A Rational Conversation: The 20-Year-Old Album That's MF DOOM's Missing Link
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
In May of 1994, KMD were supposed to release their second album, Black Bastards, on Elektra Records. Three years earlier the trio of lead rapper Zev Love X, his younger brother Subroc and Onyx the Birthstone Kid had put out their debut, Mr. Hood. The group was best known as affiliates of 3rd Bass and the album combined whimsical samples with Five Percenter knowledge. Mr. Hood had its fans, but the album didn't make as much of an impression as did other 1991 first full-lengths by New York peers like Black Sheep, Leaders of the New School or Main Source.
By the time Black Bastards was ready, the group had only one member left, Zev Love X. Onyx had quietly left the group before work on the follow-up began, and Subroc was hit by a car and killed in 1993 shortly before it was finished. But even before the death Subroc, who Zev was incredibly close to, Black Blastards was taking form as a much darker album than Mr. Hood. Not only had the group started experimenting with all kinds of intoxicants, their outlook had turned bleaker and violent. Musically, it was better. As the group left their teens and entered their twenties, both their lyrics and production became more complex and distinctive.
And then, just as Black Bastards was about to go on sale (review copies had been sent out and some press was completed, a video for the lead single "What a N---- Know" was filmed), Elektra decided to pull the album and drop the group. The most commonly cited spark for this decision was Terri Rossi's R&B Rhythms column in the Airplay Monitor, a newsletter from Billboard magazine, that attacked the album's cover: Zev Love X's drawing of the Little Sambo caricature hanging from a noose. Anti-Little Sambo imagery had long been featured in KMD artwork as part of their commentary against racial stereotypes, but, fittingly for an album that was grimmer, on the Black Bastards cover he was no longer depicted in a circle with a line through it — he was meeting his death. Rossi considered the cover an extremely racist image rather than an anti-racism one, and Elektra and its parent company WEA (the Warner Music Group) was trying to avoid potential problems following the massive controversy with Body Count's "Cop Killer."
No other label wanted to release Black Bastards, but bootlegs began to circulate in the proceeding years and three songs from it appeared on a vinyl EP released by indie label Fondle 'Em in 1998. In 2000, Black Bastards was reissued in full officially for the first time on the label Readyrock, then was put out a year later on Metal Face/Sub Verse. By that time Zev Love X had transformed into the cult figure/rapper MF Doom and cultivated his own following. For listeners whose understanding of Doom began with the youthful, often silly Mr. Hood, his 1999 solo debut, the far more sinister Operation: Doomsday, came as a surprise. Black Bastards is the missing link between the two.
In late October Brian Coleman released his book Check the Technique, Volume 2, which tells the stories behind the making of landmark hip-hop albums. Over the past 20 years, the story of Black Bastards has been publicly recounted by Dante Ross, KMD's A&R representative at Elektra and a fixture of New York City music, and by 3rd Bass member MC Serch. Coleman devotes over 20 pages to the making of Black Bastards, incorporating the perspectives of a wider range of the participants who made it happen. To discuss the impact and legacy of this strange artifact of hip-hop history, Ducker spoke with writer and fellow Black Bastards fan, Andrew Nosnitsky.
Do you remember the first time you heard Black Bastards?
I was pretty far behind the curve on that. I was still a baby [not literally] when it was supposed to come out. I probably first heard some of it via the 12-inches that came out on Fondle 'Em, which would've been 1998, but it had been floating around on bootlegs for years prior to that.
I first heard it when my brother bought it on tape in what I believe was 1997. I dubbed it from him. I just asked him about it and he said about 10 of them appeared at Amoeba in Berkeley one day and disappeared very quickly. He said the sound quality on that tape was much better than any of the other stuff that had been previously floating around that he had heard.
Yeah, even to this day I don't think anyone has unearthed the actual masters. All the reissues sound like they were mastered from a cassette bootleg anyway, though then again, maybe some of that is intentional.
You mean in terms of how KMD wanted the album to sound?
When you heard those Fondle 'Em singles, did you know KMD's first album, Mr. Hood?
