Wow!! That was word that came to mind when I first heard the jazz-infused production of the legendary DJ Premier and the monotone flow of the G.ifted U.nlimited R.hymes U.niversal via their video for “Just To Get A Rep” (and, is it just me or has that sample been popping up everywhere lately?) Something else of note, while watching the video for “Just To Get A Rep” this morning on my Iphone (the YouTube function on the phone is a VERY nice feature) it was the first time that I noticed that the star of the video was actually Lil’ Dap from the lyrically-challenged Gang Starr spin-offs, the Group Home. Not only that, but Dap’s partner-in-rhyme Melachi played the lead role as a shorty in GangStarr’s video for the album’s title cut, “Step In The Arena”.
“Step In The Arena” was, in my opinion Premier and Guru’s crowning moment. Don’t get me wrong I love “Daily Operation” as much as the next man, but “Step..” served as the blueprint for Guru and Preem to perfect the style that would garner the duo legendary status in the underground. Guru’s monotone, almost conversational delivery was quite unlike anything I’d ever heard at the time. And even though Guru’s voice and self-assurance would blossom even more by the release of “Daily Operation”, it is with “Step..” that Guru delivered true insight and knowledge to urban America. Whether he was touching on the exploitation of the community with “Execution Of A Chump”, or reaching out to those who played that same role within that same exploitation (“Just To Get A Rep”), Guru developed a true hope for a way out of his bleak surroundings.
By the time of it’s (“Step In The Arena”) release, DJ Premier was already blossoming into one of the most savvy producer/DJs of his era. Utilizing samples in ways that one could never imagine while at the same time gaining attention for his subtle use of Jazz, DJ Premier began to set the standard for his beats and “thinking outside the box” of standard Hip Hop production and techniques. His production for “Step In The Arena” may have been less Jazz-infused than “Daily Operation” as Preem opted for sharper, more traditional break-beats and slick guitar samples. However, not lost in the mix was Premier’s unmistakable knack for scratching vocals into the hooks of many of tracks that appeared on the album.
While “Step In The Arena” not only blew away critics and die hard Hip Hop heads alike, it wasn’t really until the release of “Don’t Take It Personal” from “Daily Operation” that Gang Starr would truly earn it’s first “mainstream” smash. Instead, “Step In The Arena” has always remained as somewhat of a cult classic that never really crossed over to the masses, while that may not be favorable for Gang Starr, it is in the eyes of this listener who considers the duo to be one of his favorite groups of all-time.
I’ll tell you what, I really feel OLD when I sit and think that it was over 20 (!) years ago when I first heard A.T.C.Q. frontman, Q-Tip on De La’s “Buddy”. And just as old when I take into consideration that it was also near that same timeframe when I first caught a glimpse of A Tribe Called Quest and their video for “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”. Who would have imaged that nearly two decades Q-Tip would release “The Renaissance”..craziness, I tell you!
Formed in 1988, and comprised of Q-Tip, Phife, Jarobi and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed, A.T.C.Q.’s recording debut came in 1989 with, “Description Of A Fool”, which appeared on a small independent label and was released to very little fanfare. It wasn’t until the release of the Lou Reed (“Walk On The Wild Side”) sampled “Can I Kick It” that folks truly began to take notice of this talented foursome from Queens. Without question, Tribe was one of the most infamous card-carrying members of the “alternative” rap tag along with the majority of the Native Tongue camp, a true variance from the majority of Hip Hop that was brewing in the early to mid-nineties. Confronting many issues that plagued the black community and the recording industry as a whole, Tribe was without question one of the most intelligent, artistic rap groups that we’ll ever see and hear in this lifetime. Boasting lyrics that were packed with ideas and at times, tongue in cheek comedy, the Tribe was one of the most original crews in Hip Hop.
From the start of “People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythym”, Tribe chose to focus on tracks that were filled with positive messages, without sounding too preachy or overbearing. With “Pubic Enemy” the crew put on comedic spin on the often-avoided topic of venereal diseases, while the classic “Bonita Applebum” moved right into the topic of “Love Rap”. It was also on “Bonita Applebum” that Tribe displayed their production genius, while altering a sample with the type of jazzy keys that we would witness on later Tribe tracks. “Youthful Expression” aimed at those with violent tendencies, while adding an important message over simmering productions.
The Tribe also displayed their playful side on the aforementioned “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”, I mean…who else could kill over four minutes describing a road-trip “gone wrong” and still make it sound ill but the Tribe? Some of “People’s..” best productions came in the form of the album’s opener, “Push It Along” (a nearly 8 minute ditty) and “Rhythym (Dedicated To The Art Of Moving Butts), both of which sported crazy, atmospheric samples and deep bass grooves, allowing Tribe to offer their best rendition of 70′s synth funk. Perhaps-at times, Tribe experimented a little too much for some on thier debut. However, it’s hard to argue that this album isn’t a classic along with the crew’s efforts that would soon follow, “The Low End Theory” and “Midnight Marauders”
Ahh…Grand Daddy I.U.’s “Smooth Assassin”, one of the true sleepers of 1990. Even back when this album first hit the streets nearly two decades ago, I still managed to pass it up. I remember the day very clearly, I had $10.00 left in my pocket (saved up from yard mowing) and it was either “Smooth Assassin” or Too Short’s “Short Dog’s In The House”, and like any normal 12 year old kid would’ve have done, I opted for the album loaded with “dirty sex raps” and explicit lyrics. With the inclusion on Biz Markie and Cool V on the production tip (along engineering assistance from former Boogie Down Productions affiliate, DJ Doc), one would think that this album would have done a tad bit better in the sales department just with the Diabolical One’s stamp of approval alone. Since it had been nearly 5 (!) years since I’d last heard “Smoooth Assassin”, I decided to upload it to the Ipod this past weekend and let the sounds marinate over a game of “College Basketball ’09″ (God, why did 2kSports do away with the 2KHoops series this year?!). Needless to say, I was quite curious to see how this album withstood the test of time, here’s how it went down:
I’ve always liked I.U.’s style, he rhymed with a very slow, drawn out flow and had a voice that sounded like a mixture of Barry White and Big Daddy Kane. The aforementioned Biz Markie supplied Grand Daddy with beats that were tailor made for the Jeeps. Much of the production, was layered with Biz’ signature-sloooow, bassy, sample-heavy and very addictive style. After listening to the first few cuts on “Smooth Assassin”, I was pleasantly surprised to say the least. It soon became very easy to see why I liked this album so damn much in the first place. I.U sprinkled many of the tracks with his clever wit and humor-plus, the production on the album-while today, sounds very outdated-was very solid when you consider the timeframe of it’s release.
Some of my favorite cuts from “Smooth Assassin” were “Something New”, which jacked the beat from Nice & Smooth’s “Sum Pimped Out Sh*t” and “Behind Bars”, which utilized the Pointer Sisters’ sample from “We Can”. If you want a good album to listen to while digging a little deeper into the Cold Chillin’ catalog, then Grand Daddy I.U.’s “Smooth Assassin” would be a helluva’ starting point!!