Hip Hop

ESG “ESG” (99 Records, 1981)

 

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The impact this EP had when I first heard it in 1981 was immediate and ecstatic. Made in the Bronx by the four Scroggins sisters and a conga-playing friend named Tito Libran, ESG’s eponymous debut release shot vital energy and joy into the veins of anyone with a mind attuned to fundamental, funky groove science. Music this elemental, earthy, and efficacious should be sold in health-food stores. ESG is a family affair, and it is so righteous.

The music of ESG (stands for Emerald Sapphire & Gold) succeeds through its ruthlessly stripped-down attack that privileges drums, congas, bass and vocals that seduce and sass you with equal measure. The six songs on ESG offer the purest distillation of this influential band’s sound, in which nearly every element strives to get you moving as sexily as possible. You’ve surely heard “UFO” sampled in hundreds of hip-hop and dance-pop tracks, but the funny thing about that is it’s ESG’s least conventionally danceable cut. But producers honed in on that eerie, distorted guitar whorl, surely because it’s redolent of pop culture’s idea of an alien presence. Unsurprisingly, it became the default trope for “woo woo” creepiness in clubland throughout the ’80s.

If you wanna instantly draw in a listener, you could do much worse than “You’re No Good,” a song about conflicted lust whose hip-swiveling beats seem to be tumbling down the stairs, louchely and elegantly. “Moody” conjures hyper, dubbed-out rhythmic legerdemain, with speedy congas contrasting with the trap kit’s stoic funk foundation. Singer Renee Scroggins is in peak coquettish form here. With “UFO,” ESG again forge another downward-sloping rhythm that slaloms with Renee’s guitar feedback sculpted into Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho shock-tactic strings. Deborah Scroggins’ bass line is superbly economical in its lugubrious descent, while all around it coheres into an atmosphere of piercing menace. (Note: Factory Records’ studio savant Martin Hannett produced this enchanting trio of songs, as he did Basement 5′s In Dub, which I reviewed last week—coincidence!)

The EP’s B-side consists of three live recordings that prove ESG could slay onstage, too. “Earn It” pushes a staunch work ethic lyrically while purveying the leanest, meanest Liquid Liquid-like rhythm matrix heard outside of a Liquid Liquid record, thanks in part to excellent use of claves. “ESG” boasts yet more manic claves, chants of the title, a snaky bass line, and a full-tilt beat orgy that’ll get your heart bursting. Same goes for “Hey!”—sans the claves. After hearing these skeletal wonders, you’ll likely find all other music needlessly ornate and fussy.

ESG went on to cut some other great records, of course, but they came right out of the gate fully formed as one of history’s most efficient and fun funk units on this initial effort. ESG is proving to be one of life’s simple, eternal pleasures. -Buckley Mayfield

 

M|A|R|R|S “Pump Up The Volume” (4AD/4th & B’way, 1987)

 

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Pump Up The Volume” stands as one of the strangest songs ever to chart in America (peaked at #13). The handiwork of British musicians Martyn and Steve Young of Colourbox and A.R. Kane [see our Sept. 5 review of their Up Home! EP], this seven-minute sampladelic collage both entranced and discombobulated dance floors in the late ’80s—as did its four-minute edit to radio listeners. M|A|R|R|S loaded the track with an absurd abundance of sonic information; it’s as overwhelming a listening experience as anything concocted by the Bomb Squad for Public Enemy or the what the Dust Brothers stitched together for the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. “Pump Up The Volume” is one of those surreal, action-packed jams that can jolt you out of your doldrums while shopping for cereal at QFC (true story).

The main rhythm of “Pump Up The Volume” is a rolling, punchy house-music amble, spookily accentuated with heavily FX’d vibraphone tintinnabulation (I think). The excitement level seriously spikes when they bring in the monstrously funky, Moog-/timbale-enhanced break from the Bar-Kays’ “Holy Ghost.” Other elements producer John Fryer zooms in and out of the mix include the oddly riveting chorus from George Kranz’s “Din Daa Daa,” Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav shouting “You’re gonna get yours!” Washington DC go-go group Trouble Funk chanting “pump pump pump me up!” rapper Rakim intoning “Pump up the volume” (of course), a Last Poets member’s rapid-fire rant from “Mean Machine” (“rhythmatic systematic remote control/magnetic genetic commands your soul”), drums and cowbell from Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Jazz,” and Dunya Yusin’s striking melisma from “Abu Zeluf.” Throw in some scratching by C.J. Mackintosh and you have a recipe for confusion, but the whole thing hangs together splendidly, returning to the original undulating rhythm just when you think it’s going to split at the seams. The US edition of the EP gives you two alternate mixes with slight variations, but both pale before the original epic.

