Friday, April 29, 2005

Lest We Forget: Hard 2 Obtain

Hard 2 Obtain: "LI Groove" (includes preceding skit)
Hard 2 Obtain: "Ghetto Diamond"
Hard 2 Obtain: "Street Dwellers"
from Ism & Blues, Atlantic, 1994

The year was 1994, and as classics fell from the rap heavens nearly every Tuesday, our Walkmans devoured double-As to power the new Nas, Biggie, Jeru, or Gang Starr. Meanwhile, damn good LPs were gathering dust in record bins, including the debut "Ism & Blues" from the SD50's-backed group Hard 2 Obtain. This was an era when major labels would actually sign dope rap groups who had little or no gimmick--practically the entire Heiro fam were on Jive, RCA was blowing up with Loud (Mobb Deep, Wu, Alkaholiks), and everyone else was seemingly on Elektra (Brand Nubian, LONS, Del, KMD, PR & CL, and Digable Planets).

The first single released, "L.I. Groove", set it off with sparse production. Heads around the tri-state instantly perked their ears up when that chorus kicked in, horns flowing, culminating with Rakim's "rough enough to break New York from Long Island." Lyrically, it was typical backpacker fare; humorous metaphors sprinkled between vast stretches of relatively meaningless wordplay, but it was fun music. DL and Taste, the vocalists, are competent but derivative--as Dante Ross described, "one of the dudes wasn't really an MC, the other dude sounded like Puba." The SD50s put a lot of heart into the production on this joint, and you just wonder what MC's of the caliber of Sadat X or Common Sense would have sounded like flowing over this type of flavor. From the sounds of it, Dante probably wonders the same thing.

Extrablogicular reading:
Oliver Wang interviews Dante Ross, who dismisses H2O outright: "...I never really liked [Hard 2 Obtain]...I thought they were kind of wack actually and I kept saying that the whole time."

The Broke BBoys covered this album last month with a few nuggets of trivia.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Looking for the Magnum, Searching for the Opus

Can I borrow a dollar?

Top Quality: "Magnum Opus"
Top Quality: "Magnum Opus (Instrumental)"
from Magnum Opus, RCA, 1993

Easily the most obscure artist in PMD's Hit Squad, Top Quality released his first and only album less than a year after EPMD broke up. Erick got Redman, PMD got Das EFX and brought out Top Quality as second in his lineup. The 12" for "Magnum Opus" made some noise, but the album cold flopped. Tony Dofat (of the equally obscure Rough House Survivers fame) and Charlie Marotta (EPMD's sound engineer) contributed production on the album, also entitled "Magnum Opus," which suffered from muddy tracks, over-the-top sewaside vocals, and generally unlistenable combinations of grimey lyrics and gutter beats.

The song "Magnum Opus," however, is an early-90s diamond in the rough. Top Quality gets an absolutely butter beat to flow over, courtesy of Keivan Mack, based around the jazz sample of Roy Ayers' "Step Into Our Lives", with a healthy dose of "La-Di-Da-Di" on the chorus. To be honest, I have no idea what Top Quality is talking about at any point in this song, but the continually changing flow, from sing-songy to straight up delivery, over that heavy track is pure hip-hop.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Mad at the World: 1994 Chino XL Interview, Part 3

It's all bad


Are you satisfied with how things are going with your record deal with American?
I think my company hasn't really been handling things right. I feel if I was anywhere else I think I would have been in the light more. I feel my company fucked up because they had a chance to break something before anyone else with me. They did a video and that ("Into the Pit"), but if someone said something derogatory about us they woulod believe it more than in us. Rick Rubin is doing his Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers shit and is not really taking a keen interest in us. Then on top of not being promoted correctly, I couldn't even promote myself right because my partner is full of shit. Meanwhile, I'm tryin' to bust my ass and try to book shit all over the country so we could meet who we needed to but he'd rather go to London and make some club shit. He's a lot of the reason my career has been set back. I'm gonna keep tryin to do my shit. I'm not going to give up, sooner or later something will have to give.