I think so? My memory is a little foggy as far as timelines because we are getting into the hyper consumption Internet era. I definitely had the Doom 12-inches, which probably had lead me back to Mr. Hood by that point.
So Doom was your entry to them?
Yeah, I was getting into hip-hop right at the moment that hip-hop was kind of forgetting KMD. Or maybe not if you were able to get Black Bastards bootlegs in Berkeley in '97!
I'm sure the audience for something like that was small but rabid.
Right, and secrets could still move slowly back then.
I'm a few years older than you, and I was a big fan of Mr. Hood. As a MF Doom fan first, what did you make of the Black Bastards stuff when you first heard it?
Honestly, I wasn't instantly in love with it. It just kind of got filed on the Fondle 'Em shelf at first. I'm not sure why they cut it to an EP, the album is so well structured that everything works better in context. Even the name of the EP, Ruffs + Rares, makes it seem like such a minor thing.
When you started listening to Black Bastards, at first or when you really dug into it, did it make sense to you that the guy on there would go on to become MF Doom?
Probably. There's definitely more of an obvious connectivity between Doom and Black Bastards-era Zev than there is with Mr. Hood-era Zev. Man, it must've been great to hear all this music chronologically as it was happening.
Well, I think there's very few people who did, and they were probably either close to the group or helped make the album. When I heard the tape, the first MF Doom stuff was already out, so people my age or older were trying to reconcile how the bookish and playful young Muslim guy in KMD went on to become this demented street super villain character named MF Doom, but Black Bastards makes it a very clear progression.
Totally. It must've been shocking to hear him go from "Peach Fuzz" to a full on stick up kid on the first track. But in a way, that's what being a young person is — stepping in and out of identities until you find the right balance.
That's one of things the Check the Technique chapter really drove home for me, how young KMD were (especially Subroc) when they made their two albums. They were in videos with 3rd Bass and doing songs with Brand Nubian, so to the 13-year-old me, they are basically full-on adults, but in reality they would have only been a few grades ahead of me in school.
Yeah, that's always a weird moment for a hip-hop listener, when you realize the stars you were looking up to as a kid were actually just slightly older kids. But I think that has a lot to do with the potency of a record like this. Here are these kids who are thrust into adulthood at an even more rapid pace than someone in their late teens/early twenties and they have a document of that transition.
I actually found an old review of Black Bastards in Spin from when it was supposed to come out in 1994 and even the writer [and The Record contributor] Danyel Smith doesn't seem to grasp about how much of a departure and progression this album is, and she's very knowledgable,.
Yeah, I was just reading that. Danyel is a west coast writer though, and I do think [the review is] an interesting way to frame what was happening in east coast hip-hop at the time — like as west coast stuff got smoother, the east coast guys got pissed and made a bunch of angry lo-fi s--- (see also Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers). I'm not sure I agree with that theory. It's probably more likely that the industry saw the money drying up on these acts, which left them to their own devices and allowed them to tap into their more instinctive ruggedness.
What other albums from 1994 that actually did come out in 1994 do you feel like Black Bastards is akin to? Or do you think it stands out as a separate thing?
Musically it's pretty singular. I guess you could tie it into 36 Chambers in a way, though that was from the year before. Thematically I would actually put it next to Common's Resurrection in terms of bleak but also somehow playful coming of age stories — both being sophomore albums by artists who were basically complete goofballs on their first records and who are still basically goofballs but are suddenly carrying frustration on top of that. It's related to what I was saying before, of capturing this very specific moment of a maturing artist. I'd throw Organized Konfusion's Stress: The Extinction Agenda in the mix there, too.
Do you hear that idea mainly in the lyrics or in the production, or is it reflected equally in both?
Lyrics. Here's the thing: all these acts got objectively harder on these records. They were talking a lot more s---, but there was a clear-cut reason for that. For lack of a better word, they were becoming more conscious, too.
Right, they had a philosophy or values that shaped their outlook on the first album, but the second album is kind of about what happens and how they adjust when they've presented that outlook to the larger world.
