Shoulda been major, Part 1
Some weeks/months ago (who can remember) I accidentally read a book when I was supposed to be grading exams or something. I'd stopped over at some friends' place to sit down with whatever I was supposed to be working on (had to be grading exams; nothing drives me to distraction like grading) and discovered the book, Lost in the Grooves, a nice little collection that unearths some overlooked musical gems from genuine and relative obscurity. I'd heard of many, had some, but was inspired to write down and check out some of those I hadn't heard before due to the frequency with which I'd say "Yeah, that shoulda been major!" upon seeing the next entry. How can you not love a book that champions Terence Trent D'Arby's Symphony or Damn, Mr. Natural by the Bee Gees, the Jackson's Triumph, Meeting in the Ladies Room from Klymaxx, Roky Erickson's The Evil One, Penicillin on Wax from Tim Dog, and The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus by Spirit?
Anyway, I soon discovered the book has a webpage and a blog, although the latter isn't updated too often it seems. I thought to myself "you know, there are a bunch of releases I think are underappreciated or forgotten, I should write about them on the CR, if only to increase the number of posts and amuse myself." So, here goes.
To commemorate the release of his long awaited new album, Smash Rockwell, the first entry in this new series is Casual's debut album from 1994, Fear Itself. Casual is another of the West Coast Hieroglyphics crew, but got decidedly less attention than fellows Del tha Funkee Homosapien (whose debut was produced by cousin Ice Cube) and Souls of Mischief (whose 93 'til Infinity got more attention but still easily qualifies as a buried classic).
Fear Itself has many of the hallmarks of early 90s "alternative rap", especially the Hiero west coast variety. Lots of horn samples and jazzy breaks with a little more emphasis on propulsive funk than some of the other stuff out there at the time. The contemporary mainstream in '94 was Cali g-funk; Snoop Doggy Dogg seemed to be everywhere along with coattail-riders and hangers-on like Warren G, the Dogg Pound, and Domino (oddly enough, one of the Hiero crew producers was called also called Domino) so every release from the Hieroglyphics was a breath of fresh air. Since these albums represented (to me) a continuation of the Native Tongues sound going on back east, it was heartening to see that the whole of California wasn't going to be wannabe Crips yelling "Compton" or "LBC."
Casual's first album was a bit harder hitting than some of the other Hiero releases and it still holds up really well. Stand out tracks include "You Flunked," "I Didn't Mean To," "A Little Something" (with a guest appearance by Del), "Lose in the End," and "We Got it Like That." Several of these songs appeared on mixtapes I made around that time, serving to remind me of this neglected release. One of the things I like about this stuff in retrospect was the lack of earnestness that makes so many "alternative" rap figures nowadays so hard to listen to. Hiero were more about dissing wack MCs and spreading a mellow, light-hearted mood than lecturing you about the irresponsibility of the mainstream. Not that I'm against political rap, but I'd prefer for "alternative rap" to offer a palatable alternative, something to recommend itself beyond its unimpeachable "responsibility."
I could stick a bunch of early-mid 90s releases in this series, but for now look out for the new Casual album. Speaking of the Native Tongues posse, Casual's new on-record persona apparently has some connection to Prince Paul's Handsome Boy Modeling School character Chest Rockwell. That alone should make it worth checking out.