Graded on a Curve:
3rd Bass,
The Cactus Album

Released a quarter century ago by the Def Jam label, Brooklyn trio 3rd Bass’ The Cactus Album stands as a hip-hop classic. Due to this stature one might assume the full story behind its creation has long resided in the historical record, but that’s not the case. To get the complete scoop on this and assorted other hip-hop achievements one needs seek out the books of Brian Coleman. Aptly subtitled “more liner notes for hip-hop junkies,” Check the Technique Vol. 2 is freshly available from Wax Facts Press.

Anybody having spent hours inspecting the treasures in a jazz-centric record shop knows LPs in the multifaceted style regularly came adorned with notes (Hentoff! Williams! Jones!) on the back of the sleeve. And folks devoting time, energy and dollars to keeping up with deluxe reissues and box sets in multiple genres understand that extensive annotation of and commentary upon background specifics was/is an expected component in the retail price.

As a relatively young art form, hip-hop has suffered from experiencing its burgeoning stylistic era(s) in a business setting that wrongly assumed buyers of contemporary music (as opposed to those dropping cash on older material) cared about little more than the sounds, the labels mostly throwing context and packaging to the wayside.

This was an easy assumption to arrive at if one’s only concern was making money. But those spending it were reliably left at mysterious loose ends. Producer credits, thank you lists, and cleared samples were a start, and interviews and articles in Spin, Vibe and The Source brought a modicum of enlightenment, but the deep investigation, which often simply entails sincere interest and respect for the subject, becoming comfortable with the artists and then asking the right questions, was lacking for years.

Boston-based writer and music lover Brian Coleman has played a huge role in overturning this neglect, first with Rakim Told Me and its eventual expansion into Check the Technique, and now via its follow-up, a volume elevated by quality and quantity to the best of the bunch. Coleman’s series offers crucial contextualizing on his topics, and most importantly lets the principals relate the tale in their own words; part oral history, part diligent journalism, and part judicious selection.

To elaborate, he’s thoughtfully inclusionary, Check the Technique Vol. 2 running the gamut from retail smashes like DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper and Naughty By Nature to underground cornerstones such as Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst and Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus.

Along the way there’s ‘90s mainstays (Nice & Smooth’s Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed, Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East), lost records (KMD’s Black Bastards), and bedrock stuff (Wild Style Breakbeats, Mantronix’s The Album). There’s also no shortage of discs from the ‘80s-‘90s crossroads that found pure hip-hop making serious moves into the mainstream; a major LP in this scenario was the debut by 3rd Bass, covered by Coleman in Vol. 2’s first chapter.

Consisting of MC Serch, Prime Minister Pete Nice, and DJ Daddy Rich (aka Richie Rich), 3rd Bass’ biggest commercial success remains “Pop Goes the Weasel” from second effort Derelicts of Dialect, a song-length takedown of Vanilla Ice. But The Cactus Album was in fact quite popular, a rise only partially tied to Serch and Nice’s status as early white rappers; they were just one in a number of acts bringing real hip-hop out of the boroughs and into the suburbs and sticks (essentially anyplace with cable TV or a satellite dish).

Check the Technique Vol. 2 unveils metric tons of knowledge in its 544 pages, but it also reinforces established notions (and refutes received wisdom). For instance, while 3rd Bass’ dissing of the Beastie Boys, MC Hammer, and Vanilla Ice is no secret, the reality of the death threat on the group from Hammer’s brother Louis Burrell, his call for a hit due to a line by Nice in “The Cactus,” comes into sharper focus here.

For readers lacking insight into the scene and 3rd Bass in particular, they might seem a bit like bullies. Au contraire; friction between individuals, styles and locales was an inherent aspect of this era of hip-hop, and if MC Serch and Pete Nice occasionally seemed to brandish hair-trigger wack-detectors, they never picked on the small fries, instead choosing to tackle the big boys they felt were crowding out the quality. In ascending order; the Beasties as punk rock interlopers (and Def Jam-defectors), Hammer as purveyor of the milquetoast, and Vanilla Ice as horrid, Pat Boone-esque personality.

