You see it in every family. There's always that one person who demands attention but doesn't receive it regularly, constantly overshadowed by the exploits and excitement surrounding various other relatives, but rather than play it low-key and wait for a window of opportunity to arise, they choose to take the bull by the horns and make a bold, dramatic move outside of the family unit, oftentimes while talking shit about their loved ones. Eventually, they will end up crawling back to their family, who are nice enough to take them back in without fuss, and things quickly appear to go back to normal, as though nothing ever happened, although now everyone else has some ammunition to pull out when a certain someone decides to act out again.
That's pretty much what happened between U-God and the Wu-Tang Clan in 2004.
Convinced that he was being swindled out of money by group leader The RZA, not merely realizing that he was being compensated in relation to just how much of an impact he had on our chosen genre in general, Lamont "U-God" Hawkins briefly left the Clan in 2004 to embark on a solo career. A lot of rap fans had no idea this happened until they read that last sentence, which shows just how effective U-God's flair for the dramatic can be.
You may be asking yourself, "Solo career? But the Wu-Tang Clan is a group made up of nine solo artists! What the fuck are you talking about, Max?" Well, that was a rude way to ask the question, but I'll tell you: the solo albums of Golden Arms were still extensions of the group aesthetic, while what U-God apparently really wanted to do was direct. By which I mean he wanted to put together his own crew and, hopefully, make money off of them instead, because those royalty checks from Loud Records and Wu-Tang Records weren't enough to pay the light bill, maybe?
With the support of his longtime weed carrier Leathafase, who played a large role on his debut, Golden Arms Redemption, U-God branched out and formed a collective called the Hillside Scramblers. Off of the strength of his group affiliation, U-God secured an album deal with indie label Synergy Music, who must not have known about the rift and legitimately thought they were getting a great deal by signing this nationally-known artist and all of his no-name friends or something, I don't know. This resulted in the subject of today's post, UGodz-Illa Presents The Hillside Scramblers; I assume our host was forced to change his moniker for the album because the name "U-God" was lost in a poker game the night before the marketing meeting.
The Hillside Scramblers are made up of Leathafase (who makes multiple appearances, just as he did on Golden Arms Redemption, and also produces a lot of this project) and a bunch of people you've never heard of before and you'll never hear from again, and also sometime-Wu-affiliate-when-convenient King Just, whose rap career out of Staten Island runs concurrently with the Wu-Tang Clan proper, so what the hell was he doing here aside from cashing a check? The project was quickly deemed a failure, though, since, well, nobody gives a fuck about a bunch of people standing next to a member of the Wu-Tang Clan who aren't in the Wu-Tang Clan, and U-God contributes so many verses anyway that it may as well have been another solo effort: it sounds just a tiny bit better than his actual sophomore album, Mr. Xcitement, anyway.
After its release, Synergy Music folded onto itself and disappeared into the ether, probably, and U-God immediately ran back into the Wu fold, just in time to start the recoding sessions for their fourth group album Iron Flag.
Isn't it cute how U-God and company pretend that they could ever draw a huge crowd, like they do on this intro? At least these guys aren't lacking for confidence. Especially with the passive-aggressive Wu-Tang Clan dis Baby Uey drops. You'll want to pinch this album's chubby cheeks, this intro's so adorable. Yes it is! Oh yes it is!
2. PAIN INSIDE (U-GOD, BLACK ICE, & LEATHAFASE)
To his credit, the first track on UGodz-Illa Presents The Hillside Scramblers actually sounds like it would have fit perfectly onto Golden Arms Redemption. However, that isn't really saying all that much. Six Mill's beat is so blatantly aping the California sound that it seems so jaw-droppingly wrong when U-God shouts “East Coast!" during the intro, as though the listener wouldn't notice that he was so clearly in denial when he recorded this shit. Lucky Hands even breaks out his “singing” voice during the hook, and even his vocals seem to have quotation marks surrounding them: that's how invested he sounds in this track. Rhyme-wise, U-God, Black Ice (who later parlayed this experience into a cameo on Method Man's Tical 0: The Prequel, which isn't an endorsement, but hey, at least he kept working), and Leathafase all sound like rappers, but not especially memorable rappers. “Pain Inside” evaporated from my memory before I was even a quarter of a way in, though, so I obviously wasn't the target audience.
3. LEAN LIKE ME (U-GOD)
Leathafase's synth-heavy instrumental scores this U-God solo effort, where, for what it's worth, he could have sounded much worse. At least he sort-of cops to the fact that the Wu-Tang Clan helped to hone his skills behind the microphone: “Lean Like Me” isn't any worse that some of the Wu b-team songs out there, and it lands better than anything on that fucking atrocious aforementioned Method Man solo effort, Tical 0: The Prequel. He seems assured throughout: although it sounds like he really could have used a helping weed carrier hand, at least U-God proves to be the leader of this short-lived crew. Doesn't mean you should go out of your way to hear this shit, though.
