I knew this CD would be tight before I bought it. I knew about Brooklyn Academy because I like Jean Grae, Pumpkinhead, and Thirstin Howl III, and these artists have all made it clear (via anecdotes and liner notes) that they are down with the clique. The only other connection I have to the Ac is a burnt CD my friend gave me a long time ago that said “Will Tell Comp. Vol. 1”; it has since been scratched to oblivion. I don’t know exactly when the compilation was released (I’m guessing mid- to late-nineties), but I know the MCs on it said they were Brooklyn Academy and the songs were among the tightest I’d ever heard. So I went to Fat Beats in NYC looking for Brooklyn Academy stuff thinking that if I could find older songs, they would sound like the “Will Tell Comp.” I saw the “The Academy Awards” (obviously a retrospective, though www.ughh.com says it came out 04/2004), recognized a few song titles, and BOOYAH. $10.99. Sold.
For those that don’t know, the original aesthetic of Brooklyn Ac was defined by two things: Will Tell’s DUSTY-ASS, lo-fi, repetitive beats (with prehistorically old-school samplesâ€”no jazz or R&B here) and a bunch of MCs rhyming LOOSE AS HELL. We’re talking switch-blade similes and piss-drunk punchlines. These MC’s are NOT CLASSY. They are NOT SMOOTH. They are rugged, rough, and ready to rhyme. If you like rap that is polished and well-produced, this is not the crew for you. This is like the exact opposite of laid-back, breeze in the trees, backyard BBQ DJ Quik type shit. This is drunk off two forties and a blunt hyped-up shit. Brooklyn Ac hallmark #1: the style is wild. Hallmark #2: shitty presentation. The artists aren’t listed song by song, the CD is a cheaply painted CD-R, the artwork is ghetto, the website listed on the sleeve doesn’t exist, the dates and original albums the songs are from aren’t listed, etc. Brooklyn Ac seems to love shooting itself in the foot, right down to the sketchy recording quality, seemingly saying, “Yo, it doesn’t matter if the shit is packaged in garbage, diamonds shine no matter the rough.” Yes, yes, true indeed.
The compilation starts with NYC ambiance: freestyle raps outdoors on the street. You can hear the cars drive past as the freestyle morphs into a studio freestyle featuring Talib Kweli (who Block went to high school with). It shows that Brooklyn Ac is street level as well as respected by heavy-hitters. After that, the hits start coming. “Famous Last Words” features a typical Will Tell beat (ancient skeletal guitar and drunk marimbas). One MC is obviously Block, but the other one (I’m sure it’s Metaphor) is rapping so hard (or smoked so many cigarettes) that he’s pretty much ripping his voice apart. He’s rapping like it’s the last time he’ll ever rap. The intensity is palpable. “Soundbytes” features more of the same rawness over a dramatic Will Tell beat that sounds like a cassette of Carmina Burana kicked around in the mud. Metaphor gets the nod for lines like these: “Dustin ya, like a number one drug customer / Hustler, get your shit muffed like a muffler (…) We stuckin’ ya with a microphone fist-fuckin’ ya.” It might not look like much, but when he gets going, it’s rhyme after rhyme after rhyme of hardcore flowing that definitely adds up for a cumulative effect. Something about the way he articulates huss-a-lah and muff-a-lah… inexplicably tight.
“Connect 4” is tight, but segues into the tighter “The Unusual Jam” that shows another side to the Brooklyn Ac sensibility: abstraction. The beat is the definition of drunken master, a minimalist plucked string that trips over itself again and again. With tracks like this and Pumpkinhead’s (not included) “Dynamic,” Brooklyn Ac lay claim to an advanced aesthetic that is artistically daring and lo-fi (like a less intricate RZA), proving that fresh ideas (not fresh equipment) make good hip-hop. Pumpkinhead kills “The Unusual Jam” as well as the following “The Con Artists” (“I’m like a silent alarm/ the type to frighten ya moms/ strike and I’m gone/ bitin’ my rhyme is like bitin’ a bomb”) with Block and Metaphor, who apparently make up the Skeme Team. Skeme Team, Wordamouth, whateverâ€”I can’t keep the groups straight. Every different combination of Brooklyn Ac rappers has a different name.
The next track is the one that made me a fan of the “Will Tell Comp.”, “Stupid,” which features a cartoony Will Tell beat. It sounds like old Mel Blanc era Warner Bros. cartoon themes. It’s an anthem of sorts that has the Ac shouting the chorus: “I’m STUPID! I’m troopin’ through Brooklyn! WHAT THE FUCK YOU LOOKIN’ AT?!” To those that know about Hyphy cats “dumbing out” or “getting stupid,” it’s nothing new. It’s a way of saying “getting loose” or “feelin’ it.” But this song is more than that. It’s also confronting the passersby on NYC streets who are afraid of these gangsta-looking, probably high-as-fuck renegades. This is the sound of rap animals claiming their jungle as confrontationally as possible. The whole song sounds like a giant “Fuck you” to everybody in the world: mainstream rap, “hot” underground producers, “high-concept” independent acts, rappers that think they are poet laureates, etc. It is a refreshing uppercut to the high-minded snooty rapper, deflating the “conscious” brand of MC with a swift kick to the nuts. There is so much energy on this track that it scares some people and hypes others up. Metaphor definitely gets into a zone, spitting artillery fire, off the hook, unconscious as he spits:
“At the concert my palms hurt
holdin’ the mic
controllin’ it right
patrollin’ the sights
I’m rollin’ it tight
all my soldiers glowin’ tonight
I’m throwin’ the mic
be froze in my sight
I’m colder than ice
I’m older than Christ
I’m bigger than life
I’ve been in your wife
I’m sinning tonight
I’m quicker than light
I’m sick with the mic
Son, you must be hittin’ the pipe
And sniffin’ the white
Wordamouth son, livin’ the life”
In this song Metaphor also says, “You’ll get smacked with an upper fist/ Snuffed like alupagus”. Priceless.
