Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Portal Gun Reloaded

Alright, I did a video about UG's highly awaited new album Portals already.  Watch that if you're interested in my thoughts on the album.  But since then, the vinyl version has dropped, as well another new bonus CD.  All told, that's three CDs, a record and a tape, and a lot of different material between them.  So, I thought I'd do my thing and break down all the versions and all their respective bonus tracks in a little, comprehensive overview.

So, first of all, let's take a quick look at the LP.  Yes, LP.  I could swear I read when this was announced that it was going to be an EP, but I guess not.  Musically, the LP is exactly same as the main CD [left], all fourteen tracks including the skits.  So that was a nice initial surprise, when I was expecting a little "best of" 6-tracker and got the whole album.  It's limited to 300 copies and as you can see above, it's a dope picture cover, and the wax is a very cool splatter-colored vinyl.  They also included a some cool bonus stickers and a second poster with the order, which was nice of them, as I mentioned in my video, the posters included with the CD were bent and folded into the packaging.  This time they're nice and crisp, albeit unsigned.  Obviously the record itself is the important thing, but I appreciate when a label gets all the little extra details right like that.

In addition to the CD and LP versions, there's a cassette version.  I showed that in the video, but in case you don't feel like watching it, I'll repeat that it's a cool purple tape.  Not only does that match the album artwork, but it's a cool reference to the original Cella Dwellas purple tape cassingle that lead directly to Raekwon's famous purple tape.  The label describes the cassette as limited on their store, but I'm not sure to how many copies exactly.  Anyway, the tape introduces the first of the bonus tracks, "We Not Playing (Revisited)" featuring Ill Bill of Non-Phixion.  It's called "Revisited" because it's a sequel to a song they did together on Ide's 2011 album, Rite of Passage.  It's not just a remix, though, it's an all new song with all new verses set to roughly the same instrumental.

Next up is the Instrumentals album (titled Portals Bonus Material on the CD itself).  Yes, this features all 14 instrumentals from the main Portals album.  That's nice to have in itself, but then it also has four more bonus tracks on it.  First up is "Wordplay" featuring Ide, an all new song that they regarded highly enough to release as an online single.  It's not one of UG's "mystical" songs, but it's pretty fresh.  Then "We Not Playing (Revisited)" is on here, too.  Next is "Scripts N Scrolls," a song which was originally going to be part of Portals (it says so on the 2011 label sampler where it was first heard), but later wound up on Ide's album Uncovered Remains.  And yes, that is another mystical-style track.  And finally, the last track is "You Already Snow (2012 Version)," a remix of the duet UG did with Celph Tilted on Portals.  Not really a favorite song of mine in either incarnation, but it's a solid remix, production-wise.

Another thing I mentioned in my video was an mp3-only bonus track that people who pre-ordered the original package got.  Well, if you missed it, don't feel bad, because it's now found a proper physical home on this new bonus CD, Portals: B-Sides and Remixes.  This is a full-length album of ten cuts, no instrumentals.  Four of these are remixes of Portals tracks, including my favorite song, "Super Gods," and "Mind Right" done by Nick Wiz himself.  There's also a remix of "Ready for War," which is cool, but the track doesn't really match the vocals, plus another version of "You Already Snow."  One song is "My Soldiers" an older track featuring Casual and Smif-N-Wessun's Steele that was originally featured on Ide's Addicted To the Vision album.  So four remixes and an older song means five all new songs, which is pretty exciting.  The first is "Intro," but it's not just some little 30 second instrumental, but a full song with vocals.  Then there's "Might & Magic Pt. 2."  "Might & Magic" was one of the best songs on Portals, and I think this one is even a little bit better.  "Close Your Eyes" was that mp3 exclusive, and it's another great one, even better than a lot of the songs on Portals.  The other two songs are cool, too.  There's "Space Ghost" and "Doc Strange" (hey, that's what I called him in my vid!) featuring DV Alias Khryst.  It would be going too far to say this bonus CD is better than the Portals album itself, but it gives it a good run for its money.

So pre-ordering Portals is a thing of the past, as all versions have landed, with the vinyl arriving on my doorstep just in time for Christmas.  But looking at their site, you can still buy either bundle or every individual item separately.  The tape, each bonus CD, just the t-shirt.  So you can pick and choose however you want.  I'd recommend the main album on whichever format floats your boat [just kidding; vinyl all the way!] and the B-Sides CD, or a bundle if you're really a fan.  I mean, if this is your thing.  I could totally get how UG's "mystic" stuff is probably too strange for most people who just want a relatable pop song or a tale of grim, urban reality they can take seriously.  But I love it; UG's got a unique talent and I already can't wait for his next album.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Ringing In the New Year With... Who Else?

It's 2017, and what better way to celebrate than writing some more about Father MC?  Today's record is a little 1995 12" called "Sexual" on Spoiled Brat Recordings, the same label that released Kool Moe Dee's final LL Cool J diss and some of Kool Keith's earliest solo material. This is one of the singles from the strange case of Father's dueling simultaneous albums This Is For the Players and Sexual Playground, which you can read about here.  And, uh, be wary of the comments to that post, it's a bit of a minefield.

