Upstate New York, how it all began? I’m afraid not. Chronicling the small and the big steps of a regional music scene is the job of local historians and journalists on the ground, the rest of us who weren’t there to witness the radio appearances, the talent shows, the marketing campaigns, the opening act gigs, the afterparties, the word on the streets, the buzz on the schoolyards, the rivalries, the mentorships, the family ties, the downtown studios, the college stations, the record shops, the mixtape vendors, the whole local music set and manifestations of hip-hop culture, only have individual exhibits to go by. In the case of Northern New York State, one is Makeba & Skratch’s “Mental Fitness”, another J Rock’s “Streetwize”. (Who both don’t begin to tell the real history of their local scenes, obviously.)
J Rock was an aspiring rapper from Newburgh, NY, who linked up with equally ambitious entrepreneur Jeff Murphy. They recorded a single for Murphy’s newly established Ghetto Groovz Records, “Chosen One”. Not quite satisfied with the result, they searched for ways to raise the potency of their product. They found two outside collaborators who were starting to make a name for themselves as producers-for-hire – DJ Premier and Easy Mo Bee. Watching Premier construct tracks, J Rock felt inspired to make beats himself, leading to a rough-around-the-edges hardrock hip-hop album sporting rock-solid grooves and funky loops.
“Streetwize” was released in 1991, trying to deliver on the promise of J Rock being featured in the December 1990 ‘Unsigned Hype’ column in magazine The Source. Specialty publications Wax Poetics and Cocaine Blunts have both written restrospectively about the album. Unfortunatley that particular content is unavailable to us at this time, still “Streetwize” gives off the impression of a local indie album that was conceived under different circumstances and by the time it hit the shelves, hip-hop (production) was already at another place.
The liner notes to the 2007 reissue of the record state that DJ Premier shared his expertise with the Newburgh guys before the demo was sent to The Source. Then, ‘after the feature, Murphy and J Rock along with DJ Big Chris went back into the studio to complete the album’. That would explain the 4 Premier beats being sonically closer to “No More Mr. Nice Guy” than “Step in the Arena”. From the sound of it, the album’s estimated time of creation should be the first half of 1990 – or even earlier. On the other hand, many of the vocal samples (and a Color Me Badd reference) indeed suggest “Streetwize” was finalized in ’91.
These details should be completely irrelevant to your enjoyment of “Streetwize”. J Rock, barely out of his teens at the time, is a determined artist. As a vocalist and writer, he finds inspiration in Lord Finesse and Lakim Shabazz – in the most flattering (meaning imitative) way. Thankfully, Rock’s pen is resourceful, bringing forth multiple worthwhile songs. J Rock was living proof that to be interesting you need to have an opinion about more than just yourself.
“Brutality” is a contender for the most intense under-a-minute presentation over Primo production as J Rock vividly recounts a perilous traffic stop. Not one to waste words, he still understands songwriting, setting the song on its inevitable course with the fatalistic “And what comes next is every black man’s nightmare…” The beat is almost atypical East Coast with its crime film setup (sirens, haunting sounds, loud, sluggish drums) and analytical rhymes: “His hate’s motivated by jealousy / If you resist arrest, they turn it to a felony”.
The blunt nature of some of these tracks is reminiscent of early Rap-A-Lot Records. “The Shakedown” in particular is an incredibly razor-sharp account of a corrupt cop who fleeces dope pushers for their drugs for his personal gain, a reminder of a time when rappers used to position themselves more as cool-headed observers than action heroes:
“The situation makes me nervous
Cause this cop is the one who protects and serves us
But he couldn’t care less about you and me
And we should see he can ruin our community
Crooked cops, we’ve had enough of y’all
Cause I don’t think anyone’s above the law
Your day will come with a judge and a jury
And under the jail is where they’ll bury
A sucker like you along with felons and thugs
Cause what you do is worse than sellin’ drugs
You’re a thief and a liar with a badge and a gun
And your shaking down days are done
A cop like this can give a brother on the street a nervous breakdown
Get ready for the shakedown”
The embodiment of that approach is “Around My Way”. As the bulky beat is elbowing forward, Rock takes the listener on a tour down skid row, introducing us to an entire cast of human tragedies, sort of the pessimistic version of Master Ace’s “Take a Look Around” or the non-fiction version of Ice Cube’s “A Gangsta’s Fairytale”.
