Wednesday, April 13, 2022

What, You Thought Natural Elements Would Release a New Record and I Wouldn't Cover It?

Natural Elements are back with a new album.  Even though they first came out in 1994, this is almost kind of their first full-length album, if you want to get kind of arbitrary and pedantic about how you count 'em.  You know, if you were super strict about discarding EPs and compilations.  My point is: we don't get nearly enough from these incredibly talented guys, especially all working together, so it's a big deal when this happens.  A full-length album of all new music by the full crew on vinyl (and CD).

That also puts them in a tough spot.  By releasing just the rare killer 12" every once in a while, and continually re-releasing their best known songs, it kind of puts them in competition with their greatest hits.  Your average artist may release an project every year or two, and we look at it and say, okay, this one's a little better than their last one, or maybe a slight step backwards or whatever.  But when I first put this one on the turntable I'm asking myself how it's going to hold up against "Paper Chase" and "Magnetic."  It's not a deliberate challenge I'm posing; you just can't help it.

So honestly my first listen was just a relief that the magic is still here.  The slick way they ride the rhythm, the clever way they pack complex and original series of rhymes into their bars.  The same way they got you geeking off of their style on tracks like "Lyrical Tactics" and "2 Tons" they do here.

Not that it's a total surprise.  They have been releasing dope music online and various side/ solo projects.  So it's not like we haven't heard from these guys since their heyday and we're wondering what they were capable of now.  In fact, that's largely how this album came about.  The title is Death Comes In 3s, well partially 'cause there's three of them, but really because they've been releasing a series of 3-song digital EPs.  Three EPs.  And now that they've put them all out, they gathered them together into one complete LP.

Another thing that makes a great Elements record, of course, is their production.  They're brilliant MCs, but the fact that they keep marrying their flows to the seemingly perfect tracks is essential.  And thank goodness, that's back, too.  About half of it is, yes, produced by Charlemagne, who's been behind them for so long, so consistently, for all their greatest hits that I honestly feel he's the fourth member.  So I would've been pretty bummed if he wasn't on board here.  In fact, it's a slight disappoint that he only produced half of these tracks, leaving the rest to be handled by relative unknowns J. Armz, Haydn3000, Joe Nights and GxBxT.  But it's only slight, because these guys manage to live up to the expectations Charlemagne set for them.  Joe Night's "Royalty" feels like a traditional NE track, and while Haydn3000's "We All Kings" and his Wu-Tangy "Feel" do have a different vibe to them, they're still really good, and bring a slightly less polished, street energy back to the crew that they used to have back when KA was a member.  Though I'm glad they let Charlemagne close it out with "Cream Of the Crop," which even with an R&B-sung hook really brings back their pure sound.

Not that it's all pure perfection.  There's the occasional creaky punchline like, "she treated me like a Garbage Pail Kid.  (How's that?)  She blew my head off."  "#Tribevibes," a track dedicated to A Tribe Called Quest, using some of their famous instrumentals, is a cool, fun track.  But they don't do Tribe as well as Tribe did Tribe, so it makes you just want to go back and listen to their originals.  So it's an amusing experiment, and fine as album filler, but comes off a little neutered compared to NE doing their own thing on all cylinders.  Honestly, that's one they could've left on Youtube and given us a crack at something like "Competition is NoNE" on vinyl instead.  But oh well.  It's still a good song, I can't really complain.

So this is a nine track album, but the physical versions include bonus tracks.  Both the vinyl and CD include the most exciting one, "Vroom (NEMix)."  "Vroom" is a Swigga solo track he released back in 2017, and just included it on his latest solo album, Sunset Mindset (which Hip Hop Enterprises has also released on both CD and vinyl).  It's a heavy Charlemagne track, and this remix uses the same beat, but turns it into a posse cut with all three Elements getting busy on there now.  I remember being excited by it when they first put it out online, and I'm excited to finally have it on vinyl now.

Then the CD also has one more bonus track, "DroNEs."  This one has them spitting over "Clones," one of The Roots' hardest hitting instrumentals that proved they were more than just a short-lived flash in the pan back in '96.  When I first heard about it, I thought it might be another dedication song like "#Tribevibes."  Then A-Butta starts it off sounding like it's going to be a topical song about paranoia and surveillance.  but in the end, it breaks down into just three freestyle verses.  That's okay, though, because these guys flexing skills over a great Hip-Hop track is more than enough.  But it's one of those where you also don't feel like you've missed the boat if you copped the vinyl instead of the CD.

