Source Material: MF Doom, Operation: Doomsday

(Note: This was originally written as part of Rhapsody’s “Source Material” series, which explored the influences behind a classic album. The influences listed are titles that are available in the service.)

The dust has yet to settle on the indie-rap renaissance of the late 90s, with critics and fans fiercely divided on which albums constitute classics. One title they agree on is MF Doom’s 1999 masterwork Operation: Doomsday.

Daniel Dumile has not been photographed in public without his metal mask for over a decade. He launched his career as Zev Love X, one-third of the Long Island rap trio KMD, a group he shared with his brother, DJ and producer Subroc. In 1991 KMD issued its memorable debut, Mr. Hood, and were quickly lumped with the quirky post-D.A.I.S.Y. Age of groups like Leaders of the New School and Black Sheep. However, KMD’s second album, Black Bastards, was much harder-edged, reflecting the hip-hop world’s rising interest in gangster-ism. The album’s sardonic tone, and particularly its controversial art depicting a Sambo-like cartoon being hung from a noose, led to Elektra dropping KMD from its roster. Just before Black Bastards was shelved in 1993 1994, Subroc was killed in a hit-and-run accident. (Black Bastards finally got an official release in 2001.)

Dumile retreated from the spotlight for a few years before issuing several 12-inches on Fondle ‘Em Records as Metal Face Doom, starting with 1997’s “Dead Bent,” and then Doomsday in the fall of 1999. While most of the era’s major acts like Company Flow and Jurassic 5 approximated grimy boom bap, MF Doom culled from adult contemporary chestnuts such as Atlantic Starr’s “Always” and James Ingram’s “One Hundred Ways.” These quiet storm ballads, bits of which he looped then sped and slowed-down, contrasted with the fervent mic-trading of Doom and his crew (whom were later known as the Monsta Island Czars). Cumulatively, they create a tone of sadness and loss.

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Sisters With Voices: R&B Girl Groups in the 90s

Sisters With Voices. Total. Destiny’s Child. You didn’t need a lyric sheet to understand the legion of R&B girl groups who dominated urban pop music in the 1990s. It was plain to hear, from the coquettishly sexual lyrics to their sassy, irreverent tones and lovely multi-part harmonies. Sadly, music critics often gave them cursory attention while devoting their time to untangling rap music that often required a degree in regional slang to understand. And between the breakup of Destiny’s Child and the emergence (and quick dissolution) of Danity Kane, the R&B girl group phenomenon seems like it’s over. Perhaps there can only be one diva in today’s gladiatorial fame Matrix, leaving little room for sisterhood.

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Notes on Young Money

In Weezy-ology, there is good Lil Wayne and bad Lil Wayne. Good Lil Wayne is the dastardly New Orleans weed head, the sizzurp-drinking gangster that sires children with beautiful actresses, gets locked up on gun and drug charges and records hours and hours of songs; a fountain of countless punchlines so funny he personifies comedy, and the self-proclaimed “best rapper alive.” Bad Lil Wayne is the Auto-Tuned fool, the guy who straps on a guitar at shows even though he can barely play it, the “son” who used to kiss his “daddy” Birdman on the lips, the would-be artiste who sang too much on Tha Carter III, maker of the pillow-humping ode “Lollipop,” and the lovable ragamuffin whom teenage girls and middle-aged ladies from The View treat like a dreadlocked kewpie doll. We tend to treat these sides of Dwayne Carter as binary objects, deifying the former and cracking jokes about the latter. Still, they are one and the same man, and the Young Money clique is the summation of Lil Wayne’s true ambition. Continue reading

Bay Area Mobb Music

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Ever since Oakland rapper Too Short slanged cassette albums like Players out of his car trunk in the early 1980s, the San Francisco Bay Area rap scene has been a source of curiosity and fascination. Centered on the city of San Francisco, East Bay cities like Oakland, Berkeley and Vallejo, and Peninsula cities like East Palo Alto, it is truly unlike any other. While other underground scenes in the South and the East Coast focus on mixtapes, the “Yay Area” (somewhat-fancifully nicknamed for the hustlers who slang coke or “yay yo”) produces hundreds of full-length albums a year from well-known to obscure artists that employ cryptic yet imaginative local slang. Vallejo artist E-40, perhaps the best known Bay Area rapper next to Too Short and 2Pac (who moved to Los Angeles before his 1996 death), even put out a dictionary of “slanguage,” and his coinage of terms like “D-boy” and “Captain Save a Hoe” have been adopted into the hip-hop lexicon.

Bay Area rap dates back to the 1980s, but its most crucial development took place during the 1990s. This was the golden age of West Coast hip-hop when G-funk pioneers like L.A.’s Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Coolio enjoyed a near-monopoly on the rap music charts. In the Bay, producers like Ant Banks, Studio Ton, Mike Mosley, E-A-Ski and Tone Capone developed what became known as mobb music. It was a slight derivation of G-funk’s emphasis on “funky worm” keyboard melodies and Zapp-like trunk-rattling bass, yet the bass seemed deeper, and the funk arrangements were less dependent on P-Funk samples and interpolations. Since most Bay Area artists like JT The Bigga Figga (“Game Recognize Game”) and RBL Posse (“Don’t Give Me No Bammer”) recorded for independent labels like In-A-Minute, Sick Wid’ It and C-Note, they created a hardcore sound rawer than L.A.’s slick, major label-funded gangsta rap.

The mobb music era roughly breaks down into three overlapping periods: the N.W.A.-like sampling of the early 1990s and hits like Too Short’s “Money in the Ghetto,” an Ant Banks production that culled from Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging”; the sluggishly monolithic trunk bass of Luniz and Tone Capone’s “I Got Five On It”; and the bouncy, wholly original funk of 3 X Krazy’s “Keep It On The Real.” The latter development, which picked up in the late 90s, came from a wave of area artists briefly signing to major labels; and was a response to “jiggy era” hits like Diddy’s No Way Out and its resulting influx of mainstream rap fans. This set the stage for the Bay Area hyphy movement of the 2000s.

Much like the Los Angeles scene that was permanently damaged by the East Coast-West Coast rivalry between Dr. Dre’s Death Row label and Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, Bay Area rap isn’t as popular as it once was. But the players who emerged during the mobb music era continue to thrive as regional stars. In the Bay, independent hustle is a must, and it’ll continue to pump out dope music for the streets whether the pop market pays attention or not.

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Onra, ‘Long Distance’

Long DistanceThe key to Onra’s third album, Long Distance, is the heavy boogie rhythm of “My Comet.” Released as a 7-inch on All City Records two years ago, it sounded uncharacteristic of the French-Vietnamese producer’s sound at the time, which consisted of crusty post-Dilla donut loops. Now it anchors Long Distance, a tribute to hot early 80s soul and post-disco that stands as his best work to date.

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