Ghetto Epistemology (How We Know What We Know About The Hood)
History is a funny thing. Ask the historians; they’ll tell you. History, they say, has a tendency to repeat itself. Or as Willie D. of the Geto Boys reminded us in an interview with Cheo Hodari Coker, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.
Consider the case of Willie D.‘s former partner in rhyme, one Brad Jordan, publicly and professionally known as Scarface. In the late ‘80s, Scarface, Willie D., and Bushwick Bill formed a dirty South super-group, the Geto Boys. Composed of three of the most charismatic personalities in music history, their lyrics were so graphic, so unflinchingly raw, they made N.W.A. seem a little bit like New Edition. Horror stories were par for the course, as nearly every verse the Geto Boys delivered would’ve made Wes Craven hide under his covers, teeth chattering. Maybe Stephen King owned an album or two, who knows.
The trio came together under the direction of James Smith, CEO of Rap-A-Lot Records. See, they didn’t form the group first with the intent to land a record deal; the record deal sort of landed on them. Almost 20 years later, Scarface finds himself in the role of talent scout for his new company, the Underground Railroad Movement, of which he is the “Conductor”, the Harriet Tubman of hip-hop. And so, history’s knack for recycling finds Scarface doing for two younger cats what James Smith and Rap-A-Lot did for him: forming a group of diverse elements. The fruit of his labor is The Product, a group that consists of Young Malice of Mississippi and Willie Hen of California. Another group with another Willie? See how history repeats itself? Unable to find a third emcee, Scarface fills in on microphone duty. It’s a good thing he did because he nails it every time.
Three paragraphs into this review, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. I’m not talking about Al Pacino’s say-hello-to-my-lil’-friend Scarface. I’m talking about the rap artist. “Scarface”. Or Mr. Scarface, as he declared over a decade ago on his solo debut, Mr. Scarface Is Back. In an earlier review, I referred to rapper and veteran wordsmith E-40 as the e.e. cummings of rap. Well, Mr. Scarface is hip-hop’s historian. Throughout his career, he has chronicled the narratives, the sorrows, and the pressures of street life, in detail. What makes him a historian is his gift for cultural critique. Songs from the Scarface discography (for instance, “I Seen a Man Die” and “Hand of the Dead Body”) demonstrate his knack for inputting and analyzing the collective experience and then using his considerable skill to synthesize his amalgam of data. All of this is set to music, no less. And all of it is entertaining.
Scarface, as host of The Product’s One Hunid, continues his hip-hop journalism. On “Life’s Been Good”, Scarface flows over a twinkling piano:
They put the blame on the ‘hood for what it is
But on the real to real, that’s how a ni**a live
The first and the third be the best days to serve
Checks come in, the whole hood’s got work
The kid’s gon’ do what the kid’s gon’ do
So don’t preach about us gettin’ a job, goin’ to school
Aware of his status in rap’s pantheon, he rhymes: “I’ve seen life spared and I’ve seen life took / I’m a product of the ghetto, I can write the book”. And he has. Many times over.
One Hunid adds another historical page to the Scarface canon, this time with production from Tone Capone and The Alchemist, in addition to the usual high level work of Geto Boys collaborator John Bido. Willie Hen and Young Malice, while descriptive in their wordplay, won’t be confused with Willie D. and Bushwick Bill. Make no mistake about it—this isn’t the Geto Boys or some cheap gimmick to cash in on the Geto Boys smash Mind Playing Tricks On Me. This is completely different clique, with Willie Hen and Young Malice adding their own thoughtful and introspective personas to the mix. Sure, the skill is there, but without the psychotic episodes.
On the Scarface-less tracks, Willie Hen and Young Malice hold it down like true veterans. On “In The Hood”, they offer a bittersweet slice of life, the street variety, meditative and reflective. Plus, background vocals by Tony Mac hit all the right notes. “The Love of Money” features one of the dopest beats on the album, with its stuttering tempo and looped horns. Willie Hen and Young Malice literally consume the music, relentlessly, only pausing for the hooks rendered in vintage Isley Brothers fashion. Listen also for Tekia Hicks on this song, credited in the liner notes for backing vocals. “Dead Broke”, which appropriately follows, finds the pair kicking morose rhymes over a slow grind, with verses like:
Another tale of how I live through this chaos
Strap under my pillow, barrel still hot
Lost three of my closest homies this year, it ain’t surprisin’
Hurtin’ inside, but they say our stock still risin’
In tune with the streets, ‘cause I’m out there daily
Take my kindness for weakness, man, f*** you—pay me
Scarface probably intended for the project to showcase the craftsmanship of Willie Hen and Young Malice—and they do shine—but it’s his own performances that ultimately steal the spotlight. It’s understandable. It’s like delivering a riveting performance in a movie scene, but you’re sharing the screen with Denzel Washington. On One Hunid, which is spelled the way Scarface would say “one hundred” in his Texas drawl, Mr. Scarface drops it so hot, you can’t wait for his next verse. During the first track, “Get Out”, Willie Hen and Young Malice open the album in fine form, then Scarface rides in like an outlaw on the third verse and holds your attention for ransom. It’s a mixture of his voice (part cowboy, part street poet) along with his confidence on the mic that makes him so captivating.
Other outstanding tracks include: “Read” and its crisp, thumping bass line; the bluesy “Hustle”; the hyped up “I’m A”; and “Not a Word”. But out of this collection of thirteen, “G Type” is my favorite. Produced by The Alchemist, “G Type” features snappy percussion and swirling synthesizers. That’s my jam right there.
Truthfully, there’s not a “bad” cut on the record. As the The Product progresses, there’s potential here for a classic Southern album somewhere down the line. You have to pay attention anytime a cat like Scarface, with so many years in the business, puts it down. In this case, he’s not only displaying his well-honed skills; he’s introducing the world to new players. Life’s been good, as The Product says in the last song. And you can hear how good it sounds on each track of this album.
// Notes from the Road
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