Yeah, and when the larger world kind of comes crushing down on them, which is a very real experience for a young person. 1994 is an interesting time because you look at an album like Illmatic, which is so obviously constructed as a SERIOUS STATEMENT FROM A YOUNG PERSON, and in a way it's a lot less interesting. Young people don't make serious statements, not consistently. They're scattershot aggression and joy and chaos, and then sometimes great wisdom emerges out of that mess. That ties into another thing I love about Black Bastards: it's not especially self-conscious. They still had that Native Tongues thing going on where it felt like you were peering into someone else's universe. It's like the dark Native Tongues album
Yeah, I feel like the hidden in plain sight thing about most Native Tongues/Afrocentric albums of the early '90s that people don't talk about is how horny they are. But Black Bastards is more violent and confrontational. There's nothing fun about that album.
I wouldn't say that at all. There are still running gags.
Well, they are darker gags.
Exactly, but it's the same thing as with Mr. Hood and a lot of the Natives stuff, where it's such a specific voice that it could only come organically from a group of friends. You can just imagine them listening to that Kain record and hearing him say, "Like a constipated monkey," and having it be a running joke for a week in their circle. Or not even a joke, just a reference, like this is something that is being absorbed into the way they communicate with one another and then spit back on a record.
So, going back a little, the Common and Organized Konfusion albums you mentioned in a way saved or redirected their careers. Had Black Bastards come out, how do you think it would have been regarded and how would it have affected their career? (This hypothetical question is even harder because Subroc had already passed on.)
It would probably have been more of an Organized situation than a Common situation: well regarded by well-informed rap nerds, but more or less forgotten by everyone else. (And the only reason Common's Resurrection holds water today is because it had a big resonant single. Nobody is listening to "Orange Pineapple Juice" in 2014.). And I'm so hardwired to the KMD mythology that I can't even imagine what a third record from them would sound like. Looking at the Common and Organized timeline, I guess it would be an overlong and confused record with a couple amazing songs on it. There is this giant chasm between 1994 rap and 1997 or 1998 rap, and most people didn't make it over.
You mean there weren't many artists who were able to release albums in both of those time periods?
Right. Because Doom was pushed out early, it gave him space to regroup, whereas guys like Organized were stuck in a system that was changing dramatically. Expectations were a lot higher. Stakes was high!
Back then Doom didn't look like he was taking a loss going from a major to an indie (which wasn't a cool thing to do back then), because he could transform into a "new" artist.
Exactly, and he never had to make his sellout records. God, can you imagine Doom being forced to make jiggy music in 1997? Actually on second thought, that would be kind of tight. As much as I love Operation: Doomsday, I am sad that we never got to hear an Zev Love X and Puff Daddy collab, ala Mic Geronimo's "Nothing Move But the Money."
How much do you think the mystique and interest around Black Bastards exists because of the fact it never came out in 1994, the reason why it didn't come out and Subroc's death before it was finished?
That's a tough question because, like you said, so few of us had a chance to hear it divorced from that context. Even if we had gotten a bootleg early, it was a rare lost masterpiece. Empirically it's a very good record.
So you don't think that context adds extra gravity to it? I love it, but it's always tough to judge whether I love something purely or if it's because of my history with the artist, my age when I first heard it, what else I was into when I first heard it and so on.
I could see some early KMD fans being put off by the darkness without the benefit of context. Devout Muslims turn around and make a bunch of songs about robbing people and drinking wine, but that's the eerie thing about that record, the context affirms its existence. I don't usually believe in premonitions and things like that, but you can sense that they could sense that all was not right.
I can't remember if it was Dante Ross or MC Serch talking about it on a podcast, and it's alluded to in Check the Technique, but it sounds like KMD were using lots of hallucinogenics while making Black Bastards.
Yeah, I saw that. Makes sense.
What more do you want to know about the album?
I'm still processing a lot of the stuff that was revealed in that book. I didn't know they were close with Dr. York and recorded part of it at his studio. That adds another layer of darkness, in a way. Or the part about Doom playing the album front to back at Subroc's wake.
