90s

Easy Mo Bee (w/2Pac : “If I Die 2Nite”/”Temptations” Me Against the World, Interscope, 1995 & ”Runnin' (from Tha Police)” & more

What’s striking about many Easy Mo Bee instrumentals two-decades-plus on is how contemporary they sound. This is not to say that they would necessarily be the first choice for mainstream MCs around today; more that they don’t sound overly grounded in their era and location (no criticism of instrumentals that do, it’s just a point of difference).

That diffuse, murky production sound and shadowy, sepulchral hiss and grind that defines so much of the music of the 90s New York underground scene - reaching its zenith in Havoc’s production and the artists linked to Wu-Tang and the Gravediggaz is rarely found here. No, in general Easy Mo Bee beats are extremely clean, sharp in the definition of the sounds and almost formalist in the construction, in this way making me think of Large Professor. Both are best-known for their work with the era’s superstars, even while creating a lot of music that is not so well known but remains timeless, largely because of the maker’s creativity.

To get a sense of how Easy Mo Bee’s beats sound “modern” for want of a better word, check out 2Pac’s “If I Die 2Nite” from his 1995 album Me Against the World. All it needs is added swirl and a woozy effect, fading in and out, a slight loosening up of the edges and this music could offer the foundations for any of the instrumentals/remixes you hear from producers in their 20s working today.

The beat samples Betty Wright’ s “Tonight is the night” which is close to unrecognisable in the song.

Here you also find something that impresses me about many of Easy Mo Bee’s instrumentals: the layering/effects of the drums. There’s zero issue for me with a hip-hop beat that has prominent boom bap drums as its principal focus, whether back in the ‘90s/2000s or today. Keeping the drums dominant links hip-hop with other forms of music that come out of electronic/dance-based genres, Drum & Bass, dubstep etc. and has a broader significance. Bringing the drums forward for the entire song is a radical shift. Most of the time popular music keeps the musical frame and structure hidden (the bass/drums nexus); think about the way drums operate in pop songs, or even most rock music in the 60s/70s, only occasionally becoming the main element during solos maybe.

Dub, reggae have a deep skanking rhythm, of course, but more often than not it’s carried by the guitars, or keys; funk too is defined by its bounce, but again, it’s not the drums only keeping time, above all other instruments, it’s a mix. The way early hip-hop made the drums everything, the very essence of it, thus exposing the foundations is full of meaning and resonance that goes past pure music-making into the realm of culture. (I could go on and on about the significance of this: but I hope the point is clear enough and will leave it there).

This layering of the drums on this Easy Mo Bee beat is heard right from the start. Another impressive aspect of his beats is the immediate complexity, there’s no slow build-up of the sonic elements, a careful introduction of each sample: it’s all there, but in small doses so it remains subtle in the first five seconds. Note too the three-note sample that carries the melody, echoing one of the most famous aspects of his beat for Craig Mack, “Flava in ya ear” - the very simple guitar part where two notes are repeated.

There’s something soothing, meditative about the simplicity of these sounds on repeat. Here’s Easy Mo Bee speaking about how he put the Craig Mack beat together, first thing getting up, in about 2o minutes, without even getting fully dressed.

Something else that appeals is the way Easy Mo Bee uses discordant sounds, with a scratchy static to build atmosphere most notably on the hook that really comes through in the version with 2Pac rapping over it, 50 seconds in, where it’s let run before he almost speaks the rhymes. The quality of 2Pac’s delivery is markedly different from many of rappers who chant such key lines for emphasis; it’s as if he’s thinking aloud, it sounds spontaneous.

The second Easy Mo Bee beat on Me Against the World “Temptations” is a 90s-era-masterclass, certainly more typical with those drums, but transformed into work of real brilliance because of the interplay between the harsh sounds and the swooning, sentimental aspects. Beautiful in terms of its definition that keeps shifting, weaving the various sounds/samples with perfect control.

And the Tupac version.

“Runnin’ (from tha Police)”

“Runnin’ (From tha Police)” 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G, feat. Outlawz and Buju Banton, is probably my favourite Easy Mo Bee beat, it’s a shame I can’t find it online to include here. There is this one on YouTube which appears to be the same track included on the Nas Kingston tape see below - coming in just after 18 minutes, but there’s countless comments below saying it’s not the real one. Get in touch, if you know where the real instrumental is and you can vouch for its authenticity, thanks.

