Sunday, March 31, 2013

Shady Blaze - "Rest in Peace R.J."

I had to get a late pass when it comes to Shady Blaze. I’m not at all familiar with his solo material, although I just recently started listening to his very good collaborative album with Deniro Farrar (whose music I was also a latecomer to). I really have no idea what his subject matter is usually like, or how polished his music generally is.[1]

A week ago, Shady Blaze released a loose track called “Rest in Peace R.J.” R.J. is Blaze’s son, who was born three months premature, hung on for twenty days, and then passed away. Blaze recorded “Rest in Peace R.J.” three days after his son’s death. There is a great tradition of painful story songs in rap history, from R.A. the Rugged Man’s embodiment of his father’s Vietnam experience in “Uncommon Valor” to Big L’s story of growing up in poverty in “How Will I Make It” to Ghostface Killah’s recollection of a friend dying in his arms in “Impossible,” but this song is the most painful one I have ever heard. The detail is excruciating, the verses rough, sounding almost unfinished, the emotion so fresh that it’s difficult to listen to. But the song’s urgency is its most striking quality. It sounds as if he couldn’t do anything other than rap after losing his son. His art is the only thing that could sustain him in the days after his experience. As he says at the beginning of the song, “this is like the only way I know how to release, you know, my feelings. I don’t know what else to do anymore.”

I can’t begin to understand what Shady Blaze’s life must be like now, but my condolences go out to him and his family.

His mixtape with Deniro Farrar, Kill or Be Killed, can be streamed or downloaded here.

[1] His association with Deniro Farrar makes me guess that he favors the Keyboard Kid/Ryan Hemsworth cloud rap style of beats, but that’s all conjecture.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

RZA and Ghostface Suggest a Few Reasons to Die

The RZA is a musical visionary and his knowledge of kung fu flicks is damn near unparalleled in both the world of hip-hop and among the general public.[1] When the RZA speaks on any topic—but especially when he talks about kung fu or music—he speaks with a wisdom that parallels the abbots in the Shaw Brothers movies he holds in such high regard. Unfortunately, his directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists was a boring mess of a kung fu movie, too Technicolor bright and half-baked to even be worthy of the temple of Shaolin greats.[2] RZA’s artistic vision proved to be an unfortunately poor fit for cinema, even as his best music has a palpable cinematic feel to it.

Now that he’s gotten his movie out of his system, the RZA has stepped back behind the scenes of the most exciting new Wu-Tang record since Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II came out four years ago: Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge’s Twelve Reasons to Die. The three songs from the album that have leaked (“The Rise of the Ghostface Killah,” “The Sure Shot (Parts 1 and 2),” and “Enemies All Around Me,” the last of which features William Hart of the Delfonics) have all been astounding slices of Morricone-indebted cinematic goon rap. This is due primarily to Younge’s live band instrumentals that reach the potential that was hinted at in Wu-Tang Chamber Music (which featured the Revelations as the backing band). RZA is listed as executive producer on the album—the first Ghostface record overseen by RZA since the genius Supreme Clientele in 2000—and his and Younge’s vision have reenergized Ghost. The featured artists are all from the lesser-known end of the Wu-Tang camp—Masta Killa, U-God, Inspectah Deck, Cappadonna, and a recently released from prison Killa Sin, all of whom benefit greatly from some artistic guidance or executive production.

The trailer for the Twelve Reasons to Die album and 49-date tour (presumably directed by Younge, who has handled the majority of the videos from his previous projects) is more effective in one minute than RZA was with a full hour and a half.

Soul Temple Records will release Twelve Reasons to Die on April 16. A review of the album and of the April 26 show at Chicago’s Abbey Pub will be coming in the next month.

Also as a bonus, here’s the trailer for the six issue comic book miniseries that is accompanying the album’s release. The always great Jim Mahfood and Ben Templesmith are among the exciting roster of artists involved with this project.


