Showing Lots Of Stamina – The Don
April 21, 2007, 4:28 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

I picked this up whilst on a random tangent through Discogs, and the fact that there were a couple of Large Pro beats on here sold it to me (and the fact that it was only a cent on Amazon). Unfortunately, this is a prime example of excited anticipation giving way to a perhaps inevitable disappointment: this ain’t great. However, for Large Pro completists and those interested in the more commercial side of hip hop in the very early ’90s, this may be something that you will be interested in hearing.

To be fair, the cover art alone did ring a few alarm bells, featuring The Don in various ‘party’ style poses (his get-up is straight wack), but then you can’t judge a book by its cover. There is very little information out there on this release which doesn’t surprise me as I had never come across it before or even heard of it, and this is perhaps indicative of the fact that this is indeed a lukewarm release at best (and I mean at best). I assume that this may have been attempting to reach a similar audience as releases such as the UMCs’ ‘Fruits Of Nature’, although this record pales in comparison to what is in my opinion one of the strongest pop rap/daisy age records of the era.

The Large Pro contributions are worth hearing, although relatively forgettable. Given that this was released in 1991, I had high hopes of ‘Breaking Atoms’ style beats that would compensate for below par skills on the mic, but this was not to be. ‘On Tour’ bops along pleasantly enough with a funky little guitar loop and a nice variety of interpolations as the song progresses, but it lacks punch and the necessary depth to get you hyped. ‘Step Aside’ is the other Extra P contribution, and its passable, although spoiled by almost two minutes of shouts and ‘heys’ at the beginning of the cut. Once it finally gets into it, the snares are crispy enough to maintain your interest and as with the aforementioned track there is a nice variety of samples that keep the groove moving.

Elsewhere on the album there is some production from Wolf & Epic, but in all honesty, none of the other cuts have drawn my attention and I do not anticipate this being an album that I come back to regularly, if at all. Still, as a relic of a time gone by in hip hop and with the added bonus of the two Large Pro cuts, I guess I can’t complain for a cent plus shipping: let me know what you think.

Marco Polo ft. Masta Ace – Cut Of The Year So Far?

Obviously there is loads of hype surrounding the forthcoming Marco Polo ‘Port Authority’ album that sees a release in mid May on a rejuvenated Rawkus Records. I got put onto this track via WYDU, so you can check in there for the video.
I love this track, and it has got me seriously amped about a release that I am unsure about at this stage: is it going to be as good as the hype suggests? I’ve avoided getting an advance internet download because I want to cop this when it’s released and pass judgement at that stage. For the moment though, ‘Nostalgia’ is in heavy rotation: the big drums, chilled out summery vibe, Ace’s deep verses and fantastic scratch chorus section have plastered a smile to my face for at least the last 48 hours. Definitely my favourite single of 2007 so far, and almost reason enough in itself to get the album when it is officially released.

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1994: The Year That Killed Hip Hop
April 18, 2007, 4:26 pm
Filed under: Miscellaneous

1994. Whenever discussions of the best years in hip hop are raised, ’94 inevitably crops up, and with good reason. Along with a plethora of fantastic releases (‘Hard To Earn’, ‘The Sun Rises In The East’, ‘The Main Ingredient’, ‘Stress: The Extinction Agenda’, ‘Word…Life’ being just a handful), the hip hop world was of course rocked by two of the finest albums in its history: ‘Illmatic’ and ‘Ready To Die’. When approaching every music fan’s arbitrary ‘best albums of all time’ lists, it would seem nearly impossible for any hip hop head to not consider either of these two releases such is their consistent quality (beats and rhymes) and the way that they influenced the game. But in the long run, could it be tentatively argued that these albums specifically had a detrimental effect on the genre, and that a steady decline in quality was inevitable from this point? Let’s see…

I remember a chat that I had with my friend Geoff a year or so ago in which we were discussing the work of John Coltrane whilst listening to 1957’s ‘Blue Train’, a staple of the jazz canon that I imagine is celebrated by aficionados of the genre in the same way that ‘Illmatic’ or ‘Ready To Die’ are within hip hop circles. During this talk, Geoff regaled a story that feels fitting in line with the subject matter currently at hand: it is rumoured that Coltrane essentially killed jazz, such was his ability on the saxophone. His musical genius was beyond question, but in unleashing it to the world at large, he set a benchmark that was simply too high for later artists to match. Now I don’t know enough about jazz to know whether this is true or not, but even with my limited subject knowledge, it seems that this era in jazz’s history is celebrated much in the same way as hip hop’s golden years, and I can imagine jazz purists approach anything that followed with the same sense of scepticism/disappointment that plagues devotees of hip hop who long for joints like the ones they heard ‘back in the day’.

