Some of our Back to the Lab reviews at RR are directly inspired by reader feedback. This isn’t one of them. Some of the reviews are inspired by the untimtely death of a rap superstar. If that was the case here we’d be about five years too late, as founding Above the Law member KMG the Illustrator passed away in 2012. He left us far too young as he was only 43 years old. May he rest in power with my condolences to all of his family, friends, and fans. In this case nothing inspired the review other than stumbling across the “V.S.O.P.” video at random. It had been a long time since I had pulled any Above the Law records out of my collection to listen to, and listening to the song immediately made me regret that. ATL was at the cutting edge of West coast G-Funk when I was still in high school, and some have even suggested that the production techniques of Cold 187um were a direct influence on Dr. Dre. Me myself I’d rather not get into semantics on a 25+ year old debate about who inspired who or who did what first when we’ve got some funky ass tunes to listen to.
At a time in life where I only drank occasional beer or two, the stylings of 187um and KMG introduced both new vernacular and sophistication to my young mind. I knew nothing of brandy, cognac or even Hennessy at that age — and I certainly didn’t have the means to buy anything V.S. or V.S.O.P. (let alone the next step up to XO). Nevertheless the funky stew of their in-house production on “V.S.O.P.” seemed finely barrel aged to my ears, although if you break it down by the ingredients it’s quite a curious blend. It’s part Hall & Oates, part Tom Tom Club, part Fatback Band and part Jimmy Castor Bunch. Maybe these disparate elements shouldn’t have worked together but damn it they do. There was just something about the smooth pimping flow of KMG and his high-pitched contemporary 187um that was magical together. Even if I couldn’t afford the beverage (let alone legally buy it) I could sure as hell cop the tape and bump “Black Mafia Life” in my 88 Oldsmobile.
Yes — I said tape, not CD. Yes — I also said 88, not 98. I wasn’t as fly as Chuck D. That didn’t stop my 88 from booming with a WHOLE trunk of funk when “Black Mafia Life” was in the deck. These days young heads who are into the legacy of Tupac Shakur may know the group and album better thanks to the lead single “Call It What You Want.” The 2Pac heard here was fresh off “2Pacalypse Now” and just two weeks away from releasing “Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z” so we’re definitely in the “clown around when I hang around with the Underground” era, though ‘Pac spices it up by adding “but when I’m with the Mafia, we DROPPIN’ YA.” A heavy Funkadelic sample rides through the song as Shakur and fellow D.U. cohort Money B tag team with ATL for a song that remains a West coast classic today.
These two songs remain memorable by virtue of having been released as singles with accompanying videos, but that doesn’t make “Black Mafia Life” one of those unfortunate albums where you bought the whole album just for a couple of tracks you liked. This happened a lot before the days of MP3s because not every single was a single ya dig? It might be a single for radio and deejays but that didn’t mean you were going to find it at your local record store in ’93. Therefore you had to have faith that a group you knew was going to reward you for spending your hard earned dollar on them, and that’s part of the reason I was still buying tapes — compact discs could be $18-$20 back then. Adjusted for inflation that reaches ridiculous proportions! This one would have been worth it though and was definitely worth the upgrade when I had the means later on. It’s over an hour of funky jams starting with “Never Missin’ a Beat.” P-Funk is all over this disc and this trunk rattler relies heavily on “Not Just (Knee Deep).”
Over and over the album ensures that you gots to get funked up, whether it’s the “Atomic Dog” bark of the aptly named “Why Must I Feel Like That?” to the multiple jacks from Bootsy Collins and Funkadelic on “Pimp Clinic” to even a Prince sample on “G-rupies Best Friend” featuring Kokane. There’s another artist we lost far too young in Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson. Sometimes doing these BTTL reviews really makes my ass feel old.
Now I haven’t touched on what’s really the most contentious thing about Above the Law both then and now, and it’s certainly not the issue of who influenced who (although the comparisons between “Pimp Clinic” and “Let Me Ride” are as obvious as it gets). The debate about ATL’s dopeness always seemed to focus on the vocals of Cold 187um, who to some people just comes across as too high pitched. I’m guessing those same people must not be fans of DJ Quik or Eazy-E then — who not so coincidentally appears on the track “Game Wreck-Oniz-Iz Game” (they were signed to his Ruthless Records imprint after all). I can acknowledge that he takes a bit of getting used to at first, but there’s a natural chemistry between KMG and 187 akin to duos like Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith or Andre 3000 and Big Boi. When 187um hits high, KMG hits low. They provide a musical balance that each can spit an entire verse and tag out to the next man, resulting in tracks like “Process of Elimination” featuring MC Ren that stand the test of time.
187um: “Yo – so tell your homey, tell your clique, tell your gang
Then we can go cap for cap, or we could throw them thangs
But in the heated scrap, when things are cookin
One of my homies, might bust when you ain’t lookin
And now they’re sayin that them niggaz be trippin
But just like we say in the hood ‘Don’t get caught slippin’
So I stay strapped, even though I rap, cause when I step
See, the old punks and new jacks, they still wanna get a rep
But I’ll be that motherf—er just like the Grim Reaper
But a little bit cheaper”
KMG: “You see, you could just label me the undertaker
Cause I speed up your chance for you to meet your maker
See, judgement day has come
You’re bein tried by a black ass nigga that’s pulled many triggers
S–t, I’m the jury and I’m also the judge
For this I’m around, I can’t show much love
Here’s a vision: I’m a motherf—in assassin
Fools I clip, keeps me clockin a grip
So I lay low then I wait for a connection
‘Surveillance ain’t s–t to us without police protection'”
Looking back I have a hard time understanding why “Black Mafia Life” isn’t as discussed as albums like “The Chronic” and “Quik Is the Name.” At that point I have to step back and think I may be too affectionate for ATL. I was a mark for N.W.A back in the day, and their thumbprint is all over the group’s first two albums in every way possible – record label, guest vocals, production, you name it. The thing is if that were the case then “Black Mafia Life” would have faded in my estimation over the last 25 years, but if anything it sounds better to me now than it did then. This album wasn’t meant to change lives other than by putting some money in Above the Law’s pockets. It’s not about making the world a better place. It’s just a movie in musical form about some hard ass G’s from Pomona you don’t want to mess with. Does it need to be more than that? Not in my estimation. “Black Mafia Life” captures an era in the early 90’s when California rose up in popularity and swept the nation with some funky-ass s–t for your system.