I’ve included the unreleased version of the track here, because of it’s slightly rawer/rougher sound. The instrumental is a perfect example of balance: none of the elements are over-extended, or over-used, they appear for a second or two at most and create a soundscape that is at once elegant and disturbing, for those harsh, screeching sounds that are almost painful to hear. Yet, there is a definite groove sustaining it, building on the on the original classic sample - Bootsy Collins’s “Munchies for your love”. In the same session, Easy Mo Bee created another key song for 2Pac, “Str8 Ballin’” that used another iconic Bootsy Collins’s sample.

Coda:

Credit is due to Nas Kingston’s selection of beattapes that have been an essential stop for me when thinking about who to write on in this (approximate) series. The two Easy Mo Bee selections, vol. 1 and 2 were key to me deciding to write this piece. When listening to the Easy Mo Bee vol. 2, in particular, the title of just about every track got written down, this one and this and the next. I couldn’t believe the quality, how good it all was.

'The Murda Show' Spice 1, feat. MC Eiht (187 He Wrote, Jive Records, 1993) plus instrumental

Without wanting to sound too reachy or even appropriating, this is so perfect in its realisation it could be pop music, with all the 'picidy-pop' and 't-t-tech' and the final part that becomes a kind of extravagant dancehall styling. Of course, the subject matter, but the presentation makes that fade somehow. Anyway to return to where I started, let's leave certain spaces in this appreciation, for good or ill. Here's the instrumental, more bass-driven but still carried by the romance of the strings

Below the YouTube video there's a nice comment from the poster, responding to the question as to why he put it up, 'It's incredibly nostalgic, even though I was born a decade after this song was released. I find it unique compared to other hip-hop beats at the time, and it gives a feeling of success and greatness, like something you'd play after reaching success in music.'  

‘Compton Bomb’ MC Eiht (We Come Strapped, Epic Street Records, 1994)/‘Def Wish 2’ by Compton’s Most Wanted (Epic, 1992)* plus instrumentals, Gravediggaz and more

Now to turn some attention to MC Eiht’s ‘Compton Bomb,’ a track from his 1994 album We Come Strapped that according to online info was a massive success, reaching number 1 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart (number 5 on the Billboard 500) that year and was produced by MC Eiht, DJ Slip and Rick Rock.

What is immediately striking about this song, and MC Eiht's music in general is its lyricism: the emphasis on the strings and keys. This isn’t a pulsating funk arrangement, not in the classic  sense where the bass/drums are everything and extravagant guitar flourishes add garnish, but instead something that reminds me of Philadelphia soul and then later disco. Arguably the distinguishing feature of these beats is their 'song-nature' the way the instruments are used to highlight and emphasise, following quite traditional formulas.

Unlike other producers working at the time - see my later comment on Prince Paul/Gravediggaz - but any other could be used here as a point of contrast, the interest is not so much on the quality of sounds, as samples, in a way that marks a continuum with jazz, but the songs themselves as a whole. This intrigues me, especially since the popular image of this kind of hip-hop is all macho testosterone gyrating. When I first noticed the repeated use of strings and harmony in this music it came as a surprise.        

There is a line connecting this work by MC Eiht with ‘California Soul’ by Marlena Shaw from 1969, with the abundance of the strings and striving for a quality of deep-Romance and grandeur, the bass line beneath it all. This music is filled with space, sunlight (no surprises) and the sense of no-limits creativity.

To understand how 'Compton Bomb’ is so different, or so redolent of the West Coast scene then, let's compare it to another track recorded that year: the Gravediggaz ‘Pass the Shovel’. The Gravediggaz track, which was only included on the European releases of 6 Feet Deep, makes its musical roots clear, marking out a point of continuum between the New York DJ culture, emanating from the pure minimal and supremely elegant musical control of Fred Wesley and the J.Bs, from all the late 70s/early 80s rappers and then made manifest in Public Enemy. 

According to WhoSampled the Prince Paul-produced track leans heavily on 60s/70s artists - Bob James, Rufus Thomas - but also samples a track from the early rap group The Boogie Boys from 1981 and the comedian Richard Pryor. The tone of this music is hard-edged, contained and highly disciplined (this is why I link it with Fred Wesley/Public Enemy, as this is something I associate with their music), but it is also light-hearted.

