My first encounter with Spectac occurred a long time ago. In 1993, an unknown group from South Carolina called “Da Phlayva” released their one and only album called “Phlayva 4 Dem All”. As I was buying anything and everything in those days the album ended up in my collection. Although it was heavily jocking the hyperactive, tongue twisting styles of the more popular crews around at the time (like Das EFX and Leaders of the New School), it was a very enjoyable album and I played it often. One track in particular always stuck in my memory, a posse cut called “Hookaz”. A guest MC on that track was Spec Da Spectacular, and he was the star of the show by far. I’d never heard of him before, and didn’t really think I’d ever hear from him again (being an extra on a pretty obscure album), but as the years went by his verse on that track was the thing I’d remember most about Da Phlayva’s album.
Wind the hands of time forward to 2013 and a review written by Flash appeared on this site for an album by an MC called Spectac (and producer Shakim) called “For the People”. There weren’t many clues in the review as to Spectac’s history in hip hop aside from hints at his age, but the review sparked my interest enough to check out the album. As soon as I heard the voice, I KNEW this was the same Spec da Spectacular from all those years ago (confirmed to me by making a few online enquiries), and I was pretty overjoyed that he was still around. After checking out “For the People”, I was even happier to discover that he knew how to make good music in this day and age where other veteran rappers often struggled to fit in to contemporary sounds. I also found a few more items of his recent work, including an album called “Spectac Returns” featuring production by 9th Wonder (amongst others), and another album called “Almost Famous” with producer and long-time friend Amiri.
Spectac reunites with Amiri for their new album “Soul Beautiful”. Judging a book by its cover isn’t always a fool-proof method to gauge what a hip hop album will sound like, but an album cover showing an attractive woman on a bed, surrounded by classic soul era LP’s, is playing a pretty good game of charades. However, the album could have been named “Jazzy Beautiful” instead, as the majority of the tracks are more on the jazzy tip, with trumpets, saxophones and cool jazz vibes appearing on many tracks. No doubt though that there is soul in jazz and vice versa, so the title isn’t a total misnomer.
Speaking of jazz and hip hop, there’s a bit of a Tribe Called Quest connection with both men. Amiri has actually released a couple of decent albums as an emcee (although he doesn’t rhyme on “Soul Beautiful”), but perhaps most notable on his resume is that he actually produced a track for Tribe called “I C U (Doin’ It)”, intended for the group’s reunion album around 2004 that never eventuated. Apparently, Amiri wasn’t officially credited for his work on the track, but working with Tribe would have been a high point for him, and is an indication of the skills he has to offer. As for Spectac and Tribe, put simply, Spectac reminds me a lot of Q-Tip. Spec has a deeper voice than Tip and just a touch more urgency to his style, but there’s certainly a strong likeness there in the nasal type tones of both men and the “niceness” in their voices.
The Tribe association also provides a rough guide as to what the album sounds like i.e. a cool and chilled feel musically and vocally. Curiously though, the very catchy first single “This, That & Tha 3rd”, with its driving horns, has more Swing Era of the 30’s and 40’s behind it than jazz or soul:
“I Grew Up” is more typical of what we get on the album though. It has about as much feel good to it musically as you could ever wish for, and features Najee, who blesses the chorus with silken vocal pipes. The lyrics typify the wisened attitude of the 40-something Spec; he is equal parts educator, motivator and truth speaker:
“Yo I grew up on The Cosby Kids now they Meet the Browns
Fourth graders getting beat down because their skin brown
And then you wonder why they frown when they walk around town
With their pants hanging down, quoting rap songs
Don’t believe me, just watch, I’ve seen them shot
Arrested by cops up in their homes, out on the block
Up in their church, driving their cars and where they work
They baldhead the jerks, if they got dreads, they worse
Shit, I be the first to put it out there, let you think about it
They said I couldn’t sell records ’cause I finished college
Talk about it, be about it, be the proudest, be the loudest
Even if you be in doubt, it shouldn’t be discouraged
Have the courage, find your purpose, find the time is worth it
I find myself creating verses when I’m feeling worthless
It’s just the surface, inside I’m really bugging
You know what we’re headed for y’all, self-destruction”
Spec actually has quite a successful career in the education sector and that knowledge and maturity shows in his music, but on wax he isn’t all about schooling the uneducated masses. The lyrical content on the album is balanced pretty evenly between tracks about skills, struggles in hip hop and the industry, jams about ladies, and of course the aforementioned edutainment.
Although hardcore or street is the last thing that you’d call this album, the guys briefly get fired up on a couple tracks. To help add weight to the more aggressive than usual rhymes from Spec on “Looney Tunes”, Amiri adds some grunge in the form of a 70’s rock guitar and jilted horns stabs, a combination which results in a rougher feel in comparison to the rest of the album. Spectac speaks on the trials of trying to succeed in a not so traditionally hip hop region, and he also vents on behalf of Amiri:
“I’m surrounded by lollipop kids and little munchkins
Country bumpkins drink beers and smash pumpkins
Skip school all day to go deer hunting
But they hip hop heads and wanna hear something
So bizarre I know, but it’s the Carolinas
And probably the reason why they never signed us
Damn, to a record deal
Coz we was minus education and sex appeal
Amiri had “The Recipe”, sort of like his destiny
Who are we to question he, those that did got smacked with “Vinyl Ritchie”
Yeah my boy bitchy, yeah my boy conceited
And yeah he got dicked on that Tribe reunion mix”
“Make It Mellow” has Spec dropping relatively tougher rhymes also, intentionally so in direct contrast to the title of the song, as he states: “yeah the beat might be mellow, the verse is deadly as hell though”. I’m not sure the concept totally works though, as the mild-mannered voice of Spec delivering lines like “my Godzilla type flows is like earthquakes” is akin to NWA rapping about dandelions; it just does not equate. Curiously too, the track is guided by a snappier beat and is one of the more lively joints on the album, slightly in contradiction to Spec’s idea of rough rhymes vs. a laid back track.
Otherwise, mellow IS the right word for this album. The two tracks about the fairer sex (“Natural Woman” and “Just Love Him”) are both guided along with nice undercurrents of hummed vocalising, with “Natural Woman” featuring a smooth MC called D.Devine who has buttery tones made for lover-man rhymes. “The Avengers (We Ready)” has a very prominent use of the ever catchy horn sample from John Klemmer’s “Free Soul”, a sample you’d know well if you were around hip hop in the early 90’s. “Soul Beautiful” oozes soul and does have beautiful, almost dreamy instrumentation behind it, however the chorus comes dangerously close to drowning in syrup with the “I’m so in love with the music, and it feels so good to me” crooning, but then it is a statement that all music lovers can relate to.
There are a couple average tracks here (ATTN all rappers: time is way overdue to move on from tracks called “Da Real” or variations thereof), but overall this is a very good album. Yes Spectac perhaps sounds a bit dated or “old school” in the way that his technique can seem a bit elementary at times, but he balances that with some displays of broader dexterity, and the appeal of that distinctive voice can not be denied. Amiri likewise isn’t revolutionary with his musical concoctions, as he takes hints from many well known mellower styled producers over the years, but it’s hard to fault the creations he presents on the album. Spec humbly states: “We got a following, not a whole of them, just thank God for those one or two acknowledgements”, and as far as I can tell that’s a fair assessment of their status in the hip hop world. It’s a shame that the exposure of talented artists such as Spectac and Amiri is often limited to those hip hop heads that like to dig a bit deeper for their fix, and I’m not sure this album will change that, but then it’s not always the most skilled artists that blow up is it ?