If it wasn’t for hip hop I possibly would never have heard of New York’s Queens, it certainly wouldn’t have been so familiar to me. The same can be said for the city’s other boroughs, aside from Manhattan perhaps which comes up frequently enough in every day references due to the international notoriety of Wall Street, Times Square and of course 9/11.
It goes without saying that Queens is one of the most famous and iconic locations in hip hop history, bringing us the likes of MC Shan, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Nas, Large Professor, 50 Cent and numerous others. However, those from Queens are more qualified to speak on its significance to hip hop than I am, and one of those residents is Junclassic. “Rep Queens” from his latest album “Blvd Backdrop” pays tribute to the borough and its artists, and I guess it’s pretty appropriate that he’s using the LL Cool J “Eat’em Up L Chill” instrumental (although the beat jacking is not particularly creative and LL rips his track better). You can play “name the artist/song” while watching the video:
Despite not being the first name that comes to mind when thinking of Queens, Junclassic is certainly not new to the scene. He first appeared in 1997 as part of a duo called Dynamix, and since then has released 7 solo albums and is also part of the Monsta Island Czars (M.I.C.) collective (where he’s known by the Gabarah alias). Junclassic is new to me though, although I enjoyed the one and only Monsta Island Czars album it didn’t feature rhymes from him as he came to the crew later on. Additionally, by chance or choice, his previous albums never registered on my radar. Therefore his eighth album “Blvd Backdrop”, with fellow NY native DJ Bazooka Joe on production, is my Junclassic initiation.
I don’t think I’m wrong in suggesting that Junclassic’s rapping voice is an acquired taste. Actually it makes perfect sense to me that he’s part of the M.I.C. (i.e. a crew that have aliases related to Godzilla and other Japanese movie creatures) as Junclassic has a kind of sleepy cartoon character voice that would be perfect behind a docile dinosaur or big woolly mammoth in an animated TV show or movie for kids. That’s not meant as a negative as I generally love unique sounding MC’s, and I like the deep tone and milkiness to his voice, but the peculiarity of his vocal style might not be for everyone, especially an album’s worth of it. The fact that it’s a voice that lacks an energetic spark does make Junclassic sound a bit disinterested on the mic, which poses problems at times on the album where the music isn’t doing all that much.
Junclassic doesn’t only “Rep Queens”, he’s also shouting out New York in general. “NY Won’t Stop” was the first single and taster for the album:
Whilst it’s not a bad song, it brings to light my main issue with the album i.e. a feeling of been there, done that prevails. In fact, both “Rep Queens” and “NY Won’t Stop” sound a lot like Large Professor tracks to me; from the point of view of the production and also the fact that Junclassic shares Extra P’s slower, deliberate cadence (although the voices themselves are different). Sure, home turf repping is almost a hip hop prerequisite, and having similarities to another MC is often unavoidable, but I’d prefer a lesser known MC like Junclassic to give me something fresh and creative to make me want to grab his album off the shelf instead of those by his more famous Queens contemporaries.
It’s also a confusing album. I was actually very hopeful when the album started out with an excerpt from a Malcolm X speech leading into the track “Believe”, a track which discusses the need for self-belief and not losing hope. However the spirit of Malcolm’s thoughts isn’t revisited at any point further in the album, which renders his presence on the album’s intro as a mere token usage, which is somewhat belittling as far as I’m concerned. I’m a firm believer that an album INTRO should be exactly that, an introduction to or brief overview of what is ultimately expanded on throughout the whole record, and this doesn’t happen with “Blvd Backdrop”. Junclassic drops knowledge here and there, more in the form of tales of the war on the streets, such as on the dark “Tomorrow”, but this is no Public Enemy style album. Maybe I’m showing my age here, but I expect more of a black conscious flavour of hip hop from an album opened by Malcolm X. The album’s finale, “My Style (Remix)” featuring C-Rayz Walz and Evolve, is rather misplaced also. It’s a much cleaner recording quality compared to the slight muddiness of the rest of the album and has more of a threatening tone than the other tracks. It also happens to be a song that was previously released in the exact same form on Evolve’s “Ink Slinger Infinite” album (which came out a couple months prior to “Blvd Backdrop”). I realise that a repeat appearance of a song isn’t such an unusual occurrence, and Junclassic was probably banking on the fact that not many people would have heard the track before via Evolve’s album, but the perfectionist in me would prefer my albums book-ended in a way that is in tune with the whole album.
