When Real Emcees and DJs Roamed the Earth
Rappers Jermiside & Brickbeats love hip-hop like Flavor Flav loves gigantic clocks. Especially the vintage variety (of hip-hop, not clocks) produced around 1990, about the time Q-Tip left his wallet in El Segundo. On The Red Giants, they’ve recorded a song called “Oneder Years” that details the era’s wacky splendor.
You can’t blame ‘em for being enthusiastic. Those were the days. When Monie was in the middle and Naughty By Nature got down with O.P.P.; Dre, Snoop, and hundreds of other people were working on The Chronic; Tone Loc had finally finished doing the “Wild Thing”; and En Vogue was encouraging ladies to “Hold On”.
Back then, DJs had juice. Think of Premier, Clark Kent, Kid Capri, Spinderella, Ali Shaheed Muhammad. There is, however, one DJ who must be discussed in connection with Jermiside & Brickbeats. One DJ, who stands out among the rest, a dedicated artist who, like the Little Richard of hip-hop, is a pioneer who hasn’t received his full due. And that DJ’s name is . . .
Pete Rock was the beat-making half of Pete Rock & CL Smooth, a duo that scored pounds of respect with the hit “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” from their Mecca and the Soul Brother album. “Reminisce” was a tribute to a fallen buddy, backed by a slammin’ horn sample. Pete Rock had a knack for constructing the right beats to accompany CL Smooth’s imaginative and sometimes convoluted rhymes. I still remember the cover of their second album, The Main Ingredient. CL Smooth occupied the foreground, sitting pensively like Rodin’s The Thinker, holding a microphone, while a slightly blurred Pete Rock sat in the background rooting through crates of old music. Records and turntables decorated the back cover.
The Jermiside & Brickbeats press release shows the duo in a store poring over rows of old records. On the CD cover, Jermiside stands in the foreground, with Brickbeats slightly behind. The back cover displays a close-up of a turntable. All of this looked Pete-Rock-&-CL-Smooth-ish to me. Maybe Jermiside & Brickbeats were thinking of Pete Rock & CL Smooth, maybe they weren’t. I doubt they were biting. But I’ve already seen the comparisons between Jermiside and Common, and between Brickbeats and the production styles of Kanye West and 9th Wonder, and I like my comparison better. Not only because it’s mine (although that’s part of it), but also because Pete Rock & CL Smooth made good music, as a team, as two regular dudes from around the way who enjoyed dope lyrics and tight beats.
And that’s what Jermiside & Brickbeats are all about: making good music.
The Red Giants consists of songs by two talented brothas who are passionate about beats and rhymes. While the work itself may be uneven, with tracks ranging from average to excellent, the prospects are promising, not only for the duo but for hip-hop in general. They could be the next Pete Rock & CL Smooth, or the next Gang Starr. Or, better yet, they may—and probably will—start new trends of their own, as individual artists. Jermiside has already created some of the fiercest rhymes in underground history in collaborations with the likes of Von Pea, Ill Poetic, BeatTribe, Ilwil, Shameless, and Blayze McKee. Brickbeats, who keeps his skills in regular rotation, contributed his ear for dopeness to Tanya Morgan’s Moonlighting release. (And, in case you didn’t know, Tanya Morgan is a band of three male emcees, okay? Y’all betta reckanize).
Let’s start with Jermiside, a.k.a. Jermaine Foster. He loves to rhyme, which is readily apparent after one dose of the first full song, the phenomenal “Soundgazing”. His is a mesmerizing style that’s conversational and playful like Digital Underground’s Shock-G but delightfully intricate. Jermiside’s raps float nicely over his partner’s beats, his voice crisp and his timing on point. He’s even got a sense of humor, using similes to augment his delivery. He can tell us how dope he is (“Magnificent”), follow that up with a song to encourage the brothas (“Do Ya Thang”), and then switch to seduction (“Pair-A-Dice Island”).
Did I mention he’s also a good storyteller? He can spin seriously bleak tales (“Good Morning America”, “Cowards Course”) just as swiftly as he can reminisce about growing up in the ‘80s (“Oneder Years”) or offer relatively lighthearted pearls about relationships (“Satisfied”). The Red Giants highlights various facets of Jermiside’s emcee persona without sacrificing continuity. Remember how, on Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet Jackson opened her album with three powerful, socially-conscious songs and then cut it abruptly with a curt, “Get the point? Good. Let’s Dance”? Well, this is nothing like that. Here, the transitions are smooth.
One reason for that is Jermiside’s lyricism, but the other is the production by Brickbeats, a.k.a. David Gray. Brickbeats digs into all types of vinyl, from the jazziness and thumping bass line of “Soundgazing” (my personal favorite) to the Godfather-like strings of “Cowards Course”. At the same time, the beats fit the rhymes, like the grandiose sound of “Magnificent”, the old-school beat of “Oneder Years”, and the Caribbean vibe of “Pair-A-Dice Island”.
What I like best about Brickbeats’ approach is the way he finds his groove, but refuses to be straitjacketed by it. For instance, on “Illustrious Brothers”, he switches the beat completely, meshing dissimilar sounds together into a sonic collage. Throughout, the popping noises and static in the background mimic the sound of authentic, aged vinyl. What I dislike about Brickbeats’ production is his use of sped-up samples, like Alvin and the Chipmunks broke into the studio and laid their vocals down while everyone was asleep. That, however, is a minor criticism, given the popularity of the technique these days and the fact that it sometimes works to great effect, like on “Satisfied”. I couldn’t imagine “Satisfied” being produced any other way—Chipmunks and all.
The Red Giants is an enjoyable CD and you should buy it. Still, there are a few tracks that reduce its potency.
“They Say”, for instance, is slightly annoying, mostly because the sped-up samples don’t work so well here, but also because the song as a whole seems flat. Jermiside raps:
I ain’t makin’ no crack, /
Who you got me mistakin’ wit’? /
Ni**as say that they can spit, /
I eat ‘em like a bacon bit.
It’s not bad; it’s just that it doesn’t live up to the album’s stellar moments. It’s also a matter of taste. I much preferred the wordplay and music of “DDF” (which stands for “Dominating Destructive Force”):
The beats got a /
Brotha feelin’ like singin’ a sweet sonata, /
Your feeble attempts fail like jails tryin’ to keep Assata, /
I’m the number one Dun, /
You’re just a number three don dada, /
I scar well, /
Bars of hell leavin’ the stigmata.
That’s tight right there. The last time an album had me replaying an emcee’s verses—runnin’ around, holdin’ my head, asking my homeboy, “Yo, man, you heard what he said?” as Kool Moe Dee would put it—was Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides.
My most severe critique is “Jealousy”, a song with good intentions that gets distracted by irritatingly off-beat strings. On the positive side, it was an ambitious idea, musically and lyrically. But at around 2 minutes and 30 seconds, Jermiside raps with just the drum track behind him and that’s when you realize the song would’ve worked without the strings completely.
But we can argue those points back and forth all day. Besides, I’m just an after-the-fact armchair quarterback anyway. Truth is, anybody who loves hip-hop will enjoy The Red Giants. Jermiside & Brickbeats take the game back to the days of the emcees and the deejays, when beats were key and lyrics were supreme. For its vision and imagination, this is a must-have for 2006.
// Notes from the Road
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