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.
*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.