's mussels marinara.  I like Italian hoagies but I don't call it a hero; I'm down with Joe Pesci and his boy Robert DeNiro."  And speaking of Joe Pesci, he made his own Italian mafia rap record (no, honestly, he did) called "Wiseguy" under the alias Vincent Laguardia Gambini, his character name from Goodfellas.  That was in the 90s, too (1998).

Hell, there was actually a group called The Guido MC's (Matt "The Horse" Wiseguy and Franky Flash) who made a record called "Guido Rap" in 1987, which sampled the famous Godfather riff.  They changed their name to Organized Rhyme and continued to drop all the Italian guido references with the one and only DJ Doc on production.  Even earlier than that you had Sir Rapsalot featuring The Mobsta Three, with members Edward G, Humphrey B and Jimmy C mixing old school mafia cliches with Hip-Hop references while doing silly old timey impressions of Robinson, Bogart and Cagney, respectively.  Though in their case, I'm pretty sure they weren't actually Italian; in fact I rather suspect it was The Urban Lord Posse clowning around.  So not even considering the myriad of MCs dressing up like mafia dons for the music videos like Eric B and Rakim, or naming themselves after Al Capone, John Gotti, etc; or tellers of old school mafia tales from Kool G Rap to Scarface, or the bajillion and one gangsta punchlines referencing The Godfather and Goodfellas everybody and their uncle has made...  Even discounting all the songs like "Good Fellas" by Jake the Flake or "Good Dwellas," or groups like The Untouchable Goodfellas and The Notorious Goodfellas, and just strictly limiting it specifically to Italian Americans who built their entire rap personas around stringing along every guido/ mafia cliche in the book...  Even then, this was tired, old territory. 

But it was at least a little fresher when Mike G got to it.  Mike got his start as part of The Soul Kid Klik, appearing on their first single in 1996, the dope posse cut "Mortal Kombat."  Mike's doing his mobster character even on that, though nobody else is, which is interesting.  He stands out because he kinda sounds like a cartoon character with his exaggerated accent talking about how "the flow's mafioso."  But that didn't stop him from putting out the second record on Soul Kid Records as his solo single, "Strictly Dago."  If you don't know, "dago" is an old school Italian slur.  Klik producer G-Clef, an in-house producer at Tuff City who's made dozens of those sample compilation" LPs they used to produce like crazy, slowed things downed and added some more classic gangster movie music to create a silly but genuinely funky track.  And it's just an endless stream of guido mafia references, "making you an offer you can't refuse, like Don Corleone," "since I'm a slow guinea I'll take the chicken tetrazzini," "I'm hard hitting the Mean Streets like Martin Scorsese," "I'm the spaghetti eatin', wine drinkin', ill dago man," "you better go pull your guns, trooper, because when I swing by, I'm like Pesci, super" and so on.

So you can't take it too seriously, but it's genuinely pretty smooth and a bit of an ear-worm, making great use of a fun Biz Markie "Goin' Off" sample for the hook ("and I don't eat spaghetti without the meat sauce").  You can't hate it; it's a cool track and Mike G rides it well.  Also on this 12" is a remix of "Mortal Kombat," which doesn't improve much on the original; but is probably there more to lend Mike G the credibility of his crew.  And there's another track called "Two Guinnies With Soul" where Clef, who's also Italian American, takes the mic up to duet with Mike.  It's sort of more of the same with plenty of "fuhgedaboudit"s and references to guys like Pacino and DeNiro.  But it's more of a straight, raw Hip-Hop track with some references dropped into more traditional battle rhymes.  And Clef has a more straight-forward delivery.

You know, it's a weird thing.  They're selling an over-the-top unreal persona on the one hand, but both Mike G and G-Fella are clearly interested in making quality music and showing off their genuine rap skills for us.  I'm half Italian myself; I'm definitely not trying to suggest there's anything foolish about people with Italian ancestry including that in their lyrics, but to some degree at least, they're playing it for laughs.  Mike G's bars are a series of punchlines where the stereotyped references are the joke ("they call me Grande Provolone, a.k.a. The Big Cheese" isn't a serious gangsta rap flex); and the lines get very fuzzy between these guys and acts like Chingo Blingo or The 2 Live Jews - at what point exactly are we meant to regard them as legitimate artists, as opposed to novelty acts?  Even Rappin' Duke or Sheep Doggy Dogg clearly tried to make their music as good as possible, but I wouldn't say they were trying to pass themselves off as credible acts to be taken seriously beyond the initial joke of their personas.  But The Soul Kid Klik and The Unit weren't pushing their guys for laughs.  I guess it's just meant to be lightly tongue in cheek, like that Tony D song.

I'd say it works as a single.  "Strictly Dago" is humorous, the other two songs are less (if not 0%) gimmick.  But then Mike G went on to release a whole album.  It's called Time To Make the Pasta, and with songs like "Wise Guyz," "Fredo's Dead" and "Looking For Mr. Goodfella's," it's just blown way overboard.  I'm fine with not taking things too seriously and rocking with "Strictly Dago," but this is like when Rappin' Duke made two comeback singles and an entire LP.  The gag doesn't stretch that far.  And it's not like this is just his honest-to-god, natural persona and I'm giving him a hard time for innocently being himself.  Before he was Goodfella Mike G, he was just regular Mike G, a member of the new jack swing rap group 4PM on Reprise Records that Farley Flex was producing.  He had that deep voice and smoother flow even then, but he definitely wasn't this character he created on Soul Kid Records.

