“How about some hardcore?” asked M.O.P. a good ten years ago. Going by their long-running career, more than a few heads could agree with their debut single’s chorus and responded with, “Yeah, we like it raw!” Since the element of rawness has been missing in hip-hop as of lately, why not take a look at a period when this music was rawer than shark sushi? Presenting female rapper Champ MC, whose only album, 1994’s “Ghetto Flava”, is interesting for a couple of reasons. Released on the Atlantic subsidiary EastWest, this was a major label album. Secondly, it was a serious attempt at creating a bi-coastal rap album, as it is divided into a ‘east’ and a ‘west’ side, the former overseen by Mount Vernon’s Tony Dofat, the latter orchestrated by Oakland’s E-A-Ski & CMT. Despite these premises, it reached only a limited number of people. On the trivia tip, there’s the fact that rap legend Rakim seems to be part of Champ’s extended family, as she refers to him in the liner notes as her godbrother. More importantly, a few years later, Champ MC was appointed to become part of the Deadly Venoms, the all-female group associated with Wu-Tang.
But I had a different, much simpler reason to buy this album once it hit the shelves. It was the cover. It consists of a black-and-white snapshot of Champ in the background, dressed in a black hoodie, caught in movement, lifting up her chin defiantly, her face screwed. In the front, there’s the blurred vision of a turntable, a DJ’s hand resting on the vinyl, either scratching or cueing the record. The picture is tagged by the plain announcement of artist and album title. For a hip-hop record, this looked damn promising.
Then came the moment of truth when I put the record on. The first thing you hear is someone I imagine to be a boxer claiming that he’s “the people’s choice” and “the champ”. He makes way for a mellow, melodic background and Champ welcoming the listener and proceeding with some shout-outs. The “Intro” is pleasantly short, and soon we’re treated to “Here I Come”. And that’s when the ruckus is about to begin. The track slowly fades in, with some trademark New York style sounds that are both irritating and pleasing at the same time. Imagine a horn loop, distorted until it resembles a swarm of hornets buzzing around your head. In a matter of seconds, producer Anthony Blagmon builds the track up in a sequence of logical steps: first he creates the buzz (pun intended), then the bass starts creeping up on ya, until a few rhythmic cuts announce the beat, which drops shortly after. All that’s needed is a little variation, so what does he do? He makes the buzz sound even more aggressive (as if the hornets are about to close in) looping it alternately with the less menacing bits. And quite magically, out of chaos comes order. Before you know it, your head is nodding along. Once you’re hooked, he can retract certain elements, and you’re still entranced by the hypnotic groove.
Fat beats notwithstanding, the success of a hip-hop tune stands or falls with the rapper’s performance. Some people will automatically turn away once Champ’s raoring vocal tone spills over the carefully crafted track. She rides that poor thing so aggressively you’d think it’s a hip-hop rodeo. It’s like she yells and curses at the track, trying to tame this bucking horse that just won’t keep still. In the process, she swallows syllables and generally sounds like she utters a whole lot of incoherent phrases. But if you try to make out what she’s saying, there’s actually nothing strange about her spitfire:
“I got a award for the damage that I did
so stop beatin’ me in my head with that bullshit, kid
I got it goin’ on, word is bond, Champess is the master
grab the microphone and blast a nigga if I have ta”
If one thing can be said about Champ the MC, it’s that what she says and how she says it is definitely in sync. And I ain’t talkin’ about no damn boy group here. This is hardcore, remember? It’s for those that like it raw. Raw emotion, raw feelings. It’s about getting shit off your chest, out of your system. Nobody knows that better than Champ, whose introductory rant culminates in the chorus loudly announcing her arrival. It’s pandemonium.
Blame it on the times. Early ’90s New York rap was like that. That was the steelo. Gruff and grimey. More ghetto than conscious, rap had become all about the survival on the streets. It’s the attitude that groups like Mobb Deep, Smif-N-Wessun, or Wu-Tang Clan have successfully refined and carried into the mid-’90s. And don’t think the women were any different. There was a whole gang of female hardcore rappers, and Champ MC was just one of them. Although none may have been as raw as she.
Once you know her steez, it’s obvious that that’s how the album is gonna go down. Straight up hardrock hip-hop with little to no lyrical finesse. The great thing about this album though, is that you get to hear the rapper in two radically different soundscapes. For the first half, you have the bass-heavy but clear East Coast sound of Tony Dofat (who may best be known for producing Heavy D), then there’s a dramatic change when Bay Area duo E-A-Ski & CMT step on the scene with “Keep Shit on the Real”. It’s a sound that New York ears might have gotten introduced to via the popular “Menace II Society” soundtrack. Generally slower, less amped, synth- and not sample-based, the sound may even be more edgy due to New York hip-hop being so warmly wrapped up in bass, but on a whole it’s definitely more relaxed. People have speculated as to why these differences between East and West, referring to the different lifestyles and environments. Ice Cube, when he was warring against the East Coast, even tried to relate it to different crops of weed when he said in “All the Critics in New York”: “We got the bomb and you niggas got the stress,” but as far as Champ goes, she’s stressing whether she’s out in Cali or back in NY. Peep “Keep Shit on the Real”:
“It’s the same old shit, no matter where you go
You could travel around the world and still roam in the ghetto
The other day I had some problems with the cops
I had to shoot his ass dead just to get my damn props
What the fuck is goin’ on, I always have to walk around strapped
but that’s okay with me, I lead a war in a death trap”
However, she does seem a little bit more relaxed on the flipside. But her duet with labelmate Yo Yo, the slow-burning “Cruzin'”, is produced by Tony Dofat, so you can’t really draw a straight line. Again, this is one of the few albums that actually try to overcome regional disparities without trying to cover up the differences. Or as Champ puts it: “The groove ain’t the same / in New York I got beefs but in L.A. it’s called gangs / chillin’ in your ’64 (…) / hittin’ ’em switches and bouncin’ to Snoop Dogg / Yo, that’s that chronic / slam like Onyx.” Still, when she recounts a night out in her hometown (“Time 2 Roll”), you know you’re in New York and not in L.A.
