September 1, 2008

Theodore Unit - 718 (August 3, 2004)


After the release of The Pretty Toney Album, Dennis Coles was sweeping up the studio (he likes a clean workspace, after all), and was startled to find a package of leftover songs, which he had recorded with every intention of them appearing on his Def Jam debut release, but never made the final cut. As he was in the middle of putting together an album for his band of weed carriers, which called themselves the Theodore Unit, he decided that the songs shouldn't go to waste, and found alternative distribution in the form of Sure Shot Recordings, an extremely independent label which I hadn't even heard of until this writing.

The tracks I speak of were deleted and discarded from the original version of The Pretty Toney Album due to sample clearance issues: anybody that's listened to any Ghostface Killah album up until this point understands that Ghost likes to draw upon a wide variety of influences whenever he records a song, and oftentimes records a song without any thought given to a sample ever being cleared. There are literally millions of unreleased Ghostface Killah songs that have yet to officially see the light of day because of this work ethic (although a lot of them are easy to find on the Interweb). In a way, I find it commendable that Ghostface thought so highly of his work that he decided to put it out there, in any way possible, just so it can find its intended audience. Legally, though, I still haven't figured out how the fuck he pulled this off: if Def Jam wasn't able (or refused) to clear a track, even with their deep pockets, there is no fucking way an indie ran out of the back of someone's Mazda such as Sure Shot Recordings should be able to release the exact same songs without any pressing legal concerns, right?

Regardless, the Theodore Unit saw their debut "album", 718, released in 2004. I put "album" in quotation marks because this disc is really just a compilation of songs: some would even be inclined to call it a mixtape, except for the fact that the songs aren't blended together. At the time, the Unit was made up of Ghost himself and his flunkies: his main sidekick Trife Da God, whom I've praised highly on this very blog in the past; Solomon Childs, late of Ghostface's annoying-but-still-good "Stroke Of Death" from Supreme Clientele; and also Shawn Wigz, Du-Lilz (from Wu-Tang affiliate group Othorized Fam), Twiz, Kryme Life, and motherfucking Cappadonna, late of his second career of driving a gypsy cab through the streets of New York while getting fucked over for Wu-Tang royalties by Prince Rakeem. Since the release of 718, more than a few of the above named rappers have left to pursue other opportunities (read: they were let go), only to be replaced with the likes of Sun God, Ghostface's son (the Wu seems to have a thing for getting their own children on the mic, don't they?).

718 is supposed to be a Theodore Unit sampler, with no real sense of cohesion between tracks, but it ultimately comes off as a showcase for Trife, Solomon Childs, and Pretty Toney himself, who appears on ten out of sixteen tracks. Ghostface's multiple appearances make sense, as approximately half of the disc's songs were removed from The Pretty Toney Album at the last minute, but the other members of the crew barely get a chance to peek, let alone rap: Du-Lilz and Kryme Life only appear on one song each, and Cappadonna only gets two short verses, although at this point, we've already heard quite enough out of Cappa's mouth, thank you.

718 was one of those albums that hit the stores, but was destined to not really sell any copies, ostensibly due to lack of promotion, but ultimately, because a lot of the Ghostface songs had already leaked to the Interweb: essentially, everyone already had all of these songs, and you would only need to pick up 718 if you were interested in a nice shiny plastic package to house the songs you already owned. Let's see if you should go out of your way.

1. GUERILLA HOOD (GHOSTFACE KILLAH)
I'm still not one hundred percent on why this Clivaringz-produced track didn't make the final cut of The Pretty Toney Album, since it sounds so much better than a lot of the crap from the final release. The original version included Solomon Childs on a hook, but this one is much better, as not all rap songs actually require a break between verses.

2. PUNCH IN PUNCH OUT (TRIFE DA GOD)
Over a beat that sounds as if it could double as the opening theme music from a 1970's cop show, Trife impresses the hell out of me with his solo offering. Trife has always been one of the better Wu-Tang weed carriers in my eyes, and he spits over this awesome beat as if he had been waiting for the opportunity his entire life.

3. '88 FREESTYLE (GHOSTFACE KILLAH & TRIFE DA GOD)
Ghost and Trife sound off over the beat to Big Daddy Kane's "Set It Off", and while they both sound alright (if Raekwon ever decides to hang up the microphone for a career in the culinary arts, Trife could easily step in and Ghost wouldn't lose a step, although please note that I'm not saying Trife is as good as Raekwon can be on his best days), the song ultimately feels very empty.

4. THE DRUMMER (GHOSTFACE KILLAH & TRIFE DA GOD FEAT METHOD MAN & STREETLIFE)
The beat sounds like some original Tical shit (if it were interpreted by someone who wasn't The Rza), so it makes complete sense that Meth and Street appear on here. Upon its release, this was the darkest, grimiest, and dustiest Wu-Tang song to appear in a long while, and it was worth the wait: this song fucking rocks.

5. GATZ (SHAWN WIGZ, GHOSTFACE KILLAH, & SOLOMON CHILDS)
A decent introduction for two more members of the Theodore Unit, although followers of the Wu from day one will already know exactly what Solomon Childs sounds like, as he has appeared on other Wu-Tang songs before. This isn't bad, but there isn't anything especially great about it.

6. WHO ARE WE? (GHOSTFACE KILLAH & TRIFE DA GOD FEAT BONE CRUSHER)
Okay, this song's presence is actually easy to explain: Def Jam simply didn't want to pony up the clearance fee for sampling the theme song from Scooby-Doo, so as a result, the track hits the cutting room floor, regardless of how good it actually sounds. And that's the thing: this shit does actually sound good, and having your hook shouted out by Bone Crusher is actually effective.

