More Soul, Less Ghetto
Music fans need a support group. We need somebody to show us some love when our favorite artist gets shot at or tossed in jail, and we’re still keeping our lighters up. We’re the ones who have to explain why this dude wants to be referred to as an unpronounceable symbol, or why that lady refuses to be addressed by her first name. It’s time for someone to break the fans off a proper chunk of respect. So can a fan get a little what-what?
My motivation to pioneer this concept emanates from two sources of inspiration. First, I watched Fight Club again on DVD. The second source was Mojoe’s debut album, Classic.Ghetto.Soul, originally released in 2003. The debut has been picked up for re-release by Music World Entertainment. Mojoe consists of Tre (Treson Scipio) and Easy Lee (Charles Peters), two talented artists who hail from San Antonio, Texas. Their strategy for grooving is a compelling one—take the personality and atmosphere of the United States’ Deep South region and blend it with live instrumentation into hip-hop gumbo. As their title suggests, the duo is developing a sound that mixes “ghetto” and “classic soul”.
The duo’s approach is so promising and exhibits so much potential, you’ll want to tell people about it. You’ll even want to play the album intro to your buddies so they can hear the opening guitar riff and Mojoe’s harmony in the lines:
Mama used to say
This road we travel’s hard sometimes
Ups and downs
And everybody’s got a different plan for your life
Then she said, ‘Follow your soul’
It’ll never lead you wrong
So now we’re here
For all of y’all
To sing our song from the soul
To your soul
You’ll want to tell people how cool it is that the opening guitar riff builds the momentum as the other instruments are added, until what’s left is the sweet harmony in “from your soul, to your soul” accompanied by a bumping wall of funk.
There are two reasons music fans need support groups. For starters, whenever music lovers get excited about a “new” artist or group, it almost always seems like nobody else has heard of them. You’ll say, “Hey, have you picked up that album by Mojoe?” and everybody says, “Who?” Sometimes, the apathy in that response drives me crazy. A support group would give me—whoops, I meant “music fans”—a built-in support system for sharing musical finds and treasures.
But here’s the other reason music fans need support groups: because artists do things to their songs that frustrate us. Take Mojoe’s intro quoted above. At the end of it, someone says, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about. That’s a motherf*ckin’ intro”. The more I hear it, the more I think, “Wow, was that really necessary?” And I truly understand the apparent hypocrisy of what I’m saying. How, for instance, do you listen to a “gangsta” rapper, who laces each line with profanity, but then raise an eyebrow at Mojoe’s playful banter at the end of an intro?
Good point. But here’s the problem: there’s a head scratcher in nearly each song on Classic.Ghetto.Soul. Sometimes you wonder if these guys know how good they really sound. That’s largely because Mojoe’s music continually outshines Mojoe’s lyrics. Tre and Easy Lee have employed excellent instrumentation, but they don’t really have a whole lot to say.
This is surprising, though, considering the first track, “True Jewel”. On this tune, Tre and Easy Lee express their wish to emulate the success of the greats, like Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Donnie Hathaway, and Curtis Mayfield. While they miss these great performers, the duo wants people to remember Tre and Easy Lee in the same way. What ensues is not a tribute to the greats, but rather an “I-want-to-be-great-too” song. Tre sets it off with his wish to be remembered as someone who “represented the South”. People would study the lyrics to his songs and wonder what he thought and felt as he wrote and performed his music. And, he raps, even if he doesn’t make the big time, he’s content to continue his grind as long as he can.
Who could be mad at that? Certainly not me. “True Jewel” is a hot track. There’s even a part, at about two minutes and sixteen seconds, when the beat turns into handclaps in both speakers and Mojoe chants its way through the breakdown. But why, then, do they mention the “ni**as” who are hatin’ on their sound? It’s like painting the Mona Lisa and then flicking the brush at the canvas so one blue dot lands on the subject’s cheek. That one dot is getting in the way. It’s no excuse to mention all the abstract artists, like other rappers, who do the same thing. Mojoe’s sound, which might remind you of Outkast or the Roots, is different and separates them from most others in the genre (mostly hip-hop), but their lyrics tend to stay well within the norm. “True Jewel” gave the impression that they were hoping for something better.
