Instrumentals

Mr Walt/da Beatminerz: “Hurricane Starang”/“No Fear” instrumentals, O.G.C/Originoo Gunn Clappaz, (Da Storm, Duck Down/Priority/EMI, 1996) w/archival footage

(In one of those instances of synchronicity that repeat the more I get into this world and process, I heard this instrumental, had ideas about atmosphere then later discovered it was by Mr. Walt from da Beatminerz, the duo that produced another track that prompted the same reaction/thought; see this article on “Rino” published on this site in January, 2018)

Radio producers, documentary makers speak of “atmos” - atmosphere – which refers to the background noise captured in the recording of a room, the hum of white goods, machinery and the like. Once again this da Beatminerz/Mr. Walt instrumental makes me think of this concept, it’s the sound of the bass-line behind the other elements that makes it. The hum and the rumbling and heat of it, it’s amazing to me.

The two Mr. Walt-produced tracks on O.G.C’s 1996 album, Da Storm offer a real contrast to each other. “Hurricane Starang” is all restrained atmosphere, with what might be a “wind effect” introduced to make it seem “spooky” as the production team has said is their preference, as they explained in an interview when speaking about their style.

On a most basic level, I like the drums, the production sound and depth of the secondary-level sound in the background, the way it stays with the moment and is still; nothing too complex. It retains the analogue smokiness, yet sounds “clean.” Not much happens in terms of development, or variation but that’s okay because the power of the music lies in the way it rests in the moment, no-movement becomes its signature.

Forget seeking out music to help you “chill”, and relax, or even worse to do your “homework” to (how to destroy a producer’s original vision, extend the 2-minute running time of a beat to one hour, madness-inducing. Why not go seek out Reich, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach if you’re looking for extended pieces of music that won’t be too distracting as you work?)

Listening to music of this (da Beatminerz) kind helps develop discipline and focus, it cleans the mind of excess. This is my (rap) soul music, music from the temple. Here it is with the vocals on top, the video with a track “Danjer” at the end:

Interestingly the samples in “Hurricane Starang” keep it local: "Leflah Leflaur Eshkoshka" by Heltah Skeltah "Sound Bwoy Bureill" by Smif-n-Wessun, mirroring the lyrics which are all about the MCs reinforcing bonds and the community of MCs at Duck Down. With one exception, the sample from "Sounds From the Sea's Edge" by The John Payne Band:

In contrast, the “No Fear” beat is - almost - verging on the groovy, but only a bit with the bass line. Da Beatminerz, or Mr. Walt in this instance, gesture towards funky danciness but keep it low-key as is their wont. (Samples are "E.V.A." by Jean-Jacques Perrey and "I Want to Thank You" by Dr. Lonnie Smith) And the “No Fear” video/version with lyrics includes a diss of Biggie.

Check out this video with interviews and history about da Beatminerz that is really well done :

Here are some archival videos of O.G.C., also of interest I think, as a historical snapshot, where everything seems to be loose and natural, not too rehearsed (or vapid-shiny-corporate, pre-digested for consumption).

Info from below the video:

“Before O.G.C's début album, 'Da Storm,' they had an incredible tape, that in addition to what would come to be known as Fab 5's "Blah," included this unreleased gem, "Hard to the Core." As Top Dog is Steele's brother, the group members were frequent attendees at Smif n Wessun recording sessions. This home video shot by @druha in 1995 offered a small glimpse of the fun and wittiness the group would soon offer.”

Description of the group from YouTube video:

“O.G.C. (Originoo Gunn Clappaz) is a Hip Hop group consisting of members Jack McNair (aka Starang Wondah) (Gunn Clappa Numba One, also known as Big Will, Hurricane Starang and Strang Da Beast From Da East), Barret Powell (aka Louieville Sluggah) (Gunn Clappa Numba Two, also known as Hennyville Guzzler or Henny), and Dashawn Jamal Yates (aka Top Dog) (Gunn Clappa Numba Three, also known as Big Kahuna and D-O). The group is mostly known through their membership in the Boot Camp Clik, along with Buckshot, Smif-N-Wessun and Heltah Skeltah.

Heltah Skeltah is a hip hop duo consisting of members Rock (Jahmal Bush) and Ruck (Sean Price). The two are members of New York supergroup Boot Camp Clik, along with Buckshot, Smif-N-Wessun and O.G.C.. The name "Heltah Skeltah" is a reference and homage to The Beatles, specifically their song "Helter Skelter" from the famous album The Beatles.

Smif-N-Wessun (aka Cocoa Brovaz) is a hip hop duo consisting of members Tek (Tekomin Williams) and Steele (Darrell Yates). Smif-N-Wessun comprise two-eighths of the Brownsville, Brooklyn supergroup Boot Camp Clik, with Buckshot, Heltah Skeltah and O.G.C. Both members are known for their Jamaican Patois during their raps, which was more evident during the earlier stages of their career.”

