From The Motherland – Zimbabwe Legit
December 31, 2006, 3:35 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

And we’re back! Hope everyone has had an enjoyable festive season; I know I have. Still recovering somewhat from over-eating but that can hardly be construed as a complaint. Have had a great week or so catching up with family and relaxing with the girlfriend (who presented me with this here selection: well done Samantha), hit the sales and picked up a bit of music although Oxford Street is not a pleasant place to be at this time of year. Starting to feel the January lull kicking in already but still one night of celebration to go. Have a good one!

Zimbabwe Legit could have been a gimmicky disaster but in fact this release fits in well with other works of the era. Drawn to hip hop via their older sibling, brothers Akim and Dumi involved themselves in as much as the culture as possible in their native Zimbabwe although accessibility to the genre was limited in Africa in the early ’90s. Still, through a passion and hunger for the artform as well as the dawn of the afrocentric era they made it to New York in 1990 and hooked up with Dave Funkenklein who was writing for The Source at the time as well as holding connections with the Native Tongues collective. Recognisng their skills, he worked hard to set them up with American producers including Mr. Lawnge and a little known Bay Area DJ who called himself Shadow. The result was a four track EP that was critically acclaimed but a commercial flop due to a lack of marketing and publicity. Sadly, Funkenklein passed away in ’94, but this and other works make for a legacy of a man who had a passion and understanding for hip hop that is rarely seen in the culture nowadays.

The commercial failure of this release was a real shame because the ‘Brothers From The Mother’ were charismatic MCs who had skills and a clear affinity with the Native Tongues sound. Drawing on their African roots as fodder for their rhymes, Akim and Dumi boast and brag with intelligence and insight, even utilising their native language on a couple of cuts. The production is solid, although there are a few joints that are easily skipped over. Favourties of mine are ‘Straight From The Mothership’ with its crisp snares and juicy horns; ‘Doin’ Damage In My Native Language’ which sees the pair rapping in (you guessed it) their native tongue and ‘Shadow’s Legitimate Mix’ which is nothing short of sensational, employing horns and pianos to create an atmospheric and laid back joint that will have your neck aching by the end of its six minute duration.

As far as I am aware this was never conceived as a full length album and this reissue seems to simply draw together the group’s work from that era including all the songs that appeared on the original EP. This goes some way to explaining why this is not perhaps the most coherent or consistent of works, but it is still well worth a purchase. It is also yet another example of a record label not understanding the potential of the artists under their control and the subsequent lack of success being an inevitable consequence of a failure to deliver the vital promotion needed at the final hurdle. As a finger up to all those record company execs who wouldn’t know real hip hop if it bit them in the arse, put this album in rotation and pay your respects to a group who can genuinely claim to have helped open the door for international hip hop.

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James Brown
December 25, 2006, 3:34 pm
Filed under: Miscellaneous

I wasn’t going to write anything on From Da Bricks over the Christmas period as I am away from my collection and knew I’d be gorging myself on food and drink for a week. However, James Brown died today and I felt compelled to write a short tribute to a man whose music made him an international figure who had an impact on men, women and children for close to half a century. Brown’s contribution to hip hop has also been massive: how many tracks can you name that have sampled a James Brown beat?

Funnily enough, I don’t feel like I know Brown’s music as well as I should do. I guess it is a case of only having so much time on my hands and for the last six or so years I have been committed to listening to as much hip hop as possible to the detriment of other genres, however closely related. This is something that I aim to correct in the near future. James Brown may not have been the most commercially popular or the most naturally skilled of vocalists, but he sure was the funkiest and was undeniably one of the most exhilarating performers to ever grace a stage.

Unfortunately, his life was marked by tragedy from a early age and it plagued him throughout his 73 years on this planet. Failed relationships, battles with drug addiction and prison sentences meant that towards the latter stages of his life he had lost the grace and raw power that he possessed earlier in his career, becoming a parody of himself. However, this video of a performance of ‘Mother Popcorn’ demonstrates what the ‘Godfather Of Soul’ was all about. The funky music and dance moves are what he should always be remembered for, and there are very few people who have acted as such an enigmatic and powerful symbol of the African-American male in popular culture.

In the liner notes to ‘Endtroducing…’ DJ Shadow states that James Brown was the inventor of modern music. His raw and unadulterated sound has influenced musicians across the globe for decades, and there is no denying that hip hop would be a drastically different entity if it wasn’t for Brown. Christmas day or otherwise, I’ll drink to that.

James Brown R.I.P.