Of course, 3rd Bass needed to flaunt the musical goods or they would’ve been in a considerable imbroglio, and The Cactus Album wastes no time in highlighting their skills. For starters, the creative sampling in “Sons of 3rd Bass” (by producer Sam Sever, Daddy Rich not joining until after the record was finished) utilized elements from Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel” and turned them into an experience actually enjoyable. It continues to provide a kick.

Instantly apparent is the heightened approach of both MCs. To call them students of hip-hop is perhaps romanticizing the situation, but they were undoubtedly avid participants, Serch even taking part in the New Music Seminar’s second MC Battle in ’87 (unsurprisingly, Nice was in the audience), though by then he already had two singles out.

Indeed, the perfectionism in the lyrical delivery is palpable throughout the LP; as white rappers, Serch and Nice frankly had something extra to prove to those outside their immediate circle, though in drafting such heavy guns as Prince Paul as producer, KMD’s Zev Love X (soon to be known as MF Doom) for a guest mic spot and Don Newkirk lending zesty announcing duties, “The Gas Face” assuredly passed muster.

For many anyway, if not most, 3rd Bass were undeniably divisive while active, slowly winning over doubters and detractors. For “The Gas Face” Prince Paul lays down an exquisitely grooving piano loop, but it’s ultimately a showcase for the MCs. One of the final tracks cut for The Cactus Album, it contrasts well with “Wordz of Wizdom.”

As explained by Serch, “Wordz of Wizdom” was their first demo, shopped around when still called 3 The Hard Way. Featuring not one but two samples from Gary Wright, the ‘70’s FM ambiance combines with a slamming beat positively screaming “‘80s rap,” the words flowing over it with flair. Reaching six and a half minutes in length, it’s something of a tour de force (a substantially different, even longer mix appears on CD versions), and discovering through Check the Technique that Serch rerecorded his lyrics roughly 20 times adds a new wrinkle.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, “The Cactus” is nearly five minutes of loose smack talking anchored by a jaunty Doors sample and another massive beat. Basically an unserious ode to a certain bodily organ, one tossed-off line here reportedly instigated the Hammer hubbub detailed above. And speaking of off-the-cuff hijinks, Serch swears he wasn’t drunk during “Flippin’ Off the Wall Like Lucy Ball.” The cut loops Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” the MC extemporizing impolitely while eccentrically mimicking Waits’ gravelly vocal mannerisms.

“Steppin’ to the A.M.,” the very last song recorded for the disc and one of two produced for The Cactus Album by The Bomb Squad, really drives home the range of 3rd Bass’ debut. Not as frantic as the Sadler/Shocklee team’s work for Public Enemy, in the end that’s to the good; it does possess the pebbles-in-a-pie-tin rhythm that’ll be forever associated with another Bomb Squad credit, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick.

Numerous additional worthwhile moments include Prince Paul’s other appearance “Brooklyn-Queens,” The Bomb Squad-helmed “Oval Office,” and the funky throb of the Serch-biographical “Product of the Environment.” Plus, the oddball short segments do a fine job of enhancing the atmosphere; 25 years later The Cactus Album retains its fervent artistry.

Early in Check the Technique Vol. 2’s 3rd Bass entry there’s mention of Blake Lethem aka Lord Scotch aka Vanilla B, a figure Serch characterizes as “the original white rapper.” A more purely profit-motivated tome might’ve skipped right over this quote and even omitted Blake Lethem’s name entirely. They surely wouldn’t have inserted a parenthetical that he’s the brother of top-flight novelist Jonathan Lethem.

But that’s just it; unlike so much in the here and now, Brian Coleman’s work is motivated by fandom and love, and he recognizes in the music a multiplicity of stories that require telling. Bluntly, we’re damned lucky to have Check the Technique Vol. 2. Pick up a copy, cue up The Cactus Album, and prepare to learn a few thousand things.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

CHECK THE TECHNIQUE VOL. 2
A+

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