How did the first two singles do at retail?
When "Into the Pit" came out the standard was all the Diamond D shit and "Into the Pit" doesn't match with that. All these bullshit radio D.J.'s don't want to use a little creativity to blend something in that's different. Consequently, "Into the Pit" didn't get a lot of play, which wasn't really a East coast record anyway. Then "Un-Rational" came out which could've mixed with everything, but we didn't have a video. There was no flash about the record so people weren't going to go grab it because they didn't even know about it. I figured once I got the punchlines of the month for that song that my company would have believed in it enough to do a video, but they didn't. Now with 1995 damn near, I got "Purple Hand," which again doesn't mix with the standard, which is...Craig without a video and a lot of exposure there is no way that it will change the format of the way people are thinking. Another thing is that I didn't understand how on my same label, Milk gets a white record, and everyone else gets this different color wax buy my song is "Purple Hand"...and I don't get purple vinyl. In every other form of music when something is a little avant-garde they call it that. In this business, if something is different then there's something wrong with it. It's like you're either Arrested Development or Wu-Tang or just some little rappin' muthafucka. It's all bizarre to me. I fee like I've been cursed for the type of music I choose to make. I could have been in any kind of music, but the way I choose to express my anger was through hip-hop and rhymin. Why do I have to be in this bracket? If I cam to American as Slayer, then I would be promoted like Slayer. Being that I choose to rhyme, why does there have to be a dark cloud over me that I got to be judged like a second class citizen? It's like my label is working not to make money. Sometimes I think it's just a tax write-off. They can't be in the business of making money because scared money doesn't make none. I believe that if I was anywhere else I would have some money right now and people would know my name. It can't be me because everywhere I go I rip it. Anywhere, amongst any MC's. People just be like "he got lyrics." I can rock off the top and I write constantly. I don't think too many MC's can go back-n-forth with me in rhymes.

What other projects are you working on?
Well the next Art of the Origin single is supposed to be this song I did with Kool Keith. Besides that, I'm working on this project called Deadly Venoms. The actual name of our whole foundation is Raw Elements. The first single is "Venomz Party" with a video. Me, Vega, and Raggedy Man got this joint called "Live to See Tomorrow." It's an apocalyptic type song. It's three situations. In my verse it's like I know the world is coming to an end. When Rag rocks he's like the minister who goes to the streets to tell them something is wrong. Vega has kind of a mystic egyptology, saying we're the original people here and we'll end the originals once everything is gone. There's a lot of different cres. I got a song with these kids, Cosmic Zombies. It should be a real fat LP.

Thus concludes this three-part transcription of Chino XL's interview from 1994's Caught In The Middle magazine. And I'm out like John Candy.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Mad at the World: 1994 Chino XL Interview, Part 2

No complex


What do you think is holding you back as far as people gettin' open to your music?
I've been getting some flak that a lot of people like what I say, but it's not really "entertaining." I just do my own shit. I'm gettin more diverse now that I'm solo and away from Kaoz. I'm not going to limit myself and everything doesn't have to be so dark. I'm halfway gettin off that, especially since now that's becoming a trend.

Once you started makin demos was it hard gettin it out there and tryin to get signed?
It was a three-fold problem. First, the fact that it was all this scary shit we had. Then I always rocked fast and people used to complain about that. The third problem was people couldn't identify with me from the way I looked, being mixed. That was then but now you have Cypress Hill and the other Puerto Rican rappers. Still even now it's hard to get certain areas...people always sleep on me cause the way I look. That's kind of fat because that's my wolf in sheep's clothing. When I ripped the Good Life, Ahmad and the Freestyle Fellowship kids were like " We [Art of Origin] did not expect you to rip like that." We've always had problems, everbody didn't love us, but we used to rip shit. It's like any MC would be like, "YO! Them niggas is dope." For the average person who is there to be entertained, we weren't the type where you could get into it and it be a crowd participation thing. It would be like we were just up there doing our own thing. Things were very party oriented then, so it was even harder.

What are some of the MC's out there now that you respect?
Definitely Common Sense, Organized Konfusion, without a doubt. Raggedy Man, and my boys coming out soon, Rhem like Redman's new shit.

From all the ill shit you say have you ever had any complaints about your lyrics being offensive or whatever?
Yeah. Regindald Dennis wouldn't print "'ll be producing MC Trouble's next record" when he gave me punchlines of the month. He felt people would beef with me. MTV banned the "Into the Pit" video because I said "My beat force fucks you like Jennifer 11." On the new shit ("Purple Hands" b/w "Dark Night" which was scheduled to be the third single but has been changed) of course, "I kick pregnant bitches in stomach's at baby showers" and "Should've nailed Jesus ass to a handprint" (which is the Art of Origin logo).

