Disclaimer: This article contains images and descriptions of violence that some may find upsetting.
Reader discretion advised.
On July 9th, 1991, Houston hip-hop group Geto Boys released their third album,We Can’t Be Stopped, through hometown label Rap-A-Lot Records. These days the album is mainly remembered for its infamous album cover and breakout single, “Mind Playing Tricks On Me”. But a listen back thirty years after its release gives us the hindsight to recognize We Can’t Be Stopped as the defining Geto Boys record and a major milestone in the evolution of Southern hip-hop.
Making Trouble: Birth of the Geto
The Ghetto Boys (as they were then known) first popped up in Houston’s Fifth Ward community in 1986 but before the year was out, they lost two of their three founding members. Raheem and Sir Rap-A-Lot ditched the picture just as quickly as they’d arrived, leaving the sole survivor, The Sire Jukebox, to rebuild Ghetto Boys with DJ Ready Red, Prince Johnny C, and eccentric dancer/hype man Little Billy. Ghetto Boys followed up their debut single “Car Freak” with the 1987 “You Ain’t Nothin’/I Run This” and “Be Down” the following year, culminating in the release of their debut album Making Trouble on February 17th, 1988. Recorded on the heels of the triple-platinum success of Run D.M.C.’s Raising Hell, Making Trouble pastiched Run-D.M.C.’s mid-decade style, emulating their beats, rapid trade-off rhyme style, shouted vocal deliveries, and even their outfits. Check it out below and judge for yourself.
Yet D.M.C.’s follow-up album, Tougher Than Leather (released mid-May of ’88) marked a significant departure from their style by emphasizing sample-heavy beats and more nuanced deliveries, becoming Platinum-certified by July. The Geto Boys’ Making Trouble, released a mere two months before Tougher Than Leather, received negative reviews and failed to gain any significant traction. In the wake of the critical and commercial disappointment, Rap-A-Lot Records CEO J. Prince (who’d launched the label with “Car Freak” and invested his full budget in the group) noted the derivative nature of Sire Jukebox and Prince Johnny C and dropped them from the group to pursue a new direction. DJ Ready Red and Little Billy (who’d transitioned into a full-time lyricist under the stage name Bushwick Bill) remained. J. Prince asked already-signed solo act Willie D. to join the Ghetto Boys as a favor, and the rapper accepted, albeit reluctantly. Insisting on the strength of a four-piece, Prince then had to choose between two candidates: his own brother, or a notorious Houston wordsmith known as “Akshen“. Prince set up DJ Ready Red’s house as an audition space and invited the two contenders to compete over Red’s instrumentals. Prince was struck by Akshen’s stern delivery and far-from-playful lyrics, both of which steered from the norm of hip-hop in the late ’80s, and recruited Akshen as the final member of Ghetto Boys’ new lineup.
Getting to That Other Level
1988 was a pivotal year for hip-hop. Some of the biggest records were Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow the Leader, Big Daddy Kane’s Long Live the Kane, and the aforementioned Tougher Than Leather from Run-D.M.C.. Each album challenged the way producers thought about flipping samples just as much as they drew the line between acceptable controversy and tastelessness. In other words, it was the perfect time for Ghetto Boys to take a hard left rather than chase a stagnant fad.
Whatever path Ghetto Boys took, J. Prince was going for broke, literally. Unbeknownst to the Boys, Prince was weighing the future of Rap-A-Lot Records on the outcome of Ghetto Boys’ next release, and had resolved to shut down Rap-A-Lot and leave the music biz for good if it didn’t do well. Sessions for the new album began in late ’88 and by Spring of ’89 Grip It! On That Other Level was ready to ship.
Grip It! On That Other Level far surpassed the lackluster reception to Makin’ Trouble, reaching 166 on the Billboard’s Top 200 and coming in at #19 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Through its versatile sample selection, inter-bar chemistry, and brutally gratuitous lyrics, Grip It! On That Other Level exposed hip-hop listeners to what Texas (A.K.A. the “Third Coast“) had to offer. The East Coast/West Coast rivalry was unheard of at the time, and overall the hip-hop community was more inviting when it came to Ghetto Boys’ idiosyncratic, southern style. In particular, the rappers’ regional drawl and penchant for nightmarish depictions of violence drew plenty of attention to the group.
By the turn of the decade, Ghetto Boys and Rap-A-Lot Records were finally making a return on J. Prince’s investment. Reputation and capital in hand, J. Prince enlisted Def Jam Records co-founder Rick Rubin to remix Grip It! On That Other Level and re-release it for the masses on CD. Imagine the sense of accomplishment Prince must’ve felt; fool-hearted first iteration of Ghetto Boys had tried to beat Run-D.M.C. at their own game, and now, just a couple years down the road, the group was working with their co-producer. Rubin put his renowned skills to work, re-recording ten of Grip It!‘s songs, “Assassins” off of Makin’ Trouble, and two new originals, “Fuck ‘Em” and “City Under Siege” (serving as the record opener and closer, respectively). The resulting compilation was completed and released in 1990 as The Geto Boys. It marked the first appearance of the group’s signature misspelling and seemed to market itself as the true debut for the Geto Boys. Def Jam subsidiary Def American Recordings took extra care in presenting the sensitive content by packaging The Geto Boys with a one-of-a-kind warning label: “Def American Recordings is opposed to censorship. Our manufacturer and distributor, however, do no condone or endorse the content of this recording, which they find violent, sexist, racist and indecent.” A message like that plastered right on the cover might’ve scared off most, but for The Geto Boys, that was exactly the kind of notoriety they craved. Yet by setting the bar for shock value so high, The Geto Boys might have been setting themselves on a path towards self-destruction.
We Can’t Be Stopped
“If you look at my face on the We Can’t Be Stopped album cover you can tell I didn’t want to be a part of that photoshoot. Bill was still in the hospital. He was highly sedated, man. We took that picture at the actual hospital where Bill was at. And Chief, who was our manager at the time, said, ‘Bill, take the eye patch down.’ And I was like, ‘Awww fuck! Man, this is some bullshit.’ I strongly believe that what goes on in this house stays in this house. I didn’t really want to put Bill out there like that. How many people have gotten their eye shot out and captured it on an album cover for everyone to remember? It’s hard to wake up in the morning and deal with that one.” – Scarface (Vibe.com)
“It still hurts me to look at that cover because that was a personal thing I went through… I still feel the pain from the fact I’ve got a bullet in my brain… I think it was pretty wrong to do it, even though I went along with the program at first.” – Bushwick Bill
In the immediate aftermath of The Geto Boys, the group underwent some clear changes. Rapper “Akshen” had time and again drawn parallels between the fictional rise of Tony Montana and his own life, and officially adopted a new handle, Scarface. And in the midst of recording their next LP, founding member DJ Ready Red left the group, citing personal reasons. Sure, times were tumultuous, but the Boys had been through worse, right?
Bushwick Bill candidly recounts the 1991 shooting incident on San Francisco’s KUSF radio.
Cut to the early hours of Juneteenth, 1991. After a day-long bender of drinking grain alcohol and using various drugs, Bushwick Bill returned home inebriated, erratic, and outwardly depressed. He retrieved a pistol, woke up his then-girlfriend, and demanded she kill him. When she refused, Bushwick fired at her and their three-month old child, then attempted to assault the former with a vacuum cleaner head but missed. In the chaos, Bill forfeited the pistol to his girlfriend, then advanced towards her when the barrel was facing him, fumbling for the trigger. Two pairs of hands scrambled for control of the gun. The struggle abruptly ended when a round was fired point blank into Bushwick Bill’s right eye socket.
When the news hit Geto Boys’ management team, they smelled an opportunity. In a matter of days, Scarface and Willie D were called to the hospital treating Bill for a disturbing project: capturing the tragedy on camera and using it for their recently completed album’s artwork. Bill was wheeled out of his room on a gurney, and later, a wood-backed wheelchair, while Geto Boys manager “Chief” snapped photos. At one point Chief insisted Bill lower his eyepatch to expose the physical trauma.
It’s an indescribably bizarre pair of images. Where previous press photos depicted Geto Boys posing as “hard”, or “toughened by the streets”, these images saw Willie D sullen with grief, Scarface agitated and unamused, and Bushwick Bill sedated into near-dissociation. Bill’s hospital gown is oddly contrasted with a bulky cell phone and a cap repping 5th Ward Posse. Willie D sports a vibrant, frayed jean jacket over a T-shirt while Scarface’s outfit seems more akin to Southern church attire. Their stark expressions suggest nothing close to being “badass”, further lending to the tense reality of an already bleak snapshot.
