So you've absorbed those death disco tapes already, and I'm back with an armful of records. Let's head over to Raven's place up there on the corner and give a few of these a spin. I've got some of the heaviest fourth world voodoo punk funk here - about half the records in the crate - brought to you by the three major dynasties of post punk coming out of London, New York and Bristol, but today we're gonna start with the heady interzone between last episode's new wave boogie and the voodoo slates to come: I'm talking about the Spartan minimalistic funk turned out by crews hailing from places like Manchester, Leeds and (especially) New York.
Interestingly, nearly all of these groups would wind up shearing into a sort of new wave boogie as the decade progressed, while others wound up providing crucial building blocks for hip hop, downbeat and even house. Yet there's one band who emerged just a little bit later, a band whose sound sprang from these same tangled corridors but then managed to spread out across the radio waves and set the charts ablaze, conquering the world in the process. I'm talking now about a band that everybody knows... a little band from L.A.
I'm talking about The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were everywhere in the nineties, maintaining a strong presence right up to the present day, even making their way into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012. However, before breaking out as megastars in 1991 with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, they managed to put out four solid records between the years 1984 and 1989 that elaborated on the punk funk template and imbued it with a healthy dose of California sun. These records all have a chunky, spacious sound, sporting booming drums, chiming guitars and Flea's trademark slap-bass all mixed down with a crisp, vibrant production very much of a piece with everything discussed here today.1
Surprisingly, I've found that many fans of the band's later material seem to turn their nose up at the early stuff, the Hillel Slovak2 era. What gives?! Tunes like the pile-driving Jungleman (from the George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley), True Men Don't Kill Coyotes, Taste The Pain and Hollywood (Africa) (their take on The Meters' immortal New Orleans funk jam Africa) are unmissable romps across the Venice Beach pier, filled with youthful exuberance and rude spirit. Behind The Sun even takes things into Parallax Pier territory, with chiming guitars and a sing-song chorus that brings to mind the Tom Tom Club's sessions at Compass Point!
At this point, the Chili Peppers would often turn to covers of rock and soul staples like Jimi Hendrix's Fire, Sly & The Family Stone's If You Want Me To Stay, Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground (which I'd argue tops the original - blasphemous, I know... but so true!). The fascinating thing about the Hendrix and Dylan covers in particular is the way they highlight early examples of - for all intents and purposes - rapping, as if the band were reaching back and paying homage to the roots of Anthony Kiedis' trademark rapid-fire delivery. It's also interesting to note the band's unexpected avant garde pedigree (for all the hipster haters out there): original drummer Cliff Martinez3 had previously drummed for a latter day incarnation of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, while Gang Of Four's punk funk godfather Andy Gill was drafted to produce their self-titled debut.
Gang Of Four, hailing from Leeds, were the prototypical minimalist post punk band. Indeed, one could almost have them down as a punk funk counterpart to Wire. They pared all elements deemed unnecessary from their music, leaving a sparse, wiry sound that moved like clockwork mechanisms travelling across a grid at strict right angles. Emerging on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint - incidentally where The Human League started out as well - the band released their debut EP, Damaged Goods. The title track, Armalite Rifle and Love Like Anthrax brilliantly fleshed out the different corners of the band's stark modernist sound and they were accordingly signed by major label EMI for their debut LP. Entertainment is one of those quintessential post punk records,4 housing fierce, taut missives like Not Great Men, Ether and At Home He's A Tourist that have gone down as indelible post punk classics. The band famously aimed for a dry, spartan sound - free of rock's wild abandon and detached from its roots in the blues - and it's a sound they achieve to the fullest here.
However, one of my favorite moments from the band is their 1979 non-LP b-side It's Her Factory, where they make room for a bit of reverb - bathing the lead melodica in an eerie glow - giving the whole thing a sense of relatively spacious atmosphere. Solid Gold, the group's sophomore record, accordingly seemed to follow suit, allowing a little air into the production across the space of the album. The songs themselves may not have been quite as incendiary as those on the diamond-hard debut, but tunes like He'd Send In The Army and A Hole In The Wallet are emblematic of the record's focus on tricky, twisted rhythms and an increasing focus on atmosphere and dynamics. Meanwhile, the desolate Paralysed dragged the tempos down to a staggering crawl.
