If you’re a regular visitor to RapReviews, you’re familiar with our ‘Back to the Lab’ feature, where we allow ourselves a break from the industry’s tight release schedule to ponder hip-hop’s past achievements. But what makes us pick that one record over thousands of others? To tell the truth, I think usually we come across candidates by chance, realize that we may have something to say about them and that’s it. But if I had to establish some type of criteria for myself, I’d favor either records that enjoy a well established status as a classic release, or records that have not yet received the recognition and respect I believe they deserve. Another guideline would be that the record has to be either exceptional in some way or another, or be highly typical of a certain period or genre.
The object of today’s ‘Back to the Lab’ examination, King Tee’s “Tha Triflin’ Album”, meets two if not three of these requirements. It is rarely remembered, it stands out in a number of ways, and it could also be considered representative of its era. One of its historically more remarkable features is that it served as an introduction to Tha Alkaholiks. King Tee himself had cultivated the image of a heavy drinker for quite some time, but this mentoring project of his elevated one man’s passion for booze and beats to a full-fledged group concept. Soon joined by a third member, Tha Alkaholiks would go on to become one of the most visible West Coast acts outside the gangsta rap bracket. Meanwhile, the originator was once again left in the dust. Throughout his career, originality has been both a gift and a curse to King Tee. His name alone betrays the amount of years he’s been in the game. He debuted at a time when rap records were just that, without any additional labels to attach to them.
Fast forward to 1993, when the market was already heavily segregated into fractions such as east and west, gangsta and conscious, pop and hardcore, etc. As a hip-hop fan in 1993, it wasn’t that hard to guess what to expect from a crew named Tha Alkaholiks. They may have surprised us with a string of refreshingly unpretentious songs since, but at least until they became Tha Liks, they’ve always been held back by their gimmicky handle. Whereas their mentor, even though he can claim the title of hip-hop’s original Alkaholik, was always able to escape stereotyping and stigmatization. Basically, there’s but one way to promote a King Tee: as King Tee. This may have worked in 1988, when Capitol Records first took a chance with the Compton MC. But in 1993, carefully positioning hip-hop acts on an everchanging trend chart had become a label’s bread and butter. That’s why so many acts gravitated towards popular formats, emulating the likes of Cypress Hill and Das EFX.
To the major’s credit, Capitol did their best to let the man be himself and make him at the same time appeal to different demographics. “Tha Triflin’ Album” is one of the few rap albums that are truly bi-coastal. Unlike Ice Cube, who ventured east to seek the help of Long Island’s Bomb Squad for his solo debut, Tee stayed at home, confiding production to longtime partner DJ Pooh and other West Coast personel. With one notable exception. The guiding star on this musical journey eastwards was Marley Marl’s remix of the previous album’s title track, “At Your Own Risk”, which boosts the original track’s size with a groovy organ/guitar combo courtesy of Syl Johnson’s “Different Strokes”, hectic drum programming, a chanted chorus, and an intriguingly manipulated organ.
Its energetic, euphoric sound was both an update on King Tee’s traditional musical foundation as well as an accurate rendition of typically hype nine-trey beats. Without having to rely on overused samples, the funk still escaped in heavy doses once King Tee popped the trunk of the orange 1964 Chevrolet Impala he proudly presented on the album cover. “Drunk Tekneek”, an examplary opening track across the board, introduces the multi-layered production. With its booming beats, big basslines and kick-ass brass and sax samples you will have a hard time finding an album that embodies the 1993 now school more squarely than “Tha Triflin’ Album”. It was the last year that East Coast funk was pumping with all its might, and King Tee and DJ Pooh imported it successfully into LA, customizing it with a specific West Coast thump. For reference, check “Just Flauntin'” subtly sampling War’s “The World Is a Ghetto”.
Ultimately, “Tha Triflin’ Album” is just like any other rap album, a combination of outside influences and personal input. But it’s the seamless confluence of all its elements that makes it so remarkable. What may seem like riding two horses at the same time, is actually King Tee balancing his multiple interests. An OG in the streets as well as on the mic, he is able to address different topics, sometimes simultaneously. His rhymes are a slick mixture of old school swagger, gunplay, pleas for unity, self-mocking humour, cautionary street tales, metaphors and parodies, basic battling, and so forth. You could run down a checklist and “Tha Triflin’ Album” would probably feature all the ingredients a rap album required in 1993. For instance three posse cuts, among which “We Got tha Fat Joint” (f. Nefrettiti and Mad Kap) is at the same time a tribute to the weed song trend, where in addition “pop rap” gets executed drive-by style, an antipathy that carries into the very last track: “Tee came to separate boys from the men / if I see another dance step I’m shootin’ for the shin.”