This is the promo version of the 12", where the label clearly hasn't been completed.  Not only does it leave off the specific track listing (this 12" features main, dub, instrumental and accapella versions), but the full song title, which is actually "Sexual Playground."  I'd stayed away from this 12" for a long time because I was associating it with the terrible club remix, simply titled "Playground" on the Sexual Playground album.  But this version, the original that was featured on This Is For the Players, is actually pretty good.

A large part of why it works is a large part of why a lot of Father MC records work: excellent sample selection.  This song uses almost the entire instrumental of Patrice Rushen's "Feels So Real (Won't Let Go)."  It's a huge lift, so detract some points for originality.  But what can you say?  When you loop a great 80s record, the rap version's gotta sound pretty great, too.  And, as Father is famous for, he's got another strong R&B chorus.  Now the album credits this to Danny Blanco, but there is clearly a female singer doing a duet with the guy on the chorus.  I won't say they out-sing Rushen, but they sound pretty good and it definitely comes together as a catchy, slightly campy redux.

I was also happy to see Father MC return to his slightly more romantic roots here.  This was his first album(s) after his time with Uptown; and at that point, he'd dropped the MC from his name and went from doing love and heartbreak songs to bragging about being a pimp and a player.  Here, you see the MC is back, and he's back to rapping about relationships over funky soul grooves with R&B singers on the hooks.  Short of him going all the way back to his 1st Fleet Crew sound, this is what I think all us Father MC fans wanted from him, and he delivered.

Not that it's a perfect song.  These singers are nice, but they're no Mary J. Blige and Jodeci.  And I called the song romantic, but that was a bit generous as the lyrics feature Father rapping, "now who wants the body, the body, the sexual irresistible player, women slayer" as the girl invites us to, "come on and play in my sexual playground." So it's not exactly Jane Austen, but you can't begrudge Father all his fun.  It's admittedly a bit corny ("if you wanna please me, you gotta squeeze me," "so if you want some TLC, creep wit me into ecstasy"), and it's one of those records where if you already own the 80s original, the modern day rap version can feel kinda pointless (you know, like Coolio's "Fantastic Voyage" or The Firm's "Firm Biz," where the best parts of the song are just what they lift from the original sources as opposed to their additions).  But it's all upbeat, cheerful and he never says anything too embarrassing.  It actually holds up fairly well, and I think I appreciate it more now than I did in 1995.  Good times.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

King Don a.k.a. KD Ranks Interview

video
(A 2011 interview with New Jersey MC King Don a.k.a. KD Ranks by The Custodian of Records about his history and Trenton's Hip-Hop legacy. Youtube version is here.)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Hip-Hop Christmas Bonus

If you truly want to be an expert in Christmas rap - and why the Hell wouldn't you? - then you've got to at least dip your toe into the world of Kevin & Bean.  Who are Kevin and Bean?  Radio show hosts on a station called KROQ; that's pretty much all I know.  I guess they're like a morning "zoo crew" on a rock station or something?  We don't need to care that much.  The relevant part is that every year for decades, they've done Christmas compilation albums involving celebrities (the proceeds for which went to charity), and once in a very rare while, that includes rappers.  Rappers doing exclusive Christmas rap songs for their albums.

Now, half these songs are comedy skits and gags, and rap being a part of their albums actually dates back to their very first, rare vinyl release in 1990.  Specifically, "Rudolph the Red Nose Homeboy" by MC Frosty and Michael the Maintenance Man (the latter apparently being a recurring character on their radio show).  But that's a joke song by a fake rap artist.  There's more of that across these albums, and you probably have to be a fan of the radio show to really care about those.  So I'm just going to focus in on the few releases with actual, legit Hip-Hop artists.

One of the break-out songs from these zany albums came in 1996: "Christmastime In the LBC" by Snoop and Friends.  I'm sure you guys are all familiar with Death Row Records' infamous Christmas album with the pretty great Snoop Doggy Dogg Christmas song, "Santa Claus Goes Straight To the Ghetto."  That was the same year, and a lot of people conflate the two; but this is something completely different.  The idea is that it's a crazy, dark Christmas song by Snoop Dogg and the Death Row guys.  But it's not.  In fact it's Jimmy Kimmel (who was affiliated with KROQ at this point in time) doing an impression of him.  It's pretty funny, actually.  But yeah, it's a fake parody, so why bring it up here?  Because the success of that song got Snoop to hook up with Kevin & Bean for real the next year.  So in 1997, when Kevin & Bean released A Family Christmas In Your Ass, which compiled the best of their previously limited cassette-only albums onto a more mainstream CD, it also included new material like a a brand new, Snoop Christmas rap called "Twas the Night" with Nate Dogg.  It's a song in that it has original music and all, but unfortunately it's more of a spoken word skit, with him reading his own version of the "Night Before Christmas" poem.  But if you've seen it online or anything, yeah, this is where it's from.

