Suge Knight’s Long Shadow: Max Minelli’s “Dope Boy Chad”

Written by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy (@danielmondon)

Hip-hop is happy to rewrite and revise its own history. It’s a culture that devotes support to who yelled last and who was the loudest to do so. A lot of people never get their dues and outside of a few savvy supporters’ fandom, never will. Sometimes those who once yelled loudest are written out regardless. We shrug off the unseemly and the creepy, a culture’s selective memory at work.

Suge Knight is somebody that hip-hop culture turned on. It’s also not hard to tell why the culture turned on him; he remains the genre’s poster boy for hubris. Suge’s violent tactics and linebacker-sized ego were as elemental to Death Row’s downfall as it was to their uprising. Though hip-hop can easily root and cheer on a villain, Knight did not appear to be a character as he was upfront about his Blood connections and famed for his strong-arm tactics. When Death Row fell apart, Suge descended into a vortex of unsuccessful label reboots and TMZ-era villainy that he’s never really bounced back from.

So it comes as a surprise to hear the 90s version of Suge brought back to life at the start of Max Minelli’s recent mixtape Dope Boy Chad. Minelli–a long-time Young Bleed affiliate and Baton Rouge mainstay since the late Nineties–is a passable rapper, the type to enunciate the most mundane bars (“I put on for my city like Jeezy” reappears countless times) in a wonderfully sticky drawl. The instrumentals he chooses are meant to evoke particular pangs of nostalgia: the synthetic regality of early T.I., Boosie-esque fury, the Spanish guitars of Ja Rule’s slow jams. Yet Suge hangs over the tape.

“Dopeboy TV (Intro)” flashes between nuggets of d-boy specialisms and TV static, a sure signal of nostalgia, before arriving at Suge’s infamous speech from the 94 Source Awards. That speech fanned the flames of the East/West conflict, with Suge and Snoop causing a tense New York crowd to nearly explode. You know the moment from clip shows and from having even a passing interest in hip-hop’s history: “the executive producer all in the videos, dancin‘” et cetera. Minelli decides to let the entirety of Knight’s speech play out, and the fact that he thanks God and “my entire Death Row family” at the beginning came to me as a surprise: it’s a moment of faith and unity that humanizes the Death Row owner, an acknowledgement that I was unaware had even been said, a moment erased from the record for not being juicy enough. For a moment, you can bond with Suge Knight as a relatable human being proud of his success rather than a tyrannical ogre.

Minelli allows the ogre to live again, cursing the Bad Boy empire and drawing a line in the sand. In the current super friends era of hip-hop—an era where people lost their shit over Kendrick naming names out of respect –that speech sounds more unhinged. Suge fans the flames with wild abandon, sneering and mocking the crowd; drinking in the boos directed at the stage. The very moment where Suge yells “come to Death Row!” is edited and replaced with a bellow of “come to Crook Muzik Creme Team!”, a cute effort to paint Minelli’s clique as a new Death Row. Its placement at the head of Minelli’s tape shows that there are people that still sympathize and admire Knight’s hard-headedness, his desire to promote realness and strike fear in the hearts of his competitors. It functions to remind people that despite his diminished role in the hip-hop pantheon, Suge Knight still matters to people: not as a warning but as a gully inspiration.

Link: Max Minelli’s Dope Boy Chad

Kool & Kass’ “Coke Boys 5”

Written by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy (@danielmondon)

As someone who has curated separate Brick Squad and Odd Future playlists, 2014’s current strain of rap cliques leave a bit to be desired. In the 90s, big gun rap groups and labels were duly recognized as empires, defined by particular sonic qualities and iconic visual aesthetics. Today we have conglomerates, defined by little but the prospect of merging artists together with little interest for united fronts. Recent rumors that Young Thug—the ascendant ATLien who broke through by aligning with Brick Squad—could be signing over to Cash Money caused concerned bellyaching in pockets of the internet rap fandom.

