When EPMD divorced after their fourth album, there was the expected separation of assets. Erick Sermon took Reggie "Redman" Noble, and both of them blew the fuck up as the founding members of the newly formed Def Squad, while Parrish Smith gained custody of the duo Das EFX and the name "Hit Squad", which was once used to identify the entire collective that E Double and PMD called their extended family. However, the largest loss in the breakup is one that most people aren't even fully aware of, nor will they give all that much of a fuck, to be honest: thanks to EPMD's spat, the Brentwood, New York duo Knucklehedz never got to see their only album, Stricktly Savage, hit store shelves.
The Knucklehedz represented the Hit Squad for a four-year period starting in 1990 and ending in 1993, when their album was locked in a vault by Eastwest Records as a response to the controversy surrounding the shattering of people's worlds when EPMD broke the fuck up. Rappers Steve Austin and Tom J (who scored a name drop on "Hit Squad Heist" off of Business Never Personal) never actually appeared in a full capacity on any EPMD album, but they managed to capitalize off of that affiliation to sign a record deal for Stricktly Savage, twelve tracks crafted in the same mold as those of their mentors. The project featured production mostly from associate Charlie Marotta, but three of the songs were handled by Parrish Smith, and the Green Eyed Bandit threw two beats their way, all before the breakup resulted in nobody, not even the actual Knucklehedz, giving a damn about this project.
According to the Interweb, Stricktly Savage never saw a proper release in the United States (Google is your friend, you two), but it did find itself on German shelves for some reason. I'm not exactly sure why Eastwest would ship it to a single European country as though they hadn't heard of EPMD, but that's why I don't work at a record label. That, and nobody's asked me to yet. So consider today's post a poorly-plotted resume.
1. HED RUSH
This was a promising enough start. Charlie Marotta's instrumental sounds like vintage EPMD, and the Slick Rick-sampled vocals from Doug E. Fresh's "La Di Da Di" at the beginning were a nice touch. Steve Austin uses his verse to ultimately pass along some half-assed public service announcements to the kids who would have somehow found Stricktly Savage online (of the "don't drink and drive, buckle up, and always wear a rubber" variety), but he at least sounds comfortable doing so. Tom J comes across as awkward as shit over the beat, which may help explain why he resorted to curse words and homophobia while his partner did not. Still, this wasn't bad.
Marotta's production was dope as fuck: after listening to this shit, you'll wish that Redman or Keith Murray would swipe it for a mixtape track or some shit, it's that nice. It's also that much wasted on Steve Austin and Tom J. I have no issue with the endless braggadocio: this is a hip hop album, after all, and I adjusted accordingly before I settled in and pressed 'play'. But none of the shit being said feels earned when both halves of the Knucklehedz sound so goddamn uneasy over the musical backdrop. I also don't like the fact that this was clearly intended to be the album's title track (per the hook), and yet the guys still decided to call it only "Savages". But that's just a petty concern.
3. WUNTZ UPON A TIME
You expect egregious misspellings from rap artists: it's their form of rebellion against the norm. But shit like this song's title makes me believe that these guys are just really fucking stupid. Okay, now that I got that Spellcheck Police stuff out of my system, let me just say that this song only sounded barely decent. Marotta's instrumental sounded generic, but serviceable enough to carry the tale, all of which is a prelude to the next track. The track also contains a hilariously dated middle section, involving a page being received and a callback being made, that will make the younger readers wonder just what the fuck people used to do when they were forced to wait for someone to call them back. In this day and age of instant gratification, there's no way this would fly today.
4. PARTY WRECKA
Funnily enough, the party Steve Austin and Tom J wanted to get to so fucking badly ends up being lame as shit, a fact that these two refuse to let go of, as this entire track consists of them complaining about it instead of actively trying to change their fate. Parrish Smith steps behind the boards for the first time on Stricktly Savage, and the end result is darker than everything else on here thus far, but still pretty damn good (the Audio Two "Top Billin'" vocal sample woven into the hook was a nice touch). Our hosts use the beat to their full advantage, spitting few words but still managing to describe their situation in picture-perfect detail. Not bad, guys.
