Yo, bust this: "You know it's funky, funky, funky 'cause you heard it from Pop M. / See, Polyrhythm Addicts say nobody can top them." Hmmm...uh, yeah, I think I like it better when they do it.
In 1998, there was a sitcom called Two Guys, a Girl, & a Pizza Place. Thanks to its title, the show's premise was no mystery. As it was originally conceived, there were indeed "two guys": Richard Ruccolo as "Pete Dunville", and Ryan Reynolds as "Berg". There happened to be a "girl": Sharon Carter as "Traylor Howard". And of course there was the requisite "pizza place" where the two guys worked to support themselves as they toiled through grad school. Pete sought to be an architect; Berg was in med-school.
I mention this, not to expound upon the craft of naming situation comedies (although, upon reflection, it could be kinda interesting, hmm…*rubbing chin*), but rather to explain the title of my review. Ever since the sitcom aired, I started referring to hip-hop groups containing male emcees and one female emcee as "Two guys, a girl, and a pizza shop". I'm not exactly sure what the "pizza shop" represents -- perhaps the recording studio or the record label? Maybe that's why rappers talk about "makin' cheese" or "gettin' cheddar" (note: E-40 prefers "gouda", and Lauryn Hill mentioned "mozzarella" in the song "Final Hour"). But I can tell you I like "pizza shop" better than the "pizza place" of the original sitcom title -- "place" is so nondescript, whereas pizza shop has more oomph to it, don't you think? I also like "lady" or "woman" better than "girl", so I'll have to tweak the wording a little.
So here's how we could describe the Fugees: two guys (Pras and Wyclef), a lady (Lauryn Hill), and a pizza shop. What about the original members of the Nas-helmed super-group, the Firm? The group was composed of three guys (Nas, AZ, and Cormega, later replaced by Nature), a female emcee (Foxy Brown), and a pizza shop. Digable Planets? Two guys ("Butterfly" and "Doodlebug"), a lady ("Ladybug Mecca"), and the omnipresent pizza shop. Speaking of Digable Planets, although they are still mainly known for the single "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)", it's worth it to go back and give their follow-up, 1994's Blowout Comb, another whirl. That album has aged quite nicely.
Sometimes, the "guys" go it alone in the "pizza shop", and then decide to add the "girl" later. The Black Eyed Peas were "Three Guys and a Pizza Shop" until they added contributions from singer Kim Hill and, later, Fergie. Likewise, the Juggaknots (brothers Breeze Brewin and Buddy Slim) added their sister, Queen Herawin, to the lineup for 2006's Use Your Confusion.
Or you could just pull an Al Pacino in S1m0ne (a.k.a. "Simone") and create a virtual "girl", like Tanya Morgan did with its roster: "three guys" (Donwill, Ilyas, and Von Pea) and the imaginary "girl" of the band name.
Which brings me to Polyrhythm Addicts, a hip-hop crew that, with DJ Spinna handling most of the production, works the "Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Shop" formula to good effect. Let's examine this closer.
The Two Guys
"We get compared to the Fugees, but all of us can rhyme"
The "two guys" on the Polyrhythm Addicts team are Shabaam Sahdeeq and Mr. Complex. These two guys can really kick it, flipping nouns and verbs with the greatest of ease, and meshing with DJ Spinna's textured beats as well as with each other. When you listen to them, you get the feeling they could hold their own as a duo, although if you could make an alternate version of this album with just their verses, we'd be looking at a 5 or a 6 instead of the 7 I'm giving it. My problem is trying to distinguish them. It's not that I'm unable to tell them apart; it's more that they sound so much like other emcees (in terms of voice and subject matter) and, as a result, their personalities don't shine.
You see this problem rearing its head when you compare the two of them to their newest teammate, the "girl" of the group, who of course stands out as the lone female as well as through the sheer force and wit of her rhymes (more about that in second). It also happens when the guest emcees arrive. Pharaohe Monch ("Reachin'"), Large Professor ("The Purist"), and Phonte of Little Brother ("It's My Life') are easy to identify. You'll say, "Oh snap! That's Large Professor," before you'll say, "Yo, that's Shabaam Sahdeeq."
