I’ve always been a sucker for underdog recordings. An underdog recording could be a record less championed by a major label in lieu of a record deemed to have more “in the black” financial potential. It could also be a release by some upstart stationed away in his or her basement, writing, producing, pressing and distributing their records themselves in hopes that they too can earn a spot in the crowded musical marketplace with the oft-times meager tools that they have available.
Part of my attraction to the underdog has a lot to do with the fact that for many years, I was one of those individuals trolling carwashes with my home-burned CDRs trying to convince some guy waxing his candy painted Honda to take a chance and part with a few bucks. I knew that my records didn’t have the advantage of heavy radio rotation or the added value provided by a high budget music video, but I felt that the power of the grind (and, perhaps, the quality of the music on the disc) would be enough to convince a dude that three to five bucks wasn’t a bad investment in some fresh ear candy. A real music fan doesn’t need commercial scale marketing power to know if a record is any good or not.
However, there is another reason as well. This reason stems from the fact that I became a hip-hop fan upon the receipt of a copy of Public Enemy’s first album “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” and the discovery that the sample used for the record “Public Enemy No. 1” was none other than a break I would discover while trolling through my pop’s vinyl collection. The break was from “Blow Your Head” by Fred Wesley & The JB’s. Far from being disappointed (as many people tend to be when they discover sample source material and the musicality blows away the repetitiveness of the looped portion), I was energized by the discovery. It opened up a world to me that I never knew existed.
I was one of those people whom Daddy-O was referencing when he said that “Rap brings back old R&B/ and if we would not, people would have forgot”. It was a world that I never knew of, but from now on, it would send me on a wild goose chase through the aisles of thrift shops and record stores looking for that secret record that could make my day or, even, change my life.
Because of this, I’ve been known to take chances on a record under just about any circumstance. This is as long as I have the free cash available to give away in my quest for my next voyage to audio nirvana. This means that people hustling off their CDs on the street have a customer in me without the hard sell. I genuinely want to see what they are working with and I’m willing to pay the usually short dollar to see what they’ve been cooking up in their basement. More often than not, I’ve been disappointed to find that what I’ve purchased is merely a low-grade version of the music I avoid by not tuning into my local radio stations.
There’s another element I would like to introduce. I’m from Alabama. I was born and raised in the state of Alabama AND I was a resident of the state during what would be considered the formative years of what later developed into today’s billion dollar hip-hop industry. I would end up in New York State during the early ’90s to take my chance at fulfilling my dream of being the next Marley Marl. Many people in New York were surprised by how vast my knowledge of hip-hop was, considering my origin state.
I tried to explain to them that, despite the fact I was from a small southern town, we were by no means separated from the vehicles of delivery that would keep a person miles from New York’s vibrant hip-hop scene aware of what was happening within. On Friday nights, we had the television show “Pump It Up” hosted by Dee Barnes. During the weekdays, we had “Rap City” on BET and “Yo! MTV Raps” on MTV. On the radio, we had “Rap It Up” from 6:00 pm to 8:00 on Saturday nights. From 11:00 pm to 3:00 am on Saturday night, we had “Kiss Rocks the Spot” hosted by Easy Eric and Melski, Deejays as competent as DJ Red Alert in New York. I say all of this to say that there was no shortage of resources for the enquiring hip-hop fan in East Alabama and just about anyone of us you meet in a certain age bracket is as aware of any record, be it popular or obscure, as our colleagues birthed and raised a thousand miles away.
Because of my having to almost apologize for my Southern roots while I lived in New York, I was always seeking a Southern hip-hop artist (particularly an Alabamian) to prove that our scene was as dynamic as anything taking place within the confines of the five boroughs. There was more to the South than booty music and the Geto Boys.
Unfortunately, I would never run across any Alabamian on a commercial level lyrically equipped to change the minds of the arrogant New Yorkers I produced records for. Today, there’s a different mindset in NY, but back in the mid ’90s, there was still a strong sense of pride and entitlement that came with being a NY emcee. Though I would be vindicated, to a point, with the release of OutKast’s first album, I still never got what I really wanted: An Alabama emcee who could compete lyric by lyric on a national level with the best emcees in the business.
So Nervous, what does all that bullshit blathering mean, you ask? Well, first of all, I like discovering unknown music and, two, I keep hoping one of those treasures will emerge from my home state and validate my claims that Alabama got that heat. (No disrespect to Montgomery’s own Dirty, whom I really like, and Rich Boy. I’m talking about top ten hip-hop legend material.)
With this we stumble into my review of an album I picked up from an engineer who helped to mix it. Centa Street Records seems to have been a project initiated by the Alabama rapper Attitudeback in the late ’90s to give him a forum to present his artistry due to a lack of outlets available to him in the Dixie State. He seems to have moved far beyond his humble origins considering he’s listed as the writer for 2006’s smash single “Promiscuous Girl” featuring Timbaland and Nelly Furtado and he was briefly signed to Timbaland’s failed Beat Club Records imprint. It folded before he had a chance to release his album. I’m happy to see one of my Alabama brethren was able to move on to large scale things, but I was interested to see what his more humble beginnings sound like and would they give any insight into what Tim Mosley saw in young Tim Clayton that enabled his choice to keep him on the team after all these years.
