This August will mark the 20th anniversary of the Brand New Heavies' Heavy Rhyme Experience, Vol. 1 (there was no volume 2). Everyone will have a personal reminder that hip hop is no longer a young genre, but that's mine. At the time, the full live band playing behind early innovators like Guru and Kool G Rap and Ed OG was the pinnacle of the sound, alternately playful and aggressive MCs at the height of their game rapping over "a real live get down on the get down."
STARTING AT THE BEGINNING Educated Advocates.
I thought for sure that melding of live jazz/R&B and MC delivery was the future of the music. Instead, it's remained a rarity. If anything, hip hop has only become more digital and artificial, incorporating ever more Auto-Tune and samples.
Listening to the popping horns and wicka-wicka guitars, the disco grooves and back-beat funk being laid down as production on the new Back to Class album from Educated Advocates, though, maybe there's hope for that direction yet. Heck, Spose is playing with Sly-Chi, right?
When EA say Back to Class, they mean it, riding that metaphor especially through the early part of the enormous 80-minute album and reveling in exploring the first 20 years — the classics — of hip hop. There are Wu references, Tribe Called Quest bits, Gang Starr, some throwbacks even farther to the likes of Eric B and Rakim and "Atomic Dog." Just by their construction, three MCs (Ryan Augustus a/k/a Ghost; Mike B; Jay Caron, formerly J-Scizzor with Ill Natural) who juggle verses and often are all three rapping together in the choruses, they're going to remind people of Jurassic 5 and De La Soul, especially the former when Mike B gets especially bassy with his delivery. Like those groups, too, Educated Advocates tend to stay away from the most aggressive, angry, and violent of hip hop's spectrum and aren't afraid to be playful.
Like most of lyrically focused hip hop, too, there are any manner of discussions of who might be the illest, what stage of their career they happen to be in, which substances they tend to enjoy most when they're looking to get fucked up, how excellent they happen to be at writing rhymes, and whether or not other MCs suck. Those things are like the horn section in the funk band, the banjo in the bluegrass; they are the stamp of the genre. All three MCs legitimately delve into smart wordplay, though, and have great flow, packing words in tightly using sophisticated verse construction without going all the way down the road to nerd rap.
"Vocab" is a highlight, where they set a high bar for themselves and easily jump over it, effortlessly incorporating 25-cent words like fenestrate, gesticulate, permeating, befuddle, and the like without anything seeming forced. If nothing else, songs like these prove an investment of hundreds of hours of practice.
By the time you get deep into the disc — somewhere around "Keep the Funk Flowin," full of Blues Brothers horns — you realize this is an album you can leave on forever. If you want this to be your jam for the first hour and a half of a party? Everyone's happy. To listen front-to-back on a car ride or to have in your headphones for a solid five-mile run or day on the slopes? No problem. You won't get bored. There aren't any must-skip songs. I consider that high praise for a 21-track album.