[1] For evidence of this, check out the DVD commentary for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, where RZA wipes the floor with the other commentator, noted film critic Andy Klein. There is absolutely no reason RZA or anyone else should know who choreographed seemingly every fight in every kung fu movie ever released, but RZA gives the impression that he does.
[2] Full disclosure: when I saw The Man with the Iron Fists in theaters, I was so bored that I fell asleep for a bit, and I’m not sure how much of the movie I missed. Even with this sleep break, the movie still felt much longer than its 96 minute runtime.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 007: Klondike Kat - The Lyrical Lion EP

Klondike Kat - The Lyrical Lion EP (Beatbox Records, 1993)

I had initially intended to cover Rammellzee & K-Rob’s landmark “Beat Bop” for this volume of Spray Cans, but even after years of listening to one of the most monumentally weird artifacts of the first five years of hip-hop as a recorded art, that song is still incredibly difficult to wrap my head around. Rammellzee will have to wait a few more weeks. Instead, I’ll be making Spray Cans’ first foray into Houston’s unjustly ignored nineties golden age.

With the exception of the Geto Boys, UGK and (to a lesser extent) DJ Screw, Houston hip-hop was mostly ignored in the national hip-hop landscape until the mainstream dominance of Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, and Slim Thug in the mid-2000s. Houston artists found it almost impossible to get record contracts, so they subverted the record industry entirely by starting their own labels, building their own studios, pressing up their own records, CDs, and cassettes, and selling them out of the trunk of their car or to local record stores on a consignment basis. This allowed the city to develop its own vibrant rap scene that was almost entirely free of outside interference. Rappers could become local stars, selling tens of thousands of records without making a dent in the national mainstream. Klondike Kat, ridiculously named after a feline Mountie cartoon produced by Total Television (best known for creating Underdog) from 1966-1967, was never one of the city’s biggest stars, but he successfully developed a following in the city beginning with his debut EP The Lyrical Lion in 1993.[1]

There isn’t much information about Klondike Kat on the internet, which isn’t too surprising since he was primarily active in the nineties and selling his albums out of his car, but he is one of about seventy members of the South Park Coalition, a hip-hop collective based in the titular neighborhood on Houston’s outskirts. The South Park Coalition is predominantly made up of artists who are totally unknown outside of Houston, but K-Rino, Gangsta N-I-P, and Street Military have gotten some well-deserved national attention, and DJ Screw’s posthumous influence has grown every year since his death in 2000. By the time SPC became active in 1986, South Park was one of the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the city and local officials basically ignored the increasing problems in the area. The residents of South Park deserved storytellers to chronicle the urban blight that they lived in, and Klondike Kat claimed that title on The Lyrical Lion EP.

The Lyrical Lion was marketed as an EP, but it has a longer runtime than Illmatic. Like Eazy-E’s landmark EP It’s on (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa, The Lyrical Lion is basically a short album in EP packaging, and like Eazy-E’s release, it is the defining document of Klondike Kat as a solo artist and as a storyteller.[2] The opening track “Hustler” starts with his four year old son Bubba Trouble imploring him to “kick one of [his] hustler stories.” Kat obliges and launches into the most evocative tales on side one. Klondike’s slick R&B chorus about his hustling ways elevates his verses about breaking into wig shops and people’s houses and stealing stuff to sell at the flea market (he calls these activities “the flea market caper”) to the level of the criminal master plans of classic blaxploitation movies. The song takes a weird turn at the end when Bubba Trouble spits a nearly incomprehensible verse about his own hustling as a toddler.

