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People Under the Stairs

Fun DMC

(Gold Dust Media; US: 30 Sep 2008; UK: 29 Sep 2008)

Fun DMC may be the corniest album title ever. But People Under the Stairs recall the era when rappers weren’t so worried about being seen as corny. Remember, hip-hop started as party music. More than that, it was born at parties. The Los Angeles duo’s last album, Stepfather, was a sort-of concept album with a more constrained, serious atmosphere than is their usual. The title Fun DMC is the first sign of many that this time they’re not trying as hard to make a serious artistic statement. This may be a concept album, too, but the concept here is fun itself. A nice touch in that direction is the liner notes list of alternate ‘fun’ album titles, from puns on rappers’ names (Spice Fun, Cash Funny Millionaires) to food and drink (Fun Dried Tomatoes, Orange Funkist). Would Blair Funderwood have been a less corny title? How about Bitch Better Have My Funny?


Fun DMC starts out on “Swan Fever” with the groove of a party, the two rhyming with serious energy. The song ends with a laidback extended outro that has the feeling of being baked in the sunshine. Thus we’re introduced to the essence of Fun DMC’s sound: an LA party outdoors, in the bright sunshine. In a way, that’s also the quintessential People Under the Stairs sound, meaning they’re in a comfortable place here. Comfortable, but sounding stronger than ever. Their rhymes have always had early-rap overtones, and still do, but on tracks like “The Ultimate 144” they rhyme more breathlessly than ever. They have always built their music on simple, old-school loops and beats, and still do, but as the years pass those get ever less simple, growing in confidence and sophistication. There’s a dreamy, outdoors atmosphere here along with the party mood. And they take surprising turns, like a party might. “Gamin’ on Ya” has a strange calliope backdrop that you soon recognize as videogame music, around the same time that you realize their tale of rolling through the hood causing mischief is really a tale of playing videogames. Throughout Fun DMC, People Under the Stairs seem determined to do whatever they want, to have fun making music. On “The Grind”, Thes One sounds prepared for the future, even if the album is a commercial failure: “If it doesn’t earn / I know we’ll get another turn”.


The party vibe of Fun DMC is augmented by the apparent sounds of an actual party: people talking, making noise, singing and dancing. At one point, a DJ speaks to the crowd; at another the crowd sings “we want the funk”. These are incorporated into the songs themselves, helping get listeners into the mindset of a party, getting us to have a good time along with the People.  Perhaps the epitome of this endeavor is the infectious track “Anotha’ (BBQ)”, with its notion that a party can start at any time—“You bring the wings and I’ll bring the brew / Oh shit another bar-b-que”. Another track, “Enjoy”, sounds like it was written in the middle of a party, as they playfully trade boasts about their partying skills.


As Fun DMC proceeds, it gets less hyper, maybe necessarily so. As it does so, it settles into a dreamy, sentimental vibe. That’s an approach that in the past yielded some of their absolute best tracks (“Empty Bottles of Water”, “Days Like These”), and it does so again. On “Letter 2 c/o the Bronx” they get sentimental about hip-hop’s past, on “Critical Condition” angry about its present. That song’s dreamy sound (one almost at odds with the fury in their voices, a nice trick) leads well into that of the sun-kissed first single “The Wiz”. That leads to a trio of sentimental California songs and a riff on love, a ladies’ dedication (“Love’s Theme”). And then they really get serious.


The 17th track, “A Baby”, builds from a moment early on in the album that may blur past, but at the same time is almost startling in its enthusiasm. It’s Thes One’s line during “The Fun” about a vacation taken with his significant other. “We had so much fun / We made a goddamn baby!” he exclaims, his voice full of surprise and optimism. The song “A Baby” is just as jubilant, but more serious, with a focus on the fears that came with the news. “I’m happy but I’m still scared”, he starts, before telling the tale of learning the news, while also speaking to his practical concerns, to the financial side, to the sacrifices he’ll need to make. It’s memorable for how vividly he captures all of the conflicting feelings, the overriding one being awe: “Damn / We’re having a baby?”


The optimistic look-forward “Same Beat (The Wesley Rap)”, which opens with the cry of a baby, has them pushing strongly forward, declaring their devotion to music as a means of expression, while the music gets introspective, in serious mood-jazz territory. The emotional energy of a “A Baby” still runs through the song, helped majorly in that regard by the music. The tone of the song’s final notes is bittersweet, and the song that follows it, “D”, is probably the duo’s most bittersweet song ever, and definitely one of their most touching. It starts with junior-high memories, then describes itself well as a “conversation with the deceased”. A tribute to a lost friend, it’s also still a testament to the heart People Under the Stairs put into their music—even if it’s seldom as evident as it is here—on classic lines that lay it out straight, like these from Thes One: “It’s been about three years since you were alive / But your number’s still in my cell phone, you know?”


The serious turn of such a party album may be surprising, but it shouldn’t be viewed as coming from left field. Any party holds within its participants so many stories of sweetness and despair. Fun DMC acknowledges that, even while capturing elegantly the freedom and joy felt during a good party, a momentary release of all worries. It’s telling that the track called “The Fun” is the one that first brings up the fact of pregnancy. The album title seems less silly in the context of that lyric “We had so much fun we made a goddamn baby!”. It feels more like a tribute to the way the music of Run DMC was both light-hearted and driven by real life, how their greatest-hits album includes both “You Be Illin’” and “Hard Times” (and plenty of songs that split the difference). People Under the Stairs are creating music in that tradition, though from their own, distinctly Californian perspective. In that regard, Fun DMC represents the height of their career thus far.

Rating:

Dave Heaton has been writing about music on a regular basis since 1993, first for unofficial college-town newspapers and DIY fanzines and now mostly on the Internet. In 2000, the same year he started writing for PopMatters, he founded the online arts magazine ErasingClouds.com, still around but often in flux. He writes music reviews for the print magazine The Big Takeover. He is a music obsessive through and through. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.


Media
People Under the Stairs - The Wiz
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