In "Dark Night..." you say "I make the blood spill till I avenge Tracey's death." Who is she and what is that all about?
It's kind of a long story. In the book Xorism, it has a lot of chapters and verses. For instance, I'm really Chino XL 6:25. That's chapter 6 verse 25. In that it said, "He that is unknown is known to cause all foes he chose disaster." I always liked the battlin aspect of rhymin. I wasn't out to entertain, it was like if there was a MC who was supposed to be all of that I just wanted to go vic him. Kaoz was 6:23 which was about "The ending of a game." That's how he was and...he's full of shit anyay so we ain't got to talk about that. In chapter 9 verse 11 (9:11) it described this beautiful entity that would com and be part of the works of art of origin and how should we leave on the same number as the day and all of this other shit. There was this girl (Tracey) who was a good friend of mine and Kaoz was dating her and we started callin her 9:11. We started really getting into this book and everything that was involved with Art of Origin came from the book. About three years later, just as the book predicted, she got murdered on 9/11. When I said, "I make the blood spill..." I don't necessarily mean with a knife. What I mean is the lines I say that really sticks someone and strikes a nerve, that's how I spill the blood. I'm not going to stop hittin shit off that's real close to people til I feel in my heart...then I can exorcise the fact that she got murdered out of my own system. If you want to print this, the person that murdered her is Peter Jefferson and you can print FUCK YOU.

In "Purple Hands..." you say "June 25th ain't a myth that you can tamper with...". Is that somehow connected to the 6:25?
There is a science behind that. It's like every June 23rd (6:23), which was KAOZ's number, something bad would happen to him. One hear he got mugged. Another year he got in a car accident. Always something different. It got to the point where he just started staying in the house ever 6/23. Every June 25th, which is my number, everything would be good.

Explain your logo, which is a purple hand.
In Xorism, they described all of these different pieces so we drew them how they described them and sat there and tried to make something out of it. A hand is all we could come up with. Plus in the book it mentioned the hand this and the hand that so we figured that's what it had to be.

Why the color purple?
The book is bound in that color and it's mentioned all through the book.


Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Mad at the World: 1994 Chino XL Interview, Part 1

When Common's last name was Sense, and Chino wasn't Chionardo

Due to the overwhelming response to the Chino XL retrospective post, I've dug deep in the magazine archive for a classic interview: Caught In The Middle (a short-lived regional Chicago rap mag) interviews Chino XL in that incredible year that was 1994. Art of Origin had just broken up, but he was still promoting the singles that were circulating, and providing us with some crazy insights on the "meaning of the name" Art of Origin. It's a long interview, so I'll be posting it in sections. Hope y'all enjoy.


What's the science behind the name Art of Origin?
We got the name from this book called "Xorism." It had a lot of references to the "2 of the origin" and what they made with the art of origin, so we just kind of stuck with the name. That was in 86.

Where are you representin from?
East Orange, New Jersey.

I know there has been a lot of crews coming out of Jersey, so how is the hip-hop scene out there?
It's fat but even though there's a lot of people from here I wouldn't really say there is a scene. Not like there is a scene in...uh...LA where you can go to the Good Life and rock or wherever and rock. There's nowhere in Jersey where MC's can all go to and do their thing. Everybody from here is kind of in transit going to New York or whatever.

Has it always been like that?
Naw, there used to be this place called CLUB 88.

I heard about that.
Yeah, let's talk about that. It seems like all the other groups that talk about Club 88 never metnion me and that's fucked up. In like '88 and '89 I had it so sewn up in there. When muthafuckas saw me and my boys come up in there they wouldn't even sign up cause they knew we were going to win. It was like a talent contest and I won so many times in a row that they stopped me from entering and just made me the special guest when I rocked from then on. I used to rip that shit so hard that the contest prize was $100 but Tony from Club 88 used to give me $200 or $300. I used to murder that shit. I wouldn't lie to you.

What made you start rhymin?
It was like '85 and I used to pop. MY man used to rhyme and he would say all of Double Trouble's raps and I liked it, but I couldn't identify with it. I didn't find anything that fit my personality and would blend with it yet. Then LL came out and I heard all of his stuff and it was dope. I was like yo, he's yellow-skinned like me and he rocked solo so I identified with him, but I still didn't really get into that much. When I heard "Rock The Bells" and that verse he kicked.... "...a misdemeanor, cleaner women I subpoena, no conjecture in my lecture...". That hit me and I connected with it. I liked the way he put the inflections in it and I really started from there. Besides that I used to listen to the Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee battle all the time. Mostly just those two.