Brick Squad, Cash Money, Young Money, MMG, GOOD Music, Grand Hustle and Coke Boys: all defined by their leaders’ star power and a bustling assemblage of young bucks attempting to find a voice. These are not quite vanity labels and, at the same time, not really artistic unions—they rest somewhere in-between branding opportunities for occasional tax write-off compilations and BET cipher appearances. Why anybody would be concerned about Thugga’s possible acquisition by Cash Money seems confusing, as he’s merely switching over from one hazily-drawn “team” to another. If rap is beginning to become more and more like wrestling, then Young Thug is currently Sting, flipping from NWO faction to NWO faction in a matter of moments.

Young Thug’s “Stoner” has been privy to plenty of beatjacks ever since it began to look like a hit. Plenty of the rappers jacking “Stoner” have come off looking unfortunate, unsure whether to sing, rap or gargle their way over Dun Deal’s trap psychedelia. (Pour one out for Jadakiss, yikes.) Kool AD, once the louche/loose half of Das Racist, jumps on “Stoner” at the beginning of the recent tape, Coke Boys, a loose eight song collection recorded in German hotel rooms with the Seattle multi-hyphenate Kassa Overall. It should be a train wreck, but AD taps into a strain of Thugga’s drawling weirdness by rambling and laughing and morphing voices through his verses: “crushing a bag of the cookies and bagging and tagging the rookies and racking and macking and packing a mac in the back of the ac / yakkedy-yak… / Ohmygod ohmygod oh – my – god”. He doesn’t feel like D4L’s Fabo, as the original’s refrain states, but he’s just as high.

AD and Overall’s take on “Stoner” sets a precedent for the rest of Coke Boys 5, with popular instrumentals given the type of off-kilter humor expected from an ex-Das Racist member. A big element of this humor lies in the familiar drops that litter the tape at every turn: Jessica Gomes purring “Maybach Music,” DJ Khaled bellowing his presence, Shadoe Haze’s immortal “DAMN SON, WHERE’D YOU FIND THIS?!” The tracks pile on mixtape-era drops to an inch within overkill—the “Trapaholics!” drop utterly buries final track “Saucier”—which seems to be the point. As always with Kool AD, this functions as the skewering that only a fan could offer, the type of fandom that can find you dryly running through a series of familiar tags over the “UOENO” instrumental (“Holiday Season. LA Leakers. Gangsta Grillz.”) and dropping Young Chop’s name repeatedly over a twenty year-old RZA beat. The repetitive approach functions as pure stoner humor, an acknowledgement of the drop’s absurd nature that few artists care to poke fun at. (Wale’s intro to French Montana’s “Everywhere We Go” – “MMG, Bad Boy, Coke Boys, BOA, that’s a lotta letters but fuck-it” – is a rare anomaly.) It also functions as a reminder that these terms are interchangeable and barely mean anything in 2014: they just function as audible banner ads on mp3s. The funniest and smartest drop comes at the end of the aforementioned ‘UOENO’ jack, where Akon’s holler of “Konvict Music” appears. It’s a sign of a time long past, a brand name that means as much today as Crystal Pepsi. It’s funny, but also a little sad, because each one of these drops could easily fade away as quickly as Akon’s vanity label did. You won’t find that on the Internet.

Link: Kool & Kass’ Coke Boys 5

L O V E Week: Pharrell’s “G I R L”

Written by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy (@danielmondon)

“What can we do? We’re hopeless romantics.” – “Marilyn Monroe,” 2014.

Pharrell Williams has occupied many musical identities since he ghost-wrote Teddy Riley’s bars on “Rump Shaker” in 1992. They include (but are not limited to) the following: dapper AOR virtuoso, sleazy politician-hater, shirtless heart-throb, eccentric backpacker-turned-rich, living disco glitterball, goody-goody conscience to the amoral and tortured, Hans Zimmer in training, Bmore DJ in training. All these artistic incarnations share something in common: a giddy sense of exploration. They may not all be successful, or even worthwhile, endeavours, but you can rarely ever tell that Williams is half-assing it. Musical ideas are executed to their full potential and their lessons are absorbed into the next persona Williams reveals.