It's certainly an interesting step toward the band's later period, where they morphed into a strange punk/boogie proposition that seems to be endlessly maligned by the cognoscenti but I nevertheless find oddly fascinating. 1982's Songs Of The Free is a deeply unusual LP that veers between Heaven 17-esque new pop like I Love A Man In Uniform and the atmospheric downbeat reverie of closer Of The Instant. We Live As We Dream, Alone, which comes on like a booming dub version of one of the band's earlier punk funk excursions, just might be the best thing here. The record quite simply makes a virtue of simply sounding like nothing else around. When you factor in the remaining tracks and the album's evocative sleeve... well, it's a cool little record.
Unfortunately, the band's next album, Hard, was anything but. As such, it's even more maligned by just about everyone. And yet. And yet... there is a fair bit of solid new wave boogie to be found here, for those inclined. The opening Is It Love - which was the album's big single, even getting a 12" Extended Dance Mix - is a lush new pop number that may be a million miles away from Damaged Goods but is nonetheless an excellent slice of silky smooth dance pop. Elsewhere, the atmospheric Woman Town wouldn't sound out of place on the second side of Songs Of The Free.5 Not that I'm making a case for the album as some sort of lost classic, you understand! But it certainly has its moments. Hard turned out to be the final album of the band's original run, capping off a discography that, when taken as a whole, offers us an intriguing glimpse at the way a bunch of punks might ultimately wander from the pit into the disco, turning up some unique sounds along the way.
Another group who made a similar transition were A Certain Ratio. Yes, A Certain Ratio! They seem to perennially suffer the fate of being damned with faint praise - often getting lost in the Factory shuffle - but they get my vote over Gang Of Four any day.6 These guys are the perennial underdogs in the post punk sweepstakes. They may have never got around to making that stone cold front-to-back classic record, but their discography offers up a wealth of the greatest punk funk you could ask for. The Early anthology put out by Soul Jazz made this point brilliantly. Take a song like Flight. This is one of the top five or so tunes in this continuum. Utterly unique, Woebot nailed it when he noted the song's gigantic ethereal sound like a yet more liquid Can. Word.
Infamously, the band were recording their debut album in Newark, New Jersey when the working mixdown was inadvertently wiped by the engineer while the band were out celebrating the final day of recording! On returning to Manchester, the band were miserably forced to work up their debut album by polishing demo takes with producer Martin Hannett. Already feeling quite defeated, they were then slated to back Grace Jones on a song called Again before the project fizzled out unceremoniously.7 The breaks just wouldn't come! Despite the band's seemingly endless plague of bad luck, they managed to turn out a whole raft of first rate material like Do The Du, Shack Up and The Fox, all of which were prototypical post punk of the highest caliber.
From there, the band continued to change with the times and edged ever closer into new pop/jazzdance territory. Sextet and the Knife Slits Water - with the
Kether Hot Knives (Mix In Special) version on the flip - is the grooviest, tightest post punk record you could ask for and the avant cousin to the whole bedroom funk concept I'm forever hinting at (there's a feature in there somewhere, believe me). The sound leans ever-so-slightly into early Level 42 territory (nothing wrong with that), but maintaining traces of the spooky unhinged voodoo of their earliest recordings in those chanted vocals and the spaces between the spaces. Chanted vocals in this style are the prime signifier of mid-period punk funk, evoking mysterious corridors within the groove that one might get pulled into at any moment.
I'd Like To See You Again veers further yet toward a certain sleekness, even if a tune like Saturn is of a piece with the band's earlier material (in spirit at least). Elsewhere, Hot Knights is a vocal adaptation of the Kether Hot Knives version of Knife Slits Water. Still, the heart of the record lies in tunes like Touch and Axis which are very Jamaica, Queens jazz/funk/boogie, and before you know it (1984) you've got a record like Life's A Scream, killer dance pop on the order of INXS or - once again - Level 42 that takes you into the glitz of the era's overground nightclubs. Moonwalking in neon. With those triggered oof, oof vocals - straight out of the electro playbook - A Certain Ratio have wandered into the disco even more convincingly than Gang Of Four managed around the same time.
However, if there were one band that could boogie with the best of them, it was surely Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick has that cruising city streets at night groovy thang going... in fact, the backing track could practically fit right in there on Off The Wall (with the chorus sounding not unlike Jermaine Jackson's Erucu)! Only Ian's conversational Midlands lead vocals - think Mike Skinner in The Streets - and Davey Payne's wild sax solo give this away as something other, conjuring up images of The Blockheads grooving immaculate on some cramped, smoke-bathed stage in a ramshackle seaside pub out in Essex.
