Arsonists - "Blaze"/"Geembo's Theme"/"Flashback" (Fondle 'Em Records, 1997)
The recent Stretch and Bobbito reunion show on WKCR, along with a few great finds in the Rap 12” section of Dusty Groove in Chicago, has caused Fondle ‘Em Records to be on my mind lately. The Stretch Armstrong Show was the focal point of New York underground hip hop in the nineties, and Bobbito cultivated a laid back atmosphere that allowed guest rappers to freestyle, try out new verses, or just goof off and shoot the shit with the show’s team. Most of the 12” singles Bobbito put out on Fondle ‘Em capture the vibe of the show, to the point where some of the label’s best releases sound like they could have been recorded live during one of the show’s late night ciphers.
The Arsonists’ second single on Fondle ‘Em, “Blaze”/“Geembo’s Theme”/“Flashback,” released in 1997, is perhaps the best example of the Stretch Armstrong Show vibe on record. The group isn’t really doing anything new on this record. Instead, they’re working within a well-worn and seemingly endlessly renewable form: rapping about how dope their raps are over boom bap beats. Most of the Fondle ‘Em artists devote at least one song on their 12”s to this theme, and the Arsonists, apparently thinking that listeners hadn’t gotten enough of rapping about rapping on their first single (1996’s “The Session”), focus on that topic for two of the three songs. With this type of song, success or failure is almost entirely dependent on the quality of the beat. The cleverness of the punch lines and the quality of the rapping (flow, cadence, etc.) are secondary since the song has basically been done already hundreds of times before. In that respect, “Blaze,” produced by group member Q-Unique, is the weakest track here. The beat consists primarily of generic strings, with an interesting beat change for about thirty seconds late in the song, but it isn’t terribly memorable. Thankfully, all five Arsonists rise above the backing track and spit some bars that would send most battle rappers running away with their tails between their legs (Q-Unique’s verse at the end is a particular highlight; it’s unsurprising that he’s had the most fruitful solo career out of all of the Arsonists).
“Geembo’s Theme” is a solo showcase for D-Stroy and starts with a weird skit about a kid named Geembo going on a quest for hip hop and (presumably) one of the village elders giving Geembo something that will help him find hip hop. D-Stroy then just raps about how awesome he is, which makes the preceding skit seem pretty damn weird in retrospect, but D-Stroy makes up for this with an innovative ever-changing flow that’s heavily indebted to the cats at the Good Life Café on the other side of the country.
“Flashback,” which is the only song on the 12” not produced by Q-Unique (Freestyle, who wins the award for the most unimaginative rapper name ever, handled the beat instead), is the best song on the record by a pretty wide margin. Over a sample from “Darkness,” a track from Rage Against the Machine’s early demo tape that the band sold at their 1991 shows, Freestyle and Q-Unique rap about coming up in Bushwick, Brooklyn during hip-hop’s golden age when “Hip-hop was rhyming, hard timin’, radio hits/ No DATs, so the DJs was still in the mix.” This puts the song in line with Shadez of Brooklyn’s “Change,” which I talked about back in Vol. 003. The chorus of the song, “Yes yes y’all, let me get some/ ‘Cause we never forgot where we came from,” could serve as a statement of purpose for the Fondle ‘Em crew and the late nineties rap underground as a whole. In the face of the jiggyification of hip-hop, the underground remained and much of it still remains dedicated to hip-hop’s original purity.
Right after this single’s release, the Arsonists chose to jump ship to Matador Records. Fondle ‘Em’s releases were distributed by Fat Beats, whose distribution system at the time paled in comparison to the international network of independent distribution companies at Matador’s disposal. Still, Matador, which had previously focused entirely on indie rock acts such as Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Liz Phair, and Guided by Voices, was an odd fit for the group. Matador was attempting to branch out into hip hop, but this move failed miserably. As the World Burns, the Arsonists’ first full-length album, was a commercial flop. All of the songs from their Fondle ‘Em singles appear on the album, as do some other great songs, including their all-time peak “Backdraft” and Q-Unique’s brilliant solo showcase “Rhyme Time Travel.” On the other hand, at 65 minutes the album is a prime example of how tiring some of these underground acts could be when having to sit through raps about rapping for a twenty song album. The Arsonists’ subject matter was extremely limited, which is why they haven’t had the legacy that some of their contemporaries have had. The 12” format was perfect for a group like the Arsonists; just long enough to display their talents and charisma, but not so long that they wear out their welcome.
D-Stroy and Freestyle quit the group after As the World Burns, and the trio of Q-Unique, Jise One, and Swel Boogie recorded the disappointing Date of Birth, which came out on Matador in 2001. The album sold even fewer copies than As the World Burns, and Matador discontinued their foray into hip hop. The Arsonists went on an extended hiatus, although all five members reunited in 2011 at a festival in Czech Republic. A new album titled Lost in the Fire is planned for later this year. I haven’t really followed the members’ solo careers outside of some Q-Unique guest verses on Ill Bill and Jedi Mind Tricks records so I don’t know if they’ve learned to broaden their subject matter at all. If they have and they stay away from producers like C-Lance and Stu Bangas, whose generic beats have inexplicably taken over the segment of underground hip hop that the Arsonists inhabit, then the new album might be worth listening to.
 Fondle ‘Em Records is either the worst or the best name for a record label ever. I can’t decide, but I’m leaning toward best.
 Garage rock, which has proven to be a ridiculously durable form over the last fifty years, is probably the closest comparison.
 The instrumental b-side of this 12” is in many ways just as effective at recalling the Stretch Armstrong Show as the a-side. During the show, there were almost no moments of silence, and beats played underneath all of Bobbito’s pickups and all of the interviews. The beats on this Arsonists single are sequenced really well, and one could easily imagine Bobbito promoting some hip-hop education benefit at a high school in Queens or interviewing Cormega or some other local MC while they play in the background.
 Other songs weren’t so great. The beat on “Pyromaniax” sounds like it’s built on a sample from the music from Banjo Kazooie or some other Nintendo 64 game that’s basically been forgotten at this point.