The high-profile incident built anticipation for the upcoming record and within weeks Geto Boys’ collective discomfort became immortalized on the cover of We Can’t Be Stopped. The title was originally a response to Geffen Records ending their distribution deal with Def American after The Geto Boys but could be interpreted more literally when paired with the image of Bushwick Bill essentially clinging to life. We Can’t Be Stopped dropped on July 9th, 1991, packing nine solo tracks (three per member) and three full-group arrangements. The album’s grisly lyrics did little to subdue the notion of danger implied on the cover photo, and sold well in the early days of the Parental Advisory label. Its emphasis on andante tempo, soul-funk samples, and dry, abrasive snares meshed well with the mainstream progression of hip-hop, and by early 1992, We Can’t Be Stopped reached Platinum.
“Mind Playing Tricks On Me”
“I think my manic depressive state and suicidal tendencies played a huge role on who I was back then. “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” was one of the numerous songs I wrote and produced myself. There were three verses: my first two verses—the verse that Bill rapped was my own third verse. It was a record I originally recorded for my solo album, but nobody wanted that song. I swear…nobody. Willie D. didn’t think the record would work, but he wrote a verse to it anyway after J had done his research on this song. He found some people who were really feeling it. He wanted everybody to rap on it. It became a Geto Boys record.” – Scarface (Vibe.com)
Music Journalist Brian Coleman does an outstanding job of breaking down We Can’t Be Stopped in his collection Check the Technique, so instead of a track-by-track analysis, let’s just tackle the album’s most-lauded original, “Mind Playing Tricks On Me“. Self-produced by Scarface (who wrote three of the four verses) and originally intended for his debut solo LP Mr. Scarface Is Back (released on October 8th, 1991), the beat follows the fairly common formula of slowing (or “screwing”) and looping a vintage instrumental refrain, in this case Isaac Hayes‘ 1974 track “Hung Up On My Baby”.
Between the raw vinyl scratches in the sample and Scarface’s deadpan scene-setter, “I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles…”, there’s so much sinister weight in those first four seconds. Everything coalesces at the top of the first verse, when the screwed breakbeat from Graham Central Station‘s 1975 original “The Jam” complements a simple, monotone subwoofer-lovin’ 808 boom bass line.
All these small pieces put together make for a brilliantly hypnotic groove, allowing us to be fully mesmerized by the sequence of unreliable narrators, all coping with their own self-destructive urges and urban hallucinations. It’s a phenomenal example of how horrorcore hip-hop can actually sound pretty smooth, given the contrast between the soulful beat and morose lyrics. The technique of stating the song’s title in a verse’s final line before an instrumental-only chorus had already been implemented elsewhere in hip-hop, particularly with Eric B. & Rakim and N.W.A., but I’d argue that its use in “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” is the finest of the genre.
We Can’t Be Stopped has since been heralded as a landmark album for Southern rap, pioneering a sound later elaborated on by acts like Outkast, UGK, Fat Pat, and Goodie Mob. With Houston as a focal point, We Can’t Be Stopped secured the South as a hub in the hip-hop world, thereby paving the way for H-Town’s early-mid-’00s resurgence with Chamillionaire, Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Slim Thug, Lil Keke and others. It made Houston a household name all the way to New York, having clearly caught the ear of The Notorious B.I.G., as heard in the lines, “I’m not from Houston but I Rap-A-Lot” (from the remix of Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear”) and a more direct reference in “One More Chance”‘s verse two opener, “Is my mind playing tricks/like Scarface and Bushwick, Willie D/having nightmares of girls killing me”.
Willie D left the group shortly after We Can’t Be Stopped came out, not to return until 1996’s The Resurrection, thereby making it the final appearance of Geto Boys’ “true” lineup for many. As with many other records to receive a Parental Advisory sticker in the early ’90s, We Can’t Be Stopped came under fire from prominent American politicians wanting to scapegoat “gangsta rap” for other underlying moral insecurities. In terms of its album artwork, one could equivocate We Can’t Be Stopped as a tasteless attempt to cash in on a disturbing image, comparable to Mayhem’s (discretion advised) The Dawn of the Black Hearts. I’ve always thought that the gritty-but-cinematic vibe seen on Mr. Scarface Is Back is what Geto Boys’ management intended to portray, but there’s no denying the instant impact of We Can’t Be Stopped‘s chilling realism. That picture is truly worth a thousand words.
“Mind Playing Tricks On Me” and We Can’t Be Stopped put Geto Boys on the fast track to superstardom, a period of success that ebbed in the mid-’90s then flowed once again with the prominent inclusion of ’92’s “Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” and ’96’s “Still” in Mike Judge’s 1999 film Office Space. It may seem trivial at first, but the use of a Houston group by Judge (a fellow Texan) to represent rebellion and outrage against polite, milquetoast corporate banality couldn’t have been executed better. And the film’s status as a cult classic catapulted Geto Boys’ music to an even wider audience.
Scarface, Bushwick Bill, and Willie D each thrived with their own solo discography after the success of We Can’t Be Stopped. When the three did collaborate as Geto Boys, reception was positive, as evidenced by 1996’s The Resurrection and Geto Boys’ final album, The Foundation from 2005. The three are frequently cited as pioneers and innovators of the horrorcore hip-hop subgenre, a style that permeates today with the dark, unhinged nature of Southern rap. In a press interview surrounding his 2015 solo album, Deeply Rooted, Scarface stated he would not take part in another Geto Boys album.
Bushwick Bill continued to struggle with health and legal issues, both unrelated to his 1991 injury. A May 2010 possession charge led to a threat of deportation back to his native Jamaica, though his sentencing ended up being much lighter. Oddly enough, Bushwick Bill became somewhat of an Austin urban legend, making his way backstage countless times and it seems like at least half of the music community has a good Bushwick Bill story. When Bill received a stage four pancreatic cancer diagnosis, he announced a farewell tour, one that was cancelled at the last minute. He would pass away at age 52 on June 9th, 2019, nearing the 28th anniversary of his shooting. Less than a year before, in August of 2018, founding member DJ Ready Red passed away from heart complications at age 53.
Though it’s inherently a relic of ’90s, We Can’t Be Stopped walks a tightrope of timelessness, and you can stream the album in its entirety (both the original and DJ Spice’s chopped & screwed version) in the Spotify player below.
It’s been twenty-five years since Death Row and Interscope Records issued All Eyez on Me, the fourth album from California-based rapper 2Pac. At a whopping twenty-seven tracks, All Eyez became the first-ever double LP for a solo hip-hop artist, and its release, exactly seven months before 2Pac’s death, made it the final record of his lifetime. Listening again in 2021, All Eyez on Me still hits hard with its expansive G-Funk sound, ensemble cast of collaborators, and some of the finest rhymes 2Pac’s career had to offer.
2Pac Against the World
If there ever was a Renaissance man of the 1990s, it was Tupac Shakur. Born in East Harlem to a family of several prominent Black Panthers and re-christened Túpac Amaru at age one (after the executed Peruvian rebel of the same name), Shakur’s characteristic defiance developed alongside his insatiable creativity. When he was thirteen, Shakur and his family moved to Maryland, where he flourished at the Baltimore School for the Arts, through poetry, acting, jazz, and yes, even ballet. Shakur’s humor and steady reputation as the school’s best rapper earned him friends of all kinds, including future Hollywood actress Jada Pinkett, though their budding relationship was cut short in 1988 when Shakur moved to Marin City, California, just north of San Francisco.
Uprooted again and adapting to a new life on the West Coast under the handle MC New York, Shakur began brushing up his poetry skills at The Microphone Sessions, a writing workshop in nearby Oakland led by Shakur’s soon-to-be manager Leila Steinberg. Steinberg recognized Shakur’s talent right off the bat, and after securing a concert for Shakur’s group Strictly Dope, she got Shakur’s name across to Digital Underground manager Atron Gregory. Impressed by Tupac’s outgoing energy, physical prowess, and natural showmanship, Gregory recruited Shakur into Digital Underground as a backup dancer and stagehand in 1990. Shakur soon advanced into a more integral role and in January 1991, 2Pac made his premiere appearance on “Same Song”, the album opener for Digital Underground’s This Is an EP Release.
