Sunday, January 27, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 002: Born Allah - "Someone to Hate" b/w "Laid in Full"

Born Allah - "Someone to Hate" b/w "Laid in Full" (Ill Boogie Records, 2000)
For heads in the know, South Central Los Angeles’ Good Life Café is legendary for the open mic nights held there throughout the 90s. The Good Life open mics spawned such legends as the Freestyle Fellowship, Jurassic 5 (who formed at the Good Life out of the ashes of the Unity Committee and the Rebels of Rhythm), and Abstract Rude, but the attention these well-known Good Life alums have gotten over the last twenty years has obscured the diversity and talent of other artists associated with venue. The battle-centric environment of the café required participants to develop their own unique styles. Boring the crowd or biting another rapper’s style invariably led the audience to chant “Please pass the mic” until the rapper made way for the next on the schedule.[1] As a result, the Good Life fostered not only the tag-team old school reverence of Jurassic 5 and Freestyle Fellowship’s revolutionary flows, but also Ganjah K’s low budget G-funk and Volume 10’s unhinged gangsta posturing.[2] The audiences didn’t care what style of hip hop the performers made as long as it was fresh and original.

Born Allah reached the third and best phase of his career as a frequent presence at the Good Life. He first garnered attention as he made the rounds in the late 80s Los Angeles battle-rap circuit under the name MC Kool while still in high school. Toward the end of high school, his mom sent him to live with his dad in Bronx. His neighborhood was heavily Five Percenter, and he found knowledge of self and renamed himself Lord Mustafa and began shifting his lyrical focus from battling to political topics and the tenets of Five Percenter ideology. Soon after his enlightenment, he hooked up with a producer named King Born Allah (also a Five Percenter) with whom he formed the duo Movement Ex. Movement Ex was the first hip hop act signed directly to Columbia Records, the last major label to jump on the hip hop bandwagon (although it had previously distributed Def Jam Records). The group’s self-titled debut is a fine piece of post-Public Enemy political rap[3], but neither the beats nor Lord Mustafa’s rapping are really distinct on more than a few tracks. They recorded a second album, which Columbia shelved. Movement Ex subsequently split up, and Lord Mustafa moved back to Los Angeles, where he quickly fell in with the Good Life crowd.

Performing at the Good Life put Lord Mustafa back in touch with his roots as a battle rapper, and he needed a new moniker to reflect his resurgent battle rap style (in contrast to his Movement Ex style), as well as his knowledge of self. He settled on Born Allah. Unlike Freestyle Fellowship, Volume 10, Mystik Journeymen, Abstract Rude, and others, Born Allah didn’t manage to get an album out during the Good Life era (to this day, he still does not have a solo album out), although he did record an album’s worth of material for Ill Boogie Records in the late 90s. In spite of his lack of recorded material, he became a legend on the battle circuit, competing ably with Aceyalone, Myka 9, and other titanic battlers. He got further exposure as a frequent guest and freestyler on the Wake Up Show with Sway & King Tech throughout the second half of the 90s. Finally, in 2000, he finally put out two 12” singles, which together make up the entirety of his released output as a solo artist. The first, “Patience,” is a split with Grand Agent and DJ Revolution, but the second, “Someone to Hate” b/w “Laid in Full,” is entirely solo and is the best showcase for his skills on wax.

Like many of the artists who came out of the Good Life, Born Allah’s one solo 12” doesn’t seem beholden to any one region. The beats by M-Boogie sound classically New York, with hard drums and chopped samples, as do the cuts and scratches by DJ Revolution, while Born Allah’s rapping is very much in line with the Good Life battle style of the Freestyle Fellowship.[4] It’s a testament to Born Allah’s skill as a battle rapper that his songs and his Wake Up Show freestyles would be difficult to tell apart were it not for the presence of choruses and scratch hooks on the former. On “Someone to Hate” especially, it sounds like he had just heard some wack rappers and jumped straight into the booth to freestyle about how terrible they are. “Laid in Full” treads in similar subject matter, but the song is considerably less intense both in terms of the beat and Born Allah’s flow.

Ultimately though, it’s not difficult to figure out why Freestyle Fellowship, Abstract Rude, J5, and others managed to be so prolific during the 90s while Born Allah struggled to get records out. Those artists wrote exciting, original songs that practically beg listeners to return to their albums again and again. By contrast, while he recorded a lot of material that has gone unreleased, his one solo single showcases a very good battle rapper with relatively unexciting songwriting. On the Wake Up Show, Born Allah distinguished himself as one of the best freestylers around, but when it came to making his own material he struggled to keep listeners (and, more crucially, record label executives) engaged. He has mentioned in recent interviews promoting his current group, the Tabernacle MC’z, that he plans to release a compilation of his unreleased 90s material under the name The Lost Scrolls, and it will be very interesting to see if this material stands up to that of his Good Life colleagues. Until then, we only have “Someone to Hate” b/w “Paid in Full,” which is a valuable example of the diversity of styles fostered by the Good Life.

