Saturday, February 16, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 004: 1st Down - "A Day Wit the Homiez" b/w "Front Street"

1st Down - "A Day Wit the Homiez" b/w "Front Street" (Payday Records, 1995)
This month is the seventh annual Dilla month, in which fans of the late J Dilla celebrate his contributions to hip hop in remembrance of his premature death at the age of 33 on February 10, 2006. This month has seen the release of Music from the Lost Scrolls Vol. 1, an EP of four unreleased tracks, and the announcement of The Diary, an unreleased album showcasing Dilla’s (still mostly underappreciated) skills as a rapper. The purpose of this feature is to look back at overlooked 12” singles from the past, so along with being excited that his estate seems to be in much better hands than it was previously (the debacle surrounding The Rebirth of Detroit best illustrates the problems that Dilla’s posthumous catalog has had), we should look back to the pre-Dilla days, before his work with De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Pharcyde, when James Yancey was known as Jay Dee.

After producing one song on Da’ Enna C’s Throw Ya Hands in the Air 12” in 1994, Jay Dee made his first real mark the next year with the first and only single released by his original pre-Slum Village group 1st Down. While Jay Dee made his rap debut with Slum Village when their Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1) bootleg began circulating among in the know hip hop heads in 1997, he served strictly as producer in 1st Down, with underrated Detroit emcee Phat Kat holding down the mic. 1st Down’s early songs were so promising that Payday Records, home of Showbiz & A.G., Jeru the Damaja, and other New York legends, signed them and they became the first Detroit artists on the label. 

Lyrically, the two songs on the 1st Down 12” complement each other quite nicely. The A-Side, “A Day Wit the Homiez,” has Phat Kat doing an “It Was a Good Day”-type thing (but without the lingering threat of violence that hangs around the background of the Ice Cube hit), rapping about how much fun he has chilling with his homies, going to the club, and driving around. Phat Kat has never really gotten the credit he deserves as a storyteller, filling “A Day Wit the Homiez” with lots of evocative little details, like saving up change to help other people get into the club. By contrast, the B-Side “Front Street” calls out all of the wack rappers fronting like they’re Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg when they’re really just studio gangstas. The subject matter on “Front Street” is nothing new, but Phat Kat’s energy level and entertaining lyrics push it outside the realm of clich√©.

Phat Kat is good rapper, but it’s unlikely that the songs would have much staying power without Jay Dee’s production. In the year following the 1st Down 12”, Jay Dee recorded “Stakes is High” with De La Soul, worked on seven of the songs on the Pharcyde’s sophomore album Labcabincalifornia (including the immortal “Runnin’” and “Drop”), formed the Ummah with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad and began work on the fourth A Tribe Called Quest Record, and recorded the demos that made up Slum Village’s Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1). Jay Dee’s 1996 is one of the most impressive runs of any producer in the history of hip hop, and the songs on 1st Down’s lone single are valuable for showing the early Jay Dee style exhibited on his 1996 work in its embryonic stage. The drunk-sounding unquantized drums, the sparse sample chops, and the subtle bass work are all present, but Jay Dee hadn’t quite perfected his own style yet. On “Front Street,” he even put sleigh bells in his beat, following a trend set by Buckwild and other New York producers. The Jay Dee of just one year later wouldn’t have dreamed of following the sonic trends of others.

Payday Records folded right after the 1st Down record came out, and the group split up, allowing Jay Dee to focus on his work with the Ummah and Slum Village, while Phat Kat began building his solo career. “It Don’t Get No Liver Than This” and “No Place to Go,” two unreleased songs that the duo recorded for Payday, were included on a 2002 CD reissue of the single, along with an underwhelming remix of “Front Street,” and the duo continued to work together until Jay Dee’s death in 2006. Phat Kat showed up as a featured artist on standout tracks from Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1) and Jay Dee’s solo debut album Welcome 2 Detroit, and Dilla produced multiple songs on Phat Kat’s albums The Undeniable LP (2004) and Carte Blanche (2007). Taken together, this decade-plus of collaborations makes for a pretty top notch 1st Down catalog, and it’s a shame that Dilla’s premature death prevented another proper 1st Down project.

"A Day Wit the Homiez"

"Front Street"

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