Just over 10 years ago Kid Frost’s “La Raza” announced to the world that hip-hop was now part of the musical make-up of the Hispanic community too. A superior proto-Gangsta anthem, its mixture of menace, ethnic pride and laid-back beats remains influential and current favourites such as the Lethal Assassins, Psycho Realm and the Darkroom Family stay faithful to the format, but add rougher lyrics and harder beats. In the meantime, of course, West Coast rap has become big business. Given the antiquity of Frost’s classic it is unfair to see Latino Gangsta as a mere copy of the better known Dre/NWA/Tupac model but the similarities are obvious. Perhaps geography rather than ethnicity is the key factor. Whatever the prime reason, one problem newcomers E-Side Ghetto have is convincing the listener that they are not simply bandwagon jumpers. It is a task they don’t quite manage to pull off.
They have a few things going for them. Hit a Lick is owned by Tony G., who produced “La Raza” and helps out on the album. Frost himself records for the label so they are in good company. Group members Slim, Malice and K-Dogg (you knew they were going to be called that, didn’t you?) are good enough rappers. Their voices lack character but they are pretty tight as rhymesters. They have kept the preference for the lazy, very ‘70s, funk samples and beats that characterise the West Coast sound and particularly its Latino variant. This lends an effective, blunted mellowness to most of the material—albeit one largely at odds with the lyrics. It is with the lyrical content that the trouble starts.
The problem is what is there to say anymore? Today’s Unoriginal Gangstas all try to out-shock, out-thug and out-boast each of their predecessors but there comes a point where it no longer registers. E-Side are no worse, but no better, than a score of other crews. Their work will find an audience for as long as the fascination with ghetto violence, drugs, hos etc. continues. That shows no sign at all of diminishing but, let’s face it, by and large all this “Keepin’ it Real” has become an excuse for what is our new aural pornography. This is our fault not the hip-hop world’s. This stuff titillates and excites—the further from the ghetto the more so, it would seem.
E-Side may well be every bit as violent as they insist on telling us. They are, in fact, positively obsessed with emphasising how dangerous they are. In the opening tune we learn that these are some “cold ass mothafuckas”, colder in fact than “the moonlight that makes the gun gleam”. They are in the business of “puttin’ holes in you mothafuckas”, you will be delighted to hear.If that fails to impress they will probably leave you with “little pink chunks coming out your ear” or “follow you home and blow your place up”. Not they are wholly reliant on firearms and bombs. They are quite happy to administer a good old fashioned beating “so that your head looks like a ruptured watermelon in a plastic bag”. And so on it goes on, not just once, but for 16 of the disc’s 17 tracks. Is it real? Is it storytelling? Who cares? As Sunshine Anderson says—“Heard It All Before”. The one incontrovertible statement is the first song’s title—“Just Business”.
As for money, drugs and sex—it’s the same pattern. The attitude to women is a little more degrading than the usual—but only a little. Typical boy meets girl lyric: “Ask your bitch how we met / She’s an expert / Sucking dick till her neck hurts”. The album has plenty of porno lyrics, which will keep the teens happy, but lacks even Snoop or Tupac’s level of wit. Oh, and the occasional battering if the bitches talk out of turn is part of the philosophy too. Given all that, the number “Don’t Believe In Love” is possibly the most unnecessary explanation you will hear this year. I don’t want to get all moral on this (for the record, the smuttiest—and the sharpest—rap is provided by guest female rapper j.v). It is the predictability that offends more than the content.
So is it complete crap, then? Well, no it isn’t. Despite the thundering paucity of new ideas, the way it is all put together is pretty competent. Some numbers like “Hit a Lick” and “Choppin It Up” are infectious rocking dancers, some like “No” and “Child” do create a convincing atmosphere of violence and squalor—rather than simply celebrating it. “Child”, a narrative of a middle-class kid drawn to the ghetto life, is very well told. The undercurrent of Latino culture is sometimes intriguing and each track is coherent and well arranged.The sparse backing, with its reliance on either acoustic or wah-wah guitar, works well. An absence of chest-crushing bass is a bit disappointing—but the general musicality of the album is a definite plus. The group’s vocal style tends towards thinness but their timing is excellent and they have an eye for some catchy, almost singalong hooks.
They made a real blunder with the last track though. “Being With You” is a real gem. Unfortunately it is not a rap at all but a gentle, moody tune with female vocals courtesy of Janis O. Using the same instrumentation that serves so well throughout the set, this smooth Cali-soul number puts the meanness and impoverishment of the rest of the numbers in a very bad light indeed. I don’t know what it is doing tacked on as an afterthought but can assure you that it is pure class. It would be more at home on Om, Greyhound or any of the nu-soul labels that represent the other, less hate-filled sound of the West Coast. Very odd—but welcome anyway.
That is about it—a run of the mill album, efficiently made and with a vocal treat waiting for you at the end. Hardly essential, unless you just can’t get enough of the genre, but if enough people praise the final track perhaps E-Side will turn their attention more to production. I hope so because those loping beats and dope-driven samples deserve something fresher than the fare on offer for most of Ghetto Tales.