 "Someone to Hate"

"Laid in Full"

As a bonus, here is one of Born Allah's Wake Up Show freestyles from 1996

[1] Audiences at the Good Life were unrelenting in their “Please pass the mic” chants. Fat Joe showed up at the Good Life one night after releasing his very good first album Represent in 1993. Apparently overly cocky about his recent success, he got onstage, kicked a wack freestyle and broke the café’s no cursing rule, and was forced to relinquish the mic by an audience that didn’t care at all that he was the most famous rapper in the room.
[2] There’s so much great G-funk out there that doesn’t have the high budget gloss of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic or even MC Eiht’s We Come Strapped. Ganjah K and many others will eventually be highlighted in this series down the line.
[3] The album’s singles were titled “Freedom Got a Shotgun” and “United Snakes of America.” Both are good songs, but when listening to them it isn’t hard to see why likeminded groups like Public Enemy and X-Clan overshadowed Movement Ex.
[4] See P.E.A.C.E. and Self Jupiter’s verses on Freestyle Fellowship’s “Bullies of the Block”

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 001: Darc Mind - "Outside Looking In"

Darc Mind - "Outside Looking In" 12" (Loud Records, 1996)

Darc Mind’s experience in the record industry is one that is all too familiar to hip hop heads. After the Nielsen SoundScan was instituted in 1991, major labels were presented with accurate numbers showing that hip hop was one of the highest selling genres of music. During the resulting scramble to sign as many rappers as possible, quite a few labels took on more artists than they could hope to successfully promote, and many artists languished for years on unresponsive labels. A lot of these artists never had the broad appeal that would allow them to succeed in a major label system, and their careers ended before they had a chance to find an audience, releasing a single or two before getting dropped.

Loud Records never quite fit in with the major labels. Although their records were distributed by major label RCA, and they were beholden to sales requirements that RCA imposed on them, Loud never signed artists based on broad appeal. The label’s first and greatest success was with the Wu-Tang Clan, a relentlessly uncommercial group that became the most popular group in rap. Loud had similar successes with Mobb Deep, Xzibit, Big Pun, and others, but they had trouble hitting the same numbers with most of their artists throughout their original run from 1992-2002.

Darc Mind consists of rapper Kev-Roc and producer X-Ray (known formerly as G.M. Web D), who were both originally members of the Legion of D.U.M.E., a group that put out one 12” in 1994.[1] After splitting from the Legion, the duo signed with Loud in 1995 and immediately began work on their first album Symptomatic of a Greater Ill, which was to be released in 1997. They managed to get two songs from the album released on Loud. “Outside Looking In” (which was slated to be the last track on the album) was released as a radio promo 12” in 1996, and “Visions of Blur” (the first track on their album), made it onto the incredible soundtrack to the 1997 documentary Soul in the Hole.[2] Unfortunately, Loud’s financial problems were already becoming serious as early as 1997, and the label couldn’t afford to release or promote albums by some of the lesser-known artists on their roster. Symptomatic of a Greater Ill was shelved, and Darc Mind was dropped from the label. 

Unlike the rest of the songs on Symptomatic of a Greater Ill, which are produced by X-Ray[3], Darc Mind brought in an outside producer for their debut single. Nick Wiz is one of the great unheralded beatmakers of 90’s New York. While he doesn’t have a style as immediately distinct as contemporaries like Pete Rock, DJ Premier, or RZA, Wiz carved out his own niche with his minimal, menacing beats for artists such as the Cella Dwellas and Rakim. Wiz was incredibly prolific in the 90’s, and his beats were apparently cheap, as he’s been able to release three 60 track Cellar Sounds compilations collecting his work on obscure singles and remixes from that decade. For “Outside Looking In,” as with all of his beats, the focus is on the drums, which are classic boom bap, a simple combination of snare, high hat, and kick drum. Nick Wiz’s beats rarely include much instrumentation outside of drums, and “Outside Looking In” is no exception. Wiz employs samples of bass and vibraphone that stay very low in the mix during the verses, serving as accents for the drums. There’s also a bit of keyboard that’s barely audible outside of the chorus.

