I know I generally tend to write about the more obscure and what I would consider less obvious things. However, it occurred to me, being that commercial recorded Hip Hop music now spans 32 years, there's probably a great deal of the younger listeners who aren't all that familiar with the early classics...
When discussions arise about the best/favorite/most influential Hip Hop artist(s) of all time, Whodini’s name hardly gets mentioned enough. No doubt, if you throw on “Freaks Come Out At Night” or “Friends” at a party you are bound to get some people excited, on the dancefloor and/or, at the very least, hard-bopping their heads. However, sometimes when I spin those cuts, the most excited person might come up and say, “This is my jam? Who is this again?” Perhaps, further evidence that the music may be more popular than the men behind it.
Part of the issue is generally when people are rating top MCs there are some key criteria that people tend to gravitate to;
1)Braggadocio: You know, the old age method of, if you keep saying you’re the best then people are bound to eventually start believing it*.
2)Metaphors/Punchlines: Fair enough, as it is generally a pretty good measuring stick of a MCs wit and if they invested some time into their writing.
3)Approach: This is a bit broad and tougher to pin-point. It encompasses delivery, style, personality, and I suppose to some degree, voice. For specific intents and purposes here, I’m referring to the fact that people who have the more animated or aggressive “Approach” often get bonus points on the skill chart.
Whodini rarely tapped in to either of those first two points. As for the third, their approach was laid-back, down to earth, and to the point.
Their key strength was rooted in their storytelling, certainly one of the most celebrated skills of the oral tradition. However, most of those MCs considered the greats in that field enhanced that skill with some combination of those above factors; Slick Rick, Rakim, Mele Mel, etc…
However, Whodini achieved something that was interesting and intriguing in it’s own right. They were able to write such focused stories with just the right amount of detail, but without going over the head of the listener. You never had to pause or rewind to figure it out. Anyone could relate or at least understand. Yet it never sounded too simple that you could write them off as non-writers. To me that is a feat within itself, creating something that even a child can grasp, but not insulting the intelligence of the adult listener.
Whodini also entered the business at a pivotal changing of the guard. The formal introduction of programmable drum machines lessened the need for the studio musician. At the same time, the abrasive and un-natural sounds of the drum machines returned Hip Hop to its raw and perfectly imperfect roots. Whodini was able to harness this new sound with a touch of great musicianship courtesy the, extremely capable and often under-rated, hands of Producer, Larry Smith.
“Escape” is one of the earliest examples of a great Hip Hop album, alongside contributions by Run-DMC & The Fat Boys. Comparing the three artists albums at that point is difficult, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that “Escape” showcased a better use of making great songs; in terms of hooks, song structure, and with the ability to captivate a wide audience range. Honestly, cut back on the rapping and any number of Whodini tracks could have as much, if not more, in common with a Cameo song than the Fat Boys.
The tracks were hardcore** enough for the streets, musical enough for the club, safe enough for the suburbs, intelligent enough for the adults and sexy enough for the ladies. That leads to another tool in their arsenal. They definitely were early pursuers of the “Sex Symbol” image in Hip Hop, from the clean-cut white suits on their debut to the leather suits on their third album. Meanwhile, “Escape” takes the more subtle approach of the albums, with Jalil and Ecstacy, modestly dressed, behind some steel bars.
Of the 8 songs on “Escape”, 2 are certified hits, 2 are underground classics, 2 are instrumental/dubs and the final 2, I would consider sleeper joints.
“Five Minutes Of Funk” is the rare “Rocking the mic” styled song in their catalog, which is generally focused on concepts and stories. It certainly shows their party rocking skills were fully intact with great lines like, “I’m gonna give you what I got and baby that’s plenty/Never has one man rocked so many”, “MCs crumble when we rumble/Some that I’m soft just because I’m humble”, and “If you want the best and won’t settle for less/Put your money on me, I’m your best bet”.
“Freaks Come Out Night” might have gave birth to the idea of beats with a “bounce” in Hip Hop. The whole essence of the instrumental definitely moves along with a pimp strut. The song itself is a world anthem for “freaks” and/or “freak enthusiasts” who prefer to watch from a distance. They pass the mic back and forth and describe the style, attitude, fashion, scene, physical attributes, elusive mindstate and just about everything else about those ever-intriguing “Freaks”. There are plenty of great one-liners that pin-point particular issues; the youth doesn’t have to feel exclusively left out with, “I always had to be home by 10, just before the fun was about to begin”. The suggestion that the “Freaks” could be hiding amongst you, “Then again you could know someone all your life and not know they’re a freak unless you see them at night”, and you are taunted to join the fun, “So if you want to live the nice quiet life/Do yourself a favor don’t come out at night”.
“Big Mouth” is something that everyone can relate to: big-mouthed, rumor spreading nuisances. The beat is the most stripped down on the record, but holds your attention with well executed drum programming.
About the only thing I would “fix” on this nearly perfect record is the sequencing, including but not exclusive to, shifting “Friends” to drop right after “Big Mouth”…I think that would be a great transition. “Friends” is easily one of the all-time great Whodini songs from the production, to the lyrics, to the subject matter. The backbone is crisp Roland TR-808 beats, a simple but driving bassline, effectively dramatic keyboard work, and a chorus that’s just about as legendary as they come.
The first verse gives a nice thorough overview of the concept and challenges of friendship. From there it gets more direct and personal with stories of Break-Ups and Betrayal. Perhaps the most powerful line of the song is one that just about all of us could do well to remember, “Out of nowhere it just came to an end/because we became lovers before we were friends”.
The 2 sleeper joints are “Escape (I Need A Brake)” and “We Are Whodini”. “Escape” is the most uptempo track on the album, which adds to the urgency of the subject matter. They also intensify their delivery to capture the desperation of the situation. “We are Whodini” honestly comes off a bit like some extra verses they had from “Five Minutes Of Funk”, but the great use of Vocoder, something they frequently used to nice effect, mixed with the get loose beat and party rhymes still manages to entertain and closes off the album just fine.
The album is rounded out with two instrumentals; “Out Of Control” which acts as a sort of dubbed reworking of one of the hits from their previous debut album, “Haunted House Of Rock”. “Featuring Grandmaster Dee” is a much-appreciated instrumental of “Five Minutes Of Funk”, but also acts as the sole disappointment on the album. As much as I love the beat, the title lead me to believe it was going to showcase the skills of their DJ, Grandmaster Dee, who isn’t at all represented on the record, besides the mentioning of his name. That let down was further amplified when I caught Whodini in concert shortly after and witnessed that Grandmaster Dee was indeed a master technician on the turntables. After the excitement of his set started to settle, it left me wondering more than ever, ‘Why doesn’t he do any of that on the records?’
In any event, “Escape” is a certified classic album and I would definitely include it on any list of “Required Listening” to those who claim love for the Hip Hop Culture…
*Yes, I agree you have to have “some” level skill to really make the boast believable but some people often seem to get placed higher up the “All Time” Lists just because they did “battle raps”
**Original "hardcore" definition, which meant the sound and approach rather than the shock value or how loud or
menacing you delivered the lyrics.
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