I get an email today telling me that It's back with an image of a T-800 staring back at me. It's from Woebot, announcing that his blog has reanimated. This is the man (bot?) that inspired me to start writing about music in the first place — tuning me into loads of great music in the process — so needless to say I'm excited for what the future holds over at woebot.com.1
Over at Blissout,1Simon Reynolds had been compiling a whole brace of songs about music (the joy of, etc.) over the last month or so. I kept expecting this one to crop up from some quarter, but it never did and I'd thought everyone had moved onto other things. The moment had passed...
Well, we haven't and it hasn't, so consider this2 the Parallax entry in the canon. Gary Bartz says it better than most, and it just so happens that Music Is My Sanctuary too.
I almost missed the window to do a Spring mix this year, but ultimately ended up putting something together at the last moment (rather than miss the season entirely). Against all odds, this one practically mixed itself. It should be noted right out the gate that this mix leans fairly heavily on the late nineties, particularly 1997 and the first half of 1998, for reasons that I will expand on someday. Suffice it to say that rather than a walk down memory lane, the music here strikes me as locked onto the very pulse of today. Since this mix is coming out late into Spring, the mood is a bit more dusted, more sun-baked than it otherwise might have been. So just take this as a soundtrack to the last weeks of Spring, as Summer rapidly approaches...
The Parallax Sound LabRadio AG Intro
The standard introductions in place.
Scott WeilandJimmy Was A StimulatorAtlantic
Kicking off with a forgotten slab of noise from Scott Weiland's solo debut, this is in essence a Nuggets track in all but name: raw garage punk implementing the technology of the era — in this case 808 beats and filtered techno bass — delivering a three minute bolt from the blue. Should have been a single.
Arabian PrinceStrange LifeRapsur
Mid-eighties electro. The production on this is perfect! I hinted at the man's underground pedigree here, dating back to well before he'd hooked up with N.W.A.. This record finds him transcribing the vibes of L.A.'s party scene — the house parties, nightclubs and roller rinks — to wax. There was an excellent interview with Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover in Wax Poetics1 a few years back that happened to coincide with a superb retrospective of the man's work that came out on Stones Throw.
Little Computer PeopleLittle Computer PeoplePsi49net
Late-nineties electro. Like I-f's Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass, this split the difference between electro and eighties synth pop, predicting the whole electroclash movement years before the media blitz descended. Little Computer People is an obsessive slice of computer disco that could have burned up the charts in any decade, while the video remains one of the great undiscovered promo clips. Check it out!2
FlukeAbsurd Mighty Dub Katz VoxAstralwerks
Norman Cook takes a break from his Fatboy Slim alias to turn in this ace remix of a quasi-industrial Fluke track (from their excellent Risotto LP), filtering the original through a Planet Rock prism and winding up with one of the great electro tracks of the day. For my money, this is the definitive version of Absurd, boasting a massive climax not even present in the original version. Possibly Cook's greatest moment (give or take Everybody Needs A 303).
Masta KillaRZA & U-GodDigi WarfareNature Sounds
Yet another space jam in disguise, this time from the Wu-Tang Clan's Masta Killa. Seeming to offer up a loose breakbeat take on the World Class Wreckin' Cru's Surgery, this record teems with richly demented strings weaving through the ether as four-dimensional breakbeats work out their logic beneath. I've always loved traxx like this that hang in there around 110 BPM — that interzone between house and hip hop — plying a deep digital funk existing in a fertile, under-explored territory that remains ripe with possibilities.
Tony! Toni! Toné!Tonyies! In The Wrong KeyMotown
This is a strange one, buried deep within Tony! Toni! Toné! third record Sons Of Soul (the There's A Riot Goin' On of new jack swing). From within a sumptuously multi-textured soundscape, Raphael Saadiq sort of half-sings his way through the verses while the rest of the group drops in periodically for the nagging refrain. Tumbling breakbeats — a hallmark of this LP — shuffle beneath it all as dial tone punctuates the endless, rolling rhythm and occasional snatches of blues guitar flicker in the shadows.
Murky WatersCheck Yourself Pranna MixMain Squeeze
The original has always reminded me of Songs In The Key Of Life-era Stevie Wonder, but this dark remix on the flip warps the vocals into oblivion over an eerie slice of electronic jazz that seems to soundtrack some bizarre nexus between daydream and nightmare. The turn of the century was a great time for this sort of thing, culminating in a warped permutation of the neo soul sound that would continue to throw shapes across the ensuing decade.
Blue Öyster CultScreamsColumbia
Gothic biker rock from this thoroughly conceptual band-in-a-box. This from their self-titled debut, an utterly essential hard rock record. The unique thing about the early Blue Öyster Cult is that they come on like a Nuggets-era garage punk group that's stumbled upon heavy metal, maintaining the same sense of raw, unstable propulsion that one expects from The Seeds or the 13th Floor Elevators even as the darkness comes creeping in. When that slow motion chorus hits its like plunging deep into the Black Sea.
Viernes 13Piérdete ChicaViernes 13
Only recently discovered this crew when they opened for The English Beat last month, where I was totally floored by their live show. I've been rocking both their records ever since, tending to prefer the dust and grime of their debut's sun-baked boleros to the new record's pristine polish, capturing as it does the idiosyncratic brilliance of the band's live show.
Family Of IntelligenceVernon SmithThe FruitKemet
From the undeniably awesomeChampion Jungle Sound double-LP on Kemet. If you want to get at the essence of jungle — its very DNA distilled in the purest form — then this should be your first port of call. I dropped this back to back with the previous record in the spirit of those old Recent Abduction shows where I'd occasionally operate the soundsystem for the band, spinning a mix of jungle and dub between set after set of local punk rock.
Dr. AlimantadoRide OnGreensleeves
One of the great deejay LPs — indeed one of the great reggae LPs period — this features Dr. Alimantado toasting mad science over rock hard backing tracks, his singular personality towering over a smeared, sun-glazed psychedelia that stretches for miles. Everybody needs a copy of this record.
