Above The Law is one of those groups that I’ve always respected but never invested time to really listening to their entire catalog. The only album that I actually listened to back in the day was their second full-length release Black Mafia Life (if you’re curious about my thoughts on that album, click here). In the last year or so, I’ve added a couple more of their albums to my collection, including their debut full-length release, Livin’ Like Hustlers.
Above The Law released Livin’ Like Hustlers on Ruthless Records with distribution through Epic in 1990. All the production would be handled by Above The Law, Laylaw and the legendary Dr. Dre, who was red-hot after producing N.W.A.’s Straight Out Of Compton and The D.O.C.’s No One Can Do It Better. Although Livin’ Like Hustlers didn’t earn ATL a plaque, it did earn the fellas pounds of respect from hip-hop fans and received positive reviews from the critics. In 1998 The Source would even include Livin’ Like Hustlers on their list of 100 Greatest Hip-hop Albums of All-Time.
This is my first time listening to Livin’ Like Hustlers. Let’s see if it lives (no pun intended)up to all the praise its received over the years.
Murder Rap – Livin’ Like Hustlers opens with a dark stripped down track over heavy drums and 187um gets loose over it for the course of three verses. This one goes hard, and is a great way to start the show.
Untouchables – Laylaw and Dre take a dope sample from Young-Holt Unlimited’s version of “Light My Fire”, a nasty horn loop from Quincy Jones’ “Ironside” and turn it into a thing of beauty. 187 and KMG display some of their underappreciated chemistry that compliments the track, perfectly. And Remember: “it’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove”.
Livin’ Like Hustlers – After a brief interlude that has, what sounds like Dr. Dre, playing a radio deejay for the faux radio station KMG, that can be found at 187 on your dial (yes, that was pretty cheesy but, whatever), and a comical commercial for locs (which happens to have a beautiful instrumental playing underneath it), the title track comes on, and it’s a monster. Dre and company lay down a smooth, yet so funky, instrumental built around a nasty guitar loop and an epic horn break leading into the hook. KMG and Cold 187um sound right at home spilling their gangster lingo all over this smoothness. If you can’t feel this one it’s quite possible that you don’t have a pulse.
Another Execution – Cold 187um is back to rollin’ solo for this one. He shares two different stories about bustas who get to trippin’, which leads to them both getting their caps peeled. 187 is entertaining as usual, and so is the hard instrumental. Sidenote: CMW would use the same Lyn Collins loop a couple of years later for Eiht’s duet with Mr. Scarface, “N 2 Deep” from their Music To Driveby album.
Menace To Society – ATL keeps the good times rollin’, with another dope backdrop (that borrows one funky and one hard loop from B.T. Express) and solid bars from KMG and 187.
Just Kickin’ Lyrics – Cold 187um is back on a dolo mission for this one, and does exactly what the song title suggest. And he sounds damn good doing it. Dre and company use the same Issac Hayes loop that DJ Quik would use a year later for his debut hit single, “Born And Raised In Compton”. I do think Quik flipped it better, but Dre’s interpolation of it is still solid.
Ballin’ – ATL slows things down a bit for this one. KMG and 187um are in floss mode as they jive talk and pimp their way through this smooth melodic groove. And it’s dedicated to: “the whole wide world”.
Freedom of Speech – Most will recognize the Myra Barnes’ loop on this song from Lil’ Kim’s first single “No Time”, which I never liked (side note: before Lil’ Kim used it, Easy Moe Bee sampled it for Big Daddy Kane’s “Calling Mr. Welfare”, and Premo for Gang Starr’s title track on the No More Mr. Nice Guy album. Lil’ Kim’s song was easily the most commercially successful…but I digress). Cold 187um uses it to express his feelings on the whole censorship of hip-hop, which was a huge controversy back in 1990. Not my favorite song on the album, but it serves it’s purpose.
Flow On (Move Me No Mountain) – This smooth instrumental has Dre’s fingerprints all over it. 187um and KMG tag team the mic with an irresistible swag that no one in their right mind can front on. As enjoyable as ATL’s swag is (this song might be where the slang term for weed,”chronic”, originated from), Dre’s instrumental is the true star of this song.
The Last Song – For the last song of the evening ATL invites their Compton friends, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and Eazy-E, to join them on this cipher jawn. The instrumental kind of reminds me of “The Grand Finale” from The D.O.C.’s No One Can Do It Better, but with enough changes to make it feel fresh and new. Speaking of The D.O.C., it would have been nice to hear him rip this one, but of course the car accident that pretty much ended his rap career had already happened by the time this song was recorded (Laylaw instructs him to light the blunt at the beginning of this song, so he was definitely in the building). All parties involved hold their own, and surprisingly, Eazy-E steals the show with a little comic relief. Great way to end a really impressive debut album.
It’s rare to listen to an album for the first time and be completely blown away by what you hear. It’s even more rare for that to happen when the album was released nearly 30 years ago; but that is exactly what I experienced with Livin’ Like Hustlers. From beginning to end, every song on this album will leave you with a screwed face or your head nodding, thanks to slick samples and crispy clean production from Laylaw, ATL and Dr. Dre. Cold 187um and KMG may not be the greatest lyricists, but they always entertain, and their confidence, swag and chemistry might be the most underrated of any duo in hip-hop history. Livin’ Like Hustlers is an unheralded classic and one the best album released in the first year of the ninety dec.