Live performance from 1996 (notice the Sean Price dancing cameo).

Coda:

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.   

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. 

'Center of Attention’ Instrumental, Pete Rock/InI (reissue: Center of Attention, Lost and Found – Hip Hop Underground Soul Classics, Rapster Records/BBE, 2003)

(Apologies for the fan-video put up by some connoisseur of moon-pix and other corny stuff like this. I really wish artists would pay someone to put up their music hq/hd online).

There seems to be some kind of back story relating to this release and the earlier (2000) Center of Attention album that had this track with vocals, but let’s leave this for a moment to really listen to this beautiful piece of music.

Hip-Hop producers inevitably are drawn to creating certain kinds of beats that then become their trademark, this instrumental along with a handful of others for me, embodies what I like about Pete Rock’s production, in a pure, essential sense.

First there is the drum sound, which starts on-call, just after 20 seconds. On a most basic level, you can appreciate the sound purely in terms of its quality - how good it sounds - but if you follow it from beginning and end you also notice how clever it is in terms of how it operates within the music.  

Just like in jazz, the drum sound has a dual purpose: it provides the bedrock, the foundation, but also offers commentary on the music. It is never neutral, there are always other dimensions to its presence and this fascinates me. Sometimes the drums separate, unfold (say, just before and after 1’50”). Twenty seconds after it first appears, it stops/starts like a question mark.    

But then, there are also all the details, see, for example, as one listener noted, the little ‘guitar slide’ that continues throughout, at the beginning having more prominence than the other elements and later becoming just one more aspect of the music. From 3’20” til the end the instrumental has everything happening at once, juggling the sonic features, but it never becomes busy, it just continues on its way duplicating a very elegant, delicate mania.

This music impresses me so much each time I hear it as you can hear how it set the tone for all the other producers working in this vein, though few if any are bothered with the same subtlety to the same degree. The hip-hop instrumental made up of a gentle piano sample/the essential beat is so-well known, it’s become a cliché today, but the mathematical precision of the way Pete Rock manipulates his samples is of another class. It is so full of feeling.

Here’s the track with vocals, which is pretty sublime as well.

'Fièvre' Oddisee (The Beauty in All, MelloMusicGroup, 2013) & Fu-Gee-La instrumental

Unlike other music writers my view on Oddisee is that he is most interesting when working outside the realm of the highly melodic, smooth and ‘relaxing’, when pushing his aesthetic further and doing something other than – as one journo put it – offering us ‘placid (musical?) memories’ … (a curious concept in itself, but still).

For this reason, the track that interests me most is 'Fièvre' (Fever in French) on The Beauty in All album from 2014 - music that while having a fairly basic song construction, as each element is introduced it layers on the preceding one is carried along by an affecting, effective beat. Perhaps this layering effect is intentional encouraging us to spend time with each element, to recognise its quality, before the music loosens up towards the end.

Here’s an interesting comment from an okayplayer interview with the NY-based MC/producer, Oddisee, on the album’s release, speaking with Zach Gase about the concept behind the record:  

OKP: You touched on the back story of your mixtape, and a lot of your other projects have interesting stories behind them, is there anything like that for The Beauty in All?

ODD: Definitely. As with all my records, they come from my influences; they come from what I observe. The Beauty in All is no different. From the perspective that throughout all my travels things started to become so redundant – every place I go starts to seem similar. There’s so many little small things, little inconsistencies and imperfections, that make me realize where I am. The things people take for granted, they walk by, are really what is starting to inspire me.

This record is more about the crack in the mirror, instead of the mirror itself. It’s more about the ugly things that make us appreciate beauty, and how that in itself, is something that is attractive to me. That’s what the record is about.

OKP: Do you find it more difficult to communicate that idea through instrumentals than lyrics?

ODD: I don’t really find any idea hard to communicate. It’s all interpretation. Now my interpretation may not register with other people, but it definitely isn’t something that is difficult for me to do. You know, it’s very personal, so it’s just my own interpretation.

Take a listen too to this reworking by Oddisee of this very famous track by the Fugees, ‘Fu-Gee-La’ that was released on their 1995 album The Score - my guess is that it's associated with Oddisee's album, The Remixture Vol. 1 (that includes a different version of the same, from 2006).

To appreciate the sonic difference between the generations, check out the Fugee's classic-90s instrumental turn here. 

When you listen to the two side by side you can see the fun Oddisee is having with his version, enhancing the dub aspect and exaggerating its imported exoticism. There's a certain joyfulness to this, albeit one submerged within a slowed-down daze.