His sophomore solo album G I R L is the next step after a mega-successful 2013, a year where the world caught up with the Seventies-centric songcraft he had been developing since N.E.R.D.’s 2010 album Nothing. It’s succinct at ten songs, a collection of warm tones that should easily appeal to the millions that bumped “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” out of work radios, car stereos and onto wedding dance-floors. The word “disco” is being used a lot in early reviews, likely referencing the Chic-esque guitar licks and dazzling strings (conducted by Hans Zimmer!) all over the record, but G I R L is as much glitzy soul as it is disco. 2014 Pharrell is a man imbued with modernizing the sounds of the past, a nostalgic space that also makes space for references to Williams’ oeuvre. A member of early N.E.R.D. buddies Spymob plays guitar throughout, the chorus on “Gush”—a Prince tribute of sorts—directly evokes 2003’s “Light Your Ass On Fire” with Busta Rhymes—a Kraftwerk tribute of sorts, the late album highlight “Lost Queen” fades into water SFX and a hidden interlude much like Fly Or Die’s “Wonderful Place” did. These are savvy amalgamations of Williams’ musical touch, never feeling Xeroxed-over these are songs driven by giddy exploration.

And little seems to inspire Williams’ explorer tendencies quite as much as the fairer sex. When he sings about women, he’s starry-eyed, attempting lover boy slackness, finding cosmic parallels or all three at the same time (natch, “Get Lucky”). Women matter to him, and they drive him to being the “hopeless romantic” he refers to on “Marilyn Monroe.” The liner notes to Fly or Die found Williams ecstatically wishing for his “future Girlfriend,” one of his more whimsically dorkier moments. Now married and with a child, he appears reflective and analytical of his romantic past—not the failures, just overall experiences. This narrow optimism sounds hopeful and wonderful and even a little silly. There’s simply no space for bad vibes here. Williams sounds joyful reveling in his hopeless romanticism, having found a space where he’s not second-guessing himself. “You can blame me as to why we haven’t met yet,” he wrote in those liner notes to his “future Girlfriend,” but G I R L sounds like someone shaking off the blame in lieu of simply celebrating the search.

Codie G’s Curation of Rap Regionalism

Written by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy (@danielmondon)

Green Cottenham was a slave more than forty years after the system of slavery had been abolished. Born the child of freed slaves in Alabama, he was jailed in 1908 on account of “vagrancy”—a trumped-up charge enforced throughout the southern states. After his sentencing, he was sold to U.S. Steel by the sheriff and put to work in the Birmingham mines alongside black men placed in the same situation. He died later that year, diseased from the harsh conditions in the mines and broken by the abuses of his new masters. By the end of 1908, almost sixty men had died alongside him. Their graves were unmarked. Their stories were, by and large, unrecorded and unacknowledged.

Codie G is the manager to much of Alabama’s cultish hip-hop scene, in particular the recently reunited duo G-Side and still-bubbling space-rave producers Block Beattaz. In-between releases from his acts, he has been one of the voices driving the blog Original Mattress and the curator of compilations like last year’s Young Guns. Like that earlier compilation, The Greene Cottenham Project is a collection of fourteen rappers—each one credited alongside the regional scene they represent—working on their craft and strengthening their voices. Some of these songs are very good and bolstered by strong performances: J NICS, a former DJ Burn One collaborator from Miami, concocts a particularly brutal slab of messy emotion with “Seasons.” Some of these songs aren’t successful, as they stall the tape’s momentum with a number of embryonic Cole and K.R.I.T. impressions in the latter half. Yet many of the songs share similar traits mid-tempo beats, mournful horns, and stories of incarceration and dead friends. These tracks, good or bad, are meant to compliment one another.

