By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
Fat Beats & Bra Straps: Women of Hip-Hop: Classics
Fat Beats & Bra Straps: Women of Hip-Hop: Battle Rhymes & Posse Cuts
After the Real Roxanne's three rapid-fire introductions to 1986's twelve-inch single "Bang Zoom (Let's Go-Go)," all three sassy, tough, and impressive, a wall of what sounds like loops of echoed steel drums and constant crowd noise forms a base for Roxanne's rhymes -- answered by sweet harmonies (provided by Eighties pioneers Full Force), blasts of keyboard, and adrenaline-charged scratches. This head-spinning single then breaks the rhythm down and changes it up countless times -- with a break for Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam-style singing by the rapper, keyboard goofing on the American Bandstand theme, Latin percussion solos, scratch leads, and ongoing interpolations from Warner Bros. cartoons. It was the golden age of the twelve-inch, and this all-but-forgotten jam stands as one of the most vital examples of the form, a likely inspiration for Eric B. & Rakim's classic "Seven Minutes of Madness" remix of "Paid in Full."
This cut comes four tracks into the Classics volume of Fat Beats and Bra Straps: Women of Hip-Hop, and by the time the song arrives it's plain that a richly textured and nearly secret history of popular music is unfolding. These first two volumes of Rhino Records' new three-disc collection (a third volume, New MC's, surveys the contemporary female hip-hop scene) devote nearly half (fifteen of thirty-one cuts) of their attention to the years before 1988, when the rap album came fully into its own; Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, and Salt-n-Pepa's A Salt with a Deadly Pepa grabbed national attention and virtually defined the form.
Fat Beats uncovers many forgotten gems and offers even more insights into the crucial role of women in shaping hip-hop history and changing the face of the pop charts. (Women would take the charts like never before in Top 40 history by 1993, the majority of them R&B singers with hip-hop influences.) Battle Rhymes & Posse Cuts shows the tactics -- with Roxanne Shante's 1984 answer record to U.T.F.O.'s "Roxanne's Revenge" generating three answer records in response to it and ongoing imitation by other women -- most notably 1985's "The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh)," a response to party kings Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick's "The Show" by Super Nature, later known as Salt-n-Pepa.
Classics is filled with revelations. Dimples D. opens the album with "Sucker D.J.'s (I Will Survive)," a tribute to her boyfriend Marley Marl that turns into her own gender-based version of "The Message." Sparky-D's hard-rhyming "Throwdown" should send many out looking for her sleeper album of 1988. 2 Much's "Wild Thang" is twice as hot as L.L. Cool J's remake, "Doin' It." "Runaway" shows the wisdom that made a teenage Shante fight so hard to make her voice heard. On "Can't Hold Back," Ice Cream Tee proves herself a hard, fast-talker with the skills of Kool Moe Dee or L.L., and a lyrical ambition that pits free speech and political unity against the violence of poverty -- drug abuse, gang battles, and hunger. And on the Battle album, Paulett and Tanya Winley's 1979 "Rhymin' and Rappin'" reveals the DNA for Missy Elliott's community-building jams at the dawn of hip-hop.
"Jayou" b/w "Without a Doubt"
"Definition" b/w "Twice Inna Lifetime"
Jurassic 5's name is a double whammy old-school joke. Not only does it hark back to the puffy-shirted, Afro Sheen-ed splendor of disco-era rap groups like the Funky 4+1 and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it also makes fun of how long ago and far away that stuff seems in the light of hip-hop's current pop-chart dominance. Now that the Earth has cooled and rock dinosaurs rise from extinction only when Puff Daddy and his special effects team want them to, what's an old-schooler to do but wait around for the inevitable Hip-Hop Hall of Fame induction ceremonies?
Well, Southern California's Jurassic 5 is figuring it can go out and make a lot of people happy. Their ensemble-rap style is winningly jubilant, if somewhat primitive compared to that of Wu-Tang Clan. Jurassic's sing-along vocals sometimes fall into nursery-rhyme territory ("Jayou" is pronounced "J-U," as in "J-U-R-A double-S I-C"), but their tuneful cadences -- especially as delivered by versatile lead rapper Charlie the Tuna (a mic stylist in whose hands lines such as "We conjugate verbs and constipate nerds" become funky little bass fills) -- could make even a hardcore gangsta want to bounce like a baby.
Even better is Jurassic's music. In a bit of overdue revisionism, Jurassic 5 recasts the old school in its original, experimental context, backing up their rhymes with mixes by avant-garde California DJ Cut Chemist (whose instrumental track "Lesson 6: The Lecture" appeared on both Om Records' Deep Concentration compilation and Jurassic 5's 1997 debut EP). His sparse but buoyant loops, subtly manipulated to defy expectations (check the interplay of "Jayou"'s insistent "Get Up, Stand Up"-quoting flute part with the song's spacious beat), help Jurassic 5 convey the spirit more than the letter of old school, and make good on their promise (expressed in "Without a Doubt") to "keep you open like a public bathroom."
"Jayou" appeared on this year's Lyricist Lounge compilation, as did contributions from young New York rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Now the two, as a duo called Black Star, are gearing up for a debut EP scheduled for October release by the label Rawkus. If "Definition" (and an earlier collaboration, "Universal Magnetic," done under the name Reflection Eternal) is any indication, these two are destined for a well-deserved shot at a place in that as-yet-unconceived hall of fame.
