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The Ave Podcast – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ #15Years

The Ave Podcast with Cal Cee. Episode 38: Get Rich of Die Tryin’ #15Years

We here at South Shore Ave decided to gas up the DeLorean & taking you back to the first week of February 2003 (Feb 6th to be precise). Shady/Aftermath launched 50 Cent’s debut album, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, one of biggest selling Hip Hop albums of all time, selling over 12 million units. Riding the wave of his mixtape popularity, 50 Cent leveraged his fame from the streets in 2002, creating one of the biggest buzzes in Hip Hop history. It forced Eminem & Dr. Dre to put their record companies together in a joint venture to sign 50, and helped to make him one of the biggest artists in music, changing the game in the process with his debut album.

Today on The Ave Podcast, I invite past contributor to South Shore Ave Shawn Adonis (The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, as we discuss the career of 50 Cent pre-Get Rich, break down the album’s impact on the Hip Hop industry, rank our Top 5 songs, and compare the album to the other classic Hip Hop albums of this current century.

*** DISCLAIMER: THIS PODCAST EPISODE CONTAINS EXPLICIT LANGUAGE. ***

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The Ave Podcast with Cal Cee // Episode 38

 

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Cal Cee // South Shore Ave

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Golden Era: 20th Anniversary of The Notorious B.I.G’s Ready To Die

We here at South Shore Ave are gassing up the DeLorean & taking you back to the musical Golden Era of 90’s music to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of one of the Greatest Times in Hip Hop history. On September 13, 1994, right in the middle of the Golden Age of 90s Hip Hop, Bad Boy Records officially dropped the debut album The Notorious BIG “Ready To Die“. This album went on to become one of the most iconic and influential albums of the genre, simultaneously making Bad Boy an industry super power and launching Biggie into superduperstar status. As we celebrate the anniversary of Ready To Die, with the help of my friend Shawn Adonis, we break down the top four songs from the album. If you don’t know, now you know….

UNBELIEVABLE

Breeze through in the Q-45 by my side, lyrical high / and those that rushes my clutches get put on crutches / get smoke like dutches from the master / hate to blast ya but I have to / you see I smoke a lot, your life is played out like Kwamé / and them fu**ing polka dots…

Cee: I don’t wanna add any more hyperbole to this song as great as it is already, but I could have honestly quoted the whole first verse of the song. When Biggie’s name was buzzing back in the summer of ’93 with his Party and Bullshit track, as much as I liked him and all the remixes he was on (i.e. see Mary J. Blige’s Real Love remix), I would have never thought he would have reached the lyrical levels that he brought to the song. I’ll admit, I just didn’t see the other levels coming. Before anything else that was released from him off of Ready To Die, this was actually the first cut I heard from the album. You can tell the difference in his voice from this song compared to the previously released tracks. It always sounded like he was yelling &/or too hyped up when he was rapping, as great as the songs were.

On “Unbelievable”, he appeared to be more relaxed, the confidence in his abilities had fully grown, & the swagger was completely swollen. But the lyrics….the lyrics….the lyrics though. In retrospect, what he did to that DJ Premier beat almost wasn’t fair. How he set up the metaphors (i.e.Breeze through in the Q-45 by my side…”), intersects the humor (i.e.Wear boxers so my dick can breathe“), ended the remaining potential of rappers careers (i.e. The Kwamé shot), this wasn’t just lyrical gymnastics, it was a verbal P90X session. Again, I’m only speaking about the first verse. Do you know how difficult it was to stand out like that lyrically in ’94 when people like Nas, Snoop, Jeru, Redman, Wu-Tang, Scarface, Keith Murray, Buckshot & everyone else were roaming the streets? And yet, he was so ridiculously talented that he made major room at the table anyway. The song title actually says it all to be honest.

Shawn: Very well said Cee. I’ve gotta say, you brought up some very interesting points that I’ve never really considered. And that I fully intend to steal like a burglar, while I head to the nearest barber shop to pass them off as my own original & enlightened thoughts so that I can be showered with praise.

I had heard a few tracks from Mr. Biggie Smalls before hearing “Unbelievable”, but they never captivated me enough to really keep my attention. The hyped up yelling flow that you mentioned just didn’t do anything for me, but this song changed all of that.  Just like you Cal, this was also the first track that I heard from Ready to Die. It was back in the days before you could go online and hear any song you wanted with the click of a mouse.  If you wanted to make yourself a hip hop mixtape (which back then was actually literally a tape), you had to sit by the radio with your fingers hovering over the ‘play’ & ‘record’ buttons waiting to hear something that was worthy to make the cut, and you were afraid to leave the room, cause as soon as you did, that’s when they’d play a song you wanted.  As soon as I heard that Primo beat come in, I started recording with the quickness.  After trying to figure out who “Sticky Smalls” was (I can’t be the only one who thought, and still thinks, that the hook sounds like he’s saying “Sticky, Sticky, Sticky Smalls is the illest”…. Perhaps this was some intentional brilliance that I just wasn’t cool enough to understand.  Why not just emphasize the B?). I heard him spit that first bar and I knew I made a wise recording decision.

No one can debate that Big was given a heater of a beat.  Back in those days Premier could have used a sample of himself passing a bowel movement, and as long as he mixed it right and added a baseline to it, it would be an instant classic.  But the “Unbelievable” beat stands out to me because it could have went either way depending on who laid down the verses over it, and the Notorious one’s style, flow, and energy is what made you take heed to the beat.  Any other rapper on that beat would have been like someone wearing a fly outfit with a beat up and bummy pair of sneakers.  It would have just ruined the whole thing.

What separated this song from others at that time, was that other rappers often used two bars to complete a thought, however, Biggie laced every bar with entirely new subject matter, and kept it up for line after insanely lyrical line. You hardly had a chance to process everything he was coming at you with.

And one last thing, that senseless unprovoked jab at Kwame was totally uncalled for. That poor bastard was probably somewhere plotting his comeback, when out of nowhere he was blindsided by the most relevant thing in rap saying he was now irrelevant.  I can’t help but to think that he was probably in a dark room somewhere pouring gasoline on his polka-dotted memorabilia, with tears streaming from his sleepy eyes.  To avoid the public backlash he was probably forced to change his identity……. which would have pretty much consisted of him dying that bleached swirl in his hair black.  Without that or the polka-dots, no one could have picked him out of a line up.

JUICY

It was all a dream / I used to read Word Up! magazine / Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine / Hanging’ pictures on the wall / Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl.

Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood / And it’s still all good / Uh… and if you don’t know, now you know, ni**a.”

Cee: It’s safe to say this is the most popular song Biggie ever made, right? I mean, we could make an honest case for that, can’t we? I don’t believe it was his best work, but it did its job, which was introducing him to the masses. And it worked in a major way. People can rip him all they want, but much praise goes out to Puff Daddy (I’m using his original name dammit!) for coming up with the idea of using Biggie’s talents over an old, classic 80s record. Sure, he almost ended up literally overkilling hip hop a few years later with that same “Just use the whole beat, don’t bother sampling it. No one will care!” formula, but for this song & some of the other Biggie songs & collabos down the line (i.e. Sky’s The Limit” and, I Love The Dough), it always worked to perfection. It was perfect actually. It allowed Biggie to stay street & gutter talking about his rags-to-riches story, but having the melodic nostalgia to play on major radio stations & still suck you in. In fact, the remakes Puffy created would bring new life to a whole new generation. Think about it Shawn, in 1994, what teenager even knew who the hell Mtume was?

To me, what made this song more of a classic than anything else is the video & the fact that it actually matches the lyrics. This is probably one of the more true to life videos we’ve seen, especially back then. It shows the progression from him hustling on the corner; getting arrested; his boys running after someone for doing something that violated crew standards; getting interviewed by the pool; his boys playing Street Fighter with either a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis on a 50-inch screen while Big, Puff & from the looks of the older token white man sitting beside him, his accountant handling business on the money green leather couches. Shit, he even had his Moms in the video holding the Source Magazine with a smile on her face. This was almost as authentic as you can get. A feel good story that matched the wordplay letter for letter.

