Thursday, 6 February 2014

Spice 1 - 187 He Wrote (1993)

That massive supposedly complete history of rap that will one day be written probably won't be dedicating too much page space to Spice 1, for like MC Eiht, Celly Cel and a few other west-coast notables, he did his thing, and he did it well, but he never really made a massive splash in terms of sales, cult status, or whatever artistic criteria we're judging rap by this week. The nineties will probably end up remembered as the decade of Dead Prez on the grounds of their being responsible black men who rapped about vegetarian food, learning to play chess in coffee shops, and lighting up a few incense sticks before you knob your bird on a Friday night after the pub - with a few nods to Malcolm X thrown in just to show that just because a man is in touch with his feelings, it doesn't mean he's, you know, soft. Whilst it seems unlikely that gangsta rap will be entirely forgotten, it'll probably be remembered as something invented by Eminem, because when a white guy describes that stuff, obviously it's art or at least some sort of statement in the vein of a Scorsese or Tarantino, something of merit as distinct from that stuff which is just kids bragging about guns upon which we'd rather not pour too much scorn in case anyone thinks we're racist.

Just so we're clear, the music of Spice 1 belongs in that category which has thus far eluded sanitisation, reassessment, and subsequent reclamation as something you might enjoy over a glass of wine and a few injections of legal marijuana. It tells the sort of stories you almost certainly won't want to hear, which is a good thing because there's not much point bothering with rap if you're only interested in the more soothing end of the spectrum; and the closest our boy comes to moral responsibility is advising us that if we're really going to pop a cap in someone's ass, then we should at least make it count and pop a cap in the ass of someone we can rob. Wise words indeed.

There is of course a school of thought which states that albums like 187 He Wrote glamorise gunplay because that's what sells, and it must therefore be regarded as inferior product, although said school of thought probably wouldn't state it directly to Spice 1's face. Personally I hold to the view that this interpretation is only that, an interpretation, and is, generally speaking, bullshit which should be obvious as such to anyone attempting to engage with the music on its own terms. Whilst I'm sure Spice 1 never had a problem with the idea that he might be able to sell a few records, it seems pretty obvious that he's talking to his people, as in those who've lived the sort of horrendous crap described here, and whether Sting or C. Delores Tucker understand isn't really relevant; and similarly, ignoring this sort of thing isn't going to change the fact that there are people out there who live in the world described herein. Then there's also the idea that songs about gang violence tend to glamorise gang violence, an idea possibly derived from the occasionally filmic quality of much gangsta rap and the apparent absence of a don't try this at home disclaimer, the song ending with our narrator sobbing, wishing he'd stayed in school and studied to become a dentist. So think on, kids...

Bah, I say. Just get over it and listen to the music. I spent many hours listening to Spice 1 whilst pounding the pavements of south-east London as a postman. Contrary to the popular image of the job being much like that seen in Postman Pat - just wandering around with a few letters, happily spending an hour chatting to Mrs. Goggins at the corner shop and so on - it was often a miserable and deeply fucking thankless task, usually struggling to get five or six hours of work done in about four and breaking your back in the often pissing rain whilst doing so; and whilst I never found myself having to dodge bullets, listening to Spice 1 really helped get me through some truly shitty days, just as I expect 187 He Wrote helped members of its intended audience get through some truly shitty days - and I mean the sort of days in which you try listening to Killing Joke but give up because it just doesn't seem angry enough. In fact it's surprising how tame a lot of supposedly grumpy music sounds when compared to that produced by those who, like our boy here, have experienced real world problems more severe than dad forbidding the wearing of nose rings at the dinner table.

The great thing about the music of Spice 1 is that it combines all the reckless nihilism of its gratuitous violence with a surprisingly uplifting quality. You might almost say it's the blues - Robert Johnson taken to an extreme I suppose, but still very much a soulful and populist take thanks to a massive injection of g-funk with a big fat organic bass end emulating the experience of having your arse kicked by a really happy guy, probably; and whilst the man himself may be deemed lyrically limited by certain dubious criteria, he more than makes up for it with the sheer inventive relish of his delivery, and of all the rappers to engage in that vocal scratching thing that everyone was doing back in '93, he's significantly one of the few to record material that still sounds fucking great two decades later. This is probably what distinguishes his vocal style from being a mere gimmick, in that such tics and tricks were never the only thing up his sleeve, and were more to do with a debt to the toasters of Jamaican dancehall than a passing affectation. This, for my money, is probably also one of the reasons why Spice 1 is perhaps the only rap guy I've heard turning out the occasional full-on reggie tune without sounding like an utter cock.

Neither before or since, I would argue, has music quite this terrifying ever felt so joyful. Mine may well be a minority view, but Spice 1 surely deserves at least one album amongst the acknowledged rap all-time greats, and this one is as good as any.

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