In the late eighties groups like NWA, Ice-T, and Above The Law would lay the ground work in defining what would soon become the West Coast hip-hop blueprint. Like the east, the west coast artists used raw beats, but with a heavily synthesized sound, and lyricism that painted a very cold and violent image of their environment (which for some artist was a legitimate painting, while others were simply playing their favorite gangster movie character behind the mic, aka studio gangstas). But amongst the rags, bullets, hoes, and drugs, there grew a flower in the concrete: Jeffery “Def Jef” Fortson. Yeah, that last sentence was a little over the top but it grabbed your attention, right?
Def Jef was actually born in Harlem, NY, only to later move west where he would put himself on the hip-hop map. While I won’t say Def Jef was the first emcee to shake free of the signature West Coast gangsta sound, he was definitely one of the earliest to break the shackles. Def Jef’s production definitely had more of an east coast feel, while lyrically he would touch on everything from the ladies, to conscious rhymes, to straight emceeing.
Jeffery released his debut Just a Poet With a Soul (which I always felt would have been a cleaner album title had he dropped the “Just A”) on Delicious Vinyl in 1989. It should come as a surprise to know one that Just a Poet With a Soul would go on to receive heaps of critical acclaim for Jef’s sociopolitical themes and sell exactly 7 copies… 2 on cassette and 5 on cd.
Def Jef would later go on to release one more solo album (more on that one at a later date), join the Flavor Unit where he would help with production for other crew member’s albums, before he would hit the road heading to Hollywood to produce tv theme songs, including the score for That’s So Raven and The Game.
According to Wikipedia some critics have refered to Just a Poet With a Soul as a lost hip-hop classic. But as we all know Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable source.
Droppin’ Rhymes On Drums – Jef kicks off the proceedings with a very humdrum, drum track, that does little to get you excited about tonight’s show (even the Etta James vocal sample does little to pull you in). Even with the less than impressive instrumental, Jef sounds pretty nice on the mic…although I can’t remember anything he just said.
Give Em’ Rhythm – Well, the instrumental definitely sounds better than the previous track. Not great by any means, but a definite improvement. Jef sound pretty solid but again don’t expect any hip-hop quotables or anything.
On The Real Tip – Man, does that song title date this song. I actually like Jef’s drowsy instrumental work, and the Cheryl Lynn sample from “Got To Be Real” is sprinkled perfectly over the refrain. While the track is more enjoyable than the previous songs Jef’s flow sounds very dated compared to the other songs up to this point.
Poet With Soul – I hate when title songs are meh…technically, in an unofficial way this is the title song, right?
Give It Here – The Dust Brothers of Beastie Boys fame assist with the instrumental on this one. Jef doesn’t cover any new ground here as he spends over 4 minutes trying to get in some particular chick’s draws. From the track to the subject, to the execution, this sucked.
Do You Wanna Get Housed – Any of you who have followed this blog on a regular basis already know that a hip-house song was a prerequisite for a hip-hop album in the late eighties (kind of like a club banger is mandatory in this day an age). But unlike most of his counterparts Jef chooses to rest his chops, letting his very forgettable instrumental do the talking.
Black To The Future – Nice message Jef, but I couldn’t really feel this one. Next…
Do It Baby – N’Dea Davenport (of Brand New Heavies fame) stops by to provide vocals on the hook, which honestly, doesn’t add or distract from the overall outcome of the song. Jef is in rare form sounding more nimble on the mic than anything else on Just a Poet up this point. Unfortunately The Dust Brother’s simple and bouncy track doesn’t quite work. Sorry, Jef.
God Made Me Funky – That title can be interpreted a few different ways. But in so many words what are host is saying is: he’s the shit. I thought his reference to the over use of James Brown samples was pretty hi-larious (“it aint the same sounds, cause it aint James Brown”). But like the song before, the Dust Brothers provide yet another generic instrumental. I’m starting to see a pattern here, folks.
Downtown – Jef gets serious on this one as he effectively articulates the discrepancies between the inner-city and the burbs, turning in his best lyrical performance of the evening to this point. His instrumental work sounds more west coast than anything else on Just a Poet up to this point as well. This was pretty solid.
Just A Poet – To end the show Jef calls on The Dust Brothers to help with the instrumental. Unlike the previous two Dust Brothers produced tracks, this one is really nice. Jef uses this laid back groove to wax philosophical turning in his strongest bars of the evening. Beautiful way to end the show, Jef.
Upon its release Just a Poet With a Soulwas praised by critics (allegedly, I’ve personally never read any of these reviews). Listening to it today, time hasn’t aged this album very well. The last two songs are really nice, but unfortunately the first nine songs are so lackluster (and that’s putting it gently) even the quality of the final two songs can’t repair the damage previously done. Sorry Jef, I was rooting for you but this wasn’t a solid debut.