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Hey Mr DJ – Abilities & Fuse One
December 22, 2006, 3:26 pm
Filed under: A DJ Saved My Life, Album Reviews

OK people, the festive season is officially upon us and I’m afraid that this will be my last post until the 31st. My parents still live in London so I’m making the journey home and I’m also staying with my girlfirend for a bit in Reading. Have been really enjoying the blog since I started up at the beginning of the month so I’m slightly concerned about withdrawal symptoms (although should be beneficial to leave the computer alone for a short period).

Decided to throw up a couple of mixes today to see you through the Christmas period. DJ Abilities is based in Minnesota and holds an affiliation with the Atmosphere crew, although tends now to spend most of his time working with Eyedea (hence Eyedea & Abilities). I haven’t really checked any of his production work, but if it’s anywhere near as good as his technique behind the ones and twos then it must be worth checking out. Winner of the DMC regionals in ’99 and ’01, Abilities is particularly strong at older scratching styles and his transforms are some of the best I have ever heard. ‘For Persons With DJ Abilities’ is an excellent blend of boom bap hip hop and some newer stuff with some nice touches throughout that make this exactly what a good mix should be: complex enough to demonstrate real talent but without overcomplicating the issue and making it sound fussy. Check the use of Black Sheep’s ‘Without a Doubt’ beat twinned with De La’s ‘Itzoweezee’ lyrics over the top: pure class.

I know very little about DJ Fuse One other than that he is based in the Bay Area. His ‘Metamorphosis’ mix is a highly entertaining 60 minute journey through old and new skool hip hop with lots of original break samples used to boot. There is a DJ Shadow section on the album which is jaw-droppingly put together, utilising original source samples and various Shadow releases in an original and exciting way. Fuse One has a purist’s approach to the artform claiming in the liner notes that all of the track selections were from original pressings and therefore ‘no bootlegs, compilations, re-issues, CDs or anything else you people use to substitute the real’ were used. I’m not sure if I agree with this aggressive stance towards beat collecting (if you have the original pressing does it mean that you love the music more?) but you have to admire the commitment it must have taken to have put this album together.

Hope you all enjoy the festive period. There is nothing like getting together with the family, consuming large quantities of food and drink and treating yourself to a Christmas day nap in front of the telly: pure, heart-warming indulgence. Tune back in on the 31st for more of the good stuff. Later.

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L’Esprit De La Soul – MC Solaar
December 21, 2006, 3:19 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

I promised a few more pieces of French hip hop earlier this month, and as a response to a request I saw over at WYDU I thought now was the right time to go continental. MC Solaar has been on the French scene since 1990 and is without a doubt the nation’s most highly acclaimed and internationally recognised hip hop artist. He has recorded six albums in the last sixteen years as well as one live album and has worked with a number of influential American figures including Guru on his ‘Jazzmatazz’ project and Missy Elliot on the single ‘All N My Grill’. Not bad for a little Parisian kid who still managed to complete his baccalauréat…

Jimmy Jay and Boom Bass of Le Funk Mob handle the majority of the production on ‘Prose Combat’ and for the most part it is excellent with a selection of indispensible cuts to boot. The opening to ‘Le Free Style d’Obsolete’ is strikingly well-produced, building slowly over 40 seconds before a drop into some heavy drums to provide a backdrop for Solaar’s charismatic flow. ‘Nouveau Western’ is moody and atmospheric taking you on a neck-snapping four minute journey and ‘Temps Mort’ features a slammin’ trumpet loop that soars over the rolling drums beneath it. The Roots also feature on the album with the track ‘I’m Doin’ Fine’ which sounds like it could have come straight off ‘Do You Want More?!’. The beat works well with Solaar’s delivery and he stands his own against The Roots’ rhyme section.

Despite the language barrier Solaar is a skilled enough MC to engage foreign listeners over the course of an album. He sounds best on the more uptempo tracks with a smooth flow that occasionally fires out some rapid multi-syllabic phrases. Even though I can’t understand what he is saying I feel like I do, which speaks for the strength of his ability: he conveys mood and tone through flow alone. His rhyme style takes in ‘wordplay, lyricism, and philosophical inquiry’ (says Wikipedia) although I’m somewhat in the dark with the exact nature of the content unfortunately. Should have taken that A Level French more seriously.

Of course, it isn’t perfect and some of the slower tracks feel a little dull, and I imagine rely more on being able to understand Solaar’s thoughts and observations of the world around him. Still, I think that this stands up with American and British releases of this era and is a shining demonstration that hip hop can work in contexts outside of the US. More French stuff to come in the future. Au revoir y’all.

