The 34th installment of I Used to Love H.E.R., a series in which artists/bloggers/writers discuss their most essential or favorite hip-hop albums and songs, comes from writer Dan LeRoy, author of The Greatest Music Never Sold and the 33 1/3 book on the Beastie Boys classic Paul’s Boutique.
Dark Sun Riders feat. Brother J
Seeds of Evolution
(4th & Broadway/Island, 1996)
Two of my favorite hip hop albums are the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Seeds of Evolution, by Brother J’s post-X Clan group Dark Sun Riders. I wrote a 33 1/3 book about the first, and the second is the subject of this post. But it didn’t really strike me, until Kevin extended this very generous invitation to give Seeds some very belated praise, just how dissimilar the two records are.
Everyone knows, or should, that Paul’s Boutique was pretty much the last mainstream gasp for anything-goes sampling. The Beasties, Dust Brothers and Matt Dike stuffed every groove with as much familiar sonic flotsam and jetsam as possible, but changes in sampling law have made it unlikely any artist will ever be able to party like it’s 1989 again. Seeds, however, resides at the opposite pole. Except for the basslines (played, interestingly, by Quicksand’s Sergio Vega and producer/journalist Rich Tozzoli) and a handful of sound effects, it is boom-bap at its most uncluttered and primal. That’s high praise here, because the drums — mostly supplied by producers DJ M.A.T.E. and UltraMan — are simply huge throughout the disc. On songs like the single, “Time To Build” and “Rhythmous Flex,” UltraMan’s beats are so monstrous that other instruments are barely necessary.
Part of the pop-culture potpourri of Paul’s Boutique includes lyrical namechecks and nods clustered so densely that whole web sites are devoted to nothing but parsing Paul’s verses for obscure bits of cultural trivia. But Brother J’s refusal to play spot-the-reference gives the songs on Seeds a timeless quality. It’s set up like a sci-fi fable, with Brother J and his Dark Sun Riders on a quest for truth and light, in a messed-up, out-of-balance future world that seems not unlike our own. In fact, it might be the only hip-hop album I can recall where the interludes are actually necessary, something like the Broadway-style transitional songs such as “Sally Simpson” and “1921” in the Who’s Tommy.
Which brings us to the last big difference. Even people who, post-Licensed to Ill, believed the Beasties were assholes of the highest magnitude would have been hard-pressed not to chuckle at some of the juxtapositions and clever lines on Paul’s Boutique. It is simply a very funny record. Seeds, by contrast, is anything but. The few lighter moments occur mostly during interludes like “Day of the Gathering,” a splash-panel of an introduction to the whole valiant Dark Sun crew that couldn’t help but make any old Marvel or D.C. fan smile. And while Brother J’s lyrics resurrect some of the very serious topics (pro-black nationalist, anti-gay) that made X Clan a troubling proposition, it’s hard at least to argue with stuff like the haunting “Return to the River,” which describes seeing the “young and unschooled telling old man stories/teaching lessons never learned…no one seemed to care that the shadows were becoming one with the flesh.” Sound like any MCs and any hip-hop mainstreams you know, in 1996 or at present? Whatever he’s saying, Brother J’s forceful, yet refined delivery is a reminder that he’s one of the most unjustly unsung rappers around, something like the missing link between Rakim and one of today’s more eloquent mic practitioners.
For all their differences, Paul’s Boutique and Seeds do share at least one unfortunate bit of history: both are great albums that major labels had no idea how to sell. The Paul’s Boutique chart debacle, and the Beasties’ comeback on Capitol, have now entered legend, but Seeds marked, as best I’m aware, the last time Brother J got a release on a major. That’s a loss for the larger hip-hop world; if you have followed the Clan’s recent exploits (as on 2006’s Return to Mecca) you know it isn’t like the guy suddenly forgot how to dominate a mic. But if you’ve never heard Seeds of Evolution, you should find a copy at once and hear him at his creative peak. Or better yet, listen to it back to back with the Beasties; it makes a nice rebuttal to anyone who claims there’s only one kind of “real” hip-hop.