Debut album New Boots And Panties!! is an absolute treasure, with the nimble bedroom funk of Wake Up And Make Love With Me setting things off on a drifting mirage of rhythm before following up with more skewed boogie in the shape of If I Was With A Woman and I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra (there are even a few undisclosed moments of straight up punk tacked onto the end to boot!). The key to The Blockheads' seemingly natural grasp of funk dynamics - this in 1977, a full year before even Adolescent Sex - must surely be their jazz chops. Indeed, I have a Steely Dan documentary on the making of Aja that features Ian Dury as a frequent commentator, and one could almost read the band's sound as an outgrowth of the band's dancefloor sides like Peg and The Fez. Perhaps not totally accurate, but an interesting thought nonetheless.
Of course Ian Dury ended up writing himself into the Compass Point story a few years later with Lord Upminster, which was recorded in Nassau with Sly & Robbie and features the excellent Paradise Garage staple Spasticus (Autisticus). Like Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, it hinges on the axis of silky smooth verse juxtaposed against abrasive chorus, revelling in Dury's clever wordplay. While I could dive further into the Compass Point All Stars at this point, along with figures like Grace Jones and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, in truth they will all warrant their own chapter in the Terminal Vibration saga (forthcoming in a month or so) and ultimately a full feature in their own right (as Summer arrives, most likely). So with whispers of the Paradise Garage still hanging in the air, let's take a left turn into the streets of New York.
The Big Apple was rather appropriately a hotbed of punk funk activity, starting with No Wave bands like DNA, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks and especially James Chance & The Contortions crawling out of the sewer at the tail end of the decade. James Chance came on like a skronky, more punk Blockheads (or Richard Hell & The Voidoids gone funk) with records like Buy and Off White (released as James White & The Blacks). The production was sparse and the rhythms stripped to their bare bones, like James Brown circa The Payback shot through with atonal, abrasive punk spirit.
However, it's the slightly later N.Y. material that concerns us today, permeated as it is with atmosphere. A particularily good example of this transition would be Black Box Disco (from the Vortex OST), featuring Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, which is the most sure-footed nimble punk funk imaginable, cooked up by the Vortex house band as film dialogue - of what sounds like a torture scene - floats over the top. It's terrifically magical track that works on most dancefloors in a way that the earlier No New York bands would not.8 The remainder of the soundtrack is quite atmospheric, with almost no beats at all (the one exception being The Chase, which is the cousin of mid-period A Certain Ratio).
While we're getting into punk funk at its most dexterous, mention must be made of Joseph Bowie's Defunkt. As mentioned before, this crew were the prime influence on The Red Hot Chili Peppers and you can certainly hear it, especially in Joseph Bowie's vocals... the only thing lacking is that Slovak/Frusciante guitar crunch. Tunes like Illusion (from 1982's Thermonuclear Sweat) and Strangling Me With Your Love (from the 1980 self-titled debut) were far more stripped to the bone than nearly any straight-up funk band of the era, often recalling the classic one-the-one funk of James Brown circa Hell, while moments like Make Them Dance moved wild shapes at a brisk tempo that reach almost afrobeat levels of pitched insanity. In The Good Times (yet another riff on Chic's Good Times bassline) even highlights a certain affinity between Defunkt's no-nonsense approach and the homespun funk that the Sugar Hill and Paul Winley backing bands were working up on the early rap records around the same time.
However, if there was a New York label that was the standard bearer of Downtown dancefloor-heavy punk funk, then it was Ed Bahlman's 99 Records. With the label's striking visual aesthetic, featuring vivid, colorful, of-the-moment artwork, it seemed to capture the spirit of the times at the nexus between the post punk avant garde and the post-disco dancefloors of the era (and as such places it at the forefront of today's discussion). The material released on the label was heavy on atmosphere while maintaining a distinct pop edge, and tellingly more than a few tunes made their way onto Larry Levan's turntables at the Paradise Garage.9
Liquid Liquid were one of two bands whose releases were central to the label's discography and are probably the most widely known. Plying a heavily percussive - almost tribal - sound, their music was spacious and atmospheric, with ghostly chants fading in and out of the mist as the band churned out a loose-limbed brand of dancefloor funk. The Optimo EP, with its swirling red and yellow op-art imagery, turned out to be the group's preeminent record. The title track pummels you with a frenzy of percussion interlocking with a clockwork bass groove as scat vocals dance across its surface, while Cavern rides a loping bass groove that would ultimately get nicked by Grandmaster & Melle Mel for the epochal White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (not to mention a more oblique interpretation in Big Audio Dynamite's The Bottom Line).