Fast forward to the mid-’90s. Tupac Shakur had become a household name thanks to his back-to-back breakout roles in Juice and in Poetic Justice, opposite Janet Jackson. He’d accrued considerable praise and controversy from his first two solo albums and had rounded out the lineup of his group Thug Life, who released their sole eponymous album just weeks before 2Pac was non-fatally shot in an armed robbery late ’94. 2Pac recovered remarkably quickly but his unwillingness to overlook suspicious circumstances surrounding the robbery soon led him to end relations (personal and professional) with Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy (both of New York’s Bad Boy Entertainment) as well as Thug Life member Stretch.
Recorded from ’93 to ’94 and distributed by Interscope in March of 1995, Me Against the World became the most acclaimed album of Tupac’s lifetime. And though Shakur’s allegiances to New York were already dwindling by then, his incarceration at Clinton Correctional Facility beginning in February of ’95 was simply a tie he couldn’t sever. Fortunately for ‘Pac, the prospect of signing an East Coast ex-pat was far too good to pass up for Death Row Records co-founder Suge Knight.
All Eyez on Me
“It’s called All Eyez On Me. That’s how I feel it is. I got the police watching me, the Feds. I got the females that want to charge me with false charges and sue me and all that. I got the females that like me. I got the jealous homeboys and I got the homies that roll with me. Everybody’s looking to see what I’mma do now so All Eyez On Me.” (December 1995 interview with MTV’s Bill Bellamy)
Between his substantial arrest record, vexing public persona, and eagerness to “play” for the West Coast, 2Pac made for an ideal Death Row “inmate”. Knight acknowledged the potential to cash in on Biggie and ‘Pac’s beef within the burgeoning East Coast-West Coast rivalry, and, after negotiating with Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine, paid Shakur’s $1.4 million bond on the condition that he release three albums with Death Row Records. Shakur, elated by the early liberation in October of ’95, and aching to rekindle his creative spirit, got straight to work.
With Death Row Records as their platform, former N.W.A. mastermind Dr. Dre and his disciples revolutionized rap; Dre with The Chronic in 1992, Snoop Doggy Dogg on ’93’s Doggystyle, and The Dogg Pound two years later with Dogg Food. All three debuts showcased explicit, gang-minded lyrics on top of slick, sample-heavy beats, with production overseen by Dre himself. Dre recycled sounds made popular by Parliament-Funkadelic (“P-Funk”) and others in the late-’70s/early-’80s, (particularly high-pitched synth melodies and deep, crunchy basslines), over instrumental soul riffs and processed drum breaks. The style referred to as “Gangster Funk” or “G-Funk” defined Death Row’s heyday.
2Pac’s voice was practically made for G-Funk. “California Love” and “How Do U Want It” dropped as a double A-side just two months after Shakur’s bail was posted, inaugurating ‘Pac into Death Row with two of his most successful singles. Pent up for months and under constant threat of re-entering prison, Shakur was determined to record as much as possible as quickly as possible. As a result, “One-Take Tupac” ended up recording dozens of songs before the sessions wrapped in December. He ditched the working title Euthanasia along with his plan to release the album on Christmas, due to his seemingly unstoppable recording drive and work on promotional music videos. And on February 13th, 1996, nearing the height of his superstardom, 2Pac released All Eyez on Me.
Track by Track
“Ambitionz Az A Ridah” is one hell of a fast-acting mood maker. It’s incredible how full five seconds can feel despite such a simple arrangement of vocals, piano, and MIDI strings – all before the kick comes in. “Ambitionz” is the first of several tracks produced by gangsta rap trailblazer Daz Dillinger, whose sparse use of percussion and atmospheric legatos allow 2Pac to charge right out of the gate. Recorded within hours of his prison release, 2Pac gives a stellar performance even by his own comparison, dominating with rapped verses and sung choruses. A great jumping off point for newcomers, the instant recognizability of “Ambitionz” preserves a legacy as an iconic album opener and textbook-worthy example of gangsta rap.
G-Funk producer Johnny “J” allegedly recorded more than a hundred songs with 2Pac during the All Eyez sessions, and “All About U” is one of the best that made the cut. ‘Pac delivers the first two verses then eschews his time to two members of Shakur’s fledgling project The Outlawz, Hussein Fatal and Yaki Kadafi. Hooks from Death Row’s vocal virtuoso Nate Dogg provide some good pacing to the song, and the still-blooming Snoop Dogg does his pseudo-pimp shtick to wrap it up. Also, gotta mention ‘Pac’s all-purple bedroom in the music video.
Carrying the momentum of “All About U”, Nate Dogg adds some major points to the accessibility of “Skandalouz” with gliding hooks and flourishes. Blunted out or ready to party, Daz Dillinger’s beat (heavily derived from “Candy” by Cameo) brings the out best of both worlds on this melancholy, talkbox-fueled G-Funk banger.
Speaking of Daz, he makes his sole appearance as both rapper and producer on “Got My Mind Made Up”, an interpolation of the Instant Funk song of the same name. As a die-hard Wu-Tang fan, this may just be my personal favorite from All Eyez on Me. Method Man‘s laid-back flow, Redman‘s exaggerated style, and ‘Pac’s bombastic bars play well off each other, and when you toss Death Row veterans Kurupt and Daz in the mix… you’ve got something spectacular. Fun fact: Meth’s contribution here and on “The What” by Notorious B.I.G. makes Method Man the only artist to be featured by both 2Pac and Biggie in their respective lifetimes.
“How Do U Want It” may be the most radio-friendly 2Pac song out there (no surprise given its 1997 Grammy nomination). Johnny J’s simple flip of “Body Heat” by Quincy Jones anchors the soaring choruses from K-Ci & JoJo, and grooves well under ‘Pac’s dynamic flow.
As much as I hate to say it, I sort of wish I could preview what Biggie would’ve sounded like on “2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted” instead of Snoop. That said, you get exactly the quality you’d expect from 2Pac and Snoop Dogg (SnooPac?) together over one of Daz’s more menacing beats.
“No More Pain” is so, so, sooo far ahead of its time. R&B producer DeVante Swing knocked it out of the park with this Dirty South/Texas-style beat and the triplets in ‘Pac’s flow fit well. I bet if you tinkered with some of the drum programming to give it a more modern finish, this would kill on current trap playlists…oh wait.
If “Heartz of Men” was produced by anyone other than DJ Quik, you’d have to call it derivative. Its egregious swing, chopped up horn samples, and Richard Pryor inserts make it seem like a novelty at first. But because it’s 2Pac and DJ Quik, the tone steers clear of silliness and takes a more silky, serious route.
“Life Goes On” admittedly has a beautiful message, one that reveals another sympathetic layer to 2Pac’s complicated psyche. That said, as cold as it sounds, it’s not Johnny J’s best instrumental by a long shot.
“Top Billin” from Audio Two contains one of my all-time favorite sample flips, so I have a heavy bias towards “Only God Can Judge Me” since it features the same breakbeat pretty prominently. And I don’t know who played bass on this song, but whoever it does a bang-up job.
Ostensibly a proof-of-concept for The Outlawz (or Outlaw Immortalz), “Tradin War Stories” is definitely better suited for the folks who appreciate lyrical content over the bop factor. True to its name, this four-way lyrical exchange scores major points for narrative quality.
I first heard All Eyez on Me around the same time I was discovering Zapp, so naturally my high school self fell in love with the “California Love” (remix). I had somehow never heard the original ’til then, and never being a huge Joe Cocker fan, I still prefer the remix version to the pre-album single. Dr. Dre gives a sneak peak into the futuristic, orchestral sound he would spearhead with 2001 and Zapp’s Roger Troutman gives one of the most memorable studio performances of his life.
Recorded immediately after “Ambitionz” on the day of his release, “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” is like a time capsule of 2Pac’s passion. As the final single released ahead of All Eyez on Me (and Daz’s final track on the record), this one is truly lightning caught in a bottle. If you haven’t seen the music video, drop what you’re doing and treat yourself.
There’s…not much to be said about “Whatz Ya Phone #”. But given that it’s co-produced by Johnny J and 2Pac himself, I suppose it’s exactly what 2Pac wanted. Just silly, sexy ’80s nonsense. And it certainly closes “Book 1” of All Eyez on Me‘s on an intriguing note.
All Eyez’s “C-Side” kicks off with “Can’t C Me”, where Dr. Dre revives the beat from Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)” and interpolates George Clinton‘s “Atomic Dog” yet again. Except this time, they actually get George Clinton to appear on the recording! Just goes to show that G-Funk dreams really do come true.