Interestingly, on this album even a song that describes recreational activities such as “Time 2 Roll” is raw to the core. Ultimately a straight up party cut, this wasn’t a track for the clubs, it was one for the cars. Thankfully, Tony Dofat knew exactly what to spin at this particular party, laying down a laid-back track sewn together by a dope Biz Markie vocal sample which promises that this one would go on “till the break of dawn.”
But let’s not forget the main ingredient of Champ’s “Ghetto Flava”, as embodied by hardcore tracks such as “Catchin’ Wreck”, “Funk House”, the Angel ‘8 Off’ Aguillar-produced “Do U Know My Style”, “Neighborhood Sniper”, etc. Occasionally, she shows some attempts at storytelling (“Niggaz ? Murder Mine”), but often her lyrics revolve around nothing more than calling out adversaries and doing bodily harm to them. She reaches a limit when she starts to sound like a bad female copy of Onyx. Case in point: “Stressin’ Me”, where she does that Sticky Fingaz thing, some sort of mixture between growling and screaming. It’s not cool, simply because someone else already did it. What’s more, she also has less to offer lyrically:
“Send me a victim so I can get mine
All these bum bitches is gettin’ OUT OF LINE
And if you do the crime, you GOTTA DO THE TIME
I said they’re stresin’ me, PAIN in my chest
Gotta get my nine and my bullet-proof vest
crazy extra clips CAUSE NOW I’M FUCKIN’ VEXED
Seven bitches down, NOW GUESS WHO’S NEXT?!!”
Thanks to tracks like these, you can terrorize almost anyone with this album. There’s only a few people who can stand stuff like that. Something Champ herself apparently is well aware of: “Back in the days I used to chill and maintain / they used to call me Champagne, but now I’m Champ causin’ pain…”
But there’s also another side to Champ MC, the one that keeps mentioning the words ‘microphone’ and ‘MC’, the one that realizes that she represents for the female rapper species, the one that works with vocal inflections (something which puts her way above the similarly-styled Hurricane G), the one that raps with the energy fueled by rhyming ciphers. Regardless if a statement like “I’m so nice in a battle brothers fear me” holds any truth, there must have been a time when Champ earned her stripes:
“I kick shit live but I’m deadly
The mic is my friend, the wack MC’s be the enemy
and the stage is where I catch wreck
and when I rip shop Champ gets all respect”
At the core, Champ is still the girl who dreams of being famous:
“I always told my mother I was gonna be a rap star
whoever thought I was gonna make it this far?
It was my dream ever since I was 12
Growin’ up in the ghetto I had to go for delf
Chillin’ at jams and parties in the hood
‘Aiyo Champ get open’ – Do you really think I should?”
Her “top goal”, as she describes it in the title track, to become “the first female to go platinum,” was reached by another rapper who debuted in 1994, Da Brat. Femininity is not exactly what Da Brat distinguished from her predecessors, at least not back then. But compared to Champ MC, any other female rapper would have sounded like a kitten. For mainstream appeal, she comes across extremely masculine (vocally, and maybe also visually). At one point, she even quips, “I rap like a nigga, but don’t jump on the dick.” But like I said, she knows she’s representing for the females. It might seem odd that on the only song that discusses relationships (“Sistas Betta Recognize”), she sides with the men, but if you listen close enough, she’s less worried about the men than the women who play themselves. Too bad this record doesn’t feature more words of wisdom like “It takes two to tango / but a brother’s gonna go as far as a woman takes him.”
As for “Ghetto Flava”, the E-A-Ski & CMT-produced title track wraps it all up, combining Spice 1 and Flava Flav samples to construct a dope break while Champ returns to her stomping grounds.
With a better MC, the rating of this album’s music might have been higher, and with worse music, the lyric rating might have been lower. Therefore, the present rating is a testament to the strong musical performance as well as to the limitation of the MC. If this project would have been a battle between producers, the match would have been most likely a tie. Both camps serve up equally dope beats, the East Coast with its emphasis on ‘flava’ possesses ‘funk’ as well, and vice versa. For someone wanting to study East and West Coast production around 1994, this is definitely the album to look out for. For everyone else, you haven’t heard ruff, rugged and raw until you heard “Ghetto Flava”.