Archive for the ‘Hip-Hop’ Category

Quick Hit or Miss – ATCQ’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

November 16, 2016

we_got_it_from_here_thank_you_for_your_serviceI’ll admit I was skeptical when I heard the rave reviews of Tribe’s new album.  When a legendary group puts something out after such a long absence, critics usually take one of two paths:  savaging the new material as not living up to the old stuff or a triumphant return to form.  I became less skeptical when I saw no drop off in the comments from friends.  Now having listened to the album a few times, I’m going to join in and proclaim this one a Hit.

The album starts off on fire with several tracks that could work their way into a top 10-15 ATCQ track list for me and I think this album might possibly move ahead of their debut in my personal rankings of their albums.

I was trying to pinpoint how to describe the difference between the sound of “classic” Tribe and this album.   It boils down to this: the “classic” albums, particularly Low End, have a laser-focused consistency that was comforting. You knew you were getting a fat boom-bap beat coupled with sweet jazz samples.  And all was good.

The new album certainly retains most of the boom-bap anchor and there’s still some jazz style, but it spreads into other areas not really explored before in the classics. Electric guitars (We The People and several Jack White shreds on the latter third of the album ),more collage-style samples (opener Space Program), and  some R&B (Enough!!) to name a few. This could be a disaster, but I think it mostly works and is a more interesting listen than if they just tried to recreate Low End.

Obviously the other element here are the raps. Both Q-Tip and Phife (R.I.P.) still bring it. And to come back after 18 years (which in hip hop years is like 50 I think if my math is right) with the same mix of dexterous wordplay, humor and braggadocio is special. Never one to shy from confrontation with social issues, and they realized in 2015-16 stakes is high, they come right out the gate with some of their most political songs ever.

They bring along more guests than on the classics, though nothing hits Scenario heights. Speaking of, Busta Rhymes is all over this and I have nothing bad to say about that; he can still hype up a track with the best of them. Andre 3000 makes a few appearances and he remains a national treasure when it comes to guest verses. And nodding to the new generation, Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar, fit right in.

There’s not a bad song in the bunch, I think the last track on Disc 1, Enough!!, is probably the weakest and I won’t begrudge them for the obvious Phife tribute Lost Somebody, but I think the album’s last track, The Donald, is a more fitting tribute to him.  He (and Q-Tip) drop their final verse as A Tribe Called Quest and Phife goes down swinging, ready to take on all comers: “No doubt, I’mma set it, dudes best be ready/off top on the spot, no reading from your Blackberry/Leave the iPhones home, skill sets must be shown/i’mma show the real meaning of the danger zone.”

Leave you with a link to a guy who gets it, jamming to album highlight We The People…

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fspiceadams95%2Fvideos%2F1128666453835968%2F&show_text=0&width=400

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RIP Phife Dawg

March 27, 2016

It’s been a busy week, but wanted to put down a few words in memory of Malik Taylor, better known to fans of A Tribe Called Quest as Phife Dawg.  Or the Five Foot Assassin. Or spitter of rhymes like “i never half step, cuz I’m not a half stepper/drink a lotta soda so they call me Dr. Pepper” and “Hey yo Bo know this and Bo knows that / But Bo don’t know Jack / cause Bo can’t rap.”

ATCQ, probably more than any other hip hop group, drew me full bore into hip hop as a teenager.  As a “rock n roll” kid, my exposure to hip hop was quite limited and I was drawn to the more rock beats of Beastie Boys and some Run DMC.  The debut from De La Soul was too foreign for me at the time.  I missed ATCQ’s debut in 1990, but for reasons I can’t remember now I bought their second album The Low End Theory.  CDs were new to me as my family had only recently gotten a CD player, and I had only a handful.  So, by default the discs I had got a lot of airplay.

But this disc got the most airplay (even more than Nirvana’s Nevermind).  The beats, influenced by jazz, were amazing.  But, more than anything, it was the rhymes.  There was a youthful exuberance, wit, and humor (even when tackling serious subjects) that just speaks to a young person.  And Phife Dawg’s verses were all of those things.  For a nice list of some of his verses, look at this piece.  And a lot of those I can just hear him rapping them as soon as I saw them on the written page.