Nick Wiz productions are so understated that the songs he produces are generally only as good as the emcee; he can rarely anchor a song with a weak emcee by himself. Kev-Roc, who has an entrancing voice and flow that is capable of holding the listener’s attention even on acappelas, is the perfect kind of rapper for a Nick Wiz beat, and gives perhaps the best performance of his career on “Outside Looking In.” His voice has some resemblance to Rock from Heltah Skeltah, but his percussive flow is much more complex than Rock’s, erratically slipping in and out of double-time for bits and pieces of lines. His subject matter isn’t anything unique, focusing on wack rappers and his own lyrical abilities, but there is nothing in his lyrics that even resembles a cliché. In fact, his abstract phrasings make it difficult to figure out just what he’s talking about at times. For instance, when Kev-Roc raps “impress a punk, aggressive fuselage pressure deficit/ill verse of mine precurse a punk, I’ll push him off a precipice,” you can tell that he’s claiming his skills are greater than other rappers, but it’s hard to discern exactly what he means by “aggressive fuselage pressure deficit.” Kev-Roc makes this mouthful of multisyllabic rhyming sound effortless, further distracting from the occasional questionable or inscrutable lyrical choices. He was able to position himself as one of the most exciting new underground rappers of 1996 with just this one song[4], but getting dropped by Loud killed Darc Mind’s momentum and Kev-Roc retreated from the rap world for nearly a decade.

Anticon Records, best known for releasing experimental hip hop by artists such as Jel, Odd Nosdam, Doseone, and Buck 65, issued Symptomatic of a Greater Ill in 2006. During the nine years between getting dropped by Loud and the release of their album, Darc Mind was not an active concern for either member of the group. Kev-Roc disappeared from hip hop completely, finding work doing voiceovers for videogames and commercials. X-Ray joined MF Doom’s Monsta Island Czars group, taking the name King Caesar and splitting production duties with Doom on the group’s only album Escape from Monsta Island! He also released two compilations of solo tracks by M.I.C. members, and “U Da One” from Symptomatic of a Greater Ill was included on Monsta Mixes Vol. 1. X-Ray quit the Monsta Island Czars in 2004.

Darc Mind reunited for a few shows to promote the release of Symptomatic of a Greater Ill. These shows went well enough that they returned to the studio and recorded an EP, Soulfood, and an album, Bipolar, both of which were mostly ignored upon their release in 2006. Darc Mind has been quiet since.

[1] This 12”, “Son’s of Sam” b/w “Darc Mind Inc.,” came out on Darc Mind Records (clearly X-Ray and Kev-Roc were fans of the name long before they signed with Loud as a duo). It might get its own Spray Cans entry down the line.
[2] There was a weird stretch in the 90’s where hip hop artists seemed to be saving some of their best material for one-off soundtrack appearances. This made for a lot of soundtracks that were more memorable than the movies they were attached to, much like many of the Blaxploitation soundtracks of the 70’s.
[3] Of then ten songs X-Ray produced on Symptomatic of a Greater Ill, half are credited to X-Ray and half are credited to G.M. Web D. In a later interview, X-Ray said that he did this because he felt that some of the songs were produced in the style of his earlier G.M. Web D stuff, while others were in a newer style that he felt was more in line with his new name.
[4] The “Outside Looking In” single doesn’t have a proper b-side, forcing Darc Mind to make a statement with one song. The a-side features the dirty version and instrumental of the song, while the b-side had the clean version and acapella.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Review: A$AP Rocky - Long.Live.A$AP

Rating: A-
Three million dollars: That’s a lot of faith to put in a relatively untested new artist, but RCA/Sony took that gamble when they signed A$AP Rocky on the strength of his first two singles “Peso” and “Purple Swag.” Both songs were products of the YouTube era of music, where music videos and a carefully cultivated image are more important to a new artist’s success than at perhaps any point in the history of popular music. Rocky has been better than most at this, and both videos are hazy codeine-drenched slices of Rocky’s post-regional rap identity. He was able to build on this initial promise and attention with his debut mixtape LiveLoveA$AP, which was one of the most enjoyable mixtapes of 2011, even if it was more style than substance. This style, influenced just as much by Screw tapes and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony as by artists from his native Harlem, was so compelling that Rocky’s good but not great rapping and limited subject matter seemed like strengths rather than weaknesses. Flashy rhyming and conscious rapping didn’t have much of a home in the world of A$AP.

