It took Atlanta’s T.I., name-checking him on Slim Thug’s “3 Kings,” to remind me of Houston’s E.S.G. Curious what else E.S.G. had done apart from the one album I had I searched the net, discovering that I was dealing with an essential figure of a Houston scene whose popularity continues to rise. I leave it to more competent sources to track E.S.G.’s recent career and head back straight to square one, sticking to the clues that his debut album “Ocean of Funk” provides. Since I copped this CD accidentally when I was looking to obtain material by the heavily sampled ’80s Bronx band of the same name, I can’t even tell if I own a re-issue or not. There’s no year of release on it. Internet info indicates the album was first released either in 1993 or 1995, but my educated guess would be 1994. E.S.G. himself mentions ’93 and ’94 often enough to make anyone realize at least when whole thing was recorded. Why is this important? Because “Ocean of Funk” features what I believe to be the first screwed song to appear on an official album release.
Screwed by DJ Screw himself, “Swangin and Bangin Screwed” isn’t relegated to bonus track status either, it’s the very first song after the intro. The prominent placement can be attributed to the popularity of the original “Swangin and Bangin,” which people were already familiar with, so it makes sense to lure them in with an update of something they already know. Still the fact that the screwed song is advertised on the front cover and appears so early on is an indication of how popular Screw’s method already was in the early- to mid-’90s. It wasn’t until 2001 that “Ocean of Funk” was screwed in its entirety, but “Swangin and Bangin” remains an early example of Houston’s fascination with all things screwed. Upon closer inspection, the song lends itself well to being enjoyed in slow motion. E.S.G.’s voice, similar to Pimp C’s but more milky, becomes heavier. The bass expands. The keys sound even more hypnotic. Furthermore, the original already contains a slowed down sample (Chuck D’s “Gotta do what I gotta do” line) as well as a reference to DJ Screw (“I fucked her last night, fried out, jammin’ my Screw tape”). Finally, “Swangin and Bangin” caters to its clientele lyrically, the final chapter consisting of shout-outs to whoever is “SWANGIN AND BANGIN,” the middle section being about women and the first verse about “tippin’ on fo’ fo’s, wrapped in fo’ vogues” (as Mike Jones would put it a decade later):
“19-fuckin’-93, so niggas give it to me
And this is for you buster-ass niggas who wanna do me
I never had love for these naythin’-ass hoes
Chrome-mirror 84s, bro, and some low-pro ‘bows
Tight white rubber, headlight, sheisty niggas pause
Damn, there go the laws, got me stuffin’ my dope up under my draws
Tryin’ to buck a nigga cause I’m caught up in the click
I ain’t with it, they checkin’ me down cause I don’t pay my tickets
But uh, you niggas know I got my hand on my Glock
And my left is on the steering wheel, so watch me buck a cop
Fo’ deep in a ‘Lac, yeah, comin’ down tight
Swiggedy-swangin’, biggedy-bangin’ like I’m turnin’ left, I’m biggedy-bustin’ a right
And now you know in and out, out and in I dip
Damn, them niggas in the South are a trip
And them niggas steady mobbin’, the shit’s for real
With that fifth-wheel grip, momo woodgrain steering wheel
Fuckin’ around with four-way, so to hell with a three-way
Candy paint so damn wet I’m leavin’ drips on the freeway”
Despite being clearly influenced by UGK and relying on the n or the b word in damn near every other sentence, “Swangin and Bangin” (screwed or not) has the makings of a classic, a snapshot of a lifestyle a good portion of Southern rap represents with growing success. What more could a rapper wish for than that one of his songs comes to embody a lifestyle? Drivers probably swanged (according to HoustonPress.com “a gentle S movement in time to the music”) and banged (“a more violent back and forth swerve with the steering wheel that shakes the car, and its passengers, at hard angles”) before “Swangin and Bangin,” but in 1993, E.S.G. gave them an anthem in the tradition of WAR’s “Low Rider.”
On a national level, Southern rap in the first half of the ’90s was all about Rap-A-Lot and bass music. But in the early ’90s several underground movements began to build up that went on to rise to national prominence, represented by labels like Suave House and No Limit, by offshoots like bounce and screw, and acts like OutKast, 8Ball & MJG, 3-6 Mafia and UGK. A specific Southern identity didn’t seem to exist in rap, just a lot of local characteristics. E.S.G. himself was so damn local that he never even mentions Houston on “Ocean of Funk,” as if it’s obvious that he’s from H-Town, the way he’s “swangin’ and bangin’ on elbows and vogues / sippin’ sirup, rollin’ tight, two glocks, two hoes” (“Two Glocks Two Hoes”). But at age 19 he made a song entitled “The South,” rapping uptempo over a West Coast beat yet still revealing “nothin’ but the South in me”:
“Watch your back cause here I come
It ain’t nothin’ but that bomb
From the nigga straight from that muthafuckin’ South
with the fry in my hand and my dick in your mouth
Droppin’ them bombs, them bombs all muthafuckin’ day
We got elbows, there’s no Daytons, this ain’t L.A.”