Occasionally, King Tee’s mix of messages sends out a mixed message. In the early ’90s, St. Ides produced several jingles featuring popular rap acts. This one was the only rap album to ever contain such a commercial. Really it’s Ice Cube who acts as the main spokesperson at “King Tee’s Beer Stand”, nevertheless it’s a move that seems highly hypocritical when only a few minutes earlier Tee claimed to be “on a higher level” and to “dust the chumps who sold they soul to the devil,” and even referred to the rotgut as ‘Geno-St.-Ides’ (as in: ‘genocide’) earlier on. You can’t help but being reminded of Chuck D, who took St. Ides’s parent company McKenzie River to court in 1991 over the unauthorized use of his voice in another DJ Pooh-produced commercial, when he would never promote a product as problematic as malt liquor. Whatever your take is, there’s definitely more educational value in “On tha Rox”, a demented fable where Tee uses his extended knowledge of alcoholic beverages to relate the rise and fall of a certain Johnny Walker, who makes his way to the top of the LA underworld only to end up “at the beach on the rocks.” Passionate drinkers will have a blast catching all the references in this interlude, from Johnny’s “Tangle with Ray” to his rivals’ families getting threatened with matches. That’s the kind of inebriated genius that King Tee is capable of.
But the line between alcohol-induced inspiration and confusion and contradiction is a blurry one. There’s no other way to explain how Tee can ridicule Candyman’s hit “Knockin’ Boots” and in turn offer up something as tired as “Blow My Sox Off”. Similarly, “Where’sa Hoe Sat” is a dependable copy of a “Death Certificate” skit. But all is forgiven once “A Hoe B-4 tha Homie” kicks in. If you ever wondered how come DJ Pooh went on to pen comedies like “Friday”, “3 Strikes” and “The Wash”, this is the song to check out. The fellas are planning a night on the town, and when Pooh reveals that he’s engaged, he gets dissed. Tee begins with: “How you gon’ go and put a hoe before me / when I’m the one that helped yo broke ass on the streets? / ‘Damn, I’m starvin’, what you got to eat? / I’m short, I need a place to sleep’ / Oh but amnesia, that damn skeezer / made you forget who was down witcha,” Deadly Threat adds, “She’s a false tenderoni, plus tossed baloney / and she ain’t your home, she’s a hoe / don’t put a hoe before the homie,” before Ice Cube sums up his feelings with the 1-2 punch “I told my muthafuckin’ crew / to kidnap the hoe and they came back with you”. To this Pooh counters with an over-the-top Barry White-style romantic interlude, only to be rudely interrupted by a final collective “Don’t put a hoe before the homie.”
“Tha Triflin’ Album” may have been his most gangstafied longplayer, but obviously King Tee’s most crucial feature was in full effect – his humour. Despite his regal title, King Tee has always been a joker, who considers it his job to both mock and entertain his audience. With “Tha Triflin’ Album”, which is also his most inebriated oeuvre, he perfected his trademark humorous, half-serious tone, to which the occasional sober moment is absolutely essential. “Triflin’ Nigga” is one such moment. It begins like this: “I gotta leave this crazy place but my feet won’t budge / and niggas always askin’ am I a Crip or a Blood / I am what I am and that’s all I can stand.” He considers selling drugs to escape what Ice-T once referred to as ‘the killing fields’ and reminisces on his car jacking past, but he’s well aware of the consequences: “Nowadays I have to figure / what goes around comes around for the triflin’ nigga.” Considering the standard procedure of gangsta rap, this was an unusually subtle method. Although he never assumed the position of a gangbanger or a drugdealer himself, they’re still part of King Tee’s equation. With short remarks like “it’s the gang truce, so I put away the clips,” he sides with them, but at the same time tries to show them a better way:
“Back on the block I got juice with the gees
I was writin’ rhymes while they cooked up ki’s
Yeah, I got homies that be throwin’ up B’s
and I got family that be throwin’ up C’s
But to the OG’s it’s all about paper
Let’s sling these birds and gangbang later”
But “Tha Triflin’ Album” is not a peace-keeping mission. The title of “Black Togetha Again” may remind you of his earlier anti-gang violence track “Time to Get Out”, but the lyrics aim in a different direction. Still upset by the outcome of the Rodney King trial, Tee fantasizes about paying pigs back:
“It might be at a stoplight or maybe at the station
either way it go I’m still makin’ bacon
Stuff him with a apple in his mouth, make sure he’s gaffled
tie his ass up and bring him back to my castle
throw him in the dungeon, leave his badge and his gun
in the car, turn it upside down, burn it up”
Alerted by the L.A. rebellion and the “Cop Killer” controversy, Capitol censored several delicate words on this otherwise unedited album, mostly pertaining to violence towards police officers… But these measures didn’t prevent King Tee from getting his message across: “Cops ain’t nothin’ but the Klan undercover / and they be lynchin’ muthafuckas up nightly.”