Again, there's tons of these albums, and Kevin & Bean aren't rap guys, so there's not much of interest in most of them.  There's big name celebs like Jon Stewart, Kevin Smith and the South Park guys doing skits, and songs by big rock bands like My Chemical Romance and Coldplay, but for Hip-Hop, this really isn't our territory.  There are more joke songs, like Jimmy Kimmel doing an Eminem impression on "Stanley" and a funny fake Shaq song called "Holiday Heat."  And sometimes they'll throw on a previously released rap song, like Outkast's "Player's Ball."

But the next original recording by an actual Hip-Hop group doesn't arrive until 2001's Swallow My Eggnog.  Here, Cypress Hill turn up for "The Night Before Christmas," which yeah, you guessed it, is the same concept as Snoop and Nate's except it's full of marijuana references.  The production's cool, but overall it's pretty lame, full of predictable jokes like "I still got you ho ho hoes."  Of interest if you're a fan of the group, though.

Afroman also does a song on Swallow My Eggnog, and no it's not one from his Jobe Bells Christmas album.  It's an original one called "Afroman's Christmas Joint."  It's pretty short, but he's rapping over a beat with heavy sleigh bells on it.  I don't really rate Afroman, but it's about on par with anything else he's done.

Finally, we come to the most legit and obscure one.  2006's Super Christmas.  It's called "Rockin' You," and it's an all new, original and exclusive song by The Jurassic 5!  It's short, but no it's not a skit; it's a legit full song with some really tight production, cuts and each MC has a verse.  Admittedly, it's all about the radio show, which really limits its outside appeal.  It's like those promo songs that groups like The Bizzie Boyz and MC Mitchski would record for Red Alert or Chuck Chillout, and it's as good as those were, except it's for Kevin & Bean.  Honestly, it's better than some official Jurassic 5 12"s.

So that's it.  If you're the sort of fan who's prepared to pursue Christmas rap to the ends of the Earth, this is a stop you can't miss.  Some of the original cassettes are hard to find, but the CDs with the authentic MCs on 'em are all cheap and easy if you want 'em.  They're good stocking stuffers for the Hip-Hop head who thinks he has everything, the overlooked odds and ends of Christmas rap.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Mr. Complex Week, Day 5: Into the 2000s

Let's end Mr. Complex Week with a festive, holiday potpourri!  Plex released a bunch of 12"s in the coming years, continuing his trend of jumping from one label to another.  He dropped a whopping five in 2000, although that includes Japanese remixes and tour-exclusive split 12"s. But his next, official domestic release was "Do It Up" on Blindside/ Fat Beats.

This record's entirely recorded and produced in London by Beyond Three, a trio of UK producers.  So this is his British single.  The A-side's from a pretty great underground compilation called Wide Angles, and just has Complex freestyling over a cool, subtle beat.  The concept's just your basic, I'm dope; you're wack with lots of silly similes and wordplay: "can you relate, like your mother's sister's kid?"  It's just an excuse for Plex's fun style and personality to shine through, and it works.  So I'm not sure it needed to be made into a single, but it's a great introduction to Complex on the compilation.

The B-side is a remix of "Visualize," which just begs the question: why are we still messing with that in 2000? It's alright, kind of a smoother take with a laid back piano loop and without Apani's ad-libs.  But I basically just listened to it once, said that's interesting, and never played it again.  I guess this is just his "Bust a Move," so he can't escape it.  Maybe after doing it live in every show, he was sick of that "wah wah" beat, or maybe Beyond Three just really wanted to take a crack at it.  But why ever it's here, it makes for a pretty forgettable single.

Speaking of forgettable singles, next we have "Rhapsody," which is really a pun title for a song about "Rap City."  Not the BET show, but a city where every street and corner is named after a rapper, "you take the Hip-Hop Road, which is connected to the Bambaataa Bridge to Kool Herc Highway," and so on.  You know, another entry in that trend of songs like "Labels" and "Pink Cookies," which yes, was fully played out in 2000.  The B-side, "Everybody Everywhere," looks like it's going to be an underground cipher-style posse cut, because it features Punch & Words, L-Fudge and Invincible.  But it's really a concept song where he narrates a little story of his everyday life walking around town, and the people he runs into are voiced by the guest MCs.  It's kinda boring actually.

But don't give up on the man, because his next single on Fat Beats, 2002's "Desire" is a winner.  Three hot tracks: "Desire," "Bomb Threats" and "It's Working," which work in large part because he doesn't forget the music in favor of being clever.  Punchlines still abound, of course, but it's a funkier, groovier experience overall.  "Desire" says it features Clip of BrassMunk, a Canadian group that was briefly on Battle Axe Records.  But like so many Complex collaborations, it's just him rapping, and Clip's just doing some of the hook.  ...Which is fine with me; the song didn't need anybody else.  And L-Fudge turns up again on "It's Working," which is a fun throwback to super old school 1980-style records.