The album opens up with a spoken word intro by Franchise that seeks to give a bit of insight into who the Centa St. All-Stars are. As hypocritical as it sounds since I’ve constructed my fair share of them, but most hip-hop intros are useless vanity pieces which do little to perform the task they were designed for: establishing an anchor tone for the entire album. It’s something that most listeners will sit through once upon first album listen, but will most likely fast forward every opportunity they can during future spins. The producers for this album seem to recognize and respect the true intro mission and make a brief, meaningful intro that introduces the crew while not taking too much time with ego-fueled rants that’ll bore listeners before it ends.
The first song, “Heart of Dixie,” introduces the group Al.Po. (short for Alabama Power). It comes in with the sound of a motor vehicle and passengers seemingly confused by their geographic surroundings. Apparently they were aiming for the city of Atlanta, but find themselves lost amongst the wooded areas of rural Alabama State. They seem little pleased with their situation. The track is indicative of the bulk of production work that will appear on the record in that it doesn’t resemble much of what most would consider your standard bass-and-synth driven Southern production. The lyrics that emerge also make it clear that the Centa St. All-Stars aggregated style owes a large debt to the heyday of the Dungeon Family.
The producers for the entire record seem to have emerged from the Organized Noize school of Southern hip-hop, favoring odd blues and jazz samples, obscure keys coupled with heavy 808 drums for their artists to rhyme over. Though the production seeks to be creative and I give them points for aiming to create something more than another simplistic track catering to girls on a pole, the tracks lack the driving knock that will keep listeners interested in the music beyond the novelty of using an upright bass with hyper speed hi-hats and heavy quad.
Despite the fact that you will wish that the emcees would have paid as much attention to details such as articulation and breath control as they did to their writing, additional listens do gain your respect because of the chances that they are willing to take by refusing to dumb down their lyrics and production for the casual listener. Because of their eagerness to aim for the stars, there are several moments on the album that will hang in your head moments after the disc has reached its last tune. Most of those moments will involve Attitude, who proves himself to be the alpha emcee of the collective and a worthy candidate for mega stardom.
Attitude’s voice and flow strongly resembles Big Boi of OutKast. I mean that in the best possible way because every time he comes on the record, there is a feeling that he’s elevating the entire song with his presence. I don’t know why I’ve never heard of him before this and I will be making an effort to check out the remainder of his catalog, first chance I have. His solo cut “Four Season” is speed rap workout that is as fluid and precision as any record by Twista. His pleasant yet ultra clear vocal tone, coupled with quality writing over a symphonic sample laid over a slightly bouncy 808 rhythm combines to create a mini-masterpiece that would only be improved if it had the benefit of being recorded and mastered in a high-end studio. The other tracks in which he appears like “Keep It Movin”, “Good Shit” and “Milleni” all greatly benefit when he emerges over the track.
He’s not the only one on the album who does himself proud. Jeff Lacey comes close to matching Attitude in overall emcee skills and exemplifies himself on the album’s second best cut “Slum Life” while extolling about the negatives of a life of destitution, poverty and immorality without becoming too preachy. It appears to be a very personal record for the artist.
“Okay, O.K.” is a bizarre track because of the soft-to-loud dynamic utilized by Al.Po. , while rhyming over the simple synth track. They most certainly have a sense of humor as evidenced by one of the rappers exclaiming that “my wee-wee, I can’t hold it alone / help me hold it with your mouf!”, while going from a soft whiny whisper to a scream in the course of completing the sentence. Every rapper on this record performs his eight bars in the same manner. In a way, it will remind the rap listener of Busta Rhymes performance on the cut “Touch It” which follows a similar template, but makes an immediate progression from soft-to-loud versus the gradual ascension Al.Po. uses for their record.
My favorite recording on the album would be the all-too-short “Grenchie” by the group Krown Royal. Though the song is a paean to sweet Mary Jane, a subject breached and abused a billion times before, I’m still enamored by Krown Royal’s take on the pastime of chiefing away an afternoon amidst a cloud of cannabis smoke. The soul sample chosen by the producer Kaos is one of the few occasions on the record where risky sample selection is rewarded with a hot record in the end.
In the end, I did not find a life-changing record. Much of the subjects to be found on “Slum America” were retreads of what we’ve all heard a million times before: booty, drugs, drank and drama. But, I give credit where credit is due in that they made a serious effort to present their brand of nihilism in a balanced and creative manner. I felt, after listening, that given some time, a bigger budget and a bit of polish, the Centa St. All-Stars would have been a potent creative force to be reckoned with. All the raw ingredients were available. Yet, I find nothing about them in my research and I’m sure that many of them (aside from Attitude) have taken either of three routes:
1. They became disgusted with their lack of progress and dropped out of the hip-hop completely.
2. They became disgusted with their lack of progress and took what I like to call the “EAI Factor”. EAI stands for “Everything After Illmatic”. It’s when a artist takes a sharp turn away from the less- popular style that distinguished them in the beginning of their career of lieu of copping whatever style is available that appears to hold the most mass influence at the time.
3. They’re still making music, but have chosen to disengage from their previous identities so as to make a fresh start.
I’m actually hoping for option three on all counts because, though it was raw and unrealized on “Slum America”, there was a potential there and I hope that they’re still pursuing it.