The 12-inch’s other highlight is “Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance).” Written by A.R. Kane, “Anitina” is a corrosive slice of the group’s patented, solarized shoegaze, buttressed with a sexily strutting bass line and some pneumatic ’80s drum-machine beats. Rudy Tambala sings to his “little dollies,” “I’ll feed you sugarkane” and “touch me where it’s forbidden,” and the effect is charming rather than creepy due to his vulnerably soulful voice. While “Pump Up The Volume” hogged the lion’s share of the spotlight, “Anitina” is a stunning gem in its own right, one of the most compelling compositions A.R. Kane ever conceived.

Vinyl copies of Pump Up The Volume commonly appear in used sections for prices much lower than the quality of its contents would lead you to expect. It’s bargain-bin gold, and you should cop one the next time you see it. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band “Bongo Rock” (Pride, 1973)

 

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Incredible Bongo Band sure had incredible bongos, but they weren’t really a band, per se. Rather, Pride Records executive Michael Viner coaxed various musicians to record percussion-heavy instrumentals, including covers of many popular songs of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and pieces for films in order to, uh… make some easy money. Thankfully for posterity (and your posterior), these players ranked among the greatest session studs ever: drummer Jim Gordon, percussionist King Errisson, guitarist Mike Deasy, pianist Joe Sample, bassist Wilton Felder, and many others—possibly even Ringo Starr. The sessions may have had a loose, mercenary intention to them, but they ultimately yielded some truly enduring cuts.

You surely know the popular tune “Apache,” which the Shadows originally issued in 1960. Well, IBB blew it out and funked it up like nobody’s business. The result is one of the most action-packed jams ever waxed and perhaps the ultimate B-boy anthem, its bongos-and-drums breakbeats forming the perfect bustling soundtrack to busting acrobatic moves. In addition, “Apache” has become one the most sampled tracks in music history, especially appealing to hip-hop and drum & bass producers. If you can’t hear why, you may need therapy.

The rest of Bongo Rock is similarly a treasure trove of breakbeats aching to be sampled and instantly catchy, quasi-kitsch instrumentals that want to enliven every party everywhere till the end of time. I mean, check out “Bongolia,” a swerving monster of a tune with flamboyant horn charts, swift bongo patter, and 10 pounds of funk in a 5-pound bag. It’s a veritable godsend for DJs; its only fault that is that it las barely over two minutes. “Last Bongo In Belgium” slurs out some lascivious blues rock with a funky swagger and what sounds like Mike Deasy going off on a third-ear-tickling, psychedelic guitar solo. Yes, the Beastie Boys sampled the drum/bongos break for “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun.” Good catch.

Of course IBB do a truncated but funked-to-heaven and horn-heavy cover of Iron Butterfly’s gothadelic 1968 hit, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” And of course it possesses a very sample-worthy bongo/drum break, replete with flange on the latter. They’re generous like that. The last two tracks—“Raunchy ’73” and “Bongo Rock ’73”—sound like sexed-up, hot-rodding themes to TV game shows that are more risqué than The Dating Game (ask your mom or dad). Once again, there’s a surfeit of funkitude and more fun than should be legal on a 35-minute album. All praises to the visionary Michael Viner and his funky instincts! -Buckley Mayfield

 

 

 

Liquid Liquid “Optimo” (99 Records, 1983)

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When the Superior Viaduct label reissued Liquid Liquid’s most famous EP last year (along with their other 12-inches), I and many other heads rejoiced. It finally made the New York post-punk funk group’s vastly influential “Cavern” accessible to vinyl lovers who don’t have deep pockets (unlike the track itself—*rimshot*) or who have reservations about purchasing bootlegs. As you probably know, “Cavern” inspired Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” one of the hugest hip-hop-party jams ever. “Cavern” boasts one of history’s most infectious, buoyant bass lines—thanks, Richard McGuire—and its tensile rhythm makes you want to jump through the ceiling of a basketball arena. You can understand why a popular hip-hop group would want to use it as the foundation for club banger; you can also understand why Liquid Liquid were miffed when Melle Mel & co. lifted the bass part of their song without giving them credit (Sugar Hill Records house bassist Doug Wimbish duplicated it). No doubt 21st-century bands like LCD Soundsystem and Tussle were taking notes to this stripped-down warehouse-funk bomb.