The HerbaliserPut It On TapeNinja Tune
Circa late 1998 — in a moment of existential frustration — I remember saying to SnakesI just want to play trip hop in bars, which became something of a running joke at the time. This one of those records that makes me think of that era. Not a great LP, but it does feature the presence of a then-unknown Jean Grae — trading under the name What? What? at the time — in one of her earliest appearances on wax, plus a couple of instrumentals that have remained with me ever since.
This and the next tune were made for each other. Those gently cascading Rhodes wash over everything. Such beauty! George Duke imbued everything he did with a generosity of spirit that really does shine through in the grooves. I was saddened to hear of the man's passing a couple years back.
Cheo FelicianoMi Triste ProblemaVaya
Salsa luminary's belated solo debut after over a decade in the game, providing vocals for the likes of Eddie Palmieri and Joe Cuba's bands. After a rough patch that found the man in the throes of heroin addiction, he quits cold turkey and cleans up for good, getting it together in the studio with songwriter-auteur Tite Curet Alonso and an ace backing band including Johnny Pacheco, Bobby Valentin and Justo Betancourt, crafting these gently rolling, velvet soundscapes in the process. It's hard not to picture the sleepy seaside of Ponce — those gently rolling hills rising in the distance — on hearing these gently aching grooves.
Dee Dee BridgewaterNight MovesElektra
Now this one I can't even begin to explain. Soul jazz chanteuse Dee Dee Bridgewater covers the theme tune from Arthur Penn's Night Moves — starring Gene Hackman — resulting in this breathy dreamtime confection, all shuffling breezy rhythms and liquid Rhodes. Did the original even have lyrics? From Just Family, the first of her stellar three album run on Elektra, which found Bridgewater navigating the disco era with finesse. It's almost surprising that this tune isn't more widely known.
TrickyBrand New You're Retro4th & Broadway
From the trip hop visionary's epochal debut. I've gone digital about this one before, and no doubt will again and again, as it is without a doubt one of my favorite albums ever. I never tire of this track's rush of adrenaline smack in the middle of such strung-out surroundings. It is, along with the Public Enemy cover, the sound of fury on wax. It's a shame that the rough edges of trip hop were beveled away with such haste. Many of the genre's wilder numbers remain among its very best.
CanHalf Past OneHarvest
Late-period Can gets short shrift, but if they'd been an entirely different band no one had ever heard of — without those legendary early records hanging over them — I'd reckon people would be blown away by what they heard. Everything from Landed onward compares quite favorably with Remain In Light-era Talking Heads, and stands on its own as a sort of shimmering fourth world psychedelia.
Turn of the century Jeff Mills in Detroit classicist mode, which might make the skeptics snicker. Whatever. The man had put in so much time living in the 23rd century, who could fault him for taking some downtime to his machines sing like The Temptations? Here he conjures up the same sort of lush techno you'd find on the space jazz records he did with UR, records like Nation 2 Nation and Jupiter Jazz, deftly imbuing everything with the same sharp-tooled precision as his Purpose Maker material. The sound of casual utopia.
Neneh CherryBuddy X Inspired by......!?!Circa
Do people consider Neneh Cherry to be trip hop? I've always heard her as a contemporary of Soul II Soul and Smith & Mighty, a fellow traveler operating in the same sonic space. Innovators all, in other words. This incredible tune is so functionally tight — yet at the same time spiritually loose — that it seems almost improvised, even in the face of those furiously programmed whiplash beats and Neneh's righteously eloquent message.
Smith & MightyAlice PereraI Don't Know 12" Mix 1Studio !K7
Speaking of Smith & Mighty, this slice of paradise in its purest form is without a doubt the crew's peak (although I tend to love everything they touch). Shimmering roots 'n future in a deep way, this of-the-moment machine soul could have been huge given the right set of circumstances.
ThemIt's All Over Now, Baby BlueDeram
From the second LP by this storied rock 'n roll crew, this finds them stretching out into folkier territory than ever before (prefiguring Van Morrison's later direction). Here, his breathtaking croon pushes the tune onto a deeply spiritual plane. Perhaps everyone knows this as the basis for Beck's epochal Jack-Ass, but this truly stellar take on the Bob Dylan standard should be more widely heard.
The Crooklyn DodgersCrooklynMCA
New York hip hop in excelsis, this features peak period production from Q-Tip while Masta Ace, Buckshot (of Black Moon) and Special Ed trade verses about the seventies (the days when kids didn't act so crazy). From the Spike Lee joint of the same name, this perfectly captures the same sense of gentle nostalgia felt throughout that film. Humorously, even as they're all reminiscing on the seventies, it makes me nostalgic for the nineties of my youth!
Stone Temple PilotsSeven Caged TigersAtlantic
Bringing it all back home. Scott Weiland, yet again. This from the Stone Temple Pilots' Tiny Music... Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop, which found the band teasing out the edges of their muscular hard rock with gentle psychedelic flourishes, the odd touch of lounge and even jazz funk (but only for a moment!). I've always thought this tune had a deeply reflective, almost zen cadence to it, like a man coming to terms with his place in the world, the very sound seeming to radiate a sense of supreme inner peace...
RAG016: The Records
Time stretching: Johnny Blount and Nautilus Jones.
I can't believe it's been well over a month since my last post (and just after making promises I couldn't keep!). I'd love nothing more than to make like I'd been sucked into the vortex of Hashim's Primrose Path Dub on 4/20 (so appropriate!), but the more prosaic truth is that work and various other real world distractions kept pulling me away from The Room. So some pieces that I'd started earlier have aged since and will be appearing later than expected. That's the way of the world, Tilly. Whatever, I'll be dropping some new material in the very near future... not to mention catching Viernes 131 @ The Hideout2 tomorrow night (see you there!).
Here's a space jam that's always stayed with me. I wish I could say that I was rocking it back in the eighties, but I first heard this on Dave Clarke's X-Mix: Electro Boogie (like why even front?), where it slipped into the mix to close out a tight running selection of digital beats on a deeply psychedelic note. I remember cruising through the back streets of Grantville, then back and forth across Mission Gorge at night, to these booming electro rhythms.
