Sunday, April 28, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 011: Att Will - "Just Another Day in Compton"

Att Will - "Just Another Day in Compton" (Big City Records, 1993)

Although sampling is one of the most brilliant musical innovations of the last several decades, it does present two major problems. One is someone taking an extremely popular song and essentially lifting it wholesale without alteration in order to fuel a chart hit for yourself (call it the Diddy method). The other is the reuse of the same samples over and over again. There are many instances where this isn’t a problem, such as Leon Haywood’s “I Wanna Do Something Freaky to You” being used to create two very different songs in Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” and Redman’s “Rockafella,” but more often than not, cats reusing samples that have already been used memorably before is not a good idea. Roy Ayers’ catalog is an embarrassment of riches, and “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” is both one of his best songs. In 1990, Grand Puba sampled the song for arguably the best song his group Brand Nubian ever made: “Wake Up (Reprise in the Sunshine).” Some other artists, including Common, Mary J. Blige, and Mos Def have made songs with an “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” sample since and these songs have been mostly effective, but now that it’s been over twenty years since Brand Nubian completely owned that sample, hearing it in a new song is frustrating. It shows that artists are either ignorant of hip-hop’s history (as might have been the case when it showed up on Flatbush Zombies’ occasionally great first mixtape last year) or they’re just lazy (as in the case of “Sunshine” from Sadat X & A.G.’s collaborative album from last year).[1]

There are a handful of samples that will never ever get old for me. If I was to make a very short list of these samples, Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness” would probably come in at #1. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Summertime,” Mad Skillz’ “Get Your Groove on,” Big Pun’s “You Ain’t a Killer,” Gang Starr’s “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration.” I could keep listing great songs that use prominent sample from “Summer Madness,” and that’s not even counting the interpolations, such as its appearance near the end of Summer Suite by the Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble, one of Madlib’s many Yesterdays New Quintet offshoot groups. So when I was scouring the internet for obscure funky west coast hip-hop a while back and clicked on Att Will’s “Just Another Day in Compton” and heard that familiar rising sunny synth line, I was sold.

Unfortunately, when I listened to Att Will’s first and to date only album Do it Att Will, from 1993, I found that Att Will had managed to strike gold on one song that was wisely chosen as the single while struggling with an entire album’s worth of material. Att Will is an effective cipher for all of the different sounds that were hot on the West coast (and a bit from the east) in the early nineties. He’s a good rapper, but he doesn’t have much of a distinct personality, so he’s very effective at slipping into various styles throughout the album without leaving much of an impression (again, “Another Day in Compton” is the notable exception). “Shoot ‘Em Dead” sounds a lot like something that could have been cut from Death Certificate, but Att Will isn’t capable of commanding attention the way that Ice Cube is.[2] “Wreck ‘Em” is reminiscent of Das EFX, “Ghetto Nightmare” falls somewhere between the Geto Boys and generic G-funk, and “Gettin’ High” is a halfway effective Cypress Hill knockoff. Elsewhere, common samples such as Faze-O’s “Riding High” (most memorably used on EPMD’s “Please Listen to My Demo”) and Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” (later used much more effectively on Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones,” although it appeared on classics by Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth and Main Source before the Att Will album came out) show up but pale in comparison to previous usages. Att Will isn’t even particularly original with his skits. “Lick ‘Em Good Lucy” falls somewhere between “$20 Sack Pyramid” and every generic interview skit on every rap record ever, and it’s really hard not to hit the skip button. I’m being really hard on this album right now, which is really unfair overall. Skip the weak skits, and it really is a decent and very listenable album, but not very much of it leaves a long term impression.

“Just Another Day in Compton” could also be labeled fairly derivative, but it transcends its most obvious source material (“It Was a Good Day,” the chiller, sunnier end of DJ Quik’s catalog, every other song that samples “Summer Madness”) in a way that makes it stand on its own two legs as a great song. It’s all storytelling, with Will spending the first verse reflecting on how rough ghetto life can be before rationalizing all of the violence by ending the verse with “Life wouldn’t be the same without a little bit of danger to keep it bumpin’.” After the first meditative verse, he get in his car and listens to “Aqua Boogie “ by Parliament, goes to the liquor store, picks up a girl, smokes a blunt, and just rolls around the city doing nothing. Day turns to night in the third verse as he picks up his producer Lodown and plays dominoes and smokes more weed. They hear about a party at the ballroom at the Compton Ramada (of course), but they need new clothes and there are too many people at the Compton swap meet so they have to go to the mall. They roll up to the party at ten, and no one there pulls out a gun and ruins everyone’s night. This story is heightened by the “Summer Madness” sample, which is perfect fuel for an LA cruising song. Att Will has “Aqua Boogie” on his car stereo in the story, but he just as easily could have had “Just Another Day in Compton” in there as well had he been feeling meta they day he recorded it.

MC Eiht is credited with additional vocals on this song, but I’m not hearing him anywhere on the album version of the track or the basically worthless and supposedly “Funky Remix,” which mostly strips away the Kool and the Gang sample and replaces it with a murky and poorly mixed bassline. The 12” redeems itself with the other song on side B, an instrumental version of “Just Another Day.” That the instrumental is not as enjoyable as the vocal version, along with the rich details in the vocal version’s story, shows that Att Will’s debut album could have been much better had he exerted more personality on the album’s songs and if Lodown hadn’t been so content to rehash others’ work with his beats (and those skits should have been left on the editing room floor).

Att Will’s rap career began wrapping up pretty soon after Do it Att Will came out in 1993. He contributed guest verses to a bunch of OG Daddy V and Sir Jinx and hung around in the background of videos for singles by MC Eiht, Kurupt, and Cuicide before disappearing completely. He popped up again in 2010 as part of the Tha Wanted Gang and then put out a new solo EP Tha Wanted in 2011, but he’s been mostly quiet since. Information on where he was in the decade and a half between these two chapters is difficult to come by, and I can’t say that his return is anything that really deserves excitement, but even if “Just Another Day in Compton” remains Att Will’s only truly great song, that bit of his legacy will remain secure. 

"Just Another Day in Compton"

Coming Up on Spray Cans:
Rammellzee & K-Rob
Cashless Society
Black Attack

[1] Sadat X was even in Brand Nubian. He should know better.
[2] The song also uses the same piano sample from Isaac Hayes’ “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” that drove Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” “Black Steel” is not only one of the best and most iconic songs in the Public Enemy catalog, it’s also one of the most recognizable songs in rap history. Trying to flip the sample again was a foolish move on Att Will and producer Lodown’s part.

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