In applying this theory to hip hop, Biggie and Nas seem to be the most obvious figureheads, but it would be foolish to treat them in exactly the same way as each contributed something very different to hip hop. However, what they both achieved was a maintenance of underground credibility teamed with massive commercial success that was relatively unprecedented. Although rap albums of the past had achieved platinum sales figures (‘The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick’ as just one example), none had done so with the New York-centric hardcore aesthetic put forward by Nas and Big. It still astounds me that ‘Ready To Die’ reached such a wide audience: there is no disguising the brutal, violent and misogynistic message that Christopher Wallace puts forward on this record and yet it went on to sell over four million copies before the dust around its release had even settled. Of course, this was not the first time that ghetto music had made it into so many American homes, as earlier successes from the west coast and elsewhere had proven, but this was hardcore, unabashed NYC hip hop at its finest being blasted out of homes, cars and clubs in places where it had struggled to find relevance before.

Nasir Jones is a slightly different kettle of fish. Whereas Biggie was the living, breathing incarnation of the darkest elements of ghetto existence, Nas was the urban poet weaving highly literate narratives that detailed the world that he saw around him and his journey through it. Backed by an impossibly impressive production team, ‘Illmatic’ is my preferred record of the two under discussion, a perfectly contained and cohesive work that has inevitably ended up as the albatross around Nas’ neck. What its success provided him with was the opportunity to access a more commercial audience, his role as ‘ghetto poet’ highly marketable and intensely alluring, and it doesn’t take me to tell you what he has achieved as the years have rolled by.

The dawn of the ‘superrapper’ was now well and truly consolidated. Both Nas and Big embodied the street savvy attitude and elusive sense of style that have proven to be the hallmarks of a successful and commercially viable rap artist, and they represented a city that was the home of hip hop. This establishment of a rap superstar laid the foundation for the less than great rappers of the future, and changed the game forever. In this sense, Big and Nas could be held responsible for the decline of hip hop and its transformation into a multi-billion dollar industry that feels so far removed from the ‘realer’ days of old.

Let’s not blame them though. I prefer to think of them in line with the theory put forward with regards to Coltrane: these releases were simply so good that it would prove nearly impossible to replicate their genius in the future. Coming at the right time in the genre’s history, you can almost sense that hip hop was destined to reach this point (although perhaps this is only with a retrospective eye), and both are representations of the genre at the pinnacle of its creative output. Maybe Nas and Big did kill hip hop, but what they left in their wake were two sensational works that still sound fresh, inspiring and raw to this day. Dig ’em out and treat yourself: hip hop is unlikely to ever be this good again.

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Holiday Hits Pt. II – Marvin, Gil and Amy
April 17, 2007, 3:46 pm
Filed under: Lists

Not one to disappoint, here we go with part two of FDB’s ‘Holiday Hits’. I’ve been trying to get into a little bit more soul and jazz recently, inspired by blogs such as Souled On Music. Of course, this is also the breeding ground of samples for hip hop, so the enjoyment is two-fold: I get to check out some great records as well as pick out the constituent parts that may have come to be utilised at a later date and in a different musical context. As a result, I picked up a few bits and pieces whilst away.

(Forewarning: more holiday gloating ahead)

Whilst sunning yourself on a terrace that overlooks the Mediterranean, the hardest of the hardcore rap music seems a little inappropriate, and I got a lot of pleasure out of the following records as the evenings set in on the Cote D’Azur (sick of it yet?). Allow me to share…

Moving Down The Line – Marvin Gaye

‘Trouble Man’ has always been one of my favourite Marvin Gaye tracks, and it is only recently that I realised that the song was part of a soundtrack, scored by Gaye, for the blaxploitation film of the same name. What this record shows is his ability to embrace a range of musical styles beyond his earlier output, and the music lies more within the realms of funk and jazz here than with any other work that he recorded. Very few of the cuts feature Marvin’s beautiful voice which I feel is a shame because it would have worked well soaring over the dramatic soundscape below, but of course this is a soundtrack to a film. The title song is still my clear favourite, but ‘T Plays It Cool’ gets itself into a tasty funk groove and ‘Don’t Mess With Mister T’ is atmospheric and spacious. Dim the lights, sit back and soak it up..