The surprising and strange combination of lyrical and conceptual darkness and the excessive 'motion picture soundtrack' whirling, soaring strings and sweetly melodic keys you find on 'Compton Bomb' might come from another planet. MC Eiht's earlier release with Compton's Most Wanted, 'Def Wish 2' offers an interesting contrast with the Gravediggaz release:

The tracks map a similar locale, even if ‘Def Wish 2’ lacks the jokiness of the New Yorkers, with RZA riffing lines like: ‘When I come through with the shovel don’t puzzle/Then I’m out the trouble, motherfuckin’ trouble/So like Barney Rubble, back to the gravel pit ...’ and later aligning a play on ‘phantom of the opera’ with binoculars and ‘Figaro/Figaro’ with a ‘pocket full of dough.’ The CMW release, meanwhile, begins with a sample from Goodfellas stating how 'murder was the only way that everybody stayed in line.' 

‘Def Wish 2’ is hard to watch, unsettling all these years on. There’s not much humour to be found here. It’s going for the jugular, as much as the gut, but there’s a kind of complexity linked to the way the music deepens at points, or the elements merge unexpectedly (see the way the scratching gives way to the bass just before one minute in) and the groove is maintained throughout. Here's the instrumental: 

Some final words on MC Eiht's lyrical style. One thing that interests me is the way his rapping manifests an obvious effort, it often sounds like he's struggling a bit (it's not smooth despite the music, despite the stance). Moreover, his style is marked by an epic theatricality, as an MC he is extremely affected with all the stop-start for emphasis, scatting more than rapping at points, all in his trademark syncopated delivery.

Notice, for example, the super-stagey emphasis at the end of the final two lines in this part of the verse, just before the strings come in:

Makin' ni**s lock up they low-rider switches uh
Step aside as I bail on my ride
Too close on my jock get bucked with the Glock
The whole world turns as I bail in/ the/ room
Ni**s prepare to get slapped with/ the/ boom

At some points MC Eiht uses this technique to real effect, echoing core sounds, while bringing in some humour because of his delivery style (see the rhyme on ‘waitress/hate this’ or the later exaggerated, stretched ‘stop’ and ‘pop’). These effects create distance between the MC and what he's speaking about, thereby emphasising his style rather than his investment. This dilutes criticism about the rap glorifying violence, as throughout he is drawing attention to the fact that his telling of the tale is not natural, it is manufactured, performed - a kind of theatre. 

'Compton Bomb' ends on a note of real grace, exposed bass, keys, drums and strings, just like a Donna Summer hit circa 1977, though with less brass.

Coda:

*Re the release date info for MC Eiht's 'Def Wish 2,' I've come across three different dates/record companies online and don't know which is correct, please let me know if this isn't. This is an example of how basic information on rap/hip-hop artists (and often Black musicians, in general) is not available online. There's a lot of criticism about the poor standard of hip-hop criticism, much of it justified, I wonder if not being able to access reliable information might be part of the reason for it.   

‘Streiht Up Menace’ MC Eiht (Menace II Society, soundtrack, Jive Records, 1993) plus instrumental/remix

Been hesitating about writing on this for a while, fully aware of the culture-clash between me and it and wondering how to frame it as a writer: not wanting to paraphrase something that has no connection with my life and pretending I get it  (I hate that), especially as what makes it special is the delivery, how it’s said. No that doesn’t make any sense, nor does completely side-stepping the lyrical content, which is so apt/smart. Neither does trying to give a history lesson on the who and the what etc. So here’s a lyric video in black and white.

Speaking honestly though what really appeals to me most about this track is the music. When offering an artist a compliment people always go on about hip-hop as if we as listeners don’t have bodies, only heads on necks, but this is so impressive because of the way it moves: its essential swing and construction, it’s a perfect beat. I only know the very bare bones about how it was made that it was produced by DJ Slip, QDIII and MC Eiht himself. Apparently it samples Compton’s Most Wanted’s ‘Growin’ Up In the Hood’ from 1991. 

Why not then listen to the instrumental to appreciate this music, there’s nothing online to learn more about it so I’ll leave this undeveloped.