A$AP Rocky seemed like a poor fit for a major label. In spite of his marketable image and gift for hooks, LiveLoveA$AP was not a commercial affair. Cloud rap, best exemplified on the tape by Clams Casino’s staticky, hazy beats, and screwed choruses appeared likely to remain underground favorites rather than fodder for Top 40 radio. Rocky’s major label debut seemed destined to either be compromised by commercial crossover attempts or to be a pale recreation of his first mixtape. Months of delays and several missed release dates appeared to confirm suspicions of label interference. In the midst of these delays, the A$AP Mob, made up of Rocky and several of his cohorts of vastly varying skill levels, released their debut mixtape Lords Never Worry, a mess of low rent beats, inconsistent rapping, and generic songwriting. Dig past the disappointment and the watering down of the A$AP aesthetic, and it was clear that Rocky had jumped ahead by leaps and bounds as a rapper, especially on “Bath Salt,” the tape’s single. After two great verses by the Flatbush Zombies and a terrible verse by A$AP Ant, Rocky took the time to make it clear that his charisma and image are backed up by real skill as a rapper. Even still, Rocky’s impeccable quality and image control appeared to be faltering, and anticipation wavered for Long.Live.A$AP, Rocky’s major label debut.

In hindsight, it’s likely that Lords Never Worry was so weak because Rocky had to hand the reins over to his less talented crewmates as he was too busy working on his own album. Fears that RCA/Sony would tamper with the A$AP sound were similarly unfounded. On Long.Live.A$AP, Rocky has managed to both expand and beef up his sound without compromising what made it so appealing in the first place. Blatant crossover attempts are conspicuously absent, and so is the rest of the A$AP Mob (although A$AP Ferg, the most talented and interesting member besides Rocky, appears on the bonus track “Ghetto Symphony” and A$AP Ty Beats contributes additional production to “Suddenly”). There’s no chaff on this record, which comes in at a lean 49 minutes. The title track is a statement of renewed purpose over the most menacing beat on the record (and with a hook sung by Rocky in a charmingly amateurish falsetto), and it sets the tone for the rest of the album.[1]

The economy of the record and Rocky’s quality control also extend to the album’s guests, all of whom bring their best to this record. “PMW (All I Really Need)” continues the hot streak that Rocky has had collaborating with Schoolboy Q.[2] Santigold handles hook duties on “Hell,” and is one of the album’s best examples of how Rocky has managed to subvert the standard expectations for a major label hip hop record in the 2010s. Rather than getting a high profile R&B hook to anchor a crossover-attempt of a single, he got the lower profile Santigold to deliver a dancehall-inflected hook over one of the haziest and most heavily reverbed beats Clams Casino has ever made. The combination should be jarring and ineffective, but it somehow works perfectly. The dancehall vibe is furthered on “Wild for the Night,” produced by Skrillex. The Skrillex collaboration is the most head-scratching choice on the album, and it’s also the weakest and most out of place song here, breaking the overall vibe with shrill, overly caffeinated dubstep. Considering Skrillex’s past work, however, it’s far from a disaster, and Rocky has gotten Skrillex to rein in some of his worst impulses. It’s also probably the only place you’re likely to hear dubstep screeching and screwed vocals in the same place, which isn’t as weird of a combination in practice as it is on paper. Thankfully, “Wild for the Night” is sandwiched between two of the three songs that best illustrate Rocky’s accomplishments on Long.Live.A$AP. The presence of Drake and 2 Chainz on “Fuckin’ Problems” makes it the closest thing this album has to a potential radio single, and the guests are expertly deployed for maximum effect. 2 Chainz is allowed to do what he does best, yelling ignorant shit, on the hook, and Drake has one of the best verses of his inconsistent career.[3] “Fuckin’ Problems” is the best indication of how Rocky will do on RCA. He is unlikely to allow sales considerations to get in the way of his vision, and Top 40 radio-sanctioned guests like 2 Chainz and Drake are bent to fit the A$AP mold.

“1 Train,” which immediately follows “Wild for the Night,” initially appears to be an anomaly in Rocky’s carefully constructed lane. The song follows the “Triumph” model with its emphasis on lyricism, lack of a hook, and six-minute runtime. Its Wu-Tang-esque beat, courtesy of Hit-Boy, is the most distinctly New York-sounding beat Rocky has ever rapped over, a far cry from the regionally omnivorous style he’s known for. New York classicists Joey Bada$$ and Action Bronson support this view of the track, but the other guests hail from the South (Yelawolf, Big K.R.I.T.), Detroit (Danny Brown), and L.A. (Kendrick Lamar). Instead of being merely a New York revival track, “1 Train” is a showcase for a new hip hop underground for whom regional boundaries are no longer the stylistic straightjackets they once were.