Ever Feel Kind Of Down And Out? – Gil Scott-Heron

I feel relatively ashamed that I haven’t got into Gil Scott-Heron earlier, and his influence on hip hop is undeniable (could he be considered the first ‘rapper’?). What’s particularly interesting about this record, recorded in just two days in 1971, is the range of musical textures and subject matter here, with Gil ranging from angry and revolutionary (‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’), positive and uplifting (‘Lady Day and John Coltrane’) to pensive and tortured (‘The Sign Of The Ages’). The musical backdrop is similarly varied, and it makes for an exciting and engaging listen. I think I prefer the more upbeat numbers, but the album in its entirety is excellent.

I don’t know much about the context of this album within his career as a whole, and would greatly appreciate any information on similar works within his catalogue or any other recommendations. I’m at the beginnings of my soul journey: point me in the right direction brothers and sisters.

Around The Way Girl – Amy Winehouse

The musical cynic in me generally avoids big album releases, the hype too often overwhelming the music itself. It’s ridiculous I know, and ‘Back To Black’ is a fine demonstration of why this policy does not always work. I’d seen a few people mentioning this album on the hip hop blogs, so during one of my afternoons in Fnac I thought I’d give it a try and was absolutely blown away by it. The manner in which Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson have captured the essence of Motown records from the ’60s is staggering, and such is the quality of the album that it goes beyond a simple rehashing of the past and feels fresh, warm and lively.

Winehouse’s voice is sensational, full of emotion and power. My Dad noted a similarity with Dinah Washington whilst we were away, and I read this afternoon that she actually states Washington as one of her main influences (well done Dad).

I’m not even going to post a link for this as it is so widely available that it feels pointless, but you should definitely track this down and enjoy these little slices of perfectly crafted pop soul. She’s a North Londoner as well: she must be great.

Back onto regular album reviews and the like from here on in; I’m back in work on Friday so reality is gradually starting to creep in… take it easy.

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Catchin’ Wreck With Intellect
April 16, 2007, 3:44 pm
Filed under: A DJ Saved My Life

Quick heads up on a tune that I must have listened to at least 30 times today (still on school holidays), the original demo version of Nas’ ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’. I got this care of Stretch Armstrong over at Konstant Kontakt: if you haven’t visited yet you should get your arse over there because Stretch has got loads of audio from shows back in the day that epitomise the quality of hip hop in the early ’90s. I downloaded all three of these original demos, but the clear favourite for me is ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ with completely different lyrics and a slammin’ beat which still utilises ‘Human Nature’ as its key sample source. Cop it here and get a load of it.

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FDB Returns – Holiday Hip Hop Hits
April 16, 2007, 3:44 pm
Filed under: Lists

Having spent the last week and a half on the sunny shores (most of the time…) of the south of France, I’m glad to be back at home and have been itching to get back into the cosy world of hip hop cyberspace. I had quite a few ideas for posts whilst I was away, but I’m going to kick things off with a post split into two parts that will detail my holiday listening/buying habits. Of course, I listened to loads of stuff, but these are the albums that for whatever reason received more airtime than the others. Tomorrow’s focus will be on soul/jazz, but for now, let’s get into the hip hop…

Flippin’ Like Species – LL Cool J

Man, where do you start with LL Cool J? James Smith has seen it all in hip hop, and along with only a handful of others, has managed to carve out a career of serious longevity in rap music. It’s fair to say that his output has been a little hit and miss, but LL was there all the way back in the innocent mid ’80s, still kicking it through the more hardcore aesthetic of the early and mid ’90s and then onto teaming up with R ‘n’ B female vocalists and suchlike as the jiggy era dawned. The man is still recording as well, although I’m not really interested in checking out any of his material beyond 1995’s ‘Mr. Smith’, the first of today’s albums. Granted, this is by no means a sensational release, but it is rewarding in places and had me bopping my head whilst basking in the rays of the Med (it’s a hard life I know).

