Some myths are particularly persistent. For years the vinyl record has been hailed as hip-hop’s most precious raw material. If you cared about covers, about A and B sides, about direct access to any part of the record, if you knew what the DJ historically meant to hip-hop, if you believed digital was inferior to analog, if you appreciated the art of scratching, then you bought wax. I personally switched to compact discs when I realized not every album I wanted would see a vinyl release. That was in 1991. Little did I realize back then that another medium was just as crucial to hip-hop as old fashioned vinyl and handy CD’s. Cassette tapes. And I’m not so much talking about the homemade and handed down mixtapes and show tapings that helped spread hip-hop to all four corners of the world, but about legit tape releases. There existed markets where tapes were the dominant format for rap music, sometimes well into the nineties. The Bay Area. The South. If you got any records from these places released between the mid-’80s and -’90s, chances are a solid percentage of them are tapes.
While your typical East Coast head may have held on to tapes because that was what bootleggers sold and that was how you made your music portable, in other regions tapes were popular for a very specific reason. You could play them in your car. A listening preference that ultimately influenced much of Western and Southern rap, but that’s another story. So in a time before discmans and CD changers, before MiniDiscs and MP3’s, tapes definitely played a key role in hip-hop. You couldn’t go national with just a tape release, but in regional and local markets the tape was often the only format an album was released in. Let’s take this inconspicuous specimen I’m holding in my hands right now. The label is On The Strength Records out of Memphis, Tenn. It’s not clear what it’s called and who’s it by. The front says 8 Ball and Organized Rhyme and bears the title “Listen to the Lyrics”. The spine says Eight Ball and MJG and lists three songs, “Listen to the Lyrics”, “Pimp in the House” and “Got to Be Real”. The cover photo shows a slender guy doing business on a public phone, one hand resting on the groin area of his stone-washed pair of jeans which he combines with a pink tee, with another, portly fella standing next to him, his hands buried in the pockets of a black hoodie, his locks tucked beneath a baseball cap worn backwards, facing the camera with a defiant look on the face. That’s right, it’s none other than Eightball & MJG getting their b-boy stance on somewhere in Memphis way back in 1991.
The tale of how Eightball & MJG left Memphis for Houston to sign with Tony Draper and make hip-hop history has been told many times. This is about what they did before they were “Comin’ Out Hard” in 1993. Although, I’m afraid the only leads I have are the aforementioned tape and the compilation that I’m making, for lack of a better candidate, the object of this review. In 1997, by the time Eightball & MJG were known nationwide, their former label On The Strength (OTS Records) repackaged the duo’s earliest efforts under the title “Lyrics of a Pimp”. The CD gathered songs they recorded while they were still aspiring rap artists in the Orange Mound section of Memphis. Apart from this hard evidence, we also have Eightball and MJG relating their history first hand. Like any rapper who has come a long way, they tend to ponder the past. In 1997, they contributed “Reason for Rhyme” to the “Rhyme & Reason” soundtrack. There, Eightball reminisced:
“Remember back when we used to do this shit for fun?
Bein’ the dopest on my block made me rank number one
No gun, just a pen and open paper by the sheets
In the crib gettin’ funky off the next nigga beat
No electronics to make the shit that I wrote the chronic
Shit sick enough to bring vomit from your stomach”
Two years later, on the superb “Paid Dues”, his partner painted a similar, yet more detailed picture:
“In the middle of doin’ crime…
it never stopped me from writin’ rhymes
it never stopped me from playin’ music
God put it in me, I had to use it
It was obvious, I had to give up the streets for the beats
Not knowin’, but havin’ faith on just how long that it would be
before I made it
before somebody picked up my tape and played it
with a remark like, ‘Hey, play that instrumental
them cats got potential’
In the process of doin’ talent shows, parties, and mixtapes
we even put it down on some of our homeboys’ jail release dates
I can remember in the past closin’ down at fast foods
Strictly stickin’ to my dreams, but feelin’ like I’d be the last dude
who can make it in this rap, I thought that they ain’t gon’ see me in Memphis
It was like a time they looked over Tennessee and didn’t know hip-hop was in it
To all my vets in the game, I got love, stay on your toes
cause back in the days I used to use yo 45 instrumentals to do my shows
And look, I was 17 when I signed my first contract
and about 18 1/2 when I signed my worst contract
We hurt from that, and till this day they still distribute
our first tapes before “Comin’ Out Hard” – now can you feel it?
