Sunday, 15 July 2012

Reminiscing Over "Stress: The Extinction Agenda" by Organized Konfusion

Intro 
Pharoahe Monch and Prince Poetry of Organized Konfusion make it pretty clear from the outset that their sophomore release Stress: The Extinction Agenda is going to take a darker tone than the group's 1990 debut. Whether you consider the intro from their last album to be the loose free-wheeling instrumental “Fudge Funk” (the first track) or the curiously titled “Intro” (track 14 for those keeping score) where Po and Monch trade bravado-laden verses over a minimal beat, the chaotic opener of Stress foreshadows the pair employing a different approach. Monch lost his father after releasing OK's first album and the group struggled with poor sales despite garnering rightly-deserved glowing critical reception, (including four mics from The Source). Monch and Po also suffered from poor distribution from their label Hollywood Basic (a subsidiary of the Disney Music Business Group) and it is quite likely that they were not quite as “Down with Mickey Mouse” (according to Peanut Butter Wolf the label even issued checks with Mickey Mouse’s face on them) as originally claimed on “Fudge Pudge.” Compounding matters was the ascension of Rudy Giuliani to the Mayorship of New York, who drew the ire of many a rapper during his reign, and we can only attribute so much of that lyrical vitriol to the fact that "Giuliani" is a rather easy word to work into a song. The members of Organized Konfusion were no different, as Monch would mention on the Stress remix with Extra P, “You can fool me but I cannot fuck with Rudy Gulliani.” The group was also deeply affected by racial animosity developing from events such as the Yusef Hawkins affair and other similar instances as well as personal experiences of getting stood up by cabdrivers. These ideas are encapsulated on the album’s cover sleeve, which was designed by the late Matt Doo, who was also responsible for the art for Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus. Monch and Po are depicted as the Incredible Hulk and Thor, attempting to use their superpowers to overcome the various social and political ills constantly surrounding them. 

While I am not the biggest fan of album intros in general, this track clearly establishes the themes of frustration, disorientation, and anger that permeate throughout the album. It begins with a swirl of voices over a rumbling bassline with a ticking hi-hat adding a high degree of anxiety to the mix. Monch sounds like he is on the verge of a mental breakdown, wailing and shouting before breaking into a frantic verse that outlines his meager current prospects. Prince Po comes off as a little more confident and composed, but he marks the end of his verse by giving The Gas Face to corrupt cops, racist cabbies and storeowners, ticket agents, and other forces participating in The Extinction Agenda. The intro helps frame the rest of the album as a cohesive whole that touches upon the subject matter that will be covered over rest of the release.

Stress
"Stress" was the only big single for the group for the album, and one of their most popular tracks in general. The Buckwild-produced track opens with a massive and portentous bass line before quickly transitioning to a loop of the horns from Charles Mingus' "Mingus Fingus 2." I always thought that loops really didn't add much to a song if they sampled a riff that repeated throughout the original track, in which case I would often just rather listen to the original, but this is an example where loops are actually expertly utilized. I don't want to turn this post into an exhaustive discussion on the ethics or artistic merits of looping or sampling-based music, but I will say that recontextualizing and looping the horns into the track sounds amazing on "Stress." Buckwild sampled the opening abrasive yelps from the horn section from the original track, where the instruments build up considerable tension for the listener before the phrase finally resolves itself. The genius of the "Stress" loop results from the fact that Buckwild cuts off the sample one note before the riff has resolved itself, leaving the listener with a sense of tension without any resolution. This chaotic and somewhat uncomfortable listening experience is exacerbated by the fact that the sample is repeated throughout the track. Considering the lyrical content which basically a lyrical manifestation of those chaotic horns, this is a perfect match and an excellent use of the sampling medium.
 
The album version features a skit where Po shoots a cabdriver who refuses to drive the group to Queens, which I think just disrupts the flow of the track. I do give them credit for putting some effort into making the interlude seem realistic with adding ambient noises (and the group would explore skits even more heavily in their final album The Equinox, where they spent $600 on professional sound effects), but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I don’t think it adds much to the track. Monch’s verse subsequently absolves the group of their questionable choices of song construction, though. I would even be willing to wait through a skit of "Where My Killer Tape?" proportions if I knew that it would ultimately be followed by Monch’s verse. He starts off with a scream and then hulks around the thunderous snare hits, demeaning lesser-skilled emcees and exclaiming his enjoyment of mace. Few rappers can match Monch's energy, and he uses pauses and several flows to deliver one of the most memorable verses on the album. Lyrical quotes don't really do him justice, and I don't feel like correcting the errors that invariably pepper lyrics culled from hip hop lyrics sites. You have to listen to it yourself.

