Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Learn Along With Werner, part 10: Ko Lute & LSD

When I interviewed Mytee G Poetic not too long ago, he was surprised I was a fellow Jerseyan.  In fact, people often assume, based on my Hip-Hop moniker, that I'm actually an Austrian or German, if not Latverian, who grew up loving Hip-Hop culture from far afield.  In fact, what I don't know about German Hip-Hop, to use an NJ expression*, can just about fit in the Grand Canyon.  But when the opportunity came along, learning more sure sounded like fun.  If you think so, too, why don't you join me?

Up until now, I was only vaguely familiar with LSD, a long-running group that got their start all the way back in the 80s, existing.  I think I heard one or two songs... I used to have a compilation of Hip-Hop from around the world, with one song from each country, where the USA's crew was De La Soul Does anybody remember this?  I looked and it's not on discogs.  Anyway, I think LSD might've been on there.  I've definitely heard one or two of their early songs, but that's it.

So LSD stands for Legally Spread Dope, it's a 4-man group consisting of lead MC (and later producer) V.O.C. Ko Lute, producer Future Rock, DJs Rick Ski a.k.a. Black Vinyl Master and Defcon.  They released their first 12" in 1989, "Competent," and the full-length Watch For the Third Rail followed in 1991.

A major potential concern right off the bat with exploring any German rap is the language barrier, but happily everything we're about to look at, apart from the rare vocal sample, is entirely English-friendly.  With that said, though, I should probably give a quick warning about accents.  Ko Lute and co. aren't hard to understand... or, well sometimes actually yes, but less so once you've trained your ear to recognize words even when they don't stress the expected syllable.  And no, our guy doesn't sound like Colonel Klink or anything; but I've had enough schoolyard debates about rap music to know that a lot of state-side listeners would tune out as soon as they heard the non-native voice.  So to the stubborn stick-in-the-mud traditionalists - it's cool; you know who you are - just bear that in mind before I talk you into investing in a ton of these records.  But there's no way even the staunchest of you could deny this incredible production.

The projects I'm looking at today can be pretty cleanly divided into three eras, starting with Third Rail that contains most of their late 80s and early 90s material.  It has exactly the kind of sound you hope for when discovering something new from that time period.  You'll recognize a couple samples on this one... "Change the System" uses the same main loop as 2nd II None's classic "Be True To Yourself."  And "Watch This Event" uses the Soul Searchers sample made famous in TDS Mob's "Dope For the Folks," though in this case they add some extra spice with new sax.  Yeah, one really interesting note is that several of the songs feature live saxophone, you know, like Mix Master Spade's "Sexy Lady."  Most of it's done by their own guy, Martin "Junkie" Adrian, but "Watch" features Maceo Parker!  But most samples you won't recognize, or if you do, they'll just be little pieces or classic vocal samples used to concoct tight, original compositions.

The bio in their first CD booklet cites The Bomb Squad and Ced Gee as key inspirations, but I've been around too long to get excited over that kind of thing.  Too many artists wind up just duplicating superficial trademarks or make sloppy sound-alike tracks.  But these guys have their own sound, that's at once polished and raw, an action-packed collage of top choice samples and killer scratching, intricate and carefully constructed.

So Watch For the Third Rail was released on CD and LP on Rhythm Attack Productions in 1991, but I referred to it containing "most of their late 80s/ early 90s material" because the version I've got is a 2008 reissue called The Dope Beat Edition 2CD and 2LP on Melting Pot Music.  It adds all the instrumentals, and a bunch of bonus tracks, including several that were originally exclusive to their vinyl singles: the original version of "Competent," their 1991 single "Mind Expansion," "Offense Of the Dope Overlords" from their I Don't Care a Rap EP, etc.

And actually, technically, that '91 EP was their last record.  But they kept making musically separately, and Ko Lute and DJ Defcon continued to work together as LSD Proton.  They had an EP in '93 followed by a sci-fi themed instrumental album in 1998 entitled The Galactic Adventures of Captain Kolute, surely inspired by Dr. Octagon and the like... though it's worth pointing out this preceded Deltron 3030.  Yeah, Ko Lute's not rapping here, but he's taken up the main production duties.  And there's not much cutting on this one, though Defcon is credited with mixing.  If the cosmic vibes of the production don't sell you enough on the concept, there's a track-by-track story you can read along with in the booklet.  So, when songs like "808 Lightyears From Home" or "Virgins of Zephyr" don't sound as spacey as you might expect, you can read up that it's because Zephyr is the planet Captain Kolute and the crew of his ship, the Heart of Wisdom, stop to look explore where beautiful virgins bask in the suns and ensnare men.  It's like a little opera, apparently made with a comic artist named Tatsuya Sekimoto?  The credits are pretty vague, though they do cite an "Asian story-translation" in the booklet.