His storytelling is even better on the reflective “That’s How I See it,” which is possibly the best song here. The beat sounds like it could have been an outtake from MC Eiht’s excellent We Come Strapped, and while Kat doesn’t quite have the commanding vocal presence that Eiht does, he handles himself very well here, rapping about the pervasive crime and death in South Park. According to him, “in the nineties life has less value than diamonds or pearls/I look at the pearls and other sources/I watch the drama unfurl.” Those other sources are probably things his buddies told him or more likely horrible stuff he saw just looking out his window. Kat’s sung hook is also significantly better than the one on “Hustler,” hinting that Kat’s R&B side career aspirations might have been a decent idea. The inverse of the mood on “That’s How I See it” can be found on “Gots to Killem’,” a nihilistic revenge fantasy[3] over an unremarkable beat by Dope-E from the SPC-affiliated group The Terrorists. Dope E’s beat on “Brain Matter,” with its spooky synth line and hazy sub bass, is much better and allows for a memorable end to the EP. Kat takes a long break before his last verse to spend a few minutes shouting out a ton of South Park Coalition cats, other Southern rappers, Beatbox labelmates, other labels, and assorted buddies.

Many of these SPC associates show up on the album’s centerpiece “Murder Script,” a nine minute long monster of a posse cut that features A.C. Chill, Aftermath, Black Capone, Bullet & Reload, Dope-E, J. Flex, K-Rino, KO, P.S.K. 13, Point Blank, Q-Boy, and Triple X. I haven’t fully immersed myself in the music of the South Park Coalition, so I have no idea who is who, but the beat’s different but consistently funky movements and the laid back barbeque cipher vibe of the rapping makes it feel much shorter than nine minute runtime.

These five tracks mostly distract from the two outright duds on the EP. “Punk Mutha Fakers” has a generic Houston beat and Klondike Kat’s least engaged vocal performance on the record. “Check Yo Bitch” is a misogynistic trifle of a song that’s only notable as the one Klondike Kat solo song to make it onto a Screw tape.[4] Unlike gangsta rap stalwarts like Snoop Dogg or fellow the fellow Houstonites in UGK, Klondike Kat doesn’t quite have the level of charisma to make misogyny seem less offensive or disgusting.

After The Lyrical Lion EP, Klondike Kat put out two solo albums: 1997’s Mobbin’ Muzik Melodies and 1999’s The Biography of a Made Man, both on Beatbox Records, along with a CDr collaboration with J-Chill in 2004 and lots of features on other SPC members’ records and some freestyles on Screw tapes. He’s been mostly quiet since then. If the South Park Coalition message boards are to be believed, Klondike Kat spent some time in prison in the 2000s for an undisclosed offense, but he got out in early 2012 and showed up at that year’s SPC 25th anniversary party in Houston. He’s working on a few new albums tentatively titled The Game Needs Me and Diamond Dre, and he’s been in the studio with fellow SPC member Z-Ro. With luck he’ll be able to recapture some of the fire of his earlier releases, but that seems unlikely. Very few rappers whose careers are interrupted by a stay in prison come back with an All Eyez on Me or a Supreme Clientele.

"Murder Script"
Coming Up on Spray Cans:
Cashless Society
Rammellzee & K-Rob
Att Will
Killah Priest or Wu-Syndicate
Black Attack

[1] The Lyrical Lion was released on Beatbox Records, one of several labels formed by South Park Coalition members to release their music. Beatbox focused primarily on Klondike Kat and group and solo projects by the members of Street Military. The label was active from 1991-2001, and put out three more releases after that year before finally folding: a CD reissue of The Lyrical Lion, a chopped and screwed version of Klondike Kat’s 1997 album Mobbin’ Muzik Melodies, and a CDr of Street Military member Pharoah’s freestyles, so yeah, the label was basically done in 2001. Their website isn’t even up anymore.
[2] Beatbox Records put out CD, 12”, and cassette versions of The Lyrical Lion. Because of the format of Spray Cans, I’ll be focusing on the 12” version, Beatbox catalog number 2914.
[3] Hopefully it’s just a revenge fantasy, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a reality for either Klondike Kat or someone close to him.
[4] “Check Yo Bitch” appears on Sentimental Value, which has not as of yet been reissued as part of the 260+ volume deep Diary of the Originator CD series, although Wreckless Records—another of the many SPC-affiliated labels—issued a middling quality CD version in 2002.