The samples in “Shorty Wanna Be A Thug” may use some pretty scratchy chops (Hank Crawford’s “Wildflower” by the way), but Johnny J manages to smooth out the edges for some synth-heavy G-Funk on “Book 2″‘s sophomore song.
Having already appeared with Clinton on “Can’t C Me”, Death Row’s resident vocalista-for-hire Nanci Fletcher brings back her falsetto heat on “Holla At Me”. It’s the only “Bobcat” Ervin beat on All Eyez and to me, it honestly sounds a little muddy. But I just can’t say no to the sax squeaks and vibraslap!
Without commenting too much on the Biggie-‘Pac beef, “Wonda Why They Call U B____” had originally featured Big’s wife, Bad Boy Records singer Faith Evans. Her vocal takes eventually got scrapped (check out the demo version below), but speculation about Faith and ‘Pac’s indeterminate relationship would remain a key component to the rappers’ quarrel. Nevertheless this Johnny J/2Pac co-production totes all the bells and whistles of a G-Funk classic.
The final performance from both Nanci Fletcher and The Outlaw Immortalz on All Eyez, “When We Ride” peddles a more hardcore sound than its predecessors. That shouldn’t come as a shock considering the beat is crafted by Ice Cube producer DJ Pooh. Abstract but soulful, the low-end bounce could only be figured out by an innovator like Pooh.
For the uninitiated, a big chunk of 2Pac’s career was spent re-conceptualizing the idea of a “thug” from a derisive term into the notion of an underdog, one who keeps their chest puffed out and head held high despite having nothing. That sentiment echoes across the group track “Thug Passion”, featuring Jewell, Dramacydal, and Storm over a Zapp-centric Johnny J beat.
Johnny J goes on a streak of sorts at this point in the album, guiding us through “Picture Me Rollin'” and “Check Out Time”, before “All Eyez on Me” and “Run Tha Streetz”. There’s a distinct sound across these four tracks, characterized by gentle sine wave synths, thumping kicks, and R&B-inspired bass runs.
Richie Rich feature “Ratha Be Ya N____” appears between “Check Out Time” and the title track, flaunting a contemporary take on Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be with You” that’s…actually a pretty good cover!
Then, having adequately cooled down from his production on “Tradin War Stories”, Rick Rock chills out for another extended posse cut, the penultimate “Ain’t Hard 2 Find”.
“Heaven Ain’t Hard 2 Find” draws All Eyez on Me to a close, and thanks to work from yet another Ice Cube collaborator, QDIII, and a looong fadeout, it’s the perfect comedown at the end of the experience.
All Eyez in Hindsight
All Eyez on Me sold over half a million copies in its first week, and charted number one on Billboard. “How Do U Want It” and “California Love” both became number-one singles on Billboard. In July of 2014, after five million sales and a wave of awards (in-person and post-humous), All Eyez on Me reached RIAA “Diamond” status. By releasing the very first hip-hop double-LP, 2Pac had set a new standard for the genre and helped legitimize the gangsta rap movement in the eyes of many. The album’s international popularity was met with just as much outrage, pushing ‘Pac to a level of stardom he couldn’t have imagined less than a year earlier. However, the tragedy of All Eyez’s warm reception is that it partially stemmed from the coverage of Biggie and 2Pac’s feud at its most profitable and destructive pinnacle.
Tupac Shakur was shot in Las Vegas on September 7th, 1996, and passed away on September 13th, precisely seven months after All Eyez on Me hit stores. Notorious B.I.G. would be slain in Los Angeles on March 9th, 1997, two weeks before the release of his own double-LP, (the eerily prescient) Life After Death. After the brutal loss of figureheads on both sides, the East/West Coast rivalry quickly petered out.
With its gargantuan one hundred and thirty-six minute runtime, All Eyez on Me is unquestionably one best representations of G-Funk in its prime. ‘Pac’s adoption of the gangster persona permeates unapologetically throughout the who’s-who of producers and vocalists. And on an objective plane, 2Pac’s ability to polish twenty-seven songs in a matter of weeks is nothing short of astounding.
Shakur’s tireless work ethic, urban persona (down to the spelling of his song titles), blunt honesty (no matter how many enemies he made through lyrics or interviews), and groundbreaking visual style (yes, even down to his suspender fashion) provided a benchmark for a whole new generation of artists. 2Pac’s refrain of “Thug life” has since been immortalized and his portrait on the album cover has become emblematic in hip-hop. The record’s sound is decidedly ’90s, and some of the language hasn’t aged well, but the songwriting and production quality captured at the height of Shakur’s fame makes All Eyez on Me an incredible historical document and a collection still worth tossing into your rotation all these years later.
DISCLAIMER: The following article reflects views of the author and the author alone. Anything other than historical fact should be dismissed strictly as non-canon from a Wu-Tang Fan.
Twenty-five years ago, Geffen Records released the second solo album from Wu-Tang Clan co-founder GZA, Liquid Swords. With its extensive use of film dialogue samples, free association wordplay, and an undying atmosphere of grit, Liquid Swords has since entered the pantheon of greatest hip-hop albums, not only of the mid-’90s or from Wu’s expansive discography, but as a historic standout in the genre as a whole.
“I used to read a lot of nursery rhymes, and I learned a lot of those rhymes word for word. I would go to an aunt’s house, and she would let me play music, and she had The Last Poets album. At that time, albums didn’t have explicit stickers on them, so some of the songs had profanity on them, and I was moved by that. I would listen to those songs, to the flow, and I’d balance it back and forth with the nursery stuff I had. A year later I moved to Staten Island. I had a few DJs in my neighborhood that would play music in the streets. There was no hip-hop yet, there were just DJs that were playing disco, funk and pop music, and we would gather round, go to the parks and dance and enjoy ourselves. I would often take trips from Staten Island to the south Bronx, which is originally the first place of hip-hop. I was only around 11 years old, and sometimes RZA would come with me. The DJs and MCs there were way more advanced than the neighborhood I was coming from. It was just a culture that I was moved by, and I knew that was my calling…For us, it was just a passion and a hobby; it was something that is so much a part of my makeup. It was something I loved so much, we didn’t know it was going to change or revolutionise the world as a music genre. But if you think about it, [hip-hop is] something that children are attracted to immediately: even a lullaby – “Hush little baby don’t say a word / Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird” – that’s rhyming. When children hear that, they gravitate towards that faster than they would R&B or rock and pop, because it’s spoken word. It’s all art when you look at it – it’s a way of expressing yourself. Kids started doing hip-hop and rhyming and break dancing, and stopped being in gangs, so it was a powerful tool to get kids off the street and stop them from hurting each other.” (2015 Guardian interview with Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite)
Throughout the ’80s, FOI (later All in Together) displayed early ambitions to diversify roles and talents, with each member of the trio eagerly trying out time in the spotlight both on the mic and behind the tables under varying stage names. Grice (a.k.a. “Allah Justice”) and Jones (a.k.a. “Ol’specialist“) would take the train from Brooklyn out to Staten Island to rendezvous with Diggs, and once the Wu-Prototype was assembled they’d borough-hop and rap battle in an effort to dominate New York City. They used a ruthless group dynamic, a tactic that would later define Wu-Tang’s success. Diggs’ Staten Island network of rappers steadily grew. In 1985 he formed the DMD Posse alongside childhood friends Clifford “Method Man” Smith, Jr., Dennis “Ghostface Killah” Coles, Corey “Raekwon” Woods, Jason “Inspectah Deck” Hunter, Lamont “U-God” Hawkins, and turntablist Selwyn “4th Disciple” Bougard. Though Grice had already dropped out of high school in his sophomore year to focus on developing his verbal skills, he continued (and still continues) to nurture his love of science and pursuit of knowledge, an academic quality that lent itself to his fitting self-description, The Genius.
The oldest of the three cousins, Grice was also the first to land a record deal, signing with Cold Chillin’ Records at the turn of the decade. Cold Chillin’ had helped launch the careers of Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane on their respective 1988 debut albums, as well as the debuts from both Kool G Rap & DJ Polo and Masta Ace, introducing the burgeoning “East Coast hardcore” style to an audience outside the Big Apple. With Biz Markie recognizing Grice’s talent, the prospects looked good and The Genius was ready for his first exam.
