“Dope beats/Dope rhymes/What more do ya’ll want!”
– “Not Enough” by Little Brother from the album “The Minstrel Show”
Conscious rap. Coke rap. Underground rap. Political rap. Weird rap. Indie rap. Swag Rap. Mainstream rap. Retro rap. etc. etc. All titles and sub genres of rap that fans and writers have created to classify and understand rap. This assigning of style has also been used to separate and divide (East coast rap vs West coast rap). The general idea of the sub-genre is that its a new take on a already established style. As artists do they innovate and take previous ideas further than had been done before thus creating a sub-genre. This progression can look forward or backwards while still creating a new strand of music. In the mid to late 90’s you had Kool Keith with his Dr. Octagon project which had a futuristic twinge to it while other artists like Jurassic 5 reinterpreted late 70’s Hip Hop. Both artists created something new and exciting while going in two different stylist directions. All of these sub-genres have their designated albums that people hold as testament to that particular style. Like I mentioned in my progressive column on Rundgren these albums take the established idea and tweak it just enough that its something new but not too foreign.
I’ve spent some time listening to and thinking about classic rap albums that I and others love. With rap as time passes an album listening experience changes significantly. When you’re removed from the time in which the album was released all you have is yourself, album, and the player of your choice. Its a different world. The hype and the scenes that surrounded the album are not there to influence your opinion in one way or another. You’re removed from the cult of personality that rap artists must project while promoting themselves and their albums. If there was any backlash from the national media or contemporaries at the time towards the album, it no longer registers (Today’s listener of NWA’s “Straight Out of Compton” wouldn’t know that they were having serious discussions about it on Nightline in 1988). If there isn’t some type of controversy or promotional angle surrounding a pending rap album, then it doesn’t register with perspective listeners upon its release. Not only does the content have to be good there has to be more to gain attention. When you take away all of the promotional and media noise that surrounds a rap album years after its release only two things matter. The beats and the rhymes. And by that you can truly tell what is great and what is not.
As I look back at one of my past scene incarnations as a underground rap kid (96-02) plenty of albums come to mind. In the east you had albums like “Funcrusher Plus” by Company Flow on the Rawkus Records label. In the west you had “Nia” by Blackalicious on Quannum/Solesides. Both of these records sum up the underground aesthetic at the time: your music standing for something bigger than itself. Something significant and heavy. With Company Flow it was a punk rock middle finger declaration of independence from major labels and with Blackalicious they explored the black experience. Majority of the popular albums during this era were tethered to a heavy theme and had the support of tastemaker labels that provided them with exposure. These albums mattered so much during their heyday because they directly reflected social values of a segment within Hip Hop. Five years later these albums still resonated but not the way they once did when an entire generation (mine) was searching for an identity together. Now after a decade since some of them were released I still see them as great but I can’t live within them as I once did because I’m not that person anymore and those scenes no longer exist. At this point an album has to stand on its own. Beats and rhymes. One of my favorite albums from the era that holds true to this is “Fresh Mode” by the group Ugly Duckling.
Fresh Mode By Ugly Duckling (1999)
Ugly Duckling was a three piece rap group out of Long Beach, California. They emerged from the southern California independent Hip Hop scene during the late 90’s. They released their first single “Now who’s Laughing” in 1999 then released their debut ep “Fresh Mode” the same year. This era was as much about a co-sign as today’s rap is and Ugly Duckling was on a no name label (1500 Records) with no bigger artists to spotlight them. They toured with the LA rap group People Under The Stairs multiple times and did a run early in their career with Del The Funky Homosapien (I was there at one of the shows on the tour back in 2000). Ugly Duckling didn’t stand out compared to their peers because they didn’t have some deeper message that they were trying to bang home. They didn’t have a distinct look. They were just normal looking guys doing Hip Hop for Hip Hop’s sake. What they lacked in social or rebellious content they made up for in great music. The formula was simple: dope beats and dope rhymes. In a time were songs had to mean more this basic approach to rap didn’t equate to a large fan base in the underground.
With “Fresh Mode” Ugly Duckling created a timeless piece that could make sense at anytime past, present, or future in rap. It’s tight, concise, and has clear direction. Every bar counts. The beats stick and the rhymes written to them are a perfect match. The skits are short and a perfect break between songs. The beats by the groups producer Young Einstein have a retro feel but not to the point that it feels like a rip off of past artists. MC’s Andy Cooper and Dizzy Dustin tag team moving in and out of songs giving them a sense of movement and playfulness. Their not elite rappers by any means but their stylistic approach fit perfectly with the instrumentals. Their normal rap guys that didn’t belabor the “I’m a normal guy” point like other rappers have done. They talk about how fresh they and the world are without sounding like boring old school revivalist. To many times artists that have made albums like this take influence and try to become exactly what they are inspired by. Numerous rappers who made albums like this come off snobby as they claimed that they “keep it real” and dismissed rappers who they feel didn’t. What makes “Fresh Mode” great is its ability to tow that line and avoid polarization. That and its laser like attention to the music.
“Fresh Mode” is a well thought out and produced effort. The group pays tribute to its late 80’s/early 90’s influences by incorporating cool variations of classic lines by their rap heros within their rhymes. It is an audio dissertation on the groups well nuanced understanding of rap. Nothing is forced. Each song comes across amazingly straight forward without seeming boring. The interplay between DJ scratches and vocal adlibs blend seamlessly. Everything comes together taking the listener into a “Fresh Mode”. On songs like “We’re Here” and “Everything’s Alright” the song make you feel relaxed as the groups MC’s casually complete the formula with their presence. Songs like “Everybody C’mon” and “Now who’s Laughing” bring the tempo up but still stay with the cool and fresh feel of the calmer tracks. This consistency unifies all of the tracks making for a complete effort.
I always come back to “Fresh Mode” because its stands on its own without a gimmick. It doesn’t have an agenda other than sharing the groups love of Hip Hop. Because of that its great. This isn’t to say rap music that bears an opinion or is polarized in any way does not have the potency of “Fresh Mode.” Those albums have the bedrock foundation of a lifestyle/ethos to build their music around. With “Fresh Mode” there is none which is harder to pull off. Its just rap. Good rap. Nothing else and nothing more. This is why its stood the test of time.
“Do You Know What I’m Saying?”
“Now Who’s Laughin'”