LPG – The Earth Worm (1995)

I promised in the previous post that we would be talking more about the California-based rap duo LPG, comprised of cousins, Dax and Jurny Big, who were also a part of the larger underground west coast collective, Tunnel Rats (a crew that may not be well-known to the masses, but those who know, know how dope they were during their peak years in the mid-nineties thru the early 2000’s). The name LPG was originally an acronym for “Lord’s Personal Gangsters”, but later they wisely changed the meaning to “Living Proof of Grace”. LPG made their official debut on Freedom Of Soul’s “SonShyne”, which was easily the best track on the album, and while they turned in a solid performance, it was the bangin’ instrumental that shined (no pun intended) the brightest. But fret not, the duo would get a chance to prove how dope they really were with the release of their debut album, The Earth Worm, released sometime during 1995 (sorry, I couldn’t find an official release date).

The album title and concept are loosely built around Psalm 22:6 that reads: “I am a worm, not a man, despised by men hated by all” and LPG comparing themselves, specifically, to the earthworm, as servants of Christ (more on that in a bit). Jurny and Dax would call on their homie, Peace 586 (one-half of Freedom of Soul) to produce most of the album, having a hand in all but one of the album’s eleven tracks.

I’d be willing to bet that no more than five of you have ever heard of LPG before this post, and out of those five, no more than three have ever heard an LPG song. And I’d cut off my ear like Peter did Malchus’ if any of you bought and own The Earth Worm. And if you don’t know who Peter and Malchus are, you need to get into your bible…after you read this post.

A Place Called Hip-Hop – The album opens with an unidentified gravelly male voice (who makes several cameos throughout The Earth Worm…I’ll refer to him as Rev. Worm from here on out) paraphrasing Psalm 22:6. Then an ill rock guitar loop (that L.E.S. would also later use for Nas’ “Suspect” record) placed over a rough head nod-inducing drum beat drops, and our hosts use it to cleverly and vividly describe the imaginary land called Hip-Hop: “The place to be, an area where freestyle dominates, then creates a massive style change that will rearrange your mind state; where break downs don’t ever need to be fixed, and stolen pieces thrown together does not mean you’re in the mix, you wonder how it is to be, simultaneously, interacting with the boom bap and rap constantly, Well, I personally had no choice but to come out fat, cause every time I turn around I collect a pound, cause in this place they have a true understanding of hip-hop, so everyone is able to pick up on what I drop”. This was a brilliant way to start off the evening.

Hour Glass – This one starts with Rev. Worm sharing a short sermon/spoken word piece about the value of time and the dangers of wasting it. Then Peace unleashes a laidback instrumental, oozing with soothing vibes placed over clumsy drums (Boogie is credited for the live bass play on the track), as our hosts continue to delve into the subject matter that the good Reverend opened with. A portion of the hook is way too wordy, and there is a lot of content to unpack on this one (maybe too much), but their bars kept me engaged and I enjoyed the lovely instrumentation.

Worst Enemy Greatest Allie – LPG asks and answers the question posed in the song’s title and hook and use their verses to do a little boasting, but ultimately remind the listener that you are the driving force that will determine your destiny, in this life and the one to come. Peace’s instrumental compliments LPG’s well thought out and executed plan, as he perfectly meshes boom-bap drums with a few beautifully serene loops that result in an addicting backdrop and a masterpiece of a song.

Earthworm – Rev. Worm’s back for the intro to this title track; this time sharing the similarities between the characteristics of the earthworm and LPG. Then the tantalizing jazzy vibes of Sup’s instrumental drop and our hosts begin talkin’ their sanctified shit, calling out lesser emcees and the church for all their shortcomings. They also sprinkle a few gems and shoutout their Lord and Savior, intermittently: “Cause all I know is boom bap, Christ loved hip-hop and real rap, but that don’t sell, so emcees like me are not accepted, I’m forced to dwell in the underground where the rest of this industry’s neglected”. Before listening to this song, I had no idea that earthworms don’t have eyes. Who said that hip-hop couldn’t be educational?

Too Late – Over laidback jazzy vibes, Dax and Jurny get vulnerable, as they discuss their struggles to find true happiness and live lives pleasing to God before they run out of time. The petty in me happened to notice that “Too” in the song title is spelled correctly on the liner notes, but then spelled as “To” on the back of the jewel case, which was clearly unintentional. Regardless of this minor syntax error, I enjoyed the song.

Judge Not – Rev Worm makes another appearance at the beginning of this song that is built around the Bible verse, Matthew 7:1 and a dope KRS-One vocal snippet snatched from Edutainment’s “Blackman In Effect”. Pigeon John (whose name some of you may remember from his cameo on FOS’ “Not This Record” from the previous post) stops by to join LPG in calling out their haters and warning them of the dangers that come with passing judgement on others, even though they kind of do just that while making their point. I like the content, the hook is fresh and Peace’s slick and at times, quirky instrumental was enjoyable.

Deafening Silence – LPG invites a few of their Tunnel Rats bredrin: Souljourn, Ajax, Raphi and Redbones to join them one this cipher session dedicated to the sweet sound of deafening silence that we could all use from time to time to clear our minds and hear from God. Speaking of sweet sounds, Peace’s warm melodious soundscape was a welcoming one and breathes life into this song. Side note: Like “Too Late”, “Deafening” is spelled incorrectly on the back of the jewel case (Deafining) and correctly on the insert, but after listening to the previous song I’ve learned not to judge others for their mistakes. Yep, I’m still petty.

Slaughter – For the second time on The Earth Worm, Ralphi joins LPG, as the three emcees wage war against wack emcees over a ruggedly melodic backdrop. The rhymes were decent, but I’m absolutely in love with Peace’s instrumental. This song is followed by a quick Rev. Worm interlude to set up the next song.

Great To Be Dead -At first take, the song title and the hook (that has a little kid repeating the song title) sounds a bit morbid but fear not. The death that LPG is referring to is a figurative one that finds them attempting to die to their flesh so Christ can reign inside them: “The things that I was choosing, was the reason I was losing, so when the voice said suicide, my only choice was to abide, I know that it seems sick to self-inflict death, but dying to myself was the only way that I could live”. I didn’t like the instrumental years ago when I listened to this song, but over time the naked snare and stripped-down sound has grown on me and it actually works well behind LPG’s intricate poetical explanation of suicide.

Then Came Dawn – LPG (and their TR bredrin, Raphi, who makes his third and final cameo of the evening) uses this one to encourage the listener to keep pushing through when life gets tough and things look dark, because as Psalms 30:5 reminds us: Joy comes in the morning…and the church said, amen. Fittingly, Peace’s moody backdrop sounds like a cloudy overcast with the sun peeking through, reinforcing our hosts’ message.

I Wonder – I wonder why LPG didn’t just keep The Earth Worm at a nice even ten tracks and leave this drab mess of a song on the cutting room floor.

There are Christian rappers and rappers who happen to be Christian, and LPG is definitely the latter. Jurny Big and Dax make it clear on The Earth Worm that for them, hip-hop is a “tool they use to share relationship with Christ”, but don’t get it twisted, these dudes can really spit. Throughout their debut album the duo share their beliefs (without sounding preachy; a feat a lot of their past and future Christian contemporaries would fail at) and stay true to the secular hip-hop streets that raised them, without disgracing their savior’s name. But more importantly, their lyrical abilities are on point and on full display. Complimenting LPG’s strong performance is Peace 586’s production, as he returns to the boards after abandoning them for Freedom Of Soul’s last album, and strings together a cohesive blend of jazzy, soulful boom bap soundscapes that are sure to bless your ears. There are a few songs on The Earth Worm that wouldn’t have been missed had LPG decided to leave them off the album, and at times Dax and Jurny’s rhymes can get a little too complicated and wordy to follow, but overall, The Earth Worm is a stellar debut that I’m sure you’ll enjoy if you give it a chance, and I’m certain that Jesus is proud and smiling down on his faithful servants for this one.

-Deedub

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Freedom of Soul – The 2nd Comin’ (November 28, 1995)

I would be remiss to not start this post out by sending a rest in peace to Black Rob and the heart and soul of Digital Underground, Shock G. Thank you both for your contributions to the music genre and culture that I hold near and dear to my heart.

Freedom of Soul was a Los Angeles-based Christian rap duo composed of Peace 586 and DJ Cartoon. The first time we heard from FOS was in 1991 with their debut album, Caught In A Land Of Time. If you read this blog on a regular basis, you probably already knew that, but if you’re new here or just skim through my posts occasionally, you can read my thoughts on the album right here. Or you can just read this quick recap: The album was full of weak rhymes with good intentions, decent production and plenty of room for development on both sides. A few years later, the two-man army for God would return with their sophomore effort, The 2nd Comin’. Get it? Their second album, Jesus’ return? Okay. Let’s move on.

Peace 586, along with his Christian ally and the heart and soul of the group, SFC, Sup The Chemist, handled most of the production on Caught In A Land Of Time, but this time around Peace takes a back seat (well, front seat, since he is still the lead emcee of the group) and lets Sup, DJ Cut No Slack and his partner in rhyme, DJ Cartoon, produce the bulk of The 2nd Comin’, only receiving one production credit out of the album’s nine tracks (technically ten, if you count the hidden three second interlude). The 2nd Comin’ would also be the last comin’ for Freedom of Soul, as Peace would begin his solo career, and I have absolutely no idea what DJ Cartoon went on to do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his name pops up again on this blog somewhere down the road receiving a production credit for another Christian group, because God works in mysterious ways, and interesting enough, that saying is not written anywhere in the bible.

