Thursday, March 13, 2014

25 Years Ago: Road to the Riches

March 14 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of De La Soul's playful-rap classic Three Feet High and Rising. It's a date likely to be noticed, in part because of the trio's recent headline-making move to put their music online for free; but also because of the creativity, in form and specifics, of the album.

And also because it's one of those hip-hop albums that non-hip-hop fans find themselves drawn to, one that's entered the pantheon of 'rock' music, likely to be hailed by, say Rolling Stone or Spin. In other words, it appealed to ‘cool’ middle-class white people. (A memory from a summer job in my teenage years: while discussing music with a black co-worker, she asked, "why do you white people like De La Soul and Public Enemy so much?") .

The album's message of nonconformity through individual expression, combined with their overall look at the time, made it likely to be classified as "alternative", something the group fought hard against but has also occasionally embraced.

Another landmark hip-hop album, at least equally significant but quite different, was released on the same day but is more likely to go unnoticed by the broader press: Road to the Riches, the debut album from Kool G Rap and DJ Polo. Its relative lack of cachet, at least among non-hip-hop critics/fans, no doubt is related to its comparative toughness, the more tragic urban stories the duo depicts and Kool G Rap's take-no-prisoners rapping style. As an entity, the group also had a shorter career, with less commercial success; Kool G Rap himself settled into more of an underground hip-hop hero's career while Polo disappeared from public view.

Road to the Riches is a sparse affair, without the epic album quality that appeals to rock critics. It has tracks that could be considered filler compared to their more powerful neighbors, like most hip-hop albums of its era. Even those, like the automobile tribute “Cars” and the DJ showcases “Cold Cuts” and “Butcher Shop”, are memorable. Yet the overall sleekness of the album ties right in with the hard-hitting minimalism that is one of their biggest strengths. The silence within this album is a major player, and helps make Kool G Rap all that much more of a riveting presence.

That presence has to be seen as a supremely influential one within hip-hop history. His compelling narrative style on certain tracks foreshadowed and influenced many of hip-hop’s greatest storytellers - Ghostface Killah, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., etc. His tough, yet quick and precise rhyming has been influential to legions of MCs of various stripes. America’s favorite late-night band, The Roots, have at least two straight-out tributes to Kool G. Rap on record; “Boom!”, where Black Thought imitates G Rap for a verse, and “Thought at Work”, basically a cover of Road to the Riches’ “Men at Work”.

“Men at Work” is basically a show-off for Kool G. Rap’s skills, and on that level it is absolutely devastating. He’s stringing words together quickly, breathlessly. They’re boasts mainly, some metaphors, some put-downs and a lot of big claims about the power of his rhymes. More than any specific phrase what impresses is mainly the river of words that comes forth relentlessly. I take that back; there are phrases here that stand out, and some that have been sampled and imitated over the years to come, but they emerge from within a flow that is astounding in its seemingly unstoppable energy. He goes and goes until, satiated, he cuts it off -- “Yo, Marley Marl, let’s stop the breakbeat.”

Marley Marl, the producer, is the secret weapon on that song, with its breakbeat and electric guitar. And he’s so on the album overall. This was the era when you had a DJ billed in the group name, contributing audible scratches, but a producer who really was the chief creative force behind the music. Marley Marl brought to Kool G Rap and Polo a minimalist smoothness, even prettiness that managed to both highlight the brutality of the raps and counterbalance it.

Ugliness + prettiness is an equation running through the totality of Road to the Riches, especially on the title track. If any single song here should be considered an all-time classic of hip-hop, it’s “Road to the Riches”. It’s a perfect example of Kool G Rap’s storytelling - basically a gangster tale, of a youth, born into a rough life, seduced by the promises of wealth and led into a life of violence and tragedy. It pulls no punches - revenge kidnappings, torture, jail time. But there’s a poetry about it, too, and an increasing sense of doom - “Looking at the hourglass / how long can this power last?”

The music is a big part of the story, too. It’s a classic example of the resourcefulness and creativity of the best hip-hop producers of the time, they way they would find breakbeats in unlikely sources and loop them, to a huge impact. Here it’s Billy Joel’s “Stiletto”, drumming that’s funkier than you’ll remember there being in a Billy Joel song, followed by a little piano part. It’s a moment that goes by quickly in the Joel song, but looped to seeming infinity it’s powerful stuff, gorgeous in its simplicity yet uncaring about the tragedy it’s soundtracking.

The song really tells two tales - its second and third verses are the gangster tale that makes the lasting impression, but the first verse is about hard work, about hustling to get a record deal and then getting one - “All my manpower for four bucks an hour / Took the time, I wrote rhymes in the shower / Shoes are scoffed cos the road gets rough / But I'mma rock it til my pockets ain't stuffed enough.” That’s another powerful theme of the album, the “I’ve made it” moment.

“It’s a Demo”, the duo’s first single, is more skeletal but just as classic, its roughness stemming from the song’s basic conceit - “it’s a demo”, like they said - and exemplifying the duo’s overall edge. “Poison” is muddy in a purposefully stomping way that suits the rhymes. There are non-singles here just as noteworthy: “Trilogy of Terror”, another sharp collection of boasts with light but somehow menacing music; “Rhymes I Express”, comparatively less fluid, with more of an LL Cool J/Run DMC-style of blocky enunciation, but no less tough.

As light in subject as some of the songs are, the brutality of the album is thorough - if not as much so as their other two albums (1990’s Wanted: Dead or Alive and 1992’s Live and Let Die). When it comes to a song like “Yours Truly”, Kool G Rap’s worldview is ugly in a retrograde way reflective of the macho man of the era’s fears - of AIDS, and by relation gay people; of “slutty” women and by relation both women and sex. That the song’s perspective resembles the likely voice of the narrowly focused wanna-be gangster of the title track probably shouldn’t be lost on listeners. Neither should the way the verses resemble crass stand-up comedy of the time. Meant to be so or not, it’s an exaggerated vision of masculine fears of the other - in this world, everyone different than you is out to get you, to take your money and give you a disease. Is the tough man really that tough, or scared?

“She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not” tries somewhat unconvincingly to open up Kool G Rap past his tough demeanor, to reveal his sensitive side (“a broken heart ain’t no joke”). It and “Yours Truly” might seem in opposition -- caring and uncaring -- but they really resemble two sides of one coin - the tough guy trying in different ways to steel himself against the world’s brutality. For if Kool G Rap’s rhymes themselves can be brutal - and they absolutely can, as much as any rapper then or now, they also set up a brutal, uncaring world around them. Kool G Rap’s articulation of that would itself be remarkable, but backed by Marley Marl’s intuitive, curated sound, it’s a whole different beast, the tough and the smooth joined together elegantly.

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