As for the rest of the four-track EP, “Optimo” places Sal Principato’s staccato, nervy New York vocals over a polyglot percussion attack, with some of the most manic cowbell hits you’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. This is a slippery, shuffling funk cut not too dissimilar to what A Certain Ratio were up to in Manchester a few years before with the dazzling “The Fox.” It should be noted that all four Liquid Liquid members played percussion, which helped to make their music the rhythm banquet it is.

Optimo‘s flipside tends to get overlooked, but it too features greatness. “Scraper” flaunts a bulbous bass line and all manner of piquant percussion touches, as well as Dennis Young’s beautifully supple marimba motif. “Out” is the record’s most dubby piece and strides in a pretty strange meter. Good luck dancing to it!

Also, good luck finding even Superior Viaduct’s Optimo reissue, let alone an original copy; it’s already sold out! Time for a repress, perhaps. Optimo should never be oop. -Buckley Mayfield

Luscious Jackson “In Search Of Manny” (Grand Royal, 1992)

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Talk about love at first listen… Luscious Jackson’s debut EP on the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label busts out of the gate with one of the coolest tracks in ’90s hiphop. “Let Yourself Get Down” is not so much trad rap as it is an action-packed hybrid of heaviest pimp funk, freakiest psychedelic rock, and come-hither R&B—plus, that sample from Dr. John’s “Right Place Wrong Time” just elevates it over the top. It’s an auspicious omen for the rest of the seven-track, 25-minute record, which has no weak moments and, Natural Ingredients notwithstanding, represents Luscious Jackson’s peak. Curiously, I thought these four NYC women were going to be superstars, but they ended up becoming more like cult heroines whose career sputtered sooner than expected.

But let’s accentuate the positive, of which there’s plenty on In Search Of Manny. “Life of Leisure” sashays on a shuffling funk beat and louche, jazzy coronet and oboe riffs, showing LJ can excel at down tempos and melancholy moods, too. “Daughters Of The Kaos” unexpectedly starts with a flamenco-guitar sample and then explodes into a maniacally chaotic funk jam, lifting Mitch Mitchell’s beat from the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Little Miss Lover” to stunning effect. The rapping is seductively sotto voce, a brilliant decision for such a busy, kinetic track. “Keep On Rockin’ It” and “She Be Wantin’ It More” let in some sweet folk-rock guitar amid complex rhythms and beautiful singing and on-point rapping by Jill Cunniff and Gabrielle Glaser.

“Bam-Bam” brings yet more slashing funk that’s fit for a blaxploitation flick, with badass drummer Kate Schellenbach flashing serious Bernard Purdie-esque chops. “Satellite” closes the EP with a speedy, almost R.E.M.-like gallop into lush, dreamy melodicism. It’s a denouement nobody really saw coming, but it typifies Luscious Jackson’s brilliance, right out of the gate. –Buckley Mayfield

Public Enemy “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (1988)

There’s a reason why this album is consistently listed near the top of any list of great albums, hip-hop or otherwise. The layered production and album’s thematic cohesion represented a quantum leap over anything that had been released in hip-hop to that point. Yet, it doesn’t sound the slightest bit dated (like, for example The Chronic) because no one was able to emulate the Bomb Squad’s sound the way that G-Funk or RZA-style production were constantly bitten years later. The result is an album that was monumentally important at the time of its release, and still just as fresh and jaw-dropping nearly 20 years later.

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the definitive group statement from one of hip-hop’s greatest acts. Chuck D is a true force on the mic, but PE doesn’t get by on his skills alone, though they certainly could. Despite rhymes that convey his considerable intelligence, he has a presence on the microphone that has rarely been matched. Even if he wasted his flows on cookie-cutter battle raps, he could do so convincingly. Fortunately for us, that isn’t the case. Flava Flav, far from the caricature he is now, provides the perfect foil for Chuck. Abrasive and wild, he underscores all of Chuck D’s statements like an exclamation point. Meanwhile, Terminator X and the Bomb Squad propel the backing tracks into the stratosphere with a constant barrage of samples, scratches and funky beats. Constantly self-referencing, the music here is dense and complex, adding to the epic feel of the album (though it runs just under an hour). Not to mention, they have the best song titles in all of music: “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, “Terminator X on the Edge of Panic”, etc.

I am usually a little wary of artists that are this overtly political, and I always thought that Ice Cube traveled too far down that road, for example. With PE, however, the politics only add to the urgency of the album. It doesn’t hurt that Chuck D is typically right on with his lyrics. It also doesn’t hurt that all of the themes touched on (drugs, war, police, the justice system, etc.) are always relevant.