The pendulum swings in the opposite direction for our final 12", 2003's "Glue" featuring Biz Markie.  It's a crazy, off-beat love song where Biz doesn't rap, just sings the hook in his classic, off-key "Just a Friend" way.  This beat doesn't swing like "Just a Friend," though, and the lyrics get a little too jokey, like, "I got your name tattooed on the side of my dick, and when you first read it, you're like who's this Merildow[sp?] chick?  I said hold up a minute, let me stiffen it.  Then it read, 'to my boo with lots of love, for infinite'."  Overall, it feels like the concept is there, this should've been great; but it just doesn't quite come together.

The B-side is a jokey sex song called "Scrape Your Back Out" with - once again - L-Fudge.  It just struck me as rather juvenile and I've only ever listened to it once or twice.  I mean, I get that there's a tradition for sex gag records, and if you're in the mood for that, you could do worse.  But in the end, this whole 12" feels like a novelty record rather than a genuine contender, which is disappointing.

Complex has only put out one more 12" to date, 2005's "Calm Down" on Penalty Records.  It features Vast Aire, and I'll probably pick it up one day, just to round out my collection.  Plus, most of Complex's records can be found super cheap today and he's always at least interesting.  His best records - like "Why Don't Cha" and "Gitcha Gitcha Gitcha" - are a kick, and even his worst are decent.  Out of day's grouping, though, "Desire" is definitely the one I'd recommend, but I've enjoyed going back to revisit his (almost) whole body of work on vinyl.  Even 20+ years later, Complex is always a good time.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mr. Complex Week, Day 4: Rawkus and Finally Pharoahe Monch!

We roll into 1999, and we reach an even higher point with Mr. Complex now coming out on Rawkus Records.  This is his only record with them (not counting guest appearances on other projects), which makes sense as Rawkus was making a lot of individual 12" deals with artists at the time.  But this was right at the label's peak with Soundbombing II, "B-Boy Document," the Mos Def solo album, "Simon Sez," etc.  And all those indie artists with 12"s on the label were a big deal, and now that included Mr. Complex.  This was gonna put him on a lot more peoples' radars.

And... it's alright. A lot of the punchlines are predictable ("I'm not jokin'; I'm not Chris Tucker, mother____"), and this is like the first Mr. Complex record not to have tight DJ scratches on the chorus.  Still, it's a fairly funky track, especially on the hook, when an extra, really fresh horn sample is brought in.

But the biggest news here is that finally, after all these years and 12"s that hinted at it, we've actually got a duet with Pharoahe Monch on the B-side!  Like, seriously, when I first bought this record, I didn't believe it.  Because I didn't buy it after hearing it on the radio or a mixtape or something.  Day one there was a new Mr. Complex record out, I had to have it. And when I saw that on the B-side, I said to myself, "he's not fucking on here."  At least not as anything more than more "ambiance" or whatever.  But no, he's actually on here.  Rapping with Mr. Complex, like a proper duet.  In fact, the first verse is a really intricate word-for-word interplay.  Then they each take a solo verse for the rest of the song.  I don't know if Rawkus said, "if we're gonna do this record, Mr. Complex, you've gotta stop the teasing," or if the stars just finally aligned.  I'm sure the fact that they were finally labelmates - remember, Monch launched his solo career through Rawkus - helped facilitate matters.

But in the end, who cares why it's here?  What's important is that it's terrific!  It's called "Gitcha Gitcha Gitcha" and lives up to the four years of anticipation for a Monch/ Complex duet.  Both tracks are produced by Lee Stone, but everything clicks on this one, with a smooth, fumping bassline underneath squealing horns as both MCs really bring their A-games with captivating flows; and their voices really compliment each other.  It just feels crazy that they waited this long to do a song together.

I have no idea with "Gitcha Gitcha Gitcha" was relegated to the B-side.  "Stabbin' You" sounds like something older or just quickly slapped together.  But hey, Hip-Hop has a long-standing tradition of "B-side wins again," so why not?  Both tracks are fully loaded with Clean, Dirty, Instrumental and Acapella versions, and it comes in a cool picture cover.  So definitely one for the crates, and at least half of which deserves to be in a greatest hits comp, though oddly only the A-side wound up on The Complex Catalog compilation album.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Mr. Complex Week, Day 3: He Rocks the Mic Right

So Mr. Complex's stint with Raw Shack was over after that one single, and he came back on his own label, Core Records, but this time with a little help from Seven Heads Entertainment.  Now we've got a fancy picture cover and you could see Mr. Complex was on the rise.  1998 was a big year, it brought us not only this record, but a split 12" with Old World Disorder on Mary Joy and the first single with his super-group, Polyrhythm Addicts., which was another smash underground success.  Mr. Complex was a name to pay attention to now, and so I like that he still kept things grounded here.  He didn't go out and try to wrangle the highest profile guest star he can afford, and he didn't try to assemble the largest posse cut the streets have ever seen.  He just made a simple Mr. Complex record for people who like Mr. Complex records.