The Extinction Agenda
"The Extinction Agenda" really gives a great demonstration of the rapport between the two emcees, hearkening back to the days of old school crews like the Treacherous Three. Monch and Po kick things off by giving a pass-the-mic spelling lesson of the group's name to prevent any ignorant crumbs from ever entering Organized Confusion into the rap literature canon. They perform several variations these spelling lines across the album (Po actually won several spelling bees in elementary school), but they deliver such routines with so much energy and charisma that the group thankfully never veers towards K-Solo territory. The track is a great illustration of how well the rappers work together. Organized Konfusion definitely was a group rather than two emcees who rapped together, and you can really sense that there is a legitimate connection between Monch and Po.  

Fun Fact: Spelling has existed place since Big Bank Hank "borrowed" some of Grandmaster Caz's on "Rapper's Delight." Jay-Z cited this biting as one of the contributing factors as to why he never writes down his lyrics. According to Don Charnas' The Big Payback, Caz was actually complicit in the biting, as he evidently gave the former pizza restaurant employee one of his rhyme books when he learned that Hank, who had bought gear for the Cold Crush Brothers, was going to New Jersey to record a rap song. Thinking that nothing would come out of the session, the real C-A-S-A-N-O-V-A gave Hank free reign to use whatever he wanted from the rhyme book on the song.

The beat is very hectic and is mainly composed of a sped-up sample from Herbie Hancock's Sextant, one of his more experimental fusion releases. Both rappers sound very comfortable flowing over the track, which might partially be attributed to the fact that they were behind the production boards. Monch's verse is heavy on the chess references and demonstrates his ability to creatively use pauses to keep the listener off balance and add variety into his raps.

Thirteen
And after going on about the connection between the group members, the next song is a Monch solo track, which Po apparently never even heard the beat for (though he does show up briefly at the end). O.C. also apparently traded this Buckwild instrumental to Monch for the beat that eventually was used for “Time’s Up.” Hip hop has always been limited to some degree by its limited subject matter, and while Organized Konfusion touch upon a variety of topics on Stress there still are a good bit of braggadocio-heavy songs which tread upon similar territory as other rappers. When dealing with familiar subjects like that, it is crucial that the rapper deliver his boasts and disses in an original and creative fashion, lest they sound like virtually all of their contemporaries. Monch provides an excellent example of how to expertly work within such constraints, citing the periodic table of elements, paving the way for the hyper-referential likes of Danny Brown and Das Racist with a Street Fighter reference, and ending his second verse "I'll rip your shit like Sinead," (which along with the Joey Buttafuoco reference on "Why?' firmly dates the album in the early nineties) one of my favorite punchlines from him on Stress. As to the title, there is no deep Wu-Tang/Illuminati numerology behind its name, 13 is simply Monch's favorite number.

Black Sunday
"Black Sunday" is a more straightforward song discussing label frustrations and the roots of the group and their attempts to get a deal. Both rappers sound composed and cool-headed and offer a reflective look of their history and how they persevered to get where they are today. I appreciate the personal nature of the song and how both rappers reveal a good degree of insight into their pasts. It strikes a more optimistic tone than some of the other cuts on the album and how rap offered them a way out of their harsh surrounding and sets the table for the album's uplifting conclusion with "Maintain."

I'm not really feeling the beat too much on this song, as it uses the "Jagger the Dagger" sample that had already been used by Pete Rock and must have been looped for about ten minutes during those silly skits and interludes that littered A Tribe Called Quest's first album. Its the only real production misstep on the album, though the only reason it sticks out so much is because the other beats are so strong.

Drop Bombs/Bring it On
The calmness of Black Sunday is quickly transitioned into the interlude “Drop Bombs,” little more than a frantic hook that nicely leads into “Bring It On,” a shining moment for both emcees.

Monch and Po adapt their voices to the track on "Bring it On" in a seamless fashion. Monch’s stuttering and frantic verse oozes charisma and energy and he slices through the beat with impressive lyrical dexterity. Monch claims in How to Rap that he wrote the lyrics to his 1999 monster hit "Simon Says" with the intention of allowing fans to sing along during live performances. I don’t think he was following that template while writing "Bring It On." Oftentimes rappers who want to kick such tongue-twisting flows must compromise their lyrics in some parts to fit their rapid-fire flow. Chip-Fu was a dynamic performer who could be incredibly entertaining to listen to, but its not like his lyrical content was that incredible. On the other side of the spectrum, Talib Kweli usually makes some poignant statements and drops nice lines, but sometimes his verbosity and focus on lyrics make his flow sound a little off. Monch somehow manages to balance these two forces, delivery an verbally acrobatic verse that is also very quotable. Again, I could copy and paste in some particularly impressive bars from Monch's verse and maybe even bold the rhyming syllables to illustrate his rhyme scheme, but he really has to be listened to in order to be fully appreciated. No words, especially mine, could really do him justice.

