Graded on a Curve: The Beatnuts, Street Level

No collection of prime ‘90s hip-hop is complete without representation from The Beatnuts, who in their early three-man phase helped provide lyrical individuality and musical depth to what is very likely the genre’s finest top to bottom decade; ten years’ worth of worthy commercial successes, a thriving underground, and the upstart beginnings of the music’s experimental side, all giving notice to any lingering doubters that the form was here to stay. If outstanding hip-hop records were hitting the bins hot and heavy in those days, then The Beatnuts: Street Level has endured as one of the finest full-length rap debuts of the era.

By the middle of hip-hop’s second decade, the safety of the genre’s future as an art form was clear as a blue sky on a crisp and cloudless Fall day. Serious strides were being made with such nonchalant frequency that a recurrent topic of discussion flowered amongst listeners favorable to the scene, a discourse that concerned the idea of a ‘90s rap renaissance.

Folks who said no were generally under severe sway to the idea of “old school” supremacy, the hypothesis that those artful scientists who’d instigated the surely essential, early advances that helped shape the style were indeed the standard yet to be eclipsed. Those who said yes to the suggestion that hip-hop was climbing upward on an unprecedented creative arc weren’t necessarily opposed to the belief of ‘80s rap as the wellspring from which every worthy MC and DJ took a big dip. They just couldn’t shake the impression that the music was growing at an insanely rapid rate and branching out into all kinds of unexpected stylistic areas.

Maybe it’s just because I experienced it firsthand, but in retrospect I feel the ‘90s are to hip-hop what the ‘60s are to rock ‘n’ roll. Specifically, a period of rapid fire breakthroughs that everybody and their uncle now acknowledge as significant points of progression, though at the time it wasn’t so cut and dried. Those close to the music knew something special was happening as it occurred, however. Like the generation of ‘60s rock nuts who lived and breathed the music exclusively, the ‘90s brought a bunch of devoted young fans that listened to nothing but hip-hop. If that sounds narrow minded, let me please urge you to reconsider.

In the 1950s there bloomed a listenership that was concerned exclusively with modern jazz. Some were hipsters, some were businessmen. Some got off on the laid-back coolness of the West Coast, while others were juiced by the grit and fire of the East side of the States (sound familiar?). Many found themselves stoked by the funky atmosphere of hard-bop, but quite a few gravitated to the music’s more cerebral side. These record buyers and club-goers didn’t care about Dean Martin or Elvis Presley or Johnny Mathis or The Silhouettes, they were smitten by Miles and Monk and Mingus and Mulligan, forming an extremely devoted consumer base.

Great musical eras get that way not through dabblers that buy a few records to diversify their collections but via the hardcore fans that know the music inside and out; ‘90s hip-hop was no exception. And if rap spent much of the ‘80s proving it was just as valid a form as rock or mainstream pop, then in the ‘90s it shouldered a fair amount of comparisons to the jazz of the paragraph above. Think Guru’s Jazzmatazz just for starters. And while that record always went down well to my ear, it also often inspired me to think that the hip-hop of that moment really didn’t need any overt grasping onto the coattails of jazz for artistic cred; it was simply Great Black Music in its own right.

The Beatnuts were surely part of that hip-hop/jazz connection, but they were also considerably less explicit in relating the link, and that always sat well with me. Sure, they sampled the hell out of some cratedigger cornerstones of the jazz variety (names like Donald Byrd, Woody Shaw, and Cannonball Adderley, for starters). And yeah, Street Level’s LP design is loosely based upon tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley’s killer ’65 Blue Note joint The Turnaround! But grabbing fat acoustic bass sounds or horn lines from jazz discs had been a fairly common DJ practice since Stetsasonic’s “Talkin’ All that Jazz” pointed the way forward. And the Mobley-inspired motif was loose enough that most people didn’t immediately notice it. At least I didn’t.

Street Level is best categorized as an outstanding example of the smart hardcore rap that wafted out of the underground scene of the time like so much blunt smoke. No individual songs feel privileged above others, its run-time lacking in any overt pop gestures, being primarily concerned with flow and the execution of a powerful atmosphere.

And across the record The Beatnuts’ vibe doesn’t come off as angry, though they are moody and occasionally threatening. And if three recurring themes on Street Level are drinking, smoking, and getting it on, the record doesn’t really register as all that celebratory; they imbibe and indulge not for the sake of the party, but for survival in an oft cruel world.

