September 4, 2011

My Gut Reaction: Kool G Rap & DJ Polo - Wanted: Dead or Alive (August 13, 1990)

See?  I told you I would post something that you two would want to discuss.

In case you've forgotten (which is most likely the case, since it's been a fucking long-ass time since I last wrote about these guys), I missed out on the early work of Kool G Rap and DJ Polo.  There's a lot of music out in the world, and it's impossible to listen to all of it, so some folks inevitably fall through the cracks.  Given what I used as a gateway drug into our chosen genre (that would be West Coast gangsta rap, for those of you just joining us), it makes sense that I missed out on the Juice Crew's short reign of dominance over hip hop.  What doesn't make sense is why it took me so long to get to Kool G Rap, best known as the godfather of gangsta rap, while running this blog.  (Although you could use the exact same sentiment for (insert your favorite artist here).  Can't please everyone.)

G Rap's debut, Road To The Riches, was a widely-heralded gem of an album that still holds up extraordinarily well today.  Unlike most albums that find release dates today, Road To The Riches was produced entirely by Marley Marl (with scratching provided by DJ Polo), lending that project a sense of coherence that would be completely foreign to a music executive today.  G Rap's follow-up, Wanted: Dead or Alive, curiously abandons that concept, as our host elected to spit his ferocious bars over beats provided by a range of producers (mostly Eric B, of Eric B and Rakim fame, and Large Professor from Main Source).  Why, it's almost as though Kool G Rap was deliberately trying to expand his horizons by not tying himself exclusively to his Juice Crew roots (although a few representatives from that group check in, as well). 

So does Wanted: Dead or Alive sound good using today's ears and iPods?

New listeners (such as myself, hence the “My Gut Reaction” qualifier in this post's title) may find themselves turned off by the horribly shitty way the first five seconds on the very first track on Wanted: Dead or Alive sounds. At least I was, originally: not for nothing has it taken me this long to follow up my review for Road To The Riches. But I implore you, let the song actually start, and you will be rewarded with an interesting G Rap narrative (as he browses from person to person and situation to situation like a fly on the wall) over what eventually becomes a dope-ass instrumental (produced by the team of Large Professor, Anton, and G Rap himself). Similarities abound with Nas's “NY State Of Mind”, which makes sense, as this track was a direct inspiration for him, although Nasir shifted the focus internally on his classic Illmatic track, on which he described his addiction to both sneakers and bitches with beepers, a line which will confuse future generations for years to come. The fact that the crappy false start prevented me from listening to this in its entirety long ago makes me really fucking angry, so don't make the same mistake I did. Side note: if you're paying attention, you'll hear a run of bars that El-P paid homage to on Company Flow's "Last Good Sleep”, which was unexpected.

The only word that should come to mind when the Eric B beat kicks in is “run!”, by which I mean that it is impossible to not picture yourself on the wrong end of a chase from the cops, with all of the ducking into alleyways and hopping residential fences that come with the territory. The instrumental is actually pretty brilliant, so it's a nice touch that they let it ride after G Rap is through tearing it a new asshole with his violent tale. His portrayal of a wanted criminal who can't even follow through on his planned heists because the cops want him dead or alive (duh) is frenetic, mainly due to the song's insistent, hurried pace, but even though the storytelling isn't quite as vivid as I had hoped, he still knocks it out of the park. Nice!

This posse cut features G Rap alongside unlikely collaborators Large Professor, Eric B's brother Ant Live, and a pre-Bumpy Knuckles Freddie Foxxx, but it's still pretty good, even though my copy of Wanted: Dead or Alive only includes the censored version. The Large Pro instrumental grows on you to such a degree that you'll wish the song either continued on with eighteen more artists or simply ended after our host spits the third verse, so that the song's overall worth isn't undermined the moment Ant Live takes to the microphone. (The way our host is awkwardly inserted into Ant's verse is also pretty abominable.) G Rap and Freddie Foxxx sound great, and even though Extra P comes off as an amateur by comparison, there's something charming about the way he ends his verse by saying, “I don't give a fuck, I got money in the bank”. All in all, I liked this a great deal.

It's kind of strange to hear a rapper make a reference to Bruce Jenner this far removed from the original release date, since all he's known for today are his creepy-as-fuck appearances on whatever Kardashian reality show is playing on E! at this very moment. (A side note for the kids: having a big ass isn't a talent. It's nice and all, but there has to be some sort of there there.) Anyway, “Bad To The Bone” is an alright excursion, made so by the fact that producer Eric B doesn't go the obvious route by sampling the overused George Thorogood's “Bad To The Bone”, and G Rap gives the beat his all, but the track ultimately left me feeling empty. I believe Eric's beat wasn't fast-paced enough for our host, so of course they let it ride out for over a minute after G Rap walks out of the booth to light up a cigarette.

