Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Three The Hard Way

3rd Bass - The Cactus
3rd Bass - Sons Of 3rd Bass
3rd Bass - Wordz Of Wisdom (Club Mix)
3rd Bass - Wordz Of Wisdom (Death In The Afternoon)

‘The Cactus’ by 3rd Bass is my 11th favourite hip-hop album of all time. Now before you accuse me of damning it with faint praise, first remember what an absolute old school hip-hop nutjob I am, and then consider the strength of the competition – Public Enemy, Ultramagnetic MC’s, Eric B & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, EPMD, Gang Starr, anything produced by Kurtis Mantronik or Marley Marl… there’s a formidable list of competitors out there, and to be my 11th favourite album, you’d have to be pretty fucking great - ‘The Cactus’ is certainly that. The Brooklyn, NYC duo of MC Serch and the baseball-obsessive Pete Nice came together in 1987 when producer Sam Sever suggested the duo work together. Serch had already released a couple of 12s for Warlock and Idlers (original home of the Jungle Brothers) in 1986, but these had largely gone unnoticed. Together, as 3rd Bass, they would make a huge impression on the late 80s/early 90s hip-hop scene – ‘The Cactus’ went gold in the US – but despite this commercial success, they still don’t get enough recognition.

You see, it’s hard to talk about 3rd Bass without mentioning the fact that Serch and Pete Nice were white, making them the first successful interracial rap group (the third member of 3rd Bass was black DJ Richie Rich). It shouldn’t really be a big deal – they’re quality MC’s - awesome, intelligent lyricists; the production is tough and innovative, and they signed to the massively influential Def Jam label – all the ingredients are there, but they were two-thirds white and I often wonder if this is why they don’t receive the plaudits they deserve. You could argue that the Beastie Boys managed to have a long and fruitful career, but they weren’t really taken seriously early on (and with good reason: the popularity of their dumbed-down party frat boy rap/rock with a predominantly white college crowd often overshadowed the fact that they were great rappers, and they had to totally reinvent themselves in the early 1990s). 3rd Bass actually signed to Def Jam just after the Beasties defected to Capitol Records, so were seen by many as a direct replacement for them – one novelty white rap act, replaced by another. Wrong.

To me, the album I would most compare ‘The Cactus’ to, is De La Soul’s ‘3 Feet High and Rising’. This may seem like a strange comparison to make, as the 3rd Bass style was far removed from the idealistic self-styled ‘daisy age’ hippy outlook of the De La crew. Both Serch and Pete Nice were New York natives, and their lyrics were far more hard-hitting and realistic; concerned with traditional hip-hop themes and language – brags, big-ups of themselves and their crew, name-dropping cars, bad-mouthing women and dissing other rappers (they had beef with MC Hammer and the Beasties, vocalised throughout ‘The Cactus’). There is one obvious similarity – the Prince Paul produced ‘The Gas Face’ (which featured an appearance from Zev Love X from KMD, the original moniker of MF Doom), which inevitably has a De La feel, both musically and lyrically. The main similarities I see are a definite sense of humour. Neither acts took themselves too seriously and were, first and foremost, entertainers. The tracks on ‘The Cactus’ are all linked together by short musical skits and in-jokes – not a cohesive theme like the mock quiz show of ‘3 Feet High & Rising’, but it has a similar feel in the way it is structured. ‘Flippin’ Off The Wall Like Lucy Ball’ finds one of the MC’s doing a fine impression of a 1930s Count Basie figure, over a jazz/blues backing. Title track ‘The Cactus’ (which samples The Doors’ ‘Peace Frog’) appears to be a companion piece to the Jungle Brothers’ ‘Jimbrowski’ and De La Soul’s ‘Buddy’, which are all about mythically massive male genitalia.

It’s a truly classic album, which also featured Public Enemy’s production team, The Bomb Squad, on a couple of tracks. My favourite 3rd Bass track of all time is ‘Wordz Of Wisdom’, which was the last track on ‘The Cactus’, and was later released in an extended 'Club Mix' form on the flip side of ‘The Gas Face’ 12”. Producer Sam Sever utilises the classic Amen break alongside tough beats of his own and samples from Gary Wright, The Commodores and Steely Dan, as Serch and Pete Nice drop some of their most ferocious rhymes. There was also an incredible ‘Death In The Afternoon’ remix that sampled Depeche Mode’s ‘Never Let Me Down Again’. I was a huge Mode fan at the time this came out and it completely blew me away that somebody could sample them on a hip-hop record to such devastating effect. I’ve posted both these tracks, along with ‘The Cactus’ and ‘Sons Of 3rd Bass’, with its sample of Blood Sweat & Tears’ ‘Spinning Wheel’, awesome scratching from Richie Rich and scathing Beastie Boys dis –

You know about that silver spoon havin’
Buckshot acne showin’, L.A. weak-ass sell-out
Non-legitimate, tip-doggin’, jethro pseudo intellectual
Dust-smokin’, pretty boy playwright posin’
Folks wiggin’, whinin’ annoyin’ Def Jam reject devil
White bread no money havin’ slum village people clonin’
Step children!

Just as it seemed that 3rd Bass were making some headway with getting white rap music accepted as an equivalent art form to that being produced by their black contemporaries, along came Vanilla Ice and blew the whole thing apart. The success of his 1990 single, ‘Ice Ice Baby’, turned white rap into a safe, corporate way of making money and nobody gave a shit about acts like 3rd Bass and their hard-won credibility – credibility didn’t make money. Their second album, ‘Derelicts Of Dialect’ was pretty much one long dis of Vanilla Ice, and I think it suffered because of this. Of course, their target was a righteous one, but I think they should have just stuck to their guns and continued on their own path. Maybe it is this obsession with Vanilla Ice and the group's own craving for credibility that have ruined the positive epitaph 3rd Bass so richly deserve. Either way, just listen to the quality of the music on ‘The Cactus’ and savour the flavours of the 11th best hip-hop album of all time!

The brilliant video for ‘The Gas Face’, featuring a guest appearance from Flavor Flav –

3rd Bass website - with loads more songs to download
Search eBay for 3rd Bass
3rd Bass wikipedia entry
3rd Bass discography
Sam Sever website