If this song drops in 2014, there would be girl-on-girl kissing in the pool while guys pour Peach Ciroc on them; everyone holding red cups sipping on that lean & blowing weed smoke into the camera; & the reporter would have dropped the mic, stripped down to her bra & thong, to then start twerking on Big to the point of muscle spasming. But in 1994, everyone just waved their hands in the air & partied by the pool. It was almost wholesome.

Sidenote: Did you ever look at a street light & wanna do pull ups on it too Shawn or was it just me?

Shawn: Most definitely Cal, not only did those pull ups and dips on the street lights make those guys look like ghetto superheroes to me (cause as I’m sure you remember, I had what one might describe as a stick figure physique back then), but it inspired me to climb lamp posts to get my strength up. Unfortunately, they’re 30 feet high around here, so my fear of death deterred me a bit.

Now, I know that what I’m about to say is going to be considered the highest form of Hip Hop blasphemy known to man, and that the ground may open up and swallow me whole as soon as I finish typing this……..but…….. I’ve never really liked Juicy. * insert Gasp here *

Ok, now don’t get me wrong, I definitely understand the allure of the song and why so many people like it.  How can you not enjoy the story of a young downtrodden kid from the hood, single parent home, mother that struggled to put food on the table, took to the streets to make money, experienced the ups and downs of hustling, went to prison, pursued music to finally become one of the top rappers in the game, living a lavish life and finally being able to take care of his Mom.  I get it completely.  It’s just not my cup of tea musically.  So let me defend my opinion here.

First of all, like you said Cal, this wasn’t Big’s most lyrical contribution to the Album, and back then I was a lyrical fiend, I would live for those “I can’t believe he said that, I have to rewind it 30 times” moments, and this song had zero of these moments.  Secondly, that beat never did anything for me.  It was so simple, so boring.  I’ve never been tempted to so much as nod my head to, or even tap my foot to this song. When it comes on in the club, that’s my cue to take a trip to the bathroom. When it comes on the radio, that’s when I switch to the news station to get caught up on current events.  It’s one of those songs that you hear once and that’s enough.

It’s a great story that would make a great movie (which ironically was poorly casted years later, and made a mediocre movie at best), and like you said Cal it made a great video.  Sure, parts of it that looked cool to me back then, look a bit cornier and outdated now, but that’s only because people took this video’s blueprint and improved upon it throughout the years, which is why all the classics look a bit corny.  From what I remember too, this was the first video of that era where a rapper stepped out that “grimey” persona, and made it look cool to throw on some linens and hard-bottoms.  In a rap climate where Wu Tang, Nas, Boot Camp, and others made sure they were dressed in clothes that would make them “fit the description” of a perpetrator,  Biggie made it look cool to be classy.

Even though we only got little glimpses of it in this video, how cool were Puff’s diddy bop scenes? We had no idea at the time that Puff’s smooth two step/shoulder jerk/arm wave/neck bob/spin-around dance moves would end up playing Robin to Biggie’s Batman in his future videos and performances.  Or who would have imagined back then that this shirtless dancing champagne sipper would become one of the biggest music moguls in history?

By the way, not only did I not know who Mtume was in 1994, I don’t  know who they are in 2014 either.  But thanks to my pal Google, I’m fully caught up now.  Those dudes look disco-rific.  And sadly a lot of people would hear the original song today and think they stole Biggie’s ‘Juicy‘ beat.

Hey….um…. that 2014 version of the video you described, would you happen to have a link to that video that I could check out for some….. Uh…. research?

Cee: I’m sure we can find that version on Youtube somewhere. ***Searching***

BIG POPPA

“To all the ladies in the place with style and grace / Allow me to lace these lyrical douches in your bushes / Who rocks grooves and make moves with all the mommies / The back of the club sipping Moet is where you’ll find me / The back of the club, mackin’ hoes, my crew’s behind me / Mad question asking, blunt passing, music blasting / But I just can’t quit/Because one of these honeys Biggie gots to creep with”

“I love it when they call me Big Poppa / Throw your hands in the air if you’s a true playa”

Cee: This song is the blueprint and the reason why Rick Ross can take his shirt off, let his tatted man boobs swing freely into the air today & nobody bats an eye. In Hip Hop, The Fat Boys made being big funny and comical as well as stereotypical. I mean, we understood they were fat, but did they really have to talk about their love of food & gorge on pizzas in interviews too? Even as a little kid, I never took them seriously. Heavy D made the big man dynamic into something cool and fun. Not only were his songs on par with some of the best Hip Hop & R&B material during the late 80s & early 90s, but he kept up with everyone & them some on the dance floor in the era where you danced until you sweat through your clothes. He wore the suits, had his dancers behind him doing all the innovative dance moves (one of his dancers Trouble T. Roy died unfortunately during an accident at one of his shows, and was forever remembered on the T.R.O.Y classic by Pete Rock & CL Smooth), and even introduced Monifah to the game. I will never, ever be mad at him for that one.  With that said, as great as he was, he never gave off the image to women that they wanted to get with him. They wanted to party with him, and maybe afterwards give him a great big hug when the night was done.

Here’s where Biggie changed things. You know how you can speak things into existence? Meaning that if you keep making affirmations to groups of people after a while, the affirmation starts to become believable. Well, with songs like these and “One More Chance” (both the original & the Remix) off the album, Biggie gave the affirmation that he was a ladies man & gave all big boys a chance to prove they can also play the field. You kept seeing it in his videos. He started moving differently, performing in concerts in dress shirts, slacks & suits. He started looking more like the head of a crime family instead of a rapper. The bigger his star power got, the hotter the music got, the more women just started flocking to him. A year after this album dropped, this dude was married to one of the most popular R&B artists in the game on his own label (Faith Evans), & had a mistress on the side that we all pretty much knew wasn’t a real secret (Lil’ Kim). He converted this supposed weakness into strength and power.

The allure of power. It can make you look more appealing than you really are, funnier to your peers than you can ever imagine, and look more appealing than you really are. There’s a reason why I wrote that twice….it’s because it’s true. Some of your favorite athletes & entertainers are not the best looking guys, let’s face facts here. Also, the fact is, Biggie was not an appealing looking guy. Heavy-set, heavy-tongued, labored breathing when he spoke, & had an eye that was lazier than the least motivated couch potato. Not only did he know that, he effin’ told us this & rapped it so ridiculously most times, that it no longer became a focus. He turned his rap skills into a persona and his persona into superstardom. This song is living proof. Even in the video, he’s leaving with two chicks. I know it’s only a video & they said “Cut!” when he walked offscreen, but the images from that & the lyrics he spat made you think that this was at least possible to believe.

Most importantly, Big Poppa is a classic anthem that can still rock radio and clubs in 2014. The flow, cockiness & swagger was ahead of its time. Throw in The Isley Brothers Between the Sheets sampling, he raised the bar for “I’m gonna take you home. Here’s why and you’re gonna love it” records & almost made it mandatory for rappers to have at least one record on their album like this if they wanted to go major. All this from a  man who self-described himself as black and ugly.

One more thing: In the video, is there any reason why he couldn’t be in the whirlpool with the video chicks too? Puffy’s in the thing with all these woman wearing next to nothing, pouring champagne, basically about to get it in….. & Biggie’s rapping outside the lip of the pool like he’s providing them elevator music. The song’s called Big Poppa, shouldn’t he reap the benefits 100%? Instead he only got 80% like a work dental plan. Smh.

Shawn: You hit the nail on the obese head there my brotha. Big rapped with an arrogance and confidence that made it seem like if you were a woman, and weren’t craving him in all of his big, black, fat glory….then there was something wrong with you.  But something tells me, if he were Chris Wallace the grocery clerk, he may not have had that affect on the ladies.  It’s amazing how money and power seem to sexify a man in a woman’s eyes.  But then again who knows. They say he was a really charming dude, so maybe he would have dropped a line like, “Would you like paper, plastic, or latex?”, and he would still have the women fighting over his large physique.  