The wave of pieces and tributes that have come out in the past week is testament to Phife’s place in the canon of hip hop greats.  And for me personally, the fact that he, as an integral part of ATCQ, made me, and no doubt many others, love hip hop is a great legacy for any artist.  RIP.

By the Numbers: Fear of A Black Planet by Public Enemy

May 21, 2015

Fear_of_a_Black_PlanetI’ve been meaning to write about one of several songs from one of hip hop’s seminal albums and a big part of my introduction to rap that wasn’t on Top 40 radio.  I recently read a nice piece at Consequence of Sound that ranked all 20 songs on the album from “worst” to best.  You can see their ranking here, which also has links to each song.  I figured I’d do the same since I like to rank all the songs I’ve got in my iTunes library.  Using the one to five scale on iTunes and weighting based on song length, here’s my ranking.

20.  Track 19, Final Count of the Collision Between Us and Them (3 stars).  The shortest track on the album, this instrumental doesn’t pack the punch of some of the other instrumentals on the album.  A simple beat repeated for around 40 seconds winds down into a lone, receding snare.  A little of a laid back vibe to calm you down before you get to one of PE’s most political, fiery and tight songs.

19.  Track 15, Reggie Jax (3 stars).  CoS mentioned this as an homage to reggae.  I’d say more dub if you don’t put the reverb on the drums.  The slowness of the track, and Chuck D’s  matching delivery, is just out of place next to most of the other songs.  The shout out to Ice-T and Geto Boys at the end is also a bit strange given the type of laid back track this is.

18.  Track 4, Incident at 66.6 FM (3 stars).  PE’s version of the hip hop staple, filler “skit” tracks, is high art compared to most hip hop skit tracks and you know exactly where Ice Cube got the idea for some of his tracks on The Predator.  Taking pieces of a Chuck D interview with Alan Colmes, including callers both praising and lambasting the group.  The most ridiculous is a caller (presumably white) who saw them open for the Beastie Boys and complained about their stage show which included two men in uniform with uzis.  This is an odd criticism given the raunchy nature of the Beastie’s stage show at the time.  No song on the album, even the filler tracks (which is saying something), gets less than 3 stars from me.

17. Track 18, War at 33 1/3 (3 stars).  A testament more to the strength of most of the album’s other tracks than the quality of this one. A good beat with a synth (or is it a horn) sample that sounds like it’s being stretched like a rubber band and the usual staccato, brash raps of Chuck D, is not bad.  But it kind of loses a bit of steam in the breakdown and the song’s too short for that to happen.

16. Track 7, Pollywanacraka (3 stars).  Chuck D takes a look at interracial preferences from both the female and male perspectives doing a spoken word take that appears to be a strange homage to Gil Scott Heron.  Strange because the way he elongates syllables that has a lecherous effect.  Like Reggie Jax, the slowness of the track is a bit jarring and for some reason the sing-song “pollywanna” chorus gets on my nerves.

15. Track 17, B Side Wins Again (3 stars).  A guitar riff turns into a solid beat with an old school “clap your hands to the beat” call and some corresponding old school staple rhymes interspersed in Chuck D’s lyrics as well as plenty of Flavor Flav hyping.

14.  Track 12, Fear of A Black Planet (3 stars). “What’s wrong with some color in your family tree” is another song that looks at racial mixing and the concept of racial “purity” that does it better than Pollywanacraka.  Shows off vintage collage soundmaking of The Bomb Squad.

13. Track 6, Meet the G That Killed Me (4 stars).  At only 45 seconds, it’s a bit of a throwaway and the rather outdated view of homosexuality expressed in Chuck D’s first line is regrettable.  The clanging beat and funky bassline make up for it.

