Tag Archives: Epic Records

Johnny J – I Gotta Be Me

Johnny J
I Gotta Be Me
February 10, 1994
Shade Tree Records/ SOLAR Records/ Epic RecordsSME
045/100
Johnny J - I Gotta be Me
1. Something She Can Feel // 2. Diggin Um’ Out // 3. I’m a Better Man // 4. Why You Want Me Now? // 5. Get Away From Me // 6. P.O.P. (Got Control Of Me) // 7. Better Off (feat. Mel-Low) // 8. It’s a Wonderful Day // 9. Shake That Ass // 10. Say Whatcha Gotta Say (feat. Big Syke & Y?N-Vee) // 11. Love’s the Way

The late Johnny J would become rather famous, critically acclaimed and commercially succesful not too long after I Gotta Be Me tanked. He did this by producing songs on 2pac’s Thug Life, vol. 1Me Against the World and All Eyez On Me albums. On I Gotta Be Me however he is the main attraction and gets to rap most of the time by his self, uniterrupted most of the time by anything but wimpy R&B choruses.

“If Johnny J was himself a rapper why did he never trade verses with 2pac on a track?” I hear you ask. Pac himself was hardly picky with his collaborators as most of the verses performed by his Outlawz posse demonstrate.
Well, that is a valid question, dear reader. While all of tha Outlawz, except Hussein Fatal who can be decent, suck most of the time on an acceptable conventional level Johnny J’s raps sound like they were performed by the whitest fratboy ever who decided that he would be a rapper about fifteen minutes before he started recording them and did so after having enough shots of tequila to forget that women are people and that by using the N-word he would get his ass kicked. Apparently even 2pac who normally wouldn’t give a rat’s ass who you’d throw in the studio with him as long as they had something, anything, ready to record during his infamous Death Row binge recordings realised that while good Johnny’s beats may have been, his vocal contributions sucked.

Off course using offensive racial slurs and misogyny are pretty much givens with any gangsta rap record from the 1990s, and it can serve a purpose as it does in for instance Eazy-E’s over-the-top gangsta caricatures or 2pac’s tales of ghetto misery. Johnny J appears to have neither an interesting point of view, nor any charisma behind the microphone, nor a sense of humour. This is problematic because when stripped of these things a gangsta rapper sort of automatically becomes a massive tool. Speaking of which the man appears to be obsessed with the size, texture and other details concerning Johnny junior, and how many times he can make your girl come. How every woman enjoys having sex with him and how they’re all conniving, gold digging harpies that are good for nothing but hosting his member is a theme that returns in all the songs (all) on I Gotta Be Me.
I guess one should look at the bright side of life. It’s not as though the man would’ve fared much better rapping about his career as a narcotics salesman back when he lived in a low income neighbourhood where life isn’t very pleasant, so not much is lost because of this choice in subject matter. Speaking of his income: The advance for this can’t have been that much, so why exactly Johnny J should have attracted any gold diggers remains unclear.

It is unfortunate that Johnny J was such a shit MC because the productions, credited to him and someone called Charlie Macc, are lush, groovy and bluesy. A lot of these tracks could’ve been better used by more competent rappers. In fact when other people grab the mic an inprovement is immediately noticeable, even if it is Big Syke, probably they guy who introduced J to 2pac but has done very little else of consequence in his career.
(One of these instrumentals, the one used on Better Offwas used by a better rapper, namely 2pac who used it for his Picture me Rollin’ off his All Eyez On Me, a song that while far from perfect is infinitely better than anything on here.)
In fact one could argue that this might’ve been a better album if the uncredited studio singer(s) singing the previously mentioned wimpy refrains were to have become the headlining act(s). Something She Can FeelIt’s a Wonderful Day and Better Man would’ve been perfectly functional quiet storm and Diggin Um OutWhy You Want Me Now?, Shake That AssSay Whatcha Gotta SayGet Away From MeP.O.P. and Better Off  would’ve been decent new jack swing. Proof of this is the bonus track Love’s the Way on which Johnny sings for the entire duration of a guitar strummy pop track. The dude’s singing isn’t very good and it runs for a little too long but it sure beats the songs on which he raps.

