If one hip-hop act is in it for the long haul, it’s the crew that once took things all the way forward to 2044, reminiscing on how they had made it happen fifty years earlier, having their grandkids boast about how they were “rockin’ the shows and keepin’ it true, takin’ out your granddaddy and his punk-ass crew.” The song “50 Years” was penned by a budding Chicago duo named TND who once hoped to succeed names such as Main Source, UMC’s and O.C. on Wild Pitch Records. When the label folded in 1996, Tony Fields and David Kelly, the T and D in TND, soon returned as All Natural, establishing All Natural Inc., an indie label that has since released over fifty records.
“Elements | Fire,” released in spring ’08, is the fourth and latest longplayer from All Natural themselves. It is also the introduction to a four-part album series dedicated to hip-hop’s four elements as explored through the four forces of nature – fire, water, earth, and wind. “Fire” does a competent job of heating things up in typical upfront hip-hop fashion. “The All” is a majestic opener that showcases cap D’s prolific skills behind the boards and on the mic. Not stopping at any obstacle, the track rushes forward, gaining strength with revving drums as strategically placed epic elements (voices, organs) take it to the elevated position cap D envisions for the group: “When we reach 40, yo, we’ll still lead the movement / 50 Years, one fifth of the mission done / I watch niggas come and go, my shit just begun.” Flexing a more relaxed vocal tone but the same dense rhyme structure as Black Thought, cap D stands firm against competition, cautioning, “Either get smarter or get slaughtered, get martryred / You’se a shit-starter – I’m a shit-ender / Put your money where your mouth, Mr. Big Spender.” DJ Tone B Nimble always has his MC’s back, dipping deep into his bag of records to provide the fitting cuts.
Dedicated, passionate hip-hop “Fire” delivers plenty. Battletek laces “Nothin to Lose” with electrified guitars and strings, resulting in a melodic yet futuristic track that supports cap D’s message of “We got nothin’ to lose and the world to gain / and ain’t for stoppin’ till the whole world chantin’ the same.” “Move, Move” is along the same line, only that this time Battletek’s beat adds a meditative, Far Eastern flair to cap’s no-holds-barred attack:
“Lock the game down like the kid’s despotic
I been ’bout it since before Bout It, Bout It
Soft-ass niggas soundin’ like Harry Connick
the rest of y’all soundin’ like your ass demonic
The way the game got it make a nigga despondent
This ill crew, that’s the new bubonic
You think that you can go toe to toe? Doubt it
I slide in the spot, I cannot get spotted
And ain’t no stoppin’ till the pocket get knotted
Bacdafucup, spin ya way back to Onyx
Your ass in my way? You best get out it”
“Backslap” and “SomethinOfNothin” tone down the posturing in favor of arguments, as the “disciple of Bambaataa,” “PE Rightstarter” relates how time waits for no man, stressing his point over a self-produced hard-slapping rhythm track that is accentuated by a funky, twanging guitar whenever it doesn’t burst into soul-drenched breaks (“Backslap”), and offers revolutionary rhetoric over power hip-hop courtesy of Gee Field (“SomethinOfNothin”). Gee Field also composes the triumphant Caribbean vibe of “Signature Flow,” featuring a guest appearance from Chi-Town veteran Grav. Here cap D shows that his authority doesn’t suffer at slower tempos as he begins with the following killer opening:
“Smash trash rappers with the signature flow
Never heard of cap befo’? Just ask a nigga who know
Shouldn’t be hard to find couple victims of mine
Figure they be somewhere diggin’ swine, swiggin’ they wine
tryin’ to take that mind off that ass-whooppin’ they caught”
Yet over the course of only 45 minutes, “Elements | Fire” loses steam several times. “A View to a Kill” opens very similarly to “Signature Flow” with the line “I blast trash rappers,” and neither All Natural nor producer Deep Kalico rise above average underground standards that have existed for years. What’s more, by sampling a narrative about wolves, it introduces an element of nature that doesn’t really relate to fire all that much. “Good Life” is a respectable attempt to define the good life with assistance from Rita J but relies too heavily on a Camp Lo vibe. The closer “Stronger Than Love” begins promising with cap D arguing that family bonds are stronger than love, only to stray from the subject matter to introduce some character who hustles intelligently, never really returning to the topic of the song title. Finally established producer Kev Brown isn’t at his best on “You Know My Name,” another lukewarm track that has all involved going through the motions. “World Champion” praises cap D’s cosmopolitain ways, but as far as songs about broadening your horizon go, we’ve heard far better.
It is not easy to measure “Elements | Fire” by its concept as we don’t know yet how the rest of the tetralogy will differ from this one in incorporating their respective elements. “Fire” proves All Natural got John Blaze shit. But if you pick such a universal (and compelling) concept, why not go all the way with it? Why not use obvious imagery? As it is, “Fire” is mainly about hip-hop (or rather how cap D performs in hip-hop), and not much else. Credit their expertise on the subject for “Poppers Pop, Breakers Break,” a welcome tribute to b-boying. Musically, the album is never reduced to a simplistic stomp, but instead offers layered production that maintains a hard edge. And even though he sometimes loses us in labyrinthine rhyme schemes, cap D is more than capable to spit that hot shit:
“I been rockin’ since your pops poplockin’
T La Rock, Scott La Rock was in stock ‘n
Chuck D, Kool G and Rakim
You doubt a nigga’s that nice? Watch him
I bring the pain like Hasim Rahman
So clear the lane like my name’s D. Rodman”
The problem is not so much what the album has to offer but what it doesn’t offer. In the ten years since All Natural released their first full-length, indie hip-hop has made enormous progress. There’s a new wave of original artists (Little Brother, CunninLynguists, Zion I, Brother Ali, etc.) who have the ability to make music that touches on topics in a way rap hasn’t done before, to craft songs that are not confined to the niche of underground hip-hop and that aim for universal acclaim. On “Elements | Fire” All Natural decide to play strictly the hip-hop card with not much tricks up their sleeves.