Cappadonna, the Fading Dart Specialist

After Wu-Tang Clan’s second album Wu-Tang Forever marked the end of the RZA’s five-year plan, the generals dispersed to focus on their own projects. RZA, freed from the responsibility of overseeing every Wu-Tang solo album, turned his attention to an odd but worthwhile solo project, Bobby Digital in Stereo, and to expanding the Wu-Tang empire. RZA’s two record labels, Wu-Tang Records (distributed by Priority/EMI) and Razor Sharp Records (distributed by Epic) began putting out records by members of the Wu-Tang b-team, the Killa Bees.[1] Great albums by affiliates like Killarmy, Sunz of Man, and Shyheim are minor classics of the post-Forever period, but no Killa Bee album[2] was better than Cappadonna’s 1998 debut The Pillage.[3]

Cappadonna was on a hot streak leading up to The Pillage, with incredible verses on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and Ironman (including the best verse he’s ever spit, on “Winter Warz”), and aside from a few bum tracks The Pillage lived up to his early promise. The album’s first track[4] “Slang Editorial” introduced fans to Cappadonna the solo artist. Wu-Element producer True Master’s O.V. Wright sampling beat lurches uneasily with the horn sample frequently cutting off abruptly, a perfect fit for Cappadonna’s occasionally (but endearingly) awkward flow and claims that his and the rest of the Clan’s lyrics would set black people free.[5]

The Pillage went Gold and marked the end of Cappadonna’s rise. Having peaked early, the quality of his rapping grew wildly inconsistent, and his second solo album, 2001’s The Yin and the Yang, was terrible. A string of more bad solo records was interrupted by a brief and supposedly self-imposed period of homelessness and he all but disappeared from Clan-affiliated records. His time away seemed to improve his abilities, and he returned with great verses on 8 Diagrams, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, and Apollo Kids, and the lackluster The Pilgrimage and Eyrth, Wynd, and Fyre albums haven’t done too much to dampen excitement among Wu-Tang stans for Cappa’s long-in-the-works sequel to The Pillage.

Unfortunately, “Slang Editorial Part 2,” the first song from The Pillage 2, is awful. DJ Intrigue’s beat features practically non-existent drums, an obnoxious and poorly chopped up vocal sample over the same horn sample used in the first “Slang Editorial,” and an amateurish and sloppy scratch hook. Lyrically, Cappadonna isn’t much more than a shell of his former self, but he shows brief flashes of the fire behind some of his recent guest verses. The song’s association with The Pillage and the original “Slang Editorial” ultimately highlights “Slang Editorial Part 2”’s faults in a way that wouldn’t have happened if this was just another average late period Cappadonna song.

Raekwon set the bar so high with his own sequel to his classic debut that any rapper trying to do the same has no choice but to rise to those standards.[6] I really hope The Pillage 2 turns out well. Cappa’s been working hard the past few years, and he deserves a win, but with “Slang Editorial Part 2” he isn’t doing anything to prove that he has it in him anymore.

[1] U-God, apparently the only Clan member unable to get a record deal with a major label, also put out his debut solo album through Wu-Tang Records.
[2] With the possible exception of Killah Priest’s Heavy Mental.
[3] Cappadonna’s status as the tenth member of the Wu-Tang Clan has been all over the place over the last decade and a half, but at this time he was still being listed as a featured artist on Clan albums so I’m counting him as a Killa Bee.
[4] Also the first of two singles from the album.
[5] The video also notably featured Tony Sirico, best known for playing Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos, in one of many “generic mafia guy” roles he’s played throughout his career.
[6] I’m looking at you Ghostface and GZA. Supreme Clientele 2 and Liquid Swords 2 better be mind-blowing if they ever come out.