"The rap automatical, the rhymatical
Forget ill, I get illmatical
Biceps pulsating in my lungs
Queensbridge projects is where I'm from"
("The Rebel", 1988)
Back when "Illmatic" was about to drop, the word had a strangely familiar ring to it. I soon found out where I had heard it before: on Marley Marl's compilation "In Control, Vol. 1" from 1988. That's right, the mysterious word that would become synonymous for one of hip-hop's most lauded works, wasn't created by Nas. So whodunnit? Blame a teenage rapper credited as 'Percy/Tragedy', whose two contributions to said compilation, "The Rebel" and "Live Motivator", left the strongest impression on the novice hip-hop fanatic that I was in 1988. Over pounding Marley Marl productions, the young gun took off with the precision of a heat-seeking missile, already sure to "have you saying 'Damn boy, shorty be droppin' it!'"
Yet unlike Master Ace, who also had two solo tracks on "In Control", but was additionally featured on the legendary "Symphony", Tragedy had been in touch with Marley Marl for quite some time. As far as Queensbridge MC's go, others were a step ahead of him: MC Shan, certainly, but also Craig G and Poet. But Percy was determined to catch up with them. Initially inspired by Spoonie Gee's "Spoonin' Rap", he began to write rhymes at a young age, he looking up to the older ones, the younger ones looking up to him. He recounts:
"While niggas was on the block playing ball I'd be on the block with my notebook. You know what I'm saying? It's ill cause when we was doing "The Bridge 2000", Nas was like, "Yo son, I remember being a little nigga and you used to write your rhymes, and you used to put a slash after every line and shit." And I was like, oh shit, how the fuck he knew that? I never even knew he would be sitting next to me like that, cause sometimes I'd be on the block writing my shit and mad people used to come around, but I never paid attention to what was around me. I would be in another world." (as told to Elemental Magazine)
Once he decided to become a rapper and eager to escape the troubles at home, Percy hoped to hook up with fellow Queensbridge resident Marley Marl, an aspiring producer who put out records on small indie labels such as Philly's Pop Art and the Aleems' Nia Records. Because Marley was too busy to seriously consider cutting a plate with a 13 year old, Percy started running with local DJ Hot Day (Dante), with whom he released a self-distributed 12" called "Live at Hip Hop USA / Go Queensbridge" (credited to Super Kids). Marley finally took notice, and produced the anti-drug tale "The Tragedy (Don't Do It)" (alternatively known as "Coke Is It", here appearing as "Your Tragedy").
Despite exclaiming "the tragedy won't happen to me," a few years down the line the teenager ended up in jail. After he came back home, the sharpened tone in rap music (think Public Enemy) as well as a certain Joe 'Fatal' Burgos (who would become his DJ), inspired him to continue his career. Alonzo Brown, formerly of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, secured him a deal with A&M Records. "Intelligent Hoodlum" was released in 1990, and it was testament to the crossroad situation Tragedy found himself in. He had just spent 20 months on Rikers Island, his mother had moved to Ohio, he went to school, where he educated himself on black history, he was involved in spiritual studies (Nubian Islaamic Hebrew Mission/Ansaars), and he was a debuting rapper on a major label.
For some reason, A&M decided to call their new artist Intelligent Hoodlum, a misunderstanding that would bug Tragedy for years. Still, it made for one of the simplest yet most impressive album covers in hip-hop history and became the blueprint for a certain mindframe that would shape rap music for the '90s and beyond. KRS-One and Rakim may have been the first to combine an educated present with a criminal past, but it was young Percy who coined a phrase that describes the 'reformed hustler' persona better than any. It's a term he came up with in 1988 as well, when he called himself an "intelligent hoodlum, brain mutilator / IQ of a genius, the motivator."
What do we make of all this? I call it the making of an MC. You find ways to express yourself. You go from ill to illmatical, just to be different. Even with all the things going on in his life, from the excitement of working with Marley Marl and the fuck-up that landed him in jail, to the aforementioned crossroads he found himself at a couple of years later, Tragedy tried to excel at rapping. He came up with stuff like "biceps pulsating in my lungs." Imagine that. Biceps pulsating in your lungs. Pretty graphic, ain't it? It may not be the most scientifically sound picture, but it's the perfect metaphor to describe the demands a rapper's lungs have to meet. It encompasses both power (the biceps) and pace (the pulsating). Who cares if it turns the human anatomy upside down, it's poetical! Illmatical. As Tragedy said in "The Rebel": "I drop words you won't find in a dictionary / I write rhymes to improve my vocabulary." There you have it.