We start out with "Imakillit," and its title tells yo all you need to know about the song's concept.  He's just gonna kick some slick written freestyle rhymes for the fun of it.  He's got DJ Crossphader providing some really nice cuts to a Richard Pryor vocal sample for the hook, and it all takes place of a chunky, head-nodding piano sample.  It reminds me of those classic, late 80s smooth freestyle joints like "The Rhythm," "We Rock the Mic Right" or even "Smooth Operator," but definitely updated with Mr. Complex's playful, word-twisting style.

Then you've got the instrumental, which lets you hear a little more of the stand-up routine they made their hook out of, and a Live@TheCooler version, which is just what it claims to be.  Fellow addict Apani B can be heard as the audience hypeman, but she doesn't kick a verse or anything.  It's the same instrumental and verses, and it fades out before the song is over, so it's more of an interesting, bonus curiosity piece than anything essential.  But hey, I'll take it.

Next up is something a little different for Mr. Complex; it's not an upbeat freestyle joint, although his trademark sense of humor and wordplay definitely come through.  I guess it's closer to "Visualize," but it's not like that song either.  It slows things down with a really moody sample that Abstract Tribe Unique used on their first EP.  The concept sounds like a typical rap song idea, he's going to rap three verses about people who've fronted on him; but each one has a very different tone, which is what makes it odd.  The middle verse sounds like what you'd expect: "I don't have it to get everybody in free.  It's only five dollars.  You don't have it?  Well here's three; so all you have to do is two.  Oh, you want me to pick you up, too?  I-ight, 'round eight or a quarter to."

But then listen to how it starts out, "Many years ago, my sister Candy ran in cryin', she said' 'I've been hit with a rock,' shocked, 'stop lyin'.'  Door out I'm flying."  It's like, whoa, what kinda heavy shit is he laying on us?  The point of that verse, I guess, is that he didn't front when it came to being a big brother; but it's a dark way to start a Mr. Complex song.  And then the third verse takes it in the opposite direction, getting silly, almost like Special Ed's "On a Mission:" "We lined up for the bus and intertwined like a braid. In the cut we laid, then came the parade. No, the raid.  And yo, it stayed on the bus with mad men throwing eggs... I said I know a little karate, and plus I got a blade.  Just then they got the gun.  You should've seen my homeboy Lemonade run."  It's so strangely all over the place, but the music does the Herculean task of holding it all together so it kinda works.  Oh, and if you want your regular Organized Konfusion connection this song credits "additional chorus and ambiance" to Pharoahe Monche.  Again of course, no verse.

You also get the instrumental of that, and a third song, which I'd call more of a throwaway bonus cut, titled "I Think I Wanna Sing."  Do you remember Dana Dane's "Makes Me Wanna Sing?"  It's like that, where Dane, or in this case Complex, gets caught up in the music and decides to sing... terribly.  Dana Dane made the song work by having the group 4 Play do most of the actual singing until the end.  Complex makes it work by having the song only last for a minute and a half and let's the sample do most of the driving.  So it's okay, but kind of just a joke song.

I have a demo tape of this one, too, by the way.  Unlike the "I'm Rhymin'" tape from Day 1, though, this contains only the two songs written on the label.  So no exclusive, long lost B-sides or remixes or anything; it doesn't even have the third song from the 12".  It's just a little extra sliver of Mr. Complex history.  Overall, this is a good record that still holds up.  You know, it's no classic; Illmatic and "The Symphony" can sleep peacefully at night.  But if you like rap and want something to listen to that you'll enjoy, this is it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Mr. Complex Week, Day 2: Gettin' Visual Wit It

Okay, today's the day I was kind of dreading in Mr. Complex Week, the one that made me think: maybe I'll just write about his first record and leave it at that.  Why?  Because now we're up to his second record, 1997's "Visualize."  And is it wack?  No.  Do I dislike it?  No, it's just played out.  I heard it about a million bajillion times back in '97-'98 and I don't feel like I need to hear it anymore.  But it's been ages and due for a reevaluation, so we're doin' it.

"I'm Rhymin'" got him attention, but "Visualize" is the record that really put him over the top.  For just this one record, Complex was on J-Live's label (as in he was signed to it, didn't own it), Raw Shack Productions.  It was featured on every mixtape ever that year, even the Beat Junkies mix that was legit pressed and sold in mainstream stores, and it was included on the Underground Airplay tapes.  Everybody was quoting the damn thing; I remember somebody I was tape trading with (Millennials, don't ask) had the "three roaches" line as his email signature.  If  you were in New York in the 90s, you surely knew when every single radio in the city was either repeating "who dat, who dat, who dat, who dat, whoooooo" or that Little Orphan Annie sample from "Hard Knock Life" 24/7 and you felt like you just couldn't escape it.  Well, this was like that but for underground heads.  If Mr. Complex was Will Smith, this would be his "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It."  The Fresh Prince was a genuinely talented and appealing MC, but you want "Touch of Jazz" or "Brand New Funk," not that crossover joint.