Hilariously misogynistic and wrong, the key word being hilarious. That last sentence makes me sound sexist, which isn't the case, but it's impossible to have a thorough discussion about hip hop without addressing how male rap artists seem to feel about most women (excluding their mothers, sisters, and wives). G Rap brags about his bedroom prowess in such an exaggerated and excited manner that it's difficult to think of his box spring-breaking escapades as anything but silly braggadocio set to a catchy-ass beat. Some of his bars push the envelope a tad (the bit about making his sexual partner look like “a rape victim” is more than a little questionable), but this was still ultimately harmless and enjoyable.

Although his name appears in the title, “Play It Again, Polo” isn't a track dedicated to DJ Polo's work behind the turntables. (I understand that will come later on in the program.) Instead, listeners are presented with more hype G Rap verses over the type of hurried instrumental over which he thrives. The more I listen to his early work, the more I hear how Black Thought was influenced by his flow, and in no way am I implying that as a bad thing or that Tariq Trotter is a thief: if you have to be inspired by someone, it should be one of the greats. I mean, what if Thought was influenced by MC Hammer? Do you think you would still give a mother fuck about The Roots then? I thought not.

Biz Markie can't sing. We all know this: when you first start following hip hop, you're issued a set of flash cards that contain all of the specific facts that you will be expected to know when you are quizzed, and the fact that The Biz cannot sing is but one of those facts. Sometimes he's fun to sing along with regardless (see: “Just A Friend”), but sometimes he completely eradicates a song's overall effectiveness, such as on G Rap and Big Daddy Kane's social commentary on “Erase Racism”. This Juice Crew collaboration aims for positivity, and both rappers (I'm not counting The Biz, as he contributes only the hook and a dull-as-shit instrumental) take their words very seriously, but this song just blows. To be fair to Biz Markie, though, the song lost me when G Rap forced the lyrics, “Let's form a rainbow over the mountain” through his teeth.

Eric B's production helps right the ship, as G Rap lays down hot bar after hot bar for about two and a half minutes straight on what ends up being a one-verse wonder. The man is in his wheelhouse and, as such, is NBA Jam-levels of “on fire”, he sounds that fucking good. The chanting of the track's title at the very end was kind of pointless and undermined what was essentially a really long freestyle, but our host's performance helps make up for any creative missteps Wanted: Dead or Alive has made thus far. This shit just sounded good.

And then the momentum is just fucking shot. Eric's jazzy instrumental doesn't exactly sound out of place on Wanted : Dead or Alive, but it does suck today, and the fact that the boring music steers Kool G Rap into a tree is a testament to just how important the beat is when it comes to rap music. Had this been an acapella performance, G Rap probably could have made it moderately interesting (if you're into that sort of thing), but thanks to the lame-ass beat, I couldn't wait for this shit to end. Sigh.

The “overused” Bob James “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” sample during the song's intro and where the chorus would be undercut the threats from our host, who makes it a point to explain that, if you step to him, he will kill you, although if this comes as a surprise to you this far into the album, then you just haven't been paying attention. The instrumental is serviceable otherwise, and G Rap's two long verses sounded pretty good, but this did nothing for me except emphasize how mind-numbing it must be for rappers to try and come up with new and creative ways to express their homicidal impulses. And so.

The beat, provided by DJ Polo, is jazzy and unobtrusive, allowing for our host to “freestyle” on this track (I put that word in between quotation marks because I'm always wary of any album track purporting to be an off-the-dome freestyle), which goes by the alternate title that I just made up, “Bullshitting”, since “Jive Talk” sounds like G Rap and his boys simply fucking around in the studio. To wit: after G Rap's verse, a long list of shout-outs is read into the microphone in a lower-quality audio range, which made me think this was the album's outro before I double-checked the packaging, and then our host steps back into the booth and delivers a second spontaneous “freestyle”, complete with weed carrier assistance, while still being recorded in the lower-quality audio. An interesting style choice, certainly, and since his bars were pretty hot, I'll give him a pass.

Since he is the co-star, it makes sense that DJ Polo (finally) gets a deejay cut all to himself. Doesn't mean you have to listen to it more than once, though.

This song is the only real connection between Road To The Riches and Wanted: Dead Or Alive, in that “Riker's Island” marks the lone appearance of producer Marley Marl behind the boards. Our host uses his four verses (surrounded by noise that only occasionally resembles music) to provide listeners a cautionary tale, a la Melle Mel on “White Lines (Don't Do It)” or “The Message”, about just how fucked up life in prison can be, without using any curses, which is admirable, but causes a strained disconnect between the subject matter and his overly calm and rational take on it. As a result, this album closer is rather forgettable today. However, there is a postscript: Noreaga (or Capone-N-Noreaga fame) included an homage to this song on his solo debut (he called it “Iraq Island”) that was also produced by Marley Marl and also featured G Rap in a supporting role, and I dare say that version is much better than this one. (Sue me.) Truth be told, I probably feet this way because I heard Noreaga's version first (remember, this is a Gut Reaction piece), but the production on “Iraq Island” sounds much darker than it did on here, and G Rap's reworked bars (he recycles his “C-74 / Adolescents at war / You put your ear to the floor” lines and adds the violent “You hear a n---a getting tore”) come off as much scarier during Victor's effort. Weird, that.

