Wednesday, December 6, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1080: Nice & Smooth

I’m busy in a whole lot of ways right now but I’m trying to keep my head above water and stay inspired. With the help of my Friday night server I’ve discovered two new bands this week that I really like.

Chief is an indie folk band from California that only ever released one album – Modern Rituals – but it’s a good one. The Acorn is a Canadian band that is still going strong and released a couple of records that really appealed to me – “Glory Hope Mountain” and “Heron Act”. Both have now gone on the wish list I cart around while CD shopping.

Disc 1080 is…Self-Titled
Artist: Nice & Smooth

Year of Release: 1989

What’s up with the Cover? You know when you see a picture of yourself from way back in the day and you think that you look pretty good: young, vibrant, ready to take on the world. Then you look at what you’re wearing and cringe, realizing that what was the height of cool in the day has not aged well. That’s the reaction Nice & Smooth probably have every time they look at this album cover.

How I Came To Know It: I heard Nice & Smooth to a guest rap on Gang Starr’s “DWYCK,” a song from the 1994 album “Hard to Earn.” Although they were only on for a couple of bars they really impressed me and I had to find out more.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have this one Nice & Smooth album. They’re kind of hard to find so while I’m not ruling out adding more, I’m not counting on it either. For now, one doesn’t allow a stack up.

Ratings: 4 stars

Nice & Smooth may not be as famous as other bands that came out of the eighties New York rap scene, but they deserve more recognition. Listening to this album as an outsider to that scene looking in, I can only hope that among the faithful, they are known and well loved.

This is classic late eighties rap, with a few solid samples, borrowed at the time without fear of copyright law and used in small snippets to help facilitate a beat. There are occasions when the sample is a bit too obvious – they borrow from the Five Stairsteps “O-o-h Child” a bit too heavily on a song also called “O-o-h Child” – but generally they keep it simple and know how to repurpose grooves from the seventies to make raps of the eighties that are just as imaginative and original.

Nice & Smooth are Greg Nice and Smooth Bee, and they share duties on the mic. Greg Nice is more traditional for the time, reminding me of LL Cool J or maybe the Fresh Prince if he was being a bit more hard core. Nice does a good job of establishing a narrative and his rhymes fall hard on the end of each bar which isn’t terribly imaginative, but he does it with style. Also, remember that in 1989 all rap was innovative.

Smooth Bee is a different animal, and in many ways before his time. He’s got a smooth laid back style that is a bit like Rakim, but with a curl to his delivery that makes him sound like he’s some kind of street philosopher. Like Guru, Smooth Bee also goes beyond bragging about how well he raps and explores intellectual rhymes. One of my favourites is from “Funky For You

“Smooth B, notorious, glorious
Knowledge is infinite, I live in a fortress
I'm so astronomical, yet on a physical plane
My body's just a shell, in control is my brain.”

Dope on a Rope” has an infectious neo-African beat and a crazy sample of someone singing “zoomba-zoomba, ba-zoomba, zam.” Looks weird in print, but it works on the record, aided by Smooth Bee dropping rhymes about atoms and quasars. Smooth Bee is that super chill guy you run into late at a party that comes off as a stoner, and then you realize he’s read five times as many books as you and speaks three more languages.

Despite dabbling in philosophy, Nice & Smooth do rap a lot about 1) how well they rap and 2) scoring girls, but as an old school rap fan I like these subjects. It is like always ordering pasta at an Italian restaurant. Sure you know what you’re going to get, but over time you start to develop a nuanced appreciation of just what makes a good plate of spaghetti.

As rappers go, Nice & Smooth’s debut album is a pretty solid plate of spaghetti. They are playful when it is called for, but hit the beat hard when the mood moves them. Early tracks play games by refusing to close a rhyme that clearly ends with “ass” but on “Hit Me” they happily drop a half dozen explicit references to genitalia. They swear with purpose, not simply for shock value.

I’m no rap historian, but I also got the impression a lot of later acts were inspired by their work. Listening to the heavy thump and downward cascade of “Gold” I found myself thinking of modern acts like Run the Jewels’ (who have a song called “Stay Gold” on their latest album). Nice & Smooth songs are slower don’t hit as hard but you can see the seeds of what would come later. Or maybe I’m just fooling myself because both songs feature rhymes about gold.

The album is slightly long at 15 songs and 52 minutes, but only slightly and there is enough ear candy sprinkled throughout that you don’t mind one or two bits of filler. Listening to this record I realized two things. First, they should have been more famous. Second, regardless of how famous they are, I need to put this on more often.

Best tracks: Perfect Harmony, No Delayin’, Funky For You, Hit Me, Dope Not Hype, Nice & Smooth, Dope on a Rope

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