Shyheim - "On & On" b/w "The B Side (Bring the Drama)" (Virgin Records, 1993)
Yesterday Jeff Weiss put up a new entry in his always good weekly series Bizarre Ride over at LA Weekly. This week’s topic? “TeenageRappers Are Experiencing a Renaissance,” which is an argument that’s pretty difficult to refute given the success of Odd Future, Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era, and numerous others over the past few years. In the middle of the article, he stated that “in the wake of Kriss Kross, the early ‘90s yielded often-overlooked teenage talents like Illegal, Ahma, Shyheim and Da Youngstas. Even if their albums were often unmemorable, they dropped minor classic singles and rapped impressively.” He neglected to mention the Wascals, who were produced by J-Swift of Bizarre Ride to the Pharcyde fame. The quartet worked really hard to sound like a miniature Pharcyde, with intermittent success, and considering how Weiss feels about the Pharcyde (check the name of his column) it’s an odd omission.
He does however mention Shyheim, the youngest and one of the most overlooked of the Wu-Tang Clan’s original crop of Killa Bees. He got signed to Virgin Records and put out his debut single in 1993 at the age of fourteen. The subsequent album AKA the Rugged Child is a bit of a mixed bag, but that first single “On & On” is amazing.
Ghostface Killah is Shyheim’s cousin, so he and his buddies in GP Wu managed to get on the Killa Bee train early, but aside from one RZA-produced song nothing on AKA the Rugged Child sounds much like the work of a Wu-affiliated artist. RNS, who allegedly taught RZA how to produce, provided beats that are much more standard New York circa ’93-’94 fare. “On & On” is little more than head knock drums, a low key bass line, and an “on and on” vocal sample and snatch of saxophone on the hook. It’s a perfect example of the less-is-more approach that was employed so successfully by some of the best producers in NY rap history, most notably DJ Premier, who contributed a remix of “On & On” to the 12”. Primo’s remix is a great example of the dissonant style that he began experimenting with on Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East in 1994. The extra marimba touches makes it not inconceivable that this beat was originally made with Jeru’s project in mind.
Lyrically “On & On” is surprising in two ways. Firstly, it is difficult to believe that a fourteen year old could be as skilled as Shyheim is on this song. He sounds assured and confident beyond his years as a rapper, and the quality of lyricism is better than a lot of his adult contemporaries. It’s not clear whether or not he had ghostwriters (Big L has been alleged as one of them), but it wouldn’t be too surprising if he did. If there were ghostwriters, then the subject matter would be a bit less surprising. While most teenage rappers in this era dealt with rather lightweight stuff (check the Wascals’ “Class Clown” if you need an example), “On & On” is almost like a condensed There are No Children Here in song form. Over three verses Shyheim raps about snitches getting shot, a woman with a newborn baby selling crack and committing suicide, and Christmas in an impoverished household. He packs in details like “an old man got shot in the parkin’ lot/ in front of my building, I hang with his grandchildren.” He “knows a few brothers, drug dealers, most of them fugitives,” and he prays that he’ll make it to the next day alive. The music video is packed with statistics on crime and death rates in the black community, and it’s implicitly stated that all of these horrible conditions have to somehow change for the better.
By contrast, there is nothing positive about the message or intent of “B Side (Bring the Drama).” June Luva (who handled hook duties on “On & On”) appears with the rest of GP Wu, but Shyheim steals the show. He makes it clear how different this song will be from “On & On” right off the bat by rapping “fuck a dog, a man’s best friend’s a Mack 10” and then spends the rest of the verse sticking people up and shooting at people. The song saw wider release on GP Wu’s 1998 album Don’t Go Against the Grain, and it proved to be unfortunately prescient for the young rapper.
Beginning in 1994, Shyheim had a few really good years. On March 31, 1994, Method Man and Ghostface promoted an April 3 Wu-Tang show in Queens while talking with Stretch and Bobbito, and Meth made a point of mentioning that Shyheim would be opening the show. AKA the Rugged Child came out just over two weeks after that concert, and the album got a few crucial fans. Later that year Big Daddy Kane hand-selected him to appear on his momentous posse cut single “Show & Prove” alongside Jay-Z, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Saucy Money, and Scoob Lover. Shyheim also found himself onstage at Madison Square Garden freestyling with the Notorious B.I.G. His second album The Lost Generation dropped in 1996 and it sounded more like the work of a young Wu-Tang protégé, with numerous appearances from Wu members and affiliates including Method Man on the excellent single “Shaolin Style.” In 1997, he got to appear with Raekwon on the opening of “The Projects” from disc two of Wu-Tang Forever.
Things went south by 1999. Shyheim was on the run from the police when his third album Manchild came out, and he was arrested in 2001 and served two and a half years in prison. His career never recovered, and his two subsequent albums have been marked by weak production, uninspired songwriting, and the unfortunate problem of his adult voice not being as compelling as his teenage one. A feud with Raekwon and shots fired at Wu-Tang in interviews didn’t help matters either. In April of this year, he was arrested again on felony gun and heroin possession charges. If he goes to prison, it is unlikely that his career will recover. In spite of the quality of his offerings this century, it’s a damn shame that he won’t be able to be present for Wu-Tang’s 20th anniversary in any capacity.
"On & On"
"On & On (DJ Premier Remix)"
"B Side (Bring the Drama)"