It's hardly Mr. Complex's fault.  "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" is a genuinely inferior pop song designed to appeal to dull masses.  Complex just made a good song that the people responded to.  And you couldn't blame them.  Mr. Complex has a great, friendly voice and comes up with genuinely appealing rhymes and wordplay.  He's the MC you just want to sit and hang out with.  And on "Visualize," he combined that with Slick Rick-style storytelling in a way that just worked.  It was one of those rap songs you just wanted to memorize.

And I have to say, it wasn't irritating like I was expecting it to be to revisit this.  I immediately got right back into it, and that simplistic, overbearing but funky "whomp whomp" sample is still catchy.  This is where Complex first linked up with DJ Spinna, who he'd later form Polyrhythm Addicts with.  In fact, Apani's on here as well, though she just provides ad-libs, no actual verse.  And the hook features some slick cuts by DJ KO.  It's all really undeniably well crafted; but after this revisit, I don't think I'll break it out for another ten years.

What I probably will replay more often is the B-side, which I'd totally forgotten.  Another Spinna track, this one's got some really nice horns and a cool, smooth track with classic drums and KO cutting up a classic Steady B record.  The label promises the song is "featuring Pharoahe Monch," but like we just saw with Little Shawn, it's another fake-out, with no actual contribution by Monch, and they're just crediting a vocal sample (not even a whole word) in the hook.  Fortunately, the song doesn't need him, and Complex is more than capable to carry the song on his own.  He sounds great over this track.  Still a bit of a rip-off, but the song is really dope and my favorite so far.  But let's see what's still ahead.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Mr. Complex Week, Day 1: Rhymin' About Nothin'

This might be a "Week" you weren't expecting.  I was just going through my records looking for something that might be good to write about, and I kind of surprised myself stumbling on all these Mr. Complex records.  I remember being impressed with him back in the day and excited as each new 12" dropped.  I was a straight up fan.  But I haven't thought about this material in years.  I literally haven't spun this wax in decades.  But it's not because I now think he's wack or anything.  I remember he had a video a year or two ago of some new music, and he hadn't fallen off.  But these old records just haven't even crossed my mind in ages.  So I'm gonna spend the next week revisiting his vintage material.

If you don't remember, or you're younger and missed it, Mr. Complex is a Queens MC who started out by virtue of being friends with Organized Konfusion.  He was an Unsigned Hype artist in an early '95 issue of The Source (intriguingly, the write-up of his demo mentions an unreleased song called "Standin' On a Verb") and with that and a couple radio appearances under his belt, he pressed up his debut 12" on his own label, Corecords: 1995's "I'm Rhymin'."  It was the kind of indie record I couldn't find locally but was able to order from an old Point Blank catalog (remember them?).  It got a lot of underground coverage and even peaked into the mainstream mags.  It was all favorable and you could feel the excitement around this new cat.

Mr. Complex's style was like rapping for rapping's sake.  I don't know if he'd be keen on the label, but you could definitely file him under backpacker.  He starts off one of the songs on this 12" by saying, "this song right here's about nothin'. But it's the way that I'm saying nothin' which makes it somethin'."  So that should give you some idea.  Mainstream audiences looking for an emotional connection to their music may not find a lot of appeal to this 12", but rap nerds were in hog heaven.

The song "I'm Rhymin'" has a fun and easy concept to latch onto.  As the hook goes, "I'm rhymin' the same words, same words."  And that's the idea.  He rhymes the same words but with alternate meanings, like, "My name is Complex, I’m very complex. I have a complex, plus I’m comp. Don’t flex."  It's fun. It's got kind of a cool, staccato piano beat produced by Pharoahe Monch, though the recording has a really low-fi feel, almost like it's a radio freestyle rather than a properly recorded song.  I mean, not quite that extreme, but along those lines.  I wouldn't have minded a fresher record of this.  The acapella (as well as the instrumental) is on here, so it would be easy for anyone to remix.

Anyway, next up is "Very Complex Skit," which is just a snippet of a Stretch & Bobbito show where they name drop Mr. Complex.

Next up is "Against the Grain," produced by Prince Po.  This one doesn't sound so raw; it's a really funky, percussion-heavy track, with Complex just flexing wordplay like "oh what a relief it is when I get bus - ness, like a toy store the day before Christmas. Miss, ask Mister, brother man ask sister how I twist her, or dissed her, it's a lyrical fist-icuff when I puff mics.  I straighten out dykes with my T-square; I swear like a sailor. You get hemmed up and pressed up like permanent press but, uh, I'm not a tailor."  It's got a nice Kool G Rap vocal sample from "Death Wish" for the hook.

Finally, there's "Feel Me," which has the most flush instrumental, produced by somebody credited as... Godlike Yabach UAC of Peace of Mind.  Whoever the heck that is.  It's a real head-nodder, though, and in 2016, probably the one that actually holds up the best.  This one had plenty of punchlines, too; but the music competes more with the rhymes, whereas on the other two songs, it feels like they hang more on the novelty of his lyrics.  And the punchlines don't age was well as the flows and rhythms.  The instrumental for this and "Against the Grain" are on here, too, making for a pretty loaded 12" single all told.