JuJu, Psycho Les, and Kool Fashion first made a name for themselves in association with the Native Tongues movement, an alliance that while peripheral, still helped establish them as a forward thinking element in the music’s development. Forward thinking surely, but still quite different from the positive vibe fostered by A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Jungle Brothers.

A big part of this is related to their Latino ancestry. But another strong element is tied up with subject matter; while by no means fixated on the allure of guns and ammo, this aspect is openly if playfully expressed at times on Street Level. But anyone cognizant of the group’s ’93’s Intoxicated Demons EP already knew they had this up their sleeves, as one of that superb extended play’s highpoints came through the shouted refrain of the sweet single “Reign of the Tec:” “When I pop the trunk, hit the deck!” followed by the comic punctuation “John Wayne couldn’t even stand the reign of the tec!”

And The Beatnuts also held no inhibition over sampling porno-flick smut-talk and throwing down a potty-mouthed sex jam. If possessive of a self-gratifying immaturity, Street Level is unmistakably an edgy, tough-minded record for adults. But much of its appeal comes not from the angle of its rhymes but the erudition of it musical ambiance.

If flow is one of the record’s best attributes, this doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of moments worth singling out. I especially like “Are You Ready,” which features a guest spot from Brand Nubian’s Grand Puba and the gargantuan bass line nabbed and looped from the opening of Bill Doggett’s deliriously funky ’69 re-recording of his instrumental chestnut “Honky Tonk.” And I downright love how they included the assertive tambourine shaking from that version; it sounds like the wildly shivering tail of a pissed-off robotic rattlesnake.

Also splendid is the hint of noirish (or if you prefer, Steely Dan-ish) electric piano that deepens “Straight Jacket,” a track holding one of the best beats on an album loaded with them. Plus, the femme vocals courtesy of Miss Jones on “Rik’s Joint” provide extra dimension to a record of already admirable scope.

Additionally, “Fried Chicken” has always reminded me a little bit of an East Coast Cypress Hill (at least musically; these guys are smoother rappers than B-Real and Sen Dog), “Props Over Here” and “Yeah You Get Props” lend each side of the disc huge opportunities for boisterous shouting along, and the scratching provided by DJ Sinister on “Are You Ready” and the fantastic “Superbad” is one of Street Level’s true highlights, particularly now that scratching seems in danger of becoming something of a lost art.

Just a little over a year elapsed between the appearance of Intoxicated Demons and Street Level, and yet only one track (“Psycho Dwarf”) appears on both. That’s impressive, for this LP is seventeen tracks deep. And after its release, The Beatnuts seemed poised to really take over some things; if no crossover hits singles were to be found, the album sold rather well, not only charting but spreading out into the suburbs where I first heard their stuff.

But then Kool Fashion became a committed Muslim, leaving the group for a solo career under the name Al’ Tariq. The Beatnuts didn’t release another disc until ‘97’s Stone Crazy (with five more full lengths to follow), and by that time I’d simply lost track of them. That’s an oversight I hope to soon correct. But anyone interested in getting up to speed on the aural wealth offered by ‘90s hip-hop should hear the first two releases from Queens, NY’s The Beatnuts. And the opportunity to hear Street Level on vinyl will come easier than you might expect.

For last year Traffic Entertainment Group partners with Sony to bring out a 2LP version of the record that’s still available. If it can’t be found in or ordered from a local shop in your neck of the woods, then let me recommend hooking up with the website of the Get On Down label, the folks behind the recent (and sold out in a flash) limited cassette-only reissue of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx aka The Purple Tape.

Their online store features hip-hop, reggae, funk, R&B, and yes, the double album reissue of The Beatnuts’ ’94 classic. And this four-sided version holds an extra cut, so if you’re any kind of old-school completist not already holding a copy of this most recent edition, then one aspect of your future has just been foretold.


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  • benfortney

    When I want it to feel like 1997 again, my 3 sonic essentials are CNN’s ‘War Report’, De La’s ‘Stakes is High’ and the ‘Nuts ‘Stone Crazy’.  Aside from Off the Books, they never really got airplay (even in NY) but anyone who was paying attention back then gives props to Beatnuts.


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