This mix opened up a whole world of machine music that I'd been unaware of before then, an alternate continuum stretching back in time to the early eighties and forward into the future. I pored over the liner notes, studying the label information and started trying to track the records down. I noted in the acknowledgments that Clarke regretted being unable to license any music from The Egyptian Lover. That name stood out to me, evocative and shrouded in mystery.
Fate would have it that I'd shortly find a pristine copy of Egypt, Egypt at a rummage sale a couple blocks from my house, and my descent into electro at the twelve inch level had begun. Then, some time later, I tracked down a copy of Primrose Path...
Hashim was one Gerald Calliste Jr., a producer intrinsically associated with Cutting Records, that crucial imprint behind a sequence of killer, genre-defining electro records unleashed in the mid-eighties. His first 12", Al-Naafiysh (The Soul), released in 1983, was a b-boy phenomenon, one of the stone cold classics of electro and a crucial building block in the forward trajectory electronic dance music. The record cemented a working partnership with label boss Aldo Marin behind the mixing desk that would continue throughout Calliste's stint at the label.
Further exploits included a second Hashim 12" and records with the Imperial Brothers and High Fidelity Three, all powerful electro numbers that served to further establish Cutting Records as an institution through the mid-eighties. These records featured further collaborations with Marin, peppered with appearances by luminaries such as Benji Candelario, Whiz Kid and The Latin Rascals. Primrose Path, the third Hashim record — and Calliste's final release for the label — surfaced in 1986.
Dropping the needle on the record, a voice intones Only the truly wise ones will conquer the power of darkness, (shades of Star Wars) before tom toms roll out into a fathoms-deep abyss as a shuddering electro rhythm begins to take shape. Synthesizers straight out of the Al-Naafiysh playbook sweep across the soundscape, cloaking everything in dread, as distant guitars chop out atmospheric shapes in the ether. Textures are swathed in reverb, drums booming through the soundscape: you can feel the space in this world. The city never sleeps.
It's a slap bass (of all things) that holds down the groove behind this rolling electro monster, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The whole approach seems closer to terrain covered by late-period post punk artists like 400 Blows1 and 23 Skidoo, in which brutal live musicianship fused with industrial/EBM sonics to map out an interzone where the ghost, the possibility, of techno is felt (you can hear the block rockin' beats of The Chemical Brothers prefigured within these deep-hewn grooves). This is a music that could soundtrack William Gibson's Count Zero, true cyberpunk sound, managing the improbable feat of sounding firmly of its era yet at the same time feeling like the future now.
Descending even deeper beneath the sonic fabric, the flipside houses a dub version that is everything you'd hope it would be, deconstructing the already spacious original into an unfettered excursion of vast, cavernous spaces. The beat drops out occasionally (something that doesn't happen on the a-side), revealing bits of texture through the cracks, seeming to magnify and stretch time/space in the process. You can hear King Tubby's dub innovations, filtered through the work of disco technicians like François Kevorkian and Walter Gibbons, writ large throughout; there's even a chirping electronic sequence running through both versions that wouldn't sound out of place on a Lee "Scratch" Perry production.
One thing that's always fascinated me about this record is how seamlessly it merges live playing with the sequencer. Was that bassline played live or was it sampled, cut up and sequenced later? Was it some combination of both? What's generating those enigmatic guitar sonics? Physical instrument or simulation? It's difficult to tell where the machines end and the human begins. Like Moodymann's similarly spectral excursions into house music, it seems to make a mockery of the distinction. This is cyborg music, pure and simple: it's the sound of the 21st century arriving ahead of schedule.
The 400 Blows 1984 record Declaration Of Intent always struck me as operating on a very similar plane to Primrose Path. There's the slap bass, sure enough, but also the austere, half-tempo intro, simple chanted refrain and dubbed out atmospherics. It's a perfect example of the way that two disparate scenes can inadvertently create music that overlaps sonically. Check it out, either way, it's a killer groove!
I've already gone on record about The English Beat's debut album, I Just Can't Stop It, ensconced as it comfortably in The Parallax 100. It's an LP that I have no qualms about calling one of the great pop records of all time, right up there with The Beatles. This is a band that I grew up on in the eighties, with splinter groups like General Public, Fine Young Cannibals and the Ranking Roger solo records peppering my listening habits through the nineties well into the present day. Even when I was plumbing the depths of electronic music, subsisting on a strict diet of beats and beats alone, the 2 Men A Drum Machine And A Trumpet 12" (with that crucial Derrick May remix on the flip) was never far from the turntable.
Last Saturday found Sari and I cruising up the 5 as the sun settled on the horizon, a special English Beat mix (that I'd made earlier that week as a sort of primer) pulsing out the soundsystem, just the two of us heading up the coast to catch The Beat live at The Belly Up Tavern. On arrival in Solana Beach, just as dusk began to fall, we pulled into a Mexican joint down the street from the venue in order to hook up with Kayli and LeValley and grab a bite to eat.
A half hour later we walked through the doors of The Belly Up, where the opening DJ was spinning a selection of reggae cuts to nice up the dance. Tunes like Horace Andy's I Feel Good All Over and Dandy Livingstone's Rudy, A Message To You (foundational sixties ska later covered by The Specials) filled the room and made it clear that this was the perfect venue for this music.
The Belly Up is like some fantasy collision of all the best Pablo Cruise record sleeves and those gorgeous sets from Robert Altman's Popeye motion picture (speaking of Altman, the first show that I caught at The Belly Up was King Sunny Adé & His African Beats some years back). Neon lights illuminate the building's vaulted ceilings, exposed rafters stretch out rustic and warm over a loose assortment of rooms centered around the main stage. Put simply, it's like the nightclub in Club Paradise. We made our way through the main room, grabbing some drinks along the way, and found a spot more or less at the center of the room where we waited for the opening act to take the stage.
