By 1991 I was fully drenched and heavily indulging in everything hip-hop related. In between me and my crew freestyling over cassette single instrumentals that we boosted from Sam Goody or Musicland (yes kids, there was a time when you physically had to go to stores to steal music), I read all the hip-hop mags, watched all the hip-hop video shows, so it always shocks me when someone mentions an artist from the early to mid nineties that I’m not even remotely familiar.
Insert Diamond Shell.
A buddy of mine from Connecticut (I see you Sta. Jigga!) hipped me to Diamond Shell in the early 2000’s. He would always quote his rhymes and usually they sounded pretty comical. A few years back while scavenging through the used cd bins, I ran across The Grand Imperial Diamond Shell for a couple of bucks. After reading the liner notes I was extremely shocked that I never heard of him, considering he’s (at least he claims) to be the brother of Biz Markie. The Biz is also responsible for production duties on The Grand Imperial. Now I loved the production work Biz did on Grand Daddy I.U.’s Smooth Assassin but I was completely bored with the crap he threw on Kid Capri’s The Tape.
Bugged Out Day At Powerplay – Over a miniscule drum beat Shell opens his debut album in a pretty unusual way: a freestyle cypher session? After Shell, Biz, and something called Capitol Tee (who starts to rap before his allotted time only to get hi-lariously reprimanded by the Biz for going in prematurely) give their introductions before Biz set it off with a freestyle that even includes him reciting the alphabet. Shell bats second, followed by Capitol Tee, before Biz wraps things up as if this was his album. After his 1989 hit “Just A Friend”, Biz was huge, so I’m sure Cold Chillin’ pushed to have his imprint all over The Grand Imperial. Oh yeah, the song…decent at best.
Back Again – Shell goes from class clown to making an attempt at sounding like a serious battle emcee, but there are a few problems here: 1 – it becomes pretty apparent that Shell has a slight lisp that is magnified when he spits at a more up tempo pace. And more importantly 2 – his lyrics are just not that good. Biz Markie’s instrumental is trash as well, so that didn’t help matters, either.
Rock On – Shell slips into storyteller mode as he drops three verses with three completely unrelated stories. the first two verses show Shell’s compassionate side as he shows mercy on two individuals that targeted him as a victim. The last verse is just about skinz. The only thing each of the verses has in common is the branding of his name in each of the character’s brain. Though the song title and content are pretty random, Biz’ instrumental (which sounds like it sampled the same bass line used on Redman’s “Jam For U”) is a banger which makes the song enjoyable.
Same Ol’ Song – Shell stays in storyteller mode, but unlike the previous song this one actually has a theme. Over a soulful piano loop Shell reminisces about a chubby female childhood buddy who reappears years later as a curvaceous hottie. You won’t mistake Shell for Slick Rick, but he does a pretty good job on this one. Props on his attention to detail. Like “Rock On”, the song title doesn’t have anything to do with the song’s content.
Giggles – Shell delivers yet another story, but this time he borrows his brother Biz’ M.O. and turns in a comical tale about a blind date gone bad. Biz provides a smooth mid-tempo groove for Shell to drop this one verse wonder over. Shell kind of reminded me of Grand Daddy I.U on this one, dropping one liner after one liner. This was hi-larious!!!
Oh What a Night – I believe this was the first and only single released from The Grand Imperial. Biz tries to recapture the magic that he found on his hit “Just A Friend”, this time sampling the Four Seasons hit “December, 1963 (What A Night)”, and singing the hook off-key in between Shell’s verses. This was terrible.
Cut School – Shell shares a playful story that serves as a warning to get kids to stay in school. spins a tale about an ordeal that took place after he decided to take an extended bathroom break at school that spiraled out of control to suspension, drug dealing, to murder, and ultimately life in prison. Heavy stuff, right? Shell manages to make it playful, kind of taking the sting out of his warning to kids to never skip class.
Captain Speakin’ – Biz uses a recycled sample (I think I first heard this sample used on a Super Cat joint, which is the same song that I first heard Biggie spit on, which also contained the vocal sample that would later be used on the hook for “Big Poppa”) for the foundation of this instrumental, which is pleasant. Shell’s the big disappointment on this one.
Church Bell Toll – Shell switches hats and goes into gangster mode as he repaints an altercation at a night club turned fatal. I didn’t care much for this one.
Grand Imperial Diamond Shell – Our host takes a break from all his storytelling and kicks back to boast and talk shit over a Biz instrumental that samples Rick James’ “Mary Jane”.
Back ‘Em Up – Biz provides a pretty interesting instrumental for Shell who does a serviceable job on the mic.
Make ‘Em Say Huh – Shell invites fellow Cold Chillin’ alum Kid Capri to ad-lib and take care of the chorus on this hot mess of a song.
Shout Outs – Play exactly how it reads…and that’s a wrap.
After listening to The Grand Imperial a few times, it wasn’t quite what I expected. Naturally, since Shell is Biz Markie’s little brother, you would assume (or at least I did) he’d be another class clown emcee. Yes, Shell does goof off a little bit (especially when Biz joins in on the fun) and a handful of his storylines are comical (see “Giggles” and “Cut School”), but Shell does have a semi-serious side as well (see “Rock On” and “Same Ol’ Song”). Shell spends the majority of The Grand Imperial telling stories, which may be his strongest trait, because his freestyle/battle rhymes ring hollow. Shell is far from a top-tier emcee, nor is he the worst I’ve heard. He falls somewhere in between, leaning heavily towards the latter. The biggest disappointment on The Grand Imperial was Biz’s lackluster production. Other than the banger that was “Rock On”, none of his other instrumentals come close to surpassing decent. The Tape now has a companion piece in my collection.