Tying the old and new together we get "Relaxation '97," an expansion of a short instrumental track from Watch For the Third Rail.  And to tie that to the even newer, we got a "Relaxation '98" on their next album, Flash Back: The Return Of the Allschool, where Ko Lute is back on the mic, and Defcon gets full co-production and credit.  Most importantly, he's back on the turntables; the cuts on these albums are one of the strongest elements and were sorely missed on Galactic Adventures, so this is an extremely welcome return.  Even Adrian is back to blow some more sax.  And my favorite song on Galactic Adventures wound up getting vocals here (though they don't tie into the story of The Heart of Wisdom).  The tracks are a little slower and calmer compared to Third Rail, you can absolutely feel the later 90s influence, but it does make Lute's rhymes easier to track, though I'm not sure if that's the tempo or just him relaxing into his skills.

There's still a slightly offbeat feel to the rhymes, though, betraying that English probably isn't Lute's first language.  Like "Keepers Of the Funk" starts out, "Yes, I'm in a gumbo, when I see Defcon deliverin' his new rare grooves with a jumbo to feed my power tool called the TX, which I depose on any 4 the 5 the rex - with the flavor the Ko put in for those who chew our wax."  And okay, I get that the TX is a sampler (I think!) and the gist of what he's saying about Defcon laying down the dope grooves for Ko to rhyme over.  And making gumbo is the metaphorical aspect where Defcon's combining musical elements and Ko's adding the lyrical flavor.  But when you're just sitting there listening to the album, it's hard to parse the syntax without seeing it written out like this.  Is he just saying "the rex" like he's the king, or...?  I'm still not sure.  Fortunately, they print out all the lyrics in the booklet, so that really helps.  It always sounds good, but I'd often pause like, waitaminute, what is he saying?  And quickly look it up.  I wish Third Rail's booklet had that.

Anyway, "Mad Scientist" is a stand-out track with fresh samples, smooth cuts and some of Ko Lute's most engaging deliveries, and the title track has one of the nastiest instrumentals, cutting up the "Slaaaaaaaave" scream from DJ Chuck Chillout and Kool Chip's classic single.  The DJing is super proficient on all these projects ("Competent" was always selling themselves a little short,  haha), but he really steals the show on this album.  "Defcon Goes Excalibur" is a sick DJ cut in the tradition of "Behold the Detonator" and "Premier In Deep Concentration."  But some of the other songs on here drag a little.  90s enthusiasts may prefer this whole album, but I'm not sure it quite reaches the hyper heights of their first era.  The slower pace of songs like "The Forgotten Poet" don't do him any favors in my opinion, although it does introduce a kind of cool, west coast jazzier element to their sound.  I don't know, it's probably just a matter of personal preference; I like the earlier, more kinetic stuff.

The Galactic Adventures is CD only, but Flash Back is available on both CD and double LP, the latter of which includes some bonus remixes on the fourth side.

Happily, though, this isn't the all too common tale of a slow decline, because I think the third era might be the best yet.  We Came To Dominate is a brand new, 2022 Ko Lute EP on Sounds Dope Records, this time in collaboration with Maze and DJ NAT.  The previous booklets really helped you out with detailed credits, but the label here leaves us guessing.  Ko Lute and Maze seem to be sharing MC duties, and NAT is presumably doing all the cuts, but as for the production, is it all Ko Lute, or...?  Who knows.  But it's all great, whoever actually did what.  "Slay Ride" is the most hardcore and yet impressively able to make use of its holiday-themed titular pun without coming off corny.  It's actually a great Christmas rap record!  My favorite track, though, is "1,2,3... Forget It," which has a dark, ominous UBC-style instrumental, but makes great subtle usage of the guitar samples from Magic Mike and MC Madness's "Dynamic Duo" and Professor Griff's "Pawns In the Game," plus a ton of hype cuts and some of the most energetic deliveries by both MCs.  I loved every second of it.

This 12" EP is comprised of four songs, plus two instrumentals, though two of the songs are shorter, mostly instrumental tracks anyway.  There are actually additional instrumentals and acapellas on their digital version, but the full version of "Our World of Hip-Hop" is only available on the vinyl.  If this is your first introduction to Ko Lute and Co. and you want to jump in (which I recommend!), I'd suggest this EP or The Dope Beat Edition of Third Rail.  But it's probably going to make you want to collect all the rest of their stuff regardless.  It has for me - at least whatever else is in English.  I'm glad I took this educational dive, but I fear for my wallet whenever I do this.

*I don't know; I heard Kevin Smith use it in Chasing Amy or something.