Disclaimer: I’m not sure where I got the above album release date from, but I’m pretty sure it’s incorrect, since I recently looked at all the album inserts and copyrights and everything has “1994” written on it. But I’ve invested the last few weeks listening to The 2nd Comin’, so you’re gettin’ this post, even if it’s chronologically out of order.

The 2nd Comin’ – The title track finds a more animated than normal Peace 586 and DJ Cartoon talking sanctified trash, while mixing in a few biblical references and a few hints to get you to prepare for Christ’s return. The rhymes were kind of corny, but Sup’s instrumental was cool, and DJ Cartoon scratches in a portion of a Busta Rhymes’ bar from ATCQ’s classic posse joint “Scenario” on the first hook, satisfying Tribe Degrees of Separation for this post. The song is immediately followed by a short, subdued and uninteresting instrumental before the next song begins.

Home – The concept of this song is loosely based around the biblical text from Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. Peace discusses home, first in the literal sense, as he reminisces about his childhood memories coming up in the Bronx, before ending the song from a spiritual perspective of home on the last verse. The rhymes were so-so, but I like the concept and I enjoyed Peace’s smooth instrumental.

Dusk Till Dawn – Over a super creamy backdrop built around a heavenly-dipped piano loop, Peace is in freestyle mode, touching on everything from his rhyming abilities to his album being banned in some record stores (I’ve heard of albums being banned for being overly sexual (i.e., 2 Live Crew) or too violent (i.e., N.W.A.), but can you be too holy? Or maybe Christian record stores thought FOS’s content was too carnal. Either way, I would love to hear Peace elaborate on that line.), and of course, he mentions Jesus. At this point it’s safe to say that Peace won’t wow you with his rhymes, but Sup, once again, concocts a great backdrop for our host to rhyme over.

Sooner Or Later – Sup The Chemist and T-Bone join Peace on the mic for this posse joint, as the threesome take turns showcasing their rhyming abilities, but ultimately use it as a witnessing tool for Christ. If you read this blog on a regular basis, you already know that I’m a fan of both of Peace’s guests, and they rap circles around their host, but the true star of this one is Sup’s up-tempo backdrop, drenched in soulful airy vibes.

Not This Record – Pigeon John and B-Twice (collectively known as Brainwash Projects) join Peace on this zany joint that finds all three emcees rhyming animatedly and interrupting each other every few bars, and after several listens, I still have no idea what’s going on here. Sup, whose production has been super impressive up to this point, dishes out his first mishap of the night, making this already difficult listen even more of a battle to get through. Everything about this song reminds me of a bad imitation De La Soul record, circa De La Soul Is Dead. Later down the road, Brainwash Projects would polish up, refine and direct all their infectious charisma and animated energy into one of my personal favorite hip-hop albums of all-time (The Rise And Fall Of Brainwash Projects), but we’ll discuss that at a later date. At the conclusion of this song, you hear that irrelevant three second interlude that I talked about in the opening. Side note: If you’re looking for the correct track listing for this album, make sure to follow the listing on the back of the jewel case, since the listing on the inside of the liner notes incorrectly places this song after the next song. Of course, that’s only if you’re old school like me and still have CDs. Moving on…

Never Changes – In a super abstract roundabout way, Peace uses this one to rap about the everlasting unconditional love of God, while Crystal Lewis stops by to sing the hook, sprinkling her soft and sweet voice over the track. Cartoon’s instrumental sounds borderline sappy, but I still enjoyed the song.

Soul Swingers – Peace uses this one to spew more freestyle rhymes and of course shouts out JC a few times during the process. DJ Cut No Slack’s instrumental goes through three different metamorphosis and all three phases sound dope as, for lack of a better word, hell.

SonShyne – Peace invites LPG (Dax and Jurny Big, who we’ll be talking about more in the very near future) to join him on this one, as the three emcees elegantly rap praises to the Father’s only begotten son over DJ Cut No Slack’s beautiful banger of a backdrop. This is easily the best song on The 2nd Comin’.

How Much It Cost? – The last song of the evening finds Peace calling out emcees he feels have sold their souls in order to get a foot into the music industry. As usual, Peace’s rhymes are mediocre, but they sound even more drab when placed over Cartoon’s yawn-provoking instrumental.

The 2nd Comin’ is definitely an improvement from Freedom of Soul’s debut album. Peace’s decision to render most of the production duties to Cartoon and Sup, works out well, as the instrumentals are tighter this time around. And with the production responsibilities off his plate, Peace is able to focus more on his rhymes; and while no one will ever mistake him for Rakim, he does sound better than he did on the first album. Ultimately, The 2nd Comin’ is a concise satisfactory listen that will probably feed your soul more musically than with the rhymes. I’m sure that wasn’t FOS’ intention, but they should be proud they were able to provide some type of nourishment.

-Deedub

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Mic Geronimo – The Natural (November 28, 1995)

After the release of two of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time in Illmatic and The Infamous, the borough of Queens was on complete fire in the mid-nineties. Nas and Mobb Deep’s success made the door a little bit easier to enter for inspiring emcees coming out of Queens, so it was only a matter of time before someone else would take the baton and try to continue on with the borough’s winning ways. Who would be next? Insert Mic Geronimo into the game.

Born Michael McDermon, Mic Geronimo was discovered by a young up and coming producer, soon to be label exec and music mogul, Irv Gotti, who was impressed after hearing the Queens native rap at a local high school talent show. Irv would connect with Mic, producing his demo and helped him shop it, and it would eventually land Mic a deal with Blunt/TVT Records, where he would release his debut album, The Natural.

Along with production from his mentor, Irv Gotti, The Natural would also include production work from Buckwild, Da Beatminerz and Mark Sparks. Despite the backing from the impressive list of heavy hitting beatsmiths, the album moved miniscule numbers and made minimal noise, but it did bear fruit to at least one unheralded classic record (will get to that in a bit). Mic would get one more chance with TVT (releasing Vendetta in ’97), before walking down the independent label path to irrelevancy and joining Group Home on Nas’ “Where Are They Now” MIA list.

Side note: Mic does shoutout his Queens bredrin “Q-Tip and Phife” in the liner notes, so that satisfies our Tribe Degrees of Separation for this post.

The Natural – The first track of the night features a smooth head nodder (brought to you courtesy of Mark Sparks) that’s perfectly teed up for Mic to knock out the park. Unfortunately, our host is only able to squeeze a bunt single out of it (speaking of baseball references, it was dope to hear Mic shoutout the legendary Negro League and MLB pitcher, Satchel Paige at the end of both of his verses). This song is followed by the first of a series of skits that finds Mic and his crew flagging down a Taxi to hitch a ride to their destination, only to rob the driver once they get to there. I won’t mention these skits again during this post, because they’re boring and dumb as shit.

LifeCheck – Mic spits your average street shit on this one, and he doesn’t sound bad, but his bars just don’t have any character. I was more disappointed in the Da Beatminerz bland backdrop that rings as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny.

Wherever You Are – Mark Sparks gets things headed back in the right direction with this warm soulful groove built around an ill Bob James loop, while Mic Geronimo, once again, spits passable bars, but gives us nothing mesmerizing or memorable. Despite Mic’s mediocre performance, the instrumental and the catchy hook make this song worthy of listening to. It ends with a strongly-lisped slightly wino-slurred male voice sharing gibberish a poem about being a master, which is supposed to set up the next song…

Masta I.C. – This was the second single released from The Natural. Buckwild digs into his bag of tricks and pulls out this dark and mystical soundscape, while Geronimo sounds a hundred times better than he did on the three previous songs; his swaggy cadence and wordplay on this one makes him sound like a completely different rapper than we heard earlier in the evening. This brilliant record is an unheralded masterpiece, and without hearing the rest of his catalog, I’d be willing to bet it’s his magna opus.

Man Of My Own – Mic sounds like a mixture of Prodigy, Havoc (both of Mobb Deep) and randomly, Lil’ Dap, on this one, as he continues to spew street life inspired rhymes with moderate success. Chyskillz (rip) hooks up a decent dim backdrop, but not decent enough to make Mic’s rhymes thrive or make this song memorable.

Time To Build – Mic invites three future hip-hop Hall of Famers to take part in the cipher session with him: Ja Rule, Jay-Z and the late great dog himself, DMX. This song was recorded on the heels of the legendary battle between Jay-Z and DMX that took place in 1994, and Irv Gotti (who was going under the alias of DJ Irv in ’95, and is also the producer of this track) swears that most of Jay’s bar were aimed at DMX, who he was allegedly envious of because X was given the coveted last verse on this song. I didn’t hear anything in particular that sounded like a shot at X, but what I did hear was a subpar cipher session over a dry ass instrumental with the most unlikely of the four participants, Ja Rule, gettin’ off the strongest verse, and you’re a lie if you listened to this shit in ’95 and thought Ja, Jay and X would go on to have the successful careers in hip-hop that they did. Time is truly, illmatic. Rest in peace, Dark Man X.