The interim cover art to this compilation is a selfie of Codie G with a cotton field sprawled out behind him for what seems like miles. An arresting image, one that doesn’t immediately connect with the music presented one that feels like an empty posture at first. On reflection, it’s a challenge from Codie G—once you learn about Cottenham’s struggle and the era he lived in, the allegiances drawn are made clearer. He stated on Twitter that the title was a metaphor towards the overlooked, that the artists presented are important voices stifled by the powers that be. A little digging goes deeper than this industry-based concept: the fourteen artists presenting their tracks are assembled from across Nashville, Oakland, Huntsville and Miami, all areas affected by the post-Civil War network of neo-slavery. The selfie puts a fine point on this lineage: the under-represented and unadvantageous American past is the under-represented and unadvantageous American present.

A couple of tracks are distinctive for being a lot less recent than the bulk of the tape. “Diamonds” from Oakland spitter Young Gully’s HM5 resurfaces here, a reminder of his skillful rapping. (Go and listen to 2011’s “The Go In,” his finest moment.) The other oldie comes from G-Side affiliate Kristmas’ 2011 album W2 Boy, an overlooked and charming album. On many guest appearances and on his own records, he has a bonafide regular-dude charm, depicting a long-time worker bee looking to indulge in the trappings of life as a rapper and hold down a full-time job. W2 Boy’s finale resurfaces here, a downtempo track appropriately titled ‘”Slavin.” Pissed off at the lack of opportunities given to ex-cons, he stresses and rages, a million miles from his otherwise agreeable personality. Puffed out, he confesses: “I been working for these crackas six years, my nigga, and ain’t gave me no raises yet.” A sample of a chain gang’s singing accompanies his words. The track’s confession closes out the compilation, its inclusion making Codie’s final point: free or not, post-slavery or no, people of the South are still held down and meant to accept their diminished societal roles. Codie G politicizes these songs and gives them historical relevance, regardless as to whether they are stoned or horny or forlorn or furious. They are all recordings of the Black American experience, an experience Cottenham was denied to share with future generations. In their own way, these songs are to be vicariously lived by the past.

Link: The Greene Cottenham Project 

The Boss and the Snowman are War Ready

Written by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy (@danielmondon)

On a press tour for last year’s old-guys-in-prison movie Escape Plan, Sylvester Stallone admitted what we knew all along: that he once hated Arnold Schwarzenegger. Speaking to David Letterman, he confessed that the two held a “violent hatred” for one another, causing them to try and one-up each other for much of the 90s. Sly shot some people, Arnie shot more. Sly shot some more people, so Arnie shot a lot more people. Sly got Oscar mumbles for Cop Land; Arnie became Governor of California—you get the drift. But time heals all wounds, as they say. Money, too.

The Rick Ross and Young Jeezy beef thankfully never reached the bloody heights of Jeezy’s ongoing tiff with Gucci Mane, but it was a gnarly saga nonetheless. It unfurled from the success of 2010’s “B.M.F.,” named after Atlanta’s crime organization Black Mafia Family. Jeezy was associated with the gang and vocally took offence at Ross’s co-opting; Ross called Jeezy a “fuckboy” four times in one bar and it was off to the races. After a brawl at the BET Awards the beef cooled down, at least as far as the public eye. Over the past year, Jeezy hopped onto DJ Mustard’s Dijon gravy train to reboot his career. By comparison, Ross’s rap kingpin has stumbled a little. He’s released some great music as of late, but multiple delays to Mastermind appeared to quell the rapper’s ascendancy. Mr. So Many Shrimp himself David Drake voiced the thought many rap fans have held: “Has MMG Peaked?

