“Ain’t A Damn Thing Changed”-Nice & Smooth (1991, Def Jam)
Nice & Smooth returned for a second album that injected a much-needed and entirely welcome sense of the absurd into the generally far too sincere New York underground hip-hop community, which has traditionally sacrificed humor for hardcore technique when it comes down to rhyming. Greg Nice and Smooth Bee, however are often downright silly and goofy on “Ain’t A Damn Thing Changed”. Despite the conscientious-sounding title, thee is very little on the album that is concerned with anything other than, first, rocking the mic,and second, timing the punchline perfectly.
There are certainly serious tones tossed out from time to time. The duo’s biggest hit, “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow”-which is simply the track of Tracy Chapman’s somber, solemn “Fast Car” matched with the duo’s super-imposed rhyming-makes references to guns, violence, and drug abuse, and several of the other songs contained similar allusion. But far more frequently, the album is characterized by a reckless old school (think Audio Two) sense of fun, with loony, stream-of-consciousness lyrics that are most interested in dropping the other shoe, shouted sing-songy choruses (“Sex, Sex, Sex”, “Paranoia”), catchy as hell hooks (“Sometimes..”, “One, Two and One More Makes Three”) and production filed with bouncy beats and cartoonish, electronic keyboards. The presence of fully harmonized background vocals is another characteristic that gave the album a jarringly whimsical quality that most rap crews at the time would never have come within earshot of.
A Partridge Family sample even played a substantial role in “Hip Hop Junkies” and the theme song to Sanford & Son is the basic track of “Step By Step”. Perhaps their sense of humor, to a certain extent, obscures the straight-up rhyming skills that the duo possessed. Greg Nice’s abrupt, roughneck dramatics paired with Smooth Bee’s serene, butter-slick delivery strikes the perfect vocal balance, and the posse cut, “Down The Line”, which featured Gang Starr’s Guru (R.I.P), proved that they could bring it rugged and raw when they so decided. But because the duo is willing to poke fun at themselves and their craft so unsparingly, the album is completely addictive, in the same way that sugar is, because it’s an energy boost and instantly brings into relief an entirely different side of hip-hop: one that doesn’t take itself so seriously.
“A Future Without A Past”-Leaders Of The New School (1991, Elektra)
Even in the vibrant early-’90s, “A Future Without A Past”, emerged as a breath of fresh air, simultaneously presenting a throwback to the old school rhyme “back and forth(s)” and call and response rapping styles of crews like the Furious Five and Funky Four Plus One, and vaulting into the future. Brash and full of youthful exuberance, L.O.N.S. was the perfect blend of three distinctly different but total complimentary personalities whose flows varied from the conventional MC blueprint. From Dinco D’s straightforward, tongue-twisting to Charlie Brown’s zany shrieks to Busta Rhymes’ vicious, reggae-inspired toasting, which walked the line between seriousness and humor, yet only a few years later would earn him commercial pay dirt as a solo act. Let’s not forget about DJ Cut Monitor Milo either, who pulled a Phife Dawg on us with his lyrical performance on the foursome’s sophomore LP, “T.I.M.E.”.
The result was one of the most infectious albums ever created. The majority of the material found on “A Future..”, first and foremost, are meant to be fun and humorous, particularly on Charlie Brown’s nonsensical “What’s The Pinocchio’s Theory”, the insistent “Trains, Planes and Automobiles” and “My Ding-A-Ling” and Busta Rhymes’ jovial ode to full-figured women, “Feminine Fatt”. The cut-and-paste production is brilliant throughout, packed with fresh samples, thanks to Bomb Squad member Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, the SD50s and the Vibe Chemist Backspin, and the group also shows themselves to be quite capable with a sampler, particularly Milo’s incredible work on “Case of the P.T.A.” and “My Ding-A-Ling”. But it would be wrong to simply peg this album as a foray into kinder, gentler, more lighthearted ad innocent hip-hop.
