Various Artists: Farewell Fondle ‘Em

Various Artists
Farewell Fondle 'Em
Def Jux

This is not a work of great beauty or delicacy. It’s not really even “a work” at all. It’s a compilation of songs that were released on the Fondle ‘Em label, which was headed by New York deejay and scenester Bobbito Garcia, along with outtakes. This basic description is already enough to send some of you away, but you really shouldn’t go. In fact, you should check this disc out and listen to it carefully because somewhere, lurking deep within its golden grisly depths, lies the soul of that most endangered species, hip-hop music.

Bobbito, or “DJ Cucumber Slice” as he now calls himself, has been one of hip-hop’s most important radio jocks for a long time–I used to listen to him spin with Stretch Armstrong when I lived in NYC — but he is a cat of rare depth and feeling. Not only is he possessed of a strange and unique sense of what great hip-hop music is all about, he is also a wonderful writer (check out the above link to read the poetry and essays gathered under the name “Bugged Soup”), a street hoops expert who has also played for Wesleyan University — where he studied sociology — and the Puerto Rican national team, and an entrepreneur whose store, Bobbito’s Footwork, was a legendary East Village presence until it got urban-renewalled out of existence in 2000.

He is also not much of a label head. The music on Farewell Fondle ‘Em was never going to set the commercial world on fire — it’s too weird, too edgy, too much fun to listen to. There’s no bling on these tracks, and that’s what’s needed to really move those units. But Fondle ‘Em was never really about the unit-moving; or at least that’s the sense you get from this disc. Exhibit A: it starts out with a freestyle from Kool Keith, rap’s most notorious freakazoid. Exhibit B: it then goes into “Kick a Dope Verse” by the Cenobites with Bobbito also rapping on it. This song is simply too hilarious to have been widely popular, with its bizarre free-association rhymes (Bobbito describing a fart thusly: “A tasket, a tisket / A golden air biscuit”) and nimble bass clarinet sample. Great, and apparently legendary in hip-hop deejay circles, but not commercial in the least.

The same goes for the rest of the record: killer track after killer track, but really not much in the way of huge popular success. The same goes for my favorite track here, the freestyle pitting El-P against J-Treds. (If you don’t know J-Treds, you are forgiven, because he’s fairly obscure, even as half of Indelible MC’s. But El-P, a.k.a. El Producto, is huge these days; he’s the guiding light behind Company Flow, a group of deep weirdness, and his production work on Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein turned it into the best hip-hop album of 2001. Whew. This stuff is exhausting.) This freestyle is just relentless in its interplay between two strange and talented dudes who should be huger than Puffy McDiddy. J-Treds goes after “herbs” on this one, but he’s talking about nerds instead of ganja, and he’s on the mark with every one: “You could never be down with me / Even if you was gravity” is a line that should be studied in school, and you can hear the appreciative whooping by the boys in the studio for it. As for El-P, he hardly lives up to his too-serious Company Flow persona here, opting instead to b-boy it up; coming back into the flow with “Yeah I heard that fuckin’ shit / And I’ma kick some fuckin’ rhymes” is a classic transition. Be nice to hear some freestylin’ on his upcoming solo album, no?

You don’t want a rundown of every track here, because you want some surprises left for you, but I have to mention M.F. Grimm’s “Scars and Memories”. This is as close as rap gets to Goth; the narrator is a guy laying paralyzed in a hospital bed after a robbery gone awry, talking about his friend who died. Over the course of its six minutes, this track does some funky stuff. It starts out like a typical “oh I miss my dead homey, crime doesn’t pay” song, and trades (I think intentionally) on the ten million necrophiliac tributes we’ve all heard to Notorious B.I.G. and Fat Joe and Tupac. But then things change: our narrator starts questioning the universe about everything that’s gone wrong in the world, and the dead friend starts to rap back with answers from beyond the grave. Except they’re really questions for God (“Why’d You let Indians get used and abused? / Why’d You let Hitler crucify all the Jews?”) and his dead homey can’t answer questions like that. It’s philosophical, it’s deep, it’s furiously non-bling, and it’s perfect. The fact that M.F. Grimm really is paralyzed and incarcerated adds maybe a little too much poignancy.

We’ve got some other underground indie stars (some call them “undies”) here: Juggaknots, M.F. Doom, Arsonists, MHz, and Jakki the Mota Mouth with Copywrite among them. Scienz of Life scores with the mystical numerology of “Powers of Nine Ether” and its great line about “Tryin’ to bite my lines like Chupacabra”. And I especially like the track by [email protected] Ballz, where he turns that old “Jack Jack Jack Jack” hook from BDP’s “Jack of Spades” and flips it so it’s “[email protected] [email protected] [email protected] [email protected]” instead. Bobbito’s reach is long, too: Binkis is from Atlanta, and Cashless Society is a South African crew with a nice easy flow kicking the disc’s most political lyrics. None of the tracks are all that similar, necessarily — Fondle ‘Em didn’t have a signature sound or a programmatic attack. But there is an underlying sense here: “Let’s reclaim hip-hop culture.”

And that’s what Bobbito Garcia has been doing for the last almost two decades. This is a great way to say Farewell to Fondle ‘Em Records. Bobbito’s new label, Fruitmeat Records, is just launching the next chapter now.