Graded on a Curve: Special Ed,
Youngest in Charge

1989 was an outstanding year for hip-hop. Classics in the rapidly developing genre included EPMD’s Unfinished Business, the Jungle Brothers’ Done by the Forces of Nature, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. In fact the list is so deep that worthy items are bound to be overlooked. A recent reissue of Special Ed’s Youngest in Charge will certainly keep the Brooklynite’s enduringly striking wordplay in the discussion, with the LP housed in a gatefold sleeve sporting notes by estimable hip-hop scribe Brian Coleman. 

Of Jamaican descent, Edward Archer is the youngest of five brothers and the only one born on US soil. As a rap obsessed teen from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, he quickly became a battle rhyme specialist, employing a variety of handles before settling upon Special Ed. The initial chapters in his story are approximate to the beginnings of numerous local legends; the difference is Ed’s realization that breaking on a larger level required a key collaborator.

Enter Howard Thompson; English-born and also of Jamaican descent, he’s better known as Hitman Howie Tee. Ed was 14 when he first met the older and more experienced Howie, his future cohort having been a member of CDIII, an electro-rap trio who cut a pair of singles on the Prelude label in ’83-‘84. And while uncredited, in ’84 he contributed production to UTFO’s rap smash “Roxanne, Roxanne.” The next year he worked on Whistle’s “(Nothing Serious) Just Buggin’.”

Suffice it to say Ed and Howie knew each other from the neighborhood. Once properly introduced, the producer was struck by the rapper’s sidestepping of the Jamaican angle for what can be described as a New York-based approach. He was furthermore impressed by the maturity in his execution; Youngest in Charge’s title references Ed’s age, 16 at the point of the album’s making, but the LP is in no way the prototype for Kris Kross or Lil Bow Wow.

Recorded in ’87 and early ’88 in Howie’s mother’s basement via 8-track reel-to-reel, it’s emphasized in the reissue’s notes that Youngest in Charge is essentially the demo they shopped to various labels. This explains the sheer verve at the outset, though the eschewal of novelty and overall diversity across 11 tracks actually hindered a prompt release. Eventually Profile, searching for a hit in lieu of Run DMC’s waning sales, took the plunge. It proved a wise decision, the disc achieving Gold status in the late ‘90s.

“Taxing” immediately establishes the seriousness of intent, Ed’s lines delivered with fluid intensity in a cadence reminding the contemporary listener that MC stands for Master of Ceremonies. Propelling his enunciations is a driving beat and horn-line interjections; contrary to some reports the looped electric guitar isn’t directly borrowed from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Instead, it’s a change-up of the melody played by Youngest in Charge’s engineer Questar “Quick” Welsh. But please don’t misconstrue Howie Tee as sample shy, for “I Got It Made” nabs from funky ‘70s Michiganders Ripple and is a model of basic, indeed borderline minimal, musical construction. It’s just rhythm and sample burrowing into the brain like a crate-digging termite.

It serves as a robust platform for Ed to boast with delicious attention to rhyme, his phraseology particularly pleasing in his final set of stanzas, the battle rap origins still very much apparent. By contrast, “I’m the Magnificent” is a musically bolder proposition; alongside a left-field reverse vocal effect is a weave of source material including home country loops of Desmond Dekkar and Dave and Ansel Collins, plus a rousing exclamation from Lyn Collins’ soul bombshell of ’72, “Think (About It).”

Due to the last one, a slight similarity to Rob Base and DJ E-Z rock’s dance floor hip-hop behemoth “It Takes Two” is evident. And the nods to body-shake don’t end there. Akin to a fair amount of rap from the era, the duo reaches out to the thriving house music audience; notably, Howie later produced that clubber’s cornerstone of come hither, Color Me Badd’s “I Want to Sex You Up.” The good news is “Club Scene,” if a tad too long, is surprisingly non-disruptive to the album’s flow, in part because the main emphasis remains on Ed’s syllables. The cut also makes room for female rapper Dee Dee Scott.

Profile was careful to keep Special Ed’s debut relatively non-explicit (again, they were searching for a hit), which meant at least one song was nixed. A key word in the prior sentence is relatively, for in “Hoedown” the word-slinging takes a turn in subject to matters of the sexual. Still, the verses aren’t terribly risqué as Ed recalls, and not for the only time, Slick Rick.

Def Jam passed on Youngest in Charge, but according to the liners Russell Simmons wanted to buy Ed’s rhymes for Rick’s use. Backed by excellent beats and banjos thankfully looped with restraint to resist the annoying, the lyrical expressiveness in “Hoedown” lands closer to playground smack talk than to the Ruler’s manly manifesto as storytelling “Treat Her Like a Prostitute.” To be fair, others may not see a substantial difference.

To my knowledge there are no samples of Lyn Collins in “Think About It,” an extended brag steering Youngest in Charge back to its opening thrust. Following is “Ak-Shun,” the obligatory shout-out to Ed’s DJ, though a portion of the album’s scratching is by Howie rather than Akshun, who entered the situation a bit later. “The Bush” is another especially funky tribute giving specific props to his Flatbush home.

In between these dedications is “Monster Jam,” Ed citing go-go in relation to its flavor as saxophone and electro-keyboard continue to underscore the producer’s acumen with dance/R&B. Helping out in this regard is the modesty of the project, the whole never succumbing to sheen. “Fly MC” is the penultimate entry and one of Ed’s oldest sets of words, reportedly predating the emergence of Slick Rick, to which there is more than a superficial resemblance.

That’s no knock, for Ed’s ability with a yarn is consistently appealing (Simmons interest was astute). Saving a dive into Jamaican waters for last, the mild eccentricities and casual nature of “Heds and Dreds” rescue it from a mere stab at boilerplate toasting, though it was smart to not dip into this well more than once. It adds intriguing punctuation to a record that apparently changed little from demo stage to shrink wrapping.

The “I Got It Made” 45 features Howie’s “Businesslike Version,” a highly diverse rethink that’s truly worth the investment. In addition to Color Me Badd, Howie further impacted the rap realm with his cousin Chubb Rock and Ed’s two subsequent efforts for Profile, ‘90’s Legal and ‘95’s Revelations. Special Ed was also a third of the Crooklyn Dodgers’ first lineup (appearing on the OST to the Spike Lee joint Crooklyn) beside Buckshot and Masta Ace, and in 2004 he issued Still Got It Made in collaboration with Howie Tee on his own label Semi.

Is this LP as strong as the three listed in the intro above? Nope; in a year containing De La Soul’s 3 feet High and Rising and Kool G Rap and DJ Polo’s Road to the Riches, it’s not even the strongest rap debut of ’89. It is roughly comparable in quality to Gang Starr’s No More Mr. Nice Guy and Tone Lōc’s Lōc-ed After Dark, both inaugural slabs from the same timeframe, and for vinyl collecting fans of old-school hip-hop Special Ed’s Youngest in Charge is simply a must acquisition.



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