I’ve never really been a huge fan of these cassanova tracks, where rappers act like their lives are a never-ending Axe commercial.  But Big Poppa had to be the best of its genre, not only offering you ladies-man braggadocio, but clever wordplay such as: 

“Really honey listen I’m askin / most of the fellas think they be mackin’ / but they be actin’ / who they attractin’ with that line what’s your name what’s your sign / soon as he buy that wine I just creep up from behind…” 

Gotta respect a man that lets another dude buy the drinks before he comes in and snatches the woman right from under him, and quite aggressively too.  In the video Biggie moved the dude aside by palming his face like Kareem Abdul Jabbar.  Talk about adding insult to injury. I hope that dude went home after that. There’s no respectable way to dance and try look cool in the club after another man no-look passes your face. 

I have one question: Who was that chick that played the main love interested related too???  She had to be the director’s sister or something, cause she straight up looked like snaggle puss in the face.  Not only is she not the prettiest chick in the video, she wasn’t even the prettiest of the three people in that scene with her, Big and Busta.  I mean, maybe she had a killer body, but you couldn’t really tell cause they didn’t pan down.  Didn’t this chick look like Ludacris from the “Word of Mouf” album cover?  Google that pic and tell me that’s not the same person. 

I hear what you’re saying Cee about that hot tub scene, they got Biggie up there rapping, steam from the hot tub probably got him dripping sweat under that leather jersey, leather sticking to his skin, all uncomfortable.  They couldn’t even invite a brotha to roll up his pant legs and let his feet dangle in the water, with the hot water bubbles massaging his feet?  Honestly, it’s only cause Big played it so cool, making it look like he gets so much ass, that it didn’t even phase him to let his peoples enjoy moments like that.  Most men, myself included, would have taken a running start into a canon ball in that tub.  But I guess that’s what separates Big Poppa from the rest.

It’s all good Baby Baabeehh…..

THE WHAT ft. Method Man

“(Assume the position) / Stop, look and listen / I spit on your grave then I grab my Charles Dickens, bitch” – Method Man

Shawn: Cal my good man, the first time I heard Method Man, my favorite rapper at the time, spit that line, I thought my head was going to explode into my Wu Tang scully (actually, I was never cool enough to have a Wu Tang scully, and by the time I finally had two pennies to rub together and bought a Wu Tang t-shirt, it shrunk after one wash and was unwearable. Very traumatizing. I try to repress those painful memories). Not that it was necessarily the best line in the song, cause Meth and Big went back and forth with with so many hot lines that to borrow (steal) your phrase from earlier, I could have quoted the entire song, but something about this line stood out from the rest for me.

For the only feature on Ready to Die, Biggie employed the services of one of the games most captivating characters, the most recognizable member of the famed Wu Tang Clan, the “M-e-t-h-o-d Man”. Remember Cee, back then features happened about as rarely as a solar eclipse. Nowadays, rappers are feature whores, hopping on tracks with every other rapper, every time the wind changes direction.  It’s so bad now, that some rappers have more songs featuring other artists than they even have by themselves, and truth be told, it’s because a lot of them aren’t talented enough to hold your attention for a whole 3 minutes.  Some songs have so many different people featured on them, that by the time the song is over, you don’t remember who the song originally belonged to. But this wasn’t the case with “The What“. They were two rappers in their prime that could have easily commanded an entire song by themselves. What they offered their listeners was a rare gift.  Back then, cross-crew collabos were so rare that when you heard that two rappers you liked were hopping on a track together, you were actually excited, cause you knew you were in for some musical magic that probably wouldn’t be repeated any time soon by the pairing, if ever.

This song was very necessary for the album, it struck a balance between songs that real hip hop head’s would love (most men), and the more commercial snoozefest tracks like ‘Juicy’ that catered to a different demographic (mostly women, and we know that men like what women like).

I’m sure that Big spitting that opening line about throwing “Shield’s on the dick” was probably the last time a rapper claimed to use anything but Magnums, wouldn’t you say?  These days every rapper claims to be packing an Anaconda.  You have dudes that are 5’2″, 100 pounds, looking like they haven’t gone through puberty, yet claiming to be suffering from Ron Jeremy syndrome (I may have dated myself with that reference, and inadvertently revealed to my parents that those nights that I said I was watching “wrestling” in the basement, the blonde and brunette weren’t Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper) .  And then of course, in the next bar they use the word “magnum” as a double entendre in reference to a handgun. Man, hip hop is depressingly predictable these days.

Cee: Before I jump on this song, I wanna pour out a lil’ liquor for the career of producer Easy Mo Bee. Seriously speaking, this dude had a major hand musically for the first two projects for Bad Boy Records. I’ll never, ever take anything away from the talents of Biggie or Craig Mack, but think of how different life would be for those guys coming into the game without his production. I actually forgot just how much work he did for these guys. From “Party & Bullshit” to Flava in Ya Ear (AND the Remix!) to Get Down, I mean, I especially remember just how hot those records were back then. Shit, the “Flava in Ya Ear Remix” still shuts down parties now. By all accounts this is supposed to be one of the greatest albums that ever came across the Hip Hop genre & this man literally produced 1/3 of all the songs on it.  A third! Yet, by the time this album (and to a lesser extent, Craig Mack’s album) exploded, Biggie was a superstar, Puff was a superstar, Craig Mack was at his peak of screaming “Haaaa buoy!” everywhere with his Philly Afro-cutting ass, but where was Easy Mo Bee’s name in flashing neon lights??? Poor dude got left at the docks with his knapsack & suitcase while the party boat departed without him. He’s been properly credited for his work on “Gimme the Loot”, “Machine Gun Funk”, “Warning” (undisputed classic), and the album title track (Ready to Die), so I’m hoping he was properly paid for his services, however, I still can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. He’s THE forgotten entity off this classic & one of the most overlooked producers in hip hop history. I mean Shawn, did you know that he even produced this?!?!?!

Outside of DJ Premier with “Unbelievable”, Easy Mo Bee quite possibly produced the hottest beat on Ready to Die with “The What”. It might sound simple, but it’s a perfect combination of eerie and funkiness.  Also, if you’re gonna bring someone like Method Man in the studio to rap, wouldn’t it be to something like this? This beat was made for him. In fact, Easy Mo Bee created the perfect backdrop for both these rappers to come out with their best lyrics. If this was a boxing match, it would have been Method Man in a split decision, IF Biggie didn’t drop that last verse to make it a solid draw. Both guys are firing haymakers in this song, but these bars right here….

“I used to do stick ups, cause hoes is irritating like the **hiccups** / Excuse me, flows just grow through me / Like trees to branches / cliffs to avalanches / It’s the praying mantis….”

…..it showed another example of Biggie as the brightest of stars. Back in 1994, before Tical came out, Method Man was arguably the hottest rapper in hip hop. If he featured on your song, you had to perform first because once he got on, you had to do like those safe sex commercials & wrap it up. Nobody cared about you after he performed. Just sing the hook & get the hell out of Dodge. Make no mistake about it, Method Man came for the jugular here. So for Biggie not to only fight that off buzzsaw, but to drop lyrics like the ones I just quoted with almost effortless flair, it should have shown anyone who wasn’t aware that he was going to be major. And he was. By the beginning of ’95, he was the biggest hip hop star alive. You couldn’t touch him. The only ones that was on his stratosphere lyrically &/or star power-wise was Nas, Meth (and Wu Tang as a whole), Snoop & probably Tupac before he got shot and went to jail. He was not only the King of New York, but was basically the King of everything. Like Nas with Illmatic, he dropped a Mona Lisa. Unlike Nas, he eventually changed the game from how we looked to what we wore & what liquor to drink.