How did you get into the darker type style that you kicked on your first 2 singles?
Well my uncle is Bernie Worrell from Parliament/Funkadelic and Ikind of grew up on tour with him. They were on this label, Casablanca, and their labelmates were Kiss. When the groups went on tour they would play towns in conjunction with one another. The same towns but different venues. I know the P-Funk stuff inside and out so I used to go to the Kiss concerts. I liked all the blood and theatrics. I started to like that darker imagery and I started buying a lot of metal like AC/DC and it just stemmed from that. This was about from the time I was 5 til I was 10. I went on tour with them all over the world.

How do you feel about the sudden populatrity with MC's having this dark side to their style?
They all sound humorous to me. Number one I don't think they know what they are tampering with because it's something that's real serious. It sounds like a gimmick from everyone from the Gravediggaz on down. I like the Gravediggaz music, but I like them better when they aren't trying to act like that. The Flatlinerz are one big joke to me. I haven't heard one thing that makes me think that they have experienced some of the dark situations that I have. It sounds all fake to me.


Monday, April 18, 2005

I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues: Maintain

Ain't u da masta?

Masta Ace feat. Lord Digga: "Maintain"
Masta Ace: "Ya' Hardcore (Trip 2 Albee Sq.)"
from Sittin on Chrome 12", Delicious Vinyl, 1995
"I'm surrounded by psychopathic little fellas
Ghetto dwellas with ammunition in their cellars
And no remorse in their hearts, when the shit starts
It don't end...until somebody's Gone With the Wind"
Thus begins perhaps my personal favorite Masta Ace joint, "Maintain," which shared b-side privileges with "Ya' Hardcore" on "Sittin' on Chrome," from 1995's similarily-titled jeep beat classic. Ace's reflective, sorrow-filled verses remind us of the power of blues in hip-hop, a sub-genre that's not been well-explored in recent years since rap found its road to the riches. Recent releases by Beanie Sigel, One.Be.Lo, and even Ace himself are proving that blues weren't dead in rap, they were only sleeping.

Masta Ace produced the majority of "Sittin on Chrome" (and should continue producing) including this b-side, to great effect: the slow tempo, descending bassline, and subtle use of strings emphasize the pensive lyrics. Ace describes the mental weight borne beneath the strain and pressure of daily life, and is given encouragement by Inspectah Deck's voice "workin hard may help you maintain" on the chorus. The conclusion of the song finds optimism and hope in the future of his young son.

For those that missed this the first time around, preview it here (link above), or even better buy it at Ace's new online store, it's appropriately the album closer on "Hits U Missed," a compilation of Masta Ace's 12"-only releases.

I'll let the lyrics deliver the outro to this post:
"There's too much pressure and stress on my chest
Life's a mess and I feel so depressed
Seems so hard to survive and stay alive
Jump in my ride and I drive, doin' 95
With my system blastin' I'm passin'
Cars in the right lane, light change I'm gassin'
No, destination...but I'm racin'
With my lights on, I got my brights on
Play the right song...and the sweat beads my face
Drive past 5-0 and now they givin' chase
They'll probably want to know where the fire's at
Or where the drug buyer's at, fuck, my tire's flat
I guess I'm pullin' over, to take a loss
But it won't be the loss of my life from drivin' off course
God knows I need to be here to shape my son's brain
So I gotta maintain"

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Posthumous Posse: Big After Lyfe

My crew weighs half a ton

Two out of three:
Fat Joe feat. Big Pun and Big L: "Bring 'Em Back"
from True Story, Universal 2004

Those in the inner-circle are up on this hare-brained marketing scheme of mine: we've heard plenty of deceased artist/live artist collabos, but have we ever heard a true deceased super-group bring it "live"? Simple ain't it, but quite clever.

With the miracle of recording technology, Natalie Cole set off the posthumous chart appearances by creating the shameless duet with her pops, and since then, 2pac's mom continues to make a killing off her son's legacy. Biggie only had "Born Again"--not really counting "Life After Death" as an official posthumous release, since it was recorded and produced during his lifetime; I think it's just a matter of time before Puff plunders the remaining lost verses of Brooklyn's finest. Big Pun's only post-mortem banger (again, excluding "Yeeeeah Baby") was the loose collection of remixes, guest appearances, and odds and ends, entitled "Endangered Species." Only Big L's "The Big Picture" sounded like a truly respectful release following his demise, opening with a snippet from the DITC tribute at NYC's Tramps venue.