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It All Comes Together – Cella Dwellas
December 20, 2006, 3:18 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

Booze and work colleagues makes for a potentially dangerous situation. Apologies for lack of post yesterday, I was trying not to embarrass myself at my Christmas do which I am not sure whether I achieved or not. At least the holidays last for two weeks (one of the true perks of teaching) so hopefully it will be a distant memory for all when we return in January. Fingers crossed.

I first came across the Cella Dwellas on Loud’s ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ compilation which featured a bunch of tracks from the label’s back catalogue. ‘Advance To Boardwalk’ took the Monopoly board as its theoretical framework, cleverly weaving references to the game into street narratives. On top of this, the beat was on point, keeping your head nodding throughout its three and a half minute duration. I love the way that the drums drop out after the final chorus, only to return wth a big snare hit after a four bar rest: pure and unadulterated NYC hip hop. Inexplicably, I didn’t follow this up by getting a hold of their other work and only recently acquired it. I’m glad that I did.

‘Realms ‘N Reality’ is not a dazzling album but it is consistent throughout sixteen tracks and has a number of standout cuts. The group’s first single ‘Land Of The Lost’ is included as a bonus track here as well as the single ‘Perfect Match’ which is a guilty pleasure for me; the R ‘n’ B chorus refrain is cheesy as extra mature farmhouse cheddar but I still love it. ‘Good Dwellas’ is also bangin’, detailing the Cella Dwellas rise to fame whilst facing all the trials and tribulations of the ghetto in the process. In all truth there isn’t really a bad cut on here, but then there is something slightly lacking about the album as a whole. Although similar in sound to the early Boot Camp albums it lacks the weight of these releases and just doesn’t grab the listener in the same way.

In my Buckwild post I noted that although hip hop of this era is esentially formulaic there is a ‘je ne sais quoi’ that separates truly great works from those that are just good. I don’t mean to sound derogatory about ‘Realms ‘N Reality’ as it is a solid effort with some very enjoyable tunes, but it would be an over-exaggeration to claim that this is classic material. Still, this is well worthy of a place in your collection and will have you happily nodding your head for an hour without having to skip tracks as you do so: you can’t front on that.

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True School – J-Live
December 18, 2006, 3:17 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews, Producers

It is relatively rare that you find a combination of intelligent lyrics, excellent delivery and phat beats in this here game known as hip hop. Take for example yesterday’s post: Larry-O can kick it, but his visions of a gangster lifestyle are hardly thought-provoking. I don’t mean this to take away from his ability as an MC; he has presence and understands how to deliver a good rhyme, but you wouldn’t exactly put him in the ‘intellectual’ bracket and invite him to a dinner party. Similarly, too much thought-provoking material can feel too try-hard and risks missing out on the party element that could be argued is a core element of the genre. I’m struggling a little to think of examples off the top of my head, but perhaps Saul Williams could be considered ‘too wordy’; his work is interesting and valuable but it ain’t exactly going to rock a crowd.

Today’s post features an artist who has managed to combine these elements in a cohesive package that makes it look all too easy. J-Live has had his fair share of strife in hip hop, with ‘The Best Part’ going through a five year ordeal where it was shelved on two (!) separate occasions. Amazingly, he emerged from this period seemingly unscathed and in my opinion is one of hip hop’s most valuable contemporary contributors. His second album ‘All Of The Above’ is a gleeming demonstration of the fact that you don’t have to talk about guns, drugs and bitches to come off dope.

Handling production, turntable and scratch duties is no mean feat either, and J-Live does the three with style. The beats on this album are exceptionally well produced and range from straight party rockers (‘How Real It Is’) to late night head nodders (‘Nights Like This’). Spinna contributes a couple of tracks as well, although these by no means outshine J-Live’s own work. I’m not saying that the production is flawless; I don’t like ‘Stir Of Echoes’ and there are a couple of other tunes that I generally skip, but for an album released in ’02 that’s not bad going.

However, it is J-Live’s skills on the mic that really hold this album together. From flipping the well known call and response catchphrase ‘it’s like this an’ a’ into a prophetic warning of what happens to girls who give it up too easy to delivering three different possible endings to the same story on ‘One For The Griot’, J-Live’s lyrics cover a wide range of topics and all are delivered with finesse and flava. I can’t think of any other MC around at the moment who has the same ability to combine content with flow, let alone whilst producing bangin’ music to provide a backdrop. The debate is open: answers on a postcard folks.