There's a funny skit called "Poly Idol" attached to the last track, the "Zonin' Out" remix, in which the males of Polyrhythm Addicts hold American Idol-style auditions in hopes of finding a flavorful lady to join the group. I bring this up to say that, even though the eliminated contestants are terrible, they are nevertheless memorable. I remember the woman whose verse went, "I'm on my period all the time. I'm PMS-in', 24-7", but I struggle to recall memorable lines from the "two guys". That's the bad news.
The good news is the "Poly Idol" skit features Vanessa Williams or, as Digital Underground described her years ago, "Vanessa with the singin' career" (in the song "Freaks of the Industry"). That's the "Vanessa Williams" on Ugly Betty, not the "Vanessa Williams" on the TV version of Soul Food. But, for me, any skit featuring either of them would be a "good" skit.
You know it's funky, funky, funky 'cause you heard it from Tiye P.
Top lyrical dime piece, flow like a rhyme beast
As for the "girl", the female emcee… ahh, that's an interesting bit of trivia. For the group's 1999 debut, the "girl" was Apani B. Fly Emcee. You might remember her "additional vocals" credit on Mos Def and Talib Kweli's "Hater Players" from their Black Star album (or you might not, since the credits on my copy were written on the disc itself, and you get this weird Twilight Zone spiral effect when you rotate the disc as you try to read it).
For Break Glass…, the "girl" is Tiye Phoenix, a producer, keyboardist, singer, and emcee. I really like both Tiye Phoenix and Apani B. Fly, and I'd be interested in seeing them flip the script by joining forces and adding a lone male emcee to the cipher. How about this: "Two Girls, a Dude, and a Pizza Shop"?
In the current incarnation of "Polyrhythmic Addicts", Tiye Phoenix is a scene-stealer, a one-woman wrecking machine who could never be confused with another emcee. Oh, the comparisons are inevitable. She has the twin attack of being able to sing and rap, akin to Lauryn Hill and Ladybug Mecca. She attacks the mic with the ferocity and tone of Jean Grae, and she can deliver a punchline like Missy.
Her name signifies that she's a "queen", like Queen Latifah, and the name references, like the rapper Isis' name, ancient Egyptian culture. The "Tiye" part, in particular, recalls elegant and powerful Nubian-descended Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III, who ruled Egypt (also known as "Kem" or "Kemet" in many African studies classes) during the New Kingdom. Queen Tiye was also the mother of Amenhotep IV, who radically changed the artistic, social, and spiritual face of Egyptian society when he adopted his "Aton"-centered monotheism (i.e. the sun represented a sole creator) and changed his name to Akhenaton. In many of the statues made for him, Akhenaton looks like Raphael Saadiq, from the group Tony Toni Tone. Maybe it's just me. Anyway, completing the famous branch of the royal family tree, Akhenaton and Nefertiti were King Tutankhamen's parents.
Notwithstanding the similarities to hip-hop's female elite, Tiye Phoenix comes across as unique, which is the most refreshing part of her repertoire. The clever similes, the fierceness of her flow, the wicked rhymes (example: a verse in "What the Problem Is" based almost entirely on words that rhyme, or near-rhyme, with "podiatrist") -- all of that is important. But it's her individualism that makes it work. And yet, I think she shines brightest as a member of the group, where her flow can be compared and contrasted to the others, rather than as a solo artist, especially if a solo effort would be based on the battle-oriented material of Break Glass….
The Pizza Shop (or "Everything Else"):
So subliminal, it's rockin' my brain
So cleansin' like a tropical rain
Like morphine dropped in my vein
Music be the cure stoppin' my pain
Spannin' my octaves to optimum range
-- Tiye Phoenix, "It's My Life"
If hip-hop is in a state of emergency, Polyrhythm Addicts suggest that you break the emergency glass and reach for the remedy. I'm not exactly sure how that works, but it sure looks good on the back cover with the tracklist emanating like shards from a photo of cracked glass. The disc itself also has the "broken glass" theme, with the cracks and shards radiating from the disc hole. The first couple of songs (excluding the intro) drive the point home, beginning with the appropriately titled "Smash" and following up with the fire of "Kerosene".
Polyrhythm Addicts seek to recapture some of the "real" hip-hop spirit they feel is missing, focusing on beat precision and lyrical dexterity. About that beat precision -- oh, yeah, DJ Spinna is on point. I liked every beat on this record, especially the clever use of samples in "Kerosene" and "Reachin'".
