"Dedicated To The Winners & The Losers..." - Raekwon

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Vindicated At Last...

See I told you people these guys were hipsters. Let this be a lesson to all those who doubt the truth spoken on these pages.

Video Of The Year. If there is any justice in this cold, broken world, this will get major play.

Not A Blogger's Boot Camp Clik Week: Part III - Da Rockness Monstah

"Send emcees to he in squads of three..."
A wise man once said, a Guru if you will, that when it comes to rapping it's "mostly the voice" that separates the ill from the "eww." This, of course, is ironic because the man who said this has been known to put his fair share of the music listening public to sleep with the sweet dulcet sounds of his infamous montone delivery. However, I think in this particular case we can all agree with Guru and agree that your voice is one of the most important weapons in an emcee's aresnal.

And why shouldn't it be? The essence of a rapper's job is to literally talk over some music so if the rapper is going to make an impression than the voice had better be memorable. A great voice can elevate a mediocre lyricist into a great rapper and a nasally whine can sabatoge a great lyricist into a weed carrier. Ol' Dirty Bastard is probably one of the most infamous beneficiaries of this phenonemon. If you actually read the content of Dirt McGirt's lyrics, you realize he ain't all that particularly special but Russell Jones was born with gravelly yet high pitched bark that when combined with his unorthodox crooning delivery made him a star. When it comes to hip hop, the voice is everything.

There is one voice in hip hop, however, that never quite got it's just due and that is Rock of Heltah Skeltah. Heltah Skeltah released two albums before they broke up in the early 2000s, 1996's underrated masterpiece, Nocturnal, and 1998's disappointing and unfocused Magnum Force. On both of those records, Rock was star of the show using his gravelly baritone growl to great effectiveness that outshined the other members of the mighty Boot Camp Clik on everything he touched. If you ask me, Rock is the most talented member in the entirety of the Boot Camp Clik which is saying alot considering that the collective includes the much more famous Buckshot and even Rock's own parter-in-rhyme, Sean Price. Rock's growl could be channeled on the show-stopping and sober single, "Therapy", where Rock takes the lead and waxes contemplative about his dark psychological issues or he could unleash the beast like on the classic left-field banger, "Leflaur Leflah Eskoshka" and rip lesser emcees apart. He eats everbody alive on that song. Rock also had a penchant for memorable hooks that launched great songs into the stratosphere. In a brief memorable appearance on Smif-N-Wessun's classic "Wontine", Rock provides the sweeping, dark chorus that defines that song. It's no mystery why so many of the Boot Camp Clik members called on him to handle the chorus of their songs. He's their Method Man.

Rock was a star-in-the-making that never got a chance to shine on his own. After Heltah Skeltah broke up, Rock had an ill-fated solo album entitled Planet Rock that was never released to due label issues and in the meantime his former partner, Sean Price, released two extremely well-received underground solo albums and became the go-to indie rapper of the moment for those who were seeking instant hardcore credibility. This is kind of ironic because although, Sean Price was a still a strong rapper on Heltah Skeltah's early stuff, it was clear that Rock was the star of the show. Rock, meanwhile, languished in-developmental hell and never got a chance to shine on his own.

These days, Heltah Skeltah have re-united and plan to release their first new album in ten years this summer on Duck Down Records so we can discover if Ruck and Rock still have the chemistry they had so much of ten years-ago. Price has grown leaps and bounds as an artist since then and if Rock can bring it like he used to then we might get something out of it. That's assuming 9th Wonder has nothing to do with it. Where are the Beatminerz these days, anyway?