Let’s take this one step at a time. Of course, the album has the obligatory radio hits in the form of ‘Hey Lover’ and ‘Doin’ It’, the former of which is trash, but ‘Doin’ It’ is pretty much as good as any crossover hit from the era with bangin’ production and a pleasingly hard edge. The overly sexy shit on the lyrical side of things does grate, but I don’t have a problem with this song and although I’m a little loathed to admit it, I like it. The strength of these hits commercially was phenomenal, and amazingly pushed the album to double platinum status. Even I had it on tape when it was released: the exposure was substantial due to these two cuts (to put this in context, I was a spotty thirteen year old at this stage who had had little proper exposure to hip hop and was only just beginning to go out and buy it for myself).

What I genuinely enjoy about this album is that aside from these crossover hits, there is some pretty solid production elsewhere that is largely handled by the Trackmasterz. Naturally, there is a fairly large dose of cheesy chorus hooks, but the beats themselves are pretty dope: the ‘Who Shot Ya (Remix)’ being the most agreeably hard-hitting. Other tracks are well worth a listen as well: ‘Mr. Smith’ features some era-defining sleighbells; ‘Life As’ won’t fail to get your head nodding and ‘God Bless’ does a good job of flipping the heavily used Vickie Anderson break. Beyond these, my personal favourite is ‘Hollis To Hollywood’, where LL muses on the use of metaphor in the rap game and cleverly weaves together references to films backed by the best Trackmasterz’s beat on the album. I love the way that the double bass kick in the last quarter of the bar in the intro leads you into the verse section, and the lightly crashing cymbals in the background give the track depth and flava.

In addition to this, LL’s verses over the album are enjoyable, if not sensational. Again, the sexual references do grow tiresome after a while, but the delivery is complex enough to keep you engaged and there is no denying that the man has charisma and style, the hallmarks of any great MC. You have to admire his ability to stay current, and even appearances from Fat Joe, Keith Murray and Prodigy demonstrate that even though ‘Mr Smith’ was released ten whole years after LL’s first release, he could still hold his own alongside his big name contemporaries in ’95. If you haven’t heard this album in its entirety then give it a go: it ain’t going to rock your world, but you may find some joints that tickle your fancy.

The Most Underrated Album Of All Time?

I’ve already done a post on Da King & I’s slept on classic ‘Contemporary Jeep Music’, so no need to go into any detail here. However, I was still killing this album on the holiday: fun, witty, funky, amazingly consistent, intelligent… this is my current nomination for most underrated album of all time. From front to back this is an absolute banger and if you’re still sleeping on it then resolve the situation immediately and hit the link.

FDB Da King & I Archives

Que La Force Soit Avec Toi – Cut Killer

France’s equivalent to HMV/Virgin Megastore is Fnac, and every time I visit the continent I enjoy a couple of hours flicking through their selections and listening to bits and pieces as you can walk up to listening posts, scan the barcode and check out 30 second clips of each of the songs on the selected albums. I also like to try to walk out with at least one or two French releases as well, otherwise I may as well be surfing Amazon from the comfort of my own home. Cut Killer has already featured here on FDB, and this is another of his mixtape series that is well worth owning. There’s isn’t much to say here that I haven’t said already, but this is a two disc mixtape of quality boom bap beats blended with style. The tracklisting (click the second picture) only tells half the story as there are plenty of other instrumentals and acapellas dropped throughout the course of the mix and the result is a bangin’ selection from front to back. Enjoy.

Cut Killer Mix Disc 1
Cut Killer Mix Disc 2
FDB Cut Killer Archives

C’est Pour Toi – Onra & Quetzal

The final album for today is something that I had never come across before and I imagine will be totally new to the majority of you. The great thing about actually flicking through racks of CDs rather than just surfing on the net is that something can catch your eye that would have otherwise have passed you by entirely, and these can often turn out to be some of the most exciting things that you buy. I am not suggesting that this is a sensational release, but it is certainly a demonstration of well-crafted beat-making that will receive very little exposure outside French shores. Ostensibly, the ‘tribute’ in question is to soul records of the sixties and seventies that form the basis of the samples here, but this could also be seen as a Dilla tribute, as this clearly draws its influence from ‘Donuts’.

Featuring 35 beat skits with plenty of chopped up soul vocals and a progressive edge, Onra & Quetzal do a very effective Dilla impersonation here, clearly in line with the current trend for rich, soulful samples and slightly more abstract constructions care of a big stack of records and an MPC. This lacks the creativity of ‘Donuts’, but it is an enjoyable listen that demonstrates some real talent, and I hope to catch wind of more of their production work in the future. Although this was only released at the end of last year, I’m throwing it up because these guys deserve exposure and as yet, this is only available on the Fnac website and not on Amazon. I’ve put the link to the website below to make it as easy as possible: if you like it, bumble your way through the registration process and cop it.