And so, considering that this type of despicable marketing will inevitably continue, let's at least make it interesting and create a lengendary super-group while we're at it. I present to you the Next Big Thing in hip-hop: Big After Lyfe: Notorious B.I.G., Big Pun, and Big L--three of Hip-Hop's Top Ten--crushing all the living and breathing emcees from high above in their thugz mansion.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Alter Ego: Tony Montana

Pretty Tony Montana

Cormega feat. Ghostface: "Tony/Montana"
from Legal Hustle, Vol 1, Landspeed Records, 2004

One wouldn't expect the pairing of Cormega and Ghostface to be as dynamic as this single, but both step their game up--especially Ghostface, with his rapid fire opening verse, reminiscent of a Big Pun "middle of Little Italy" delivery...must be heard to be believed. Cinematic strings, and a soulful chorus round out the song before Cormega drops a QB street-level gem.
"You'll be missing like them crazy Christians
And swimming with all the fishes
Your misses will come and visit your body with hugs and kisses"

"And I'm back with a vengeance
Like Sprewell smashing the Knicks
after they shipped him despite the fans resistance"

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Quite Often Underrated: Chino XL

He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper
He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper

Art of Origin: "Into the Pit"
from the No Slow Rollin 12" 1993
Chino XL: "Dark Nite of the Blood Spiller"
from white label 12" year unknown
Chino XL: "Kreep"
from Here to Save You All 1996
Chino XL: "I Told You So"
from I Told You So 2001

Before Eminem charmed the charts with his insult-laced rap fare, there was Chino XL, the mean-spirited battle rhymer that could offend Quincy Jones, Chris Rock, Brandy, Monica, Chaka Khan, Master P, Kirk Franklin, Ving Rhames, Eddie Murphy, and Ray Charles in the space of 3 minutes.

Back in 1991, Chino was one half of The Art of Origin, spitting early forms of the lyrical diatribes that has become his trademark alongside slow-drawling rap partner Kaoz. Chino's charisma and engaging style overwhelmed the less-lyrically-equipped Kaoz on songs like "Into the Pit," "No Slow Rollin" and "Mad at the World." Art of Origin traded rhymes with dark humor and inside jokes, and despite the dope production and doper verses, rap radio wasn't ready.
"Comin' into the pit makes Happy Days like Henry Winkler
Shootin em in the head and watch blood gush out like a sprinkler
I don't know whether it's some kind of schizophrenia
Or Chino-phobia or Art-of-the-Origin-mania"

- from "Into the Pit"

While artists like Big L ("The Devil's Son"), Gravediggaz, and the shortlived Flatlinerz are credited for the creation of the "horrorcore" genre, Chino XL had equally large contributions to the darker side of hip-hop with 12"s like "Dark Nite of the Blood Spiller," and other doomsday lyrical content.

Chino's solo debut "Here to Save You All" appeared on Rick Rubin's Def American label a few years later, and is considered a rap classic by those who revere Chino's complex flow and pop culture satire. Guest appearances by the then-on-fire Ras Kass and Kool Keith augmented the lyrical tour-de-force. Chino also expanded his content by addressing his childhood ("What Am I"), and in "Kreep", adopting the Radiohead chorus with a Chino XL twist.
"Your love counterattacks, unrealistic terroristic acts
Like the Oklahoma Federal Building I collapse
I want her back, but I know that I can't force her
Thinkin bout takin my own life like Marlon Brando's daughter"

- from "Kreep"

Several years lapsed before Chino returned with "Told You So" in 2001. As with most other artists that will appear on the "Quite Often Underrated" column, Chino's classic debut was followed up by a frustrating crossover attempt that tarnished his legacy (see "Rassassination", 1998). To his credit, the cynical humor was still intact, and he no doubt offended more than most artists are able to do in a career. R&B choruses and sub-par club beats mar this release, though true Chino fans will enjoy the lyrical content on most of the album.
"I'll leave your brains hangin out like Chris Rock's adam's apple
I'm so rare, battlin Chino's like Africa:
Yeah niggaz talk about it but they don't really wanna go there"

"You ain't an X-Man like comic books, you an ex-man like RuPaul
Run through y'all leave y'all stiffer than Ken dolls"

"I leave rappers confused like homeless cats on house arrest"

- from "I Told You So"

What's next for Chino XL is anyone's guess. He's been making moves in Hollywood, apparently. You may have caught him as "Flamenco Dancer #2" in the Kate Hudson romantic comedy "Alex & Emma." Word is that his third solo album is set for a 2005 release, entitled "Poison Pen."