Looking back at it now, my generation was so spoiled because we had such groundbreaking legends from the rappers to producers who were creating at such a high level that we almost took it for granted. Almost. As a huge lover of music, I kind of wish that today’s generation experienced what mine did because we got fed. If hip hop was a restaurant, it was a five-star restaurant in the mid-90s. We were eating filet mignon & caviar, & washing it down with some Autumn Reisling wine and champagne often. As the times went along, the prices got more expensive and some of the superb dishes that we got to eat were taken off the menu. Now in 2014, a five-star meal mostly consists of spaghetti and meatballs with Allen’s Apple juice, & it’s being eaten up by everyone under the age of 25. I don’t want to knock it & say it’s not a good meal, but the palate of my generation was forever affected. Some of us decided to close our eyes and dig in, while others decided to try different restaurants altogether. And some like myself, want to try these new dishes, but when I look back at albums like Ready to Die & remember how well off I was, I end up walking out of the establishment shaking my head. Maybe that makes me a snob. Maybe so…. & it might be better that way. Damn, I hope I didn’t make you get hungry…..  

 

Cal Cee // South Shore Ave

To subscribe to The Baseline Blog, click onto the Follow button. Very special thanks to Shawn Adonis for his contributions to this posting.

Golden Era: 20th Anniversary of Nas’ Illmatic

We here at South Shore Ave are gassing up the DeLorean & taking you back to the musical Golden Era of 90’s music to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of one of the Greatest Times in Hip Hop history. On April 19, 1994, an up and coming 20 year old rapper named Nasir Jones released his debut album Illmatic, which would go onto become one of the top five greatest albums in hip hop. As we celebrate the album rerelease of Illmatic today (not to mention the release of the Time Is Illmatic documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival tomorrow), we will review the direction it took hip hop, the impact it had on its genre’s history, list the Top 5 tracks, and the most overlooked song on the groundbreaking album. It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine….

Illmatic launched the super producer era.

Before this album started, most of the big named rappers (either solo or group) had an in-house producer that handled most, if not all of the production. DJ Premier handled all of the Gang Starr beats. Pete Rock manned the board while CL Smooth mostly handled the mic. Both NWA and Death Row was handled by Dr. Dre. Public Enemy was handled by their in-house production team The Bomb Squad. Tribe was handled mostly by Q-Tip, RZA handled all things Wu-Tang, Black Moon had The Beatminerz, the list goes on and on. On Illmatic, the game was changed in that regard. It was the first album that had multiple big named producers contributing to the work. Not only that, but with regards to Primo, Q-Tip & Pete Rock, these guys were at the very top of the producer game in hip hop. It also set off a friendly competitive environment with all the producers. No one wanted to be the one that put out the subpar beat on what was supposed to be the coming of the next Rakim at the time. As much as they all supported each other’s work & sat in on each other’s studio sessions, it also kept them on their toes to deliver their best. Primo even stated that after sitting in on the session and listening to Pete Rock create “The World is Yours” and also listening to Q-Tip do the beat for “One Love” , he was so blown away he felt he had to go back to the studio to come up with something on the same level of what he had just heard. He ended up remaking the beat for “Represent.

Just think of how hot those producers were at the time the LP was created. Q-Tip was fresh off of making the Midnight Marauders classic album with Tribe Called Quest. DJ Premier was working on Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn LP just after the success of the Daily Operation LP and the ’92 summer smash Dwyck. Pete Rock came off of Mecca and The Soul Brother success, just helped Run DMC become relevant again with Down With The Kingand gave the world the House of Pain’s Jump Aroundremix a few months prior. All three of these guys basically were having MVP seasons & all of them (including Large Professor & L.E.S.) felt compelled to give the then 20-year old some of the very best work they had to offer. Within a few years, having the hottest producers on your album (if you were a big name & could afford it) became the norm to make your album. If you had the major buzz coming before your debut album came out, it was almost a prerequisite. The In-House producer didn’t become extinct necessarily, but it definitely took a huge backseat to the new method of creating an album. Illmatic was the original blueprint. 

Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park) is the most underrated record on Illmatic.

“Pumping for something, some’ll prosper, some will fail/Judges hanging ni**as, uncorrect bails for direct sales/My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails/I reinforce the frail with lyrics that’s real”

Not only is this track underrated, after listening to the lyrics yet again, this song may be the true soul of the album. Nas takes us back on a journey to his youth & touched down on everything from: his boy getting robbed for his sheepskin coat; to the friends whose lives have been lost; to the justice system that is designed to take down him & other black people, to the legendary drug dealers that ran New York City in the late 80s. More importantly, it also may arguably be the most lyrically dense song on Illmatic, which is saying a whole lot considering this is one of, if not the most lyrical hip hop debuts that ever existed. The belief in his rhymes is that he is the Verbal Massiah, here to uplift his listeners, inspire them, and give them a glimpse into the future of what the new standard of lyricism will be.

However, the song shines even more with the production of DJ Premier, and by flipping an old Reuben Wilson song into a laid back, underrated classic. The song brings out a 70’s nostalgic kind of vibe that marries Nas’ lyrics to the beat. As incredible as Primo was as the producer of all the Gang Starr classics (i.e. Code of the Streets), it was his work here & the other tracks (“N.Y. State of Mind”, “Represent”) from Illmatic that helped thrust him further into superstardom. Post-Illmatic, if you wanted your album to be hot, you had to get a Primo beat to make it official. In addition, to top it off, Primo provided his legendary cuts & scratches to the “Coming Outta Queensbridge” sample at the ending of the song, basically killing anything else left on the track that Nas didn’t already destroy in the first 3+ minutes. Trust me, the more you listen to the record, the more you realize this song doesn’t get its just due. 

The Top 5 songs on Illmatic. In order.

Just remember, this is my list and my opinion. If you feel differently by all means, feel free to share. Who doesn’t want to have heated discussions about Illmatic? You can probably flip these 5 songs about 100 different ways in terms of ranking, but however, let’s review the list.

Just know this was hard to rank. HARD. 

5. One Love (produced by Q-Tip)

“On the reals/All these crab ni**as know the deals/when we start the revolution all they probably do is squeal/But chill…”

“So I come back home, nobody’s out but Shorty Doo-Wop/rolling two Phillies together in the bridge we call ’em oo-wops”

Probably the best “jail letter to my homie(s)” record ever recorded. Many artists have tried to follow in his footsteps of keeping connected with his friends in jail as years gone past, but nothing touches “One Love”. Q-Tip blesses Nas with the Xylophone’d out track that almost making you feel like Roy Ayers was sitting by your speakers. How he makes that instrument work in hip hop like that I’ll never know.

One part I have to bring up: forget the part about him providing updates on the hood, or him trying to provide advice to twelve year old Shorty Doo-Wop rolling up blunts (maybe he should have, you know, taken the blunts out of “Doo-Wop’s” hands instead seeing that he may have been a senior in elementary school??), but couldn’t they use a better girl as his boy’s baby mother in the video? She has a faint moustache! I know this was 1994 & everything, maybe the budget wasn’t huge, but video chicks came from this era of hip hop. There’s no excuse for this just like there’s no excuse for a uni-browed chick to get a close up head shot. Even back then, it always confused me when I saw that part. Of course shorty don’t care, she’s got excessive facial hair & she still has dudes trying to get with her. Why would she care?

4. Life’s A Bitch (produced by L.E.S.)

“Visualizing the realism of life in actuality/F*** who’s the baddest, the person’s status depends on salary”

“Life’s a bitch and then you die/That’s why we get high/Cause you never know when you gonna go”

– AZ

Think of how sick AZ’s presence was on this song. Firstly, he was the only guest artist on the whole album outside of Nas’ boys conversing at the beginning of “One Love” & chanting the song title on “Represent”. Secondly, his debut verse & hook was so hot that he started a major bidding war between record labels, eventually signing to EMI Records later on that year. A year later, he dropped the classic Sugar Hill track off of his debut album Doe or Die (which had a lot of gems on it) & helped to spin off his rap career. All of this came from his verse and the hook alone. That was the power of this album. If you produced something hot or in this case, spit something hot, you were gonna become a star if you weren’t one already. It’s amazing how album sales for Illmatic were slow coming out the gate even though it was revered at the time.