I've also got this demo tape of his first single.  It only lists the two songs, but it's actually a complete rip of the 12", instrumentals, acapellas and all.  The side break even comes mid-song and resumes on the flip, which is annoying.  And if you listen through the blank space at the end, you hear a brief clip of an Xzibit song, so it's a nit of a half-assed demo, with nothing exclusive on it, but still kind of a nice, tiny piece of history to have.  So I've enjoyed revisiting this one; it's still fresh.  And it's not rare, so if you want it, it can be found cheap (the 12", I mean, not the tape).  But I'm looking forward to moving to his more polished efforts after this one.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Little Shawn Featuring Biggie But Not Big Daddy Kane

I wrote a while ago about Little Shawn's lesser known first record, but something about his last record fascinates me.  This one's not rare or obscure; it's probably actually his best known record.  But there's just so many curious little details about this record, there's no way I wasn't going to cover it sooner or later, so here we go.  1995's "Dom Perignon" on MCA Records.

Like I said, it's kind of his biggest hit (although "Hickeys On Your Chest" may've charted higher), so why is it his last record?  Who quits a musical career at its peak?  Well, technically he didn't.  He changed his name to Shawn Pen (oof, that pun!) and has continued to ghostwrite and do guest verses.  But still, why not follow up "Dom Perignon?"  The label mentions that the "[o]riginal version appears on the forthcoming Little Shawn album," so clearly the intention was there.  That late in the game, I wonder if it wasn't recorded and if there aren't maybe even promo tapes or something floating around out there of a lost Little Shawn album #2.

It may've had something to do with his, er, business outside of the musical industry.  If you read his bio on discogs, wikipedia, etc, they all point out the fact that he did a five-year bid from 1998-2003 for drug trafficking.  Of course, 1998's a good three years after 1995, but how long had he been caught up with that, and how much did it conflict with his music career?  That could explain it.  After all, me being the hip-hop nerd I've always been, I already had Shawn's Voice In the Mirror album and was into a lot of the stuff he wrote and appeared on.  But this time around the video was getting rotation and my friends were even talking about this single.  It was also included on the New York Undercover soundtrack, a reasonably successful Fox show at the time.  If you want to talk about "buzz," this record had it.

Here's another interesting thing you'll read in those bios: they all mention "'Dom Perignon' featuring The Notorious B.I.G." When I first saw that I thought maybe there was a remix I didn't know about.  I grew up with the cassingle, where they curiously abbreviate his name to Lil' Shawn[right] and didn't pick up the 12" until a couple of years ago when I got it cheap with a bunch of other stuff.  But no, there's nothing on the 12" that's not on the cassette except an Instrumental and Acappella version.  The only thing this has to do with Biggie is that it has a vocal sample of him on the hook.  It's a line from "Party & Bullshit," where he says, "can't we just all get along, so I can put hickies on her chest like Little Shawn? Get her pissy drunk off of Dom Pérignon, and it's on, and I'm gone."  They chop it so he's saying, "get her pissy drunk off of Dom Pérignon, so I can put hickies on her chest like Little Shawn?" It's kind of clever, and of course Shawn had to point out that his name and record had been used as a line by Biggie when he was at the pinnacle of success.  He didn't actually appear and record anything for the record, though they did get him to appear in the video, which apparently convinced a lot of people that he performed the hook.  Every listing on Youtube etc says the song is featuring Biggie, even playing him up more than Shawn.  But yeah, nobody who remembers "Party & Bullshit" should be fooled.

Another interesting thing about this record is the beat.  It makes for a great summertime record, produced by Red Hot Lover Tone just his Trackmasterz were blowing up.  That's cool and all, but a year before this came out, a New Jersey rapper on the rise named Milkbone had a substantial debut with "Keep It Real."  He followed that up in 1995 with a single called "Where'z da Party At?" produced by Kay Gee of Naughty By Nature, which flipped the exact same Kool & the Gang sample pretty much the exact same way, and I think both records would've blown up more if the other hadn't come out and split audiences.  Later that year, Coolio would also use it for his single, "Too Hot," but by then it was played out.  Typical Coolio.

This single has a B-side, by the way, called "Check It Out Y'all" (it's on the cassette, too), and that instrumental is the real reason DJs and fans should still be adding this record to their crates.  It's produced by Easy Moe Bee and it's another smooth, R&B-influenced cut (and yes, the 12" has an instrumental for this one, too).  Little Shawn's career was dovetailing nicely with the whole Bad Boy/ R&B explosion before he dropped out.  But it's just so tight, and with some nice scratching even.  It helps that the full song is more about Shawn's freestyling than some kind of sappy relationship rap.