“War Ready” offers a rejoinder to this critical stance. Like the recent Jay-Z collabo “Devil Is A Lie,” it shows Rozay tilting away from the Lex Luger sound that he had long clung to and turning to his other musical crutch: multi-tracked lushness. After last week’s “Move That Dope,” the era of menacing Mike Will crime epics continue with the slow-motion skittering of hi-hats and off-key synth patterns taunting oncoming doom. Both “War Ready” and “Devil” end with the beat melting and slowly spreading itself across the speakers, flickering luxuriously. Notice the ins-and-outs of the instrumentals in slow-motion: their weight, their bravado, their sinister appeal, their sheer fucking wealth. Last month on French Montana’s “Paranoid” remix, Rozay bellowed that his “dick feel like it’s dipped in gold,” an OTT reminder of his musical stature. In his imagination, and probably in his life to some degree if this Spin profile is to be believed, Ross lives like a Bond villain and this music accommodates the idea.

But that’s just money talking: the people’s interest lies in the grudge match, but Ross and Jeezy actually cancel each other out on the track. Ross slams Godzilla-style through his verses, saying nothing that can really catch the ear beyond “youngest nigga in the Medillín”—for much of the seven minutes (!!!), you’re waiting on a “fuckboy” to slip out for old time’s sake. Jeezy is more in-tune to what the beat demands and savvy about not returning to his old flow—the one that Ross arguably stole. The only interaction the two have is from Jeezy’s trademark “yeaahhhh” ad-lib that punctuates Ross shouting out multiple street gangs. It’s a brief nod, the most that two egos will allow one another, of a once simmering red-hot hatred. And of course like most of these summits the reality is never as good as what you imagined. Ross and Jeezy were the Arnie and Sly of street rap; “War Ready,” with all its ornate trappings and thirst for enterprise over innovation it’s their Planet Hollywood.

MOVE THAT DOPE PHARRELL MOVE THAT DOPE

Written by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy (@danielmondon)

Nothing should be fascinating about Future’s “Move That Dope”: it’s a gathering of the adored but overexposed (and Casino), produced by the adored but overexposed Mike Will Made It and given a boilerplate title. It slithered out with little certainty of its final destination and an abundance of questions in its trail: Will this even end up on Honest? How many incarnations has the album gone through? Does Casino’s throat not hurt from yelling like that all the time? Yet it’s a fascinating song and as a posse cut a bonafide moment of high class thievery on the part of Pharrell.

Future’s professional relationship with Mike Will must give him top dibs, as the Dungeon Fam representative was offered a stunner here: a distorted and desiccated Mob music elastic bass accompanied by that unearthly Mike Will low-end. As always, Future knows how to occupy the track, but it’s rarely evident on his unfiltered verse. He’s nimbly rapping in triplets, hopscotching over each bar, yet there’s no push to experiment with his voice as per usual. The resurgence of the triplet flow in Atlanta rap seems like a particularly post-Future move, so here is the anomaly of the week: Future doing a post-Future style. But on the hook, he’s black magic: Salt N Pepa routines floating from ear to ear, given malicious intent—a sexualized purr turned into a villainous mantra, like a snake possessed to deliver biblical wrath. Meanwhile, Pusha (on otherwise standard huff’n’puff duty) unsteadily cackles creating the audio equivalent of the eyeless My Name is My Name cover.

And still, Pharrell runs off with the entire track. Back in the mid-Noughties, people derided his appearances on Re-Up Gang mixtapes, dismissed the bougie-turnup of In My Mind and thus formed the consensus that Pharrell was a bad rapper. But Pharrell was never a bad rapper! Sure he jarred on the gulliest of Re-Up tracks, but that was more to do with his eccentric delivery and word selection. He was the odd one out amongst those hungry punch-line rappers by dropping impromptu Das EFX tributes and shaking his head ruefully at “carving” a man alive: “That’s fucked up, that shit gets to me.” Elsewhere, he evoked chinchillas in the heat of battle, ostrich trainers, treated life like blue magazines off the top shelf, “Willy Wonka décor” and out-weirded Wayne on a series of unreleased mixtape tracks while shape-shifting into a Native Tongues Juvenile. Like a lot of things Pharrell did in the middle of the previous decade, it was odd and a little ahead of its time. (I guarantee you, if In My Mind never existed and some New Jack rapped “baby born baby dies it’s clear as Peru” we would be losing our minds.)

