[Editor's note: Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. Be sure to also check out the archives.]
If you ever go to a nightclub and they play “Black Superman,” by Above the Law, get the fuck out of there as fast as possible. –Danny Brown
Black Superman died on Friday. Kryptonite caught up to KMG the Illustrator, co-founder of Above the Law, the Ruthless Records G-funk pioneers responsible for several of the greatest albums in gangsta rap history. He was 43. (Update: His cause of death was apparently a heart attack.)
It doesn't matter that “Black Superman” rocket-landed 18 years ago. If you bump Above the Law's best-known song at any public function, you should still prepare for no-holds-barred bedlam of the sort common to steel-cage matches, prison riots and shopping malls on the day Jordans arrive. Even KMG's real name (Kevin M. Gulley) implied rowdy invincibility, since, in rap slang, “gully” loosely translates to, “Do not fuck with this man.”
The Pomona act fittingly jump-started their G-funk classic with dialogue from the 1988 film Above the Law. Like Steven Seagal, KMG was rough, rugged, raw and inclined to let a hairstyle overstay its welcome. (He was surely the last to quit the shag.)
Unlike Seagal, he and his crew were unusually funky. Straight out of the 909, Above the Law were Eazy-E's original reinforcements, next up on Ruthless Records after N.W.A and The D.O.C., rocking itchy trigger fingers, locs and Raiders caps. To bulletproof their street cred, the group were said to have beat the shit out of Ice Cube's Da Lench Mob at the 1990 New Music Seminar in Manhattan.
Earlier that year, Above the Law released their classic debut, Livin' Like Hustlers. That record, made with production assistance from Dr. Dre, later was named one of The Source's 100 greatest rap albums of all time. Though it never registered the national notoriety or sales of N.W.A or the Death Row stars, it monopolized the tape decks of underground rap fans from Crenshaw Boulevard to Crescent Drive in Beverly Hills.
Above the Law were the quintessential slept-on group: influential enough to write “Menace to Society,” the reality rap chronicle that later lent its name to the Hughes Brothers' film, but not actually included on the Menace II Society soundtrack (though Cold 187um guested on a track from Mz. Kilo). Despite getting significant burn during the last days of KDAY AM 1580, Power 106 typically ignored them in favor of Suge Knight's crew.
But history will be kind to Above the Law. We'll never really know who first conceived G-funk, but it's clear that Above the Law's Cold 187um (Gregory Hutchinson) influenced Dre and helped to create the blueprint for the iconic L.A. rap sound. The group's sophomore LP, 1993's Black Mafia Life, is as loose, experimental and funky as gangsta rap gets. Their 1994 follow-up, Uncle Sam's Curse, contains their best singles, “Black Superman” and “Kalifornia,” with the latter featuring sometime-group member Kokane and preceding “California Love” by a year.
“KMG always had that G-terminology, that wicked pen, and the desire to touch on social issues as well as what he saw in the streets,” Kokane says. “We'd all sit in the room and he or I would come up with melodies and concepts, and [Hutchinson] was the genius who could put all the ideas together like Quincy Jones.”
Following Eazy-E's death in 1994, Above the Law left Ruthless for Tommy Boy Records. A pair of albums never generated the response of their earlier work, and their output became scarce. Their last album was 2009's independently released Sex, Money, & Music, though Kokane says that a final Above the Law album was recorded before KMG's death. He describes it as similar in spirit to Uncle Sam's Curse.
But KMG secured his legacy a long time ago. Not only did Above the Law expand the sound of West Coast rap, they helped capture the mindset of the 'hood right before it burst into flames. We will always remember KMG, the walking dead man with eyes teary and a gun kind of heavy. The Black Superman. Pour out a little VSOP.