Thursday, October 19, 2006

Close Friends Call Me Terry

When I was searching the internet for some additional information to accompany this piece on 1980s Bronx rapper T La Rock, I was shocked to learn that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury back in 1994. Nobody knows exactly what happened to him, but he was found by his brother Special K (from rap pioneers Treacherous Three), incoherent and slurring his words. At first K thought he was drunk, but then he saw the blood. T very nearly died. Doctors had to pump the blood away from his brain to stop the swelling. He lost all motor skills and was given a 20-30% chance of survival. His family believe he was struck with a blunt object while trying to break up a fight. “Knowing him, he would keep someone from getting hurt,” his mother said. “That’s him. All my boys are like that.” Luckily T survived, and after a bit more searching, it seems he’s doing OK. The last recording he made that I can make out was a rap for the edit king Omar Santana’s project Wizard of Oh, which featured on a 1998 compilation. I’d love to know what he’s doing now, but the trail appears to have gone dead.

T La Rock & Jazzy Jay - It's Yours (Radio Mix)

Clarence ‘Terry’ Keaton aka T La Rock recorded his first rhymes in 1984 on the track ‘It’s Yours’, which was eventually accepted as one of the first examples of the ‘bass’ music which would go on to take over the East Coast through Luke Skyywalker and acts like 2 Live Crew. ‘It’s Yours’ was co-written with his brother and produced by Rick Rubin. It was a joint release between Partytime Records and Def Jam. In reality, Def Jam was just the name for Rubin and Russell Simmonds’ production company and didn’t actually exist as a label, but ‘It's Yours’ was the first 12” to have the Def Jam logo on its sleeve. ‘It’s Yours’, (credited as being by T La Rock & Jazzy Jay, though T claims his DJ/producer Louie Lou did the cuts and Rubin takes credit for the beats) is a prime example of the sparse hip hop of the time, where a thumping 808 drum track and harsh cuts provide the only accompaniment for T’s awesome rhymes. As Simmonds said, “T started the trend and a new direction in hip-hop. He used 40-letter words. He created a special poetry.” T had a vast vocabulary and would freestyle all the time, meaning even his recorded raps have an almost live feel to them.

T La Rock - Breaking Bells (Club)

Fast-forward a couple of years to 1986 and you will find T La Rock droppin’ science on one of the stand out tracks from the most fertile period in hip hop’s history. ‘Breaking Bells’ was released as a double A-side single on Fresh Records, with ‘Bass Machine’ on the flip. It may only have been two years since ‘It’s Yours’, but it feels like 20 when you check the sound created by the insane production of Kurtis Mantronik. Mantronik’s skills were so far ahead of the rest, I still don’t think we’ve caught up today. ‘Breaking Bells’ contains a sample of Roy Ayers’s ‘Brother Green’, at a time when sampling was rare on a hip hop record. If you factor in the mad glitchy edits of Omar Santana, then you have a blueprint for much of the groundbreaking electronic music that exists today. T’s raps are incredible as always and the track blew my impressionable teenage mind wide open when I first heard it in ’86.

Buy T La Rock’s classic album ‘Lyrical King (From the Boogie Down Bronx)’ from Boomkat here, where you can also pick up a 12" copy of the repress of 'It's Yours' here
T La Rock discography
Search ebay for T La Rock
Great interview with T La Rock in which he discusses his early career and crate digging for exclusive breaks here
Article from the New York Times regarding T’s brain injury and subsequent rehabilitation here
Jonathan Ross (yes, that one!) interviews T La Rock here