I hadn't yet heard Viernes 13 before the band began to play, but was instantly won over by their blazing ska moves that seemed to recall nothing so much as Sublime's Paddle Out shot through a Chicano prism (think Once Upon A Time In Mexico as much as Los Lobos), sounding like Byron Lee & The Dragonaires' Frankenstein Ska if it were played by The Plugz circa the Repo Man soundtrack. It was all incredibly vibey, and very L.A.
I ducked into the back where their people had set up a merchandise table and grabbed a shirt immediately — taking note of the CDs for sale — and threw it on over the shirt I was already wearing. Consider me a fan! I later grabbed both of their CDs on my way out — you don't want to have to keep track of media on the dancefloor — and the man was even nice enough to throw a split EP into the deal. I've been rocking all three this week. I couldn't find an image of the shirt I bought (there were three to choose from) anywhere on the net, so I snapped a picture here. I thought it was a really lovely design:
I'd like to return to this crew in the near future, once I've fully absorbed their records and lived with their music awhile, as I think they're truly on to something special here. In the meantime, Viernes 13 will be back in San Diego on Friday, May 29th, playing at The Hideout, so you know where I'll be. Don't sleep!
This show brought back memories of going to ska parties back in the late nineties, when a friend's older brother was in a band (the name of which escapes me at the moment). Our crew would be chilling in the back, fish out of water more in tune with breakbeats and 303s than the sort of sounds taking place on stage, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless. Come to think of it, another friend of mine was actually in that same band as well, and he was heavy into third wave ska and the swing revival. I remember one time we bonded over a mutual love for Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington and the OG Two-Tone bands.
Which brings us to The English Beat. Dave Wakeling is the only original member in the current touring lineup of the group (hasn't he lived in Southern California since the late nineties?), so I was curious how they would sound in the 21st century. Certain questions were running through my mind in the weeks leading up to the show. Who would be toasting Ranking Roger's parts? Would they play any General Public material? How would the new drummer handle Everett Morton's phenomenal work on the original records (the debut LP has some of my favorite drumming ever)? Would it all be too much to live up to?
After the MC hyped and teased the crowd for the better part of an hour, The Beat took the stage, opening with Rough Rider, and any doubts I may have had just drifted off into the ether on the back of its mellow, churning groove. This is one of my favorite moments from one of my favorite albums of all time, so hearing it live in good form was a bit of a rush. The band was tight and seemed to be having a blast while King Schascha strut his way around the stage, toasting on the mic in fine style.
Twist & Crawl was a definite highlight, submerging the club deep into the darkness after opening with some of the group's brightest numbers. New drummer Nucci Cantrell turned in solid work on the kit, even slipping into a breakbeat from time to time. The drumming wasn't quite as meticulous as Everett Morton's clockwork precision (the very foundation of the twisting rhythmic engine deep within the heart of The Beat), but it was no slouch either (and keep in mind that I'm comparing him to one of my favorite drummers of all time here), providing ample propulsion for the band's infectious loose-limbed riddims.
Needless to say, we danced like maniacs throughout the whole show. They even lit up the disco ball for I Confess and Too Nice To Talk To! I was surprised that they didn't play Doors Of Your Heart (in fact, nothing at all from Wha'ppen), but the songs from Special Beat Service were some of the biggest moments of the night. Save It For Later got a huge response from the crowd, while Ackee 1 2 3 might have been my favorite tune of the evening, its off-kilter (and seemingly sped-up) rhythms super fun to dance to (their label wasn't called Go-Feet for nothing)!
I'd somehow never noticed before that Soul Salvation seems to be the blueprint for large swathes of the Fine Young Cannibals sound. On the other hand, I've often wondered whether Steele and Cox were listening closely to Elvis Costello's Get Happy when mapping out their new group's trajectory. Maybe it's just the similar approach of new wave cats tackling Northern soul, who knows?
At any rate, the other group to come out of The English Beat's breakup, General Public, got checked not once but twice. Early on in the show, The Beat did a rendition of The Staple Singers' I'll Take You There, which was covered by the newly reformed (at the time) GP for the Threesome soundtrack. Later, toward the end of the show, the band broke into Tenderness to a rapturous response from the crowd.
Dave even took lead vocals for Ranking Full Stop, and I could have imagined this, but I thought I saw him shake his head when he sang my name is ranking full stop. That was funny. I almost wasn't expecting the band to play that one, but it came off really well... before they slipped seamlessly into Mirror In The Bathroom! It was a serious double-take moment and definitely the climax of the whole night as that deep, chugging bassline seemed to cause the whole room to sink into the floor, dancing figures etched in neon as the band played on and on.
This is the first of a four part series that I'll be unveiling over the next few months, each focusing on a different aspect of L.A. rap's sweep. As I noted earlier, an excellent DJ Quik show last week inspired me to put this together (to give credit where it's due). I'm no expert on the subject, but I've lived with this music since it was first coming out and it has continued to inform my listening habits in myriad ways through the years. After all, coming up in this era, with this music and parallel sounds from near and far providing the sonic atmosphere of the day, can have a profound effect on somebody...
As early as the late '70s, Uncle Jamm's Army and The Egyptian Lover were developing the earliest foundations of a distinct West Coast style that would culminate in prime L.A. electro like Egypt, Egypt and Dial-A-Freak in the early 80s. Within a few years, pioneers like Ice-T and Oakland's Too $hort began carving out a harder, street-level aesthetic that gradually began to supplant electro's popularity. Then, a crew called N.W.A. entered the Audio Achievements studio in Torrance, CA and started putting out records on their own Ruthless Records imprint, culminating in the seismic impact of their debut album Straight Outta Compton.
The five years between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic were probably the most important stretch in the development of a distinctive West Coast sound, spanning the transition from N.W.A.'s hard, skeletal beats to Dr. Dre's fluid g-funk. This period was marked by extraordinary innovation, with a monumental soundclash of ideas and influences that would gradually be synthesized into a whole new thing. The following 14 records were all released within this timeframe, are undeniably classic material and trace this rough path of progression from Compton to The Chronic.