He gets the third verse on “Move That Dope” and runs through the damn thing shifting gears from clearly enunciated to slurring and from clipped vocals to loosey-goosey elongations. It’s lyrical metamorphosis, the verse equivalent to Pusha and Future’s weirdo horror-house noises on the hook. And he drops a barrage of weirdo wordplay with great élan, amusingly arrogant in rejecting the song’s villainous thread as he damn well pleases: “all these drones!” “gee, nigga,” “Gandalf hat,” “all that war we need to let that go,” “twenty girls doin’ yoga naked” and most appropriately “ol’ Skateboard P / that’s the one you been missin’.”

Oochie and the Art of Biting

Written by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy (@danielmondon)

There’s no biting in wrestling. Sure, someone may gnaw on a finger here and there, but the act of jacking another performer’s style is not something to would raise an eyebrow at. As a matter of fact, it’s expected an indicator of the passage of time: new performers inherit older identities and moves. Famously, Ric Flair—modern hip-hop’s favourite rapper if we’re going off Pusha T records and Killer Mike interviews—inherited the persona of “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, one of television’s first wrestling stars. Flair was brazen about what he took wholesale from Rogers: his peacock strut around the ring, the arrogance, the “Nature Boy” moniker, and so forth. Because it was wrestling, this is common knowledge. Some grumble at Flair’s adoption of his less famous counterpart’s style, but most accept or claim ignorance of it. Wrestling is a ludicrous world, but it’s a sport of remarkable fluidity too. You work with it.

Flair’s/Roger’s finishing move, the Figure Four leg lock, wouldn’t leave my mind when listening to Oochie’s recent mixtape, Dewprint 2. I was struck by how many of the DC rapper’s expressions were plucked from other mixtape stars, and how unsubtle these references were. On first exposure to his music, I called his style “dunderheaded ad-lib pageantry”, unable to find any value. He was slurring his way through the collected oeuvres of Juicy J, Future, Lil B, Waka Flocka Flame, Fat Trel and most noticeably Gucci Mane, lifting their identities and vaporizing them into free-floating trails of nothing.

On Dewprint 2, he finds ways to make these liftings work to his benefit. Appropriately, the turning point arrives in the block-headed “Question of the Day” with a wrestling reference: “I got two words for ya – SUCK IT!” That catchphrase paraphrases the entrance for WWE tag team the New Age Outlaws, a pair that helped to epitomize the profane Attitude Era of professional wrestling. That off-hand joke lets you know a lot about Oochie: he’s crude, he’s young enough to find the “suck it” routine funny while old enough to have witnessed it on TV, and he’s able to draw from experiences unrelated to the last five years of Datpiff downloads. Then you hear the line that the ad-lib’s supporting: “how much dick would ya main bitch suck if ya main bitch would suck wood?” Another gag, with lyrical dexterity reduced to a playground tongue-twister, somehow softening and powering up the regressiveness of the gag. A few songs later, he turns a Karate Kid reference into a series of squawks and titles the song “Danielson” [sic].

The cultural references and their presentation are immature, but they present a world Oochie occupies, where biting dissolves into a series of chameleonic collages. Rather than distracting from the music, the borrowing strengthens his character—an immature mush mouthed slang merchant. When he yells out “SQUAD,” “Skrrrt!” or “It’s Oochie!” in the same way you’d hear “it’s Gucci!”, it sounds cheeky, an artist trying on identities, flexing through all the Figure Four leg locks until he lands on his own calling card. Late in the tape, he comes to “Quarles Money,” a tightly executed rundown of dead friends and the experience of trapping at fifteen years old. Strongly written and rapped, it takes you back with its relative lack of lifted identities, hitting like a sucker punch. When you least expect it, the biter gives you something worth chewing on.