The first lines on Long.Live.A$AP are “I thought I’d die in prison, expensive taste in women/Ain’t had no pot to piss in, now my kitchen full of dishes.” This look back at his past foreshadows the final track “Suddenly,” which is the culmination of everything A$AP Rocky has done up to this point while simultaneously pointing toward a bright future for the 24-year-old rapper. The beat, coproduced by Hector Delgado and Rocky himself (under the name LORD FLACKO), would be right at home on LiveLoveA$AP, but lyrically it’s the most assured and impressive song he’s ever done. Trying his hand at storytelling, which he proves surprisingly adept at, he traces his life from his childhood growing up in a crime-filled Harlem to his current success, placing himself in the lineage of Eazy-E, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and Busta Rhymes (from Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Brooklyn, respectively, illustrating the roots of his regionally omnivorous style). He follows this first verse with a bridge that serves as a mission statement delivered with an uncanny appropriation of the Bone Thugs flow:

I only got one vision, that’s for kids in every color, religion
That listen, that you gotta beat the system, stay the fuck out the prisons
They try to blind our vision, but we all got children and siblings
You my brother, you my kin, fuck the color of your skin

After the bridge, he takes one last short verse to show off just how far he’s come as a rapper with a dizzying display of effortlessly nimble rapping and internal rhyming. Rocky makes it clear on “Suddenly” and throughout the album that he believes his rapid ascent in the hip hop world was completely deserved, and Long.Live.A$AP is the statement that unquestionably positions him as one of the most exciting major hip hop artists of this era.


"1 Train" (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.)


[1] “Long.Live.A$AP” also has a great video, another A$AP trademark.
[2] This streak began with “Brand New Guy” from LiveLoveA$AP and “Hands on the Wheel” from Q’s excellent Habits & Contradictions.
[3] Kendrick Lamar’s verse is also great, but that goes without saying at this point.

Spray Cans Prelude

Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, compiled by guitarist Lenny Kaye and Elektra Records head Jac Holzman in 1972, is the most important multi-artist compilation album ever released. Collecting twenty-seven garage rock singles ranging from one hit wonders to completely forgotten regional acts, Nuggets was one of the primary influences of the earliest punk rockers and has spawned innumerable sequel and imitators. The vibrant reissue industry, best exemplified by labels like Light in the Attic, Numero Group, and Now-Again, would likely not exist in its current form were it not for the precedent set by Nuggets.

Among the many current reissue labels, Chicago’s Numero Group best exemplifies the spirit of Nuggets in the twenty-first century with their Eccentric Soul series. After releasing fourteen Eccentric Soul volumes spotlighting obscure regional soul labels, Numero Group released their magnum opus, Eccentric Soul Omnibus Volume 1, last year. This box set consists of forty-five 45RPM singles by assorted talent show winners, would-be superstars whose careers stalled, and other artists far from the soul canon. The box set is an indispensable collection of sonic artifacts that more than likely would have disappeared into the past without the label’s efforts.

Soul and rock have benefited most from this reissue boom, but one genre remains woefully unrepresented: hip hop. The hip hop canon was codified by The Source’s Top 100 Rap Albums list in 1998, causing a lot of smaller acts and artists outside of New York and L.A. to struggle for attention. The mainstream Southern hip hop boom of the early 2000s partially rectified this problem, but earlier regional acts still generally languished in obscurity. Recent acts such as A$AP Rocky, Joey Bada$$ and the Progressive Era, and SpaceGhostPurrp, along with his gigantic Raider Klan collective, have been taking bits and pieces of these earlier regional artists’ work and have been fashioning new sounds heavily rooted in those traditions. These old styles and sounds require more attention than ever in light of these new acts.

Hip hop deserves its own Nuggets, its own Eccentric Soul, and Spray Cans is a piecemeal attempt to provide the outer edges of this art form with the archive it deserves. Spray Cans will be a regular feature on this site spotlighting 12” singles by hip hop artists that warrant more attention: regional curiosities, forgotten underground artists, songs that got some radio play when they came out but haven’t found their way into the canon, well known rappers and producers slumming it on singles by unknowns, and so forth. This was an era where biting was strictly forbidden, regionalism reigned supreme, and hundreds if not thousands of great 12” records were being released every year. These pieces of hip hop history should not be left in the past. I’ll be focusing on the first twenty or so years of hip hop’s recorded history, although the featured singles will be predominantly from the nineties and I’ll probably occasionally highlight singles from the new millennium. Spray Cans Vol. 001 will be coming later this week.