For Los Angeles hip-hop, “Tha Triflin’ Album” can be considered the missing link between “A Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde” and “The Predator”. It is part “Inner City Griots”, part “Niggaz 4 Life”, but still very much presents the world according to King Tee, which in any case provides a unique perspective. Agreed, clinging on to a royal title wasn’t that hip in 1993, and some of his routines do sound dated. But in the end you have to give King Tee credit for cultivating his veteran status and surrounding himself with that mystique that suits any MC: “My style is the quiet cool gangster type / but when the 40 hits it gets hype / Niggas can’t understand and trip / when I be rockin’ that old school shit.”
Released in the middle of a major old school revival, “Tha Triflin’ Album” should have been King Tee’s breakthrough. His introduction of Tha Alkaholiks was part of a renaissance of the art of rhyming that was taking place from coast to coast. “Got it Bad Y’all” was a wake-up call to all MC’s to get their shit straight, driven by a chorus that summed up the King Tee/Alkaholiks philosophy:
“(Yo, where you’re goin’ to?) To the tip
(And what you’re ’bout to do?) ‘Bout to rip
Some people use the word funky too loosely
and just how many rappers said they kick it like Bruce Lee?
(What’s your favourite brew?) Olde E
(And what it make you do?) Go pee
It used to be about rhymes, all about rhymes
Now rap is rearrangin’ and changin’ like times
I got it bad y’all, I got it bad y’all
when it comes to the pen and the pad y’all”
Co-produced by Pooh and the Liks, “Got it Bad Y’all” is a rambunctious, infectious beat made up of drums culled from a trusted Lou Donaldson record, with added drum programming, siren-like horns and other seemingly minor bits and pieces that are absolutely mandatory for a funky record. And just as the beat was an update on a tried and true formula, so were the rhymes. Check out E-Swift, at the time still King Tee’s DJ:
“Hangin’ at the park shootin’ craps on the weekend
My brown bag is wet cause my tall can is leakin’
I’m starin’ at the cops beatin’ up a Rodney
while a pack of OG’s is steppin’ to me tryin’ to rob me
Just because I’m dope niggas wanna smoke me
On the mic I gets funky while you’re doin’ the Hokey Pokey
Dance steps, I think that you should leave to Paula
Alkaholiks is the shit, E-Swift the smooth baller
is slingin’ these rhymes like a rock
Life ain’t shit but money and a Glock
Don’t punch a clock but I clock a fat knot
so I can smoke a lotta pot that I roll up with tops
And you ain’t heard shit yet, I’m just gettin’ warm
like hot butter on say what, the popcorn
I’m headed to the top, please give me my props
My beats are fat as fuck, so bump my shit in your box
I love to hit the skins, but then again who doesn’t?
I love to hit the herbs cause they leave me feelin’ buzzin’
I dedicate this chumpie to the poets who can wreck
and to all the natty dreads I gots to give ’em nuff respect”
The three come back for an equally slammin’ encore on “Bus Dat Ass”, before “Tha Great” marks the end of “Tha Triflin’ Album”. The dictionary equals ‘trifling’ to ‘of slight worth or importance’, ‘trivial’, ‘frivolous’ and ‘idle’. It’s an ironic title for sure, but also one that unfortunately rang true, considering the dust this album has undeservedly collected since. Do yourself a favor and blow that dust off and discover the drunken master of hip-hop perfecting his inimitable style:
“Lord have mercy when I pick up my pen
then I ask the Lord to forgive me for my sins
Can’t take the plug of a .38 slug
can’t take the drug from the teenage thug
So I’ma break loose and do a flip-flop top
and land on my feet and show a drunk tekneek”