Monch often mentions John Coltrane as a stylistic influence. His syllabically-dense flow on the track evokes 
Coltrane's rapid note runs described by critics as sheets of sound. And his violent and energetic delivery is reminiscent of the squawks Trane would employ on Impressions and his other more abstract works. Few rappers used phrasing and spacing like Monch did to add a sense of dynamism and excitement to his verses
The beat is sparse during the verses, really just a simple bassline and some pounding drums, which gives Monch and Po plenty of room to inject their braggadocio and personalities. It may seem like a backhanded criticism, but the production manages to do an excellent job of not crowding or getting in the way of either emcee. The group probably wanted it that way, given that they produced "Bring It On" as well as many other tracks on the album.
Why?
Monch and Po are let down and hassled by cops, politicians, storeowners and various other actors throughout this album. "Why?" suggests that this inhumanity and anomie extends to romantic relationships. Storeowners and industry suits don't trust the pair and do the rappers wrong, and apparently Monch and Po can't even rely on their unfaithful girlfriends. Again, this isn't the first song to discuss unfaithful female friends, but the rappers approach the topic with their usual lyrical creativity, utilizing intricate internal rhyming schemes, some nice metaphors, and an "Odd Couple" reference.

The saxophone is almost definitely live, and it meshes well with the samples. The group used some live instrumentation which gave their tracks a loose and free-wheeling sound, but here the saxophone isn't used to overshadow or replace the samples and tries very hard to sound like it was sampled. Apparently the group couldn't clear the saxophone sample Buckwild originally wanted to use so they brought in someone to play on the track. The saxophone solo at the end is also a nice touch. That is something you can't really (legally) replicate with samples and I always liked songs like "Life's a Bitch" with long and linear instrumental passages. 

Let's Organize
The next two tracks on the album are more uptempo and upbeat, and offer a respite from the more violent and dark tracks that sandwich them. Sequencing sometimes seems like it was an afterthought on most rap records, but I really like how the tracks are organized on this album. Given the energy and force that Monch and Po bring on some of their songs, Stress could easily be an overwhelming and tiring listen if songs like "Bring It On," "Stress," and "Stray Bullet" were clustered together. Instead, the album offers a more natural ebb and flow, which I think makes for a more balanced and ultimately more enjoyable listen.

The beat on this boast-heavy song is driven by a funky Patrice Rushen bassline and chugging hi-hats. It also features the only two guest spots on the entire album, with O.C. doing a verse and Q-Tip giving a minimal guest appearance, which he seems to have been doing since "Buddy." 

Despite the presence of guests on the track, Monch and Po also demonstrate why the album didn't suffer from the dearth of guest spots. Hell, Monch's six bars on this track contains more energy and charisma than some rappers had on entire albums. Monch and Po also display so much versatility through Stress that their styles never get tiring as the album progresses. They can easily transition from Onyx-esque shouts to the tongue-twisting styles of Das Efx or Fu-Schnickens and perform both equally well. This diversity keeps the album fresh for listeners and demonstrates why the album doesn't really need any more guest spots than the appearances from O.C. and Q-Tip. Monch and Po would later demonstrate their abilities to carry entire albums on their quality solo albums.

3-2-1
This is another upbeat track that evokes the days of rappers rocking block parties and moving the crowd. The beat leaves a lot of space for the emcees to weave their verbal interplay over. Backed by another funk bassline and a guitar sample, it is one of the few songs on the album that wouldn't immediately clear the dance floor. In terms of beats and lyrical content, "3-2-1" offers another brief rest from some of the rougher and more pessimistic album tracks.

Po's delivery and flow are on point on this track, and this is a great time to point out that one of the group's major strengths is the balance between the rappers. I realize that I have been incredibly laudatory to Monch so far in this post (rightfully so) but Prince Po holds his own throughout the album and is integral to the success of the album. At no point is he really overshadowed by his group-mate. Po's gruff delivery and deep voice offers a nice counterpart to Monch's higher pitched cadences, and Po is a very talented lyricist as well. I never really liked it when rap groups had one member who was far more talented than his counterparts because I would listen to songs waiting for the best member to come on, which would often happen while listening to groups like Leaders of the New School. I never had that problem while listening to any Organized Konfusion albums. Po's complex rhyme schemes and enjambment keep things fresh for the listener on this track as well as the rest of the album.