The album peaks for me with the tracks that stand out as more distinct. “Hungry” has nice DJ work in the break that jumps out as a really addictive whistle, which is combined with a nice punchy beat, and rhymes from Junclassic detailing everything from hunger for a record deal to being literally hungry for a meal on the streets. As basic as it is musically, with nothing more than a booming beat, bassline and old school samples in the break, “Do Extra” is a really enjoyable listen, particularly for what Junclassic does lyrically; the song highlights his penchant for metaphors and punch lines, and it’s something he does so much that it’s basically a trademark of his:
“Pops juggling jobs like no probs
So me and Bob can have eggnog with HÃ¤agen-Dazs
80’s house parties harder than Mardi Gras
All you needed was girls, Bacardi and a rowdy squad
Through the plots I’d jot in my journals
Somewhere I became nocturnal as crop circles
Hip hop, not commercial, started as street poetry
Can I get a witness, think I need a notary
Eyes red and sleepy, looking beady like a rosary
Potency, put it in the air like potpourri
Got my own moves like a new wrestler
Got a lot to prove so let’s do extra
All in for the kingpin, strike pre-eminent
Train like its personal, inbred regiment
Hard work is never a choice, it’s a lifestyle
Pipe down, you barely on like your mum’s nightgown
Paper shredder, made a commitment to rip shit
Tisk tisk, shit is getting thicker than Bisquick
Did I say these black clouds are here to stay?
Like the sky in “The Matrix”, well Imma change this…“
In fact, he relies on metaphor to such a great extent that it’s almost overdone, but if it’s your thing then you’ll have a good time picking apart Junclassic’s lyrics in search of the next quotable. Some of his lines don’t work, e.g. “put the squeeze on a rattlesnake, til he evaporates, for trying to play me like carrot cake”, but you can’t help but smile when he’s on point with something like “told shorty go â€˜head, she said she good at soccer”.
Conversely, a few tracks here aren’t that great. The smoked out, ode to getting blunted “Lounge Low” doesn’t really work for me, it’s predictable on every level and I’m not surprised that it reminds me of a track Del would do i.e. a substandard Del track. “Playin’ Dirty” tries very hard to be ominous musically and Junclassic raps in a deeper tone to add impact, but the harder stance feels too contrived to me, his wordplay doesn’t pull this one across the line either: “on “Dre Day” let “The Chronic” bang, but you ain’t done nuttin’ ’til you fucked with chronic pain”. The track also brings out the originality withdrawal symptoms again, as the “clap your hands” sample does nothing but make me think of the classic and far better “Legion Groove” by The Legion from 20 years before. “C-Span” is another bombardment of one-liners, but the way the piano keys drop on the track give it a comical, almost goofy feel musically that is very reminiscent of a Grand Puba track and better suited to someone with that kind of rap persona.
We also get middling songs such as “Rugged N’ Hard”, “Roll” (feat. King Cesar) and “On the Move” (feat. Ceez). All are decent tracks which get the head nodding, but are very similar to each other in that they’re stripped right back to the essence where they all sound like nothing much more than breakbeats, albeit with different tempos to each other and little add-ons here and there. I love my raw, stripped back hip hop but these tracks just lack something for me; I think it comes back to what i was saying about Junclassic’s voice and the lack of charisma there not holding my interest, particularly in a sparse musical landscape which requires an MC that engages the listener more. Maybe clever metaphors just aren’t enough.
If you’ve sensed the pattern here, you’ll come to the conclusion that this album needs more of Junclassic’s identity to shine through, and less of the bits and pieces of everyone else. I blame that as much on the backdrop that DJ Bazooka Joe provides as much as I blame Junclassic himself. There’s not really a bad track here per se (“Lounge Low” is as low as it gets and that’s because its just dull rather than wack), but there’s nothing that’s particularly special either and the album feels more like an insignificant backstreet that you’ll occasionally take a quick detour through, rather than a boulevard that is a major focal point of a city. If you like the idea of an unusual sounding MC who comes fully strapped with metaphors you’ll probably enjoy listening to Junclassic on this album. Otherwise, you might not get too much out of it.