Shit’s Real – Irv Gotti gets his second and last production credit of evening, as he flips a few loops from Deniece Williams’ classic record “Free” that Mic uses to half-assly show how real he keeps…shit. Like most of his lyrical output to this point, Mic doesn’t say anything worth quoting or rewinding, but the feel good vibes that permeate through the instrumental give this one plenty of replay value. Side note: This song begins with a skit that has Geronimo spittin’ game to a random chick and underneath their conversation you can hear a record playing in the background with Mic rapping the lyrics to this song over the instrumental to Zapp’s “Computer Love”, and it sounds pretty dope.

Three Stories High – With his second production credit of the evening, Buckwild blesses our host with a mean and grimy backdrop that he uses to reminisce and talk his shit, and he invite his crony, Royal Flush to join in on the fun. Both parties turn in solid verses, but  Buckwild’s fire instrumental is the engine that makes this car go.

Sharane – Geronimo uses this hard and dimly lit backdrop to share a hood version of the precautionary biblical tale of Samson and Delilah, with our host being Samson and some random chick he meets at a party named Sharane, playing the role of Delilah. Hey, wait a minute…could this be the same Sharane that would try to set up our friend, Kendrick Lamar, seventeen years later? Probably not. Kendrick’s assailant spelled her name with an “e” instead of an “a” and she lived in M.A.A.D. city, not the Wasteland. But I suppose she could have changed the spelling of her name, became a cougar and relocated to the Westside…but I digress. Mic’s storyline is decent and I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Sparks’ head nod inducing instrumental.

Men V. Many – O.C. and Royal Flush join Mic Geronimo to form, what O.C. calls a “dream team”, designed to take on the world aka many. To call these three emcees a dream team is a bit blasphemous, but it was downright disrespectful (and hi-larious) for them not to include their guy, Ceelow (not to be confused with CeeLo Green from Goodie Mob), who drops in at the mid-way point of the song to spit a verse, in their so-called “dream team” roster. All four of the participants contribute lukewarm bars and Da Beatminerz instrumental comes off a bit dull.

Train Of Thought – After two stellar instrumentals, Buckwild misses his chance at a hat trick by serving up this boring backdrop. Mic follows Buckwild’s lead and this one nearly put me to sleep.

Things Change – You can’t argue with this song title. Mark Sparks gets his final production credit of the night, lending Geronimo this slightly r&b tinged instrumental, as he invites Royal Flush to join him to spit verses about coming of age in the streets, and some uncredited male vocalists contribute a solid hook. After all the dark, gloomy and grimy production we heard on The Natural, the vibes on this song are quite a contrast, but a welcomed one.

Masta I.C. (Remix) – I was hoping Mic G would bring back the brilliant Buckwild instrumental from the original mix and invite O.C. and his Queens bredrin, Nas and Prodigy, to spit verses next to his, but he didn’t. Instead, we get an instrumental that’s average at best, forgettable cameos from Mr. Cheeks and Freaky Tah (rip) of the Lost Boyz and a semi-irriating hook from an uncredited female voice. And with that, we’re done.

On paper, The Natural has all the ingredients for the makings of a classic album: a competent emcee with production from some of the most respected hip-hop producers in the game. But unfortunately, the written word doesn’t always translate well when made audible. Thanks largely to Mark Sparks and Buckwild, some of The Natural bangs, but each banger is met with mediocrity, and the last I checked, a fifty percent success rate doesn’t constitute great or classic. More disappointing than The Natural’s hit and miss production is our host’s performance. Mic Geronimo definitely has the potential to spit high-quality bars (as he demonstrates on “Masta I.C.”), but his undynamic vocal tone, coupled with his run of the mill content and the album’s patchy production, makes it easy for the listener to get distracted or just lose interest. The Natural’s not a terrible album, but compared to the high quality output from some of Mic’s Queens peers, it’s definitely a disappointing debut.

-Deedub

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Guru Presents – Illkid Records (November 21, 1995)

 I have to start this post off by saying rest in peace to Earl “Dark Man X” Simmons. Thank you for your contributions to the culture and your presence will surely be missed.

 

 

The late great Guru will always be remember as the elite emcee with the monotone voice from the legendary duo, Gang Starr. For over a decade, Gang Starr gave the hip-hop world quality output, stringing together an impressive catalog that would cement the duo’s legacy as hip-hop royalty. But in between Gang Starr albums, both Premo and Guru would dabble with their solo side projects. While Premo was busy lacing all of your favorite emcees with brilliant boom-bap beats, Guru was collabing with jazz legends, fusing hip-hop vibes with jazz instrumentation, which would culminate into his Jazzmatazz series, releasing Volume 1 in ’93 and Volume 2 in ’95. 1995 would also see Guru getting into his entrepreneurial bag, as he would launch his independent label, Illkid Records, kicking things off with the compilation album: Guru Presents Illkid Records.

Guru Presents Illkid Records would showcase a bunch of inspiring and up and coming emcees with Guru stepping up to the mic a few times, but mostly playing the background, handling the production with a little help from a few friends. I don’t believe anything ever materialized from Illkid Records (other than an Illkid Records sampler), as even this project was released on the Payday/FFRR label, home to both Gang Starr Foundation artists, Group Home and Jeru The Damaja.

About a year ago, I came across a used cd copy of the album in the dollar bin at one of my favorite record stores, so you know I had to grab it. This post marks my first time listening to.

I can’t believe it’s been over ten years since the late great Guru passed away. Time is truly, illmatic. Continue to rest easy, Keith “Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal” Elam.

Illkid Intro – This album intro features Guru going under his alter-ego, Bald Head Slick, who raps a bit more aggresive than the laidback monotone style we’re accustom to hearing from Guru. Our host builds his instrumental around the same piano loop Dr. Butcher used for G. Rap’s “4, 5, 6”, and gets off two quick verses over it. Unfortunately, Guru’s Bald Head Slick’s rhymes sound a bit forced and sloppy, and the instrumental sounds empty and hollow.

Wordplay – We were first introduced to Bahamadia on the phenomenal “Respect The Architect” off of Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol.2. What better way to promote her forthcoming debut album, Kollage, than with putting one of the album cuts on this compilation album? Guru hooks up a dope mid-tempo banger with a bodaciously bouncy bass line that Bahamadia uses to showcase her more than capable emcee abilities. This is a great track, and we’ll definitely be digging into her album in the very near future.

Life – Guru constructs a semi-somber, fully mellow backdrop for himself, M.O.P. and the three man crew, Stikken Moov, to take turns rhyming about the struggles and challenges that come with living the street life. If you’re a liner note junkie like myself, you may recognize the name Stikken Moov from the Jazzmatazz Vol. 2 insert, which gives credit to one-third of the group: “Gus Da Vigilante of Stikken Moov” for his verse on “Choice Of Weapons”, but I digress. Guru’s production work is decent and all of the emcees involved turn in adequate verses (even though Guru, who sounds like he’s still in “Bald Head Slick” mode, gets a little sloppy during his verse), but they don’t add anything new or unique to a subject that has been overly treaded through hip-hop’s history, rendering this song average at best.

Do What Pays Ya – Big Shug (not to be confused with Suge Knight) gets a solo joint, as he builds the song’s concept and hook around a part of his verse from Hard To Earn’s “F.A.L.A.”. Carlos Bess (who also contributed to a lot of the production on Jazzmatazz Vol. 2) provides Shug with a soulful mid-tempo instrumental that he uses to celebrate the never ending pursuit of C.R.E.A.M. Shug is not a great lyricist, but he has a knack for assembling simple, but sound bars delivered in his signature deadpan straightforward approach that more often than not amuses and entertains, and he does just that over this dope backdrop. And that’s word to Joe Frazier.

Victim Of Society – Baybe is another artist I first became familiar with from her cameos on Jazzmatazz Vol.2, where she sang the hook and adlibs on “Lifesaver” and “Feel The Music”. Guru rewards her efforts on his previous project by giving her her own song on this compilation. C. Bess (who co-produced “Lifesaver”) slides her an emotional instrumental that sounds reminiscent of the backdrop used for “Lifesaver”, and ironically, Baybe’s theme and content sounds a lot like that of “Lifesaver”. Hmm…maybe she should have titled this one “Lifesaver Part 2”.

Come Clean – Guru sticks Jeru The Damaja’s classic record onto this compilation, which I found extremely weird, considering the song was released as a single two years prior to this project. I guess since Jeru was also signed to Payday Records and a part of the Gang Starr Foundation, the label thought it’s inclusion on this album might help sell a few more units for both projects (that’s all speculation, folks). Regardless, hearing Jeru’s combat ready rhymes over Premo’s ridiculously brilliant instrumental never gets old.

Who’s The Truest – Guru reunites with Wu-Tang affiliate/producer, True Master, who produced a couple of joints on Jazzmatazz Vol. 2 and delivered quality bars on the sultry ode to marijuana: “Medicine”. He wears dual hats on this one as well, as he serves himself up a dusty, but slick backdrop to spew solid scientific bars with his underappreciated flow for one chiseled verse. My only issue with this song is it’s too short and left me wanting to hear more.