The thumb-piano stylings of Scraper recall the band's earlier self-titled EP, where tunes like Groupmegroup and New Walk churned at a more laidback tempo. The band's music - encompassed on but four EPs released in the early 80s on 99 Records - is quite simply essential listening. Famously, James Lavelle issued the first real compilation of the group's material on his Mo Wax imprint, rounding up the band's first three EPs into one essential package with an attractive mosaic sleeve that referenced the evocative 99 artwork of the original 12" records. Released in 1997, it's another example of dance music's dalliance with post punk - well before the retro gold rush of the early 21st century - that grew organically out of the scene's groove fascination in whatever form it came (there was certainly the clear cut abstract hip hop connection). And as I've said before, this is the context through which a certain 90s kid encountered most of this music in the first place.
The other big 99 band were ESG, a group centered around the Scroggins sisters who were merely teenagers when they started out. Famously, their mother had bought them all instruments so that they'd play music rather than get into trouble. I read somewhere that at the time the girls were described as The Supremes meet Public Image Ltd. I can't find the quote now, and I don't know who said it, but it isn't too far off. Their self-titled debut EP is housed in another stunning example of 99 sleeve art and plays out as the quintessential essence of the label's sound, which is in this case somewhat more bare bones than Liquid Liquid's, but somehow no less atmospheric. Moody rides a killer bassline over which the girls chant Very moody, while UFO is like the shower scene from Psycho taken out for a dance.
Interestingly, both songs were crucial building blocks in multiple genres of modern music. UFO, which was sampled by Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G. - even showing up much later on J Dilla's Donuts - became something of a staple hip hop signifier (wasn't there a Gang Starr song that sampled it too?), while Moody formed the basis of Murk's Miami house chestnut Reach For Me (released under the name Funky Green Dogs From Outer Space). The girls even titled a later EP Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills!, which was released around the time of their unjustly neglected 1991 comeback record. Fortunately, they managed to soak up some love during the post punk revival with two new LPs issued in 2002 and 2006,10 Step Off and Keep On Moving respectively, which were solid records in their own right.
My favorite ESG record, however, is 1983's Come Away With ESG. It's an album-length statement, which means you get to experience the girls' sound in 3D stretched over a cozy 30 minutes. Kicking off with the bluesy tumble of Come Away staggering down some shadowy back alley, the record turns up plenty of uptempo punk funk like Dance, You Make No Sense and The Beat, in which loping bass grooves interlock with rather tactile drums as terse lyrics are chanted over the top. The rushing Chistelle even brings in an eerie guitar line - which appears to get reversed every so often, Detroit techno style - as wind/synth effects creep in and out of the mix, while About You rocks a midtempo groove with the thinnest proto-g-funk synth line imaginable. Of course, there's also the matter of Moody (Spaced Out), a dancefloor version of the original (from their debut EP) which sports a tougher groove and massive synth effects simmering throughout like the soundscapes of Yar's Revenge.
Finally, there's one last New York band I'd like to touch on, and that's the Bush Tetras. While they only put out one 7" on 99 Records (their other two records came out on Fetish), they fit the label's aesthetic perfectly. Tunes like Too Many Creeps and Snakes Crawl consist of composite drum/bass/guitar parts that all interlock into ultra-tight grooves captured with vivid clarity. Cynthia Sley's vocals often recall Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's spoken parts on the early B-52's records. The brisk turn in Cowboys In Africa (from the Rituals EP) comes on like The Cramps gone funky, while the dubbed out Rituals closes the record on a downbeat note with ragged rockabilly shapes that would fit right into the Repo Man soundtrack. The Things That Go Boom In The Night (the group's final record) tightens up the groove again but this time with a slightly heavier guitar attack - more distortion! - while the b-side Das Ah Riot runs a mad phased guitar part through the track in such a way that seems to tie all three of the group's records together.