The biceps/lungs concept is re-introduced on the title track of "Intelligent Hoodlum", along with further adventurous wordplay. At one point he refers to himself as "a walkin' sunspot, my energy is radium / a gladiator generating your stadium." But what set Tragedy apart from other abstract lyricists of his day (Kool Keith, Divine Styler), was the conscientious delivery that evoked the image of a scholar literally studying these words. Set over a slow beat and a mysterious, melancholic sample, Tragedy's lyrics, carried by his young but earnest voice, come across pensive and precise at the same time, "cause I'm compelling, acute and never yelling / syllables slide from my throat, and excelling." In such an environment, more traditional lines like "if you wanna battle, you better have insurance" and "dance to my record till you fall in a graveyard" don't quite have the desired effect, but when he was on point, he was as sharp as a needle: "Pickin' up a pen to put my anger on paper / Intelligent Hoodlum, I design a skyscraper."
While these quotes are all picked from the second and the third verse, it's really the first verse on "Intelligent Hoodlum" that makes this song such an astounding document. Here, he skips the wordplay to take an unflinching look at his life:
"I had the mind that was designed for crime
Now I'm two seconds away from the big time
In the fast lane your life goes fast
It's time to take a journey into Tragedy's past
when I was one adopted by Michael Chapman
This was years before I started rappin'
My father held a scholarship for a year
but then he died and so did his career
He left his son and soon to be wife
he died, and that was the end of his life
It's just not fair that he couldn't live through
But as I grew, I fell into the same trap too
But I lived the life that he couldn't see
He died a 18 and that's the age of me
I escaped the cage where your brother is your enemy
and cops turn misdemeanors into felonies
Playin' the game the stakes are a lot
either you're strung out on drugs, in jail or get shot
So I take the pain and put it in a song
cause some of my brothers didn't last this long
Life to them just didn't seem important
as I watched their bodies get stiffer in the coffin
A young black target for someone to shoot ya
Hoodlum's the past, Intelligent is the future"
Paired with Marley Marl's almost mystical track and framed by excerpts from spiritual speeches, "Intelligent Hoodlum" may be the most impressive soundtrack to any awakening (political or spiritual) hip-hop was ever testament to:
"I'm a reborn rebel and my intellect leaks
The Intelligent Hoodlum relates to the streets
cause the past stays on my back to remind me
Intelligence is what you gain when you find me
Heed the message I inject in your eadrum
I'm the Intelligent Hoodlum"
After this impressive opener, the album seesaws up and down between radio-friendly songs and thumping hardcore jams. The single "Back to Reality" interpolates a Soul II Soul hook, as Marley hooks up a beat that's just fresh enough to escape the stale pop format. Still, no other rap track took the popular guitar licks from George McCrae's "I Get Lifted" that far into pop. Trag displays his songwriting skills, reminiscing about the days when he snuck out to witness the live action in the parks. Of course we are talking about hip-hop here:
"My eyes were mesmerized by the DJ's cuts
and I knew later on I would have a sore butt
So I sat and thought what the beatin' would be like
But I would take seven beatings just to get on the mic
See, unlike other kids I wasn't athletic
But as I grew I realized I was poetic"
One song I was always intrigued by in that respect was "Microphone Check". It's one of those hip-hop ditties where the beat and the flow just click and really seem to be made for each other. The track is a simple combination of a sparsely administered piano loop, some hard to define vocal snippets, and a neck-snapping rhythm section. Wait, Trag summed it up better: "Yo, this beat is chunky, and it's funky with piano." It's something that would invite almost anybody to rap, far from intimidating. But it takes someone who knows where to draw breath, where to place rhymes, etc. to bring out the best in such a beat, and that's just what Tragedy does here. Quotes won't do this one justice, because it's all about the interaction between beats and rhymes. That's how Tragedy turns a simple mic check into a poetical showcase.