Heltah Skeltah - Operation Lockdown

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Albums You Should Own: Smif-N-Wessun - Dah Shinin' (Boot Camp Clik Week: Part II)

I'm not quite sure why it took me to my senior year of college to discover the pleasures of Smif-N-Wessun's brooding opus, Dah Shinin'. I am certainly fan of hardcore rap (especially New York hardcore rap) that ear-fucks your occipital lobes to a bloody and mucous-y pulp. I always marginally liked Buckshot stemming from his legendary performance in the Top-10 greatest hip hop songs ever, "Crooklyn Dodgers". Hell, I'm even a big fan of one Mr. Jack Nicholson so you would figure an album named after his career-defining tour de force performance in "The Shining" was bound to strike my considerable fancy. I just never listened to it. I guess I was too busy wasting my time listening to post-Forever Wu-Tang solo albums, drinking copious amounts of the devil's spirits and failing spectacularly to get laid. (You know, what any respectable collegiate does.) When I did finally get around to listening to Tek and Steele regale my prurient earlobes with their dark tales of the criminal justice and ghetto violence, I was understandably both amped and extremely annoyed with myself. How could I have slept-on an album so undeniably dope? I pride myself on being enough of authority on hip hop that I can comment within reason on every major American rap artist of the past twenty years (except oddly enough Spice-1 who I still have not heard, to this day, a single song from his discography... And don't really plan to, either.). I thought to myself all of the pleasurable times that could have made better if I had a lil' Cocoa Brovaz in my life and I wept. I wept that day and have not completely forgiven myself since...but such as life.

Seriously though, Smif-N-Wessun's Dah Shinin' is one of the best hip hop albums of all-time. It combines Tek and Steele's undeniable lyrical chemistry with some of the darkest and jazziest beats that Boot Camp Clik's venerable producers, Da Beatminerz, ever concocted. The album is an exercise in understated lyricism and production. Tek and Steele are underrated emcees whose chemistry makes them one of the most inseparable duos in all of hip hop. Their vocals swirl around and twist in and out of each other's verse to allow each emcee to play off each other's rhyme. Neither of them are particularly memorable emcees on their own but each verse they lay is vital to the songs and allow them to form something greater than their own. You don't wanna hear Tek without Steele or vice versa. What's also so remarkable is how well they work within Da Beatminerz' dark production. Dah Shinin' is full of pounding gutter drums, horn loops and sounds as if it's early Tribe Called Quest's twisted younger cousin. It's not the jazzy cool of Q-Tip but rather a marauding jazzy menace that permeates the record and adds a stark gravitas to Smif-N-Wessun's lyrics. It's just very dope.

What also is so great about the album is that it literally has no filler. The record works from front to end and is loaded with great and classic songs. "Bucktown", "Sound Bwoy Burriell", "Wontime" & "Let's Git It On" are all stone-cold east-coast rap classics that belong with the best that Nas, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang or Biggie ever crafted. The songs are cold and stark and feel as if you can see the frost on your window pane. This album feels as if it were meant to be the soundtrack for those cold, rainy nights where the world seems to be on the verge of collapsing. Heltah Skeltah-assisted "Wontime", with it's pulsating sirens and strings, is my personal anthem for when I'm feeling down and out and just don't give a fuck. It helps me deal.

Ultimately, Smif-N-Wessun were never able to match the intensity of their debut so in a sense, it never got it's deserved "Reasonable Doubt-if-cation" where an over-looked album gets placed in the canon because the artist becomes a star. Smif-N-Wessun just couldn't put it together like that, again. As it stands, Dah Shinin' is one of the great under-rated minor classics in hip hop but it deserves better. All heads wrekonize!

Smif-N-Wessun - Bucktown

Smif-N-Wessun - Wrekonize (Remix)

Monday, April 21, 2008

No Words...

Nas - Be A N***** Too

I hate to say it but my favorite rapper of all-time has officially lost his damn mind. I don't think I can ever play this song in the presence of another human being without feeling extremely awkward. I'm copping this album off iTunes.

Bonus Videos: Nas' Performing New Joints Off The Album That Shall Not Be Named At The Ol' Alma Mater

Props To The Almighty Eskay for the link.