To say that It Takes a Nation… is a good rap album with a couple of classic tracks would be a gross understatement of this album’s value. This is a masterwork, and nearly every other track has become a standard (“Rebel w/out a Pause”, “Bring the Noise”, “Night of the Living Baseheads”, “Don’t Believe the Hype”, “She Watch Channel Zero?!”…). No filler. The consistency is staggering. In fact, at first listen, the record can be a little intimidating, since there aren’t any concessions made in the effort to vary their output or spawn a hit single. Chuck D even anticipates that they won’t have commercial success in his line: “Radio stations/I question their blackness/They call themselves black/But we’ll see if they’ll play this.” Multiple listens reveal more and more of what Public Enemy has embedded into this startling effort. Any fan of hip-hop who doesn’t own this album needs to. As does any fan of music who has dismissed hip-hop as anything less than a vibrant art form. —Lucus

Wu-Tang Clan “Enter the Wu-Tang” (1993)

The RZA and GZA both were dropped from their label when their A&R influenced debuts bombed. So what did they do? They recruited 7 others of Staten Island’s finest (or as they say Shaolin) and got together to release their first single “Protect Ya Neck”. An impressive posse cut that included all but one member where every MC delivered. So in 1993, they planned to take over hip-hop and the east coast in specific with their debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and they really succeeded. This album is a classic to the fullest and features 9 different voices throughout. Each MC delivers at every chance they get and their energetic battle raps never get old. There’s so many excellent tracks to choose from, this album never bores. RZA is the mastermind of this ambitious project and he handles all the production. To say he changed the direction east coast producers took is an understatement. He brings a fully new production style which has some dark soundscapes that is simply excellent. RZA is one of the greatest producers ever and his work on this and the many Wu-Tang solo albums that followed in the five years after are proof. His production work is magnificent in here and you have to hear it to believe me. In addition, there’s some small amount of variety with “C.R.E.A.M.” which features an excellent, legendary hook by Method Man (the most commercially visible member) and two classic verses from Raekwon and Inspectah Deck about the ruff, fast lifestyle in the streets of New York. Although the interludes where the members are talking get annoying real fast (except the intro for “Method Man”, that one is a classic), the beats and lyrics are too good to be brought down by their retarded act when they talk. Oh yeah, RZA is also innovating new sampling sources by getting a bunch of kung-fu samples, most notably on the first few seconds of the album when “Bring da Ruckus” starts. 36 Chambers is simply a classic and words can’t justify how good it is, really. This album along with Da Beatminerz’ work on Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage and DJ Premier on Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East pretty much defines the beats of hardcore hip-hop in the east coast. —Prt Cpt

Eric B. & Rakim “Paid in Full” (1987)

Run-D.M.C. proved hip-hop was a genre that could stand on it’s own and they also laid the foundation for hardcore rap. Fast forward to 1987, rappers all use pretty simple, elementary rhyme schemes and enter Eric B. & Rakim’s album Paid In Full. In this album, Rakim revolutionizes the art of rapping completely by himself. Instead using the simple rhyme schemes of the past, he introduces the use of multi-syllables, similes and internal rhyming to hip-hop music, making his brags a lot more serious. And he doesn’t really touch on any real subject matter either, most of it is just him bragging about how dope he is and how great Eric B. as a DJ is, but he does touch on the topic of money with “Paid In Full” where he claims rapping pays off and also touches on his 5% ‘roots’, a group which he joined shortly before starting his rap career. As a braggart, Rakim is simply sick, songs like “My Melody” and “I Know You Got Soul” are all-time classics and got quotable for days, so they never get old. Although most claim that Eric B. does the production, it’s in-fact Marley Marl who does lots of scratching and produces two cuts (“My Melody” and “Eric B. Is President”) while Rakim takes care of the rest. The back cover credits “Eric B. & Rakim” as the producer of the album, which makes Eric B.’s shady act even more suspect as a fake that took credit for other’s work. Regardless, this album is simply awesome and the production is also notable for introducing James Brown samples to hip-hop – something many rappers went crazy with for the few years following 1987. A classic that is one of the most influential albums ever and it’s crazy how 8 years had to go by for this album to reach platinum sales. It’s your duty as a hip-hop fan to be familiar with this album and also know at least two songs in their entirety or else you wont be approved by me. (not that anyone cares, but hey, that’s just how it goes!) –Prt Cpt

N.W.A “Straight Outta Compton” (1988)

