I’m not even going to lie-I am biased towards Brooklyn emcees. Rakim is my favorite of all time, and he’s from Long Island. But my next two are unquestionably Notorious B.I.G. and Big Daddy Kane. Not only are they two talented wordsmiths and gifted storytellers who know their way around a punchline, but there’s a swagger that can be hard to define. Yaasin Bey Mos Def has it. Talib Kweli has it too. Of course, Jigga has it. This completely unflappable character, even at the most emotionally intense moments of battle.
“Ain’t No Half Steppin’” was the song that introduced Kane to the masses. New York heads were already open based on “The Symphony” and “Raw” (both of which-to the surprise of no one-will show up if I make it towards the end of this list.) But “Steppin’” broke Kane nationwide and propelled his 1988 debut, Long Live The Kane, to Gold status (which was a needle in a hip-hop haystack back then.) The song (produced by the one and only Marley Marl) brought the Emotions “Blind Alley” beat into the hip-hop lexicon, before everyone from LL to Mariah used it. Kane’s wordplay was so slick, man. I hate to be that guy who shits on today’s rappers, but you can’t top verses like:
Brain cells are lit, ideas start to hit
Next the formation of words that fit
At the table I sit, making it legit
And when my pen hits the paper, awww shit!
Give me a call when Migos drops a verse like that.
NOT QUITE FIVE STARS…
“Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number” by Aaliyah (1994): Great mid tempo bounce with a snatch of Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love”. Written by R. Kelly for his very-underage girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife. Creepy enough to be docked half a star, at least. I mean, not Aaliyah’s fault. But…
“The Age Of Worry” by John Mayer (2012): One reason I ride with JM is because his lyrics often relate directly to my life. I’m a worrier (to put it mildly). “The Age Of Worry” is about the understanding that “feelings aren’t facts” (as I’ve been told by numerous mental health professionals in my life) and giving the finger to that gremlin on your shoulder, keeping you from making a decision. This song is one of the high points from JM’s excellent Born & Raised album, A.K.A. the I’ve Been Humbled & Almost Lost My Voice Now Please Forgive Me For The Stupid Shit I Said About Having A David Duke Cock.
“Aht Uh Mi Hed” by Shuggie Otis (1974): In the Tumblr iteration of 5 Star Jamz, I gave each of these six songs five stars. I’m walking a few things back and shortening their stories in most cases. I can’t do that with the Shuggie story, though…
Mini-story #1: One of my first roommates was this guy Hassain. He came from South Central Los Angeles, played cello, and worked in the classical department at the same Tower Records I was employed at. He was my introduction to flamboyant queerness, he was my introduction to nudism, he was my introduction to the term “heteroflexible”, and he was my introduction to the Otis family. I’d never heard of Johnny Otis before, and eventually learned that he was a very influential bandleader and a legend in certain soul circles. Hassain’s family had some level of closeness with the Otis family, which I believed to be hyperbole at the time. He mentioned to me around the same time that Teena Marie was queer, which was confirmed by Rick James years later in his posthumously released autobiography. So, let’s just say I doubt Hassain’s story a lot less now.
Mini-story #2: I read about Johnny Otis’s wunderkind Shuggie in the rock press quite a bit in the early ‘00s. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Shuggie was actually a candidate to join the Rolling Stones back in the early ‘70s-when he was still a teenager. He released a couple of albums that were highly regarded critically but went nowhere commercially. When his album Inspiration Information was re-released by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label in the early ‘00s, Shuggie was still a Sasquatch-like figure. Barely anyone had heard hide nor hair from him in decades. I, like any self-respecting music nerd, picked up a copy at the Virgin Megastore and grooved on it quite a bit. It was dense, soulful, and spacey. Kinda like D’Angelo’s Voodoo album a quarter century earlier. And with actual melodies instead of endless noodling.
Mini-story #3: Shuggie eventually resurfaced. The rights for the Inspiration Information LP eventually landed in the hands of Sony’s Legacy imprint, where it was paired with Wings Of Love, an album of songs Shuggie’d recorded over the course of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, but never released. Shuggie went on tour to promote it, and his travels led him to Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston, the city I was living in at the time. Who the hell was gonna pass up a chance to see Shuggie Otis? I snagged a pair of tickets from the Legacy publicist, invited my best friend Thom, and paired up with some of his Newbury Comics colleagues, who thankfully were seated at the same table as me and Thom. Shuggie strolled out, looking dapper as shit. He was rocking the hat with the feather in it, and his suit was clean. He was serving El DeBarge realness. That wasn’t the only thing Shuggie most likely had in common with El. Something was…off. Words were slurred, Shuggie left the stage at least once…the whole scene was weird. The show wasn’t bad, but it was definitely more interesting from a “yo, what the fuck is wrong with this dude” perspective than a “wow, this is great music” perspective. I remember emailing the publicist the next day, writing something to the effect of “I think Shuggie was high.” Her response was horrified: “Oh no! I’m pretty sure he’s clean!” Either she was referring to the dope-ass suit Shuggie was wearing, or Shuggie was going through some serious withdrawal or placebo symptoms. Whatever. The show was memorable. And I didn’t pay for the tickets.
I smoke enough weed to be considered a casual user, as opposed to being a pothead. I’m the marijuana equivalent of a “social drinker”, I suppose. God knows I have enough mind-altering substances in my body as is. “Aht Uh Mi Head” is one of those songs that sounds like a good pot high. Sly Stone-reminiscent drum machine, low-frequency siren-like guitar…it’s clean. Like Shuggie’s suit. But probably not like his piss test following that show.
“Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” by TLC (1992): “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” was the audio equivalent of having a ball of water paints exploding in your stereo. Samples galore, the uninhibited glee brought forth by T-Boz, Chilli and Left Eye. It’s just a fun song (and was pretty randy for pop radio in ’92, especially the line about “6 inches or a yard/rock hard or if it’s saggin'”…that got bleeped out a lot.
“Ain’t Even Done With The Night” by John (Cougar) Mellencamp (1981): Cougar’s love for Black music is well known. He’s collaborated with India.arie, Meshell NdegeOcello, Raphael Saadiq, Chuck D, Junior Vasquez, and he sung the praises of Prince. “Ain’t Even Done With The Night” is a smoky number that skirts yacht rock as well as soul (Cougar shouts Sam Cooke out in the lyrics). This AMAs performance is pretty awesome, although I guess folks would be screamin’ bout cultural appropriation these days. Sigh.
“Ain’t No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None)” by Snoop Doggy Dogg, The Dogg Pound, Nate Dogg and Warren G (1993): Was a point in time when I considered it the ultimate in cool to have a bunch of rappers singing and rapping about gang bangs over a beat that sounded like a Shalamar outtake. These days, I cringe enough at the lyrics to not be comfortable giving it a five star rating.