One of the reasons I love doing this blog is no matter how much I’m engulfed in the culture or how much of a hip-hop historian I think I am, there is always an artist and/or an album that I missed. Today’s post is one of those artist and albums. J Rock’s Streetwize.
According to the liner notes from the 2007 reissue of Streetwize, that I found at Cheapos in the used bins still wrapped in its original packaging for less than ten bucks (which is an awesome deal, since you can’t find it online for less than $100): In 1989 J Rock was a eighteen-year-old inspiring emcee out of Newburgh, NY. He was discovered by Jeff Murphy who at the time had an independent label called Ghetto Groovz. Murphy would help J Rock release his debut single in 1990 (“The Chosen One”), which didn’t make a ton of noise, but later that same year, he did make some noise when he was featured in the once highly coveted Unsigned Hype column of the December 1990 issue of The Source. J Rock and Murphy would take advantage of the newly found buzz and release J Rock’s debut album Streetwize in 1991.
J Rock would produce a large chunk of the album, with Eazy Moe Bee contributing, as well as DJ Premier. The album received favorable reviews upon its release, including a lukewarm three mics from The Source, even though Big B sung praises to J Rock throughout the review. Spine Magazine journalist, Chris Aylen was bold enough to say: “This (Streetwize) is like the Amerikka’s Most Wanted of the New York ghetto.
I say Chris Aylen was either on to something or on something.
Let Me Introduce Myself – J Rock begins Streetwize with a decent self-produced instrumental, and he sounds pretty decent on the mic as he displays some solid wordplay and witty bars.
Under Arrest – This is a short interlude with a funky piano loop that takes on a dark feel when J Rock adds what sounds like slamming bars to a jail cell. This all sets up the next song…
Streetwize – Our host uses the title song to address the daily happenings in the streets of any inner city across America. He talks about everything from baggin’ bad chicks, packin’ heat, selling drugs, dealing with cops, and sounds fly when he spits bars like “No drugs are being sold on the ave, I just laugh, cause I’m clean like a bath”. J Rock’s backdrop sounds like a slightly sped up version of the instrumental he used for “Let Me Introduce Myself”, with an added smooth horn loop on the hook, giving the track a little more life.
Brutality – J Rock spits one quick verse about what he calls “every black man’s nightmare”: getting their ass beat by a white cop for simply being black. Premo’s backdrop (with a co-production credit going to J Rock) has an eerie vocal sample that gives the song a dark feel, but I’m not crazy about the heavy drums he lays underneath it. Furthermore, J Rock forces his rhymes to fit the beat and it winds up sounding super amateurish.
The Pimp – Premo get his second production credit of the evening, and this one’s a banger. Dope bass line, sick loop and slick signature Premo cuts on the hook, are all elements that make this one a certified monster. It almost feels like Premo’s backdrop sparks J Rock’s creative energy, as he spits sharp battle rhymes and his flow sounds fresher than any of the songs prior to this one. This one goes hard, and will definitely make you want to bitch slap the shit out of somebody. #Pimpshit.
The Shakedown – J Rock clearly had some bad run-in’s with the po-po, since this is the third song out of the first six he talks about cops on. This time he calls out the crooked cops who harass and shakedown brothers in the name of the law, but really do it to pad their own pockets. J hooks up a decent instrumental that kind of reminds me of Scarface’s “Money And The Power”. J’s content is solid, unfortunately his stiff delivery derails all the positive aspects of this song.
Neighborhood Drug Dealer – I’m sure you can figure out what this song is about based on the song title, but if you can’t: J Rock paints the picture of a drug dealer from the hood and the fate that awaits all big time drug dealers who aren’t named Shawn Carter. The deep rumbling bass line gives credibility to the song, and the KRS-One vocal sample (courtesy of “Love’s Gonna Get’cha (Material Love)” from Edutainment) is a nice added touch to the hook.
Don’t Sleep On Me – Our host takes a brief break from his heavy street commentary, and lightens the mood with some light-hearted bars. J Rock’s rhymes and delivery on this one remind me of a combination of D.I.T.C members, Lord Finesse and AG. But as nice as J sounds on this one, his instrumental is the true star. This song is perfect for playing while cruisin’ (is cruisin’ still even a thing?) on a sunny summer afternoon.
Root Of All Evil – Possibly one of the most misquoted bibles verses is 1 Timothy 6:10, which reads the “love of money is the root of all evil”. Money in and of itself, is not evil, but the love (or lust) of it is the root of all evil. J Rock uses his verses on this song to call out preachers, politician, pushers and the general population and the ill deeds they partake in the pursuit of the green stuff, but like many, he omits that all important verb (love) from his hook. J’s lyrics are cool, but the instrumental is way too happy-go-lucky to support his content, in my opinion.