Rotten Apple – Guru officially introduces the duo, Operation Ratification to the world on this one (I say “officially” because half of the group, Panchi Da Wild Commachi, added some background vocals to Jazzmatazz Vol. 2‘s “Choice Of Weapon”). Our host slides OR a solid instrumental that they use to share their perspective on life in the streets of New York aka the Rotten Apple. This wasn’t bad, and the more you listen to it the better it sounds.

Hi Energy – I’m assuming Fabidden Fruit was a duo made up of the lead emcee Bu and Mik Rone, who must be the group’s deejay/producer or the B mic that rarely rhymes, as I’ve seen the group name credited on two songs before this (“Revelation” from Jazzmatazz Vol. 2 and “From Within Out” off The D&D Project) and Bu is the only one I’ve heard rhyme. Once again, Bu goes dolo on this one, as he bullies True Master’s rugged backdrop (his partner Mik Rone gets a co-production credit) with his gully bars and tough guy baritone. This one was really good, and I love The D.O.C. vocal snippet on the hook.

Momentum – Guru and Big Shug tag team the mic, slapping emcees and talking their shit over Guru’s simplistic, but slippery slick backdrop. This is a tough record and entertaining as hell.

Attack – Stikken Moov shared the mic with Guru and M.O.P. earlier in the evening (see “Life”), but this time they get their own joint, which finds the threesome in battle mode and a lot more energized than they were their first go round. Someone named Kendu is credited for the solid instrumental (that includes a vocal snippet from Method Man on the hook, adding another cameo credit to his impressive year), as the trio deliver passable verses.

So Called Friends – Guru invites Gang Starr Foundation members, Group Home, to close out this Illkid party. Our host serves them up a decent instrumental, and as usual, Melachi and Dap’s rhymes don’t have much to do with the song title, which also happens to be the hook. I didn’t love or hate this one.

Illkid Records is a far departure from what Guru served up on his first two installments of the Jazzmatazz series, as he, True Master and Carlos Bess replace the experimental jazz soundscapes with more traditional dusty boom-bap east coast beats for this go round. Illkid Records is not spectacular by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a solid project that displays flashes of the potential Guru’s crew holds, and amongst the flashes are buried a few hidden gems, and one “what the fuck is this song doing on this album?” moment (see “Come Clean”). Guru will always be remembered for his unique vocal tone, quality rhymes and certified emcee abilities, and while no one will confuse his production work with the phenomenal output of his former Gang Starr partner, DJ Premier, he was no slouch behind the boards, either.

-Deedub

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LL Cool J – Mr. Smith (November 21, 1995)

The last time we heard from Ladies Love Cool James was in 1993 where he could be found screaming on mostly, mediocre instrumentals on his fifth release, 14 Shots To The Dome (you can read my thoughts on all fourteen of those shots right here). The album was a bit uneven, but it would still go on to earn the Hollis Queens emcee a gold plaque, which for most rappers would be a win, but when you’re a hip-hop superstar like LL Cool J, whose first four albums all went platinum, not so much. Never the less, Uncle L would return in 1995 to release his sixth album, Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith would be LL’s first album since Walking With A Panther to not include a Marley Marl produced track, as LL would rely heavily on the Trackmasters to produce the bulk of the load. Mr. Smith would produce three platinum selling singles (all which would reach the top ten on the Billboard Top 100) and return LL to double platinum status, even though the critics gave it mediocre reviews upon its release.

It’s been awhile since I listened to Mr. Smith, but there’s no way it could be as bad as its predecessor.

The Intro (Skit) – The album opens with subtly dramatic chords playing and what sounds like footsteps and chirping birds in the background. Then the Trackmasters bring in the western whistle from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly theme, followed by LL taking a long pull from a cigarette (I’m envisioning a Marlboro) and saying “I can’t believe you didn’t know”, before he bursts into his boisterous and semi-obnoxious laugh. I have no idea what the hell just happened or what the purpose of this skit was.

Make It Hot – The Trackmasters build this slick backdrop around a loop from DeBarge’s “I Like It”, as LL warms up for the evening spittin’ some ole smooth fly shit, and he invites a couple of uncredited ladies to harmonize the hook and add some sexy adlibs (I’m pretty sure it’s Terri & Monica, but we’ll get to them a little later). After the dramatic build up on the intro, I was expecting something with a little more energy, but this was pleasant enough.

Hip Hop – LL keeps the mellow vibes coming, as the Trackmasters lace our host with another laidback silky groove that he uses to reminisce, pay respect to some of the names that helped shape hip-hop, and expresses his love, devotion and appreciation for the genre that molded him into the man he is today. Remember the short-lived late eighties female r&b group, The Gyrlz? Well, when they broke-up, two of the members formed the duet, Terri & Monica, and Terri drops by on this one to sing the hook. I’m sure most of you don’t give a shit about that, but I thought it was a random fun piece of trivia, plus I promised earlier that I would, and I’m a man of my word…sometimes. Anyhoo…this song was pretty dope, and I can definitely appreciate L’s sentiment.

Hey Lover – This was the lead single from Mr. Smith. LL plays a man that’s supposed to have a simple crush on a woman who barely knows he exists, but the more you listen to his story the more he sounds like an obsessed stalker. I mean, how else can you explain his knowledge of her man’s booze and blunt consumption, or him watching her as she stands at the bus stop everyday? Things get even worse during the third verse when he confesses to following said woman to the mall and watches her make a call on a payphone (remember those things?) that leaves him fantasying that he’s on the other end of the call telling her to come over, which leads to him daydreaming that he’s having sex with her, followed by a bunch of poetic bullshit about “pleasure unparalleled”, “ocean of love”, “currents of pure bliss” and “undying passion”. The Trackmasters build a sexy melancholic backdrop around a quick snippet from MJ’s “The Lady In My Life” to complement our host’s lusty lyrics, and he wisely invites Boyz II Men to sing the hook and add smooth adlibs to ensure this single would sell a shit load of copies, while helping the album’s bottom line. Even with LL’s sappy and partially creepy bars, I still enjoyed this one. Mostly for the instrumental and Boyz II Men’s crooning.

Doin It – This was Mr. Smith’s second single. Uncle L invites LeShaun to join him for this raunchy duet, as the two take turns throwing provocative bars back and forth, boasting about what they’re going to do to one another once they get their hands on each other. LeShaun’s sexy delivery (she raps the whole song in an orgasm tone) and alluring hook, accompanied by Rashad Smith’s seductive instrumental is sure to hold your attention and possibly leave you a little sexually aroused. So don’t be embarrassed if you got a stiffy listening to this one (ecspecially if you watched the video). I’m sure you’re not alone.

Life As… – Easy Mo Bee gets his only production credit of the evening, as he provides a funky mid-tempo bop for Cool James to flex all over, as he shows and proves that he still has a few rounds of lyrical ammo left in his rhyme gun. This was dope, even the silly hook worked.

I Shot Ya – This one is a semi-rebuttal to (and definitely inspired by) Biggie’s B-side street hit, “Who Shot Ya?”. The Trackmasters lace LL with the shiniest gully instrumental that I’ve ever heard, as our host attempts to tap into his “Mama Said Knock You Out” energy, while Keith Murray drops in to help hype up the hook. Uncle L does a decent enough job, but the Trackmasters grimy instrumental is the true star of this one.

Mr. Smith – The late Chyskillz get his only production credit of the night, hooking up a mellow bop with a little swing to it, as our host uses it to get into his “real emcee” shit. The hook was corn, but everything else worked.

No Airplay – This one starts with a skit that finds LL hosting the Mr. Smith party, where he’s passing around the microphone to random women to give their shoutouts. After that uselessness concludes, a raw soulful instrumental drops and LL spits, probably his sickest bars of the night, but unfortunately they censor the shit out of his verses (which is kind of ironic, considering the song title and all), making this one nearly impossible to listen to.

Loungin’ – This was the third single released from Mr. Smith, and like the first two singles, it’s aimed to appeal to our host’s heel wearing fanbase. LL goes into mack mode, spittin’ super direct lines at the ladies to get them out of their panties, and I’d be willing to bet that they actually worked (by the way, it’s pretty ill when you can tell a lady “Shorty, this here is bout as good as it gets”, and really mean that shit). Rashad Smith builds the infectious instrumental around an interpolation of Al B. Sure’s “Nite And Day” and turns it into an undeniable groove, while Terri & Monica drop by again to add some extra flavor, seasoning the track with their chill vocals on the hook. This one never gets old to me, and it makes for great summertime music.

Hollis To Hollywood – This one starts with LL rambling about metaphors and “metaphorical freaks” that he seems to feel are suddenly infiltrating hip-hop, which is absurd, since metaphors have been an integral part of an emcee’s rhymes from the beginning, but whatever. He then, in a round about way, announces that the theme of this song will be movies and chicks. It feels like L is trying to ape the formula he used for Mama Said Knock You Out’s “Milky Cereal” (a song that I really like), but his rhymes border on corny (i.e. “She let me dive deep like her panties is Waterworld) and the execution is weak. At least the Trackmasters’s instrumental (built around the same Isaac Hayes loop that Da Beatminerz used for Smith-N-Wessun’s “Stand Strong”) was enjoyable.