12. Track 1, Contract on the World Love Jam (4 stars). Whereas their first album started with the roar of a crowd and an airhorn, the first track on Fear starts off with something rare on a PE album, silence.  And then a solitary guitar that sounds like something that might start off a Pink Floyd album.  Then, you’re in a PE jam.  Bumping beat, screeching sound effects, and sound snippets.  A solid opening track.

11. Track 16, Leave This Off Your Fuckin’ Charts (4 stars).  Give the DJ some.  Terminator X gets a chance to show off his scratchin’ skills tied around several samples including the perfect lyric for a DJ “who needs a band when the beat just goes/shows”.

10.  Track 14, Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man (4 stars).  The Bomb Squad shows off its versatility with basically a house track with a little funk thrown into it that seems to work perfectly with Flava Flav’s less political leaning rhymes and they abide by Flava’s exhortations to “rock that shit homey”.  A great mid-song breakdown as well.

9. Track 8, Anti-Nigger Machine (4 stars).  This track shows off the confidence PE had.  I don’t know of many hip hop tracks that do a solid instrumental track for about 2 minutes and then drop a mad Chuck D verse on you that throws in sirens, a reggae sample and the introduction to the next song in the next minute and a half.

8. Track 3, 911 Is a Joke (4 stars).  Other than Fight The Power, the most recognizable song from the album  and I’ll admit it’s got a classic video.  But we’re just judging songs here and for some reason this song never resonated for me as much as some others on the album.  Like his other track, the beat Flava Flav gets has a party vibe, but the subject matter here is deadly serious.  An indictment of NYC’s 911 service, from the perspective of his community, with some witty takedowns of the EMS (“i call em bodysnatchers/cause they come to fetch ya/with an autopsy ambulance just to dissect ya”).  But for some reason the chorus falls flat for me, which is why it’s probably lower than most people would rate this song.

7. Track 10, Power To the  People (4 stars).  A classical piano flourish and then Chuck D yells “and you thought the beat slowed down” and well, it certainly doesn’t.  One of the fastest tracks on the album and Chuck D’s chant of “power to the people” and “turn it up, turn it loose” are exhortations for revolution.  And kind of like Track 8 in reverse, the last minute is a instrumental breakdown with clipped Flava Flav vocal samples.

6. Track 13, Revolutionary Generation (4 stars).  There’s so much going on in this beat and the fact that it can’t crack the top 5 is truly a testament to the sonic tapestries woven in this album.  So, just a few of the samples in this song: Parliament, Run DMC, Musical Youth, Diana Ross, and Double Dee and Steinski.  A call to “soul sisters” to join the fight and calling out the disrespect experienced by them.

5. Track 9, Burn Hollywood Burn (5 stars).  Two hot guest verses from rap luminaries that keep up with Chuck D, a hook that I irrationally love, and a seething anger palpable even for PE.  Even the outro’s comedy hits home when it’s announced the film the four rappers have in store at the theater is “Driving Miss Daisy”.  There is some irony in Ice Cube’s parting “fuck Hollywood” given some of his roles in mainstream Hollywood, but I have no doubt at the time it was genuine.

4. Track 11, Who Stole The Soul? (5 stars).  A good bit of soul samples (Sly and The Family Stone, James Brown) is apt given the title and the beat drops a few elements to let Chuck D’s lyrics take center stage and then when the chorus comes back it builds back up.  The Bomb Squad sneaks in a Beatles sample (intentional for sure given the subject matter of the song) and even sample themselves (Bring The Noise).  Flava Flav hits his hype notes just right and Chuck D has some great lines like “Like I want to know who/Picked Wilson’s pocket” and “Over here they’ll go after ya to steal your soul/like over there they stole our gold.”