The Messiah – J Rock hooks up a dope instrumental that almost sounds like something Premo might have created. He then proceeds to talk his shit and spit battle bars as he claims to be the Messiah of this rap shit. God emcee, J Rock is not, but the song is still pretty dope, though.
Ghetto Law – Premier works his magic again and lays down a funky instrumental laced with his signature razor-sharp cuts and vocal scratches on the hook, as our host continues to boast of his lyrical greatness. It’s definitely not J Rock’s best lyrical performance on Streetwize, (I love the line “Knock you out like a lightweight, girls wanna swallow the lyrics that I ejaculate”), but he doesn’t derail the dopeness of Premo’s production work.
Around My Way – Over a decent backdrop Mr. Rock discusses the happenings in his neck of the woods, aka the concrete jungle. He covers everything from crackheads to drug dealers, to teenage moms and athletes who never reached their full potential. It’s not a terrible song, but definitely filler material.
The Real One – Over a laid back backdrop, our host spits one quick verse, again, boasting about he lyrical prowess. He does spit some clever bars like “I’m from upstate, my home’s a rough place, you wanna try and bass, then you’ll get a punched face” (again reminding me of Lord Finesse with his delivery and word connection), but the instrumental is sleepy and damn near put me to sleep…*yawn*.
Another Tough Guy – J Rock continues to walk on the dark side with his social commentary. This time he paints the picture of fatherless boy whose mom worked two jobs to put food on the table, and with both parents absent, the boy goes on to join a gang, sell drugs and ultimately, go to prison. A story that unfortunately, too many brothers have lived out. J Rock’s flow is kind of corny on this one, but the content hits home and the reggae-tinged instrumental is pretty slick.
Dead – Quick interlude that has a father getting word from the police that his son is dead. This sets up the next song…
Save The Children – Apparently this was the first single from Streetwize. J Rock flips the same Love Unlimited loop that Above The Law used on “Flow On” (from Livin’ Like Hustlers), as he discusses the violence that kids in America face and stresses the importance of making sure our youth are protected. The urgency of J Rock’s instrumental brings out our host’s strong content. And as bleak as J Rock’s content is, the uplifting horn loop during the chorus almost serves at a glimmer of hope for a brief moment. This was brilliantly.
Cazanova – J Rock’s in pimp mode on this one, as he brags about how much of a ladies man he is. It was kind of weird to have this sequenced after the masterpiece that was “Save The Children”, but sequencing couldn’t make this dragging instrumental sound entertaining.
Let’s Get It Together – Finally, after all the depressing content from the previous songs, J Rock looks to inspire as he calls for the black community to come together and make a change. Unfortunately, his bland backdrop does little to inspire and his flow is at its sloppiest.
Get Rek – For you younger whippersnappers, “catching wreck” was a slang term commonly used in the nineties by emcees when they felt they were in a zone with the flow, or as J Rock spells it “rek”. Over a nasty Easy Moe Bee instrumental, J does just what the title suggest. Next to “The Pimp” this is the best J’s rhymes and flow sound on Streetwize.
Neighborhood Drug Dealer (Remix) – J Rock taps Premo to produce this remix. While the original mix had more of a dark feel, thanks to a thick bass line, Premo gives it a bit of jazzy after hours feel that sounds pretty dope, especially during the hook when he brings the piano loop in.
The 2007 reissued print of Streetwize includes the following additional songs:
Don’t Sleep On Me (Remix) – This remix has absolutely nothing on the original.
Save The Children (Remix) – J Rock adds an additional verse to this remix. The instrumental is decent but too laid back and doesn’t sound intense enough to support J Rock’s dense content.
Streetwize lives up to its name, as it’s chock-full of dark and vivid street tales. Most of the content is depressing, but J Rock dilutes the darkness by throwing in a light-hearted song boasting of his lyrical or sexual prowess, every now and then. Speaking of lyrics, J Rock is far from the “Rap Messiah” that he claims to be throughout the album, but he is a decent emcee that shows flashes of greatness on a few songs (i.e. “The Pimp” and “Get Rek”). The production on Streetwize is what truly carries the album. The Premo produced tracks are the clear standouts, but don’t sleep on J Rock’s production skills, as he does a pretty solid job behind the boards, cooking up a few spectacular joints in the process (i.e. “Don’t Sleep On Me” and “Save The Children”). Streetwize is not a great album, but it definitely deserves more respect than just being remembered as that album Premo did some of his earliest production work on.