Be humble and patient with whatever you should choose
cause to get to where I am right now I done paid my dues”
A small amount of these ‘dues’ is compiled on “Lyrics of a Pimp”. Beginning with the earliest documents, there’s certainly “Listen to the Lyrics”, a typically sparse but still booming beat with hard, rhythmic bass stabs accompagnied by kick drums and hi-hats. By today’s production standards, MJG’s boast that “the sound of the boom is hittin’ you hard like an avalanche” seems shallow, but supported by a pair of potent subwoofers, “Listen to the Lyrics” will rattle any trunk. If certain grooves evoke the term ‘gangsta’, this one is definitely up there with the best, well orchestrated from beginning to end, topped by the cut-up Cool J line “Roll me up and puff me, and then I’ll annoint.” “Witness my Memphis pimpology,” MJG invites us, describing himself as “a rhyme writer with a passion for poetry” who’s “droppin’ the lyrics like a dime” and uses cusswords “so the truth can be heard.” But he’s also a “hard black brother with a curl and a real limp…” In other words: “…you’re witnessin’ the lyrics of a pimp.”
One of the most interesting aspects of “Listen to the Lyrics” is that like many before and especially after them, Ball and MJG view themselves as pimps and hustlers of the music biz. MJG is “the young black brother who pimpin’ the rap game,” while his partner states: “My category is defined as bein’ a hustler / and my territory just became a rhyme / From the mind of a Orange Mound veteran / take out a sucker, then go lookin’ for another one.” This symbiosis between rap and the underworld has been stressed to no end ever since, and obviously some people will always object against crime being glorified through this medium, but these people often fail to see the bigger picture.
Orange Mound used to be part of the 5,000 acres-spanning Deadrick Plantation that held over 1,000 slaves and was divided after the Civil War to make realty available to former slaves. It was one of the first neighborhoods in the South where blacks could own homes. By the 1940s, 40,000 people lived in that area, making Orange Mound second only to Harlem in New York in terms of the number of black residents. Historically, it is a strong, culturally rich and thriving area, but it also has its share of economic and social problems. It is obvious how these two young men could relate to rappers from New York, Los Angeles and Houston who came from a similar background. Even though Memphis, home of Beale Street and Graceland, of Sun Records and Stax Records, already has one of the richest musical legacies in the United States, hip-hop fell on fertile soil. And Eightball & MJG were by no means the only Memphis representatives. When they put out their little local tape, Gangsta Pat had already gone national with the album “#1 Suspect” on Atlantic while others like DJ Spanish Fly, SMK, Triple 6 Mafia, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, or Ska Face Al Kapone were grinding along with them.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that the other two selections from the “Listen to the Lyrics” tape, “Got to Be Real” and “Pimp in the House”, feature MC Ren and Dr. Dre snippets. Interestingly, both are solo cuts. The former has Ball flowing relatively fast over a keyboard/drum machine combo, the latter is a slowly prowling MJG solo. Notice that this version is different from “Pimps in the House” off “Comin’ Out Hard”, which featured all new (and highly political) lyrics. Apparently Eightball & MJG recycled a couple of old song titles and concepts for their Suave Records debut. “Niggaz Like Us” was originally a posse cut that invited guests J Smooth and Killa Bee to form Organized Rhyme, “real niggas with a thang for guns and shit / but also gettin’ funky on the lyrical tip / Orange Mound-born, so I warn stupid suckers / you can test OTS and be a dead muthafucka,” to quote Eightball. On “Lyrics of a Pimp”, “Armed Robbery” is a MJG solo, on “Comin’ Out Hard”, more episodes were added, to the point where MJG had to explain: “You think it’s over, but it ain’t.” Then in 1999, there appeared yet another “Armed Robbery” on an Eightball & MJG album, with even more ‘robbers’ involved. Musically, the “Comin’ Out Hard” version tops them all, but in the original, “Armed Robbery” is a well structured account detailing a cleaner getaway than Master P’s first album.