Not A Blogger's Boot Camp Clik Week Part I: The Videos

If there was ever a collection of emcees that benefited less from the holy Wu-Tang Clan being gifted to the earth by the creator himself (in this case, the almighty RZA), it has to be the Boot Camp Clik. For those of you that choose to listen to "regional" rap music or those who listen to musical refuse, the mighty Boot Camp Clik was a collection of diverse Brooklyn-based underground emcees consisting of the members of Black Moon (Buckshot, 5 Ft, & DJ Evil Dee). Smif-N-Wessun (Tek & Steele), Heltah Skeltah (Rock & Ruck/Sean Price), and O.G.C. (Starang Wondah, Top Dog and Louieville Sluggah).

From 1993 to roughly 1997, the Clik had a string of near-classic albums that helped define the sound of New York underground hip hop for a generation. Boot Camp Clik fueled by the dark, gritty production of Da Beatminerz and using Jamaican parlance and slang made some of the hottest records of their generation that nobody outside of the six white dudes who bought Canibus' first LP paid much attention to. Black Moon's Enta Da Stage, Smif-N-Wessun's Dah Shinin', Heltah Skeltah's Nocturnal, and O.G.C.'s Da Storm are some of the best records to have never truly attained canonization as '90s rap classics as their counterparts in Wu-Tang achieved. It seems somewhat tragic that because of the sonic similarities these groups share that one group would be pushed as the saviors of New York hip hop while the other would toil in relative obscurity on Koch Records their entire career. So this week, I'm gonna honor the kids from Duck Down records and post some of my favorite videos and review some of my favorite albums in tribute. Yes, yes, y'all!

Black Moon - Who Got Da Props?

The classic. "Who Got Da Props?" is probably the most famous of any B.C.C. songs as it was the song that burst them onto the national scene in 1993. It's built on a minimalist but eerie Ronnie Laws jazz sample and features heavy, earth breaking drums that compliments the in-your-face rugged style that Buckshot was using at the time. The video is in the tradition of the great low-budget gang of dudes rhyming on the corner, yelling at the camera style that every hardcore rap video used from approximately 1992 until Puffy discovered speed boats, caviar and Dennis Hopper.

Smif-N-Wessum Feat. Rock - Wontime

The video for Smif-N-Wessun's ode to the criminal justice system is the Cocoa Brovaz homage to the classic Kubrick film their debut album was named after, The Shining. The song features some of the most dark and menacing production that Da Beatminerz ever crafted and Tek & Steele kind of destroy their verses on this song.

Heltah Skeltah Feat. O.G.C. - Leflaur Leflah Eskoshka

In the tradition of cheap remix videos everwhere, the Fab Five perform this posse-cut banger in front of the nothingness of a white background in some studion in L.A. What I particularly love about this video is the concept of Heltah Skeltah/O.G.C. as some ultra-hood version of a Motown '60s soul group complete with fucked up choreography and mic stands. Rock kinds of destroys the chorus on this one.

O.G.C. - No Fear

I got to say this video is one of the strangest videos in all of B.C.C.'s discography. Why O.G.C. are dressed like long shore-men and are rapping in front of the a lighthouse has to be one of the great mysteries of hip hop along with who killed Pac and Biggie and why Jay-Z inexplicably gets a pass from the hip hop media for collaborating with R. Kelly on spectacularly awful albums...twice(!!). I haven't the foggiest idea what strain of weed they were smoking when the video treatment was written but the song is pretty bad-ass, anyway. I guess this would be Boot Camp's low-budget Gravel pit then. Weiiirrrd.

Smif-N-Wessun Feat. O.G.C. - Sound Bwoy Buriell Heltah Skeltah -

This video is like an apocalyptic park jam that happens to be inhabited by mutant Jamaicans waiting to catch major wreck. I have to wonder though. Is it a requirement for entrance as a member into the Clik that one must have dreadlocks? And if so, how the hell did Dru-Ha get in? This song's a true classic, though.

