It should come as no surprise that YG's faithful evocation of mid-’90s Southern California G-funk, Still Brazy, has dominated this summer of record heat, gun violence, police brutality and polarizing politics.
The Compton rapper's latest captures the tense energy of the times — and recalls another era in American history when times were just as tense. That was especially true in Los Angeles, where a city already divided by the verdict that acquitted four LAPD officers in the brutal beating of Rodney King, and the riots sparked by that verdict, faced the potentially even more explosive specter of the O.J. Simpson trial.
Perhaps the album to which, inadvertently or not, Still Brazy owes its greatest debt is from that uneasy time: Above the Law’s 1994 out-of-print magnum opus Uncle Sam’s Curse, an hourlong, funk-driven study in urban injustice and middle-American anxiety released halfway through the summer of the Brentwood murders, Newt Gingrich's Contract With America and the Major League Baseball strike.
Two years after the L.A. riots and a year removed from their landmark third album, Black Mafia Life, Above the Law underwent a lineup shuffle before returning to the studio to record a follow-up for Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records. South Central rapper Go Mack exited the group, leaving a trio of Pomona natives, rapper KMG the Illustrator, DJ Total K-Oss and rapper-producer Cold 187um, an architect of the classic West Coast G-funk sound. In Go Mack’s absence, Cold 187um recruited his first cousin Kokane, a longtime associate and collaborator, to assume a more featured role.
“Everything we were going through was a reflection, a mirror, of that moment,” Kokane says now. “Selling dope, then going to the studio — our whole lifestyle was inspired by injustices and the riots. We were just tired of that. We picked up a pen and said, ‘We’re gonna come up with something deep.’”
When Above the Law debuted in 1990 with Livin’ Like Hustlers, they bore a strong resemblance to their cross-county contemporaries N.W.A; Dr. Dre contributed as a producer, and all five N.W.A members appeared on the finale “The Last Song.”’ The 1991 EP Vocally Pimpin’ began the progression toward a slower, more funk-based sound, sanding off the b-boy edges to emphasize their smoother qualities.
1993’s Black Mafia Life arrived two months after Dre’s momentous The Chronic, and while both are critically acclaimed proto-G-funk records, they’re also a compelling study in contrasts. The records use many of the same samples — the breadth of L.A. rap’s early-’90s source material now appears impossibly narrow — but to a notably disparate effect. Black Mafia Life is a technically impeccable, fairly upbeat record with rappers in lockstep, bearing more similarity to DJ Quik’s earliest work, whereas The Chronic’s hazy, rolling distortion defined the next decade of rap production.
While Dre furthered his sound on Snoop Dogg’s debut, Doggystyle, the new-look Above the Law took their cues from G-funk’s original source material in the Uncle Sam’s Curse sessions. Virtually all 1990s rap from Southern California — from Ice Cube’s industrial bop to Dre’s screeching, paranoid funk, Warren G’s softly lilting synths to Kurupt’s intergalactic boogie — owes a heavy debt to George Clinton, but Uncle Sam’s Curse is one of the most unadulterated interpretations.
Kokane proved an invaluable addition, appearing as a vocalist on half of the album’s dozen tracks. Although Cold 187um and Kokane come from a distinguished Motown pedigree (Kokane’s father, Jerry B. Long Sr., received hundreds of songwriting credits with the Funk Brothers, and Cold 187um is a nephew of the late R&B frontman Willie Hutch), Kokane is vocally, musically and spiritually an immediate disciple of George Clinton. Over Cold 187um’s often eaily identifiable samples from the likes of Parliament, Zapp, Ohio Players, Morris Day and The Time, Young-Holt Unlimited, Kool & the Gang, and Clarence Reid, Kokane’s warbling croons channel the extraterrestrial mania of their funk heroes.
In 1994, Americans were spellbound by images from 24-hour news — O.J.'s infamous white Bronco chase, Nancy Kerrigan wailing in agonized disbelief above her shattered leg, Rwandan bodies stacked in mass graves — and Uncle Sam’s Curse was, accordingly, one of gangsta rap’s most cinematic tours de force to that date. It derives its atmosphere from film snippets and phone calls, staticky newsreels and descending helicopters — tactics used to resounding success on albums by Kendrick Lamar, The Game and YG over the last year.
Clips of despairing inmates from the made-for-TV prison riot film Against the Wall serve as recurrent interludes, recontextualized as voices from a postapocalyptic Los Angeles. The visceral title track opens with a stunning clip from Mississippi Burning, an on-the-nose but by no means trite metaphor. “One Time Too Many,” an edgy discourse on police brutality, opens with an interlude charting a traffic stop turned violent, by then a well-worn yet still stirring trope employed by everyone from The Pharcyde to The Dove Shack that (not surprisingly, given current events) turns up again on Still Brazy, as well.