An old-school cartoon-sounding beat is also utilized to great effect on the absolute classic “Language Barriers”. “Who’s breakin’ language barriers? We breakin’ language barriers” goes the chorus as Block and Thirstin Howl III rap in Spanish/English hybrids and Metaphor does the same in French. The concept is ill and Thirstin Howl has just a crazy enough flow to sound utterly hilarious: “Associo wit’ illegal negocios / Nine Inch Nail your coffin shut after it slowly close.” The tone of his voice is what does it. In fact, the whole experience of gettin’ loose with the Ac is something you kind of just have to hear to understand. The sounds of these MC’s speak volumes more toward their offbeat humor and verbal nastiness than any written criticism could do. This song and “Stupid” are the ones that really capture the whole vibe of the Ac, the ones that will, one day, be called legendary. Thirstin Howl pops up again on “Pass De Que” with Block and Icon, another Spanish/English mash-up that is sicka than sick, whether or not you understand Spanish (I don’t).
“Nothin’ U Could Do” features what sounds like a children’s choir, complete with Cathedral echo. Brilliant. Jean Grae passing the mic to Pumpkinhead is a beautiful thing.
Jean Grae: “Pit butane flames shootin’ out the mouth when I’m Down South
Rep it when I’m East Coast
Throw it when I’m Westside
Toast it when I’m Midwest
Packin’ shit, Columbine…
… Niggas rock Timbs, dirty jeans, baggy, fam rowdy
All day, still doubt me, run ya mouth, talk about me”
Pumpkinhead: “Skeme Team one and only
And I weigh about two-ten, so don’t trust me
As far as you can throw me
We’re gonna be the first underground cats with platinum trophies
Up at Fat Beats sportin’ Rolies”
Though Grae, Howl, Pumpkinhead and even Icon show up and hold down the vibe (“Russian Roulette” is another nasty posse cut, by the way), the nucleus of the group is undoubtedly Block, the only MC that spits on just about every track. By the time “Times Have Changed” rolls around, McCloud finally breaks down and offers legitimate life-introspection over an almost moaning woman lamenting, “times have changed…”
“I was Little Man Tate with straight A’s
couldn’t wait for my payday
Step-pops was tryin’ to say I hate my old lad-ay
Ran with the locals, broke rules in Brooklyn lookin’ to lay vocals
Sellin’ coke thinkin’ I’m so cool
Cuttin’ out of school and breakin’ night
Huffin’ cooleys and weed and takin’ flights, two wrongs ain’t make me right
So my rhymes declined, last line I had I sniffed it
Mind was mad lifted, forgot that I was gifted
Caught sellin’, moms yellin’ made it hard to speak
Pops tellin’ her I’m a villain killin’ her ’cause her heart was weak
Played boss, layed laws I can’t obey
For the sake of my mom’s heart breakin’, I ran away
Now I’m homeless, roamin’ the streets in the rain and thunder
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I survived rubbin’ shoulders with the undead
I dropped a single, put a ROOF over my son’s head”
On this track, Block does it all: rhyme hard, rhyme funny, and rhyme forlorn, beaten by the streets, down but never out. It’s the same sensibility that must have attracted him to Pumpkinhead and Jean Graeâ€”they all rap about real emotions without corniness or sentimentality. A song this real simply cannot be fucked with, PLUS it features Pumpkinhead saying shit like, “If I die I die now, don’t want to die when I’m rich.” It feels immediate and heavy, like these MC’s are laying it all on the line.
In the end, what you have here is hip-hop with balls. I believe that Block is perhaps TOO scarred by the boulevard and now is limiting himself and the Brooklyn Ac legacy by releasing shit like the (more recent) Island Academy mixtape. Metaphor and Pumpkinhead are still down with the Ac, but have definitely branched out. Block has his shit out on MF Grimm’s Day by Day Ent., but needs to recognize that Brooklyn Academy could have the relevance of a Wu-Tang Clan if the artists could commune. It must be like aligning the planets to get all the elements right, but when they fall into place…boy, watch out!
For all you Brooklyn Ac fans, don’t give me shit about neglecting MC’s like War Bixby, A.B., Dopalis, Young Tae, O.D. or Vengeance. They’re second string and you know it, plus they’re not really on this release. The bottom line is that the Will Tell beats are groundbreaking for their OLDER than old school samples and the rhymes are startling for their intensity and fury. The most appealing part is that all this tightness sounds cheaply made by a bunch of cats in a smoky-ass room drinking forties, getting their shit made by any means necessary.