5. UGLEE PICTURES
They're talking about themselves, which should have given me more to work with, but here we are.
6. GIRLIES KEEP SCREAMIN'
It sounds as though producer Charlie Marotta unloaded all of the samples he had into this one instrumental, which makes it sound like a disjointed mess, one that Steve Austin and Tom J still manage to carve their verses into. The subject matter is simple enough: the Knucklehedz love girls and love fucking groupies. Understandable, I suppose. I'm not sure why this had to be one of the longest fucking tracks on the entire album, though: how many different ways can one brag about swooping in and stealing your girl? The choice to kick the track off with a slowed-down sample of The Bar-Kays's "Soul Finger" also creeped me the fuck out.
7. ALL SHE WANTED
8. TROUBLE MAKAS
I quite enjoyed Marotta's beat, but the song as a whole fell apart for me the moment I realized that neither of our hosts would ever be mistaken for actual troublemakers. Instead, Tom J and Steve Austin sound like dueling Parrish Smiths throughout the majority of the song (and the album as a whole), which can get old rather quickly, unless you're one of those fans who thought that the EPMD albums really needed an extra dash of PMD to elevate them to the next level. This instrumental deserved better collaborators. There, I said it.
9. 5 HOODS IN A 4 DOOR
PMD's instrumental on here bangs (he's two for two so far), a nice throwback to the violent side of Erick and Parrish Making Dollars. In fact, "5 Hoods In A 4 Door" (great title, by the way) sounds like an EPMD song that just so happened to be covered by the Knucklehedz. This track is built around a menacing, slow roll of a beat, and it's successful enough that it will trick you into believing that Steve Austin and Tom J are guys you should be afraid of, or at the very least, guys with careers you should continue to follow. This was actually pretty goddamn nice.
10. WHO CALLED DA COPS?
So of course the Knucklehedz squander any goodwill generated by the previous track with this shitty Erick Sermon production (he's having a terrible night: he also handled the audio abortion "All She Wanted"), which sounds like he simply ran out of ideas and, instead, dressed up one of his previous beats in a tight miniskirt and spaghetti straps. "Who Called Da Cops?" ends up being boring as shit, which doesn't help the narrative presented on here at all. Moving on...
11. JOY RIDIN'
Three songs in a row about rolling around in your automobile? The fuck? The production on here is top fucking notch (Parrish Smith scores the hat trick! Why didn't he just produce this fucking album himself?), which is the polar opposite of how it seems when our hosts attack the beat. Damn near anybody else could have taken this beat and released a hit record, but if they had, I wouldn't have anything to write about. Sigh.
The Knucklehedz cap the evening with a song about weed, albeit one that loses its focus relatively quickly. Marotta's final beat sounds alright, but it reeks of "throwaway", in that you wouldn't exactly want to hear anyone actually rhyming over it. For their part, Tom J and Steve Austin do the best they can with what they were given. Oh well.
SHOULD YOU TRACK IT DOWN? It depends. If you're a fan of mostly bland lyricism with only flecks of interesting taste, then Tom J and Steve Austin are your guys. After listening to Stricktly Savage, there's little wonder why these guys never really managed to make their mark in our chosen genre after getting dropped by their label like some ass on the dance floor: the Knucklehedz mainly secured their Hit Squad affiliation by merely being from the same area as Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith. However, in hip hop there's always the chance that a hot beat can salvage your words, and on multiple occasions Charlie Marotta and (especially) Parrish Smith accept the challenge, knocking their instrumentals out of the fucking park. (Erick Sermon? Not so much.) I kind of wish Stricktly Savage was an instrumental project, but that would be a foolish waste of a wish when I could be asking for more wishes instead. The truth of the matter is that Tom J and Steve Austin are perfectly serviceable rappers who are saved time and again by their choice in hot beats, so if that's enough for you to be entertained, then Stricktly Savage is a good time. Besides, "5 Hoods In A 4 Door" and "Savages" are actually really fucking good, so at least you know that you'll like at least two of these tracks.