Sonically and perspective-wise, have you heard the influence of Black Bastards on releases from other artists?
Not very much. As far as rapping, it seems like later Doom is more influential. The one thing is the "What a N---- Know (remix)," which as far as I can tell, was the true birth of the Chipmunk soul thing that Kanye blew up at the turn of the century, even though everyone always gives it to RZA. That Gil Scott-Heron "I saw the thunder and heard the lightening" bit is the first example of a rap song specifically pitching up male soul vocals to sound female.
Do you think that was a conscious influence or just an inevitable development?
I have no idea. I wonder if RZA has listened to Black Bastards; I wonder if Kanye has listened to Black Bastards. That's the thing about this record, it's kind of cut off from the lineage. It's legacy is Doom's legacy, but I don't think it goes much further than that. Maybe I'm wrong though, butterfly effects and all.
Like a butterfly flaps its wings and causes an avalanche, or whatever.
I thought you meant there was something about the sound on the album you were likening to a butterfly or the sound a butterfly makes.
There might be. There's a lot happening sonically in the margins of that record.
When I asked you about the influence of Black Bastards on other artists, you mentioned that you think that later Doom's rapping is more influential. Who do you mean specifically?
I hear more of the sloppy, non-committal, multi-syllable flows in kids like Earl Sweatshirt than I do the more lively Zev Love X flow. Even when they were rapping about miserable things, KMD had a real upbeat energy to their rhyme style and that seems like it would be incongruous with basically everything out today apart from maybe Rae Sremmurd or some Young Thug songs. Everyone else raps sad or serious or angry now.
I've been trying to find out for years what happened to Onyx and was bummed there wasn't a definitive answer in Check the Technique. I once emailed Ta-Nehisi Coates about it after he wrote the Doom article for the New Yorker, but he didn't know.
I asked Doom about him when I interviewed him. He gave me a very vague answer: "He went back to doing whatever he was meant to do in his life."
Has Doom talked about the album much before this book?
He didn't talk much about the album in the book. The Doom quotes are like, Yes, that was a song about drinking wine, we were drinking a lot of wine.
It's weird because the legend of that album over the past 20 years has basically been totally told by Dante Ross with a little bit of Serch.
I can't imagine it's a period that [Doom] wants to relive. I read this 4080 interview from back then with him yesterday and he said, "I rarely get a chance to feel good." I wanted to cry.
Black Bastards was one of the first instances I'd ever heard of where rap artists who already had at least one album out and arguably had a following got an album shelved. The other one was Del's Future Development, which also found its way to the public around 1997. In recent years rappers get their albums shelved or indefinitely delayed all the time. Do you have a sense if that was happening to other rappers back then?
A lot of stuff from around that time got shelved. Off the top of my head there's Freddie Foxxx, Crustified Dibbs, the third Jungle Brothers album and probably a lot more that we still haven't even heard about. That might've been the first wave of labels realizing that rap music wasn't always a cash cow, and Elektra especially had a lot of rap artists who were pretty unmarketable (though talented). The KMD album probably got the most attention of these because the narrative had legs what with all the tragedy and the "Cop Killer" controversy.
One things that's always been interesting to me about the circumstances in which Black Bastards wasn't released in 1994 is that it happened because of music industry self-policing. The complaint mainly came from Terri Rossi, who had an R&B column in Billboard, a trade publication, and she left to become a VP of Marketing at BMG a few months after the column against Black Bastards came out. And Elektra decided to not put out the album and release KMD from their contract without any form of outsider outcry. A lot of people say that Elektra dropped them because they were still on edge from the "Cop Killer" situation and didn't want another controversy, but part of me feels like the whole thing was more commercially or financially motivated, like they just decided to cut their losses on a group that probably wasn't going to make them any money.
Yeah, I tend to agree. It was pretty telling that they didn't just do the obvious thing and ask them to change the artwork. If Elektra really thought they had a Snoop Doggy Dogg on their hands they would've happily released the album, nooses and all. They might've even asked him to add some more nooses to the cover.
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