3. Track 5, Welcome To the Terrordome (5 stars). The top 3 songs in this album are the pillars on which the rest of the album hangs and on any given day I might flip flop on my rankings of these tracks. A sample stating “this is a journey…” is a good description of this song; there’s so much to unpack both musically and lyrically. Similar to Fight the Power, the beat pulsates like a living organism with the chorus adding vocal snippets and various guitar stabs and other noises fitting lockstep with the groove. Chuck effortlessly spits lines like “I rope-a-dope the evil/with righteous bobbing and weaving/and let the good get even/c’mon down/but welcome to the terror dome”. And another example of not following convention, the break between Chuck’s second and third verse is almost instantaneous, and not nearly as musically diverse as the bridge between verses 1 and 2. Maybe Chuck said, I’ve got more to say and I’m not waiting for another bridge.

2. Track 20, Fight the Power (5 stars). No argument from me that this isn’t the most culturally important song from the album, and probably in all PE’s catalog, with its iconic video and placement in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Out of the top 3 tracks, it’s the simplest beat. Like I mentioned above, the beat pulsates out of your stereo like a bell ringing and echoing into the atmosphere. You know the chorus and you know the takedowns of Elvis and John Wayne too. Flava Flav is on his A-game, throwing in exclamation points to Chuck’s already pointed rhymes. And then the Bomb Squad take you out on some funky stuff, punctuated with a question about the future of Public Enemy, which is left unanswered in a cut-off quote from Chuck D.

1. Track 2, Brothers Gonna Work It Out (5 stars). It’s the hardest beat on the album, that guitar squabble in the background of the beat works so well and the chorus is even stronger than Fight The Power, in my opinion. That’s why I give this the slightest edge as the best song on this iconic album. It encapsulates everything that PE did so well and it doesn’t let up until it suddenly ends and the next track starts.  Don’t think I need to say any more, here’s the video:

Wilderness Rap?

January 19, 2014

De La Soul – In The Woods from Buhloone Mindstate

Oliver Wang posted a great little history of De La’s third album that collects a bunch of material that got left out of a much shorter story he did for NPR. Fans should definitely give it a read.  On a very solid album, one track that I love is the quirky In The Woods. It’s a testament to the strength of any group when you are finding great tracks nestled in the last quarter of an album.

The song begins with what sure sounds like sleigh bells ( a nod to the song’s title?), organ, two solitary horn blares, followed by an echoed call to party over here and there.  Then, the boom boom bap of bass and snare drum, that’s so simple and yet so delicious, anchors the rest of the song with a Maceo Parker sample.

Riding that beat are some bouncy verses by Torgul, Pos and Shortie No Mas. Shortie appears throughout this album but this song features her heavily, not only contributing a verse but egging on both MCs by finishing their rhymes or providing exclamations to their verses.  She has a good flow with the other MCs; I think there’s a MC Lyte comparison to be made.

Other than the references to the title of the song in the chorus, there’s not much in Torgul or Pos’s verse that have to do with the outdoors.  Shortie has a clever line about forgetting her compass and getting lost in the woods and then finding her way out.

The other line that sticks out in the song is Pos’s line that “that native shit is dead”; after the tongue-in-cheek title of their second record (De La Soul is Dead), now De La is telling us the bigger Native Tongues family is also gone to the world.  In 1993 this was probably not as much a jokey throwaway line, there was probably a feeling the groups in Native Tongues were either winding down or going in their own directions. De La definitely was already on its way to finding a path to a long and interesting career with songs like this one.

May He Continue to Pass The Mic In the Next Life

May 4, 2012

Sad news today as Adam Yauch passed away from cancer he was diagnosed with in 2009.  I’m bummed.  Compared to other recent musician deaths (say Whitney or Amy), this one gets to me on a more personal level.  Not to lessen their passing, oh gosh, I’m starting to feel like Leslie Knope on Parks & Rec last night…

Anyway, this one feels different for me because I feel like I’ve lost a friend.  I grew up with the Beasties.  They were the musical equivalent of a childhood best friend.

Sometimes you’d fight and not speak.  I had a cassette of Licensed to Ill that got heavy rotation with my other hip hop cassette at the time, Tougher Than Leather.  I loved it, the crazy stories they told through their raps, the booming beats.  But then at some point, at the beginning of high school, I was really getting into stuff like Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix and I made up my mind that Licensed to Ill was crap.  I even thought about tossing the tape, but I didn’t.  So, for about a year and half , it sat there.  We weren’t on speaking terms.  Luckily, my musical horizons starting opening up again as I went through high school, and there was a reunion.

