Los Angeles

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.

‘Color Blind,’ single Maze, feat. Frankie Beverly (Capitol Records, 1977) two versions, plus live performance of Raw Soul

Could have selected any number of great songs by Frankie Beverly in his various groups (Maze, Raw Soul) but chose this 1977 version of ‘Color Blind’ for the depth of the recording, the no-space nature between the elements and its simplicity. The other side of the single was ‘While I’m alone’

Here's the earlier version, which follows the other funk path of the big-band sound and interests me a lot less.

Below the video on YouTube, there's a nice comment from Michael Burton Sr (such comments are one of the best things about YouTube) :

'As the original Stage Manager of Maze featuring Frankie Beverly 1975 - 1978, I'm always excited to find a rare oldie of the Guys, and no exception with this track with my best friend McKinley "BUG" Williams (R.I.P.) singing. Color Blind said it then, and still makes a statement today, it was a real story in 1971 when this was recorded. Some things just never get old.'

Some info on Frankie Beverly now, just love the names of these groups: this in itself indicates an earlier innocence (something that continues in contemporary rap/hip-hop culture with the MC names that are often impossible to pronounce and/or made up of bizarre capitalizations, it's as if the artists are both playing and constructing barriers, ie to say their name you need to have heard it first).

As a teenager (Frankie Beverly) formed The Blenders, a short-lived a cappella, doo-wop group that were influenced by The Dells, The Moonglows, and The Del Vikings. After that outfit dissolved, he founded The Butlers (subsequently Frankie Beverly and the Butlers), which would be the first group he recorded with in 1963. In 1967, he cut “If that’s what you wanted”, which became a northern soul standard. As time passed, they caught the attention of the record producer Kenny Gamble, who eventually released recordings by the group.

It turned out that music performed by The Butlers did not fit into the “Philly Sound”, and after some heavy touring, the group relocated to California. The unit was re-christened as Raw Soul and caught the attention of a sister-in-law to Marvin Gaye. Gaye featured them as an opening act at his shows, and also convinced Beverly to change the band’s name to Maze.

To close the story, I'll let Frankie Beverly’s lyrics have the final word:

'I've often heard that white is right
You better believe black is alright too
So is blue and green and yellow
What difference should it make to you

These ties we got on us just ain't too hip
I know you got your thing and I've got mine
We've been judging people by colors
Maybe we should all be color blind

What I want to know is
What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony
What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony

There's a saying you can't judge a book by it's cover
What are we doing but just that
We've been judging people by color
Love ain't got no color that's a fact

What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony
What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony'

Really like this live performance at by Raw Soul (Recorded Live: 2/15/1975, Winterland, San Francisco, CA) – everything everything everything.

'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.

Madchillainy, Sadhugold (original format: digital download via Bandcamp, 2017)

Revisiting, revising returning to the source, this riff on the Madlib/MF DOOM collaboration, Madvillainy that received much acclaim on its 2004 release (even from magazines that don’t normally report on hip-hop, as the wik-précis explains, rather breathlessly). 

My favourite detail in terms of the background: the fact that the 'record contract' with Stones Throw was apparently signed on a paper plate.

Here is the artist's self-description, provided by Sadhugold:


'Sadhugold, 25, from Philadelphia, been producing for about 10 years now, started with looping "Certainly" by Erykah Badu on Audacity lol. My major influences consist of Madlib, Danger Mouse, Alchemist, Lord Finesse, RZA. I originally started with visual art and cartooning, so I plan to one day animate visuals for my music.'

Sadhugold is part of another circle of artists (Mach-Hommy most notably, but also Fly Anakin, CRIMEAPPLE, Estee Nack, Tha God Fahim, Al.Divino) that resembles the Massachusetts line-up referred to previously, producing and creating music together and thereby forming a new centre (no need to speak of margins).

This release immediately appealed to me when I heard it soon after it came out in September. Only one track is now publicly available, 'Beginning of the Rainbow' via Bandcamp where it's available for purchase for ‘$7.77 or more.’ Here's my response to the song while listening to it in real time, and no I'm not making any claims for poetry: 'thump, swirl, internal dynamics, sloshing beat, meditative complexity … warmth/intensity.’

The YT video  of Madchillainy was quickly taken down. Sadhugold explained that he hadn't put it up. His sales took a ‘serious turn’ after some unknown poster did so he got his 'team' to remove it. But when after a period of time I returned to his email to listen to the links he'd sent through, they were no longer viable. From memory then, the rest of the release is of similar worth. Its defining quality is its ‘warmth/intensity.’  It has real verve, calming, but intense at the same time; a less-jaded, more melodic, much sweeter, more youthful, less pinned-out Metal Machine Music (maybe) :

The act of returning to a previous work and re-interpreting it as a way of showing respect and suggesting kinship has broader significance, of course and is a central part of Black musical traditions: hip-hop, jazz, dub. By chance around the same time, I read this old interview from 2012 with Yasiin Bey in HYPEBEAST, link no longer operational, that referred to this and put it in context.      

What can we expect from your new series Top 40 Underdogs and what inspired it?


I am doing this for the culture. The tradition, taking someone’s song and making your version out of it, is not new to hip-hop. It is similar to dancehall music, where there is one rhythm and many artists offer their interpretation of it. Covering songs is certainly in the DNA of the culture. 50 Cent, as a matter of fact, built his name in New York for awhile doing just that. I also like the community mind aspect of it that it belongs to all of us. It basically gives and extends the life of our culture, our rhythm. Thus, this series is something that comes quite natural for me to do. I’ve done it before. Just look at “Children’s Story,” or even my version of JAY-Z’s “Takeover” in 2004. It is something that is really fun to do, you know, giving different perspectives on a familiar piece. 