Hip Hop Enterprises is behind the two versions, both of which are limited.  There's only 350 copies of the CD and 500 copies of the LP, which is split into 150 split black and white (white) vinyl, 150 black and white (white) splatter vinyl (exclusive to and 200 classic black.  All three come in a full picture covers with hand-numbered stickers.  Mine is #94/200.  Overall, it might not quite reach the peaks of its singles, but I'd say Death is even stronger than their unreleased Tommy Boy album, and as much of a must-have for any proper Elements fan.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Kowebunga! The Original Ninja Turtle Dance Rap

If you were a kid in the 80s or 90s, you're more than familiar with the smash hit "Turtle Power" Hip-Hop theme song to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies.  And, of course, Vanilla Ice scored one of his few post-"Ice, Ice Baby" hits with "Ninja Rap" from the sequel.  The third one had a song called "Turtle Jam" by house rapper Loose Bruce.  More recently, Juicy J, Wiz Khalifa and Ty Dolla $ign recorded "Shell Shocked" for the Michael Bay reboot.  Oh, and one of the animated movies also had a rap song called "Shell Shock" by the NY band Gym Class Heroes.  But before all of that, there was an earlier ninja turtle rap, an unauthorized entry into the canon: Jonny Chingas' "Kowebunga."  Yes, this is an April Fool's Day post, and yes this is a silly record, but this is real.

Jonny Chingas is behind half a billion records or so over the decades out in California.  Most of them were self-released on his own label(s), but they were occasionally picked up by CBS, UA or Columbia.  He started out in the 60's, releasing stuff under his real name, Rulie Garcia and a variety of band names.  As you can safely surmise, none of this was Hip-Hop.  But for the 1980s, and into the 90s, he came up with a new persona: Jonny Chingas.  As Chingas, he started releasing a lot of disco/ techno music, and he slowly worked his way towards actual rap.  He had an LP in 1984 called Break Pop Lock, which is obviously leaning into breakdance and street music, but he still wasn't really rapping much.  "Hey Mother F*****r" is sort of a proto-rap about getting pulled over by the police, and he was using vocoders and everything.  So it was only a matter of time.

Oh, and lest I forget to mention, A lot of his material is dirty, humorous stuff (even his earlier material consists of songs like "Horny Lover," "Hairy Situation" and "I'm Horny"), so it all kind of dovetailed into a natural fit by the mid 80's when many of his records had become definitively Hip-Hop.  He had a song in 1986 called "Night Stalker" where he was rapping pretty slick about, you guessed it, Richard Ramirez.  1988's "Mini Truck Lover" is a Miami bass-influenced sex rap with lines like, "she pulled down my khakis down past my ass, and by that time I had to pass a little gas."  His 12" "I Wish" has "A COMEDY RAP" handily printed right on the label and features a (hopefully!) ironically intended litany of extremely racist lyrics like, "I wish my skin was black, so I could make a lot of money, honey, selling crack."  That's not even one of the most offensive lines.  So you get the idea: sort of a cross between early Arabian Prince music and Blowfly shock-value humor.

And now you know I had to jump on it when I discovered one of his final records was, as the sticker cover boldly proclaims, a "NINJA TURTLE DANCE."  Actually, 1990's "Kowebunga," featuring The Turtle Soup Company, is surprisingly tame.  The joke, if there is one, is that the bold TMNT quotes shouted out for the hook "Cow-ca-ca-ca-ca-cowabunga!  Hey dude, what's happening, compadre?" are all so inauthentic-sounding and glibly betray their Mexican accent.  Or maybe it's just meant to be an earnest dance track (as are many of his recordings).  It's certainly a funky, high energy track with a cool bassline and an enthusiastic electric guitar solo at the end.  The raps are strictly perfunctory, straight-forward urges to dance, "shake your body and make your move; pump it up, baby, get in the groove."  The fact that there are rap verses at all feels like an afterthought, which is a little disappointing if you went in expecting rude rhymes about Donatello fingering April O'Neil.  But it's a catchy, low-fi dance tune in its own right, and certainly a novelty just by virtue of its existence.

The concept is credited to Ray Mejia, who executive produced one or two of Chingos' other records, but otherwise I believe all the music and everything is by Garcia, and Billionaire Records is his own label.  The few artists they've had that weren't him, like The Unbelievables, seem to have been at least working for him, if they weren't just aliases.  The 12" has three versions of the song: the Long Version on the A-side and then the Short Version - Vocal and Instrumental on the flip.  The B-side is practically the Long version with a fade out/ in halfway through.  If the next Ninja Turtles movie wants to impress me, they'll pay the (surely nominal) licensing fee and include this on their next soundtrack.  And if they really want to make some waves, they could find a way to work "I Wish" in there, too.