God Bless – This wasn’t great or terrible. Just average filler material.

Get Da Drop On ‘Em – And more filler material.

Prelude (Skit) – The Trackmasters bring back the quietly dramatic music from the intro and LL asks the listener a question, all to set up Mr. Smith’s grand finale…

I Shot Ya (Remix) – Our host brings back the instrumental from the original and makes this a cipher affair, inviting Keith Murray (who appeared on the hook of the original), Prodigy of Mobb Deep (which I always found interesting, considering the beef he and Murray had around this time), Fat Joe and Foxy Brown to join in on the fun. Everybody serves up quality bars, but LL makes sure not to be out done by his guests, closing this one out with an impressive verse that’s light years better than anything he spit on the original (Was it really necessary for him to dis Moe Dee, Hammer and Ice-T again?). This was a dope cipher session, and a great way to close out the album.

After his dismal last outing, LL does a pretty solid job of regrouping and regaining his footing on Mr. Smith. Cool James leaves the screaming and yelling in ’93 and locks into a confident, cool and refined flow and delivery, as he nicely balances the album with songs clearly aimed to please the ladies and joints to satisfy and prove to the real heads that he’s still got it. The Trackmasters and company create a cohesive soundscape for Uncle L, mixing respectable r&b-tinged instrumentals with pure hip-hop bops. Mr. Smith does come with a few mediocre moments, but the bulk of it works, making for an overall entertaining listen from one of the best to ever do it.

-Deedub

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Funkmaster Flex Presents: 60 Minutes Of Funk -The Mix Tape Volume 1 (November 21, 1995)

Aston George Taylor Jr. better known to the world as Funkmaster Flex (and more recently to the trimmed down, Funk Flex, which does sound a little more current), has worn many hats through the years, but he’s best known for his legendary run as the groundbreaking deejay at one of New York City’s biggest radio stations, Hot 97.  In 1992, Flex would become the first deejay on Hot 97 (which played strictly pop music before his arrival) to host his own hip-hop show, and nearly thirty years later (through all his controversies), he’s still there hosting his show, playing his mixes and giving us legendary spit fire freestyles from some of our favorite emcees. Flex would also break new ground when he signed a deal with Loud Records and released one of the first retail available hip-hop mixtapes, 60 Minutes Of Funk: The Mixtape Volume 1, in ’95 (the keyword in that last sentence is “retail”…I’m very aware that Flex didn’t invent the mixtape, so no need to learn me a lesson in the comments, folks).

60 Minutes Of Funk would include Flex mixing new material with freestyles from the hottest emcee of the time rapping over some of the hottest beats of the time, along with old school joints and random interludes, all blended together in true mixtape fashion. The album wasn’t a commercial success and it would only rise to 108 on the Billboard Top 200, but it did receive positive reviews from the critics, laying the foundation for Flex’s next four releases, that would all become certified gold, and helped usher in the new wave of DJ mixtapes being released on major labels with major distribution in the late nineties and early two-thousands.

I know the thirty-seven song tracklist looks a little intimidating, but I promise you, this post reads faster than it looks.

Everyday & Everynight – Funkmaster Flex kicks off the show with an r&b joint from the songstress, Yvette Michelle, as she sings about the obsession she has with a certain club deejay, whose mixes just keep her all wet and bothered. Michelle was also signed to Loud, so it makes sense that Flex (her labelmate) would put her first single on this mixtape as free promo. The song title was an interesting choice, but this is still a dope little bop.

Get Up – I had no idea that Louie Vega (whose name has appeared on this blog several times through the years) formed a production team with Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez back in the nineties and called themselves Masters At Work. Flex includes a snippet of one of their songs here and it makes for a decent intermission.

Keith Murray & Redman (Freestyle) – The first freestyle of the night features Keith Murray and Redman going toe to toe over the instrumental to Wu Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck”. Even though I’ve heard most of the rhymes that Keith spits on this one used on other songs, he and Red sound loose, hungry and entertaining as hell, as they rip this shit to shreds, setting the bar high for the rest of the freestyles that follow.

Zulu War Chant – Flex mixes in a snippet of an old Afrika Bambaataa record. It still trips me out how far the once highly respected and revered Zulu Nation leader has fallen. Moving on…

Loud Hangover – This was the lead single from 60 Minutes and one of the few new tracks on the album that Flex actually produced. Sadat X and Akinyele team up to flex (no pun intended) on our host’s bangin’ backdrop. Neither party disappoints, but Akinyele completely annihilates this shit.

20 Minute Workout – A snippet from a DJ “Let Me Clear My Throat” Kool record.

Award Tour – Flex plays the first minute and a half of A Tribe Called Quest’s classic record, so you can check off Tribe Degrees of Separation for this post.

Erick Sermon (Freestyle) – Flex matches Erick Sermon up with the instrumental for Warren G’s “Runnin’ Wit No Breaks” (or this instrumental is built around the same loop that Warren used) and a hangry E-Double eats this shit like Thanksgiving dinner. These are the type of Erick Sermon rendition that keep me believing in his ever wavering solo output.

Shook Ones Pt II (A Cappella)/Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit – This one pretty much plays as it reads: It starts off with an accapella version of Prodigy’s first verse from “Shook Ones PT II” and then Flex places the “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit” instrumental under P’s rhymes. I wasn’t crazy about this one, but it wasn’t terrible.

Incarcerated Scarfaces – Flex plays a portion of Raekwon’s joint.

Fugees (Freestyle) – L-Boogie and Wyclef freestyle over a drum loop so scarce it’s almost nonexistent. Lauryn kicks things off, giving us a taste of her soulful vocals, before spittin’ a freestyle that’s average at best. Then Wyclef spews his lackluster bars, cementing this as one of the weakest freestyles of the evening (Pras wisely decided to sit this one out). No worries, as the Fugees would bounce back the following year, delivering one of the most revered and commercially successful hip-hop albums of all-time.

20 Minute Workout – Flex brings back the DJ Kool snippet from earlier.

I-Iight – Remember when Doug E. Fresh recycled the “Eric B Is President” beat and made it into his own bop? Of course, the narcissist in Flex chooses to mix in the end of the song where Doug E. throws him a shoutout.

Fat Joe & Punisher (Freestyle) – Fat Joe and Big Pun take on the instrumental to Raekwon’s “Ice Cream” for this one. Joe puts his best foot forward and turns in solid effort (even though most of his rhymes are recycled material from Jealous Ones Envy), while Pun shows up and shows out and sounds a zillion times better than he did on “Watch Out”. This was dope.

Let’s Be Specific – Here’s another one that Flex is credited for producing. Our host invites Cool Whip (another candidate for worst alias), Tragedy (aka Intelligent Hoodlum aka MC Percy aka Tragedy Khadafi…I can keep going), Havoc of Mobb Deep, Raekwon and Freddie Foxxx to take part in this cipher session that turns out to be a celebration of thug life (not 2pac’s group, but the actual lifestyle of a thug). I wasn’t impressed by any of the verses (Havoc lazily recycles most of his verse from “Trife Life”) and Flex’s instrumental is as stale as that bag of Doritos your son left open overnight even after you told his bad ass to make sure to close the bag and put the chip clip on it when he was done.

Hey Girlfriend Promo – Plays as it reads.

900 Number – Flex gives some shoutouts over Mark The 45 King’s classic instrumental.

All For One – Flex plays a portion of Brand Nubian’s classic record.

Party Groove – Flex blends in a snippet of the instrumental for Show & AG’s joint.

Busta Rhymes (Freestyle) – Even though the title only credits Busta Rhymes, his Flipmode bredrin, Rampage The Last Boy Scout also raps on this one. Rampage actually starts things off and does a decent job warming things up for Busta, who was just beginning his legendary hot streak, and he beats the shit out Raekwon’s “Rainy Dayz” instrumental. This one’s definitely in the upper tier of freestyles on the album.

Give Up The Goods (Just Step) – As in Mobb Deep’s classic record. This could also be used for Tribe Degrees of Separation, since Q-Tip produced it. This concludes side one of 60 Minutes, if you’re listening to it on cassette.

Puff Daddy Promo – Yep, you guessed it. It plays exactly as it reads.

Rasta T (Freestyle) – I don’t remember this one. I have absolutely no idea who Rasta T is, nor do I recognize the instrumental he’s rhyming over, but both sound pretty good. If you have more info on Rasta T, hit me in the comments.

Q-Tip (Freestyle) – Instead of trying to impress the listener with potent bars, Tip chooses to use his minute and a half freestyle to shoutout and praise Funkmaster Flex over the instrumental to Tha Alkaholiks’ “Only When I’m Drunk”, rendering this one mediocre at best. But it does complete the first Tribe Degrees of Separation trifecta in the history of TimeIsIllmatic, so that’s a plus, right?

20 Minute Workout – One last DJ Kool snippet…

Puerto Rico – Followed by a short portion of Frankie Cutlass’ biggest record.

Redman & Method Man (Freestyle) – Red gets off his second freestyle of the evening, this time matched up with Meth, as the eternally high duo take on the “Shook Ones II” instrumental. Both emcees turn in solid performances, but it’s nowhere near as sick as the Red/Keith Murray collab from earlier in the evening.

