“On the streets, you have to be raw”
What streets though? The mean streets of Saginaw, Michigan. I accidentally stumbled across this album while doing a simple “sort by upload date” search on YouTube. Even though it’s a recent addition to the site the album is over 25 years old. That piqued my curiosity even further. Who unearthed this obscure rap release and what motivated them to share it? Those are not answers I can provide as the person who posted it didn’t even include a description. There are more questions than answer here — such as “Who are Less Than Zro and why does this album exist?”
Unfortunately because this release is as obscure as it is rare (copies currently sell for $30 on eBay) and was released before the world wide web exploded in popularity in the mid-to-late 1990’s, there are a lot of dead end roads to go down trying to look this up. This appears to be the one and only album released by Big Heavy Records but I can’t guarantee that 100%. Since the executive producer is also named Big Heavy, it’s reasonable to assume that he owned the label and financed the release of this album himself. Further complicating the search for information is that their name often leads to a 1980’s film or a much better known rapper from Houston, Texas. In the end most of the available information appears to be pulled directly from the cassette’s insert including a now defunct phone number.
Let’s try instead to put this album into historical perspective. The early 1990’s was a boom period for hip-hop music across the country, a period when The Source was still considered to be “the bible” of rap news and getting five out of five mics in a review was the most coveted award you could receive. The East coast and West coast were deadlocked in a battle for musical supremacy, but the rest of the nation had vibrant rap scenes. New Orleans, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit were all putting rappers on the map. The success of Motown led other Michigan rappers to put in work, so when Flint’s own MC Breed hit big in 1991, even more artists tried to become the state’s next breakout star.
There’s no doubt Saginaw tried just as hard as any mid-sized urban city in “The Glove” with a six digit population, but in the last quarter century the most famous rapper from there is undoubtedly Prozak. That’s certainly not for lack of trying on “The Depot” by Less Than Zro. The album feels like a time capsule containing the G-Funk sound of Southern California mixed with the 5th Ward swagger of the Geto Boys. “Mind of a Gangsta” would not sound out of place on one of their albums.
“Straight from Saginaw, f#%k alla y’all, Less Than Zro’s in this B#%@$” is how the follow-up “Nickel Plated” kicks off. There’s no enthusiasm for their hometown though — “my city’s real s#$tty” and “I dare (Bill) Clinton and his b#$th to take a ghetto tour” make it clear you don’t want to hang out in their hood. There’s something undeniably charming about the sheer bravado of this obscure duo. Doug Rogers, Marcus Brewer and their mononymously named producer “Chico” are undoubtedly representing their city and state, but either by accident or design songs like “Sam’s Dead” are the kind of politically active hip-hop I associate with the time I was graduating high school and heading off to college. Samples of “Super Fly” are met with raps like “the police station needs to be, blown up” and provocative ideas like “what we need to do is get even/start servin to the whites, make ’em fiendin it/then you’d notice s%%t start to change”. Paris might agree.
The album swings wildly between bravado raps like “Put It On Yo Ass” and hardcore Guerilla Funk like “Lookin in the Face of the Devil” without blinking an eye. The most surprising thing about this 23 minute release is that it’s SO FRESH. Everything about “The Depot” seems to have fallen off the earth immediately after its release in 1993/4 (sources can’t even seem to agree on the year, let alone an exact date). Perhaps somewhere in Michigan there exists a library with a copy of The Saginaw News where a local reporter interviewed this group. Without the time or resources to follow that trail though my coverage of the album ends here. Unlike a lot of obscure artists who remained obscure for a good reason, there’s no such negativity to Less Than Zro’s “The Depot”. They should have been a success.