Sometimes, you lose track of them.  As you grow older, sometimes friendships drift apart as interests and personalities change.  After Ill Communication, which has some fine songs but lacked something as an album for me, I started turning attention to other hip-hop in the mid-90s (mostly “underground” East Coast hip-hop) and electronic music.  I paid attention to Body Movin’ and Intergalactic when they came out, but for the first time, I didn’t buy a Beasties release (Hello Nasty).  To the 5 Boroughs garnered even less attention from me.  I’d still go back to their old albums from time to time, remembering the good ol’ times we had.  When Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 came out, I picked it up on a whim and remembered why we’d gotten together so well all those years before.  The friendship was reinvigorated.  I think it’s a testament to how good their last album is that it could bring me full on back into their fold.  Sadly, often when friends start drifting apart, they continue on separate courses and never meet again.

But mostly, you have a hell of a fun time with them.  Listening on headphones to Licensed to Ill in the backseat of the car on long trips with the parents, taking the secret enjoyment of hearing the swearing, raps about beers and girls in the same way you’d snicker with a friend about a dirty joke you’d whisper to each other so your parents couldn’t hear.  For awhile in college me and my friend Marc (who also left us way too soon) were obsessed with Paul’s Boutique and would crank it up in our apartment and just start singing along with the Beasties.  I only got to see them once, at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 98 in DC, a concert series dreamed up by the Beasties, more specifically by Adam Yauch.  Another fun memory, they didn’t disappoint.  Remember crushing up to the front to see them up close.  Hot, sweaty, cramped, and loved every minute of it.  Those moments with the Beasties are what I’m remembering today.

Yauch was the oldest of the Beasties, and I always thought he was the one in their songs who was the glue, the straight man (mostly) to the zany Mike D and youthful Ad Rock.  I also always appreciated the way he was able to come face-to-face with the remorse brought on by his Buddhist faith towards some of the unfortunate lyrics of their early materials.  It’s not often that people are willing to admit their mistakes, moreso in the entertainment industry, so I always thought that was reflective of his character.  With his death, I can’t see the other two Beasties continuing on, but who knows.  As I mentioned above, their last album was genuinely good, a remarkable achievement for a group that’s been around over 25 years!  I think he and the group still would have had some good music left in them.

I had talked today with my friend MeadowMuffins, and we thought in any blog post we’d want to post a song that was illustrative of the Beasties, if not their biggest hits.  Two songs came to mind for me, Egg Man, which originates from the band’s hardcore roots and is full of the humor, beats and varied samples (ranging from Psycho to Cheech and Chong) that exemplify their sound.  Couldn’t find a good video for that clip, so instead I’ll leave you with So What’cha Want from Check Your Head.  Killer riff/beat and rhymes and a simple video (directed by Adam) that showcases the three’s camaraderie.  Thanks Adam (and Beasties) for all the good times, you lived a full life.  You will be missed, friend.

Beastie Trio

June 28, 2011

Jimmy James/Funky Boss/Pass The Mic – Beastie Boys from Check Your Head

As I continue my quest to shuffle through, and rate, every song in my ever-expanding Itunes library, I’m getting closer to getting full albums rated in their entirety.  As I was scrolling through my library, I came across the Beasties’ Check Your Head and noticed I had a first.  I had rated all three opening songs with 5 stars.  I knew that I held a fond spot for this album given it came out when I was 18 and right in the wheelhouse demographic for the Beastie’s music.  But listening to it almost 20 years (!) later, it’s a super-strong opening to an important album for the Beasties.

While it was a commercial failure, Paul’s Boutique, had gathered a following and begin to get props from music criticdom.  So among the fans who had “gotten” their sophomore album, there was great expectations about what the Boys would do with this album.  Would it be a continuation of the pastiche wild style of their previous album, a return to the hard rock sampling of their debut, or something entirely different.