Likewise, “Neighborhood Drug Dealer” is a whole damn essay on the local drug trade snake pit. Its title derived from a sampled KRS-One line from Boogie Down Productions’ (very similar) “Love’s Gonna Get’cha (Material Love)”, the proximity to the crack era prevents J Rock from glorifying his subject. To bring up another reference, where The Genius’ “Life of a Drug Dealer” has a blaxploitation sheen to it, “Neighborhood Drug Dealer” focuses much more on the social aspects.
In comparison, “Root of All Evil” and “Another Tough Guy” make a less convincing case despite also pinpointing their subject matter. But they help affirm that J Rock is dead serious about it. The same goes certainly for “Save the Children”, a commendable effort to raise awareness about suffering children, evoking empathy both musically and lyrically.
In terms of selling the rap artist J Rock, in ’91 the buying public found itself past the days when audiences were just happy to hear a rapper regardless of what kind of character was being portrayed. After Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J, Eric B & Rakim, the Beastie Boys, N.W.A, Ice-T, Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and MC Hammer, rappers needed images. So while the lead single “Save the Children” would have been suitable for some kind of crossover airplay, it’s not exactly an image-building song.
Others were supposed to get the job done. “Cazanova” (written by 19-year old Rock) is the kind of song that is primarily good for the artist’s ego. “The Pimp” (a relatively basic, underwhelming Premier contribution) is surprisingly less concerned with macking and more with emceeing superiority, the self-described “word pro” making fun of opponents’ “prehistoric rhymes [that] Mother Goose was arrangin'”. Nonetheless, Kool G Rap and Grand Daddy I.U. couldn’t have put it better than “Enter the charts and rise like the Goodyear blimp / Hang on the ave and walk with a limp / I’m a pimp”.
In the lyrics department, J Rock was certainly not a trailblazer, but he manages to hold your attention with not just his rhyming efforts but also his phrasings. “Ghetto Law” features some rather creative battle raps that culminate in “Girls wanna swallow the lyrics that I ejaculate”, “Let Me Introduce Myself” contains the simple but clever line “Steppin’ away from J Rock is your best move”, “The Messiah” makes the damning comparison “My rhymes are c-notes, yours are food stamps”, and the proclamation “My intellect is incomparable / Yet the knowledge I’ve gained is quite shareable” from “Let’s Get it Together” might just be one of the most sensible things an MC ever said.
On his only album, J Rock lays his cards on the table. His main ambitions are artistic, and while menacing posturing is part of his act, it comes in very mild doses. When “Streetwize” is street, it’s old school street rap, cautionary and reflective. (Apart maybe from the boastful title track, statements like “Take my spot? Don’t be a hotshot / Cause the mob will just step when the block’s hot” securing the support of the crew.) There’s a part in the album’s most lighthearted track, “Don’t Sleep on Me”, where Rock tells you to check today’s headline: ‘Another Rapper’s Life Ends At A Young Age’. 30 years later that kind of headline has become all too real to us, but in J Rock’s universe it simply refers to a defeated adversary. Sadly, reality still caught up with J Rock as he allegedly got caught up in Jeff Murphy’s illegal dealings.
If true, we’d be looking at another career cut tragically short despite the music pointing in another direction. On “Let’s Get it Together”, the original releases’s final track, J Rock ends his debut on a decidedly conscious note, addressing drug dealers specifically. And yet this is also the time when rap music began to revere drug lords and crime bosses who were either rotting in jail or in a casket. Either way the potential would have been there for J Rock to continue broadcasting from out of Newburgh (with or without outside support). Instead, “Streetwize” remains a one-shot affair that persuades with clear thought patterns lined out in good-natured battling and boasting and seasoned storytelling over vintage sample collages.