4. DESTINY (INF-BLACK & LEATHAFASE)
The audio equivalent of a direct-to-DVD movie, one that hits all of the bullet points (serviceable lyrics that rationalize moderate amounts of violent behavior; an instrumental that sounds like music of some sort), but still doesn't get into something resembling entertainment. Perennial weed carriers Inf-Black and Leathafase at least seem game enough, and it isn't as though they're not trying, but these guys clearly haven't unlocked that part of the brain that could help them run through this generic rap song subject matter with any sort of new insight or original perspective that could help this stand out in a crowded field.
5. STICK UP (INF-BLACK)
Inf-Black sticks around and gives the audience a solo song, and it actually isn't that bad. Leathafase's beat is a pounding toddler-sized monster beating up your speakers, but it still works, and Inf-Black sounds far more invested in proving himself on here than on “Destiny”. He couldn't carry an album on his own or anything, but he could shine on contributions to loosely-connected compilations such as this one. At least, he could have, had he decided to stick with the whole “rapping” thing as a career choice. (I don't want to hear from any Wu stans who follow the careers of the z-teamers: I realize Inf-Black has put in more work, but not anyplace where it mattered. It is what it is.) But the man has the one decent song under his belt: what have you done with your life? Besides not track this one down because of its vague pseudo-connection to the Wu, obviously.
6. TELL ME (DESERT EAGLE, INF-BLACK, & LEATHAFASE)
Albums created to allegedly introduce a collective tend to be heavy on collaborations and posse cuts: UGodz-Illa Presents The Hillside Scramblers, clearly, is no different. And my God, are these guys trying their best to elevate their respective statuses in the game: they sound so earnest that you'll want to buy whatever it is they're selling. But these guys certainly won't be the folks who subvert the entire concept of a “posse cut”: they just don't have it in them. Leathafase's instrumental isn't bad, and these guys all sound active over it, but don't go into “Tell Me” expecting greatness. I did find it entertaining, though.
7. CHIPPIN & CHOP IT (U-GOD, INF-BLACK, & KAWZ)
U-God returns to rhyme alongside his goons on the oddly-paced “Chippin & Chop It”, which runs at a much faster clip than either he or his minions tend to work with. The beat isn't bad: while it's hardly a good fit for anyone involved, it will at least help keep the listener awake. That, and the fact that U-God's hook is sort-of derived from Devo's “Whip It”. No, seriously. And I don't know who Inf-Black blew to score such a high profile on UGodz-Illa Presents The Hillside Scramblers, but he pops up on this shit as well. Maybe his rap career never took off after the release of this album because he used up all of his rhymes on here?
8. BOOTY DROP (LEATHAFASE)
Like many Wu stans, I've considered U-God's right-hand seat filler Leathafase to be one of the better affiliates of the crew. (At least I did when they were still on speaking terms, anyway.) However, like many Wu-stans, I had forgotten that Leathafase actually has a song called “Booty Drop” in his back catalog. And it sounds just as motherfucking goddamn shitballs awful as you would imagine a Wu benchwarmer club joint to sound. I'm as much a fan of the female ass as the next guy, but there are only so many ways you can address that particular topic on record, and Leathafase doesn't break any new ground. Homocide's faux-Rockwilder instrumental won't win anyone over, either: hell, I'm not even sure it could convince anyone to perform the titular action.
9. SPIT GAME (U-GOD, AUTUMN RUE, INF-BLACK, & LEATHAFASE)
This track sucks. I won't even waste any more of my time writing this sen
10. GHETTO GUTTER (U-GOD & AUTUMN RUE)
U-God essentially goes it alone (guest feature Autumn Rue only croons on the hook) in an effort to drum up excitement for his second solo album, Mr. Xcitement. Remember that chunk of utter horseshit? You don't? That's probably for the best. Leathafase's instrumental meanders at a much slower speed than it really should, forcing Lamont to adjust accordingly while delivering his slice-of-life street talk, resulting in what isn't exactly a bad song, but it is definitely one you won't feel back about missing out on. Because none of you two will ever hear it, of course.
11. DRAMA (U-GOD, INF-BLACK, KAWZ, & LEATHAFASE)
If a posse cut is performed in the woods and nobody's around, does it make a sound? Does the posse cut even exist? Does it even matter? No.