A little bit of all three, with the entirely different being the focus on live instrumentation.  From their roots as pretty bad punk rockers in NYC, the Boys had a desire to play instruments.  The cover of the record gives us a hint of what’s to come, as they sit curbsite with their guitars.  They play their instruments and do so well.

The opening track, Jimmy James, does what a good opener should do, it grabs you immediately.  Screaming fans and Ad Rock (?) announcing this is the first track on their new album introduce some fierce scratching of Jimi Hendrix guitar samples.  A nod to Jimmy Hendrix, it contains several samples of Jimi’s music throughout the song, the most recognizable being a sample from Foxy Lady at the end of the song.  It’s a fitting tribute, at the beginning especially, makes you wonder if Jimi had lived a longer life, at some point would he have incorporated vinyl scratching into his music.  It has some of the best elements of the Beasties’ first two albums, on the one hand the classic rock samples and hard edge of Licensed to Ill and the multi-layered soundscape and funky bounce of Paul’s.  This is one of my favorite Beasties songs.  At the end of that first song, you’re thinking “ok, this is awesome, I see what they’re doing, I’m going to love an album full of this amalgamation of these two distinctive styles.”

Then, Funky Boss comes on and you realize what is really going to be new about this album.  Here are the three MCs playing instruments in a conventional song structure unlike anything they’d done.  The song is a funk number, with a slight Afro-Caribbean bent with the bongos and a sample of a reggae piece at the end.  They still incorporate some sampling and scratches into the mix, but the drums, bass and keyboards are more of the main attraction here.  It’s a short song, but it really is funky.  And now you’re even more excited than you were after hearing the first track.  What’s next?

Pass The Mic veers back toward the opener, though it is even a little harder than Jimmy James.  Though, behind the bombast is a haunting synth or organ line that hangs like a wispy cloud.  It’s little touches like this that take a straight forward banger and give it the depth that keeps me coming back to listen again.  The rapping also is on par with some of their best efforts from their first two albums.  It also includes the line that cracks me up every time I hear it, when Mike D “does anything he likes” and rhymes the word commercial with… commercial.  While some might view this as lazy and bad MCing, I see it another way.  It’s the sign of ultimate confidence in your abilities, he’s saying I don’t give a crap, yeah that’s right, I just “rhymed” a word with itself.

And it’s got a sweet silly totally 90s video…

Exhibit A

August 31, 2010

Entropy (Part A – The Third Decade, Our Move) – DJ Shadow from Solesides Greatest Bumps

This song comes from the 17 minute Entropy piece that DJ Shadow created in the years before the classic Endtroducing. On that album, he would perfect a complex, layered approach to his DJ craft; this song hints at what was to come.  A voice sample and rolling cymbals introduces Mr. Davis.  Then the beat kicks in, a sweet snare and cymbal combo.  Vocal samples come and go (discussing the merits of “rappin”),  a horn sample comes in (right before a sample of a guy saying “he did what the kids call sampling”), scratches flit around the edges of the song, later becoming more pronounced and anchoring the middle of the song.  This definitely has more of a “party” vibe than much of the stuff on Endtroducing, the drum samples alone want you to get off your seat and dance, whereas a lot of the Endtroducing stuff has a more laid back tone (you still say, that’s a killer beat, but you’re willing to just sit back and enjoy it).  Or at least that’s how I see it.  Youtube link to the song:

June 17, 2010

Check One, Two – Diamond D from Stunts, Blunts and Hip-Hop

This album came out in 1992, and I started hearing this album from across the hall in my freshman dorm.  I really liked what I was hearing and it definitely had the New York sound I liked in groups like Tribe Called Quest and Gangstarr.  Not a surprise that Joel was from NYC.