Substance-wise, though, the group promises more than they deliver, mainly content to talk about how well they "spit". Granted, their metaphors for describing their freaky flows are quite inventive; however, I counted five references to "spit" or "spitting" in the first full song ("Smash") alone. Here's the lady of the group (italics added): "Keep talkin', streets talkin' and we can hear / You spittin' that propaganda, '07 is Poly Year". Later, in "Zonin' Out", she "spits cocoa butter". Check these rhymes from one of the "two guys", in the same song (again, "Smash"), and from a single verse:
I don't spit Creole, but they thought I was Cajun
'Cause every verse [is] hot, sucka, I'm blazin'
You ain't hot, you're just a little jerk chicken
I'm lava flowin' out of a volcano when I'm spittin'
I spit wit' a halo, marvelous glow
Angelic style, emcees -- they can see me, how?
Right now I'm antisocial, I don't wanna talk
I just wanna spit semi-auto rhymes, make you somersault.
Just when I thought no phrase would annoy me more than "jiggy", here comes "spit" and all of its conjugations. It's particularly distasteful because I like to think of rappers as wordsmiths, as artisans of language who work to find the precise words to express specific thoughts (I know, I'm pretty much the only dude still thinking this, right?). The word "spit" contradicts that; it's coarse and uncouth, not to mention random and disposable. Note to self: contact Al Sharpton and Reverend Run and see if we can get "spit" added to their list of "bad" words.
In their lyrics and style, Polyrhythm Addicts take full advantage of the current divide in hip-hop that pits the "hip-hop is dead" camp versus the "no it's not" camp. At times, that ideological split is starting to look like a generational rift, with the "old heads" saying, "Today's hip-hop doesn't have the substance we had back in the day", while the "younger heads" are saying, "What's done is done. This is a new era." This is a curious phenomenon, I think, because it has turned mostly mundane tracks about how it "ain't what it used to be" into album staples. It's also an old issue. Listen to those "golden era" records again. You'll find similar rhetoric about the shortage of substance and the abundance of paper chasing. Why, suddenly, does it warrant news coverage now?
Rapping about being the best is one thing, but I miss the moments when rappers would routinely shout out other rappers who were worth paying attention to. There was a word-of-mouth element to the music, allowing listeners to find out about other good performers whenever a rapper said "what up" to someone else. These days, the emphasis is on the unnamed suckers who are supposedly screwing things up.
In "The Purist", for instance, there's the usual namedropping and references to hip-hop song titles (i.e. Main Source was "looking at the front door", A Tribe Called Quest asked if somebody could "kick it", Organized Konfusion "stole my last piece of chicken", blah blah blah, etcetera). Then comes this line, "I say all this to say / I only get that feelin' from a few artists today". I see where the song is coming from, but why not name those "few artists"? I'm not sure the hip-hop reform movement is going to get where it wants to go, musically, by only talking about how "watered down" hip-hop is. Don't just give all the publicity to the rappers you dislike. If there's an artist you like, how about mentioning them too? I think "We Need Balance" is becoming my theme for 2007.
What cracks me up about the debate, especially from the "old heads" side, is how people who didn't even like rap "back in the day" are fakin' the funk about how good hip-hop used to be. The other day, a friend told me, "Man, remember how we used to have A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers? We don't have that anymore." I said, "I don't remember you listening to any of that," but they swear they did, even had the nerve to get belligerent about it, until I said, "Okay, name some of your favorite songs from 'back in the day'." He struggled just to come up with "The Humpty Dance"! I kid you not.
And the way people romanticize "the old school" is funny too, as if there were no "bad" songs back then, just reel after reel of classic material. Get real. Even the best artists release crappy songs.
But never mind my ranting and nitpicking, as Polyrhythm Addicts are exceedingly good at what they do, making Break Glass… a candidate for heavy rotation. And the exception to my jab about the trendy subject matter is "It's My Life", featuring Phonte of Little Brother. "It's My Life" is a gem, approaching the subject of "real music" from the positive side, emphasizing the vitality and significance of music, on a personal level, rather than from the negative side of hip-hop's (actual or perceived) shortcomings. Also, two songs, "Get Ghost" and "Thoughts of You", successfully venture away from battle rhyming and "the good ol' days" to address relationships and interpersonal drama. The group should do more of this because the "Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Shop" setup is perfectly tailored for the male-female dynamic and for stylistic and vocal variety in general. If they work together on another project, with a bit more depth, the results could be really special.