It’s even debatable that he even outdid Nas on his own track, though if you listen to Nas’ verse I’m still not so sure. Either way, Life’s A Bitch was the song that formed future collabos and The Firm album from the duo. Nas’ pops Olu Dara comes in with the smooth sounding horns at the end of record & adds a classy touch. Here’s an interesting fact: Nas originally wanted to sample Mtume’s Juicy Fruit, but L.E.S. didn’t have the record. So he ended up sampling The Gap Band’s Yearning For Your Love instead. Imagine that, he would have beaten Biggie to the punch had he come out with that first, mostly likely forcing Biggie to use another sample to make “Juicy”. Actually, no……I don’t wanna imagine that.

3. It Ain’t Hard to Tell (produced by Large Professor)

“Deep like The Shining/Sparkle like a diamond/Sneak an Uzi on the island in my army jacket lining”

Nah, nah, nah. Rewind that back…

“Deep like The Shining/Sparkle like a diamond/Sneak an Uzi on the island in my army jacket lining”

Oh my Gawd!! The first time my friends and I heard this line, our brains exploded. Back then, it was like going from Sega Genesis to a PS4 overnight without gradual process. Lyrically it was unlike anything we had ever heard. When we saw the video, it was simple, but still cool enough that it affected us to the point that we believed in all things Nas. If they sold Nas socks, Nas baseball caps, Nas jackets, Nas hoodies, Nas Fun Dip, Nas water bottles, Nas .40 ounces, Nas poutine (I am from Montreal, so…), whatever it was, we would have literally cleared the shelves of it. We were sold like that. Throw in Michael Jackson’s Human Nature sample which SWV also previously sampled to make a huge hit in the summer of ’93, some of the other gems and flows that he dropped on this song (Nas will analyze/Drop a jewel/Inhale from the L/school a fool well/you feel it like Braille….), & giving us the term “half-man/half amazing” and it was over. O-V-E-R.

It’s strikingly amazing that this song is only ranked third on my list. It could have ranked higher but, well, there are two reasons why….

2. The World is Yours (produced by Pete Rock)

“I sip the Dom P watching Ghandi ’til I’m charged/Then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin”

In my opinion, it’s not only my favorite song off Illmatic, but it’s my favorite Nas song ever. More than “Street Dreams”, “Nas is Like”, “2nd Childhood”, “The Message” and, “One on One” & every other classic he ever put out. I’m an absolute sucker for piano loops, so that piano intro right at the beginning caught my attention. Pete Rock comes in to sing the question “Who’s world is this?”, Nas drops the lyrical gems. It’s not a complicated track, but the flow and the production is incredible. Quite frankly, it’s one of Pete Rock’s greatest beats. The mellow landscape allows Nas to paint the vivid picture of his life & how he views his surroundings. The video then captures the laid-back & mellow vibe but intersects shots that matches the lyrics.

Does it also help that the song is about 30% better because the song title is lifted from the silver Globe in the indoor water fountain/pool that Tony Montana had in his living room, before he fell in it by way of the shotgun blast to his back? Hell yes!!

More than that, similar to like Memory Lane, this song hits you right across the chest in a soulful, nostalgic way. You can just close your eyes, and you’re transported to your teenage days (in my case, back to 1994) trying to navigate through the pitfalls and obstacles that come in front of you. Funny thing is, even when that song was released, the song made me feel nostalgic too. No, it doesn’t mean that I closed my eyes & I was playing with Legos in front of the TV waiting for Transformers to come on. It just means that it had an old familiar vibe to it, that made it forever timeless. To this day, it remains the flawless diamond above the rest of gems on this album. I won’t even get into the remix for this track, which was almost as sweet as this original.

However, there was another song that was more significant….

1. N.Y. State of Mind (produced by DJ Premier)

“The smooth criminal on beat breaks/never put me in your box if the shit eats tapes…eats tapes…”

“It drops deep as it does in my breath/I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death”

When you peeled the plastic off your CD or cassette and stuck it into your stereo or Walkman, right away Nas snatched you up with this opening track. And to think, he didn’t even know how to start the song off.

As the legend goes, when he stepped into the booth to rap, he was confused as to how to start the track. The beat threw him off a bit. He even stared off with some ad-libs,

“Straight out the fu**ing dungeons of rap/where fake niggas don’t make it back…”

& then literally says a few seconds later,

“I don’t know how to start this shit…”

As he looked up from his notepad, DJ Premier was literally waving at him already counting down for him to catch the beat. 4, 3, 2, 1….

& then in one take, Nas sheds the nerves & rips through the first verse like a veteran, stunning everyone in the studio. After he finished, he stepped out of the booth & asked in all seriousness, “Did that sound cool?” The entire studio erupted, completely freaking out over what he spit.

That moment & the song set the bar high for the rest of the album as a listener. If this was the first song, what the hell was the rest of the album gonna be and sound like??? Even though “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” was already released & was blowing up on radio everywhere, we were still waiting to hear the finished product. The beat by Primo was so eerie & menacing on top of everything else, it just took it to another place. This song was never released on the single, as the other ones mentioned in the top 5. With that said, it remains the most important song on Illmatic without question.

The Illmatic album cover represents the official Declaration for Hip Hop Greatness.

Along with Tribe’s Midnight Marauders album cover, Illmatic is in the category of the “most classic & original” album covers ever. Unlike Marauders, the Illmatic cover has been replicated repeatedly. This was the first cover that didn’t feature someone posing hardcore or otherwise on the cover, or have some kind of artwork done, or the artist/group’s logo sprawled on the front cover. Instead, it has Nas’ face as a kid blended in with the Queensbridge project buildings in the background. Nobody at the time knew what to make of it, until we started hearing tracks spew from the album. As time went along, it started being viewed as one of the greatest albums ever made in the genre (even though it did not reach gold status in the first year). Others started following the Illmatic artwork, starting with the Notorious B.I.G. on his debut album Ready to Die. While Biggie’s album became a certified classic & worldwide smash, some knocked him for copying Nas’ album cover, including Raekwon and Ghostface Killah who called him out subliminally on the infamous “Shark Ni**as” interlude off the legendary Only Built For Cuban Linx LP.

Whenever viewing the album cover, it’s automatically equated to “ultimate greatness”. Don’t think our favorite rappers don’t feel the same way. Starting from Common, to Lil Wayne, Drake, Kendrick Lamar and more, they have all used a variation of this blueprint. Personally, I feel it’s a way to not just pay homage, but a statement to the masses that, “this is my greatest work, I’m reaching for elite/iconic status right here”. It’s no coincidence that those albums in particular were either good if not straddling the greatness line. It’s the “Baby Picture Theory” I call it. You put a baby pic or pre-teen pic of yourself on your album cover in hip hop, and it better be damn good…..because you know what it’s gonna be compared to.

Sidebar/Wild angled question: Can you imagine if after all this time, Nas really stole this idea for his album cover from Nirvana? It may sound crazy, but that “Nevermind” album they had back in ’91 was HUUUUGE & I’m not even a rock guy. PLUS that album had “Smells Like Teen Spirit” & I don’t know Nas personally, but he had to have loved that song. Who the f*** didn’t like that song??? Tell me you didn’t love that song. I f***ing dare you!

Illmatic is the greatest East Coast album ever.

With deep apologies to Jay-Z, Biggie, Tribe, Wu, Redman, Boot Camp Click, Eric B & Rakim, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def, The Roots, Talib Kweli, 50 Cent, Mase Puff Daddy DMX & every other hip hop classic album I’m forgetting from the East Coast, none of those albums are deified quite like Illmatic. They just aren’t. For most rappers, they all strive to have Jay-Z’s success and/or be revered like 2Pac and/or Biggie. Everyone is forever trying to retrace their footsteps of success, but every rapper strives to make an album that is on the level of Illmatic. In their own way, rappers have followed in Nas’ path. From using their album cover as a spinoff of Illmatic or having a short tracklist (i.e. at least two of Kanye West and Common’s albums have a limited playlist), or even trying to be lyrical & heartfelt (i.e. J Cole), everyone’s used this album as a barometer to strive for greatness.