Peter Piper – Flex dedicates this portion of 60 Minutes to the old school, kicking things off with a classic Run DMC record, followed by…

Eric B Is President – A classic Eric B & Rakim record…

Make The Music With Your Mouth – Then a Biz Markie joint, followed by…

Nobody Beats The Biz – Another Biz record…

I Got It Made – Then Special Ed’s classic debut record…

Rock The Bells – Followed by a classic from LL Cool J…

Droppin’ Science – Then Flex caps off this old school segment with this Marley Marl/Craig G collab record.

Kaotic Style (Freestyle) – Like Rasta T, Kaotic Style is another act from the nineties that I don’t remember. Flex loops the opening drum beat solo from Mobb Deep’s “Temperature’s Rising” (another track that Q-Tip produced, so that makes a fourth option for Tribe Degrees of Separation) for the three emcees (from the little information that I could gather on them, Kaotic Style was a duo, so they must of invited one of their homeboys to this party) to rhyme over. Their energy kind of reminds me of Onyx (ecspecially the first cat, who sounds a lot like Big DS (rip)) and they do a decent enough job with this one.

KRS-One Speech – The last freestyle of the night comes from the legendary Blastmaster KRS-One, who is so nice with words he chooses to spit an accapella spoken word piece and still shuts shits down, clobbering emcees and dropping off a few jewels in the process.

Flex Outro – Our host shares some parting words, shouts out the emcees that didn’t make the album due to sample clearance issues (i.e. Smif-N-Wessun, Black Moon, Craig G, Greg Nice, Cella Dwellas and Doug E. Fresh) and sends a thank you to all his haters, before closing the album with his part creepy, part doofy laugh.

It’s been twenty-five plus years since its release, but 60 Minutes Of Funk still sounds as fresh as it did when it originally dropped. Flex masterfully blends (with the exception of a few) dope freestyles from dope emcees matched with some of the greatest hip-hop beats from the golden era, with random, but welcomed interlude breaks, pays homage to the old old school with some classic joints from the eighties and throws in snippets from the current classics just for shits and giggles, all culminating into an enjoyable and entertaining sixty-eight minute listen. Come to think of it, 60 Minutes Of Funk sounds fresher today than it did back in ’95. Oh, how I miss the nineties. These are the moments I wish I could get my Marty McFly on, jump in the DeLorean and go back to that great era.

-Deedub

 

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Group Home – Livin’ Proof (November 21, 1995)

Group Home is the New York based duo consisting of Melachi The Nutcracker and Lil’ Dap (who we might have to credit for ushering in the “Lil” prefix that would soon become a played out phenomenon in hip-hop), who were a part of the larger collective, Gang Starr Foundation, thanks to their relationship with the late great, Guru. The first time I heard of Group Home was when Lil’ Dap appeared on Gang Starr’s “I’m The Man” off the Daily Operation album; and who will ever forget Melachi’s epic debut on “Words From The Nutcracker” on Hard To Earn? In 1995, Group Home would finally get the chance to shine on their own with the release of their debut album. Livin’ Proof.

One of the biggest perks of being part of the Gang Starr Foundation must be having access to the greatest hip-hop producer off all-time in DJ Premier, and wisely, Group Home calls on Premo to produce all but two of Livin’ Proof’s thirteen tracks. Livin’ Proof would produce three singles, and while the lead single, “Supa Star”, would make a little noise on the underground scene, the album received mediocre reviews and had little commercial success, which would ultimately lead to Group Home parting ways with their label, Payday. They would go on to release four more albums on independent labels, but would never get the chance to shine with the type of exposure a major label provides, and ultimately, would disappear into hip-hop’s black hole, earning a mention on Nas’ 2006 record “Where Are They Now”.

But today are focus is on Livin’ Proof, so let’s jump in to it, shall we?

IntroLivin’ Proof opens with a funky guitar loop placed over scarce drums, and wisely, our hosts refrain from adding rhymes to it and let it shine as the dope instrumental intro that it is.

Inna City Life – Premo laces Dap and Melachi with some blunted-cloudy-atmospheric boom-bap that the duo use to, loosely, represent for the kids in the inner city. This is a dope record that sounds even better when played after the sun goes down.

Livin’ Proof – For the title track, Dap uses Prem’s crisp drums and eerie beeping loop to spit “ghetto rhymes stories”, while Melachi disintegrates, mutilates and penetrates emcees (hey, he said it, not me). It’s not my favorite song on the album, but it’s still solid.

Serious Rap Shit – This one opens with a soft and warm melancholic loop that Group Home uses to let their crew shoutout their deceased homies over. Then Guru gets his only production credit of the evening, and he and Big Shug spit verses along with Melachi, while Dap sticks to hook duties. I love Guru as an emcee and I’m always rooting for and welcoming of a verse from Big Shug, but this beat aint it (are those lasers going off in the instrumental?), and ultimately the song falters.

Suspended In Time – This was the third single released from Livin’ Proof‘ and it’s definitely the album’s magnum opus. Premo serves up a brilliantly mystical instrumental for our hosts, who both sound focused and easily spit their strongest bars of the evening. This masterpiece is followed by a short interlude that features Jeru The Damaja dropping off a few jewels over a heavenly piano loop accompanied by a babbling baby sample that is sure to sooth your soul.

Sacrifice – The song opens with Melachi (sounding like the fourth member of Alvin and The Chipmunks) sharing a few words before giving all his doubters a big middle finger. Then Premo’s dark and rugged backdrop comes in with a Paul Mooney snippet placed over it, setting the scene for Melachi and his homie, Absaloot (whose voice and delivery remind me a little of Nas…shoutout to Esco for the Grammy win!), who pledge to sacrifice their lives for…the street life? The message is perplexing, but both parties entertain over Prem’s nasty production.

Up Against The Wall (Low Budget Mix) – Premo conjures up an instrumental dripping with Kung-Fu flick vibes, as GH discusses the stress and traps that come with the street life, and of course, Melachi gets sidetracked and slips in a few bars aimed at wack emcees. This was dope, and I love the song’s sub-title.

4 Give My Sins – This one starts out sounding like it’s going to be an emotional banger, but after thirty seconds it starts to fade and the listener is left with the sad reality that it was only a short instrumental intermission before the actual song begins. Then a super dry and empty instrumental drops (it’s credited to “Big Jazz”, which I’m assuming is the same Big Jaz aka Jaz-O that gave Jay-Z the “Hawaiian Sophie” fame that Nas once teased him about) and all the weaknesses and flaws in Dap and Melachi’s emcee abilities are exposed without Premo’s marvelous production backing them.

Baby Pa – The first half of this is an interlude that finds a bunch of hyped-up brothers playing ceelo, while tough boom bap drums and an aggressive guitar loop play underneath their energetic exchanges; and just when their exchanges turn into chaos, a calming melodic loop with a baritone voice arrives and bring things to a peaceful closure. The second half is Lil’ Dap getting off a quick verse over Premo’s bangin’ bass line and zig-zagging strings. Dope.

2 Thousand – Premo slides GH some ole smooth creamy shit (the dope stuttering drum effect in between the verses sounds like a crashing computer getting ready to explode), while the duo set their focus on the future…well, past now, but you get my drift. This is another great joint to play in the midnight hour.

Super Star – This was the lead single from Livin’ Proof. Premo laces Dap and Melachi with a soothingly spacey backdrop with dope other world type samples placed throughout, as the duo continue to spew random thoughts with no real theme and throw a meaningless song title on it.

Up Against The Wall (Getaway Car Mix) – This mix uses the same verses as the “Low Budget” mix, but replaces the rawness of the first version with a more chilled-out somber feel, and I enjoyed it. It makes for great rainy day music.

Tha Realness – Melachi sits this one out, as Lil’ Dap is joined by Jack the Ripper and Smiley aka The Ghetto Child to close out Livin’ Proof with this cipher session. Premo’s beat is decent, but a more talented group of emcees could have made it shine a little brighter.

The Group Home won’t “wow” you with their content on Livin’ Proof, as every song pretty much covers the same territory, just the song titles change. Lil’ Dap consistently dishes out steady dosages of hood commentary delivered in his lisped-mutated vocal tone, while Melachi The Nutcracker is more focused on fuckin’ up emcees and every now and then he sprinkles in a few words of wisdom and motivation. Neither of them are top-notch rhymers, but Melachi’s simple flow and straightforward approach (which always sounds like a freestyle) somehow blends well with Dap’s deadpan demeanor and concentrated content. But the backbone, cornerstone, heart and soul of Livin’ Proof is the masterful boom bap production work by DJ Premier, who was in a complete zone during the mid-nineties. So even if you disagree with me and don’t like Group Home’s rhymes and style (which I can completely understand), you’ll definitely enjoy their backing music.

-Deedub

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Coolio – Gangsta’s Paradise (November 21, 1995)

The commercial success of Coolio’s debut album, Fantastic Voyage, turned the Compton rapper into a pop sensation, seemingly overnight (although those in the know new about the dues he paid on the underground scene, grinding with WC & The Maad Circle before reaching the proverbial mountain top). Thanks to the lighthearted content of the title track and lead single (and his cartoonish braids), it would earn Coolio a platinum plaque and also help thrust the album to platinum status, while receiving positive reviews from the critics as well (you can read my thoughts on the album by clicking here). Little did the world know (or Coolio) that he was only getting started. Coolio would return the following year with his sophomore effort, Gangsta’s Paradise.