“Clan in da Front”
The Forge Before Liquid Swords
Following the victory that was Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the Wu-Tang Clan redefined success in hip hop by broadening their impact through solo contracts across several labels, with Ghostface on Epic, Dirty on Elektra, Method Man on Def Jam, and GZA on Geffen. RZA’s plan for complete domination of the music industry was officially in full swing, with a stipulation that “All Wu releases are deemed to be 50 percent partnerships with Wu-Tang Productions and each Wu member with a solo deal must contribute 20 percent of their earnings back to Wu-Tang Productions, a fund for all Wu members”.
The first solo effort out of the gate came in 1994 with Method Man’s Tical. RZA produced the album in full, save “Sub Crazy” (produced by Chambers turntablist 4th Disciple) and “P.L.O. Style”, produced by Meth himself. It’s been speculated by some that Tical came first due to Method Man’s perceived celebrity status, with some fans considering him to be the breakout star…judge for yourself in this clip below.
Regardless, Tical emphasized the haunting style that made Chambers great, even including the only track cut from Chambers, “Meth vs. Chef”, an example of RZA’s method for choosing who would appear on each track, by making the members battle one another (in this instance Raekwon against Method Man) over the beat in question. Clearly, the group dynamic was still key to Tical‘s success despite it being a platform for Method Man, with appearances from both RZA and Inspectah Deck amplifying the magic on “Mr. Sandman”. The post-release remix duet, “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By”, featuring Mary J. Blige, reached #1 in the R&B singles chart for three weeks straight, earning Meth, Mary, and RZA the 1996 Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
Next up was Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, released in late March, 1995. Produced again mainly by RZA, The Dirty Version gave Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB) the extended platform he’d always needed for his “fatherless style” of sing-shout rapping with its hour-length. And though Return introduced the world to several new Wu-Tang affiliates and gave Dirty airplay with “Brooklyn Zoo” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, the focus was on ODB’s wild vocals rather than the atmosphere. But RZA made sure to keep GZA’s gift in the limelight, giving him a feature on one of Return‘s most succinct and strong offerings, “Damage”.
The final predecessor to GZA’s debut was Raekwon’s August ’95 release, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. OB4CL marked the first album since Chambers to be produced entirely under RZA’s direction, and witnessed the participating Wu-Tang members adopting organized crime personas, re-popularizing “mafioso rap” after its creation by Kool G Rap in the ’80s. Presented as sonic film of sorts, Cuban Linx was executive produced by Ghostface Killah, who monopolized features as resident guest “Tony Starks” (Ghostface’s first venture into his Iron Man concept), while RZA made his first stride as “Bobby Steels”, and GZA, ever the academic, masquerading as “Maximillion”.
Given the slower, layered and polished sound of Cuban Linx, it was hard to imagine that RZA could string together a more impressive Wu-Tang “solo album”. But as we all know, we must beware the fury of a patient man.
Liquid Swords Unsheathed
“The only two albums I did with nobody fucking with me was Linx and Liquid Swords. I was on a mission. To make all those early albums took three and a half years of my life. I didn’t come outside, didn’t have too many girl relations, didn’t even enjoy the shit. I just stayed in the basement. Hours and hours and days and days. Turkey burgers and blunts. I didn’t know if it was working. But nobody could hear or say nothing, no comments, no touching the board when I leave. Everything was just how I wanted it.” (2005 XXL interview with RZA)
“It’s hard to say something is gonna be classic or not. But I can say that I felt the magic with that one. I actually saw it grow and come together, and felt that it was special as we were doing it.” (2008 Wax Poetics interview with GZA)
By summer of 1995, RZA’s Staten Island basement studio (a small, two-bedroom apartment) had become a 24/7 dojo for Wu-Tang’s growing roster of lyrical pugilists. RZA was finalizing the cinematic ambience on Cuban Linx, when he began working on a new batch of dark, hard-hitting instrumentals. Hearkening back to his earlier Wu roots, RZA packed the grimy baker’s dozen with compressed drum patterns, ’60s-’70s jazz and soul, and some of Shogun Assassin‘s most extravagant dialogue. The beats would be played on loop for up to two days at a time, with GZA perfecting his verses like a careful game of chess, one of Liquid Swords‘ central themes. Against RZA’s bleak grooves, GZA’s lyrics portrayed the day-to-day life for a criminal-minded Staten Island/Shaolin resident, often painting violence as a cartoonish metaphor (a common tactic in battle rapping) in a non-glorifying, brutally realistic manner.
Speaking on the “slow” recording process and his enthusiastic reception to RZA’s dark beats in a 2008 interview with Wax Poetics, GZA elaborates, “I don’t say slow in the sense that it necessarily took me a long time to finish what I’m writing. I mean, Raekwon and Ghostface can step in and record a song in about forty-five minutes. I on the other hand, would often go back and finish rhymes that I started. I would say I pieced things together [more] slowly then. Songs generally take me two to three days to write. Sometimes I take different sentences and put them together. For a few tracks on the album I remember, the beat would be running and it’d be four o’clock in the afternoon…RZA would leave and go to the city to handle business. He’d come home hours later and I’d still be writing the same shit I started when he left [laughs].”
RZA predicted that the 1980 film Shogun Assassin would match the artistic palette of the new tracks, and after an engineer returned with a rented copy, the film was shown to GZA who agreed that it fit the album well. The scenes chosen from Shogun Assassin were treated more like a “thread” coursing through the album rather than a specific theme, and for the first time in his production career, RZA experimented with incorporating digital sounds into his beats, finding MIDI tones that aligned with Shogun Assassin‘s brooding soundtrack. The overtly Eastern nature of Shogun Assassin gave both RZA and GZA an opportunity to revisit the martial arts and samurai overtones that had made 36 Chambers so idiosyncratic. The Scientist and The Genius took their time and soon enough Liquid Swords was ready to quench.
Based on GZA’s concept of a chessboard occupied by sword-wielders (owing itself to the album-wide boast of lyrical sharpness), former DC Comics penciller and Milestone Media co-founder/chief artist/creative director Denys Cowan designed the artwork for Liquid Swords, commissioned by GZA’s personal manager Geoffrey Garfield, a longtime comic book fan. True to Wu’s strategy of diversifying, GZA Entertainment‘s subsidiary GZA GrafX oversaw the creation of the digital cover art by Milestone color editor Jason Scott Jones and gave approval to the black and white ink piece from Prentis Rollins. And with Wu-Tang DJ Mathematics designing and rendering the sideways Wu-Tang “W” into a G, The Genius had officially caught lightning in a bottle.
The Legacy of Liquid Swords
“It has great songs, it’s not an ignorant album, it doesn’t sound dated. If you listen to it and compare it to what’s out now, it’s timeless….A lot of dudes write these street tales and they’re so gory, ’cause they think gory is visual … they’re so literal, and so street level. You know, like crack spots and whatever…I wanted to write something and take it to a level where nobody’s done it…Lyrically, it’s not my best work. Not at all. But the chemistry? Production? Overall, I mean, c’mon! RZA’s atmospheric production? Yes. It’s my best album.” (2008 Seattle Times interview with GZA)
Liquid Swords was released in the United States on November 7th, 1995 through Geffen records, and was met with instant critical acclaim surrounding RZA’s production and GZA’s unparalleled prowess as a wordsmith. It reached #2 on Billboard‘s Top R&B charts and an outstanding #9 on Billboard‘s USA 200. On October 8, 2015, the Recording Industry Association of America announced that Liquid Swords had earned a platinum certification for having sold more than 1 million copies. All of its four singles found success on the Top Rap & Dance charts, with “Cold World”, “Shadowboxin'”, and fan-favorite “Liquid Swords” all landing within the top ten.
From the critics’ point of view, GZA’s boast of being lyrically sharp assuredly hadn’t been a bluff. AllMusic, Pitchfork, and Record Collector all awarded Liquid Swords a perfect score; The Guardian, Q, and The Source gave four of five stars.
GZA had amalgamated all his observations and experiences from childhood to his time as a bicycle messenger into the present and spun them together into a sophisticated web of expression. He and RZA continued the Shaolin saga that started with 36 Chambers and created a worthy sequel with Liquid Swords, reaffirming Wu-Tang’s status as a ruthless foe to any contender, with GZA as Clan elder. Where Tical puts the horror aspect first, Return has a soul-singer feel, and Cuban Linx, a more lavish orchestral score. RZA’s matured production on Liquid Swords oozes with the energy of all three. On top of that, RZA’s inclusion of all nine original Wu-Tang Clan members on the record instantly evokes the group’s eponymous debut, more than the other solo albums at the time.