This album has several standout tracks, but I always come back to this one as my favorite.  Diamond D produced a lot of the tracks on this album himself, and he does produce this one, but he gets help from the legendary 45 King.  The beat constructed for this song is simple and midtempo (snare, cymbal, and a guitar stab).  Coupled with the “check one, two and you don’t quit” hook, it definitely gets your head nodding.  There’s some nuances to the beat, like around the 1:05 mark when Diamond raps about taking a blues break, the drums cut out for a few seconds and there’s a slowed down guitar riff that’s, well, a blues break (or at least it sounds like one to me).

The star though is Diamond D.  This is a showcase for Diamond, to boast about his rapping prowess, and he doesn’t disappoint.  Miracle Whip.  Cystic Fibrosis.  Paul Newman.  Samson.  Monopoly.  Wayne Gretzky.  Yahtzee.  Rick Cerone.  These sound like words you’d hear being rhymed in a Paul’s Boutique-era Beasties track.  But these are all used by Diamond in this track.  The first two verses are relatively straightforward and they have great rhymes, but the last verse he lets loose.  My favorite: “Compare the sound to another and let’s see/I slam shit up like Wayne Gretzky/So baby’s what’s happenin’/It’s Diamond D with the verbs and the acronyms/It’s a simple song like Sylvester Stone/Catch you out here like Rick Cerone.”  Great stuff.  Not sure why he didn’t get more national attention.

Instrumental Goodness

May 23, 2010

The Day After Yesterday – El-P from Collecting the Kid

Known as one of hip-hops most verbose MCs, El-P has also proven he can let his music speak for itself.  First with Company Flow’s Little Johnny From the Hospital, and in his later solo efforts, El-P has created some memorable hip-hop instrumental tracks.

This one gets me because it takes abrasive sounds and makes beautiful music.  A fuzzed-out synth, an almost hammer-like breakbeat, and a sampled “woo” form the guts of this song.  He then layers in horns which come and go, adding a ghostly quality to the song.  While the breakbeat stays pretty constant throughout, the synth is working to its own beat, moving around at its own pace, especially during the last minute of the song.  The off-kilterness works.  There is definitely a free-form jazz quality to this, which isn’t suprising since this was in the follow-up to an album he did collaborating with a jazz band.  I hope El-P continues to explore this side of his musical talent.

R.I.P. Guru

April 21, 2010

Tonz ‘o’ Gunz – Gang Starr from Hard to Earn

Just read that yesterday Guru passed away after battling cancer.  Sad news.  Guru was the MC of Gang Starr, who teamed with DJ Premier to make some of the signature sounds of 90s New York hip hop.  Guru continued the jazz-infused sounds of Gang Starr in his solo Jazzmatazz albums.  Obviously, Mass Appeal is their best known song, and it’s one of my top 10 hip hop songs of all time.  And they have a bunch of other songs I’ve rated with four stars, but today I wanted to write about a lesser known song that I gave five stars.

Tonz ‘o’ Gunz is an anti-gun song.  The song begins with a snippet of an anti-violence speech (not sure who it is) over the uptempo drumbeat that is sampled from Isaac Hayes’ Breakthrough.  That beat lays the foundation for the song, as there’s not too much else going on sonically other than a looped shrill keyboard (?) note that reminds me of the same sort of sound effect in Public Enemy’s Rebel Without a Pause.  DJ Premier cuts up a sample from their own Just To Get A Rep in the chorus.  He also adds in some gunfire sound effects towards the end of the track after Guru is finished up.

Guru has a smooth flow that really works well with a laid back beat.  Well, it also works with something faster, as this song attests to.  He gives his usual delivery, his voice has a gravelly quality and his rapping style has a casual cadence.  He even does a quick ragamuffin impression during the second verse.  As always he’s got some great rhymes that actually say something.  He starts the third verse “Tonz o gunz but i don’t glorify cause more guns will come and much more will die… why… yo i don’t know black /some motherfuckers just be livin like that /they like the feel of chrome in their hand the shit makes them feel like little big man”

You’ll be missed Guru.  Know you’ll be laying down some rhymes with the big man upstairs.