If you follow hip-hop through the ages, one of the most persistent statements you will hear artists make in interviews is that they are working with some new talent that they will shortly present to the world. These predictions rarely actually come true for the simple fact that the music biz is a casino with only few winners. When such mentoring projects go as planned, we should welcome them with a warm round of applause and a critical eye.
Debuting on the legendary Cold Chillin’ Records, Grand Daddy I.U. is a veteran of the rap game who also has a bit of production experience (it’s been a while but past clients include Biz Markie, KRS-One, Heltah Skeltah and Das EFX). Without wanting to address the situation in detail, if Big Daddy Kane has had a hand in the production of “Long Live the Kane” and ditto for Kool G Rap and “Road to the Riches” (and Biz for “Goin’ Off”?), then who knows how reliable the credits for “Smooth Assassin” are. Either way I.U. and associate Kay Cee were well able to produce his 1994 sophomore effort by themselves. We should also call to mind that this is a guy who penned an essential rap about the act of writing and producing music titled “This Is a Recording” back in 1990. After scattered comeback attempts, “The Essence” sees him retreat behind the boards and act as musical maestro rather than master of ceremony.
Three names emerge who benefit from extended exposure. There’s John Jigg$ from Long Island and Inf The God from Queens. Coincidence or not, both happen to echo the origins of the Q.U.-born, L.I.-bred I.U. On top of that we have Shortee Sha, also representing simultaneously Long Island and Queens and cousin of Organized Konfusion’s Prince Poetry.
The host pairs these three with familiar names and newcomers alike. Jigg$ and Inf get notable support from Prince Po, who on “Get Mines” once again manages to impress far into his career, supported by a sober but still headnod-inducing piano loop/rhythm track combo. “Cash in Abundance”, propelled by a Nas sample, sees them each represent their borough (Jigg$: “We talkin’ hip-hop, let’s have a real discussion / If it wasn’t for the Island, then it wouldn’t be nothin'”), completed by BK’s Babs Bunny, who had a vague shot at stardom as a member of Diddy’s Da Band.
Speaking of larger line-ups, all of I.U.’s current protégés gather on “Slick Talk”, which sounds like something from the D.I.T.C. camp around the turn of the millennium. Even if it’s his only spot on the album, Rah Hollowz puts himself forward for further assignments. Inf The God gets a rare solo slot with “Hold U Down”, a token romantic joint set to a bouncy loop, whose biggest surprise automatically becomes ’90s singer Monifah. Another high-profile cameo eclipses Inf on the closing title track, which features a serious Method Man (who also has biographical ties to I.U.’s old stomping ground Hempstead) over an epic beat, a rare treat for die-hard hip-hop fans.
Shortee Sha meanwhile joins Sadat X and Ruste Juxx and their airing of grievances “Politically Incorrect”, but while his established peers run down a laundry list of issues (gentrification, white supremacy, wokeness, the “emasculation of the black male”), he sounds a little bit more lenient over the vintage ’70s vibe, noting on the subject of hip-hop, “We ain’t call it boom bap, we was just New Yorkin'”.
“The Essence”, at least by name, makes that eternal promise of a return to the source. Grand Daddy I.U.’s vision is evident, from the street reporting soundbites that open the album to the pairing of Craig G and Large Professor on “Legendary”. He pays tribute to black music from times past, he is mindful of what singers can contribute to a hip-hop tune (even admitting the younger generation in the case of Yung Flii Boy who supports Babs Bunny on “Rap Game”). He prepares tracks suitable for developping a train of thought like “The Intro”, and ones designed to get you out your seats like “Cash in Abundance”.
“The Essence” means to say that rap is still around, rappers are still around – my way, your way, I.U.’s way. If you tune in to the crew’s appearance on the Violators Unlimited radio show from June 12th with Inf, Bando and Sha, you will witness three resourceful spitters and an elder taking delight in how others perform. It’s pure enthusiasm for hip-hop.
The same holds true for the triple threat of Lil’ Fame, Rah Digga and Bumpy Knuckles doing damage on “Fully Charged” and its triumphant beat that is both festive and militant. Even without some unfortunate lyrical coincidences from Digga and Bumpy that may remind listeners of George Floyd’s tragic death, these three veterans deliver their familiar version of politically incorrect rap, the former first lady of Flipmode Squad quipping, “They say life’s a bitch, I’ma grab her by the p / Violate rappers like #MeToo”.
Unfortunately the aforementioned enthusiasm can get lost in the process of writing and producing rap tracks, whether you have experience yourself or rely on the experience of others. You could expect more from the old D.I.T.C. connection O.C./Marquee than standard R&B fare such as “Party & Booze”. Marquee also only does the hookline to “Get Em Daddy”, a hustling theme featuring Bando Flee and Inf The God that is beyond antiquated. “Dope” with Sha and Inf is in the same vein but benefits from a Milano Constantine guest slot and Airian Cook’s wistful crooning.
And thus “The Essence” squarely represents old New York. Sadly, for all the heat exchanged on the radio roundtable, the newcomers remain lyrically and vocally guarded. Their mentor should have also taught them a trick or two about clear enunciation. We can’t sit here and deride ‘mumble rap’ and not insist on pronounced articulation from traditional MC’s. Inf The God, Shortee Sha or Bando Flee all have the potential to lead the pack, but the sampler at hand lacks a charismatic figure, perhaps one like Grand Daddy I.U.