“Pop figures who figured they’d get paid/Exploiting art the black man made”
As a teenage Flash when “The Cactus Album” first released in 1989, the fact that “Sons of 3rd Bass” was a Beastie Boys diss song completely flew over my head. At the time all I cared about was how fly the rhymes from MC Serch and Pete Nice were, how ill the scratches from Richie Rich sounded, and how dope the Sam Sever track was — sampling from Blood, Sweat & Tears for the music and from Edgar Bergen for comedic lines like “He is stupid, but he KNOWS that he is stupid, and that ALMOST makes him smart”. In hindsight though it’s not hard to pick up on the double entendre of lines like “The Beast now lives in the Capitol“ and Pete Nice referring to them as “three bastard sons” he gave birth to.
It wasn’t obvious to due to the fact that MC Serch and the Boys have one really big thing in common — they’re all white guys of Jewish descent from the boroughs of New York. I didn’t then nor do I now think of the Beasties as being any more or less legitimately hip-hop than 3rd Bass. Perhaps 3rd Bass was attempting to establish a strident “real hip-hop” movement where the commercial success of songs like “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” was not allowed, i.e. “strictly underground funk, keep the crossover” as EPMD would later opine. If so the irony here is that the overnight success of “The Gas Face” made 3rd Bass just as commercially viable as the same artists they were dissing.
Although the aforementioned Sam Sever handled most of the production duties on “The Cactus Album“, famed De La Soul maestro Prince Paul was the man behind this classic jam. “Black cat is bad luck, bad guys wear black/Musta been a white guy that started all that” quipped Serch, setting an entirely different standard other than anti-commercialism — one of being “woke” long before that word entered our collective lexicon. The third verse cemented this by having a guest appearance by Zev Love X of K.M.D. drop bars long before the days he’d become better known as MF DOOM. The song’s infamous outro saw them return to their anti-pop rap stance by loudly declaring “HAMMER! SHUT THE FUCK UP” while the music video saw them give a beatdown to an oversized novelty hammer. In real life Stanley Burrell was so pissed about this and the line “The Cactus turned Hammer’s mother out“ on the album that he put a HIT on 3rd Bass.
Again teenage Flash with no internet was not privy to any of the drama. The only thing I can tell you is that as an avid listener of hip-hop at the time “The Gas Face” turned me on to 3rd Bass, and “The Cactus Album” turned me on to the group as a whole. Even though the trio was not meant to be long lived due to creative differences between Pete Nice and Serch, this was the first of two back to back albums that still hold up as hip-hop classics decades later. Any song could have been a single but the ones that WERE singles were monsters. “Brooklyn-Queens” pulled off the nearly impossible feat of being absurdly funny AND dope as fuck. “Feeling on the bulge, thinking it’s her own/I tell her it’s money and she should move on”.
Another irony of the feud between 3rd Bass and the Beastie Boys is the pounding dance floor jam “Steppin’ to the A.M.” The Bomb Squad track was a guaranteed excuse for even the most akwardly coordinated white nerd (which I was) to get on the floor and bust moves, and the glue that held the break together was a sample from “Time to Get Ill” you’ll all recognize.
As noted though the non-singles on “The Cactus Album” are just as fresh though and perhaps moreso. The epic six minute long “Wordz of Wizdom” could be the pinnacle of 3rd Bass illing on the mic, trading off verses of their best punchlines and showing off how lyrically loquacious they are to a Sam Sever song with more layers than tiramisu. “Soul in the Hole” demands to be played at high volume, preferably in a residential neighborhood, and believe that young Flash was pushing his speakers past the breaking point.
History will definitely confuse the timeline of events as far as 3rd Bass is concerned. The pro black, anti-pop rap stance could be viewed by some as a response to Vanilla Ice, but “To the Extreme” came out almost a full year AFTER “The Cactus Album” hit stores. It wasn’t until their second album “Derelicts of Dialect” came out that they took their shot at Robert Van Winkle (and perhaps unwisely at Hammer again) lyrically. On their debut release they were simply stating their credentials as the kind of white guys who grew up around the block, went to the same clubs and night spots trying to get their break, probably being eyed with suspicion at times but paying their dues all the same until they earned respect throughout NYC. On authoritative songs like “Triple Stage Darkness” you can hear the confidence Nice and Serch speak with knowing they were bonafide NY rap masters, complete with a hook that scratched peers Rakim and Chuck D.
“How can hatred uplift a race?” Serch’s poignant question resonates just as much now and perhaps even moreso. I challenge you to find one poorly produced track, one poorly thought out lyrics, or even one skit that wasn’t at least funny or made you want to hit the skip button on “The Cactus Album“. People love to pose the hypothetical question of what albums you would want if you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life, and I can already tell you this 3rd Bass album is one of them. It’s a tough fight given the amount of gems that came out in this era of rap, but their debut album shines brighter than most.