Gangsta’s Paradise would be the second of three albums that Coolio would release during his tenure with Tommy Boy Records. Like Fantastic Voyage, Coolio would use the production by committee formula, which would include beats from some familiar names (like Dobbs The Wino, whose alias I absolutely adore) and a heapin’ helpin’ of production from some new names as well. Thanks largely to the monster title track and lead single, Gangsta’s Paradise would go on to be an even bigger commercial success than its predecessor, selling more than two million units in the states, and the smash hit lead single and title track would earn Coolio a Grammy win for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1996. But more importantly, it received positive reviews from pretty much all the major publications.

I’ll be honest. I loved Coolio during his short stent with WC & The Maad Circle, but felt he had gone too far left when he found pop success with his solo career, so I stopped checking for him. A few years back I found used cd copies of all three of his Tommy Boy releases in the dollar bin, so I figured I give them (and him) a chance, a few decades after their release.

I mostly enjoyed Fantastic Voyage, so let’s see how Gangsta’s Paradise goes.

That’s How It Is – A short intro that finds Coolio and his homie, Talkbox choppin’ it up about their love/hate relationship with the hood (even without trying, Coolio’s comments on this one crack me up), which sets up the next song…

Geto Highlites – Christopher Hamabe and Devon Davis get the production credit on this one and synth the shit out of the Isley Brothers’ “Groove With You” that Coolio uses to highlight the happenings in the hood; it’s kind of like a hood version of those Christmas letters that white people send out to their family and friends. Coolio’s rhymes teeter between comical and sad (sometimes in the same bar), and though they are compelling, the delivery of them (and the hook) sound kind of sloppy and rushed, which is probably because Ras Kass (who is a great lyricist in his own right and credited in the liner notes as a writer on this song) wrote them in his own rapping cadence, which doesn’t suit Coolio very well. Even with all its flaws, this is still a decent song.

Gangsta’s Paradise – If “Fantastic Voyage” made Coolio a star, this song thrust him into superstardom. It was first released earlier in ’95 as the lead single for the Dangerous Minds Soundtrack (and LV, who sings the hook, would also try to cash in on it by putting it on his debut solo album the following year, but unfortunately it didn’t pay off for the chubby crooner). Doug Rasheed liberally borrows from Steve Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” and puts a gangsta twist on it, as Coolio attempts to take the listener on a journey down the dark and hopeless path traveled by a young black man caught up in the street life, and he does a convincing job (which I’m sure wasn’t difficult, since Coolio is on record (literally and figuratively) for being gang-affiliated). This classic record is easily one of the biggest hits in hip-hop history and it still sounds great today.

Too Hot -This was the second single from Gangsta’s Paradise. Dobbs The Wino gets his first production credit of the evening, and not only does he steal borrow the music from Kool & The Gang’s song with the same title, but Coolio brings in the band’s former lead man, JT Taylor to sing the hook for this PSA on safe sex. Now that’s gangsta. Coolio does a great job of driving home his message without sounding preachy, and even though the instrumental isn’t super innovative, I still enjoyed it.

Cruisin’ – Coolio and his guest, Malika do a hip-hop remake of Smokey Robinson’s classic record, as they smoke, drink and fuck, all while cruising through the city streets listening to music. Shaunna D sings the hook and her mediocre rendition doesn’t hold a candle to Smokey’s silky falsetto, but whatever. This was okay, but if it suddenly disappeared from my copy of Gangsta’s Paradise, I wouldn’t miss it; but it would scare the shit out of me.

Exercise Yo’ Game – First cipher of the evening: Coolio is joined by E40 (excuse my chuckle, but whenever I hear his name I think about a hi-larious meme I saw calling him the “most love and respected shitty rapper of all time”), Kam (who turns in the strongest verse during this session) and 40 Thevz, as they take turns stressing the importance of making and stacking your money by any means necessary. I didn’t like the Jay Supreme/DJ Moe instrumental the first few times I listened to it, but it’s slowly growing on me.

Sumpin’ New – This was the third and final single from Gangsta’s Paradise, and it reeks of an intentional crossover attempt that apes “Fantastic Voyage” (so much so that Coolio felt compelled to clarify in the song’s first few bars that “this aint a fantastic voyage”). The song would be nowhere near as commercially successful as the former and adds nothing meaningful to the album.

Smilin’ – Dominic “Romeo” Aldridge, Jammin’ James Carter and Reece Carter are credited with the production credit, as they turn a dope Sly & The Family Stone loop (that QDIII cleverly flipped a few years prior for Justin Warfield’s forgotten classic record, “Season Of The Vic”) into a creamy backdrop that Coolio uses to give a funny and heartfelt dedication to his kids. Someone going by Baby G (who sounds a lot like Bilal) sings the fresh hook and this ends up being a feel good joint that’ll leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

Fucc Coolio – Short interlude to set up the next song…

Kinda High Kinda Drunk – Coolio uses the playful backdrop to share an animated tale about meeting up with his homies at a bar, and things get kind of interesting as he drinks, and drinks and patiently awaits their arrival. These are the type of songs that Coolio really shines on, and he doesn’t fail on this one, either.

For My Sistas – Oji Pierce builds the backdrop around an interpolation of an Isley Brothers’ snippet, setting the inspirational mood for our host to pay homage to all the Nubian Queens out there. It was honorable to hear Coolio acknowledge his past transgressions of calling black women “bitches” on records (ironically, later in the album there’s a skit that has a dude calling a sista a “bitch” before shooting her), but something about this song feels contrived.

Is This Me? – Devon Davis, along with Frank “Spade” Cannon on keys and Charles “Charlie Macc” Anderson on bass guitar, lay down a serious smooth groove that Coolio and his guest, Rated R from Thug Life, use to detail their struggle to walk the straight and narrow, while the streets keep calling them back like the crack called Pookie (continue to rest easy, Biggie). I would have loved to hear a Pac verse instead of Rated R on this one (I’m sure Coolio would have too, but he was probably busy serving his sexual assault sentence at the time), but regardless, Coolio’s engaging bars, along with LV’s heartfelt hook sound great over the dope instrumentation.

A Thing Goin’ On – Coolio and Oji Pierce decide to re-work Billy Paul’s classic record, “Me and Mrs. Jones”, as our host raps about him and his mistress’ forbidden relationship (Jeremy Monroe sings the hook, while Stan The Guitar Man adds lovely guitar licks). I can understand if you think this song is corny, but I actually enjoyed Coolio’s re-interpretation of this timeless record.

Bright As The Sun – Oji Pierce creates a bluesy synth backdrop that Coolio uses to issue a warning about the consequences that come with playing with fire in these ghetto streets. Will Wheaton (who sounds almost identical to LV) adds a bluesy hook that makes Coolio’s content resonate even more. This is another one that a Pac cameo would have sounded great on, but as is, it’s still dope.

Recoup This – A short interlude that kind of sets up the next song…

The Revolution – This may be the most militant we ever hear Coolio get on a record (Disclaimer: I’ve never heard the rest of his catalog after this album, so that’s a huge assumption I’m making). Over a bouncy Dobbs The Wino beat, our host is looking to spark the revolution on wax…kind of. Coolio’s verses don’t match the militancy of the hook, but I still enjoyed this one.

Get Up Get Down -Over a solid Dobbs The Wino produced backdrop (that features more guitar and bass play from the legendary Stan “The Guitar Man”), Coolio gets one last cipher session going, as he invites Malika, Leek Ratt, PS, Shorty, Ras Kass and his old partner in rhyme, WC to join him on this one. For the most part, everybody involved holds their own, while Ras Kass makes an impressive first impression with his intricate wordplay and metaphors; and it’s always nice to hear Coolio and Dub-C on wax together.

It’s hard not to like a rapper like Coolio. He rhymes with a charisma and clarity that makes him easy to understand and relate to, and even though he’s not the strongest or most talented lyricist, his bars usually resonate with the listener, and more often than not, they entertain. On Gangsta’s Paradise, Coolio checks all those boxes and keeps the listener engaged throughout the album’s seventeen tracks. Gangsta’s Paradise doesn’t have any real cohesion and sounds like a bunch of songs thrown together (which is, at least partially, due to all the different hands in the production pot), but most of the songs work in their grand randomness. Gangsta’s Paradise is a solid follow-up to Fantastic Voyage, and a great return on my dollar investment.

-Deedub

 

 

 

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The Pharcyde – LabCabinCalifornia (November 14, 1995)

The Los Angeles-based quartet, The Pharcyde released their debut album Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde in 1992 and, slowly but surely, were able to build up momentum and not only turn the album into a belated critical darling, but also a commercial success, as it would go on to earn the group a gold plaque (you can read my full thoughts on their debut album right here). Three years later, The Pharcyde would return, releasing their sophomore effort, Labcabincalifornia.

