Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Frankie Cutlass, Politics & Bullshit (1996)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Seventeen. Archive here.]

A great hip-hop DJ cultivates an individual technique as personal and recognizable as any other type of instrumentalist. A discerning listener who can't distinguish a TR-808 from an MPX-500 can still appreciate the stylistic differences between exemplars of the craft like Pete Rock, DJ Premier and the RZA. What production techniques the Puerto Rican producer Frankie Cutlass added to the early 90s scene, I’m not really sure. His second album Politics & Bullshit continues to impress me with its sonic detail, as it has since I first heard the album’s gateway posse cut “The Cypher, Part 3.” That song features the talents of, respectively and in ascending order of quality, Craig G., Roxanne Shante, Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane. In a fashion it is a spiritual sequel to one of the first posse records, Marley Marl’s “The Symphony.” Though recorded a decade apart, both songs utilize the same sample from Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle,” and the classic Juice Crew team of Craig G. and Big Daddy Kane appear on both cuts. The difference between Cutlass’ beat and Marl’s is that Cutlass deviates further from the original sample, which appears only sporadically in his version. The remainder of Cutlass’ contribution is a combination of siren sounds and keyboard stabs anchored by propulsively clipped bass. It  may not immediately grab the listener, but it’s a really enjoyable beat to listen to and presumably rap over, as Biz Markie’s exuberantly comical verse seems to suggest.

Politics & Bullshit
is also a throwback to an earlier period in hip-hop when DJ albums tended to have the most guest emcee performances, and along with that, the most diverse pool of performers. I defy anyone to name a rap album, from any era, that has a stronger collection of guest stars than Politics & Bullshit. Of the album’s eleven songs total, only two feature the main performer solo. Aside from the principals of “The Cypher, Part 3,” Cutlass also divvies up rhymespace for Heltah Skeltah, the Lost Boyz, M.O.P., Sadat X from Brand Nubian, June Lover, Fat Joe, Mobb Deep, Kool G. Rap, Smif-n-Wessun, Keith Murray, and Busta Rhymes. If that isn’t a “murderers row” of rap talent, it certainly beats any selection of rappers I’ve seen, outside of the odd Arsenio Hall farewell performance jam.

It isn’t just that the rappers selected are strong—with a less focused DJ at the helm, that wouldn't matter. Cutlass is great at placing just the right emcee team on the same track for maximum vocal contrast. A good example of this is the third song, “Focus,” whose verse work is divided between the Lost Boyz and M.O.P. Apart from their reps as legendary 90s rap groups, their respective styles could not be more different. The Lost Boyz' Mr. Cheeks, famous for gently romantic songs like “Me and My Crazy World,” was among the most placid rap performers of the era. The group M.O.P., on the other hand, had two outlandishly stentorian emcees. The beat for “Focus” is on the more subdued end of the spectrum, and leading off with the Lost Boyz the marriage of beat and rhyme is entirely appropriate. But when M.O.P. comes in, the calibration between DJ and emcee is inverted, but instead of the song flying off the rails, it creates a new and surprising dimension. It’s two completely different approaches to rap wedded to a single beat, but it’s all organic.

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