Don’t think that it wasn’t necessary for E.S.G. to make sure he wasn’t mistaken for a West Coast rapper. Because “Ocean of Funk” packs enough vernacular and signifiers to fill up an LA album with no problem: khakis and Chuck T’s, whorides and drive-by’s, OG’s and BG’s, DJ Quik quotes and “Aqua Boogie” samples. Even when he tells us who he’s bumping, the only references outside of the Bay and LA are MC Breed and Scarface. What prevents his argument “Ain’t a gangsta from Compton but I be sportin’ Dickeys” from becoming representative of “Ocean of Funk” as a whole, is the local flavor that E.S.G. injects. Things that were (or would soon become) typically Southern. (Feel free to mentally add a “Whatever that means” as I go on.) The Pen & Pixel Graphics artwork that shows him riding a Lincoln on top of a cresting wave. The 84 elbows/swangas, the specifically Southern sirup-sipping, the fry, the Swisher Sweets, the “Pocket Full of Stones” references, being and staying trill.
At the time of its release, “Ocean of Funk” would have likely been lumped with the countless regional releases emulating Dr. Dre’s g funk. Even E.S.G. himself invites you to “sink into the ocean of this g funk” on the title track. But musically there’s not much evidence that producer Sean ‘Solo’ Jemison purposely goes for a “Chronic” sound. “Two Glocks Two Hoes” for instance is clearly influenced by the Bay. “Flipping” pairs an Al Green sample with a vintage Marley Marl drum pattern. “My Real Niggaz” combines a DJ Quik instrumental with an early Eric B. & Rakim drumbeat. “Anticipation” pads a Bar-Kays loop with 808 boom. Keyboards play their part, but often as an accessory. If there’s one adjective that would completely sum up “Ocean of Funk” musically, it’s smooth. E.S.G. and his producer don’t discriminate, whether it’s a cheesy ’80s Jacksons sample or a pretty funky flute, as long as it fits the bill, they’ll use it. Why then, amidst the Commodores and Isley Brothers samples and background singers, does E.S.G. feel the need to tell us that “any time […] a song stars me / you bitches best believe it ain’t no muthafuckin’ R&B”? Lord knows.
It’s probably the same flawed logic that leaves him undecided whether he wants to present himself as a drug dealer or not. “If it Ain’t One Thang it’s Another” would be a strong statement against discrimination and corruption, but sees E.S.G. using drug dealing-references too loosely to safely get the main message across: “I won’t even go out like a crack-slingin’ sucker / cause in nine-trey, if it ain’t one thing it’s another.” A few songs later he turns into “that Ruger-nine-ripper, the sirup-type sipper / the South Park dipper and a quarter-key-flipper” (“Flipping”), “slingin’ crack, smokin’ chronic all day” (“Birdies That Don’t Chirp”). I don’t mind the numerous intoxicants E.S.G. consumes on this album, or that he promotes his music as “potent like a Indo dipped in Cisco with a touch of bleach and PCP.” But I’m picky when it comes to contradictory behavior. That’s why “Crooked Streets” is clearly one of the better efforts, because there’s a beginning and an end. Act 1, scene 1, enter E.S.G.:
“Fresh up out the county on vacation
back up on the streets with deferred judification
A menace to society, a threat to the system
Just because their asses are white don’t mean you have to kiss ’em
Crooked cops and crack rocks, they always here to run my block
So now I’m thinkin’ of different ways that I can make a knot
without windin’ up doin’ five to ten
cause ain’t no love for us muthafuckin’ thugs in the pen”
But soon the “Crooked Streets” begin to corrupt the ex-con, because “times are gettin’ harder in the South without no doubt / Don’t wanna try the dope game cause ain’t too many ways out / But what the hell, a dollar is a dollar / plus my little brother wants a 64 Impala.” Then we meet said little brother (played by an undcredited guest rapper), who tells us of his dead older brother. That’s what I call solid songwriting.
Even if it lacks the finesse of albums by more experienced peers, “Ocean of Funk” offers some valuable insight into these “Crooked Streets” (specifically Crestmont Park on the south side of Houston) and how people find ways to deal with them (humor being one of them.) This album leaves little doubt that stimulants and illegal substances play a big part in the process. They motivate the rapper in all kinds of ways (“This dank and drank here got me thinkin’ ’bout a quick lick”), they dominate his desires (“Anxious for a dime bag, fiendin’ for a fifth, a piece of pussy and some zig-zags”). They even inspire him lyrically (“And for those hoes who don’t get high too often / dive into the dank like a dopefiend dolphin / and just slip straight through the window seal / It’s a one-way trip on to Indoville”). They offer an escape, but even when “blowed,” E.S.G. is reminded of friends behind bars or six feet under:
“Damn, now why did my niggas have to die?
To ease the pain I don’t cry, I fire up that potent fry
and reminisce my life, I mean the whole 20 years
cause over the days crime has paid for many of my peers
Some died from car wrecks and Tecs to the necks
I know my momma anticipates, now will her son be next?”
Thankfully, Cedric Hill has so far survived and continues to record rap albums, even though he was in prison when DJ Screw helped launch the careers of countless rappers before his untimely death in 2000. In 1995, E.S.G. expanded his fanbase with the Priority-distributed Perrion release “Sailin’ da South,” which included an updated, radio-friendly version of “Swangin and Bangin.” But the real thing can be found here, on “Ocean of Funk,” the debut of a rapper not just visibly eager to prove something but also eager to promote a lifestyle which these days is being pimped to a worldwide audience.