Onra & Quetzal – Fnac website

That’s it for today, tune in tomorrow for the second installment of my holiday hits series which will focus on some soul and jazz… laters.

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What Are You Sayin’? DJ Premier
April 3, 2007, 3:40 pm
Filed under: 12" Reviews, Producers

Such is the output of one of the genre’s most prolific DJ/producer that there are inevitably some 12”s that slip under a lot of people’s radars. As a result, today’s post features a couple of 12”s that I have stashed away in the vaults that may be of interest to you…

DJ Premier Introduces Assylum Seekers – Check My Style b/w Gettin’ Mani

I picked this up around 2002 at a record shop in central London called Selectadisc. This came in a blank sleeve and as you can see from the shots of the vinyl, this is likely to have been a low budget release that probably only saw a limited number of pressings. This is affirmed by the fact that this 12” does not even appear on Premier’s Discogs and by the fact that I can find absolutely nothing about it on the internet. ‘Check My Style’ is undoubtedly the better of the two cuts, with a relatively classic Premier sound featuring a chilled piano loop, heavy beats and little else. I am not really that keen on the b-side and to be honest, it doesn’t even really sound like Premier production. Lyrically, the Assylum Seekers are by no means awful, but there really isn’t that much to grab you here and ultimately although they do the beat justice, the real star of this release is of course Premier’s work on the boards. If anyone has any information on this then I would greatly appreciate it, and if you didn’t know that this existed then show some love and drop a comment: I suspect that this may be a blog exclusive.

[Note: It has become clear from comments that Premier did not produce this 12” and in fact it looks like there may have been a little shady business on Empire’s part here… the search for lost Primo beats continues]

Just-Ice – Gangstas Don’t Cry b/w Just Rhymin’ With Kane ft. BDK

The next 12” for today is definitely less rare, as it features on the ‘Fatbeats: Volume 2’ collection released in 2002 and features two veterans of the game, Just-Ice and Big Daddy Kane. I find the a-side a little unispiring, a simple bass hook and drums with Just-Ice ripping verses over the top. To be honest, this feels a little like one of those beats that Primo probably puts together in his sleep, and as such it feels relatively mediocre. The b-side is my preferred cut on this 12”; the beat has a better vibe to it and the appearance of BDK provides the song with a little variation that serves the song well. Overall, this is a decent enough release but it is by no means the best work that any of the three artists who feature on it have ever produced. Still, for all you Premier junkies out there, this is a worthy addition to your collection.

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Sconeboy Mix
April 1, 2007, 3:39 pm
Filed under: A DJ Saved My Life, FDB Mixes

I’ve put quite a lot of work into the blog this week, so today I’m just going to throw up Sconeboy’s latest mix rather than a full post. Fortunately for you this is no bad thing: this is straight bangin’. Here’s the tracklist:

1. Justice System – Dedication To Bambaataa (Diamond D remix)
2. Yall So Stupid – Van Full of Pakistans
3. Red Hot Lover Tone – Give It Up (Diamond D remix)
4. Bush Babees – We Run Things (It’s Like Dat)
5. The Roots – Push Up Ya Lighter
6. Large Professor – ijuswannachill
7. De La Soul – Dinininit
8. Buckshot Lafonque – Breakfast At Denny’s (Rap Version)
9. Crooklyn Dodgers – Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers (’95 version)
10. Busta Rhymes – So Hardcore
11. Heather B – If Heads Only Knew
12. J Treds – Make It Happen
13. Lords of the Underground – What I’m After (Remix w/ Keith Murray)
14. Pete Rock – 914 (ft. Sheek Louche and Styles P)
15. Gangstarr – The Piece Maker
16. Rakim – When I Be On The Mic
17. M Boogie – Patience (ft. Born Allah)
18. Erick Sermon – Stay Real
19. Rampage – Beware Of The Rampsack
20. Mobb Deep – Survival Of The Fittest (remix & original)
21. Street Smartz – Metal Thangz (ft. O.C. and Pharoahe Monch)

Quality selections and tight mixing: this is excellent. Stay tuned this week, we may see another Sconeboy selections post before too long…

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