THE LAST WORD: Kool G Rap and DJ Polo's Wanted: Dead or Alive is ultimately a pretty good album that holds up well enough for today's newer audience. Although it isn't as successful as Road To The Riches, there are still enough great tracks that demand repeat listens, and G Rap's microphone skills are still a wonder to behold; all young, upstart rappers who insist on writing gangsta rap verses should be required to listen to Kool G Rap's early work for college credit. That being said, Wanted: Dead or Alive has its fair share of setbacks, at least one of which is very nearly fatal: when the instrumentals (handled by committee this time around) fail our host, no amount of gangsta posturing (and scratching from DJ Polo) can save them. This holds especially true for “Erase Racism”, an admirable bid for societal relevance that bombs because if Biz Markie's remarkably shitty beat. Wanted: Dead or Alive is still ultimately work your money and your time, but the project's failures are proof positive that Kool G Rap's career wasn't bulletproof.




  1. wait until you listen to live and let die

  2. nice review. I too also started listening to west coast shit (hint: more westcoast shit!,some spice 1 & celly cel i suppose) and although its not like road to riches (i felt the narratives were much better on that album) i feel the production on this album was mo betta too. however im gonna have to disagree with the whole godfather of gangsta rap as i feel eazy-e's a more appropiate recipient. Yes I know he barely wote any of his songs blah blah blah but thats the nigga right there. overall great review, g rap just like how how u said for yourself was also an artist for me that has slipped thru the cracks i started listening to alotta his shit last year. good stuff.

  3. Great album, all I can say. One of the Top 5 Mc's behind the mic and inspired producers team up to deliver a real classic album.

    By the way, if there is a godfather of gangster rap, that would be Schooly D...

  4. second the above comment. i started my g rap journey with live and let die and it damned near spoiled all his other albums for me. both in terms of content and mic skill, it makes wanted dead or alive sound like a fucking memphis bleak album.

  5. g raps best album but eric b produced none of this album except the title track (the credits are wrong). glad to see you being honest about being a gut reaction for once max.

  6. immortal technique please...

  7. djbosscrewwreckaSeptember 04, 2011

    Good review. I never made the link between Streets of New York and NY State of Mind.

  8. YES, you got round to it! I had total faith in ya, Max, though my child-like excitement, elation and barely-concealed surprise at this album being reviewed would indicate otherwise. G Rap in his prime here - and it shows.

    I agree on most of the points you made. "Play It Again, Polo" and (especially) "Kool Is Back" easily rank among the best of his works in my opinion, the latter probably being my personal favourite track of his, closely followed by "Men at Work", "Poison" and "Ill Street Blues". I thoroughly enjoyed this album for the most part ("Streets of New York", "Wanted: Dead or Alive" and "Talk Like Sex" are all extremely entertaining), but I also was confused regarding the utterly unnecessary sound quality shift halfway through "Jive Talk", an otherwise excellent track, and yes, "Erase Racism" sucked MAJOR testicles in just about every way. Finally, despite the fact that "Riker's Island" is apparently considered by some to be vintage G Rap, it did nothing for me.

    In short, this album is Kool G Rap absolutely murdering instrumentals of varying heat intensities, with only a few missteps (albeit large ones). Legend. Nice work, Max.

  9. Haven't listened fully yet, but Streets of New York is fucking dope! Thanks for this review:)


  10. Word to that! Live And Let Die it's probably the best.... storytelling at its finest!

  11. @ protoman

    And I am gonna remind you again, Lord Finesse yo!

  12. @rey
    how can eazy-e be the godfather if ice cube wrote his raps....

  13. I agree, Live and let die will blow you away.
    Excellent review.
    Plus what Gan said.

  14. Is anyone on this site going to review "Watch the Throne"? I've held off listening to it pending a review of it HHID.

  15. Watch The Throne? Really? I handled that one a while ago. Just click on either the Jay-Z or Kanye link on the right.

    Thanks for reading!

  16. I had a decreasing amount of interest in this site for a few months but I just decided to visit it and came through to witness this which made me get my faith in the site back.

    Excellent review on a classic. As much as I want to like "Erase Racism", I like it's message but it's a boring song. I must say giving up on the album because you couldn't stand the first five seconds of "Streets of New York" was just a plain idiotic move, though. Always hear at least 30 seconds of the actual song before giving up on it!

    And can we see some Geto Boys, Scarface, Masta Ace, Above the Law, Public Enemy and more UGK now? Oh and Beastie Boys too.

    P.S. If you have a problem with me, keep it to yourself and don't hijack the comment board with unfunny jokes. Thank you.

  17. Word, to me, a lot of G Rap's best work is actually his later solo albums... "4,5,6" got unfairly maligned at the time, but listening today, it's raw and complex as hell, amazing album.

    Also, it's dope to check out the book with G Rap's foreword and he gave a ton of insights as well inside it, book is "How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC" -