This review comes exactly four weeks after the hip-hop world was shocked by the untimely passing of Dwight Arrington Myers. The talk show pundits and rap cynics have no doubt concluded this was a happy ending given that Heavy D’s life did not end in a hailstorm of bullets. I’ve got news for those assholes – no, it’s not. D’s life and times spoke to the unlimited potential of hip-hop music and culture. He proved critics in and outside of the rap genre time after time. He proved you could be positive without being corny. He proved you could make dance music and still be respected by the hardcore. He proved that rappers could be actors and still get respect in the studio. He even proved that you could rock extra large clothes and still be a suave sex symbol, and did so long before Biggie Smalls came along and took ashy to classy. Heavy D was the kind of elder statesman that hip-hop needs to represent the best not just in himself but for all of us. We’ll be feeling this one for years.
As tough as it is to move on from his death, one of the ways that makes is easier for me to do so personally is to reminisce on his catalogue of music. In doing so I need to walk a careful line between articulating his talents and acting like this is a wake where we celebrate his life and times. For all that he accomplished in his heyday, Heavy D wasn’t completely free from contemporary criticism. He managed to satisfy MOST of the hip-hop world with albums like “Living Large” and “Big Tyme,” but after “Peaceful Journey” there were those who felt Dwight had taken being a crossover star a little too far. It wasn’t up to him that radio overplayed “Now That We Found Love” to a ridiculous degree, but when he started doing songs with Guy and Michael Jackson, that pushed a lot of “he’s not hip-hop” buttons. Even though “Don’t Curse” was and is one of his hardest records of all time, there was a feeling in the air that “Peaceful Journey” was TOO peaceful – Heavster had gotten soft.
1993’s “Blue Funk” was an answer to those critics, and we’ll take this time to examine how successful his response was. For those who are confused about the copyright date, it is true that the album says 1992 on the back cover, but Uptown/MCA Records didn’t drop it in stores until January 12th the year after. Maybe they delayed putting it out, maybe Dwight recorded the tracks so late the album couldn’t be published in the same calendar year, or maybe he kept revising the line-up and had the album postponed until he got it right. There was clearly a lot of thought put into his choices though, including purposefully including snippets of an interview with a largely unheard reporter. We get the Heavster’s side of the conversation as he responds, but those answers illuminate his mindstate and reveal some of the criticism aimed his way bothered him. In the void between “It’s a New Day” and “Who’s in the House” he explains why “Peaceful Journey” came out the way it did:
“I mean people have to… let me tell you something real interesting. On the last album, Peaceful Journey, I was going through this real depressing state… where it was like, y’know I just lost Troy – my dancer T-Roy. My best friend, from when I was 8, (for) 17 or 18 years. Prior to that a year… before that, a year prior to that, I lost my brother – my oldest brother. This is a man who taught me… everything, basically. You know he’s my older brother, and I’m the youngest. Umm, he was shot and killed.”
That’s his defense for “Peaceful Journey” being on the whole not the most rugged album in his catalogue, and even then it seemed a fair one. The album was a chance for Dwight to get in touch with his emotions during what was an incredibly difficult time for him, so he had to put some of his swagger in check and come from the heart. Having done so Heavster was ready to come back harder and funkier, although still maintain a level of suave and cool that was and always will be uniquely Heavy D. That’s evident right away on the opening tracks, both produced by Tony Dofat. “Truthful” is the old new jack swing D, with an edgy bottom underneath more familiar to a Jam Master Jay or Pete Rock produced track of the day (more on the latter later). “Who’s the Man?” was even harder still, coming as Heavy says “direct from what we call the Funk House” a/k/a the legendary Chung King House of Metal. The Steve Miller Band gets flipped in an incredibly rugged way:
“I did good in my hood as a youngster
The Heavster was never a punkster, no sir
No ma’am, hot damn, me and Michael Jackson jammed
I dug Soul Train, not American Bandstand
The bigger nigga is back and I’m on the right track
As a matter of fact, I’m ALLL THAT
So ring around the Rosie, oopsy-daisy
Topsy turvy, you never heard of me you don’t deserve me
+Fly Like an Eagle+, drive like a BMW
You never knew I could bring trouble to
a cordless you can’t afford this don’t get aboard this flavor
Unless you got the fever flavor for a Pringle
Could be a single, let me see you mingle jingle dangle
Sammy Davis Jr. was Mr. Bojangles
(Here is something you can’t understand)
Tell me y’all, who’s the man?”
And he’s not just the “bigger nigga” to the fellas who doubt him, which in itself would be an usually tough line coming from the easy-going Heavster, but he’s also taking a chapter from bitter rejection by ladies who doubted him when he was just Dwight.
“I know your fantasy, don’t +Stay+, I ain’t Jodeci
When I used to juggle jumps for crumbs who didn’t notice me
But now you see me in a magazine, on your TV screen
On the radio live in stereo lookin clean!!
