Even among a generation of underrated New York rappers and producers from the ’90s, Godfather Don is still incredibly slept-on. The Brooklyn native debuted in 1991 with the excellent “Hazardous” on Select, which led to his becoming a sought-after producer, earning credits on albums by Ultramagnetic MCs, Screwball, Cormega, Mobb Deep, and Scaramanga among others. He formed the Groove Merchantz production duo with V.I.C. and the Cenobites with Kool Keith, whose sole album as a duo came in 1994 on Bobbito Garcia’s Fondle ‘Em Records, and his second solo, the extremely dope “Diabolique,” followed in 1998 on Hydra Records. Despite staying busy as a producer, Don kept fairly quiet in the new millennium, although he was rumored to have recorded hundreds of unreleased tracks in his time out of the spotlight. In 2007, No Sleep Recordings released “The Nineties Sessions,” a collection of vaulted tracks, demos, and b-sides, and its success led to renewed interest in his catalog warranting reissues of his ’90s LPs. Now Traffic Entertainment seems to be subscribing to the better-late-than-never philosophy, releasing “Donnie Brasco,” a shelved album recorded between 1999 and 2001, in 2010.
Godfather Don is celebrated for both his beats and rhymes that embody a classic New York sound. During the ’90s his music evolved from an upbeat, straightforward East Coast style to a grittier, more atmospheric sound at the end of the decade, and his rugged rhymes were most reminiscent of buddy Kool Keith with elements of Raekwon and Bushwick Bill. “Donnie Brasco,” a lean eleven-track effort with no guests, was ostensibly recorded in the wake of “Diabolique” and assumes a leaner, rougher musical approach and more mafioso-styled verses.
The dark, expansive beats of “Donnie Brasco” would sound equally at home on a Boot Camp Clik release, with chilly piano lines, punchy horns, and rumbling basslines. While the instrumentals are consistently strong and establish a vivid, moody vibe, the tempo rarely varies and little stands out. Don’s rhymes here are fairly standard boom bap fare with menacing bravado in bulk. His energy and street swagger are commendable, but it soon becomes clear that he doesn’t have much to say on this go-round. Tracks such as “Why?” and “Raw” cement his tough character and enumerate his considerable weaponry but leave little for the listener to consider further. “Major Figures,” “Hard Holdin’ My Spot,” and “Raw (Pt.2)” feature simple and generally uninspired battle rhymes that are par for the course. The closer “Child in the City” offers a little more insight on growing up:
“As I sit down and think about the past, it’s ill
A little cool cat with skill and not half a bill
Not enough change for the chain, that’s for real
In the neighborhood where hoods laugh and kill
Them thugs was the cats that would blast the steel
To get a rep up, half the jakes shook and gettin’ wet up
All I had then was a pen and cup of Hen
Besides my immediate crew, fuck a friend
Didn’t have shit or a toilet to flush it, so yo
I heard it all, why let one of you fucks live?
Chickenheads, crab bitches, spittin’ they game at me
I’m showin’ ’em heart, they all the same, gimme gimme
I only love two true and one of ’em gone
Yo Isha, it won’t be long before my song on
The Box, steady shakin’, formulatin’
While my stomach achin’, hit the cage, check Mo
See what he bakin'”
The turn of the century was a transitional time for New York rap and, by the looks of things, for Godfather Don as wellâ€”watching his early-90s contemporaries fade into obscurity, he tried on a new alter-ego, “Donnie Brasco.” The results are solid but not distinctive. The album sounds dated even for 1999, and it was reasonably shelved because it had few highlights to make it memorable or marketable. Overall “Donnie Brasco” is a decent but forgettable collection of a good artist’s second-rate material. That said, it’s great that Don’s music is finally getting some shine, and with a “Diabolique” reissue on the horizon, hopefully his catalog will receive a well-deserved revisit.