Anyway, his career didn't end there.  He had a recurring role on the first season of HBO's Oz in 1997, and he continued to appear on Soul Kid Klik records as a full-fledged member where he still maintained the Goodfella persona ("yo, I want him dead, face down in manicotti").  And if you're a fan, here's a real treat: somebody's uploaded a music video he made for an unreleased song called "Fuggedaboutit" onto Youtube.  He feels a little more in on the joke than G-Fella.  At the end of the day, I'm glad to have this record in my crates; I do like Mike G.  In small doses.

Update 8/17/20: Major thanks are due to rlydoe on Twitter for this update, for rightfully pointing out a key absentee in this discussion: a Bronx rapper called The Shark.  Now, I was vaguely familiar with him, basically just for a couple records he made with with Raekwon and Fat Joe in the late 90s and early 2000s.  And I even came across him during my latest dive, because he's also a part of that Vintage Dons group.  But I initially thought I was doing him a favor by leaving him out.  Because like I said, I'm not trying to suggest there's something wrong with Italians including their heritage in their music, like The Lordz of Brookyn (though even their debut record cover, if you'll recall, was a mock pizza box with the cartoon chef), and this guy really wasn't putting on that "Oh-a boy-a, At'sa spicy meatball" tone with his music.  He was doing more serious, hardcore gangster rap, much like Kool G Rap's Giancana stuff, except genuinely Italian.  But after giving The Shark a second look now, I see that I really can't make up a title like The Original Goodfella Gangster Rapper without mentioning someone who has a strong claim on such a crown.  Honestly, I didn't realize how far he went back.  His first record was in 1996, too, and if you weren't sure if his inclusion was worth making such a fuss over, let me tell ya: it was called "Italiano" on Italiano Records.

It's produced by some guy named Wize Guy (because of course) and Terror Squad affiliate Rated R who've actually crafted a terrific, dark track.  Lyrically, it's the long stream of references you should expect by now if you've read this far: "when we go to war, hit the mattress, or I'll be sippin' Saki with Gus Farace.  Pullin' drive-bys on a Kawasaki; chillin' on my jet ski up in Orchard Beach.  Yo, my peeps got it locked for San Gennaro Feast: we own Italian restaurants, fine wine and veal.  One love to Fat Joe; the shit is real.  This goes out for the fans, for all my racketeers in the can and my cousins on the lam.  For crime, I take a stand with a mic in my hand.  'Bout time the industry heard a real white man."  He's got a respectable hardcore flow, though, that lives up to the track, and at least he isn't lifting all of his rhymes from a pizzeria menu.  I read a comment labeling all this stuff a subgenre called "Pasta Rap."  Anyway, "Italian" was just his debut; The Shark's gone one to put out a whole grip of 12"s, a full-length album, including "Forget About It," "It's Over" and "Country Club" with JoJo Pellegrino.

Yeah, if I'm going to reach back and pick up The Shark for this post, I also absolutely have to talk about JoJo, who's another member of The Vintage Dons.  I pretty much only know him as the guy who did "Bah Dah Bing, Bah Dah Boom" on Skribble's album, but he actually dates back to 1996, too!  Having all these guys come out the same year makes it nearly impossible to judge who came first, although I don't think it's a case of anyone ripping the other off.  I'm sure it's absolutely no coincidence that they all immediately follow Raekwon's wave-making Only Built 4 Cuban Linx album, when the whole Wu -Tang Clan adopted their "Wu Gambino" names, and even Nas felt compelled to add Escobar to his moniker.  In fact, The Shark sampled the hook for "Italiano" directly from "Knowledge God."  So to try and say Mike G got it from The Shark or The Shark got it from JoJo is to miss the fact that they're all the sons of Lou Diamonds.

So now anyway, JoJo didn't actually have any records of his own until years later, although he did briefly sign to Loud Records in the early 2000s for one single called, predictably, "FoGedAboudDid."  But in 1996 he was a part of a little known group called Mafioso Chapter who put out a 12" called "Crime Family," with fellow members Pino Pesci and Casablanca.  Despite those names, though, this is another credible track, more akin to "Italiano" than "Strictly Dago."  Lyrically, it's a little weaker, but basically more of the same: "Pesci, I be the one in the mix.  Catch me chillin' with the honeys and the tricks.  Sippin' champagne in my private air-o-plane, Gucci Lucci while I'm rubbin' on your coochie.  Luciano, Capone-type of fellow, I'm mellow, Italian bitches screamin' hello.  Wanna take a ride in my limousine?"  That was the Chapter's only single before they split up, and JoJo didn't go on to build an extensive vinyl catalog like The Shark, but he's continued to make new music online, too.  Just last month he posted his latest video, a remake of Fat Joe's "Flow Joe," where he's still rhyming "Sinatra" with "pasta."  Gotta love it.