To learn more about Sadhugold, here's a great interview he did with Tyron de Harlem (Casa de Lowery). In it he speaks about his reworking of some freestyles by Meek Mill - a coincidence that LA producer  Knxledge put out a similar tape around the same time for possibly similar reasons; I thought this section of his reply on the Meek Mill project was interesting:    

'The first few jawns, honestly ... I just really liked those raw loops. All of the loops that you heard on those tapes were loops that I used to listen to continuously, over and over and over again. And it never occurred to me to put acapellas on it because they’re just loops and not full beats but when I put the acapellas on them sh*ts, the sound that came out of that was different than any flip I’d ever done. It was kinda flat but not in a bad way. It was flat like time space continuum and it pulled out different nuances in his flows that I was already so familiar with that I never really like peeped. And it was just crazy to hear that kind of delivery on my medium and sh*t, something that I listen to all the time.' 

'It was kinda flat but not in a bad way ...' 

‘My time to shine’ Guilty Simpson, prod. Oh No (Forge your own chains: Heavy psychedelic ballads and dirges, 1968-1974, Now-Again Records, 2009)

Released as part of a compilation, and as a single it seems, via Now-Again Records this track has a very direct verse from Guilty Simpson keeping it level, appropriate as the message is one of defiance and rejecting expectations and a magical switch about half-way through from producer Oh No.

The 60s surf-rock dimensions come from Damon’s ‘Don’t you feel me’ -

See here Damon's biography from AllMusic that spells out the singer’s obscurity (and unusual style).

"Singer/songwriter Damon (just Damon, no last name) put out an extremely obscure, folk-tinged psychedelic album in 1969, 'Song of a Gypsy,' of which only 100 copies were pressed. Such is its rarity that mint copies have gone for as much as $1000 or more. There's a droning, slightly raga-modalish flavor to the melodies and guitar lines, with a gypsy touch in the percussion and questing, spiritual lyrics. The gypsy element of Song of a Gypsy is not just an extrapolation from the title, but a deliberate action on Damon's part, who came to think of himself as a gypsy while wandering around California in the late '60s.

After one 45, "Song of the Gypsy"/"Oh What a Good Boy Am I," the LP was recorded by Damon and other musicians in Los Angeles, its existence barely even suspected by most psychedelic collectors for years. In the late '90s, it had something of a renaissance, with the title track appearing on one of the Love, Peace & Poetry compilations of rare psychedelia, and the LP getting reissued in both CD and vinyl editions.

Around this time, Damon returned to recording with a similar but less strange album, Gypsy EyesSong of a Gypsy was reissued by Now-Again in 2013, just in time for a Damon track to feature on HBO's vampire hit True Blood."

What really appeals to me is this moment in this song where Oh No does the switch, just after the one minute mark, where he deepens the sound, increasing the intensity by keeping it still. It reminds me of dub, sure, but the difference lies in the duration of the effect, how it’s so extended; it's as if he making space within the music. This is both interesting and surprising.

Here’s some information on the Forge your own chains compilation, provided by the Stones Throw site:

With the same detailed, no-stone-unturned approach he used for deep funk on The Funky 16 Corners and Cold Heat, Egon’s Now-Again Records tackles beat-heavy global psychedelia with Forge Your Own Chains. Psychedelic records, long the mainstay of older, grizzled collectors, are giving up new ghosts in the hands of Egon and those of this generation. 

Digipak CD package includes 40-page full color booklet with detailed liner notes, annotation, photos and ephemera. Gatefold 2/LP includes all liner notes. 

Coda:

Live Recordings: ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep’ Aretha Franklin (Amazing Grace, Atlantic/Rhino Entertainment, 1972)

Recorded 'Live' at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, Los Angeles in January, 1972. With the Southern California Community Choir.

Personnel: Aretha Franklin - vocals, piano, Chuck Rainey – bass, Cornell Dupree – guitar, Kenneth Lupper – organ, Pancho Morales - percussion, conga, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie – drums, Southern California Community Choir - background vocal

Amazing Grace won the 1972 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance and is the biggest selling pure Gospel album in history.  

Oh Oh Mary
Oh Oh Mary

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep.  

I went to this recording session. It was announced on the soul station in LA on Friday nite that Aretha was recording live that weekend & people were welcome to come, so I scraped together my dimes for gas & high-tailed it down there Saturday in my white Pontiac Bonneville which got 8 miles to the gallon. To add to the drama, Mick Jagger was up in the front row clapping & yelling. Aretha’s father ran the show & the title says it. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. 2 sessions — Saturday & Sunday. Seems like a dream now. What a moment in time. When Aretha was in her prime she could make you hallucinate. When she ran a scale it was like a huge firetruck drove by with all the sirens blasting. W-O-W...I remember her father saying...Aretha is a “stone singer”.  Well, yes. Testify. I was there & must say I agree 1000%.
— Comment below the YouTube video (Esquibelle)

Well, Satan got mad and he knows I'm glad. 
Missed that soul that he thought he had.
Now, didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep.

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep. 

I went to the second session, that Saturday evening and you’re right, seems like a dream now. When Aretha was leaving the church, so many people shook her hand. She was so gentle and a little timid back then.
— Comment below the YouTube Video (Harold Walker)

Well, one of these nights around twelve o'clock
This old town's gonna really rock
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 

Oh, Mary, don't you weep.

What I appreciate most about music of that decade is the very fact that instruments and voices were pure. No pitch bender, nothing mechanical, no tweaking, nothing artificial..................just pure music.
— Comment below the YouTube video (Monique Purcell)

Cheer up, sisters and don't you cry. 
There'll be good times bye and bye.
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep.

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep. 

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 

Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned?

Oh, Mary, don't you weep.