Heltah Skeltah Feat. Vinia Mojica - Therapy

Sean Price dressed up like an evil mutant geeky doctor? That's all I'm gonna say about this one. Awesome.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Pen & Pixel: A Retrospective

"They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To...Oh, wait..."

I came of age as a hip hop fan in the late '90s. Prior to my settlement upon the opinion that the rap music was the greatest musical medium in the world, I had experimented with a wide variety of musical genres. In my earlier days , you could catch me looking particularly dapper in an over-sized plaid shirt and frayed jeans rocking out to the sounds of Cobain and Vedder; perhaps, if you were truly lucky, you might also find me locked in my room singing into a hair brush to the glorious sounds of Ace Of Base's The Sign (the most umm...let's just say "questionable" album that I paid for with my own money. Nullus on the whole enterprise. In fact, I'm tossing in an extra nhjic for emphasis.) Thankfully for the world, I ultimately made the correct decision and decided that I would devote my life to worshiping at the altar of Clive Campbell and the rest is history. Years of confused looks and "You like rap?" soon followed.

The '90s, to me at least (and those with taste), is the decade of my life that I look upon the most fondly. Rap music was new and awesome to me then so I look upon that age with a certain amount of extreme nostalgia. I was way too young to remember Eric B. extorting Rakim but I definitely can remember Suge Knight extorting Vanilla Ice. Perhaps one of the fondest elements of hip hop that I remember from those day is the visionary genius of the legendary grapic arts firm, Pen & Pixel.

For those of you who don't know (like my Dad) or those who don't care (like my Mom), Pen & Pixel are a Houston-based graphic arts firm that designed some of the most horrifically cheesed-out and trashy album covers the world has ever had the pleasure to view. To frame it in the proper prospective, Pen & Pixel are the John Waters of the Hip Hop album art world. Their body of work that has a mystique an aura of their own that can only described as ghetto trashilicious. As a teenager, I can vividly remember browsing the rap music aisle at my quaint little local entertainment mega-store and picking up a No Limit or Cash Money release and being blown away by the collage of badly photo-shopped Bentleys, iced-out dog collars, giant phallic guns, and trashy third-rate strippers that tickled my young prurient mind. I, of course, promptly set those monstrosities of trash genius down and picked up a copy of Nas' latest opus because I wouldn't be caught dead by an album from a...Southern rap group. Ten years later, I stand by my decision.

Distaste for crappy music from New Orleans aside, I want to explore some of the great pieces of art that Pen & Pixel provided the world with this piece and provided much needed critical commentary and context to these often maligned genius of this group of visionaries. I present to you some of my favorite album covers of the Pen & Pixel-ed oeuvre:

Lil' Sin - Frustrated By Death (????)

I haven't the slightest clue who Lil' Sin is, nor do I know why he is so frustrated by death but this cover is one of the most amazing things ever released for commercial consumption. This looks like Pen & Pixel simply found an old cover of a Cannibal Corpse album and photo-shopped a photo of Lil' Sin performing on Broadway into a skeletal hand and called it a night. Note if you will, the "D" in death. It seems as if somebody forgot to composite the background behind into the D and decided that leaving the interior of the letter black was the right artistic choice. It's inattention to detail like that which makes this piece so visually arresting.

Eightball & MJG - Coming Out Hard (Suave House, 1993)

Eightball & MJG's classic album, Comin' Out Hard, is not only influential on the Southern rap scene but it features one of the earliest work of Pen & Pixel available. Now on first glance, it appears that it's simply a photo of Eightball and MJG sitting in a Ford Mustang near a city skyline but closer inspection quickly reveals early CGI magic. On a closer glance, our heroes heads are disturbingly over-sized and are not actually sitting in the car at all but instead have being magically photo-shopped into a crappy stock photo from your local car show. A closer inspection also reveals the skyline to be a 3D drawing of the finest quality on par with the graphics of Myst. Simply stunning.