But before this review gets any more obscure, I’ll try to bring it to a closure. Few clues are left as to who produced these tracks. The “Listen to the Lyrics” tape was produced by Tyrone ‘Psyco’ Bell and MJG, with turntable work provided by J Smooth and DJ Zirk. A number of other tracks sound very much like what DJ Paul and Juicy J have been doing for years (especially “Smokin’ Chicken”). “Kick Da[t] Shit” was programmed by SMK, “The Fat Mac” by Gangsta Pat. “Listen to the Lyrics” gets a “Remix 2000” by Albert Perkins, which is okay but ultimately unnecessary. Topically, a lot of it revolves around weed (they call it ‘chicken’) and sex. And that’s where these young rappers reveal their limitations. Although they since convinced us that their pimp philosophy embraces more aspects of life than their attitude towards the opposite sex, what you hear on “Lyrics of a Pimp” is not exactly “space age pimpin'”, it’s more like two sex-starved fellas fantasizing about the pull they have. Chances are, they were simply high most of the time. As MJG himself admits: “Fuckin’ with chicken can put a dent in reality.” Either way, his promise “My lyrics will demonstrate that pimps don’t perpetrate” remains unfulfilled.
And so much of the duo’s adventures are triggered by hormonal pressure. “Lookin’ for a nymphomaniac with a sack, with a room, with a bed and a bottle full of ‘yac,” Ball describes his dream date. In “The Fat Mac” he feels akin to hip-hop’s original Overweight Lover Heavy D, but he makes sure to keep up his pimpin’ pokerface: “An overweight lover but love ain’t my game.” The occasional lyrical highlight (Quiz time: what’s a “one-eyed bandit with a stiff personality”?) can’t detract from the fact that this is very stale subject matter. One of the worst tracks here, and not only in terms of sound quality, has to be “Bitches” (with a Tony Montana quote probably jacked straight from the Ghetto Boys’ “Balls and My Word”). It’s understandable that adolescent boys dig stuff like this, but for grown men to engage in this type of misogynist machismo is dubious to say the least. But hey, they put the disclaimer up front, when they declare on the album’s intro: “Eightball & MJG is in the muthafuckin’ house. We’d like to ask for all sensitive bitches to please leave the area.”
So I won’t front. For lack of more substantial subject matter, some of their foulest rhymes are also the tightest. Ball’s “Kick Da[t] Shit” punchline “The women, you know I’m with ’em, that’s why I dick ’em / don’t lick ’em, and if they’re full of shit then I just kick ’em.” MJG spitting:
“Ain’t no bitch pussy good enough for me not to tack her
Bring it in, buck it up, move it out like some cattle
change my rubber, grab a towel, wipe the nut from my head
dim the lights and pull the next bitch from under the bed”
If that’s possible, their national records showed Eightball & MJG as matured pimps. An initial stage of that maturation process was “Its a Pimp Thang”, where MJG admits that he “won’t cheat over women and got no static with no guy,” holding on to his curl like a Rastafarian to his locks, because it symbolizes his identity and independence.
It should be clear by now that “Lyrics of a Pimp” is for fans of Eightball & MJG strictly, and that even they might have trouble digesting the amateurish air that dominates this compilation. “Listen to the Lyrics” is by far the most memorable track and should be on any future best-of the duo will be commemorated with. The rest can’t prevail against the shaky sound quality. If you’re forgiving and generally interested in early local hip-hop, especially southern, take the risk. If you wanna brush up on your pimpology or hear some good music, go for any of their regular albums.