First, the album had the feel of a concept album and is separated into three school “periods” or “sessions”-the first two set in school and the later when school lets out-and that alone points to a group of young men, mostly still teenagers, trying to move rap into new dimensions. Second, the New York vibe permeates “A Future..”, but it is simply presented from a younger and far less jaded perspective. Songs such as “Just When You Thought It Was Safe” and “Sound of the Zeekers”, if not exactly hard edged and political, offered far more than throwaway sentiment, and lyrically L.O.N.S. never faltered. In that sense, “A Future…” as a celebration of all the best aspects of hip-hop culture and youth in the early-’90s.
“Pure Poverty”-Poor Righteous Teachers” (1991, Profile)
Rappers who take a strong moral stance were beginning to proliferate when the second P.R.T. album dropped, but this young trio had been “teaching the righteous way” since the beginning, combing hard, funky beats with culture-conscious lyricism. Wit stage names like Wise Intelligent, Culture Freedom and Father Shaheed, the three may have come across as a bit pretentious, but they really where quite serious; their stated goal was to “teach the blind, deaf, and dumb who the real living God is”. Okay, maybe a lot pretentious.
And if it weren’t for the sparse, airtight beats and the original samples, their lyrics of cultural awareness, self-sufficiency, and religious discipline would probably have fallen flat. But those beats are there and so is the flow-Wise Intelligent’s lifting, reggae-influenced speed rap is especially fine, noticeably on the dancehall-inspired “Easy Star” and “I’m Comin’ Again”, an a cappela rap.
There are several moments of self-contradiction, maybe even hypocrisy, yet “Pure Poverty” was still a bonafide winner and a must-hear.
“Organized Konfusion”-Organized Konfusion (1991, Hollywood)
The classic debut album from the duo f Prince Poetry and Pharaohe Monch was arguably the underground rap album of 1991, at a time when “underground” didn’t really yet exist in the grand scheme of things as it would much later in the decade. It most definitely represented an alternative that ran perpendicular to much of what passed for mainstream hip-hop in 1991, with the possible exception of the Native Toungue family, with which Organzed Konfusion shared a maverick, sometimes playful, sensibility, if not an identifiable sound.
The MC’s trade rhymes add intertwining, singsong choruses like a pair of old school pros, but their lyrical flows and topical themes where decidedly progressive for the era, and even still manage to sound almost as futuristic, even today. Poetry is no slouch as an emcee and, in fact, probably would have been the headliner in almost any other duo, but Monch is obvious the breakout star here. His vocal presence is looming and imposing, to an almost apocalyptic degree at times (see: “Prisoners Of War”) as he throws out a relentless jet stream of complex verbiage and knotty images. But each is constantly surprising throughout the album, the reason it felt like such a cobweb clearer upon it’s release, and still feels so today.
The duo also handled most of the production chores itself, creating a dense tapestry of strangely organic sounds, from the syrupy smooth tones of the O.C.-assisted “Fudge Pudge” to “Releasing Hypnotical Gases”, all gurgling, alien internal processes, to the first whimsical original and remix versions. This album may be, alongside Main Source’s “Breaking Atoms”, the quintessential cult hip-hop album from a decade of forward-thinking efforts.
“A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing”-Black Sheep (1991, Mercury)
Playful, witty and incredibly imaginative, “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” introduced one of the freshest talents of the early-’90s, a self-produced duo who caught the eye of the Native Tongue family. Though Dres and Mista Lawnge didn’t match the brilliant wordplay of Tribe or De La, their topics where well-chosen, presented in a hilarious context and backed up by strong productions and clever lyrics. “A Wolf..” wasn’t a comedy record, but it was difficult to tell the difference between their jokes.
They poked fun at many aspects of black music and culture, everything from the persuasive gangster mentality (“U Mean I’m Not”) to groups obsessed with the Afro-centric viewpoint (“Are You Mad?”) and sex raps (“La Menage”), as well as amusingly incorrect response to feminism (“L.A.S.M”). They also dropped a few of the best hip-hop club tracks of the era, to include the insanely catchy items like “The Choice Is Yours” (Revisited), “Try Counting Sheep” and “Flavor Of The Month”. Another danceable gem, “Strobelite Honey”, was dreadfully honest about girls who look better under the lights than on closer inspection.
Polar opposites to the ranks of somber political rappers, and deftly counteracting seriousness of many “alternative” groups, Black Sheep hit a height with their debut that few hip-hop artists have since 1991.