Tunnel Rats – Experience (1996)

The Tunnel Rats were a Southern California-based Christian collective of emcees and producers, whose crew name is cleverly derived from the special unit of American and allied soldiers who performed underground search and destroy missions during the Vietnam War. Led by LPG, the Tunnel Rats would make a strong impact on the Christian rap subculture, with its crew members releasing several albums from the mid-nineties through the early 2010s. And even though the Tunnel Rats walked with Jesus, I’m sure some of these dudes wouldn’t turn the other cheek when it came time to fight or battle and could bust most of your favorite rappers’ asses on the mic. The Tunnel Rats would officially kick things off in 1995 with releases from two of its founding acts, Peace 586 (The Risen Son) and LPG (The Earth Worm). After laying the TR foundation with these two quality albums, they would build on it the following year with the first Tunnel Rats collective project and the subject of today’s post, Experience.

Through the years, the Tunnel Rats’ roster has gone through several changes, removing and adding new members along the way. The Experience TR roster would include the underrated duo, LPG (Jurny and Theory aka Dax), Raphi, Zane, and the four-man group, Future Shock (Sojourn, Ajax, Redbonz, and DJ DNA). The production on Experience would be exclusively handled by Peace 586, who would stay away from the microphone and strictly behind the boards for the duration of the album.

As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, during the late nineties and early two-thousands, I went on a spiritual pilgrimage, and along with some other things, I cut “secular music” out of my diet. The Tunnel Rats were one of the few groups I relied on heavily for authentic hip-hop to feed my soul and satisfy the craving during that period, and I’ll forever be thankful to them for that.

I’m sure most of you aren’t familiar with the Tunnel Rats or their music. So, ignore the generic album cover artwork and come…experience Experience for the first time.

Execution – The first track on Experience features Jurny, Raphi, Zane, Ajax, and Sojourn passing the mic around the cipher like a baton, as they take turns talkin’ their sanctified ish and give the listeners their first taste of “Tunnel Rats’ rhyme revolution.” Peace 586 lets his hands do the talking, serving up an ill instrumental, dressed in sparkling keys, twangy Rza-like strings, and a few different tempo changes along the way. The hook is too wordy, but other than that, this was dope.

Stripes And Stars – Raphi, who gave a decent performance on the opening track, sounds too eager on his first solo joint of the evening, as he spits solid bars (although his claim to be “a housing project for the Messiah” was kind of awkward), but his frantic-paced delivery runs ahead of the beat and comes off super sloppy. Speaking of beats, Peace’s instrumental sounds bland and Raphi’s hook is annoyingly doing too much.

Broken Life – In their own abstract way, Future Shock discusses the practice of dying daily to the flesh to walk with Jesus. FS’s spiritual suicide is backed by a sweetly solemn instrumental, so even if you don’t necessarily care for their rhyming style (like me), you’ll enjoy the soothing music that supports them.

Poetry – Redbonz from Future Shock, gets off a quick poem about death, while eerie dark chords play in the background. I’m not a big “spoken word poem” guy and this was not dope enough to change my stance.

Experience – The album’s title track matches LPG with Peace 586’s crashing drums, understated grumpy bass line, and strings that teeter between sinister and regal. Jurny handles the first verse dolo, showcasing his superior rhyming skills and healthy vocabulary, while dedicating most of the verse to TR’s fellow Chrisitan rapper and rival, T-Bone: “You can’t comprehend massive talent of this nature, you’re…still stuck in your passive Christian rap artist behavior, you’re, mediocre, caught up in folklore, what’s hardcore? But if I name names, I won’t be sold in Gospel stores, more shoveling, but I keep him shuffling, through streets of beats, you couldn’t show your face in any place where LPG competes” (I’m not sure what sparked the beef between these two talented artists, but the beef was only beginning to cook…more on that in the next post). Jurny and Theory use the second verse to display their proficient off-the-top-of-the-dome freestyle skills, before closing the song with sage-like jewels and wisdom in the third verse. LPG’s entertainingly battle-ready bars and Peace’s potent boom-bap are sown together by a gripping hook, completing this masterpiece of a record.

Got What It Takes – The lovely Zane drops in again to prove that she’s more than just a pretty face with an appealing voice. Over mystical keys and a grinding bass line, she gets off two verses filled with quality bars that will also leave you with something to chew on: “What up boys, why you trippin’ on the message sender? Talkin’ bout ‘she raps good for a girl’ like hip-hop has a gender, bump that, you best get back, my reaction’s nuclear, you push my buttons, when you be frontin’, now we sound too secular, but I can understand, since your walk is based on the testimony of another man, a hu-man or something you seen on Rap City, I pity you confused adolescent still searching for identity.” Jurny jumps on the third verse, effortlessly stealing the show as he makes outlandish claims about being such a lyrical giant that he can plant his feet in the Atlantic Ocean, bend over and wash his face in the Pacific, then stand back up to snatch stars out the sky to play catch with his Tunnel Rat family.