Alas, I Gotta Be Me wasn’t meant to be a success, and neither was Johnny J the rapper. But at least this horrible album wasn’t the end of this guy’s career in music, which with a little more exposure it easily could’ve been. After all some of the 2pac songs he produced proved the guy was a fine musician so long as he shut the fuck up and kept the beats coming.

Best tracks
Love’s the Way

Recommendations
Nothing on here warrants a spin, let alone a purchase.

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Above the Law – Livin’ Like Hustlers

Above the Law
Livin’ Like Hustlers
December 1989 (Promo cassette version)
February 22, 1990 (Full version)
Ruthless RecordsEpic RecordsSME
085/100
Above the Law - Livin' Like Hustlers
1. Murder Rap // 2. Untouchable // 3. Livin’ Like Hustlers // 4. Another Execution // 5. Menace to Society // 6. Just Kickin’ Lyrics // 7. Ballin’  // 8. Freedom of Speech // 9. Flow On (Move No Mountain) // 10. The Last Song (feat. Dr. Dre, Eazy-E & MC Ren)

Above the Law is an Pomona CA hip-hop group that originally consisted of rapper/ producers Cold 178um and KMG the Illustrator as well as DJ Total K-Oss and Go Mack, who presumably was a hype man. And when their debut album Livin’ Like Hustlers dropped the Ruthless Records franchise was on a roll. Albums by N.W.A, Eazy-E and the D.O.C. had all gone gold to platinum cementing the label’s status as the preeminent hip-hop label of the day. Not only that but they were also able to release an album that quite succesfully catered to the R&B market (back in 1990 hip-hop and R&B were two distinct genres that were just starting to cuddle up) by songstress Michel’le.

What all these albums had in common was wall-to-wall Dr. Dre production with the occasional help from DJ Yella and/or Laylaw. Now their latest signees Above the Law were producers as well as rappers, but Dre is credited as a co-producer on every track on here, as he was credited with producing every track on every track on every Ruthless Records album so far.

It should be noted that Livin’ Like Hustlers doesn’t sound like any Dre production so far, except maybe the song the Formula off the D.O.C.’s No One Can Do It Better. Everything else he had done so far had been a lot more fast-paced and funk/dance-influenced, whereas this album is more mellow, jazzy and classic soul oriented. This could be explained by the fact that on Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-Duz-It the Doctor was aided by DJ Yella, on No One Can Do It Better he was left to do the beats himself and here he co-produced it with the entirety of the group. Another possible explanation is that Dre had just worked on an actual R&B album with slow jams on it, and therefore was in another state of mind than he would have been coming out of an N.W.A recording session.

Anyway, the mellow paced jazz/ soul vibe, with the elaborate use of more melody than was usual in hip-hop at the time, combined with rappers Cold 178um and KMG the Illustrator’s archetypical gangster raps (the album’s title should provide ample warning to those who aren’t into that sort of thing) definitely make this a prototype for the G-funk sound that Dre would rule the airwaves with less than three years later. And whether Dre or ATL produced the lion’s share of the music  they were all at the cradle of some revolutionary stuff here.

Given that there’s some controversy over who did what here I tend to go with ATL as the main musical architects, not only because of how the music sounds and how contemporary Dre beats sound, but also because Dre prescriptions tended to come with bits of Dre backing vocals at this time, which he does do here, but only on the title track, Just Kickin’ ItFlow On and the Last Song so I assume the man didn’t have much input with the remaining six songs. In all likelihood Dre put in a beat or two while ATL made most of these tracks themselves and had Dre adding some finishing touches to what they came up with. (But like everyone else who isn’t Dre or an ATL member I’m only guessing here. It’s not like I was even born yet when they recorded the fucking album or anything.)