Overall, Shawn's rhymes are interesting here, though never really stand-out impressive.  He's always been versatile, but versatility in Hip-Hop typically equates to "Master of None."  His topics here blend in and out of girls, rhyme skills and shooting people all in the same verse: "I won't run; I'm coming with a mask and gun. I'm blasting son.  I'm with ya girlfriend and it's on; 'cause I got her pissy drunk off the Dom."  Like, that's an abrupt transition, but okay.  He came a little harder on a compilation years later after he changed his name to Shawn Pen, where he's fully into a crime narrative, and that was more impressive.  It may've been why he changed his name, because he was worried nobody would buy gritty street raps from the Voice In the Mirror kid, because this was years before Rick Ross tested the possibility of being a simultaneous gangster rapper/ real life police officer.  But I think he already un-pigeon holed himself enough with this single.

So yeah, I like this one.  Always have, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that.  So if you missed it, check it out.  Oh, and the B-side features a vocal sample for a hook, too.  It's Big Daddy Kane from "Just Rhymin' Wit Biz" saying "check it out y'all; keep on."  But for some reason nobody describes that one as "featuring Big Daddy Kane."  Is consistency too much to ask?  😛

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanking MC Sundance

Yo, here's a nice underrated little record that nobody seems to talk about.  "America's Gonna Fall" by MC Sundance, released by Incognito Records in 1991.  Now, as far as I've been able to find, this is the only release by that label, and it's also MC Sundance's only record, but this is not some random rap nobody.  First clue?  The label's in The Bronx.  Second clue, it's produced by Jazzy Jay.  Yes, this is the MC Sundance from The Jazzy Five (and no connection to the MC Sundance from the Poison Clan skit).  He actually left the group to go solo before their hit record, "Jazzy Sensation," though, so you've only heard him on vintage, live recordings if you've heard him at all.  But recordings of him are out there if you follow those old school tapes.  I'm sure if you ask Troy Smith nicely, he'll point you in the right direction.  😎

But no that wasn't a typo; this record is from 1991, not 1981.  You might be worried, then, that this is going to be some dance music disaster or something, but it is produced by Jay, so have a little faith.   So, what's it like?  Surprising!

The title "America's Gonna Fall" gives you a hint, but this is a seriously heavy, revolutionary record.   Youth today look at old school rap like kiddie stuff, but who's making songs like this currently?  Not many.  I mean, part of this record is on some basic, anti-racism stuff, which is great but pretty obvious, and he starts out with some simple rhymes about "I stomp sucker MCs who riff, they'll get dissed and dismissed.  I don't smoke; I don't sniff."  But then it goes... further.  He starts rhyming about standing up against white supremacy, and he shouts, "when the revolution starts, the devils will get fucked up!"  Yeah man, now we're talking!  But then he starts getting controversial, advocating for segregation: "to avoid a war, I'm raw, hardcore.  We must separate; it's the law.  Couples get divorced of course when they don't get along.  Separate but equal?  Huh, I don't think it's wrong."  I mean, they had to know this was never going to get on Yo! MTV Raps by the time he started getting into the "AIDS was man-made" stuff.  Maybe that's what the name Incognito Records was all about.

He concludes with, "the strongest race of the human race, face to face with the snakes, we have to leave this place.  Stand up tall, the final call, rock rock y'all, America's gonna fall!"  But thankfully he didn't leave, because he turned out to be a real American hero.  And that's not me being glib.  Check out this 2009 NY Times article about him, "Leon Heyward[Sundance] emerged from the subway just as the second plane struck, piercing the south tower. As others fled, he helped evacuate disabled employees from 42 Broadway, where he worked for the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, and when the first tower fell, he was caught in the churning plume of contaminated dust and smoke."  He eventually died of lymphoma caught while rescuing people during the 9/11 terrorist attack.  This man seriously deserves more recognition than he's been getting.

But getting back to the record, it sounds great.  The production is perfectly simple, with Jazzy Jay juggling some killer James Brown/ JBs samples: "Funky Drummer" drums and a super funky bassline.  Then he cuts up a subtle but fresh vocal sample for the chorus, it sounds like it was literally just recorded with two turntables and a microphone.

There's also a B-side called "Dance To the Groove," which is exactly the kind of song you'd expect from the title.  It's produced by Jazzy Jay again, though, so expect some more raw, funky samples.  Naturally, it's more upbeat with Sundance getting a little freer and lively, though still slipping in some positive messages under the radar as Jazzy Jay blends back and forth between a couple fresh sample sets.  Sometimes it's the same groove as Biz Markie's "Albee Square Mall," then it shifts into a classic disco sound, or a harder hip-hop riff, or a chunky piano loop, all over "Apache" drums with some nice, subtle scratches by Jay.

No picture cover, nothing fancy, just two hot and very different tracks, with both instrumentals included as well.  This record wasn't made for the radio, but it definitely shouldn't be as slept-on as it is.  So if you're looking to add something to your crates this holiday weekend, this one's not that rare or pricey.  And Thanksgiving seems like an appropriate time to give Sundance some props.