Sneak – Redbonz, Ajax, and Raphi wage war with Peace’s wearily triumphant backdrop that has a well-placed Nas vocal sample on the hook. The rhymes weren’t stellar, but Peace’s instrumental was pretty impressive.

Reload – The second half of Experience begins with Raphi, Theory, and Sojourn spewing battle bars over gully boom bap that includes an ill Fat Joe vocal sample scratched into the hook that DJ Premier would be proud of. This was hard.

Corner Chronicles – Future Shock gets off their second and final group record on Experience. “Broken Life” found the four-man crew killing their flesh, but this time around they’re fully embracing it, looking to battle emcees and boasting of their lyrical prowess. Peace places a drab backdrop and an amateur beatbox underneath the underwhelming bars, and this one ends up being bearably boring.

Womans Touch – The missing apostrophe in the song title is not my doing, folks. Zane gets another solo joint, but this time around Jurny doesn’t interrupt. Peace pairs a cool suppressed melodic loop with clunky drums that create a unique groove, as Zane reps for the B-girls, calling out female emcees who rely heavily on sexualized rhymes to appeal, and boasts of her “tyrannosaurus raps” and “abnormal orals.” Another dope record and the Bahamadia vocal snippet on the hook was a nice added woman’s touch.

Poetry – Zane follows “Womans Touch” with a spoken word piece that also celebrates women. It’s no “Phenomenal Woman,” but I’m slightly obsessed with Zane’s voice, so I enjoy hearing her speak even when the output is mediocre. The barely audible music playing behind her sounds terrible and was completely unnecessary.

Wake Up Boy – Raphi’s aggressively speedy-paced rhyming style sounds so much better on this track than it did on “Stripes & Stars.” And Peace’s darkly cinematic instrumental backed by tribal-like drums is also a vast improvement from his work on Raphi’s first solo record of the evening. Along with “Experience,” this is my favorite record on the album.

Chance To Meet You – LPG follows up their great title track performance with a record that finds the duo recalling when they first met. Jurny and Theory spend the majority of the track stroking each other’s egos, showering the other with compliments and respect, and an occasional penis yank. The hook is overly wordy, and Peace’s production is kind of pedestrian, but I enjoyed LPG’s slick wordplay on this one.

Truth Hurts, Lies KillExperience ends with a moody soulful backdrop and Jurny ranting about the difference between imagining, dreaming, and thinking, before going into another tirade about choices (I disagree with both of his philosophies, by the way). Then he offers an apology to Tunnel Rats fans that may have been offended by something the TRs said on the album (like on “Experience” when he perpetuated the stereotype that all old Asian people can’t drive), before closing with an invitation for the listener to become a Christian by accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. And that’s a wrap.

On the closing track, “Truth Hurts, Lies Kill,” Jurny proclaims: “The Tunnel Rats, first and foremost, are ministers of the gospel. We fulfill the eternal mystery of Jesus Christ.” Since their inception, the Tunnel Rats were criticized, and their music brought under harsh scrutiny by church leaders, Christians, and other Christian rappers (*cough* T-Bone) who felt they were more focused on glorifying their rhyming skills than uplifting the name of Jesus and the gospel message. And after revisiting Experience these past few weeks, I’d say their naysayers’ critique was pretty accurate.

Except for the closing track and “Broken Life,” Experience finds the Tunnel Rats focused on spittin’ boastful raps and battle-ready rhymes, occasionally sprinkling in conscious couplets and touching on their spiritual beliefs, but always maintaining their moral integrity. Led by LPG, the TRs prove to be a pretty competent bunch of emcees that collectively spew moderately entertaining rhymes, but it’s Peace 586’s production that shines the brightest. Using a mixture of traditional and unorthodox boom-bap drum patterns, along with jazzy loops and eclectic string samples, the Bronx-bred rapper/producer puts together an impressive batch of East Coast-inspired instrumentals for his West Coast counterparts to sound off on, dually tantalizing the ears of the listeners in the process.

A lot of the Tunnel Rats’ later albums would be more gospel-centric and Bible-based, but that’s not the case with Experience. On the album’s title track, Dax reminisces about rap “battles where the stakes are the collection of your respect.” Experience exudes that pure and edgy hip-hop energy, and boy, do I miss it.


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