The formula was so tremendously successful, it’s a wonder why Nas himself hasn’t followed suit. He’s delivered many great albums since this Illmatic (including 2012’s “Life is Good) as well as collaboration projects like The Firm & Distant Relatives. They have all been good if not great, but none of them have quite matched up like his first album. It shows you how hard it is sometimes to replicate greatness, & it has nothing to do with Nas’ skills as a rapper/lyricist. One of the biggest complaints for Nas is the production selections in the past doesn’t match his talents. Doesn’t matter how good his albums are, there always seems to be a few beats that seems like they don’t belong there. Every time I purchase (yes, I said purchase) a Nas LP, a part of me keeps expecting a flawless LP, where his skills & the beats are one & the same.

I’ve heard rumors that he is thinking about making Illmatic 2. Normally I would cringe to hear these album sequel projects. Only this time, because of the stature of the original, Nas would literally have the ear of every major producer in hip hop about wanting to get on the project with him. It would be a producer’s dream. Until that day becomes a reality however, we’ll have to continue to honor the original. An album that was ahead of its time, but yet the future is still trying to catch up to it. #IllMatic #20Years

Cal Cee // South Shore Ave

Follow me on Twitter or email me at southshoreave@gmail.com

 

Golden Era: 20th Anniversary of A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders

We here at South Shore Ave are gassing up the DeLorean & taking you back through to the musical Golden Era of 90’s music to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Greatest Time in Hip Hop history. Back in November 1993, three iconic albums were released within a span of fourteen days that forever changed the landscape of hip hop music. A Tribe Called Quest’s 3rd album, Midnight Marauders & Wu-Tang Clan’s debut release Enter Da 36 Chambers were both released on Nov 9th to massive fanfare & acclaim. Two weeks later, they were both bested sales-wise by the release of Doggystyle, Snoop Dogg’s debut album off of Death Row Records that turned Snoop into a full-fledged mega superstar. This week, we’ll be taking a look back at each album, reminisce over our favorite tracks & the impact it made on the music industry. Today on The Baseline Blog, with the help of my friend Phil N. DeBlanc, we will take you back and review our favorite songs from ATCQ’s Midnight Marauders LP. Hold on to your seats…

Award Tour

“Lyrically I’m Mario Andretti on the MoMo/Ludicrously speedy or infectious with the slo-mo/Heard me in the eighties, J.B.’s on “The Promo”/In my never-ending quest to get the paper or the caper.” – Q-Tip

Me: Not sure where to start here Phil.  Do we touch on the infectious chorus done by Trugoy from De La Soul? The all-out, xylophone-flavored production from Tribe itself? Or the fact that Montreal or Toronto didn’t get a shout out on the chorus? Is that too much to ask? I mean, Montreal DID win the Stanley Cup that year & the Blue Jays DID win back-to-back World Series right before the LP dropped.  Phife’s a sports nut, he couldn’t get clearance for Canada to represent on the hook too???  Ok, maybe I’m being a little selfish here. In any event though, this was the official first song released off of Midnight Marauders. What I loved about this song more than anything else is that it raised the bar even higher from their other work. I love Check The Rhyme, Bonita Applebum, Jazz (We Got It), & everything that came from Tribe, but this was the 1st example of how they now had their craft mastered from top to bottom in every sense. This still remains as their most popular & highest charting song believe it or not. 

Phil: “Doo dat – doo dat – doo doo dat dat dat “ – Still more memorable than most stuff out now…with an xylophone no less!

I thought I was the only one wanting some Canadian love from NY hip hop. Didn’t BDK (Taste of Chocolate intro) and ATCQ ( Award Tour) know how hard it was for us to support them? Waiting weekly for CKUT to stumble their way into playing some rap on the radio? Did they not know how heavy Walkman’s and Discman’s were? How many times did your rinky dink headphones with the metal band dent your high top, but you didn’t care cause the tracks were tight? How much allowance money did I spend on batteries and tapes to support the cause? Yet Paris and Tokyo got the love? Are you kidding me? Eh?

I think this was the track where they announced that they had arrived. This was their James Harden track. Allow me to explain the similarities. A bit of buzz when they first declared they were eligible for the draft. Some heads knew but they weren’t front page headline worthy….Had to bide their time on the bench while Durant and Westbrook (Native Tongues) got more shine. 6th man status nonetheless….Learned the playbook and how to master their craft and when it was time to blow…enter 2012 James Harden. Fear the Beard!…now everyone wants to sign on for the ride.

I was always more partial to Phife’s verse because he had came off like a lyrical Napoleon. Though he was small in stature he could hold his own with his words. Until my pituitary gland kicked in, this guy was my idol…

Me: First of all, you spent a lot of money on batteries? You didn’t keep them in the fridge in the same slot where you kept the stick of margarine & the cheese? You had to stretch out the life span of everything back then. Waste not, want not! Either you did that or you found the special on the economy-sized red Eveready batteries & just kept them in your knapsack until you got down to the last pair. The things we had to do to listen to music.

Phife does a great job of finishing off the track, but man, Q-Tip kinda just wowed you lyrically here. An underrated exercise in lyricism that often goes unnoticed at times, because of the chorus & the infamous “Do Dat” part of the song. But that “Do Dat” line did two things for his verse: It dumbed down his verse just enough for the average listener to hold on to while also making it catchy & fun enough to be remembered forever. Seriously, even if you’re not totally familiar with Tribe’s work, if you tell someone in our generation “Do Dat Do Dat…”, almost 100% of the time, they finish the sentence for you while nodding their heads. This is partly what I meant by them having their style & craft mastered. Having the skills to appeal to the hip hop heads who hungered for the verbal wordplay, to the average person who just wanted to have a good time & dance to your work, while keeping everyone happy AND making a memorable classic in an effortless manner. Not as easy as it sounds or looks.

INTERESTING FACT: Q-Tip was inspired by & then used Jade’s “Don’t Walk Away” bass line to make this track.

Sucka Ni**a

What you figure, rhyme-wise I do the figure eight so concisely/Musically we are the herb so sit back and light me/Inhale….. My style is kinda fat reminiscent of a whale” – Q-Tip

Me: This song probably represented the many times in hip hop that the word “Nigga” sparked a controversy. In this case Q-Tip took it upon himself here to show us his views on the topic. Tip weaves through each topic in the track seamlessly: how he feels about brothers acting as something that they’re not, to the origins of the word, to the position that he & his generation feel about the word, to the simple fact that he just can’t stop saying it. Two things about this track I’ll address right off the top of my head: 1) Probably one of the most underrated tracks on this album; & 2) This is probably one of the first times that I believed that even back then, Q-Tip was probably headed towards a solo career at some point.

Don’t get me wrong, Tip & Phife Dawg play off their skills & styles like few rappers did before them or since. Those two together were like soulful medicine, & that greatness stuck out like a sore thumb even with all the great rappers & groups in the Golden Era of Hip Hop that Tribe lived in, but Q-Tip really owned that track. You didn’t need Phife on that track nor did you want him to be on it. Just a beautifully cohesive marriage between lyrical substance, social content, simplicity, production & rare groove sampling. It’s one of the many, many reasons why I miss 90’s hip hop, especially when you turn on the radio & hear the songs that are being played now. I mean, will you ever see platinum selling group that raps about good times, focus on musical substance & doesn’t pop molly/sip lean/smoke kush/shoot people in the face again?

Phil: I never played this song too loud at home because it had “foul language” peppered generously in the chorus. If my Tribe was confiscated…maaaaaan…I shudder at the thought. I don’t think I would have been able to successfully explain to my parents that a man named “Q-Tip” was trying to teach me something.

