Thanks to the ubiquitous Snoop Dogg, hip hop heads think of Long Beach, California as a hotbed for gangsta rap activity. And for the most part, they're all absolutely correct: I imagine the LBC is chock-full of generic copycats who are constantly trying to hit the same lottery numbers one Calvin Broadus did back in the early 1990s, the ones that helped him align himself with the hottest producer in the game, establish a mega-successful solo career, and carve out a niche in popular culture as the former gang member your grandmother is most likely to say looks like "a nice boy", this even after having heard his work on "Ain't No Fun (If The Homies Can't Have None)".
The trio Ugly Duckling were never going to alter the status quo in their hometown, but fuck it, at least they tried. Made up of rappers Andy Cat and Dizzy Dustin, along with their deejay-slash-producer Young Einstein (was a Yahoo Serious movie really the only source you could cull from for a rap name, dude?), Ugly Duckling set out consciously defying the Long Beach stereotype, even though all three members grew up in roughly the same parts of the city as every other celebrity that ever hailed from the area. Aside from Snoop, this list includes such big names as Warren G., professional Apollo Creed impersonator Carl Weathers (also known for his work in Predator, but will always be seen in my household as Tobias Funke's acting coach), and gangsta rap legend Bob motherfucking Denver. Gilligan, son! You can't get no realer than that.
Anyway, Ugly Duckling is notable for recording music that sounds absofuckinglutely nothing like that of their immediate peers: instead of waxing melodically about backyard barbecues, bitches, brews, and bullets, Andy and Dizzy choose to tackle everyday life in a positive, playful, throwback manner, almost like a West Coast version of the Native Tongues who occasionally discusses The Rapture with a straight face. That's right, these guys wear their love of the Lord right there on their sleeve for you to see, but in no way do these guys rub it in your face, at least not on their debut EP Fresh Mode: they take a matter-of-fact approach that could be considered by some to be refreshing.
1. FRESH MODE
The first song on the EP sets up a listening experience akin to hearing the debut album from De La Soul for the first time, although it probably doesn't help that Andy's flow reminds me of both Posdnuos and Dave smushed together. The vibe is playful, and both Dizzy and Andy seem to actually be enjoying what they're doing, passing the mic back and forth a la the Jurassic 5. Young Einstein's instrumental isn't as whimsical as anything Prince Paul could do while drunkenly passed out, so there goes the De La comparisons, but it's simple enough to get heads bobbing, which is just what this introductory track needed. It isn't hyper-complex, but it is enjoyable and entertaining.
2. NOW WHO'S LAUGHIN'
I would have been much more interested in hearing these guys tackle the way the instrumental sounds at first, but, unfortunately for me, Young Einstein switches the shit into a more generic setup for Andy and Dustin to tackle safely. Which they do, with ease, possibly causing “Now Who's Laughin'” to contain the first bullshit chorus of Fresh Mode. I don't blame them for going for it, though: had it worked out, they would have looked like fucking geniuses. Anyway, all of this is a very long-winded way of explaining that I didn't care for this track.
3. GET ON THIS
This song may be the point when a lot of you two will shut the entire album off in favor of, I don't know, Apathy's Honkey Kong or something. (I'm apparently really pushing that album this month, aren't I?) Why, you ask? Because “Get On This” is the first track on Fresh Mode that gives some insight into the religious beliefs of our hosts. While that isn't very fair (a lot of rappers divulge their religious beliefs at any given opportunity, this isn't anything special), it is what it is. So why should Ugly Ducking act any differently than their heroes? Mainly because this track isn't all that great. It isn't bad by any means: in fact, Young Einstein's beat is dope as shit, if a bit familiar. But Andy and Dizzy's bars verge on the edge of bland. They do go out of their way to describe a fight they had apparently just gotten over right before recording the track, though: you'll never hear anyone in the Wu do that.
4. EINSTEIN'S TAKIN' OFF
Part deejay cut, part tribute song, all pretty good-natured and relatively sweet. (Shit. I think I'm getting soft in my old age. I need to find something to hate, and now. Oh, Rick Perry and his Ken doll hairdo are on my television? Yes! Fucking hate that guy!) Andy and Dizzy devote their bars solely to their friend and deejay-slash-producer, who then makes the most of the extra time allotted to show off his skills. There aren't enough songs like this in hip hop today. Although I do wish that Young Einstein felt confident enough to let the beat that kicked the track off ride, since it sounded much better than what we ended up with. Second time he's done that tonight.
5. EVERYBODY C'MON
Einstein sticks with the same instrumental all throughout the track this time around, and the result is a winner. Coincidence? Probably, but it helps that said instrumental is simple and effective as all hell. Andy and Dizzy sound fully in their wheelhouse on here, going all Native Tongues-lite on a track that still works well today. Thanks to the fact that the most obvious spot for a curse word on “Everybody C'mon” is censored, I just now realized that there hasn't been a single explicit lyric on Fresh Mode thus far, so I guess this shit is safe to listen to in your car while your kid occupies the backseat representing the 99%.
6. DO YOU KNOW WHAT I'M SAYIN'
Odds are pretty good that you will know a lot of what these two are saying on here, as the overall idea is that every bar is taken from a different song performed by some of Ugly Duckling's favorite rappers. As a concept, it's cute. In execution, it's a little bit awkward, mainly because drawing inspiration from so many different sources makes it much more difficult to fashion a coherent narrative, and these two just don't quite have it in them yet. Still, not the worst idea in the world.
7. EVERYTHING'S ALRIGHT
Okay, here's where things get a little bit weird. After a brief skit that ends with a sound effect that recalls memories of the intro to Dr. Dooom's First Come First Served, a somber Young Einstein instrumental kicks in, and Dizzy and Andy use it to explain to the listener that there is no need to be afraid of death, because everybody dies eventually. Still with me so far? Okay then, you also get to head Andy purposely misquote a classic Nas line...and then talk passionately about The Rapture. He doesn't go so far as to predict a date for the end of days, but he welcomes his arrival into Heaven all the same. If you're still reading this, it's important for you to know that this song had potential, regardless of what was actually said, but the playful banter between our two leads doesn't translate well to a track of this nature, Rapture be damned.
8. WE'RE HERE
In an attempt to be clever, Ugly Duckling use a title that would have made more sense at the beginning of Fresh Mode and tack it on to the closing song. This was probably for the best, because had this actually been the first song on the EP, you would have tuned out a long fucking time ago. Which means you would have missed out on the quick homage to Eric B. and Rakim at the end of the track, but it's no big loss. And... scene.
FINAL THOUGHTS: When Ugly Duckling's Fresh Mode first came out, I thought of these guys as an interesting alternative to ever other rapper coming from the West Coast, so I gave the EP a few spins and then put it in one of my crates, never to be heard again, until now. Today, however, I now understand why I stopped listening to the project: it's only barely decent. Andy and Dizzy both sound like they had a lot of potential back in 1999, and they clearly love hip hop, but their rhymes back then were so rudimentary that Fresh Mode sounds like a throwback to an era that never existed in the first place. Lyrical wizards these guys are not. My much nicer critique is reserved for their deejay-slash-producer Young Einstein, who proves on Fresh Mode that he had the chops behind the boards, if not the full-on confidence needed to allow experiments to run their natural course. Ugly Duckling show signs of promise on their debut EP, but it's also completely understandable why many of you two may not give a damn: this project is alright, but it's not real.
BUY OR BURN? Burn this if you must. It's only eight tracks long and isn't much of a commitment to listen to, but most of Fresh Mode sounds dated in the worst possible way.
BEST TRACKS: “Everybody C'mon”; “Fresh Mode”