If ten years ago someone would have told me that Baby Bash would score a top ten hit in my neck of the woods in 2004, my reaction would have most likely been: Who? Oh, I knew Ronald Bryant alright, but back then Baby Bash was Baby Beesh (or alternately R-Beesh), and was just one individual in a group of four. But even as I witnessed his shy comeback in the late '90s, I could never have predicted the international acclaim this rapper would garner ten years after his national debut. After spending a total of 7 weeks in the US top ten (peak position: 5) over the turn of the year, his song "Suga Suga" went global, charting remarkably strong in New Zealand, where it held the number one spot for three weeks in a row, spending 12 consecutive weeks in the top ten. Between March and June 2004, it also charted 10 weeks in the Australian top ten (peak position: 3), 7 in the German top ten (peak position: 4), and 10 in the Swiss top ten (peak position: 2). Realizing "Suga Suga" is as much an ode to Mary Jane as it is a love song makes this success even more stunning.
When you follow this rap thing for some time, you see a lot of rappers come, see a lot of rappers go, see a couple of 'em come back again, but you hardly see someone blow up internationally after a decade of mild regional success. "Suga Suga" was without a doubt a surprise hit, although one that wouldn't have been possible without Universal's clout behind it. But considering that ten years ago probably nobody else within a 300 mile radius of me listened to dude, the thought of Baby Bash posters suddenly decorating the bedroom walls of teenagers next door is weird to say the least. Aspiring hitmakers will surely focus on extracting "Suga Suga"'s secret of success, but a Happy Perez beat, a Frankie J hook, soft, melodic rap vocals, romantic lyrics, a video full of hip-hop honeys, a cuddly star and marketing muscle are only half the story. There's also this thing called longevity. Or, as it is so appropriately called on this here album, "long-ass-gevity." A decade plus in the game, that's longevity. And finally scoring a hit after so many years is nothing short of poetic justice.
It all started when N2Deep out of Vallejo, California got picked up by Profile Records. Their 1992 hit song and hit album "Back to the Hotel" enabled producer Johnny Zunino to broker a production deal with Profile, similar to DJ Quik before him. The label, in the process of giving Run-DMC a makeover after the disappointing "Back From Hell," didn't use any of the tracks he recorded with the legendary Kings from Queens for their 1993 album "Down With the King." But they realized the potential of regional markets, as well as the crossover potential of regional acts, and released another one of Zunino's projects in 1994, one year before Jive banked on E-40 with "In a Major Way."
Listening to "Welcome to Da Tilt," it's particularly striking how developped the Bay Area mob sound already was at the time. It may have to do with the fact that Johnny Z is actually one of its originators. From a traditionalist's point of view, the unabashed use of keyboards sets it up for sounding cheap, but in reality that shit sounds dope as hell. At the base, it's hip-hop informed by p-funk, a heavy bass/drum structure adorned with clear, intertwining keyboard textures, sometimes accompagnied by sparse, funky guitar licks, moving along at a mid-nineties BPM pace. While especially late '90s mob music tends to revolve too much around its trademark sound, creating an unhealthy climate of uniformity, its real maestros have always been able to capture a variety of moods with their creations: Ant Banks, K-Lou, Khayree, Ken Franklin, Studio Ton, Sam Bostic, Mike Mosley, Tone Capone, Lev Berlak, Rick Rock, Sean T, Femi Ojetunde... Johnny Z was no different. First of all, his drums kept changing. Johnny Z knew that the drums contribute to the mood of a song as much as any other instrument. Sadly, this fact seems to be lost on many of today's producers. Maybe different times call for different measures. But with Al Eaton (of Too $hort fame) on guitar you can assume Johnny Z knew the value of experience, so why not profit from his experience too?
"Welcome to Da Tilt" features several mob music prototypes, from the quirky title track to the slow-moving "Tramp Bitch," both of which are hard to understand, let alone appreciate without being familiar with funk, or p-funk more precisely. Then there are more accessible compositions like "Funky Behavior" (reminiscent of early DJ Quik) that insist that you nod your head. There's a transition towards East Coast hip-hop with "Grip Tight," which pairs the keyboard ornaments with a thick DJ Lethal/DJ Muggs-type drum track, and even further with the hectic "Feel da Pressure" with its horn fanfare, toasting and early-Beatminerz bass cascade. The factor of Profile being a renowned label that was used to having hits plays into too, as several cuts seem geared for airplay, or could easily have crossed over to clubs that cater to a broad clientele. "Fantastic Voyage" borrowed from the Lakeside song of the same name the same year as Coolio. "Fiasco" lifts you off ground with a lofty guitar sample laid over a bouncing drum track and could have easily found its way into car systems of more conservative listeners. "Poppa Gotta Bran' New Freak" hooks you with a swinging piano sample, while "Cool Thang" reminds you of some '80s pop song whose name escapes you at the moment. That pop influence is countered by the harder, darker mob beats like "Let U Tell It," "Can U Dig It?" and "Strivin'."
