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.

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