For me what’s interesting about this music is the way it’s so distinctive: sure, there is that bass line and the interaction with all the elements, making it a simplified/poppy version of funk, but the clippy guitar-line, for example, could come from the Caribbean when it briefly appears.

Here’s a remix and an interview with MC Eiht from 1997.

'Trigger cut' Pavement (Slanted and Enchanted, Matador, 1992)

[Verse 1]
Lies and betrayals
Fruit-covered nails
Electricity and lust
Won't break the door
I've got a heavy coat
It's filled with rocks and sand
And if I lose it

[Chorus]
I'll be coming back today (I've got a message for you)
I'll be coming back today (I keep it in my hand)
You know I'm coming back one day (I've got a system for two)
And I'll be coming back today

[Verse 2]
Ex-magician
That still knows the tricks
Tricks are everything to me
Until it's free
I've got a trigger cut
And I can't pull it back
But if I learn how

[Chorus]
I'll be coming back today (I've got a message for you)
You know I'm coming back today (I keep it in my hand)
You will look at me and say (I've got a system for two)
That you just wish I went away

[Bridge]
Sha-la-la-la-la-la
La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la
Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh

[Verse 3]
I learned the truth
The truth of the words
Truth I made for you
Because it's just as good
And if I spit it out
Before I chew the ring
I'll rearrange it

[Chorus]
'Til it looks just like today (I've got a message for you)
And I'll be comin' back my way (I keep it in my hand)
Then you will look at me and say (I've got a system for two)
That you just wish I went away
Today

Alternate versions: ‘Oh my lover’ PJ Harvey (Peel Session, 1991 & Dry, Too Pure, 1992) plus Nina Simone

To begin with the essential sweetness of this demo version …

Underneath one of the videos posted online someone had written how PJ Harvey had recorded this demo as a teenager to get her first record deal; she sounds so young here, her voice is noticeably different, lacking the magisterial nature of the final recorded version. What’s interesting is the way this youthful voice dilutes the ‘female masochistic-schtick’ critique that could be levelled at the lyrics, as what comes through is the giddy enthusiasm, the excitement, spinning in a lovely exuberance (that total devotion thing fed to women via a lifetime of fairy-tales of all kinds), it’s got total bounce.

Love the way she doubles her voice at the end, it’s so impressive on every level: song-writing, performance, creative vision. As for the recorded version that came out on 1992 debut:

From that opening moment, the intensity of it: this is just one of those extraordinary songs. Listen to that distorted bass/guitar and the unexpected phrasing of the drums. It is archetypal – a folk song transposed to the modern era, timeless. It reminds me of this similarly magical live 1969 performance by Nina Simone of ‘Black is the color of my true love’s hair’ for the same seriousness of intent, declaration: the strength of the woman’s voice.

Here’s the Peel Sessions version from 1991, which sounds almost the same as the recorded version, which further demonstrates the level of Harvey’s musicianship (she was born in 1969, so only was only 22-years-old or so at the time of recording). Check out this interesting video with Harvey speaking about her creative, song writing process put up in 2011.    

Coda:

Related article: PJ Harvey 'Silence' (White Chalk, Island Records 2007) published 27th February 2016

I have written a lot on Nina Simone on this site, go here to find all the references.   

Versions: ‘Why don’t we do it in the road?’ cover, Lowell Fulson/m (1969? single/Jewel Records, In a Heavy Bag reissue Sundazed Music, 2006)

Guitarist Lowell Fulson/m, who for ‘contractual reasons’ also recorded under the names Lowell Fullsom and Lowell Fulsom, is described as the ‘most important figure in West Coast blues in the 1940s and 1950s’ after T-Bone Walker.

I love the drums on this song, the way they splash while remaining controlled and the guitar sound, especially so rich and resonant and the determined OCD-nature of the vocals. There’s a kind of whiplash effect to the way he articulates certain words. 

Fulson’s 1966 song 'Tramp’ has been sampled by Redman (‘Time 4 Sum Aksion’), Cypress Hill ('How I Could Just Kill A Man’) and is said to be the inspiration for the Salt-n-Pepa song of the same name.  