Between the transformation of RZA’s cramped living space into a recording mecca for musical martial arts, the continuous blurring of borders between real-life situations in the harsh cityscape of Staten Island and surreal, character-driven scenarios in Shaolin, the interstitial prevalence of cinematic dialogue (that has become just as quotable as the verse’s lyrics), and GZA’s incredibly well-calculated rhymes, Liquid Swords is rightfully considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time and one of the finest installments in Wu-Tang Clan’s colossal catalog.
Track by Track
Even if you’ve never seen Shogun Assassin, you could probably guess that the first sounds on “Liquid Swords” comes from the movie’s introductory scene, albeit with some of the fat cut out of it. What’s impressive about this is how seamless RZA’s synth work bleeds out of Shogun‘s soundtrack and into the Willie Mitchell samples that steer the beat. It’s always a ton of fun seeing this performed live; once the crowd hears, “when I was little…” they go friggin’ nuts. As the album opener, title track, and most successful single, “Liquid Swords” is one of the ultimate hype-up songs in ’90s hip-hop. Even according to GZA, it’s “just braggadocios. It isn’t meant to stand for anything. I’m talking about my skills and how I’m better than the rest.” Bonus points on this for the callback to the mid-’80s FOI routine, “when the emcees came, to live out the name…”
The Genius’ top pick, “Duel of the Iron Mic” jumps to another early scene in Shogun Assassin where the title target challenges the willing protagonist. It’s another case of the dialogue being thought of as part of the lyrics to the song, where you can recite it better than the verses (at least for me). The piano beat is dark but slick as hell, giving Shaolin its character as an ubran stylized R-rated Gotham. With what may be the shortest hook in Wu-Tang history, “Duel” also features Liquid Swords’ only appearance from Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who delivers the concise hook in his trademark slur. The posse cut energy is great in this one, with some solid stuff from both Masta Killa and Dreddy Krueger. The use of dynamics is a notable step up in RZA’s production’s given the volume range between the intro, GZA’s bars, ODB’s bombastic vocals, Inspectah Deck’s buildup that explodes into the track’s finale. Such a crowd-pleaser, (myself included).
As with “Liquid Swords”, the cadence of “Living In The World Today” is another remnant of ’80s hip-hop hooks, adapted from “if you listen to me rap today, you be hearing the sounds that my crew will say. And we know you wish you can write them, we’ll don’t bite them, well okay…,” transforming into a rallying Wu-Tang anthem. It’s a prime example of RZA’s ability to walk a thin line between the spooky, beautiful, and hazardous with his sample choices. Method Man’s elasticity against GZA’s discipline makes for some amazing chemistry on tape.
“Gold” has an entirely treacherous feel to it, apt given its subject matter of street hustling and RZA’s sporadic horn stabs. Ascending legatos depict the slums of Shaolin as a malicious hub of troublemakers. Especially with Meth’s intro and collaboration with GZA on writing the hook, “Gold” almost sounds like it was cut from Tical. This one will put you right in the environment of RZA’s basement studio.
Reappearing after two tracks of absence, Shogun Assassin kicks off “Cold World” with an oddly heartwarming piece of dialogue compared to its predecessors, and then launches right into another pseudo-sweet minor groove similar to “Living In The World Today”. GZA considers it, “just another dark, gritty street tale…another inner-city story“. In addition to the icy soul-inspired hook (interpolated from Stevie Wonder’s “Rocket Love”), the wind samples are a brilliant touch to “Cold World”, and just subtle enough to make you forget it’s there from time to time.
With RZA’s chromatic chops regulating the main orchestra groove, “Labels” is another grisly puff of the chest for GZA. And though partially inspired by he and RZA’s negative early experiences with records labels, GZA explains its true origins in his passion for wordplay. “I wasn’t deliberately trying to write a song dedicated to problems with labels and so on—I just threw ‘Cold Chillin’’ in there because they were an established label at one time. It actually started when I heard my friend say: ‘Tommy ain’t my boy!’ Then it just kind of clicked in my head to use ‘Tommy’ and ‘Boy.’” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why he’s The Genius.
Living up to the expectations of its name, “4th Chamber” sounds like an unreleased rock-tinged B-side from 36 Chambers, with RZA hopping on the mic along with Ghostface Killah and newcomer Killah Priest. Always the introspective modest type, GZA purposefully saved his verse for last, mimicking his belief that, “it’s not even a GZA song to me—it’s a Wu-Tang song…This song, the guest verses, the video, the crowd response, all turned out perfect for this one.”
“Shadowboxin’” has to be my personal favorite song on Liquid Swords. The soul organ sample, turntable scratches on the dialogue, and bookend Method Man verses are all so well packaged together. “Shadowboxin'” might be another case of a Wu-Tang Clan song released under the guise of a solo effort, as GZA admits, “I think I was actually [just] the filler for that song anyways [laughs]. It always seemed more like Meth’s track. I remember RZA telling me I needed to get on it, so he put me in between. It’s an incredible song though, and I love performing it. It’s just another emcee lyrical joint with crazy smooth cadences.”
The beginning of “Hell’s Wind Staff / Killah Hills 10304” reminds me a lot of the soundscapes from Cuban Linx, and was recorded by the GZA and Killah Priest on GZA’s new portable ADAT recorder while the two were walking around Staten Island recording at will. Between roaring motorcycles, banging forks, and more, the layers build into something incredibly cinematic, also reminding me of later Beatles’ “Day in the Life”. GZA confirms the similarities to Cuban Linx’s Cosa Nostra ethos, clarifying that, “it’s a street story, but not told in a regular street way. I’m talking about slanging on the block, but not just your average street dealer. These were more sophisticated cats. Some of it came from a documentary I saw on the infamous Pablo Escobar. He was sending judges intimate photos of their wives and things like that. I think this is [probably] my first real Mafioso track. It’s like a dense, short film.”
As with “Killah Hills”, “Investigative Reports” taps into the Cuban Linx school of sonics, weaving a subdued string loop against the sparse bass and drum loop, and highlighting both Raekwon and Ghostface front and center. U-God and GZA hold their own, and other than that, it’s a pretty straightforward Wu-Tang Clan posse cut.
I feel like “Swordsman” completes the soothing-macabre trilogy that started with “Living In The World Today” and continued with “Cold World” but what makes it an outlier is how much more the groove is based around the pounding drums. It’s a banger and Killah Priest brings the necessary skills. Nuff said.
The album’s first single to be released, “I Gotcha Back” is another of my personal picks and includes some of Liquid Swords’ most quotable lines. You gotta love RZA’s dedication to chromatic ascensions and inversions in his sampling, always capturing that minor-second Jaws-type tension. The chorus is so fierce and GZA doesn’t need any backup to get through the verses, no surprise when you learn that the first verse quoted is a short rhyme written for one of his nephews as a cautionary tale. “When I said, ‘My lifestyle so far from well, could’ve wrote a book called Age Twelve and Going Through Hell.’ [it was] for my nephew who was twelve at the time, and whose father, my brother, had been locked up since ‘88…It’s a shame because…both nephews of mine, ended up getting in trouble for ringing out shots and are both doing time right now. It’s kind of ironic…the whole song is a sad irony to me now.”
A clear example of RZA’s style that would later influence Kanye West’s “chipmunk soul” formula, “B.I.B.L.E.” feels like the hot shower you’ve desperately needed after a long night in the cold, rainy Shaolin. Regarding his absence on Liquid Swords‘ swan song, GZA cites a strong desire to include Killah Priest on the album and that once Priest was secured, “he said he could cover the whole track, so we let him do it.” It almost sounds saccharine compared to the twelve tracks of gloom that precede it, but with its big heart, deep spiritualism, and sincere message, it’s a gorgeous piece of art that, in GZA’s own words, “ends the record out brilliantly.”
Liquid Swords in the World Today
As timeless as it is, Liquid Swords is undeniably a snapshot of New York in the 1990s. And though GZA’s continued to hone his talent is on the whole, nothing has seemed to match the tenacity of Liquid Swords in the twenty-five years that have passed for this erudite, vegetarian chess jockey. With his educational Netflix series Liquid Science and Showtime’s Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, the legend of GZA and the Liquid Swords has been spun for generations to come. The record still sounds great and as one of the behemoth rap albums from New York in the 1990s, presaged the production of future releases from Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G., further lending to its heavily-referenced reputation.
It’s one of few albums I can listen to all the way through and not want to skip around, and having seen GZA perform the entire album live, I can tell you it’s something to behold. So dive back into this ’90s time capsule and keep the spirit of Wu-Tang alive for the children with Liquid Swords.