All of a sudden I’m attractive, I’m handsome, I’m gorgeous
But back in the day you used to say you can’t afford this
I wreck shops and got props from New York to Cali
I’m Big Willie, you silly Sally from the Valley
Ain’t nuttin changed… wait a minute, I’m a liar
The crib is definitely doper and the girls a lot flyer”
It’s fairly easy to read between the lines here on “Who’s the Man?” D is not asking for respect from fans, critics and foes – he’s straight up DEMANDING respect. He deserved that respect all along, but clearly he felt he wasn’t being taken as seriously as he should be, and as a result “Fly Like an Eagle” has never sounded more menacing (and probably never will again). It’s almost uncharacteristic, but if you look at his earlier catalogue, Heavy D was always a braggart when it came to his success in and outside of the bedroom, occasionally dropping hints that just because he came from Mount Vernon didn’t mean he couldn’t scrap. “Blue Funk” is just a case of him turning the volume up WAY past 10. The piano laced Skeff Anslem anthem “Talk Is Cheap” proves it:
“Big up the boom, big up the bang, some suckers can’t hang
with all that ying yang, yang yang yang yang
It seems you talk mighty tough on your jams when you rap
Go in the hood, and you’ll probably get SLAPPED
I know your type, you’re a weasel, a weeble, a wobble
A weeble wobble, push you over, watch you topple
I never grew in the ghetto, but I slung in the ghetto
And I seen plenty of bums get done in the ghetto
So money knock it off with the tough guy imagery
You think I ain’t tough, cause I don’t talk tough?
Then scrimmage me”
It can be dangerous to make assumptions based on music alone as to an artist’s mindstate, but the stark differences between “Peaceful Journey” and “Blue Funk” make it hard to come to any other conclusion than that peace was NOT the word to play. Heavy was on an all out hip-hop attack to prove he should be not ignored or dismissed, but remarkably still manages to keep a PG rating in the process. This is not a point that should be overlooked – other than using the word “nigga” a few times there’s almost nothing that would be censored for TV or radio and as a result “Blue Funk” didn’t carry that infamous Parental Advisory sticker in an era where most popular hip-hop albums did. The tough edge Dwight shows us comes not from cursing but from his cocksure confidence when rapping on decidedly grimier and darker beats. Even when D’s being seductive on “Love Sexy,” Pete Rock flips the loop Edo.G rocked on “I Got to Have It” and makes it TOUGHER.
“Now I can take my time, but I’m speedy if it’s needy
She says she want it all, so I gave to the greedy
Love is satisfyin, if it’s tasty then I’m tryin
Never bought ’em, never buy ’em, on occasion I’m in Zion
Enough of what you heard, Heavy D’s got the wig out
In between the leggy of a Peggy I might pig out
Nope I ain’t no joke, I got a stroke to make you bug out
Girls get very happy when I tap the nappy dugout
Easy easy on the “EZ Duz It,” who is it or who was it
Rough on the cuts you’re lovin it, rubbin it while you’re humpin it
Wicked in bed, wicked in bed, that’s what I said
When I came the others fled, now mi haffa kill it – dead
Mack in the sack and I’m a freak in between the sheets
Never lacked in the back, stay harder than concrete
Far from Chubby Checker, not a half-stepper, double decker
Wreckin never sweat her but I’m better, the Mecca lover”
Admittedly that’s not a PG message, but there’s a lot of innuendo in there that someone who’s not sexually active +might+ not pick up on. It may be radio clean, but he’s still getting dirty with the ladies. And the bit of patois in his rap is no coincidence either – Heavster has flexed a ragga style on most of his albums and rocks the style directly on a couple of tracks here. “Girl” achieves the sound with help from Steely & Clevie on the boards, making it sound like a jam straight outta Jamaica featuring “de big belly luva.” The Jesse West produced “Silky” is a little more subtle, rocking a smooth R&B sample instead of an island groove, but he drops Bob Marley references and says “I and I is very fly” in case you forgot his Jamaica was his original birthplace.
“Blue Funk” closes on four straight bangers guaranteed to win over even the toughest of critics who felt that Dwight wasn’t that hard. “Here Comes the Heavster” makes one wonder what an entire album of Heavy D and DJ Premier would be like – probably “classic like a Kawasaki, rough like Rocky” judging by D’s verbal gymnastics. The title track that follows is another gem from his cousin Pete Rock, and then “Yes Y’all” rocks a familiar piano loop in a new way thanks again to DJ Premier on the boards, with Heavster accurately describing himself “R&B, hardcore (and) plenty more.” The finale “A Buncha Niggas” may go down as one of the craziest posse tracks in hip-hop history. Jesse West’s beat is fairly average, but the line-up certainly isn’t: Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes, Rob-O, Guru and 3rd Eye all get their time to shine. This song is yet another of those links between Biggie Smalls and Heavy D that people conveniently overlook, much like the fact Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs is listed on this album as an executive producer. It could be overstating it to say there would be no Biggie without Heavy, but then again maybe not.
Heavy D certainly proves the point that he’s not soft on “Blue Funk,” but occasionally he does go a bit overboard. “Who’s in the House” is a muddy mess musically, and the lyrics are not among his finest work (his popcorn metaphor is perhaps laughable at best). “Slow Down” sounds like Jesse West was trying to imitate Pete Rock while simultaneously borrowing from Wreckx-N-Effect – he does neither well. One could argue this album starts and finishes strong but is hit or miss in the middle section, to which I’d respond it’s still more hits than misses. Still music industry executives may have missed the point given that “Peaceful Journey” easily went platinum and “Blue Funk” +only+ went gold, which despite Dwight’s good intentions may have set expectations too high in both directions. The industry wanted more crossover from D, the hip-hop hardcore wanted more “Blue Funk,” and latter albums showed difficulty in pleasing either audience. For its time though “Blue Funk” was a classic and this funk don’t stank – it has aged well.