12. TAKE IT TO THE TOP (U-GOD, DESERT EAGLE, INF-BLACK, & KING JUST)
Another posse cut? At least you can say that the Hillside Scramblers are original. “Take It To The Top” is moderately interesting for longtime Wu-stans because of the presence of Shaolin rhyme slinger King Just, whose satellite Wu-Tang connection may only be due to proximity, as his solo career hasn't followed any specific Wu-Tang trajectory (his debut, Mystic Of The Gods, was released in 1995 and features no Wu affiliates, although at least one track is produced by something called 'MZA”, which, seriously, the fuck?). But that's a trivial reason to care about this song, which actually wasn't all that bad: the instrumental runs a tight-enough ship and keeps all of the rappers in line, so there are worse tracks U-God has been associated with.
13. KJ RHYME (KING JUST)
As a form of gratitude for appearing on the previous track, U-God blesses King Just with his own solo song, which, even though it contains a simple and kind-of crappy hook, deserved to appear on a better project. Just rhymes his ass off in his gruff, authoritative manner, one that sadly did not translate into career longevity, but still works in short spurts such as this track. U-God much have noticed this, too, as King Just fails to make any more appearances on UGodz-Illa Presents The Hillside Scramblers: perhaps our host didn't want to be shown up on his own shit. “KJ Rhyme” is decent enough for non-Wu fans to check out, which is high praise indeed.
14. GANG OF GANGSTAS (U-GOD, BLACK ICE, DESERT EAGLE, FRANK BANGER, INF-BLACK, & JA-MAL)
That title is just stupid enough to discount the entire fucking song. True fact.
15. PUT IT ON ME (U-GOD & AUTUMN RUE)
Because if there's anything a chick wants to hear, it's U-God threatening to sex her up good. There really are no words, so I'll cut this paragraph short by stating that guest crooner Autumn Rue at least has more lines on here than she did on “Ghetto Gutter”.
16. STRUGGLE AIN'T GOT NO COLOR (U-GOD)
Baby Uey's attempt at social commentary of sorts, which, while admirable, stops making sense the moment our host transposes two of the words in the track's title during the hook, reciting “Color ain't got no struggle” as a counterpoint, somehow, to the titular phrase, never once realizing that the statement doesn't even make any goddamn sense. “Struggle Ain't Got No Color” also has the adverse effect of exposing U-God as the not-so-hot lyricist he was at the time (and still is, kind of, although he's gotten better with practice): his examples of the struggle elicit no response from the listener and, in fact, sound cheesy, a reaction that, say, Ghostface Killah would not have received for the exact same subject matter. Sigh.
17. HERE WE COME (U-GOD, INF-BLACK, & LEATHAFASE)
U-God tends to work better as a cog in the machine: his personality shined through on his verses, but when he isn't forced to carry a song, his performance automatically sounds refreshed and more concise. His work on “Here We Come”, an otherwise paint-by-numbers posse cut with his Hillside Scramblers (which sounds like a breakfast special at Denny's), is no exception: he's easily the best rapper on here. Which isn't saying anything: those of you two who are still listening along (because someone has to be doing that, right?) will question my sanity more than whether U-God sounds merely just okay on any particular song.
18. PRAYER (U-GOD & AUTUMN RUE)
U-God and his vocalist-on-retainer Autumn Rue end UGodz-Illa Presents The Hillside Scramblers with “Prayer”, our host's attempt to reconcile his spiritual side with his trash-talking thug persona. The hook is terrible, but as it is lifted directly from the nursery rhyme “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep”, it was at least in the public domain, which had to have saved our host some dough. But at this point, nobody gives a shit: if UGodz-Illa Presents The Hillside Scramblers was supposed to be a showcase for a crew, why is it ending with a U-God solo effort? I'm fucking done.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Any motherfucker can form a group, but it takes actual talent and vision to lead that group. Q-Tip had vision, The RZA obviously had vision; hell, even though I don't really care for it, even Tyler, The Creator has vision. U-God simply does not. Now I'm not saying the man is without talent: he is a part of my favorite rap crew of all time, and his last two albums actually were pretty decent solo efforts. But that's the thing: U-God works when he is a cog in the machine or when he is serving his own self-interests, but he doesn't have what it takes to lead, and that's not a bad thing: not everyone has that spark. The Hillside Scramblers tanked pretty quickly because nobody stepped to the plate to point them in the right direction: you can't just "form a group" and expect that to take you where you need to go. Nobody in the crew has any identifiable characteristics, either, save for the three folks you already knew walking into this review (Lucky Hands, Leathafase, and maybe King Just if you're old), so this album is akin to listening to one overlong posse cut without much in the way of variation, except the host feels the need to jump in as many times as he wants: how in the shit is this supposed to introduce a group when U-God has the biggest presence on here? In short, this album was a failure, and deservedly so, but there was one good byproduct of its poor sales, and it is called Iron Flag, which is a much better Wu-Tang Clan album than many of you two give it credit for.
BUY OR BURN? You don't honestly believe that anyone really needs to purchase this album, right?
BEST TRACKS: "KJ Rhyme"; "Stick Up"; "Tell Me"