Thanks to the total degeneration of my once beloved and misunderstood hip hop, I barely listen to these new so called artists. One particular reason is because their songs do not have much of a message. Sucka Nigga however, is the opposite.  As a matter of fact, this song could be deemed prophetic;

“Now the little shorties say it all of the time/And a whole bunch of ni**as throw the word in they rhyme”

Insert almost any modern day artist into that list. It seems like anytime an artist has a brain cramp, they call on the N-word like Mighty Mouse to save the day (Busta Rhymes’ ears must be ringing). Anyway, back to the track. In my opinion it was lyrically ingenious. The song possesses an educational and sociocultural aspect that can often be overlooked. I figure ATCQ had tons of notepads and loose leaf of brainstormed rhymes. By no means were they low on creative juices. So how brilliant is it that the second verse isn’t that different from the first? Apparently, there was a message we were intended to absorb over that Freddie Hubbard sample…

“It means that we will never grow, you know the word dummy/Other ni**as in the community think it’s crummy/But I don’t, neither does the youth cause we/Em-brace adversity it goes right with the race”

Could that be it? I think so. The use of the N-word and those who try to justify it is a topic of discussion for another time. But I will raise this question: How many other artists could have pulled off this title and track 20 years ago and made it a classic?

Me: Back in 1993, over that production? Not too many guys to be honest. Ice Cube possibly, because every now & again he would rap about something social, but with the content & this beat it wouldn’t have been as smooth, & it definitely would have been edgier. I’d like to think that Tupac would have done a really good job on this track actually, his vocals & emotion would have worked fine here, plus he’s taken stabs at socially conscious & uplifting music (like “Keep Your Head Up” for example) around these times. Chuck D would have sounded too aggressive, & as much as I loved Guru, he wasn’t lyrical enough to make it a classic (although the production from DJ Premier would have been incredible). We can pretty much forget about groups like EPMD & Onyx. If Redman did it, it may have been an interlude called “Sucka Niggaz & Bitches” & it would have had so much weed talk on the record we would have gotten high from just listening to it. I think Nas, Common, Andre 3000, & Lauryn Hill could have done well with it too, but they were still a year away from changing the game.

I agree that the N-word topic is a discussion for another time, but it just goes to show you after the whole civil rights movement in the 1960’s & the changing of black culture since that period, that it’s still very much a hot button topic then as it was in the 1990s, as it still is today. When Nas wanted to named his LP the “Ni**er Album” back in 2008, it raised so many debates & controversy at the time that it almost ostracized him altogether. Even though his career was still intact after that situation, you did think at that point with all the backlash that this might be the beginning of the end for him. At least I did. As we also learned through the negative sides of social media & Joel Ward’s 2012 playoff experience, we still have a long way to go as a society when it comes to the use of this word & the history that continues to be built upon it.

To bring it back full circle though, if this song came out right now, it would still be relevant today. We still use the word as a term of endearment amongst our friends, it’s still sprinkled up & down in our favorite hip hop songs, it’s still an uncomfortable topic to discuss publicly, & Busta would still make love to this word if it were a woman. A part of me still wonders if he makes another song one day that tops “Break Your Neck”. The amount of times he dropped the N-Word in that song, was like the hip hop equivalent of dropping 70 points in a game. It was almost kind of amazing actually.

Electric Relaxation 

“Let me hit it from the back, girl I won’t catch a hernia/Bust off on your couch now you’ve got Seamens furniture” – Phife

Phil: ” I am speechless…I am without speech!” – Elaine Benes (Seinfeld)

Bonita Applebum Part 2 for the guys who wanted to get it in but didn’t know how to express themselves. Whoever she was back then, she couldn’t relate. Songs like these are why my batteries were in the fridge and my wacky high top had dents in it. No, its not because my barber was subpar, its because this track had me vibing. There are a handful of instruments that can resonate well with me: pianos, horns (only because I was a victim of the Pete Rock production) and bass.  I can envision this song being performed in a jazz bar on the down low with an older bassist just strumming along laying it down. Sometimes there are songs that are so perfectly timeless that nobody should ever touch them again. You can admire them…but from a distance. This, to me, belongs in that category (see MJ or Stevie’s catalogue).

Me: If I had to pick two timeless records off this album that might still be played 50 years from now, Award Tour would be one, &  Electric Relaxation would be the other. Just the way it starts off, it sounds so smooth but you’re not 100% sure what to expect just yet. Then the strum of the guitar comes in from that Mystic Brew sample & Tribe’s already in a chick’s ear trying to get the draws like Tommy from Martin. That in itself would have been it in terms of the track, but then Q-Tip passes it off to Phife Dawg & he utters the words:

“I like ’em Brown, Yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian/Name is Phife Dawg from the Zulu Nation…”

The song went from good, to great, to legendary in 4.7 seconds. That line took the song to a whole other level. This song might be the pre-cursor to the Ice Cream hook that Method Man cooked up 2 years later on Raekwon’s classic, “Only Built for Cuban Linx” album. Plus the fact that Phife flashes his West Indian love & roots on wax, I mean, for a teenager of Trini descent in ’93? Mind blowing. It was like Phife was one of us.  It made him more relatable. You’re right about one thing though, if this song came out as an instrumental from Tribe like Marvin Gaye did with “T Plays it Cool”, it might have still been a hit. Production on this record is incredible.

INTERESTING FACT: Kanye and Consequence tried to do something to this beat a few years ago. Yikes. It was as if someone Botoxed the Mona Lisa.

Lyrics to Go

” I’m Jordan with the mic (uh), wanna gamble?” – Phife

Phil: Aside from the fact that it has the best 4-second intro in my Tribe memory bank, there’s something hypnotic about this song. It’s a kaleidoscope beat which again, forces you to rely on the lyrics to navigate through. Another ATCQ beat that only they could have pulled off successfully. You know what? Sometimes when we feel certain artists, we grant them creative leeway. The experimental “one off” examples:

I don’t even feel like they worked that hard on this one, it flowed like a freestyle. What are the odds that they banged this one out in one take? And talk about hypnotic beats, this was on loop 4x straight while I wrote this segment. Cruise control music at its finest….

Me: Did you really have to bring up the Electric Circus album, you bastard?? I mean, we already cremated that album as hip hop listeners & Common fans.  We even sprinkled the ashes & knitted cloth into the ocean while wiping away tears. Shit, even Common has his copies of that album in his storage unit. He already apologized by giving us “Be” & “Finding Forever”. I feel like that’s a low blow dude, even if he isn’t reading this.

The back & forth between Phife & Tip on this was on pre-Jadakiss & Styles P levels, the verbal sparring mixed with the never ending Mimmie Ripperton sample. Both of them were at their best, it’s actually debatable if we’ve heard any better lyrically from them. You say it comes off as a freestyle, it’s as if they were in a cypher in front of an A&R trying to sign their first deal. It’s almost like you can feel the hunger in each word. That’s actually pretty remarkable that they still sounded like that even though they came off the success of Low End Theory. This was the 2nd to last track on the album & they were still trying to make our heads spin.

I’m still not over that Electric Circus low blow by the way.

Oh My God

“Jalick…Jalick ya wind up ya hip/Drafting of the poets, I’m the #7 pick/Licks licks licks boy, ‘pon ya backside (x2)” – Q-Tip

Phil: No matter where you are or what you’re doing, I guarantee you sing along. Admit it. Thought so. Here’s another song with a classic intro and solid sample, right? Just add it to their list. Sampling really is an art and why I loved hip hop so much. You know that feeling when you hear an old track from the 60’s – 70’s and then it hits you like, “Hey! Wait a minute! They sampled this to make _____!” Then you have that proud MacGwyver moment because you figured it out. But then you realize you could never turn an umbrella & lawn mower (samples) into a getaway helicopter (beat) like they did?

There’s that jazzy base again. Phife gets my vote on this one. He only had one verse and he made the most of it. That’s an art that Vinny (Naughty By Nature) never mastered. It isn’t because he was the weakest of the two by any means either.

“Used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue/It’s not like honey dip would want to get with me/but just in case I own more condoms than TLC” 

Interesting excerpt, right? Well, anyone ever think that this verse might have influenced Biggie to pen “Dreams”? I don’t have the timeline, but wouldn’t it be cool if it did? Can’t you just see something like this happening?