While Jurassic 5 aims to put the "fun" back in hip-hop fundamentals like clever rhymes and original beats, Black Star uses the same techniques -- indelible rhyme melodies, greater rhythmic complexity -- without resorting to old-school nostalgia. Pressing ever forward, Mos Def sings "Definition"'s stirring, dancehall-reggae chorus ("One two three/It's kinda dangerous to be an MC/They shot Tupac and Biggie/Hold your head when the beat drop, why-oh!") with all the celebratory solemnity of a New Orleans funeral parade. (Rumble/Pickininny, P.O. Box 1816, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272; Rawkus, 676 Broadway, New York, NY 10012)
A Go Go
John Scofield's latest CD was 1997's Quiet, a heavily orchestrated affair on which he played acoustic guitar. It was touted as an equal to the best of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations of the Fifties and Sixties. Well, it was no Sketches of Spain, but it did have a few pleasant and, er, quiet moments. But much of that record sounded like variations on the theme song from M.A.S.H. Maybe it was the fault of the Brecker brothers, who were featured prominently throughout the set. Like other journeymen jazzers of their ilk, the Breckers can be trusted to turn in tuneful but earnestly dull performances.
A Go Go marks Scofield's return to small-group recording and, yes, he plays electric guitar almost exclusively on this one. He also uses neohippie groove band Medeski, Martin & Wood as a backing group, a smart move for all parties concerned. Scofield's brief compositions rein in MM&W's natural tendency toward drifting, lengthy jams. A Go Go is being hyped as a Meters-style New Orleans groove thang, and there's certainly white-boy groove aplenty, but it all seems to work here. Scofield cools it on the excessive soloing that marred some of his earlier work, and he allows Medeski, Martin & Wood to carry the record almost on their own. Special kudos go to drummer Billy Martin, who updates original Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste's style and sound. Scofield has always had an ear for great drummers (e.g., Bill Stewart and Idris Muhammad on previous recordings) and Martin follows firmly in this mold. A return to form for John Scofield or the best Medeski, Martin & Wood album yet? Take your pick.
-- Ross Johnson
The best way to describe Crystal Ball would be as a companion to 1987's opus Sign O' the Times -- think of it as discs three through five -- since most of the tracks were either culled from the Times sessions or recorded around the same time. The sawed-off funk on this set will soon make you forget the unevenness of recent efforts such as Chaos and Disorder, Come, and even Emancipation.
The hilarious "Cloreen Baconskin" is fourteen minutes of Prince in alter ego doing his damnedest to get drummer Morris Day to laugh and lose the beat. On the too funky "Days of Wild," the Artist shows he can still manage his greatest trick, self-reinvention, using his own recent battles with the record industry to rebond with his fans on a higher level, all as slaves to the spirit-killing capitalist system. "Crucial," originally slated to take the place of "Adore" on Sign O' the Times, is a classic falsetto ballad in the spirit of "Scandalous" or "Do Me, Baby." "Da Bang" is a punk/funk romp that exposes Chaos and Disorder for the fraud it was intended it to be. "Dream Factory," "Calhoun Square," and especially the tender "Last Heart" are Prince the master musician and visionary in full effect. The set presents Crystal Ball in its three-disc entirety; a fourth disc is an all-acoustic, unplugged-style presentation of new material. The package comes with a cool booklet, tiny by box-set standards but with an excitingly frank and rare look into the Artist's composing state of mind.
There was a moment in time when we all conceded that Michael Jordan was the greatest there's ever been. Crystal Ball is just that kind of moment, a reminder that if Prince Rogers Nelson can rule the world while keeping shit like this in the can, then obviously we have all severely underestimated his genius.
Fans of underground bands like Grant Lee Buffalo enjoy the fact that their favorite acts are still largely unknown by the general public. It's sort of a Christopher Columbus complex -- they want to feel like they're the ones who discovered a new world. But with the release of Jubilee, those fans just might have to share Grant Lee Buffalo with the rest of us.
Recorded locally at South Beach Studios, Jubilee stakes out different territory for the band, the core of which is singer/guitarist Grant Lee Phillips and drummer Joey Peters. Former Tonic bassist Dan Rothchild also joins in on Jubilee, a move that contributes to a much bigger and harder-edged sound than on the band's previous efforts. The group still looks to rural America for inspiration, but now they sound a bit less like the Jayhawks and a bit more like a shinier, happier Widespread Panic.
"Truly, Truly," which could be Grant Lee Buffalo's breakout track, is currently receiving heavy radio airplay in the Northeast. With a memorable hook and a huge, layered guitar sound, it's the kind of radio-friendly number that could make a long, steady rise up the charts. "Superslomotion" and "Crooked Dice" are similar rockers, set apart by their intelligent, folklore-derived lyrics. Meanwhile other cuts radiate a warm, slightly countrified feel. On "Everybody Needs a Little Sanctuary," banjo and accordion parts come to the fore. R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, whose band is clearly an influence throughout the album, lends his support with a subtle yet solid backing vocal.
But two of the most surprising and best songs on Jubilee boldly summon the spirit of the Beatles. The rambunctious title track re-creates the playful atmosphere of middle-period Fab Four, and "The Shallow End" is a heartfelt musical reminder of John Lennon's solo work.
Jubilee should take Grant Lee Buffalo places they've not yet been. Consequently, those territorial fans will just have to prepare for some interlopers.
-- Chris Duffy