Ground zero. The earlier N.W.A. And The Posse record was but a preview of things to come, pulling early singles and some hastily recorded material into one package. This is the true arrival. I was in elementary school when this record dropped, and by the end of the year everyone seemed to be talking about it. That's the level it got to. The influence of this record cannot be overstated (just compare the first Geto Boys album with the second, for one obvious example). It kicked open the door for everything that follows in this list.
The opening three tracks — Straight Outta Compton, Fuck Tha Police and Gangsta Gangsta — form one of the great opening salvos of all time, a pump-action barrage of street-level imagery delivered with a brutal intensity. For the purposes of this discussion, Gangsta Gangsta seems to be Dre's first stab at what would one day be called g-funk (check that rude Funky Worm synth whine coming in after the Way back... part). It's still too raw, the beats too rugged, to be considered g-funk proper, but the ingredients are all there just waiting to marinate a little longer.
There seems to be a bit of historical revisionism at the moment about this record, claiming that the opening three tracks are the only real substance it has to offer. Not true. The Dopeman Remix is an incisive look at the drug trade with a barely concealed rage bubbling beneath the surface, matching the fury of that opening rush, while tracks like 8 Ball Remix, Parental Discretion Iz Advised and MC Ren's Quiet On Tha Set serve to further flesh out the world that this record inhabits.
Express Yourself (Dre's solo shot) and I Ain't Tha 1 (Cube's requisite battle of the sexes rumble) both offer moments of levity, while Something Like That is a pure old school throwback showcase. Something 2 Dance 2 even closes things down with an electrofunk workout featuring the legendary Arabian Prince. They really did think of everything!
Released nearly simultaneously with Straight Outta Compton, and at the time taken more or less as a companion piece to that record. They'd usually be listened to side by side. Releasing the follow up so quickly on the heels of Compton was a shrewd move in retrospect. People were hungry for more.
This LP picks up where 8 Ball left off. A reckless ride through the wild side of the Ruthless fun house, this party careens drunkenly through through the streets of L.A. with audacious Eazy-E acting as your unhinged tour guide. The Prelude recalls the sort of conceptual interlude Parliament specialized in, setting the tone for a particular sort of skit that would become an integral part of the landscape on West Coast records.
Where Compton had its share of hard, skeletal beats, the production feels slightly more fleshed out this time around (the Boyz-N-The Hood Remix notwithstanding). DJ Yella even gets in his first appearance behind the drum kit on 2 Hard Mutha's, an engaging sound that the group would engage in sporadically to fine effect. Even if Eazy-Duz-It doesn't hit with quite the same force as Straight Outta Compton, its incrementally looser rhythms and balanced sequencing do point the way toward the nineties.
The first record in this list to come from outside the N.W.A. organization, this is a collaboration between West Coast stalwart W.C. and DJ Aladdin. Low Profile made their first appearance on the previous year's Rhyme Syndicate Comin' Through compilation with the show-stealing Think You Can Hang?. That track isn't here, but this phenomenal record expands on its foundation. From W.C.'s deft, conscious microphone delivery to DJ Aladdin's loose, fleshed out production and devastating turntable skills, this is truly advanced technology for '89.
This is something of a conscious flipside of the coin to a lot of the game related platters listed here. I've often felt that this is something of a West Coast counterpart to Gang Starr's Step In The Arena. An off the wall comparison, perhaps, but I couldn't resist making it! Keep Em Flowin' even sounds like a Jazzmatazz beat! Just listen to How Ya Livin' back to back with Step In The Arena (the track) and tell me I'm crazy. Of course, We're In This Together came out a whole year earlier...
None of the records here are obscure, but for the longest time this one was incredibly hard to come by. You'd hear it whispered about by people in the know (it had a fearsome reputation as a lost classic), but you'd never see it in the shops. It was actually easier to track down on wax, along with the accompanying 12" singles. Well, Universal Japan has just stepped in with their Classic Hip Hop Best Collection 1000 reissue program, featuring this record among their first brace of releases. Don't sleep!
The D.O.C. was N.W.A.'s secret weapon. Starting out as a member of the Ruthless-affiliated Fila Fresh Crew, the Dallas native set out for L.A. where he ghost-wrote some of N.W.A.'s rhymes behind the scenes. Here, he gets his chance to shine. Portrait Of A Master Piece is a literally breathtaking fast-forward deluge showcasing the state-of-the-art flow of one of the great uptempo lyrical stylists. Through the entirety of this sterling LP, The D.O.C.'s mic skills are top notch.
This album catches Dr. Dre treating Audio Achievements as his own personal laboratory, further elaborating the sound of the previous records into a high-octane formula that he would continue to tweak over the next couple years. With a few exceptions, the drums are tighter and more compact (as opposed to the booming big beat of the earlier records), while the production has become more crisp and the rhythms increasingly fluid, with a greater emphasis on live musicians (not to mention further welcome appearances by Yella behind the kit).
The Formula, Let The Bass Go and the title track are the first attempts at chilling out the Ruthless sound, slowing the tempos and cooling out the atmosphere in the process: an important step on the road to g-funk's genesis. These tracks themselves aren't g-funk per se, but the production is certainly starting to move further in that direction. The closing track, The Grande Finalé is a stunning posse cut, featuring the entirety of the original N.W.A. rhyming over a tremendous build up (pinned down by another ace breakbeat from Yella). If I'm not mistaken, this is the last time the original group would all be heard together on record.
Old skool renegade from the N.W.A. posse strikes out solo. The Arabian Prince actually had a history stretching back much further than the rest of the group, operating as a contemporary of The Egyptian Lover in the era of Uncle Jamm's Army, and consequently, much of this record is built on a heavy electro undercarriage. That's no bad thing, since Brother Arab is right at home in the form. This is a fascinating sound that he cooks up here, existing midway between his earlier records like Strange Life, It Ain't Tough and the sounds Dre essayed on The D.O.C. album. Gettin' Down even locks a loping blues guitar loop into a hypnotic groove with planet rocking 808 beats.