Q-Tip gave him one of the best lead-ins ever and once he took off with “Trini Gladiator” and culminated with “Funky Diabetic” it was a wrap. They could have faded to the outro and it wouldn’t have made a difference. I ask you this, was Q-Tip’s verse really necessary? Why did he get two anyway? Make-up verses?

Me: That was the beauty of these two guys. You can say that Q-Tip was the “lead” out of the two & Phife was the 1A if we had to technically label their positions, but when Phife was ready to get into a beat’s ass, Q-Tip more than willingly stepped to the side & let Phife go do his thing. To answer your question though, I don’t think Q-Tip’s 2nd verse was needed really other than to make the song long enough to be usable for radio airplay. This is the one song off Marauders where the video is forever imprinted into my head. Tip & Phife running after Shaheed’s float with the little kids & Busta Rhymes in his “Guest spot, rah-rah, yellow raincoat & matching hat, pre-Guiness Book of World Record for N-Word mentioning” glory screaming the Lord’s good name on top of the convenient store. Great times!

It always seemed as though they were having so much fun together, be it recording, doing videos & shows. It’s that quality that makes them the most relatable, unlike some of these other groups that were larger than life at the time (ie. Public Enemy, Naughty, Cypress Hill), Tribe made you feel as if they were your boys that you hung with, even if they were superstars at the time themselves.

Although I don’t think Phife’s TLC lyric predated Biggie’s Dreams, I’m pretty sure that when Biggie heard this track, he smiled & nodded.

Album Cover and Closing Thoughts

Phil: Never to be replicated or duplicated. One of the greatest covers in hip hop, if not the music industry. A guess who or who’s who of the golden years…. and Sean Combs managed to slide his way in there (bottom left corner of the rear). Who let Verbal Kint (Keiser Sose) in the photo shoot? Imagine that he probably grossed more than Tribe and everyone else on the cover combined. Where’s the justice? Based on their facial reactions, maybe that’s what they were all told before their portrait was taken (look at them)!

You know how Chris Webber probably regrets not taking part of that Fab Five documentary (man, how great are those ESPN Docs)? Who do you think might have passed on being part of the shoot? Or missed the call? Gang Starr? Naughty by Nature? LL Cool J? Where was Biggie? Grand Puba? Hmmm….

I am lucky to have an older brother who was my gatekeeper into music. Some of the music he brought home wasn’t even worth puncturing the holes at the top of a blank cassette. Other times everything works and we are blessed with a masterpiece. Vinyl turned to tapes, tapes to CDs and CDs to data. No matter the format, this album should be immortalized in that pantheon of hip hop lore. Also remember that Hot Sex was on the European version. Damn man!!!!!

I’ll say this, as good as Phife was on all these albums we should acknowledge that Q-Tip was the mastermind of the beats. I would compare Q-Tip to Erick Sermon and Phife was Parrish Smith. You never knew how bad one would miss the other until it actually happened. That’s when we got Amplified and uhh…Ventilation. There must still be enough slices of that humble pie in Phife’s freezer.

Tribe beats were jazzy, experimental, easy going and non threatening. Essentially, that was the recipe for success. Somehow, the game changed and the fun loving message got lost. Don’t believe me? How many times did they ever rhyme about getting or having money? Exactly.

Me: The Marauders album cover is the official time capsule for hip hop. The hottest DJ’s,  artists, producers, movers & shakers in the industry represented on the cover of that time. Never seen anything like that before or since, & I think it adds to the mystique of this album. When I first spent my lunch money on the tape (yes, I said tape), I remember not even listening to it right away cuz I spent so much time trying to figure out the faces on this album. Whenever I look back on it as time goes on, I still get surprised by the faces that made this cover. Dr. Dre? Too Short? Puffy???? Actually, the Puffy one makes sense for that time though. He was the hottest thing going at Uptown Records, helped to make Jodeci & Mary J. Blige superstars, & had already started a buzz on the streets with Biggie Smalls earlier that summer.

You do bring up a funny point though. Can you imagine how some of those cats felt that either ignored the call, or worse, didn’t even get called for this? How awkward must those conversations have been afterward, especially when the album was flying off the shelves?

Neglected Artist: Yo Tip? What’s happening man! Congrats on the successful album homie. Yo man, um…how come you didn’t call me for the cover shoot man??? I live 10 minutes away from the spot!

Tip: You mean you didn’t get the message??? Nah son, I left you a message on your answering machine! What’s your number again man?

N.A: Come on Tip, it’s 555-718-1234!

Tip: Ahhhhh shit dawg, I have 555-718-123…5 man! Oh man, my bad…my bad……yo, I can call you back though?

N.A: Come on son……sigh…….aieet man, I guess that’s cool. I know I was having trouble with my answering machi…………hello? Hello???

****sound of dial tone on the other end****

I said this before, but it bears mentioning again: When will you ever see a group like this again, especially in today’s musical landscape? A group who just rhymed mostly about good times.  Their songs didn’t involve drugs, maiming or murdering people, made you dance & have a good time, and yet, still managed to sell millions of records? The formula’s been tried since, but always failed. Slum Village has some success, but Jay Dee left before they had a chance to make a real impact. Little Brother came after them & had a nice little buzz, but it died once they tried to go major with their The Minstrel Show LP & flopped miserably on the charts (even though that album was really good). Of course, their producer 9th Wonder left them too shortly afterward. Then the group Strange Fruit came out a few years ago, but I bet you the first time you heard of them was at the beginning of this sentence. We’ve been waiting for someone to replace that void Tribe left in music, but we have to accept the fact that they’re simply irreplaceable. We just have to continue listening to this album along with all their other work whenever we need that fix; & pray that they do a reunion concert in our city so that we can see them in person. It’s for this reason why they’re part of the Golden Era of hip hop music. However, like any great era in any type of genre, once it ends, it ends & that’s it. That’s why we remember those times as fondly as we do.

Last question: You know whenever we discuss the greatest producers in hip hop history (ie. Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, Timbaland, RZA, The Neptunes, Kanye West), is there any reason why Q-Tip never gets mentioned? If this is one of the greatest hip hop groups ever, & he was the man behind their classic songs, shouldn’t he at the very least get an honorable mention? He worked outside of the group too & made classic songs with Nas (One Love), Mobb Deep (Temperature’s Rising, Give Up the Goods, and Drink Away The Pain), & Janet Jackson (Got Til It’s Gone) just for starters, yet gets ignored to some extent historically.

The List of Faces on the Midnight Marauders album cover:

Afrika Bambaataa /AMG/Ant Banks/Awesome Two/Beastie Boys (Mike D, Adrock, MCA)/Black Moon/Busta Rhymes/Casual/Chi Ali/Chuck D/The Cold Crush Brothers (Almighty KG, Charlie Chase,Easy AD, Grandmaster Caz, DJ Tony Tone)/Daddy-O (of Stetsasonic)/Dallas Austin/Del Tha Funkee Homosapien/Diamond D/Doug E. Fresh/De La Soul (Posdnuos, Dave & Mase)/DJ Jazzy Joyce/Kool DJ Red Alert/DJ Ron G/DJ Silver D/DJ Teddy Ted/Dr. Dre/Grandmaster Flash/Heavy D/Ice-T/Jazzy Jay/Jungle Brothers (Afrika Baby Bam, Mike G)/DJ Kid Capri/Kool Moe Dee/Large Professor/ Lords of the Underground/MC Lyte/MC Serch/Neek the Exotic/Organized Konfusion/The Pharcyde (Fat Lip, Imani, Romye, Slim Kid Tre’)/Pete Nice/Rashad Smith/Rock Steady Crew (Crazy Legs, Mr. Wiggles, Pee Wee Dance, Ruel)/Sean Combs/Skeff Anselm/Souls of Mischief/Special Ed/Sweet Tee/Too Short/Whodini (Grandmaster Dee) /Zulu Nation Supreme Council (Zulu King Muhammad, Unknown)

Cal Cee // South Shore Ave

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Very special thanks to Phil N. DeBlanc for his contributions to this article/blog posting.