The Pharcyde (who were very involved with the debut album’s production) would be responsible for producing about a half of the songs on Labcabin, while a young up and coming kid from Detroit named Jay Dee aka J-Dilla (who would soon become one-third of the production team, The Ummah, along with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad; Tribe Degrees of Separation: check) would produce most of the other half. Labcabin would bear fruit to a couple of hit singles, but was unable to build on the commercial success of their debut, even though it received mostly positive reviews and reception from the fans. Rumor has it that there were some internal issues going on with the group during the recording of Labcabin, which was probably true, since Fatlip would leave the group soon after the album’s release.

Regardless of how you feel about Labcabin, all hip-hop heads can respect it for being the first project to introduce one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all-time to the world. Rest easy, J-Dilla.

Bullshit – The Pharcyde kick things off with a chilled Dilla produced groove, as they encourage the listener to leave all the bullshit behind and enjoy life, and the music currently playing in your ear. Curiously, Fatlip sits this one out and the rest of the team is joined by their homeboy, Suave who adds a fourth verse. Even though it would have been nice to hear all four members together to open the album, this was still dope, and Dilla’s infectious groove is guaranteed to keep your head bobbin’ while you rap/sing along with the catchy hook.

Pharcyde – All four members of The Pharcyde show up for this one to talk their shit and rep for the team over a sufficient Bootie Brown produced backdrop. The hook was trash, but overall this was decent.

Groupie Therapy – The song title is a clever play on words. Diamond D gets his only production credit of the evening, as he provides a dope semi-zany instrumental that The Pharcyde use as their therapist couch to work through their issues with female groupies.  This felt like more of the vibe The Pharcyde was on for Bizarre Ride, which isn’t a bad thing. I enjoyed this one.

Runnin’ – This was the lead single from Labcabin and probably the biggest hit on the album. Jay Dee slides The Cyde a masterpiece of an instrumental (the way Dilla masterfully slices, cuts and stiches together three different loops from an obscure jazzy Samba record for this backdrop is truly impressive) that they use to chop it up about manning up and facing the problems life throws at you. A great message, music and execution is the formula for making a classic record.

She Said – Slimkid’s responsible for this smooth jazzy groove that he and Fatlip use to rap about the objects of their erections. This was dope, but the creamy Dilla remix is way yummier.

Splattitorium – This works as more of an extended interlude than an actual song. On the first half of it, Imani raps and semi-sings praises to Mary Jane over a somberly smooth Dilla instrumental. The second half morphs into Imani scating about a bunch of random nothingness. So just sit back and relax for three minutes (put an L in the sky if that’s your thing) and get lost in the laidback tantalizing vibes of Dilla’s beautiful soundscape.

Somethin’ That Means Somethin’ – Imani sits this one out as the rest of the crew uses this one to spit meaningful lyrics, as the title suggest. All three emcees turn in passable verses, but Dilla’s dope instrumental (once again) is the true star of this one; his disgusting bass line is guaranteed to make you screw your face while you nod your head, heavily.

All Live – A funky little interlude that features a cameo from ODB. Wait…that’s not ODB?

Drop – This was the second single from Labcabin, and if “Runnin'” isn’t the biggest hit from the album this is; and if “Runnin'” isn’t Dilla illest beat on Labcabin, this is. Brown, Slimkid and Imani use Dilla’s brilliant backdrop (that seems to bend, reverse, pause and levitate without missing a beat) to discuss, in a nutshell, wack emcees and losing/selling your soul. This is a timeless bonafide hip-hop classic.

Hey You – I didn’t care much for Slimkid and Imani’s content, but I love Tre’s chilled-out instrumental.

Y? – Bootie Brown concocts a jazzy and somber instrumental (with a co-credit going to Jay Dee) that the group use to spit verses that rhetorically ask why certain things happen during this experience called life. It’s definitely not the strongest song on the album, but I still enjoyed it, mostly for the soothing instrumental.

It’s All Good – This short interlude finds the Pharcyde faux-crooning over some nasty funk guitar riffs and soulful black church organ chords, which makes for a delicious snack in between songs.

Moment In Time – Over a beautiful melancholic instrumental (courtesy of someone named M-Walk), Slimkid shares one quick verse dedicated to all his peeps that passed away, while he and an uncredited female vocalist sandwich his verse with some soothing singing. This one sounds as sad as I remembered it, and I still love it.

The Hustle – The Pharcyde animatedly dedicate this one to all the people out in these streets hustlin’ to make a living. Technically, it’s not The Pharcyde, since the only member of the group to take part in this record is Bootie Brown (who also produced the song), who’s joined by Schmooche, Randy Mac and Big Boy (not to be confused with Big Boi from Outkast, though his presence on this record might have worked, considering the subject matter and all). I didn’t care much for the verses, but the buttery melodic backdrop still sounds very scrumptious.

Little D – Our hosts invite Suave and his six year old son, Little D (there’s a joke in there, but I won’t touch it…and just like that, another door opens to a joke) to the studio to take part in this very uncomfortable interlude that finds The Pharcyde and Suave coaching the little whippersnapper to curse and talk like a pimp, while Slimkid talks to him about picking “up some little kindergarten bitches”. This was not only distasteful, but not funny, either.

Devil Music – Fatlip hooks up an upbeat instrumental with dark overtones, as he, Tre and Bootie Brown take turns abstractly expressing their disdain for the music industry that has them putting their “souls on 2 inch reels that they don’t even own”. It sounds like they weren’t only beefing with each other at the time, but also the label. Regardless, they turn the beef, turmoil and soul selling into a great record with a clever song title that sounds even better when played after midnight.

The E.N.D. – The Pharcyde ends Labcabin with a fitting song title and a creamy melodic groove, courtesy of M-Walk. Slimkid and Fatlip sit this one out, as Imani and Bootie Brown are joined by their homeboy, Kamau and the trio talk about the end times and preparing for it. On paper it sounds kind of bleak, but it’s actually a feel good celebratory record. I could listen to this instrumental to the, um, end of time and never get tired of it.

I’ve heard some criticize Labcabincalifornia for being too mature to the point that The Pharcyde sound boring on the album, but I actually enjoyed this mature and wiser version of the group more than the animated and whimsical feel they gave us on the Bizarre Ride. Not only did The Pharcyde’s rhymes mature since Bizarre Ride, but the instrumentals also blossomed, and though the bulk of them have a more somber and darker feel than their debut, they also sound more layered and complete, which can largely be credited to the production presence of Jay Dee. Like most albums, there are a few joints that could have been left on the cutting room floor, but the thought-provoking content coupled with the phenomenal batch of instrumentals makes Labcabincalifornia a great sophomore effort from The Pharcyde, and song for song, a stronger album that it’s predecessor.

-Deedub

 

 

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Beastie Boys – Aglio E Olio (November 13, 1995)

The last time we heard from the Beastie Boys was in May of ’95 with their money grab EP, Root Down, which even though it seemed ridiculous to put together a whole EP based around a single from an album released a year prior (it also felt like a desperate attempt to keep the Beastie buzz going, which is kind of ironic coming from a group that regularly took three year breaks in between albums), it actually wasn’t bad, even if it didn’t bring anything new or beneficial to the table (you can read my complete analysis of the Root  Down EP riiiight here). So what would the Beastie Boys do next? Yep, you guessed it. Slap us in the face with another EP.

Aglio E Olio, which literally means “olive oil and garlic” in Italian, is an eight song, eleven minute long EP that finds the Beastie Boys returning to their punk rock roots. I’ve never listened to Aglio E Olio before today and none of the songs on the tracklist look familiar, so hopefully the music sounds better than the cheesy artwork looks.

Brand NewAglio E Olio begins with frantic guitar licks and intense drums that BB use to scream the hook, while Ad-Rock semi-raps the same verse twice and they slide in a few brash guitar solos. I wasn’t crazy about this one, but it wasn’t terrible.

Deal With It – This one starts off sounding like it’s going to be a deep groove driven by guitar licks. Then reality sets in and our hosts continue to rock out and yell the life out of their larynxes. I actually read the lyrics on Genius.com while listening, and the song actually has some decent lyrics. It’s too bad everything else about the song sucked.

Believe Me – Next…

Nervous Assistant – Whether rhyming over beat breaks or screaming over rock riffs, the Beastie Boys are consistent about one thing: it’s nearly impossible to make out what the hell they’re saying.

Square Wave In Unison – This shit is giving me a headache.

You Catch A Bad One – Be right back…gotta grab my bottle of Advil.

I Cant Think Straight – Ad-Rock rhymes over another Beastie mash up that all sounds like a bunch of noise.

I Want Some – The last song on Aglio E Olio features…yep, you guessed it: More loud rock guitar riffs, intense drums and BB screaming all over them. I kind of enjoyed the chord change during the bridge of this song, but other than that, there’s not much to see here, folks. Apparently, there were some versions of Aglio E Olio released with two bonus songs: “Soba Violence” and “Light My Fire”. Thank God, my copy doesn’t have those bonus tracks, so I can end this write up right now.

Since I’m not a fan of rock and even less of punk, I was hoping that the Boys Beastie would put a hip-hop spin on their original chosen genre, but they didn’t. Aglio E Olio is eleven minutes of the Beastie Boys screaming uncontrolled and unintelligibly over loud repetitive guitar riffs and drums, and this eleven minutes felt like eternity; a very unenjoyable eternity. Needless to say, Aglio E Olio is not my cup of tea, garlic water or bottle of olive oil.

-Deedub

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