However, the exceptions to the rule might be even even more compelling. Let The Good Times Roll Nickel Bag, a murky downbeat number built on an ever-tumbling breakbeat, is a fabulous bit of hip hop noir, while She's Got A Big Posse, the album's biggest single, rides a Zapp-esque bounce that totally prefigures the classic g-funk sound. To my mind, one of the crucial elements of g-funk is the linear quality of its groove, stretching horizontally into infinity (as opposed to hip hop's usual vertically arranged change-ups). What's missing here is the greater emphasis on live musicianship and those whining sine wave synths, but the groove is definitely in the same ballpark. Still not textbook g-funk, but certainly strong enough shades in evidence to warrant a proto- prefix.
This one's a giant step forward. Dr. Dre had a hand in producing this LP for these Ruthless proteges. Above The Law introduce a rolling, cinematic sweep to this music, evoking OSTs like Shaft and Truck Turner in its widescreen sensibility. Menace To Society is essentially a gangster film in miniature, while Murder Rap samples Quincy Jones' Ironside theme, establishing an intense, maddening atmosphere.
Another key development is the fact that ATL often operates on a laidback tip, as on Flow On Move Me No Mountain and Another Execution. Even on the uptempo numbers, they bring a nonchalant gangster lean to this material that would become a crucial element of the g-funk equation. N.W.A. even makes a cameo on The Last Song, certainly the most leisurely beat they'd yet been involved with.
ATL's Cold 187um and LayLaw later claimed to have invented the g-funk sound (developing it further on the following year's Vocally Pimpin' EP), influencing Dre in the process. Whatever the veracity of those claims, it's clear that this is the next step in the evolution, whether instigated by Above The Law or Dr. Dre (or both). The crew continued to hit hard on their second LP, Black Mafia Life, an excellent follow up that exists just outside the timeframe of this list: although it was completed before The Chronic, it wasn't released until early '93.
I've included three major N.W.A. records here, so crucial are they to the L.A. story. There's just no getting around their centrality. This EP was released on the heels of Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and the title track seems to take on aspects of that record's monster production by The Bomb Squad. A widescreen epic running at a breakneck pace, it finds Dre splitting the difference between those uptempo D.O.C. tracks and Above The Law's cinematic sweep.
This EP also marks the beginning of the group's descent into pure nastiness, with Just Don't Bite It's lush production backing the sort of off-color humor that would really come to the fore on the following record. Still, Dre's production finesse is continuing to develop at a staggering rate. The intricate breakbeat rhythm of Real Niggaz and Sa Prize Part 2's liquid groove both demonstrate the new forms that were materializing at Audio Achievements. If there were a symbolic midpoint between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic, then this must be it.
WC again! Another Texan transplant (a bit of a pattern here), WC was always on his own level with a sort of street-level consciousness that always managed to sidestep preachiness and never failed to carry a fatal sting. This record finds The Maad Circle in its prime, with Coolio still in the fold (Fantastic Voyage and Gangsta's Paradise still a few years off), a steadfast Big Gee in evidence and kaleidoscopic production from Crazy Toones, Sir Jinx and WC himself.
It's tempting to read this LP as a bracingly aggressive, West Coast gangsta take on Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, so all-encompassing is its scope. With eagle eye observation and insight, tracks such as Fuck My Daddy (a rumination on the destructive impact of an abusive, no good, two-timing father) and Behind Closed Doors (a scathing indictment of police brutality — especially relevant in light of current events) tackle societal troubles head on and fill the corners of this LP with a richly detailed chronicle of life in south central L.A.
WC would later hook up with Ice Cube and Mack 10 in supergroup Westside Connection, finally receiving widespread recognition and going double-platinum in the process. However, this and the Low Profile record remain absolutely essential listening, together offering a crucial glimpse into the man's unique breadth of vision. Both LPs certainly belong in any serious conversation about the best albums (hip hop or otherwise) to come out of L.A.
Ice Cube blazed a fierce trail through the early nineties, starting with his Bomb Squad produced debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and running through Death Certificate and The Predator at a blistering pace of one album every year — BAM! BAM! BAM! — and all within the timeframe of this list. The Kill At Will EP, released just after his debut, is my absolute favorite record of his. As a matter of fact, this just missed inclusion in The Parallax 100 (a decision that still keeps me up at night).
Building on the sonic foundation of The Bomb Squad's work, this EP's masterful beat construction — by Sir Jinx, Chilly Chill and Ice Cube himself behind the boards — result in some of his absolute finest moments. The Product is a searing avalanche of fury, and one of the hardest hip hop tracks ever conceived (in both form and content). Cube weaves like a boxer through this densely-populated sonic matrix, chronicling the unforgiving circumstances that conspire to drag a young brother under, all while riding a jagged, amped up breakbeat. Jackin' For Beats showcases a rotating selection of hype rhythm tracks, switching them up rapid fire beneath one of the fiercest flows in the business.
Dead Homiez is the flipside of the coin, with Cube reflecting on the mortality of himself and everyone around him over his own moody, half-lit downbeat production. There's a barely concealed desperation that creeps in through the cracks here, adding further context to the record's hardest moments. In just over twenty minutes, this EP runs the spectrum from rage to sorrow in an uncompromising vision of the world.
As mentioned earlier, Ice-T looms large over L.A. hip hop, seemingly coming out of nowhere improbably early to lay the groundwork for the whole operation. Despite his comfortable niche with Law And Order nowadays, he deserves non-stop props for his trailblazing work as an innovator on the West Coast. His first three LPs are all crucial records, each providing an evolutionary step forward in development. O.G. Original Gangster finds him taking this sound into the nineties, moving with the times into an ever-funkier direction.
This is a sprawling double-LP that paradoxically finds Ice-T tightening his game. It sits comfortably with the surrounding records in this list, taking in some of their aspects even as it expands on them with a nearly unmatched breadth of vision. DJ Aladdin produces a handful of tracks here, including the awesome New Jack Hustler (originally appearing — along with Ice-T himself — in the excellent film New Jack City). The production is some of the loosest around, beats swerving and diving with a nimble touch, and often running at lightning speed. Ice-T is razor sharp on the mic, as usual, dropping gems left and right (I'm raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro). Even the interludes are unforgettable.