Often enough, mob shit starts off simplistic, but it's the way the disparate elements come together that holds your attention. A personal favorite has always been the single that introduced me to Potna Deuce, "Dat's My Potna," where Johnny Z is straight killing it. In structure, it's similar to Mac Dre's V-Town classic "Too Hard For the Fuckin' Radio," but it's the updated, clear sound that turns it into funky-ass shit for your system (as MC Ren once put it). At the beginning, there's just dry guitar licks and a bass structure consisting of small drops of bass and a drawn out keyboard-generated bastard bassline, then a vibrant piano sequence from the left end of the 88 keys gets introduced, then the drums are slapped on top of it, a few vocal grunts complete the track, and before you know it, you got a monster jam, whose hypnotic effect is intensified by the crew chanting, "Yeah, dat's my potna, doe / yeah yeah, dat's my potna, doe / yeah yeah, dat's my potna, doe / yeah yeah, dat's my potna!"
Potna Deuce consisted of three MC's - Chezski, R-Beesh, Rube the Rascal - and a fourth member named D.H. Part of the group's appeal was that the three rappers easily found common ground, but still each preserved their identity. Rube was the seasoned vet, observing lyrical standards ("Booty-ass lyrics don't strive in my camp / Niggas keep poppin' that weak but I can't") and keeping his eyes on the prize:
"You better recognize game in the atmosphere
It ain't naythin' but veterans rappin' here
We hit the block like SWAT with the fat knot
and found a sound-proof room, was like a jackpot"
Chezski had the gritty flow and the voice that spoke of hardships:
"Again you see me strivin' to help myself
and get an edge on the hand that I was dealt
And lookin' at my life brings a cold view
I'm makin' just a dollar and I owe two
But still keep strivin' so I'd advance
Survivalist, I was taught to take a chance
and move with the dirt, I gotta push on
The nights is gettin' cold and the days long
So never tell me shit about a rough time
dependin' on your parents while I'm helpin' mine"
While his compadres took no prisoners, Beesh with his light lilt was the player of the crew, playfully yet relaxed flowing over the intoxicatingly funky tracks:
"Your life was cool until that day
you smoked that grimmy with Andre
And now you're towed down but not I, said the cat
I'm straight geekin' off the juice and the twomp sack
And not the one to knock another muthafucka's hustle
I'm just handlin' mine, you know I'm doin' fine
And ain't trippin', the shoes is tied up
Indo - steady fired up
I stay a player, now my problem's solved
Tryin' not to get emotionally involved
With the you-know-what and the you-know-who
Now what the fuck is a swinger gonna do?
I guess I'll let the big blast off
I saw the players gonna lift they ass off
and sit back and watch the money pile
and still boycott the funny style"
These different philosophies were also expressed in the various songs. "Fiasco" and "Funk Ride" promote driving under the influence, offering listeners to "forget about troubles and take the ride" as P Deuce "break 'em off a chunk that'll funk the whole city up." They might as well have referred to any city, but the city they had most likely in mind was, to put it with a E-40 sample off this record, "Vallejo, V-Town, Valley-Joe." A place "where the game and the city run parallel," as the focused "Strivin'" effectively demonstrates. Naturally, what some perceive as giving up game to others will seem like materialistic macho babble, but with the exception of a few mysogynistic missteps ("Playa Down," "Tramp Bitch"), "Welcome to Da Tilt" is actually quite a reasonable album. It may have been the first instance I ever heard the term player-hater, but Potna Deuce leave much room for other messages, to the point where you even have Rube professing, "Never would I cross over for applause" and following up with social commentary:
"Can't we all get along was the question
that they shot to the blacks and the Mexicans
Answer came back like this, potna - Eat a dick
Shit is fucked up and you too blind to see it, trick"
In tune with its potent musical background, "Dat's My Potna" is a topical highlight as well, with the trio pledging allegiance to their partnership. Rube with "A true potna won't hesitate to dial the crew / cause if it's foul with me, I know it's foul with you," Chezski with "In this thang ain't no suckers that I'm runnin' with / Old school way back is all I'm comin' with," and finally Beesh with "I gives a damn what set you claim / cause if you're givin' up love, you gets it back, mang" and the final punch:
"Had it goin' on since young tikes
done been through Converse and to' down Nikes
So come get with this jamboree
where we're treatin' our potnas like family
Down as the ground, straight from the 'Joe
Yo check it out, dude right there, dat's my potna, doe!"
Though it was both accessible and original, "Welcome to the Tilt" didn't exactly take off. Then again, mob music itself never really crossed over. But that didn't prevent it from accumulating a loyal fanbase across the globe. Looking back, Potna Deuce's debut was an early attempt to make a specialized regional sound palatable to the national market, as it mixes straight up mob shit with East Coast- and R&B-infused tracks. To realize that this was done in an intelligent way, look no further than the single "Poppa Gotta Bran' New Freak," which not only made overdue use of a certain "Rapper's Delight" lyric, but (as "Cool Thang") is just cryptic enough not to be too sexually explicit. And throughout their debut, Rube, Beesh and Chezski stayed true to their motto "We do it our way, you can do it yours," sticking to their slang, rhyming polysyllabically and just generally giving highly inspired performances. Potna Deuce would go on to release a second album independently in '96 ("Heron Soup"), before they disbanded and Beesh hooked up with N2Deep's Jay Tee to form Latino Velvet and later leave Vallejo for Houston, where he unexpectedly found international stardom. For a glance at Baby Bash "strivin' to get my music on, nabbin' in the right direction" way back in the day, check "Welcome to Da Tilt." "Now you see me, now you don't, now you do again." Indeed.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 7 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7.5 of 10
Originally posted: February 1, 2005