As for the vocals, KGM and Cold 187 (whom I shall henceforth call by his other rap nickname Big Hutch, because that sounds more like something one would actually call a person) are technically proficient behind the mic. They basically come across as less lyrical, less nimble, more gangster-oriented versions of their then recently muted labelmate the D.O.C., what with their mid range voices and their ease behind the mic, which is to say they sound just fine. Although they lack Ren’s understated menace, Cube’s grit and Eazy’s natural, over-the-top charisma, their average-guy-from-the-street personas help these raps about the gangster lifes sound a lot less like they’re glorifying violence, misogyny and what not, as opposed to the various members of the world’s most dangerous group, who usually come across as a bunch of happy-go-lucky, murderous, alcoholic, wife-beating, crack-selling, “walked into the store, said this is a robbery, don’t need the money, it’s just a hobby” cartoon characters of Afro-American stereotypes on their albums, whereas ATL keeps things, if not real than at the very least plausible. The ATL rappers sound as though they could blast your brains out in a back alley, though they wouldn’t do it unless they had no other choice, and even then they still wouldn’t get their kicks out of it.

Highlight include the the ominous Murder Rap and Another Execution, the horned-up Untouchable and Livin’ Like Hustlers, the anti-censorship Freedom of Speech as well as the mandatory Ruthless posse cut on the tail end of the album on which Ren and Eazy take the shine (and on which Ice Cube and the D.O.C. shine in absence, the former because he was the only one out of N.W.A who chose to not get bent over by Jerry Heller and took his business to Priority Records in stead, and the latter because he had his vocal chords slashed in two in a car crash and was unable to rap.)

There’s only one wack moment on here, that would be Ballin’, which is all about how down Above the Law are with N.W.A and the D.O.C., throws an unnecessary stab in the direction of every rapper on the East-Coast (so this East-West rap beef was already a thing, huh?) and has an instrumental too fruity for its own good.

But besides that one misstep Livin’ Like Hustlers features nine tracks of pure gangster rap gold, that unlike N.W.A may have been forgotten by a lot of today’s rap audiences  and may not sound a lot like Straight Outta Compton but is almost equally entertaining and has had a lot more influence than it is given credit for on the genre as a whole, being a stepping-stone in the direction of the Chronic. (and with everybody from DJ Quik to Lil’ Kim to 2pac borrowing beats from this album).

This album deserves to be revisited.

Best tracks
Murder Rap
Untouchable
Another Execution
Menace to Society
Freedom of Speech
The Last Song

Recommendations
Buy this album.


Rage Against The Machine – Rage Against The Machine

Rage Against The Machine
Rage Against The Machine
November 3, 1992
Epic Records/ SME
090/100
RATM - Rage Against The Machine
1. Bombtrack // 2. Killing In The Name Of // 3. Take The Power Back // 4. Settle For Nothing
// 5. Bullet In The Head // 6. Know Your Enemy // 7. Wake Up // 8. Fistful Of Steel // 9. Township Rebellion // 10. Freedom

My apologies for my absence from the blog. I was a busy student following courses in management learning very little. If anything my appreciation for management books significantly decreased. What does this have to do with the music? I really don’t know. All I know is that these days I need more Rock and Metal to ventilate my studies-frustrated brain. This leads me to find musical comfort with one of my favorite bands: Rage Against The Machine. If the name doesn’t ring a bell for you just stop reading, get the album and listen to the lyrics. Even in these ‘political correct’ times, twenty one years from its release this album’s message still makes sense.

On Youtube search for their 1992 and 1993 interviews. (An ad blocker of some sorts is advised before you visit the cursed Youtube!) I’ll recap what this band is about: San Francisco; Tom Morello, Zack De La Rocha, Brad Wilk and Tim Bob start as an underground rock band with a social message; Epic gives the band a record and the rest is history, as they say. Killing In The Name Of and Bombtrack became massive hits despite (or maybe because of) initial censorship. RATM’s life shows gained a reputation that attracted a solid fan base through the years. This album is one of the best albums released during the nineties if you ask me.