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Doin’ It Slick For 96 – Real Live
December 17, 2006, 3:16 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews, Producers

Although I have a core list of producers who I consider to be the best to have ever taken part in the game, a conclusive winner always eludes me. One day it’ll be Pete Rock, the next I have to go with Premier, the day after that I’ll opt for Large Pro. The realms of the true geek are characterised by list making and endless debate even though a definitive conclusion can never be reached. I guess I might just be that geek.

One name that regularly crops up for me is K-Def who has already featured on From Da Bricks (see ‘Chief Rockas’). He slipped under my radar for quite a while, but I was stunned into one of those ‘how can I not have known about this before’ moments when I realised the full extent of his production credits. His work on the boards has been used by LOTUG, Da Youngsta’s and El Da Sensei amongst many other underground hip hop heroes and he continues to hold influence in the industry today, even appearing on Diddy’s new album (the track ‘We Gon’ Make It’ which is good despite Diddy’s pathetic mic skills). There are very few artists who have managed to build such a strong and consistent discography, and despite having been in the game for over a decade and a half K-Def’s contribution to hip hop seems far from over. If longevity was one of the criteria for the aforementioned lists then K-Def’s position would be undeniably strong.

‘The Turnaround: A Long Awaited Drama’ was released in ’96 and was the result of a collaboration between K-Def and his cousin Larry-O. The lyrical content is somewhat one-dimensional mainly detailing a gangster lifestyle and this feels a little played out over the course of a whole album despite effective delivery. The strength of this work for me lies in (you guessed it) the beats. ‘The Gimmicks’ and ‘Ain’t No Love’ are sensational featuring deep soul samples and soaring strings, ‘Money & Shows’ bounces along with some more of those violins as well as a nice vocal sample on the chorus loop and ‘Real Live Shit’ and ‘The Turnaround’ are truly bangin’. There are a couple of tracks that are not so hot, particularly ‘All I Ask Of You’ which looks like it was the label’s demand for a more commercial joint, but generally the production is flawless. Make sure you listen to the whole of the ‘Real Live Shit Remix’ as it concludes with K-Def on the turntables over a medley of slammin’ loops that demonstrates that the man also has some cutting skills under his belt as well.

The term ‘slept on’ has become a little difficult to define. Lost in an online community of people who clearly have a vast knowledge of hip hop, I would find it surprising if this album was not relatively widely known. Still, in terms of a wider audience there seems little doubt that this album and K-Def himself have not received the props that they deserve thereby qualifying for the ‘slept on’ tag in my opinion. If you don’t own this album, wake your sleepy head up and cop it: this genuinely is some real live shit.

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Some People Don’t Understand – L.O.N.S.
December 15, 2006, 3:15 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

There is something satisfying about discovering early releases from major players in the current mainstream rap game. Jay Z’s verse on Mic Geronimo’s first album comes to mind as does Mos Def’s work on the Urban Thermo Dynamics’ joint. It is not like Leaders Of The New School were ever minor figures in the world of hip hop, but it gives me a warm feeling inside to know that people who now feature in the rap charts and make regular appearances on MTV used to be able to kick it with undeniable style. Of course, L.O.N.S gave birth to one of hip hop’s most instantly recognisable MCs: Busta Rhymes.

Whenever I discuss L.O.N.S. with anyone it seems to be ‘Future Without A Past’ that gets mentioned first. Perhaps this is natural as it was the more commercially successful album, but if I had to keep one and lose the other, I’d go for ‘The Inner Mind’s Eye’ every time. The beats are on point and the MCs exchange verses with skill and an exceptional sense of timing with brief forays into reggae style delivery. Busta is without doubt the most enigmatic of the crew, but this is not to degrade the work of Charlie Brown and Dinco D who also have strong senses of personality along with technical ability. Ultimately it is the effect of the MCs as a collective that proves the key to this album’s success.

Although ‘What’s Next’ and ‘Classic Material’ were the leading singles on ‘T.I.M.E.’ there is very little filler on this release and favourites for me include ‘Quarter To Cutthroat’ and ‘Understanding The Inner Mind’s Eye’. Drums roll with neck-snapping ferocity, the loops are simple yet effective and basslines rumble underneath the roar of the MCs. The album has a straight up, no frills attached vibe with a classic early ’90s feel. As you may now be aware, this is a formula for quality in my book.