Keep It Koming
Like some of the other beats on the album, the "Keep It Koming" instrumental is a rather minimal composition with a herky-jerky rhythm that allows the rappers to display their impressive flows. The beat is little more than a disjointed and off-kilter drum loop that is impossible to bob one's head to and would certainly cause mass c(k)onfusion on the dancefloor if a DJ ever played it at a club. Both rappers actually sound excellent flowing over the track and display their chameleon-like abilities to adapt to the beat as well as how they can rhyme well over everything. The whole notion of switching up flows and cadences, which happens many times across the album, keeps everything from getting stale, while musical-left turns like this instrumental also keeps the beats from feeling repetitive. Like the lyrical content of Stress, the beats, provided mainly by the group and Buckwild, work within a basic framework (grimy, dirty drums, low pass filters to emphasize the bass) but display a remarkable amount of variation within that structure, making the ultimate product all the more impressive.

Stray Bullet
This concept song told from the perspective of an errant bullet is rightfully considered one of the album's best songs. In the innovation-starved genre of hip hop, the act of coming up with a clever concept is enough to earn a considerable amount of listener goodwill for a rapper, even if their execution is spotty. It thus may be tempting to use such critical leniency to phone it in on a track like "Stray Bullet," but that isn't an issue with Organized Konfusion.

The track is unconcerned with explaining what (if anything) exactly precipitated the trigger finger to "put the pressure to the mechanism," a topic which has already been exhaustively explored in other rap songs. The random nature of the violence stridently depicts the considerable power and destruction that can be yielded by guns, as no one is safe from such unexplainable violence. The bullet is portrayed as merely an indiscriminate slave to the laws of physics and trigger-happy gun owners. Nas and Tupac would later release tracks with similar concepts, but I don't think either of them were as impactful or resonant as "Stray Bullet." The lurid and vivid details provided by Monch and Po chronicling the bullet's path of destruction pack a strong emotional punch.

While the main sample, Donald Byrd's "Wind Parade" had been used prominently the year before by Black Moon, Organized Konfusion sped up the sample and gave the loop a much more ominous tone that fits well with the lyrics. 

Maintain
The album's closer gives a fitting summation of the general themes of Stress as well as offering a general feeling of subdued optimism for their listeners. Po starts the song off by outlining the various forces he must struggle against on a daily basis: violence, corrupt cops, and the anemic economic situation of his surroundings just to name a few. In the face of such stressors, Po finds his escape in the studio, where he crafts "masterpieces" for the enjoyment of himself and his friends on the street, not particularly caring "what my funny label releases." 

Monch comes off as a little more vulnerable, crooning about how his depressing situation has gotten his lacrimal glands going. He isn't the best singer and sounds pretty off-key, but I think the singing makes Monch sound earnest and meshes well will the emotional fragility he conveys through his lyrics.

The Rockwilder produced beat is generally dour and pensive, but there are a few times when he adds a building keyboard riff that triggers a sense of optimism and adds a good bit of hope to the musical background.

The message from both rappers appears to be that in the face of stress and The Extinction Agenda, all you can do is maintain and try to muddle through the best you can. "Maintain" and try to keep from going under in the jungle rather than try to pursue some pipe dreams of vast riches. Organized Konfusion aren't peddling the grander notions of rapid upward mobility described by other emcees and they have much more modest goals. All they really want is to be able to buy shoes for their family members and get a cabbie to take them to South Jamaica without incident. The prosaic themes of the album as well as the personal nature of some of the lyrical content allows both rappers to forge a strong personal connection to their listeners, which is why it is unsurprising that Monch and Po would often have fans mention how the album helped them get through tough times.
By now, the term "classic" is used to refer to virtually any rap album released roughly from 1986 through the Clinton administration (with the upper bound creeping higher and higher as the years progress) and it has consequently lost much of its meaning. So I could say that Stress is a classic album, but all that would really do is put it in a pantheon of releases that counts the likes of Skee-Lo's I Wish among its ranks. Instead I will make the slightly more meaningful statement that I consider Stress to be my favorite rap album from 1994, ahead of Illmatic, Ready to Die, and all of the other excellent releases dropped that year. Rap music has historically been a genre dominated by singles, and it never really adapted as well to the album format, but Stress is remarkable in that it works really well not just as a collection of songs but as a coherent whole. Its present-day obscurity was a result of poor distribution and a lack of exposure more than anything else. It also lacked a really radio-friendly single, but I would imagine it would have done much better commercially when it initially dropped if it was just distributed better. Stress is certainly worth a listen if you haven't heard it before and if you are already familiar with the release you should seek out the pretty excellent Remixes EP,

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