‘Why don’t we …’ is, of course a cover by a certain English group released on their 1968 The Beatles, ‘the White album’ – to quote Wik: 

.. (the song) is short and simple; 1:42 of twelve-bar blues that begins with three different percussion elements (a hand banging on the back of an acoustic guitar, handclaps, and drums) and features McCartney’s increasingly raucous vocal repeating a simple lyric with only two lines   

The original eludes me online, but it is surely imprinted on our universal consciousness so no great loss, we’ll have to make do with this cover by a guy with an accent that is part Scottish-part Macedonian, or as it turns out Japanese, replete with trilling shriek effects, the bassline is nice though. 

This version, meanwhile, is described as a ‘funky version cover’ (no date, though my guess would be the 90s) by the Banana Ships, despite the Black (American) men in the video it seems to be another example of Japanese-fandom-weirdness (something residents of that nation definitely excel in) see the personnel listing: bass-Forii (Bible) Shinichiro/ Drums-Saito (AlrightDaiju) Vocal&Guitar-Ishiyama (Heifetz).

If you’re feeling brave, check out this Goth-excess from Lydia Lunch/Clint Ruin; the patron saints of the 90s underground scene and archetypal kohl-eyed star-crossed lovers, howling and writhing …

There is something about this song that attracts the ‘unconventional’ let’s say (even Meat Loaf covered the song on his two-disc album, Hang Cool Teddy Bear in 2010), I could go on adding increasingly stranger versions, many of them high on the histrionics, but will spare you. Having said that I like the Lowell Fulson cover, no games. 

Time Machine, Alps Cru (F5 Records, 2017)

Last year when doing my typically distracted, stopping and starting like a retro-instrumental, trawl online seeking out music that might be of interest/something to write on (key words ‘rare, demo, live recordings’), I came across the, to me, little-known hip-hop group from the 90s, Alps Cru.

I wrote about them last October: 'Avalanche' & instrumental, Alps Cru (12" 1997/re-release, The Relevant 2014)

Group-member, Shorty Live (Brank Napp Negashi) later got in touch and told me that Alps Cru was releasing a new/old EP, Time Machine see above. Here’s some info on the group and the project that he sent through:     

'In 2007 DJ Alejan received an email from Bibow, a German blogger, asking if he had any extra copies of the Unknown EP, a record Alejan released in 1994 with his hip-hop group, Concept of Alps (now Alps Cru). Alejan was surprised to learn the release, which was limited to 100 vinyl copies, was still being discovered by new listeners. Alejan’s surprise quickly turned to shock when Bibow explained the record commanded up to $1500 per copy and was considered a holy grail among hip-hop vinyl collectors. 

Alejan, who is from St. Louis, started the group with his roommate P Da Wicked while they were students at Xavier University in New Orleans. P was from New Jersey and had been down with YZ’s ESD Posse before heading to college. They followed up the Unknown EP with the “Intensity” 12" single in 1995, which had spins on various underground hip-hop radio shows, including the legendary Stretch and Bobbito show.

Before heading into the studio to record their next single, the group added Shorty Live, a Brooklyn native, whom they had met through a mutual friend. P and Shorty’s chemistry was immediately apparent, and the result was the “Just Can’t Explain” 12” in 1996. After being passed over by Matty C for the Source’s Unsigned Hype column and coming close to being signed to Payday Records, the group parted ways.

In the intervening years Alejan returned to St. Louis and P. relocated to Georgia. Both fell out of contact with Shortly Live for more than a decade. They reconnected in 2009 after discovering the renewed interest in their music. Due to a high demand from worldwide fans, the group re-released some of their original recordings along with unreleased tracks from their vaults. 

In 2014 the group returned to the studio to record new material for the first time since 1997 along with a guest appearance from Sadat X from Brand Nubian. International cult fan favourites Alps Cru are now back with the Time Machine EP, which features El Da Sensei of the Artifacts on the title track. The EP is available digitally and on vinyl through F5 Records.'

You can check out Brank Napp Negashi's page at www.unityneverfails.com

Stand out song for me is ‘Mind like Water’ – produced by Dutch beat-maker, Lost Perfection - for its odd kind of anti-intro that cuts into a completely different feel of music with its drive and kicking momentum, though the very very simple instrumentals are pretty cool also, as is the opening track that provides the EP’s title, Time Machine and operates as an open declaration as to why hip-hop still has a hold on them.