I’ll have to put my vote in as this record being my favorite hip-hop/rap album of all-time. Just like the Sex Pistols and Black Flag before them, this was right in your face and hard to ignore. Comes off a show-stopper, the go for broke style is so real and scary that it makes you feel you’ve been pistol whipped into oblivion, and yet you come back for more. From the superb opener “Straight Outta Compton” to the anger fueled “Fuck Tha Police,” this was hardcore music. Many of the tracks contain some very graphic lyrics, but there is a certain level of playfulness to the album as a whole. Make no mistake, this is not a kids record. It’s gritty subject matter and harsh lyrics bring it to life in a fearsome yet passionate way. Filled with tormented material, “Express Yourself” can be fun at times and “Gangsta Gangsta” is a hell of a song. Ice Cube, of course is the real standout here (even surpassing Dr. Dre). His lyrics and anger are the most dazzling throughout the record (note – he wrote most of the lyrics on the album). I was too young to remember the impact this had on society back in 1988, but today it remains the greatest hip-hop album to exist. –Jason

EPMD “Strictly Business” (1988)

From all the rappers that came out in 1988, one of the more notable, influential and legendary is EPMD. Short for Erick and Parrish Making Dollars, the duo made up of Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith released their official debut album in 1988, named Strictly Business. As rappers, they do hardly anything more than bragging but their chemistry is so awesome and they have plenty of quotables and cool verses to rap to. They are not on the level of Rakim or Big Daddy Kane but they are pretty nice to listen to. The production for Strictly Business is what makes this album legendary though. Wanna see where funk in hip-hop got it’s start? Look no further than Strictly Business. You have heard songs like “Nastradamus”, “Ain’t No Nigga” and “Going Back to Cali”, right? Who do you think sampled them first? The answer is found right here with Erick Sermon. His funk inspired production is simply ahead of it’s time. Even though funk was a lot more popular in the west coast, it got it’s real start in Long Island with Erick Sermon. The funk samples are pretty simple and mostly looped on the songs but they are so awesome, they remain timeless. I can’t imagine this album being hailed as a classic had it not been for the great production. Funk in hip-hop got it’s real start right here (and alternatively on Life Is… Too Short from the same year). There’s also the original series of a story in song form with “Jane”, a hooker that never leaves the duo alone and would have a song dedicated to her in every EPMD followup. –Prt Cpt

De La Soul "3 Feet High and Rising" (1989)

De La’s debut really was a breath of fresh air upon release with the Daisy Age crew flipping the hip hop script big time with their fun odd ball approach to the genre. In the wrong hands it could have been a disaster – all style over substance – but these three young MC’s had something about them even then and an ace up their sleeve in the shape of producer Prince Paul. This record also introduced us to the overuse of the Skit on hip hop LP’s and after a while it is perhaps my main complaint against an otherwise fantastic debut. Sure the skits are funny and on occasion work well with the flow of the record they can grate after a while. However there are some absolute classic tunes presented too, with at least three to four essential cuts. —Jon

Kool G Rap & DJ Polo “Road to the Riches” (1989)

Back when the Juice Crew was on a roll in the late 80s, Big Daddy Kane, MC Shan and Biz Markie had already gotten their start and even had their own Marley Marl produced albums out. By 1989, all three were at album number two and the remaining Juice Crew members that were yet to start were Kool G. Rap, Craig G and Masta Ace. Masta Ace didn’t debut till 1990, but Craig G and Kool G. Rap both came out in 1989 with their debuts. While Craig G’s The Kingpin sucked and killed any potential his career could’ve had, Kool G. Rap delivered with the backup from his DJ, Polo. Kool G. Rap is the hardest rapper from Juice Crew and therefore it makes sense that he’s the most skilled too. While the smooth Big Daddy Kane had crossover appeal, G. Rap was too raw for that and this album – Road to the Riches – is evidence of that. In here, Kool G. Rap most of the time spends the album’s length to simply brag and what a braggart he is! His rhymes are simply too good to be comparable. Just give “Men at Work” a listen to see what I’m saying. Kool G. Rap is ruthless on the mic and even though Road to the Riches is often associated with the creation of mafioso rap, it’s completely false and apart from the title track “Road to the Riches”, absolutely nothing is on that side. DJ Polo does the scratches and he’s excellent but Marley Marl takes care of the production duties and he gives the album a very good late 80s hardcore sound with use of samples mostly from James Brown (an obvious source for New York albums back then). Although the beats haven’t aged all that well, they are still very good and only help Kool G. Rap’s excellent rapping. The only thing to hold back this album from perfection are the crossover tracks which just don’t fit Kool G. Rap’s hardcore, raw style. I’m talking about “Truly Yours”, “Cars” (although I like that new wave sample) and “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not”. But with those tracks aside, everything else is pure excellence. –Prt Cpt