DISCLAIMER: The following article reflects views of the author and the author alone. Anything other than historical fact should be dismissed strictly as B.S. from a BS fan.
Well, here we are again for yet another major Sabbath milestone of 2020 after Heaven and Hell‘s 40th anniversary in April, and Black Sabbath‘s 50th back in February, but this is the big one. Considered by some mainstream critics as “the greatest metal album ever” (Rolling Stone, 2017), Black Sabbath released their sophomore album Paranoid on September 18th, 1970. Fifty years down the road, the world once again finds itself in the midst of social unrest and widespread anxiety, and the tones behind Paranoid still seem right at home. So let’s do a quick recap of the record’s history and see just how salient its echoes remain today.
Rare Breed, The Rest, Mythology & Earth: Sabbath Predecessors
Six months after shearing his fingertips off in a factory accident, guitarist Tony Iommi was still getting over the pain and getting used to shielding the exposed bits of flesh with custom-designed sewing thimbles when he practiced. Around late 1966, Iommi accepted an invitation from drummer Bill Ward to join his Birmingham-based quartet The Rest, covering then-top 20 artists like The Shadows, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. Despite some limited success in the local pub scene, The Rest soon fizzled out. Still a young man living with his parents, Iommi had never left Birmingham before, but an offer to join relatively high profile group Mythology near the Scottish border town Carlisle coaxed Iommi (and the rest of…The Rest) to take the three-hour drive up the road.
Mythology’s style catered more to Iommi’s blues tastes and gave him more opportunities to improvise across increasingly extended guitar solos. However, this modicum of progress coincided with a set of obstacles: harder drinking clubs whose surly patrons often demanded popular covers, Bill Ward’s ongoing reluctance to change clothes (a trend that would lend itself to his unfortunate-but-seemingly-fitting nickname “Smelly”), and the band occasionally purchasing hash from a dealer who directly visited Mythology’s shared house (and once left several suitcases of product there for a weekend before disappearing indefinitely). The latter proved to be Mythology’s undoing, with a drug bust (from – you guessed it – those suspicious suitcases) escalating into a widely publicized fiasco that barred the group from getting gigs.
Ward and Iommi were zero-for-two in their pre-Sabbath attempts and now back in Birmingham, the ongoing collaboration continued with a search for a singer. When they saw a posting in a music shop that read, “OZZY ZIG requires gig, owns his own PA”, Iommi rediscovered his former classmate, Ozzy Osbourne, whose friends Iommi had bullied back in school. Osbourne had provided lead vocals for a band formed in 1967 by guitarist Geezer Butler called Rare Breed, and though Butler tried to recruit Ward as his own drummer for a new project, Ward stayed loyal to the existing chemistry between himself and Iommi. When it was suggested that they (along with slide guitarist Jimmy Phillips and saxophonist Aker Clarke) all give it a go together, Butler decided to switch to bass guitar, initially tuning his Fender Telecaster down an octave before borrowing a beat up Hofner bass with a missing string. And after an initial jam session, the six-piece dubbed themselves The Polka Tulk Blues Band, whose sets often included simultaneous solos from both Phillips and Clarke, something the main players weren’t too keen on. Iommi, Osbourne, Butler, and Ward discarded these extraneous elements with a fair amount of passive aggression by telling Clarke and Phillips that Polka Tulk was breaking up, when in reality the remaining members soon re-emerged as The Earth Blues Band, abbreviated shortly thereafter to Earth.
The quartet’s jazz-blues style earned them an opening spot for rising rockers Jethro Tull a couple of weeks after Earth first began gigging, and consequently (in one of rock history’s most fascinating lineup changes), Iommi briefly replaced Mick Abrahams as JT’s lead guitarist. But after moving to London and rehearsing with Jethro Tull for a few sessions, Iommi was wholly turned off by the band’s level of work discipline and lack of casual irreverence, especially surrounding lead singer Ian Anderson and his holier-than-thou demeanor. With Jethro Tull now in the rear-view, Iommi had had it with heavenly hippies but was also dissatisfied with how safe Earth’s sound was, leaving him and his cohorts only one place left to go…
“Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath off Black Sabbath
With Iommi back on guitar, Earth had to address two major issues with their current handle. There was already another “Earth” within the small-time London area circuit (leading to a hilarious case of mistaken identity when a posh venue booked the wrong “Earth” for a black-tie event), and, of more importance, Ozzy hated the name. Osbourne came up with the phenomenal substitute of “Jimmy Underpass and The Six-Way Combo” before Butler glanced out the band’s rehearsal space studio. Across the street, a crowded movie theatre was screening Mario Bava’s 1963 picture Black Sabbath starring Boris Karloff, leading to his at-the-time offhand observation about how strange it was, “that people spend so much money to see scary movies”. Butler and Osbourne then co-wrote the lyrics to “Black Sabbath”, tapping into the macabre, occult-leaning aura of Dennis Wheatley, as well as Butler’s own recount of seeing a ghastly bedside apparition…only after admittedly painting the entirety of his flat completely in matte black, save for Butler’s decorations of inverted crosses and depictions of satan (which, from my own personal experience, minus those specific adornments must’ve one hundred percent been a sleep paralysis episode). Tortured lyrics now hastily scribed down like a first draft of the Necrominicon, the band still known as Earth planted a simple tritone loop (employing what classical music had referred to as, “the Devil’s interval”) as the structural effigy behind Ozzy’s visceral, nearly-chromatic read of the verse lyrics, all at a crawling tempo. Sure, the new sound was bleak overall but Ozzy got to enjoy his theatrics, Ward got to enjoy a character-appropriate dank atmosphere, a still-novice Butler could master the simple bass riffs, and even Iommi got to sate his love of the blues with some wah-wah pedal action. Some weeks later, on August 30th, 1969, Ozzy announced to a Workington crowd that Earth had formally changed their name to Black Sabbath, and though this move was undiscussed with the rest of the group prior to the live stage moment (not for the first or last time)…Ozzy did good.
Through rough sketches of “N.I.B.”, “Warning”, “The Wizard”, and the Macabre Four’s eponymous pivot point, “Black Sabbath”, Black Sabbath had four outrageous originals under their belt. The morose sonics and adventurous arrangements of the new stuff didn’t mesh at all with Earth’s traditional twelve-bar blues numbers, but after some convincing from manager Jim Simpson, Black Sabbath acquiesced with a cover of Minneapolis group Crow’s “Evil Woman” (not to be confused with the Fleetwood Mac/Santana hit), both introducing and concluding Sabbath’s willingness to do “something commercial” in one fell swoop.
None of these youngsters had any real experience in a recording studio (even Iommi, who’d ducked out of Jethro Tull before their final Stand Up sessions in April 1969), only onstage pell-mell performances at hazy, liquor-riddled, arid drinking holes over a couple years. And between them… they maaaybe had a total of a few dozen gigs in their still-juvenile days. That said, Black Sabbath apparently absorbed a litany of valuable technical lessons in those twelve short hours recording their self-titled debut, not to mention creating what many refer to as the “original doom metal song”. But as we all know, stumbling upon a cursed windfall can only culminate in something greater and more sinister…
From Walpurgis to War Pigs
Black Sabbath took over the UK countryside like a depraved, frenzied coven after its domestic release the day before Saint Valentine’s in 1970, all while Iommi was crashing at his mother’s home intermittently. When Black Sabbath hit the U.S. in the Summer of 1970, the charts made it clear that Sabbath was due for international success. Renowned live appearances and oft-requested radio singles began looping around the Sabbath’s proverbial Maypole. The temporally-exalted Sabbath reunited with future Judas Priest producer Rodger Chamberlain to help refine the rough material written immediately after Black Sabbath was released on vinyl, including the building blocks beneath “War Pigs” instrumentally composed by Iommi during Sabbath’s Spring 1970 inaugural European tour.
According to Iommi, similar to Black Sabbath‘s tracking process, the Paranoid sessions were pretty compact, albeit expanded to three or four days total. On “War Pigs”, engineer Tom Allon and Chamberlain were the ones to come up with the air raid siren in the building intro along with the decision to speed up recording for its big finish. Allon was behind the piano heard in “Planet Caravan”, and also figured out the best method to record Ozzy’s vocals – through a Leslie rotating speaker with lots of oscillator modulation. Taking a page out of Ian Anderson’s book, Iommi provided the flute performance, which was overdubbed on top of the master recording of “Planet Caravan” played in reverse. Ozzy created the “robot voice” in the intro of “Iron Man” by singing behind a metal fan, re-capturing his initial observation that Iommi’s main guitar riff sounded “like a big iron bloke walking about”.