The playfulness of "Microphone Check" can be found in other songs, although not to that degree. "Party Aminal" is tailored for the dancefloor and succeeds superbly with an engaging hook (some background bitty swooning "Tragedy, he's the party animal!"), a straightforward beat plus party-motivating lyrics. "Party Pack" combines wordplay with a light-footed track, while "Game Type" is just beat and bass, but so tightly arranged that you don't realize it until a sample is thrown in for the hook. I consider these type of tracks as Marley Marl's reaction to new jack swing, the late '80s fusion of hard hip-hop beats and R&B harmonies. "Keep on Striving" may be the most apparent example, considering guest vocalists The Flex. Here, Marley, master of the drum programming, borrows a drum roll from James Brown and infuses it with stylish keyboard strokes. While resulting in an accomodating atmosphere, it certainly is a far cry from his untouchable '88 sound.
Overall, Marley Marl fares better with Tragedy's political songs. Leading the pack is "Arrest the President" with its painfully hard drums and looped siren-like screeches. "No Justice, No Peace" has better absorbed drums and a fanfaring sample you can still identify as horns. "Black and Pround" creates a thumping jam with familiar old school breaks. These tracks all work beautifully, one uplifting, the other agressive, and Tragedy shows himself worthy of these beats. Whether he's promoting black pride or accuses police of murdering a Queensbridge resident, Tragedy finds the right words:
"Black children grow in a world like this
where they kill black leaders and activists
Public housing is prison, get out of the place
Welfare as a system hold back the black race"
As one of the most compelling political songs ever recorded in rap, "Arrest the President" derives a lot of its strength from Tragedy's peculiar writing. Rather than connecting sentences with conjunctions, he piles up phrases, leaving room for the listener's imagination to draw conclusions:
"Someone yelled out: Get the hell out
Evil fell out, but I'm no sell-out
Black's the mineral, white subliminal
Arrest the President, he's the criminal
No one's laughin' this, I keep rappin' this
He's the happiest, we're the nappiest
He's the vulture, study your culture
Broke the sculpture to insult ya
Underrated, we're all related
Assassinated, I just hate it
Mothers cryin', brothers dyin'
Someone's lyin', I keep tryin'
Doin' it right, ready to fight
Shedin' a light, steady in flight
Pro-black explosion, doors are closin'
Brains are frozen, I'm the Chosen
Allah's the force for my ressource
To slay on course without remorse
Flipped and flopped it, hipped and hopped it
I just dropped it, no one stopped it
Poetical prophet, political topic
Don't reject this, just inject this
Bold in blackness, young and reckless
The name is suitable, black is beautiful
Mind was empty, now it's filled in
Time for buildin', teach the children
You wanna erase my misplaced race
Just to make America a beautiful white place?"
By the end, when he's finally done and concludes, "arrest the motherfucking President," adding a few whispered "arrest the President"'s for subliminal effect, he has you where he wants you, agreeing that this 'President' is a problem something should be done about. Even though the song is far from a convincing indictment of the Leader of the Free World. But it's the power of suggestion working its magic here.
If you want to get to the bottom of why this album succeeds, there are, as always, the three main factors: the beats and the lyrics and how they come together. On Tragedy's side, you have a young rapper, still more boy than man, who is simply himself. No frontin', no fakin', no unnecessary drama. After he comes clean about his past in the very first verse of the album, he looks forward and past his own individual fate with a sincerity and humility not often found in hip-hop. He only strays from this path if the rules of rap call for it. Last but not least, he displays a considerable repertoire of styles, a quality that anchors this album firmly in the good old days.
Marley Marl on the other hand is responsible for the musical poetry and propaganda. The extent of Large Professor's input - he's credited for co-producing two songs - is unclear, the same goes for the Professor's apprentice DJ Fatal. But if you're familiar with Marley, you'll see he left his fingerprints all over "Intelligent Hoodlum". While not his best album, he still scores a couple of career highlights. He was never as contemplative as he was on the title track, never as lighthearted as on "Party Animal" and "Microphone Check", and never as politically aware as on "Arrest the President" and "No Justice, No Peace". That alone is reason enough to resurrect this record.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: November 25, 2003