Jumping back across the Atlantic for a moment, it's worth noting the Bush Tetras theoretical cousins - and Gang Of Four's sister band - the Delta 5. They debuted in 1979 with the Mind Your Own Business/Now That You're Gone, a conceptual interrogation of relationship dynamics over clockwork straight jacket funk rhythms. The band turned out a series of 7" singles that further developed their taut punk funk sound, even introducing a horn section on Colour, which ultimately culminated in the See The Whirl LP (which I haven't heard). The Singles & Sessions 1979-81 compilation, which I do have, rounds up all the group's singles and augments them with some BBC sessions for good measure.
If the Delta 5 and Gang Of Four represented punk funk at its most jittery in the UK, then the Minutemen cranked things up to a whole other amphetamine-fueled level out in L.A. The group's records are absolutely steeped in sun-baked L.A. atmosphere, in the same way that War's The World Is A Ghetto evoked heatwaves rising from the city's asphalt. In many ways they represented for the gritty underbelly of the city while the Red Hot Chili Peppers were strutting down the boardwalk... some might say that both bands represented two sides of the same coin.
Early EPs like Paranoid Time and Joy were excellent shots of pioneering hardcore, yet there was already a distinctly post punk funk flavor in tracks like More Joy and Joe McCarthy's Ghost that came on like a West Coast, more lived-in Gang Of Four. It's a muscular funk, to be sure, with turn on a dime frenetic rhythms anchored by D. Boon's combative, barked vocals.
The band were one of the mainstays of L.A. institution SST (the home of Black Flag), where they put out a whole brace of records ranging from 12" EPs like Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat and Project Mersh to 7" shots like the "Tour Spiel" EP and albums like What Makes A Man Start Fires? and 3-Way Tie (For Last). Double Nickels On The Dime - famously released within months of that other SST post-hardcore milestone double-album Zen Arcade (by Hüsker Dü) - was a tour de force that ran the full gamut of the band's stylistic reach, with hardcore, funk, rock 'n roll, acoustic numbers and even border music all rubbing shoulders over the course of the record's sprawling, monolithic expanse. Without a doubt, it's one of the top ten or so records to truly capture that hazy L.A. atmosphere, and a crucial late-period capstone on the decade's punk funk story just before in mutated into something else entirely.
As such, it brings us full circle to this chapter's beginning, back to L.A., The Red Hot Chili Peppers and where it all ends up in the 90s... with everything tied nicely into a bow. And so I'll leave you with the following playlist, until next time when we descend into the depths of voodoo funk with Material, The Pop Group, The Slits and Public Image Ltd.
TV4 Rockers Revenge
- A Certain Ratio Flight (Factory)
- ESG Moody (Spaced Out) (99)
- Vortex Black Box Disco (Neutral)
- Ian Dury And The Blockheads Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (Stiff)
- The Contortions Contort Yourself (ZE)
- Minutemen More Joy (New Alliance)
- Gang Of Four Return The Gift (EMI)
- Delta 5 Train Song (Kill Rock Stars)
- Bush Tetras Snakes Crawl (99)
- The Red Hot Chili Peppers Blackeyed Blonde (EMI)
- Iggy Pop African Man (Arista)
- Liquid Liquid Cavern (99)
- Grandmaster Melle Mel White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (Sugar Hill)
- Bernard Wright Spinnin' (Arista)
- A Certain Ratio Touch (Factory)
- Level 42 Starchild (Polydor)
- Tom Browne Funkin' For Jamaica (N.Y.) (Arista)
- Ian Dury If I Was With A Woman (Stiff)
- Liquid Liquid New Walk (99)
- Gang Of Four Womantown (EMI)
- Defunkt Strangling Me With Your Love (Hannibal)
- The Red Hot Chili Peppers Taste The Pain (EMI)
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.
N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton
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!
Eazy-E - Eazy-Duz-It
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 funhouse, 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 drumkit 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.
Low Profile - We're In This Together
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. - No One Can Do It Better
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.
Arabian Prince - Brother Arab
Oldskool 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 sinewave 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.
Above The Law - Livin' Like Hustlers
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.
N.W.A. - 100 Miles And Runnin'
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 And The Maad Circle - Ain't A Damn Thang Changed
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 - Kill At Will
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.
Ice-T - O.G. Original Gangster
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.
N.W.A. - Efil4zaggin
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 sinewave 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 article is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the N.W.A. story.
DJ Quik - Quik Is The Name
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, an amusing interview with DJ Quik at Amoeba Records, and this seems as good a time as any to get in a mention.
Compton's Most Wanted - Straight Checkn 'Em
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. MC 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.
Dr. Dre - The Chronic
(Death Row: 1992)
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 sizeable 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...