Bombtrack kicks off the album. A subtle melody leads to the bombastic intro and from there on the entire band makes its presence. From 3:05 the real goodness starts if you ask me: Tom Morello lets the guitar speak for itself. Lyrically Zack introduces himself with this “funky radical bombtrack” to give the “Landlords and powerwhores” a wake-up call. Killing In The Name Of brings a grin to my face. This is Rock with a funky bass line and Zack whipping up the audience to jump around. Tom’s guitar around 3:54 – 4:10 is icing on the cake. The iconic “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!” line says it all. Lyrically the song addresses the abuse of power behind police badges and insignia.

Take The Power Back, the title says it all. This a funky protest song that would take every B-Boy into seventh heaven if it were a break-beat instrumental. Listen carefully and you understand why the band is called Rage Against The Machine. The instrumental part of this song gives me the shivers: the drumming is tastefully energetic, the bass line is groovy and the guitar sounds finger licking good. Settle For Nothing follows. Mostly spoken word, instrumental backing and Metal. In this song Zack takes his stance. Bullet In The Head is different. A more laid back instrumental part with an almost satirical vocal delivery from Zack. 3:08, prepare to launch. 4:29, Metal! Lyrically the song is about propaganda, the masses and the sheeple. The title describes the sad ending of the sheeple.

Know Your Enemy, the guitar welcomes you to a funky jam. Around 0:48 you can headbang on this solid rocker. Zack’s rapping is easy to understand. 2:38 – 3:06, chorus and the funky jam resumes. 4:09, Zack continues his message until the music stops at 4:42 and you hear “All of which are American dreams!”. If Zack is to be believed there’s no such thing but I rather prefer George Carlin’s explanation. Wake Up start like a good Metal song until around 1:00 the funky jam takes off. At 3:31 the song changes again, back to Metal until 4:29 at “I think I heard a shot”. 5:07 and the band starts to jam. Lyrically this song is about raising awareness about civil rights activists like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Yet they were shot, so wake up.

Fistful Of Steel starts as a steady rocker. Smooth bass lines and wails create a sonic contrast: Zack’s delivery sounds as if he is preaching accompanied by sirens. 4:45, the Hard Rock part starts and the guitars screams. Lyrically the song is about how the microphone is Zack’s gun, his “fistful of steel”. Township Rebellion kicks off with the rhythm section launching the song in a rocker at 0:34 until the break-beats resume at 1:06. At 1:34 the rock instrumentals grind forwards again and at 2:07 there’s just grooving with subtle guitars solos. After about every thirty seconds the song shifts into another instrumental phase to close off in a grand finale starting at 4:28. “Why stand on a silent platform, fight the war, fuck the norm” says it all. Freedom is basically an extension of the previous song. The entire last song is a big outro with jams and lyrics. 3:43, the final starts with grinding Hard Rock, lingers on in “Freedom Yeah!” and everything ends with a growl and the noise of a PA-system.

I like this album a lot. I re-listened to this album after the Sound City documentary by Dave Grohl. RATM went to Sound City to record their album following in the footsteps of Nirvana and here I am typing about this album. I gave this album a 090/100, why? Zack De La Rocha’s vocals are fine for one listen but that limits the appeal of this album. The band is great. Tom Morello on guitar elevates everything to a higher level. Tim Bob’s bass lines are groovy and Brad Wilk’s drumming has the just right energy. Also this album did not become victim of the so-called loudness wars: turn up the volume as much as you like, the sound remains crisp and dynamic.

Content wise there is a lot to like about this album. You hear Funk, Rock, Metal and Hip-Hop in various parts of the album. Lyrically speaking Zack reminds me of an angry Sly Stone or Curtis Mayfield, although a tad repetitive and he screams a lot. Sure his rapping/spoken word is preachy but it’s very tolerable. Early interviews reveal that RATM was influenced by various genres and artists from Nirvana to Run DMC.

Best Tracks
Bombtrack
Killing In The Name Of
Take The Power Back
Township Rebellion
(I could mention every track given there’s no filler to be found i.m.h.o.)

Recommendation
I mentioned it in the first paragraph: “If the name doesn’t ring a bell for you just stop reading, get the album and listen to the lyrics. In these ‘political correct’ times this album still makes sense.” Even if you don’t particularly care for the lyrical content, highly recommended.

Sincerely,

Yours Truly.