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”

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