As for the title track? In the midst of psychedelics, disassociates, and depressants, the millennia-ancient eight-night feast of Walpurgis was considered a reasonable follow-up to Black Sabbath, and why not?! That’s a great sequel title! When then-infantile company Vertigo Records deemed Walpurgis “too satanic”, the band suggested War Pigs in its place. Sabbath wasn’t super heavy on the anti-Vietnam stance, but many Westerners in 1970 were, and an LP entitled War Pigs could’ve come across in a similar anti-establishment vein as Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” to a big portion of listeners. Marcus Keef‘s triple-exposure cover photo of a “War Pig” was already developed and Black Sabbath was ostensibly done with the record, save three minutes of material to meet their contractual obligations. The tired Iommi did as any lead guitarist would do in metal mythology and casually created the aggressive blues-rock spine behind “Paranoid”, with Butler writing the lyrics and Ozzy recording the final vocals in the very first take. An oddly-appropriate substitute title now surfaced, and Paranoid was ready to ship out internationally.
Paranoid came out in its first run on September 18th, 1970, and immediately garnered both praise and controversy in the UK. Within several months of the release, Sabbath was linked by the press to an American nurse taking her own life, but only after homicide detectives discovered a copy of Paranoid endlessly looping on her turntable. “Paranoid” became Black Sabbath’s only top 20 hit, reaching #4 on the UK charts, and enticing screaming fans everywhere. When Paranoid hit the states on January 1st, 1971 the “ritual satanic abuse” pandemonium was still a full decade away, but Black Sabbath had already made the whole world absorb their distant gazes and detached facial expressions, inverted cross necklaces, Crowley-like lyricism, and – let’s just say it – some twisted shit overall. The heart beating behind Summer of Love had finally lost its pulse, and Black Sabbath was lapping up its pool of blood. All said and done, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid tour ran from September 11th, 1970 to April 26th, 1971, during which manager Jim Simpson was fired, Ozzy witnessed the birth of his first child, and the band recorded their third album Master of Reality in full.
Track by Track
The very beginning of “Luke’s Wall/War Pigs” matches the intensity of Sabbath’s eponymous album opener, but quickly shows how much the band had honed their skills in the short time since their debut. The tempo and rhythm changes as “Wall” transitions into “Pigs” mark a matured sense of structure for Sabbath, and their appreciation for space between instruments gives this near eight-minute arrangement a “clean” feel, even with its neurotic ending.
Historians may suggest that the group didn’t by any means “phone in” the album’s hugely successful title track, yet in retrospect, there is something haphazard about the main riff, not just in simplicity of melody but also in its raw performance, almost akin to those of The Stooges’s Ron Asheton. You can feel the proto-punk vibes throughout “Paranoid”, not just in its faster tempo, but its concise arrangement.
As a huge fan of psychedelic rock, “Planet Caravan” is my personal favorite on Paranoid, even though I know its blasphemous to pick that one, or “Changes”, over any of Sabbath’s harder-rocking tracks. But with its creative use of the Leslie (whose best use in rock history is still the “ping” sound effect at the heart of “Echoes” by Pink Floyd off Meddle) and Iommi dipping back into his jazz-blues roots with a clean tone, it could’ve almost been David Gilmour from his Dark Side of the Moon days. Even more interesting to see how the song has been covered over the decades, most notably by fellow metal innovators Pantera.
“Iron Man” is great. Its got a huge sound that just keeps giving and you could tell the guys had a lot of fun writing it. That said, it’s suffered the curse of countless other classic rock songs in that it’s been played a few hundred too many times on the radio and in the media. C’mon y’all, it’s already a repetitive song; we don’t need to repeat it more.
Now prepped with the variety of heaviness across the A-side, “Electric Funeral” is the ideal start to Paranoid‘s B-side, dipping you right into the sludge with lots of distortion and labored vocals, ultimately evoking the wicked nature of Black Sabbath.
For those that paid close attention to “Hand of Doom”, it was a staunchly anti-drug message inspired by soldiers returning from Vietnam and their spiral into heroin addiction. But, of course, many didn’t, and instead jumped to the conclusion that it was a commercial for hard drugs. Listening past the lyrics, “Hand of Doom” is another prime example of Sabbath’s growing understanding of dynamics, with its reserved bassline perfectly contrasting the explosive chorus.
“Rat Salad” is another one where you could tell they were just having fun jamming out. Butler holds it down while Iommi and Ward absolutely lose their minds (and presumably Ozzy is elsewhere doing Ozzy things).
I always loved how subtle the delay guitar is for the “Jack the Stripper” portion of Paranoid‘s final offering; it’s like the band kept trying harder and harder to psych listeners up before going all in. While it doesn’t burn as slow as “Hand of Doom”, it may be the best-packaged transition on the whole record. The effects-drenched exit of Ozzy at the height of his vocal theatrics, followed by Iommi’s commanding guitar work over a long studio fadeout wrapping up “Fairies Wear Boots”, makes it the ultimate Sabbath farewell song, one that gives a sincere “goodbye for now”, but also a suggestive, “how about you go back to Side One?”
Paranoid contained many of Black Sabbath’s signature songs, with “Iron Man”, “War Pigs”, and “Paranoid” all on the record’s first half. For many metal-heads, it’s the ultimate 8-track. Paranoid launched what is easily the greatest era of Black Sabbath and lasted until the drug-addled cancellation of Vol. 4‘s US tour in April 1973. And with all four original members still around as of this publication, Paranoid‘s legacy lives on, and Sabbath remains relevant in the 21st century.
Though it had no prior connection to the Marvel character, 2008’s Iron Man ushered Black Sabbath’s track back into the cultural zeitgeist and introduced a younger generation of superhero fans to the band. Just this past year, the band’s website released a new set of official shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” in the style of Master of Reality’s minimalist album art, and are donating the proceeds to the Black Live Matter Global Network Foundation. But on September 6th, Ozzy stated he’s no longer interested in the prospect of a reunion, regardless of how COVID continues to affect indoor music venues.
Even if we’ll never see Sabbath hit the stage again, we keep ourselves sane in quarantine with Paranoid, since it almost seems like it was written for a society plagued by rampant substance abuse, unstable mental health addiction, and widespread unrest.
With quarantine still in place, the kids are staying at home and their remote-working parents are right alongside them. So needless to say, the prospect of a summer camp is pretty much out of the question for most folks, and many summer programs have been suspended or cancelled for safety reasons. But for one group of innovators, a little pandemic wasn’t about to get in the way of their yearly ritual.
Enter Austin neo-classical outfit Mother Falcon, who for nine years has led one-to-two week summer camps with an emphasis on musical performance and creative collaboration under the handle Mother Falcon Music Lab. Each year the staff of musicians and artists seems to get stronger and stronger, offering activities like podcasting, screen printing, animation, and more on top of their camp-wide curriculum. And with COVID-19 proving an obvious obstacle, the decision to continue camp was made months ago, thus launching the inaugural Virtual Summer.
And get this! It’s not just for kids this time around! This multi-media educational experience is available for both youth and adults, where the only requirement to enroll in these unique courses is internet access. The new digital format has allowed MFML’s set of Artist Instructors to construct their dream courses, ones that have finally grown legs after spending years in the aether, including Creating Sound Worlds, Music Marketing, Protest(ing) Like An Artist, Decolonizing the Industry, and more. MFML still offers the classics like Entry Improvisation and Musical Theory for all ages, but the Virtual Summer format allows participants to lean into these explorations in ways the in-person camp never had capacity for. The bottom line is always being creative with the skills you have, now with more options that cater to beginners and tapping into advanced mentorships for intermediaries, essentially granting public access to what Mother Falcon’s community provides amongst itself year-round.
You can sign up for as many or as few courses as you want, with a “full schedule” option available (with breaks) and access to a need-based discount system. On top of the roster of highly-experienced professional creatives, you’ll certainly get your money’s worth with the “Chill Room”, giving a safe space to talk or play games with Social Worker/Multi-Instrumentalist Mr. Michael!
Mother Falcon Music Lab Program Director Clara Brill shares, “It’s been inspiring, especially under the circumstances, to have our community come together and collaborate to bring these new ideas to life. We’re really looking forward to sharing what we’ve put together!” Enrollment is open as of tonight, so sign up while you still can, and remember: