Recommended Listening: Stetsasonic "On Fire" (1986)

September 13, 2011 7 min read


Stetsasonic are a Brooklyn based crew who successfully helped build the bridge from the Old to the New School. MCs, Daddy-O and MC Delite have those classic Old School voices with New School flavor, while Frukwan was pushing the limits with rap techniques and content.

They proclaimed themselves as the first Hip Hop band, an idea that challenged a few pre-existing concepts. The essence of Hip Hop originated with DJs working turntables and supplying the musical backbone, but that had been altered with the transition into making records. From the first Rap records until approx ’82, Hip Hop artists mostly depended on whatever session musicians the label had to provide the beats. The commercial availability and affordability of Programmable Drum Machines circa ’82 changed that. Hip Hop fought back from those clean cut sounds of live instrumentation, with the inhuman awesomeness of drum machines, topped with abrasive scratch tones.

Stetsasonic emerged just a couple years later and sought to merge those concepts into a very effective formula. Armed with the drummer; Bobby Simons, keyboards; DBC (The Devastating Beat Creator), turntables; Prince Paul, & Human Percussion; Human Mix Machine Wise. Those combined forces mixed with a collection of drum machines and the three MCs made a bold statement and carved them a unique space in Hip Hop.

However, the history of the group goes back before records, rocking neighborhood parties with an early incarnation of the crew (some of which are pre-Frukwan and others). However, they made their wax debut on Tommy Boy in ’85 with the “Just Say Stet”* b/w “Rock De La Stet” single. One thing that is easily recognizable about the group is the unique name. With both songs on the single referencing the name, it could possibly suggest that the label and/or artists were worried about fans immediately catching on to it or at least saying it right…

The song title and tag line to Side A supports this way of thinking, “Stetsasonic, the name you will never forget/And If you can’t say it all, Just Say Stet!” Daddy-O takes it even further with his unapologetic remark, “If you find Stetsasonic hard to pronounce/Learn how to say it and fix your mouth.” While, MC Delite tries to help you better understand, “Stetsa means style, and sonic means sound/And this is the name that’s going to be around.”

[audio:|titles=03 Just Say Stet]

The B Side, “Rock De La Stet” brings in the heavy guitars with lots of reverb and the 3 MCs kicking it with some simple Old School stylings. Being that Prince Paul really made his production mark with his next project De La Soul, I wonder if this song title is what inspired the groups name or if it was a nod to what was to come, assuming they were already connected by then?? Hmm…

The “On Fire” album followed with 8 tracks and two instrumentals. Perhaps the most slept on element of this album is the scratching by Prince Paul. I’m guilty of over-looking it myself, but when I interviewed Frukwan, about a decade ago, he mentioned that he felt Prince Paul had never got credit for his scratch techniques on this album, so I went back to listen and was impressed and surprised that I hadn’t noticed before. To get the full effect, check out all the breaks on “Just Say Stet”, his scratch outro on “Go Stetsa”, his swift cuts on the slow paced “On Fire”, the perfectly synchronized hand-beats on “My Rhyme” and of course his theme song, “Bust That Groove”.

My definite favorite track on the album is “My Rhyme”. It’s got a great beat, Prince Paul’s aforementioned technically sound scratches and each MC probably drops their best verse on the album.

MC Delite comes in with unmatched confidence, “My rhyme is the force of sheer suspense/The Stroke of elegance and excellence” and to maintain the intensity on the second verse he begins, “Sturdy as a bow, Sharp as an arrow/A king among kings, a rhyming pharaoh.”

Frukwan’s verse give hints to his future with the Gravediggaz. I’ve always envisioned Prince Paul listening to this song and from that developing the Gravediggaz concept. He even reworks parts of these lyrics for the Gravediggaz “6 Feet Deep” album, but styled so differently you might not even recognize them, although the words are exactly the same. Here is where he best executes his multi-syllables coupled with vivid visual imagery, “My Rhyme is devious/but believe me its/one of kind, you agree from the previous/Rhymes, that you’re hearing, it’s devastating/this rhyme made Cernobyl stop generating/After effects of my rhyme gets colder/it moves very swift, just like a locomotive…”

However, there’s also that pure brutal nature, “My rhyme’s wrapped in the fury of hate/Dare devil, rhyme rebel, my axe terminates/Subduing and pulverizing suckers from abroad/Couldn’t sling with a king, I’m a hazardous detour…”

As for Daddy-O, he approaches “My Rhyme” in the same way he does “4 Ever My Beat”**. While the other MCs are more literal to the concept, he speaks about his “rhyme” and his “beats” as if they are hanging out in the studio and streets with him, using personification quite effectively.

[audio:|titles=02 My Rhyme]

Also, on the album you have; “Faye”, the only “edgy” song in the collection. The rest of the album is profanity-free and content safe, but “Faye” continues the tradition of “La Di Da Di” and “Veronica” with Human Beat Box beats and sex rhymes. “Bust That Groove” is one of the most interesting beats on the record and I assume produced by Prince Paul, since the track is essentially his theme song.

If the first single mostly stayed under the radar and then the album firmly placed them on the map, I suppose it’s the second single where they made a bigger impact and started to solidify themselves as a powerhouse on the scene. “Go Stetsa I” is not only an anthem for Brooklyn and Hip Hop, but also for that Stetsasonic “formula” that I mention above. It keeps things minimalistic with the live drums beating and Prince Paul working the wax with quick stabs and light scratches as an integral part of the instrumentation. MC Delite best states their claim, “Straight to the letter we’re the Hip Hop Band/Of America, London and even Japan/And you surely will admit, by being a fan/Nobody else does it like we can.”

Daddy-O’s has some shining moments with his opening “Brace yourself for the awesome and rare” or his elegantly remarked, “Take a second to check the pedigree”.

However, it’s Frukwan who does the most damage lyrically here. This is right at the start of the popularity of multi-syllabic rhyming and Frukwan is the only MC of the three to use this method effectively on this song and thru out the album. This is most famously evident thru his, “It ain’t nothing like Hip Hop music/You like it cause you choose it/Most DJs won’t refuse it/ A lot of sucker MCs misuse this/Don’t think that Stet can loose it/Too much to gain to abuse this…”

This grew to be one of their biggest hits, but I found myself spending more time on the B-side. I have vivid memories of walking around North Chicago with a large boom box in tow blasting “On Fire” as loud as possible. This is Roland TR-808 programming at its zenith. It keeps you engaged with sped up Hi-hats, echoed snares, cool-rolling Tom Toms, and of course that BASS!

This is the perfect song to better define the overall “roles” of each MC in the group, at least in how I see them. Daddy-O, who is often viewed as the leader***, has one of the most powerful voices in Hip Hop, combine that with his matter-of-fact sensibilities, as well as his conscious nature. All of which, cements him as a dominating presence. Lyrically, he generally keeps it simple and relatable, but effective. Oddly, the album version of “On Fire” doesn’t have the Daddy-O solo verse on it.

MC Delite sounds like the most “natural rapper”. He has this traditional B-boy aesthetic, but also taps into this poetic elegance that seems to date back centuries ago, somehow the mixing of the two past eras pushes him to the frontlines of the present. This is evident in quotes such as, “Bursting like a blaze up the road to fame/We’re blessed with the gift to entertain/So roll out respect as we walk in/The Stet legacy is about to begin.”

Frukwan, however, was reaching towards the future. His approach is rugged and smooth. Not only was he pushing the limits with multi-syllabics but also opening the doors to what would later be known as “Horrorcore”, as evidenced on “My Rhyme”. He pulls no punches with an assortment of bold boasts & warning such as, “We’re On Fire, roar, every god can see/The Electrifying acts of intensity.” Even dancers aren’t safe as they are challenged to “Don’t stop the whop until you break you arm!”

This special CD reissue also includes: “4 Ever My Beat (Beat Bongo Mix”: a nice vibe instrumental from the 12”), Go Stetsa I Remix, and A.F.R.I.C.A [Norman Cook Remix].
Stetsasonic came back just a couple years later with an even more successful and arguably better album with “In Full Gear”. In ’91 they dropped their “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” album, minus Frukwan, before they group dissolved****. Although their catalog isn’t massive, their impact is undeniable, as artists as well as producers. “On Fire” is the official start of it all, until someone starts sharing some of those early 80s park jam tapes of the Stetsaonic 3 MCs…I’m waiting…

*Bonus Nerd Info: “Just Say Stet” 12” has a locked groove at the end that will repeat the echoed out ending of “Stet” for infinity…

**I’m pretty sure it’s Daddy-O’s verse “4 Ever My Beat” that inspired to write “Me and My Beatbox” in ’86, where I proclaim my best friendship with my newly acquired Roland TR-505…

***Frukwan stated that it was never meant for Daddy-O to be the group leader or spokesman, but rather their label, Tommy Boy, pushed for that. Even to the point of sometimes only calling him for certain interviews, and “group” matters

****Daddy-O also went on to do a solid solo album in '93 titled "You Can Be A Daddy, but never Daddy-O" and then to work in some executive positions in the industry.

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