Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 014: Mad Lion - "Take it Easy" b/w "Big Box of Blunts"

Mad Lion - "Take it Easy" b/w "Big Box of Blunts" (Weeded Records, 1994)
There is a low-key ragga/dancehall revival happening in hip-hop right now. A$AP Ferg’s great second single from Trap Lord is an ode to Shabba Ranks. The best moment on Yeezus was Assassin hijacking “I’m In It” with his roaring patois. Grime is expanding its borders to include more ragga influences. And Duppy Gun is bringing dancehall into the future.

Musical trends tend to come around again roughly twenty years later, whether it’s Greenwich Village in the late fifties reviving the folk sounds of the Dust Bowl, or early British punk plundering Chuck Berry, or Dr. Dre retrofitting P-Funk into G-funk. This mini ragga resurgence is not too surprising coming about two decades after the ragga boom of the early nineties. Shabba Ranks was at his peak, Phife Dawg, Busta Rhymes, Smif-n-Wessun (who Mad Lion is pictured with above), O.G.C., and Das EFX were all rapping in patois, and Spice 1 was sampling reggae songs and getting regional hits.

Within the hip-hop community there was no greater proponent of ragga than KRS-One. By the second Boogie Down Productions record KRS had begun using patois and incorporating reggae samples into his beats. By the time he put out his first solo album Return of the Boom Bap in 1993, it was a regular part of his repertoire. So it wasn’t too surprising to see him moving around in dancehall circles around that time, and it also wasn’t surprising when he took a shine to one of those dancehall cats and put him on. KRS brought his new protégé Mad Lion with him to close out the posse performance on Arsenio’s last show on May 27, 1994. Mad Lion showed up in a bunch of music videos, including Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear (Remix),” soon after, making himself known on the verge of his debut album Real Ting.

Mad Lion was born Dallion Priest in London, but he moved to Brooklyn sometime in the late eighties. He quickly linked up with the legendary dancehall deejay Super Cat and adopted the pseudonym Mad Lion. As was popular at the lime, the name Mad Lion is an acronym, standing for Musical Assassin Delivering Lyrical Intelligence Over Nations.[1] Mad Lion got signed to Weeded Records, a ragga/dancehall subsidiary of Nervous Records,[2] on the strength of his voice, a ragged over-the-top roar that sounds like it could have belonged to some Muppet that was too rough, rugged, and raw for Sesame Street. His first single “Girlzz” was weak and sank like a rock upon release in 1993, but a few influential New York DJs flipped the record over and began spinning its b-side “Shoot to Kill.” The song got popular enough that Weeded ponied up the funds to shoot a video in which girls grind up on barrels and fire escapes while Mad Lion raps about killing people. It would be hard to imagine a more of its time video for the song. Although he was not involved with the record, his benefactor KRS-One makes an appearance in the video, and by this point he and Mad Lion were in the lab working on Mad Lion’s debut album.

Easy Ting, which was released in 1994, is entirely coproduced by KRS and Mad Lion, and Weeded smartly released the album’s best song “Take it Easy” as the first single. The cool as ice beat is much better than any of KRS’s own beats from Return of the Boom Bap, and Mad Lion fires off all kinds of threats and appeals to fellow roughnecks. Were it not for his voice and his dancehall patois and flow, this would all be fairly standard for New York street rap circa ’94, but Mad Lion is such a force on the mic that “Take it Easy” is pretty unforgettable. The accompanying video similarly puts a Jamaican spin on New York hip-hop, starting out with Mad Lion toasting over KRS’s “Black Cop” beat before KRS himself takes over and orders the deejay to take it easy. From there it’s just a great if fairly standard rap video. Fat Joe shows up. There are a few shots of Mad Lion and some of his buddies jogging toward the camera for some unexplained reason.

The b-side “Big Box of Blunts” was co-produced by Mad Lion and someone named David Raimer. The beat isn’t nearly as good as “Take it Easy” (the drums kind of sound like a drum machine preset), but it fits the lyrics well. Mad Lion gives the most detailed play-by-play of getting high this side of a Redman song, and it is pretty damn entertaining. Throw in a group shout hook and a bridge where he sings about the blunts lifting him higher and higher, higher than the day before, and it makes a compelling case for Mad Lion as a charming if slight rapper.

The ragga trend was already on the downswing by the time Real Ting came out. Mad Lion won the 1994 Source Award for Best Reggae Artist, but it didn’t do too much to help his sales. Still, he continued on to put out three more solo albums and a bunch of singles in the next seven years. He also continued his association with KRS-One, making a memorable appearance on the DJ Premier-produced “Wannabemceez” from KRS’ self-titled 1995 album. Outside of hip-hop, Mad Lion kept busy in the world of reggaeton. Weeded Records either folded or was absorbed back into Nervous around 2002. The label’s total output was about 80% Mad Lion records.

Mad Lion finally resurfaced in hip-hop a few years ago, He produced KRS-One’s 2011 single “Aztechnical,” which has a good but all over the place beat and surprisingly not that corny rapping from KRS. He pulled double duty producing and rapping on “Holiday Gift Style,” a laughable Christmas song with KRS and Shinehead, also in 2011. The two songs were apparently part of the promotional push for KRS’s 20th album Just Like That, although that album has not surfaced yet. If the promotion is to be believed Just Like That will feature Mad Lion pretty heavily. But the time is right for aging dancehall and ragga stars. Shabba Ranks is working on his comeback. Maybe Mad Lion can be next.[3]

"Take it Easy"
"Big Box of Blunts"
Coming Up on Spray Cans:
Rammellzee & K-Rob
Big Twan
Cashless Society
Black Attack
Pop Da Brown Hornet
99th Demention
Abstract Tribe Unique
The Nonce

[1] See also KRS-One (Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone), Guru (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal), Big Daddy Kane (King Asiatic Nobody’s Equal), Wu-Tang (Witty Unpredictable Talent and Natural Game), and countless others.
[2] Nervous Records was primarily a house label, but it was also the original home of Black Moon and Smif-n-Wessun.
[3] Mad Lion probably won’t be next. KRS has become one of the chief cornballs of hip-hop’s old guard, and working with him is not a recipe for relevance or good music these days. Unfortunately, KRS-One hasn’t been a reliable source of great music since 1995.

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