7. SMITH BROTHERS (GHOSTFACE KILLAH & TRIFE DA GOD)
Uses the same beat as Raekwon's "Smith Bros." from The Lex Diamond Story. Ghost doesn't really sound that great over the beat either, but Trife does alright. Can somebody please explain why the two tracks weren't simply combined and included on either Rae or Ghost's respective albums? Because all of us Wu-Tang stans would have loved to hear those two on the same song again.

8. MAMA CAN YOU HEAR ME (SOLOMON CHILDS)
This Solomon Childs solo cut is decent, but it becomes obvious rather quickly why he would never be able to secure a record deal without some assistance from the Wu. As a writer/director, I also found myself appreciating Solomon's reference to "[Al] Pacino in the original script for Chinese Coffee", which is something you just don't really hear in hip hop. Solomon's reference to Sylvester Stallone's Driven, heard earlier in the track, is business as usual, though.

9. PAYCHECKS (GHOSTFACE KILLAH & TRIFE DA GOD)
Not bad at all, even if the vocal sample woven into the instrumental is a bit off-putting and threatens to overwhelm the rapping that's taking place over it.

10. WICKED WITH LEAD (GHOSTFACE KILLAH & TRIFE DA GOD)
Although I find myself wishing that these songs sounded more like Wu-Tang compositions (only "The Drummer" and maybe "Guerilla Hood" fit that description), it's easy to appreciate these songs for what they are: pure, unadulterated hip hop.

11. DAILY ROUTINE (SHAWN WIGZ)
Shawn Wigz, the token white boy in the crew, has a short solo song, and he sounds pretty good. At the very least, he sounds like he can hold his own with Ghost and Trife, which is all that matters when it comes to The Theodore Unit, I suppose.

12. RIGHT BACK (TRIFE DA GOD & KRYME LIFE)
Trife proves that, should Ghostface ever find himself stuck in Dubai while conversing with Tony Stark, he can serve as the de facto leader of the Unit with no problems. Kryme Life, Trife's former bandmate in a past life, only sounds okay, though, which is sad, since you would think that those two would have more chemistry together given their past work.

13. PASS THE MIC (DU-LILZ, SHAWN WIGZ, TRIFE DA GOD, SOLOMON CHILDS, GHOSTFACE KILLAH, & CAPPADONNA)
How the fuck can a rap crew fit a posse cut into less than three minutes? I still can't figure it out, even though the proof is right here in front of us. Unsurprisingly, Cappadonna sounds the weakest on here, but he actually seems to have left his ridiculous non-rhyming Sadat X/Kool Keith Lite rhyme style in the back of his gypsy cab, taking on a much more conventional flow that fits better. But at least Cappa made the fucking song: Twiz (remember him? I mentioned him above briefly) didn't even make the goddamn album.

14. WORK (SOLOMON CHILDS)
Someone may have been capable of rocking this bizarrely melodic instrumental, but the artist formerly known as Killa Bamz is not the one.

15. IT'S THE UNIT (SHAWN WIGZ, CAPPADONNA, & GHOSTFACE KILLAH)
The hook is awful, but otherwise the song is decent. Cappa manages to redeem himself, though: he almost sounds like the same guy that attracted many fans based off of his two appearances on Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...

16. BE MY GIRL (SOLOMON CHILDS)
This isn't bad for a Solomon Childs solo track. If 718 were actually a legitimate "album" as opposed to being a collection of tracks, I would complain that it doesn't quite fit the flow, but since it's not, I won't.

FINAL THOUGHTS: 718 is a surprisingly good listen. It actually seems like Ghostface only selected rappers to be in his group if they could actually rap (with the exception of Cappadonna: Ghost once saved Cappa's life and, per Chinese tradition, is now responsible for him). This disc was met with little fanfare, mainly because Sure Shot Recordings was trying its best not to attract attention for releasing Ghostface Killah's unreleased tracks, especially attention of the legal kind. 718 is easily better than The Pretty Toney Album in terms of consistency. The Wu-Tang Clan has always kept songs in their vaults that are better than their actual releases: here's some of the proof.

BUY OR BURN? By all means, if you luck into finding this in stores, pick it up. Wu-Tang fans may be a bit miffed at the lack of kung-fu samples, but hip hop heads will find plenty to enjoy.

BEST TRACKS: "The Drummer"; "Guerilla Hood"; "Punch In Punch Out"; "Who Are We?"; "Wicked WIth Lead"; "Pass The Mic"; "Daily Routine"

-Max

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6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the heads up, Max. More Fish, the unofficial sequel to this album, was surprisingly good and this review means that I'll be giving 718 top priority when I plug in my iPod tomorrow.

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  2. I seem ur a big Wu head like myself. I also thought "Stroke of Death" was extremely annoying. I thought this album was pretty good 2 a degree, but it did have sum real great tracks on it like Guerilla Hood n The Drummer. I liked that Scoopy-Doo shyt myself. Also, Trife is diesel.

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  3. good review Max.

    While you mentioned Cilvaringz ... i'd like to read your opinion on his "I" album from last year, personally i really loved the early Wu sound on that one and the impressive WU guest list . Think ou could serve uw with that somewhere in the (near) future ?

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  4. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessSeptember 12, 2008

    I still can't believe Ghostface decided to name his crew Theodore Unit. It's my favorite thing that has ever happened in life.

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  5. shawn wiggs is wack

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  6. Max, I like your reviews when you're all happy and shit, rather than snarky and wicked. This is a really solid album--it's just a shame that few people have heard of it.

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