The next track, “Yesterday”, hits the same way, expanding on the one lyrical misstep in “True Jewel”. “Yesterday” definitely brings the Curtis Mayfield vibe on the chorus, although the song begins with more Old School namedropping, “I’ll make you hit a note like Minnie Ripperton” and “Call me Smokey Robbie ‘cause I cruise”. The heavy beat drops, with a beautiful horn flowing in the background, and then comes:
Now look here, Shorty, when you been at?
Tonight, let’s have a rematch
Yesterday, I won a tussle, I broke you off just like a Kit-Kat
You got me writin’ a tight rap
Reminiscin’ about that
Time we took a shower
You were massagin’ a ni**a’s bee-zack
I almost threw my stereo out of the window and across the street. Don’t get me wrong—I can’t reiterate enough how good these songs sound. Mojoe points out what LL Cool J showed us when he performed “Mama Said Knock You Out” on MTV’s Unplugged set—rap sounds pretty damn good with live instruments. Mojoe sounds wonderful, so you’d expect them to write lyrics that match the maturity of that sound. Unfortunately, “I broke you off just like a Kit-Kat” doesn’t meet that standard. And no sentence containing the word “bee-zack” (that’s rapper-speak for “back”) should ever be uttered.
Classic.Ghetto.Soul, then, has plenty of great “soul”, but a little too much “ghetto”. Even where the ghetto-loves-funk strategy works best (as in “Gumbo Groove”, “Gold Tooth Diva”, “Third Coast Anthem”, “Funky Lac”, and “Sweetwater”), some element always breaks in and messes things up. For example, “Gumbo Groove”, an energetic club joint, issues this dance floor directive: “Palm the wheel, work your wood, put it in reverse and work that bumper good”. Is it just me, or does it seem unlikely that Donnie Hathaway would have sang that? Yet, Hathaway is the caliber of performer the brothas of Mojoe claim to emulate. In “Gold Tooth Diva”, a little tune about a down home sista, there’s no shortage of clichés: “made in the shade”, “no ordinary love like Sade”, and anything related to “George and Weezie” Jefferson and the idea of moving up or climbing higher. Between the two vocalists, Easy Lee’s rhymes aren’t as complex or as rhythmic as Tre’s, requiring his verses to exhibit more skill and originality.
The most innovative track is “A Cool Poem”, a spoken word piece over a smooth, jazzy instrumental. Here, Easy Lee offers some “cool” imagery (“my hat is tilted about 35 degrees to the right, fittin’ my skull tight, gators lookin’ right”) with a cool violence-is-senseless message. Actually, Easy Lee’s spoken word skills are far superior to his rapping, so this is the type of song Mojoe should definitely continue to explore. Once again, though, the music steals the show and, as “A Cool Poem” plays out its instrumental, it’s worth considering what the album might have been as a jazz record.
The urgency of receiving support group therapy began when I was listening to Mojoe’s album while talking to a friend and, during the course of the conversation, she asked, “What’s that song you’re listening to?” The song was called “Voodoo Coochie”, and the chorus goes:
Girl put a spell on me
When she put that thang on me
Not only did I have to explain why rappers feel the need to spell during the hooks (“Because they’re ‘breaking it down’ for you, that’s it”), I had to confront the reaction to the title (“It’s called Voodoo what?”). I’ve been picturing myself on The Late Show, standing up in the crowd when David Letterman challenges the audience to stump Paul Shaffer and the band with obscure tunes. All I want is to see everyone’s reaction when I say, “Yo, can you play ‘Voodoo Coochie’ by Mojoe, ‘Booty’ by Erykah Badu, or ‘Smoke Some Weed’ by Ice Cube? Those are my jams, dawg.”
It would be one thing if Tre and Easy Lee weren’t any good. We’d just play Frisbee with the CDs, without giving Mojoe a second thought. But these guys are excellent at what they do. The use of the live band is well done, providing the atmosphere of a down home speakeasy. But when I hear what Classic.Ghetto.Soul is and I compare it to what it might have been, it’s a little frustrating. While this offering is solid and consistent, Mojoe will undoubtedly produce a winner by employing stronger lyrical content to match the high quality instrumentation.