Busta was the only member to emerge with a career intact and as soon as he started to make strange roaring sounds every other word I feel like he kind of lost it. Saddeningly, affairs turned sour for the crew post-1993 and they now have little contact with Busta going as far as to call Dinco D a ‘dickhead’ at some stage. This is a pity as the MCs did have such a chemistry that will now never see the light of day again. Still, they certainly had it in 1993 and this album is a must-have for collectors of this era of rap music. As the crew professed themselves, you know you love the way it’s going down…

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Scratch Perverts + Rawkus = Bangin’
December 14, 2006, 3:14 pm
Filed under: A DJ Saved My Life

Around ’98/’99 I was getting into turntablism in a big way and at that time the Scratch Perverts were the kings of the UK scene. They were technically stronger than anyone else as well as keeping it funky, and eventually went on to innovate the artform with feedback techniques that had never been seen before.

Simultaneous to this, Rawkus stepped into the limelight with a plethora of releases that brought quality underground hip hop back to the masses. I remember snapping up almost anything that had the Rawkus name stamped on the cover: it was an almost definite indicator of a slammin’ release. Never before had I had such confidence in a contemporary label and I can only imagine what it was like for rap music fans during the golden age when Def Jam and Tommy Boy were at the height of their powers. Of course, things turned sour for the label around 2000, but it seems like they might be making a resurgence; let’s hope so.

Given away with HHC, ‘The Cleaner’ features a selection of the Rawkus classics from this era and lets the Perverts work their magic on them. Featuring cuts from Ripshop, Mr Complex and Common as well as others, this is a seemless mix that demonstrates the skill of the Perverts whilst still allowing the selections to shine. Perhaps the most technically striking moment in ‘The Cleaner’ is the outro to Shabam Sahdeeq’s ‘Every Rhyme I Write’: pure turntablism genius. I’m not sure what the exact Perverts line-up was at this stage as they have been through several incarnations, but I suspect that this was after the departure of Mr Thing and First Rate but before the re-induction of Scotland’s Plus One.

I’m also posting a couple of mixes taken from a John Peel radio session coutesy of Sconeboy. First up is Prime Cuts followed by Mr Thing (my favourite UK DJ of all time). I would estimate that these were recorded c. ’98 as the Prime Cuts section features his ‘Jack Of Spades’ juggle which he was busting out at both the DMCs and ITFs around that time. Both mixes are of an exceptional standard featuring classic hip hop joints as well as the odd well known break.

Hate to sound jaded already, but if you download either of these mixes then please drop a comment. I know that people are downloading on a daily basis and yet only a small selection of people are talking! It’s pathetic I know, but it does make a difference to my day…

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Live From Japan – DJ Krush
December 12, 2006, 3:13 pm
Filed under: A DJ Saved My Life, Album Reviews, Producers

Back in ’95 the name Mo Wax was synonymous with quality. Early releases promised much and made the label a collector’s dream: limited presses, fantastic artwork and most importantly, bangin’ music. James Lavelle’s outfit could possibly be cited as the originators of the ‘trip hop’ tag (a term that I despise) as the releases around this time were basically downbeat or more abstract hip hop instrumentals. DJ Krush fitted perfectly into this niche, producing brooding sonic landscapes routed in hip hop but with a futuristic and forward-thinking edge. For my money, ‘Meiso’ is his seminal work.

The album features both instrumental joints as well as some impressive mic collaborations. Black Thought and Malik B’s verses on the title track are exceptional and CL Smooth comes correct on the album opener ‘Only The Strong Survive’. I’m not as keen on the Big Shug and Guru track; the beat lacks the moody atmosphere that complements the MCs so well on the aforementioned cuts, and the overall vibe leaves me feeling a little cold. Still, the names speak for themselves: these are well written and expertly delivered rhymes that work well over Krush’s accomplished production skills.

Worthy of a special mention is ‘Duality’. This tune passed me by for a long time as the opening two minutes is some of Krush’s less inspiring work. It simply doesn’t carry the weight of some of the other tracks and lacks punch. However, everything changes after three minutes. Snares break out in an eruption of percussive noise before dropping into the DJ Shadow produced section of the song which is nothing short of sensational. Scratched horns float over rippling drums and the momentum is relentless. This is Shadow at his best: I could listen to this all day and my head would still be nodding as it hit the pillow.

Later Krush works become increasingly minimal and stray away from the drum heavy tracks that constitute the finest beats on this album. In doing so, he loses the sense of rawness that is so compelling on this release. Still, this is a powerful and at times gripping album that demonstrates that it definitely ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.

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