The final N.W.A. album is a production tour de force. The beats on this record are simply phenomenal, taking the developments of 100 Miles And Runnin' to their logical conclusion. Dre's production arguably reaches its pinnacle of elegance here, weaving intricate tapestries of lush texture through sticky funk basslines and crisply executed breakbeats, resulting in one of the most compelling sounds in rap music (or any other, for that matter).
Rock hard tracks like Approach To Danger and Real Niggaz Don't Die recall Compton even as they transcend it, improbably revealing a turn-on-a-dime agility beneath their monumental heaviness. Both tracks are shot through with an unresolved tension that reaches its apex in the frenetic roll of Appetite For Destruction. Stretching even further toward the future, Alwayz Into Somethin' — laidback, cooled out and boasting those whining sine wave synths — is generally considered to be the first true g-funk tune to hit the shops.
Despite sagging into a mid-record sequence where the blue humor gets out of hand and veers into the intentionally offensive, the production remains top-notch throughout the entirety of this LP. In fact, it would easily stand on its own as an instrumental record. Dr. Dre would leave N.W.A. within the year, the group dissolving shortly after into solo careers, concluding one of the most impressive winning streaks in hip hop and quitting at the top of their game. For further reading, this excellent L.A. Times article1 is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the N.W.A. story.
This is an unabashed party record, featuring a handful of uptempo numbers (reaching their frenetic peak in Tear It Off) but generally easing back into a first-rate selection of West Coast bounce. DJ Quik had the linear g-funk thang down from the word go, spooling deep, funky grooves out into infinity. Part of Quik's appeal is the fact his sound seems to spring directly from the old school electrofunk sound of One Way and Kleeer, transforming that sound into something that could weather the '90s.
Speaking of Kleeer, Quik Is The Name features an interpolation of their immortal Tonight in the rolling, endless Tonite, surely a textbook example of g-funk proper that prefigures the sound writ large on both The Chronic and Doggystyle. These moves continue in 8 Ball and permeate the entirety of this thoroughly loose LP. Quik's Groove, a gentle instrumental, lets the beats speak for themselves and betray Quik's love of pure electric funk.
The closing Skanless is an engaging slice of slow-motion downbeat featuring AMG, Hi-C and 2nd II None, seemingly hewn from a longer marathon groove. In 1991, DJ Quik was also involved with Hi-C's Skanless and AMG's Bitch Betta Have My Money, the latter of which is an even looser, albeit less consistent, loony cousin to this record's non-stop party moves. The other day, I forgot to mention this video,2 an amusing interview with DJ Quik at Amoeba Records, and this seems as good a time as any to get in a mention.
It's difficult to choose the best CMW record. The outfit's first three albums, released in quick succession — one a year — starting in 1990, all have their strong points to recommend them. I tend to go back and forth. This one — their second — stands out for its loping downbeat rhythms and desolate atmosphere, what Peter Shapiro brilliantly referred to as DJ Slip's dark jazz.3MC Chill was sentenced to prison between the release of CMW's debut — It's A Compton Thang — and the sessions for Straight Checkn 'Em, leaving MC Eiht as the solitary vocal presence, further cementing the prevailing mood of downcast isolation in evidence throughout.
With Slip and The Unknown DJ behind the mixing desk, the approach here seems to prefigure Dre's for the epochal Deep Cover (even if nothing here hits quite as hard as that tune). There's a casual fatalism to tracks like Def Wish and Growin' Up In The Hood that mark this LP out as a tour de force of gangsta-noir. Can I Kill It? even slips into the classic Footsteps In The Dark beat a whole year before Ice Cube would use it as the basis for his immortal It Was A Good Day. Indeed, whole sections of this record predict not only the sound of hip hop's eventual descent into darkness, but even seem to raise the spectre of trip hop's twisted methodology.
Ready to leave N.W.A. and strike out on his own, Dr. Dre formed Death Row Records with Suge Knight and The D.O.C., kicking off the next chapter of the L.A. story. Dre's first solo record was Deep Cover (from the soundtrack to film of the same name), featuring vocals from a then-unknown Snoop Doggy Dogg. A Death Row release in all but name — it technically came out on Solar — Deep Cover was the first warning shot of things to come on Dre's full-length debut.
Snoop's off the wall personality inhabits this record. Tracks like Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat and The Day The Niggaz Took Over continue to develop the dread atmosphere of Deep Cover, yet that's only the tip of the iceberg. The Chronic is where Dre nails down g-funk as a formula, utilizing live musicians to create rolling epics such as Fuck Wit Dre Day and Nuthin' But A "G" Thang. It's important to note the importance of Dre's earlier experiments with smoother, more r&b-based material on his productions for artists like Michel'Le and Jimmy Z in developing the clean, polished sounds of The Chronic. The sun-glazed vibes of a track like Let Me Ride seem to flow directly from those smooth sonics.
Built on a sizable chunk of Parliament's Mothership Connection, Let Me Ride is just one example of p-funk's totemic importance throughout this record. Indeed, George Clinton interpolations are the order of the day here, cropping up all over the place. Between L.A. and Detroit, Clinton's influence seemed to be everywhere in the nineties. If you were aiming for the dancefloor — be it hip hop, r&b or techno — p-funk loomed large over the decade's excursions into rhythm.
Remaking hip hop in the image of earthshaking electric funk, The Chronic changed the face of West Coast rap and became its dominant sound for the foreseeable future. It's usually a stretch to put sea changes down to a single record, but this truly is a case where one record did provide that watershed moment. At the height of the sampladelic age, it opened rap up once again to the possibilities of both live playing and synthesized textures on the widest scale imaginable.
As its sound quickly spread worldwide, reverberations began to be felt everywhere, and one could largely trace the direction hip hop has taken in the ensuing years back to this record. Much like Straight Outta Compton before it, The Chronic catalyzed a whole new thing into existence that had to be acknowledged one way or the other. The rest is history...