With Above the Law condensed to a lean lineup of two full-time rappers, Uncle Sam’s Curse allows more space for KMG and Cold 187um’s distinctive personalities to emerge. KMG sports a deep, commanding cadence, which here betrays hints of a disillusioned weariness, while Cold 187um’s pitchy squawk maintains a shrill liveliness that matches the album's space-age licks.
The sober “Set Free” analyzes the self-defeating strictures of gang affiliation, whereas “Rain Be for Rain Bo” discusses the tantalizing appeal of a life of crime, with an eerie Donald Trump reference by Cold 187um to boot. The album’s themes are perhaps best captured on the dazzling closer “Gangsta Madness,” a visual, dystopian rendering of drugs, oppressive government, crime, mass incarceration and mortality featuring a transcendent performance by Kokane.
“We were empowering ourselves,” Kokane says. “We were always talking about [how] the only way we’d be able to get back is if we had the type of organization to mobilize ourselves. But we were doing it with music, with a Nat Turner lick and a Marcus Garvey flow.”
Despite the album's imagery and minor-chord piano keys, it’s by no means a joyless affair. The single “Kalifornia” turns an unlikely sample from The Time's “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” into a spirited coastal anthem, and Tone Loc, the album's only guest, helps drive the gleefully anarchic “Who Ryde.”
The album’s greatest triumph is “Black Superman,” perhaps Above the Law’s finest moment on wax and an essential piece of the West Coast rap canon. What seems at first like a song about vigilantism turns out to be more about assuming personal responsibility, whether by means legal or otherwise. Opening with dialogue from a tense negotiation scene, the track is built upon the foundation of a shrieking loop from Ohio Players' “Funky Worm,” which, after KMG’s virtuosic opening verse, gives way to an ominous answering machine message. Cold 187um’s impassioned performance recounts a decade in 26 bars, from selling drugs as an adolescent to rescuing his mom from neighborhood hardheads as an adult. The track scored a pivotal courtroom scene in this year's acclaimed FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson.
1994 is often regarded as a golden year for hip-hop LPs, but it also marked a turning point in rap, a moment when the politics and reality rap of Ice Cube, Public Enemy and KRS-One gave way to more regionally focused and autobiographical records like Illmatic, Ready to Die, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and Regulate ... G-Funk Era. In that sense, Uncle Sam’s Curse strikes a smart balance between the wider sociopolitical commentary of predecessors like N.W.A and the red-and-blue-tinged narratives of Tha Dogg Pound and South Central Cartel that followed.
“It was a modern-day What’s Going On,” says Kokane, who just released a new double album of his own, King of Gfunk. “It’s kinda freaky, ‘cause it’s very prophetic. [Now] it’s 1965 all over again — history repeats itself. Kids gotta start having a mentality of researching the past, because if you research the past you’ll know where you are in the moment and where you’re going in the future. Some people care about the truth, but mostly, it’s like going to a WWE wrestling match. Everybody knows the wrestling is fake, but they still love to be entertained.”
Although they released three more albums in the latter half of the ’90s, Uncle Sam’s Curse was Above the Law’s pinnacle, a final project with Ruthless Records that fell out of print as the label lapsed into disarray upon Eazy-E’s death. Cold 187um went on to compile a prolific production catalog and solo career as Big Hutch and in 1999 was tapped to be head producer at the declining Death Row Records during Suge Knight’s incarceration. KMG died in 2012, three years after Above the Law’s long-shelved final outing Sex, Money & Music was released.
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Four years after KMG’s death, history as conveyed by Uncle Sam’s Curse has indeed repeated itself, as white police officers have been captured murdering black civilians on videotape. To many, it can feel as though nothing has changed since the days of Rodney King and the ’92 riots. There's even another Clinton running for president.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the success of the film Straight Outta Compton and TV series The People v. O.J. Simpson, Hollywood is suddenly obsessed with G-funk and 1994 Los Angeles, which will be the setting of much of the upcoming 2Pac biopic All Eyez on Me and the planned Compton sequel, DPG 4 Life.
It's unlikely that Uncle Sam Curse's will play much role, if any, in Hollywood's revisiting of that powder-keg summer of 1994. But it should. An emphatic, flawlessly sequenced and subtly influential masterstroke from an essential rap group, Uncle Sam’s Curse endures as the album that best captures that era — and one that resonates deeply with our own heated times.