Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Last Word On Lastrawze?

Lastrawze is an underground, 3-man group consisting of Mr. Vibe, Grand Phunk and D-Rhythm.  The name is short hand for Last Real Authors With the Element.  They released a rare, and now highly sought-after cassette only-album called Instrawmental in 1995.  There was a 12" single, too.  They didn't get on my radar, though, until Dope Folks released their album as a 2-part series of 12" EPs in 2012.  Later, in 2014, Dope Folks released their unreleased demos (under their previous group name School Dayze) and some of Mr. Vibe (now known as Sim-E)'s newer material on two of their Killed By Def EPs.  I reviewed one of 'em here.  And most recently, they released another Sim-E EP in 2018.  So I basically just know them as a group Dope Folks really got behind.  Heavy Jewelz also got in on the action, though, giving the Lastrawze album a CD release in 2018, with two exclusive songs tracks, upping the count to 15 tracks.  But that was limited to 200 copies, and is pretty much OOP now.

So it's back on CD as a new edition from P-Quest Records.  But this time it's a Special Edition CD with 22 tracks.  Plus, there's actually a version that comes in a wooden box, which is limited to just 10 copies.  As they describe it, "Laser Engraved Wood & Oil Treated Wood contains the Limited Special Edition Vinyl-CD (NO-CD-R), Sticker and a mini press photo of the Lastrawze crew."  It was pretty pricey and it's already sold out, so good luck getting your hands on that if you're an uber-collector who needs it.  But for most of us, I imagine the regular special edition will do just fine.

So let's start by clearing up a few basic points:  1) This album is called Instrawmental, but it's not an instrumental album.  All the songs have full vocals just like any other crew's album.  It's just a clever title.  2) These guys are from Miami, but this isn't bass music or anything along those lines.  It's very much pure, underground 90s Hip-Hop like what would've been signed to Rawkus or Nervous back in the day.  3) The Heavy Jewelz bonus tracks are not among the new P-Quest tracks.  So this CD adds nine tracks (none of which are on the HJ), but you'll still need to find the Heavy Jewelz CD for the full 24.  But as we'll see, some tracks are more essential than others.

It's easy to see why this album's still in demand in 2022; it's super dope.  The guys have smooth flows, clever rhymes, cool voices and the production is tight and catchy.  "Big Respect" was their single; and yes, all three songs from the 12" are on every version of the album.  It uses the same sample as Eminem's "No One's Iller" from his amazing Slim Shady EP, but this actually came out first and dare I say... might actually be better?  I guess Em still has the tightest verse on this beat, but Lawtrawze out-rap Bizarre, Swift and Fuzz; and they make nice use of an Erick Sermon line for their hook.  And the whole album is up to this par.  "When the Smoke Clears" is just as tight but with more of a Pete Rock & CL Smooth vibe.  Trust me, if you're just dismissing Lawtrawze because you've never heard of 'em, check Instrawmental out.  It's pretty great.

But which version?  Obviously, if you can find an OG copy, jump on it, if only for the resale value.  But let's break down the different editions.  Dope Folks is still the only way to go if you want this album on vinyl.  The original album was 13 tracks: 12 full songs plus an intro.  DF's two EPs have six songs each, giving you the full album minus said intro.

If you've ever seen the OG cassette, though, it promised "Two Extra Tracks On CD."  Lastrawze themselves put out a CDR of the album in 2010, but there was still no sign of the two extra tracks.  Those are the two Heavy Jewelz found and included on their CD, "Down (4 Eva)" and "Sic Vs Fleet."  "Down" has some nice scratching, one element that you don't get a lot of on Instrawmental otherwise, but the sung chorus and production doesn't sound quite as polished as the rest of the album.  It's good, but you can see why it was demarcated as a bonus track for the CD.  "Sic Vs Fleet" is, as it says, just the guys trading verses with the Unknown Fleet (including the guy who was in School Dayze with them) over a dark track.  The production has a very grimy NY feel with freestyle flows, like something that could've come out on Fortress Records in their earliest days, which yes, is a big compliment.

Meanwhile, the 2022 P-Quest adds nine new tracks, but before you get too excited, several of these are radio freestyles.  One is basically just a radio soundbite that's more like a 30-second snippet.  But the freestyles are dope, and they choose compelling instrumentals, so fans will definitely enjoy them.  The Unknown Fleet guys come back on several of these, too.  It reminds me of the old Wake Up Show LPs, which, yes, is also a big compliment.

And to be clear, it's not all radio stuff.  There's also previously unreleased instrumental versions of "What U Deal With" and "When the Smoke Clears."  And most notably, they have another vintage, unreleased Lastrawze song called "Straze."  This one's produced by DJ Craze (every other Lastrawze song is produced by their own Mr. Vibe), hence the portmanteau.  Craze's production lives up to Vibe's, though the sound quality on this one's a little rougher.  Everything here's been remastered (and has been, going back to the Dope Folks records), but I'm guessing the source for this one was a little more rugged.  Same with the instrumentals, actually.

Oh, and this new booklet includes an 8-page reproduction of a vintage interview with the crew, too, which is a really nice touch.

At the end of the day, the original LP tracks are the greatest and most must-have tracks.  So any version you cop will be worth it.  But the bonus stuff is really good, too, especially if you're a serious Lastrawze fan.  If so, honestly, you'll probably need everything: the vinyl and both CDs.  But for many heads, especially those still introducing themselves to the crew, just getting the album back in print here will serve as satisfying and affordable way to get a physical copy, with some exclusives to boot.  ...Did I mention Instrawmental is a really dope album yet?  I'm sort of kicking myself for sleeping on it as long as I did, but mostly I'm just digging it now.  You all should, too.

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