Silkk The Shocker - Charge It Da Game (No Limit Records, 1998)

Master P's weed carrying brother's, Silkk the Shocker, album, Charge It 2 Game is vintage Pen & Pixel at it's finest. Their signature style of glossy box letters, horrifically photo-shopped status symbols and generic Microsoft Word-esque fonts all are present and gives this album cover the classic Pen & Pixel look. What I'm particularly enamored with is the font for the album title. It looks as if they completely forgot to place it in the original design and had to quickly stamp it over on top the album, in order for it to be not a self-titled Silkk the Shocker CD. No one needs that.

Mercedes - Rear End (No Limit Records, 1999)

Mercedes was an R&B singer signed to No Limit Records who released one record in the late '90s. I can't say I remember anything at all about her (hence the one record...) but I gotta say this particular album cover is umm... "stimulating." The cover out manages to miraculously out-ghetto Adina Howard's cover for Do You Wanna Ride? But what's most striking about this album... the class.

Lil' Flip - The Leprechaun (Sucka Tree, 2000)
Lucky Charms! Leprechauns! Lil Flip! Do I need to say more?

Eightball - Lost (Draper Inc, 1998)

This is just a cornucopia of photo-shopped crappiness. Pyramids sit next to crashed space shuttles. Vultures stalk used Chevy Cavaliers. Mysterious floating direction signs. The secrets of the Illuminati can be discerned from studying the mysteries of this cover.

Soulja Slim - Give It 2 'Em Raw (1998, No Limit Records)

Soulja Slim brings an overt military theme to his album. I guess he was going the obvious root.

Young Bleed - My Balls & My Word (No Limit Records, 1998)

Pen and Pixel channel the pleasures of air-brushed unicorn t-shirts and a ghetto heaven for Young Bleed's seminal debut album, My Balls & My Word. Those are some glorious tigers! Glorious tigers!

Juvenile - 400 Degreez (Cash Money Records, 1999)

One of the more noted aspects of the Pen & Pixel covers is that the often literal interpretation of the album title. This classic cover for Juvenile's 400 Degreez is the epitome of the aesthetic; Blinged out fonts, melodramatic brimstone, and gyrating women all contribute to a classic cover but it's the flaming walls of the fire that make it unforgettable.

Snoop Dogg - Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told (No Limit Records, 1998)

Snoop's ill-advised move to No Limit Records after Death Row's implosion produced pretty universally awful music. However, this album cover maybe the one good thing that ever came out of the whole debacle. "Da Game Is To Be Sold" personifies the bling-bling aesthetic of the period as the iced out dog collars and European style mansion can attest. Snoop World indeed.

Lil' Wayne - Tha Block Is Hot (Cash Money Records, 1999)

Even at the genesis of Lil Wayne's career, Dwayne Carter had the creepy homo-eroticism down to a science. It's good to know that in the ten years since the album's release that Lil Wayne has neither put on a pound nor gained any muscle definition whatsoever. Put a shirt on, son.

Master P - MP Da Last Don - (No Limit Records, 1998)

This is perhaps the most iconic Pin & Pixel cover in the history of their work. It features Master P, The Originator Of The Style, sporting a black pimp suit, flashing his gaudy jewelry, smoking a large, phallic cigar in a large gothic cathedral. It represents the epitome of all that Pin & Pixel represents to the public. Note: While researching this piece, I came across a story of how Master P and Pin & Pixel became so inextricably linked. P&P had produced a cover for one of Master P's rivals in the early '90s featuring a cover of an Ice Cream truck being blown to smithereens by an explosion. Master P caught feelings over this image, as one of his earliest hits was the seminal "Ice Cream Man", and decided that he would pay visit to the graphic company and beat the shit out of the artists. Pin & Pixel were surprised to learn this and claimed they had no idea what the imagery meant but instead of getting their ass-kicked by an enraged Percy Miller, they offered to help re-brand his fledgling company. The rest they say is history. And to think if this hadn't happened we might not be treated to...

Big Bear - Doin Thangs (Tru Game, 1998)

The Sistine Chapel Of The Genre... .