So it looks like I've nearly let a month slip by without delivering any goodies for you, and for that I have no apologies to offer (sometimes, reality just comes creeping in). I've got one feature that I'm in the process of putting together on L.A. hip hop, which is really just a little something inspired by the DJ Quik/Warren G show at The North Park Observatory. Quik's set got me in a West Coast state of mind, and I've been augmenting my usual diet of Moodymann and Mtume with a healthy dose of rolling g-funk ever since: a fitting soundtrack to the summer's heat of the last week or so (even as springtime has only just begun).
Part of the reason it took me a week to go digital about that show is the fact that I got caught up working on this upcoming material, which quickly managed to get out of hand: so many great rap records have come out of L.A. that it seemed lame to just distill the list down to the usual suspects (although those do get a look-in). Why not go all out and dive headlong into this little corner of the Parallax stacks? Ultimately, the plan will be to split this feature into four separate slabs, each one focusing on a particular aspect of the L.A. thang.
There's a couple new records that have been in heavy rotation at the Parallax Room, particularly the new Model 500 album (Digital Solutions) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. Digital Solutions is a master stroke from Juan Atkins, featuring Mad Mike and even Amp Fiddler in the fold (two players who just so happen to have played with Parliament/Funkadelic in the past, appropriately enough). This is supremely elegant Detroit techno, picking up where Deep Space left off and stretching that sound further yet into the 21st century.
On the hip hop tip, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly is without a doubt something extraordinary, finding Kendrick Lamar processing the prevailing mood of these past few years and putting down a fierce reaction in a record that is both here and now. Picking up the thread of sprawling, ambitious soul/jazz albums that engage with the times and manage to work all the way through, its a bracing listen that brings to mind classic records like Silentintroduction and Voodoo. I could go on and on, and that's a potential list in itself right there. Appropriately enough, it follows on the heels of D'Angelo's Black Messiah, a similarly fathoms-deep rumination on the present state of affairs.
I'd love to engage with all of these records on here at some point in the near future. Beyond that, I've got a couple features waiting in the wings (and I still need to talk about that Jungle LP). The response to the Radio AG2015 Winter Mix was positive in the Heights, so I'm hoping to get something cookin' for spring within the next month or so. I may even hit you with some more frivolous material along the way in order to keep communications open between features. After all, spring is the time to get loose...
Just a week ago I was lucky enough to catch the Warren G and DJ Quik show at the North Park Observatory. The hook was that they were performing the Regulate... G-Funk Era and Quik Is The Name records, respectively. I meant to get to this sooner on here for a few quick words, but the week ended up bearing down on me before I could get any thoughts down on (virtual) paper.
Of the two performances, Warren G's show was more the walk down memory lane, but that's no bad thing in the case of a record that so well encapsulates a particular time and place. There was certainly a lot of love in the room, audience and stage locked together in a groove. The crowd seemed to know all the words to the record, and G could get a sing-along together at the drop of a hat. He even delved into some extra goodies like In Da Club and The Next Episode (in honor of one Nate Dogg). Closing out the set with Regulate (which opens the original LP) took the show to it's peak: this was the moment the crowd had been waiting for.
This is a tune that really caught me out when I first heard it on the radio all those years ago, seeming to offer a glimpse into vast corridors of shimmering jazz funk that I was only partially aware of at the time. I remember hearing the original Michael McDonald tune on a smooth jazz station around the same time up in the mountains, with the typical surprise that accompanies the recognition of a sample from an unlikely source.
As Warren G closed out his performance of Regulate, a small figure strolled out across the stage and started to work an Emu SP-1200 that had been sitting lonely at the center of the stage. Within moments of G's closing remarks, DJ Quik started rocking the mic and his set jumped off. If Warren G's show had largely been an exercise in nostalgia, DJ Quik's was another matter altogether. This man on stage could have been nineteen, so alive was the musical force he was turning out in the club. The energy level in the venue seemed to triple instantly behind his music's steady bounce, even as some who had come for the earlier set started to trickle toward the exits. Those that remained were ready for Quik to turn this mutha out...
The set was built around his debut LP, Quik Is The Name, but stretched out to include plenty of later material. There was this amazing song that I didn't recognize, built around a slow motion rhythm matrix and bleep loops that recalled the output of early Warp Records. Quik stalked the stage with an ice cold nonchalance, flowing on the mic as easy as breathing: the man's game hasn't slowed down one bit.
Quik mentioned that he lost his original masters of the entire Quik Is The Name record at one point (in the late nineties, if memory serves), and had to rebuild everything from scratch. In some cases, having been in the game longer and acquiring more experience in the studio, he was able to improve on the original and get the sound he was really after. Tha Bombudd, in particular, stood out as a highlight of the show, whereas on the record it always seemed like he was having a bit of a laugh.
The consummate perfectionist throughout, Quik tweaked knobs and punched drums on the fly, getting everything to sound just right. He'd tell the engineer to turn his mic down 20%. The sound itself was stunning: skull snapping snare drums, deep kicks to the chest and endless, rolling bass, pouring crystal clear from the Observatory's massive soundsystem. Even as he worked the machines and checked the engineers, he kept things loose onstage. This was a funk show, no question: we were witness to a stripped down, street-ready descendant of Parliament and Zapp in action.
Back in the day, Quik's Tonite was my first exposure to Kleeer at a time when Jammin' z90 was caning The Isley Brother's Between The Sheets and One Way's Cutie Pie in regular rotation between Snoop Doggy Dogg's Gin And Juice and Ice Cube's It Was A Good Day. At the time, I'd assumed these were new songs, so well did they fit with the nascent g-funk sound of the day. This is in large part due to the way large swathes of west coast hip hop sprung directly from that electrofunk continuum, and DJ Quik probably remains the closest in spirit to that original bedrock foundation in sound.
Catching him live, it hit me just how much this music had tuned me into a very specific frequency back in the day, preparing me for where I was headed a few years down the road. Far from being dulled by the passage of time, the music and the man remain sharp and on the edge (where they need to be), keeping that vibe alive and well in the 21st century. DJ Quik came to turn this mutha out... and turn it out he did.