PERMANENT RECORDS: YOU TOOK OUR BEAT, MADE YOURSELF FAMOUS, AND NOW YOU'RE GONNA LOOK LIKE A GREAT BIG ANUS
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
10. UTFO - UTFO (1984)
Personnel: Kangol Kid, Educated Rapper, & Doctor Ice, rappers; Mixmaster Ice, DJ (According to this website, this is the explanation of their names and personas: "Doctor Ice was the 'Hip-Hop Physician,' Educated Rapper was a college student who wore a suit and tie, Mix Master Ice assumed the persona of a ninja since he would 'cut things up' on the turntables, and Kangol Kid got his name due to his affinity for always wearing Kangol-brand hats.")
Producer: UTFO / Label: Select
Before rap and hiphop went completely mainstream, it seemed like my friends and I could only get our hands on it through strange avenues. Most of what we heard was either off of the soundtracks of various breakdancing movies or played as novelties on radio or TV. Outside of Run DMC and a few others around them, you didn't really hear rap on pop radio as of yet. I had a friend with a K-Tel compilation that had stuff like Kraftwerk and Newcleus, and we all thought that was the coolest treasure in the apartment complex. Even so, that gave us what? Ten songs? We were a few years before "Yo! MTV Raps" and MC Hammer, and even after that it was a slow climb. I would argue The Chronic was the final barrier buster. After that album, rap was everywhere.
I guess I would have been 12 when we visited my mother's family in Michigan for Christmas in 1984. Living closer to an urban area like Detroit, my cousin seemed more in tune with rap than I was. I was going to Francis Parkman Junior High in Woodland Hills, CA, and the fad there was stuff like the Cure and Duran Duran and things they played on KROQ. The other choice was KIIS FM with Rick Dees, which had some crossover but was more pop oriented. Still, pop at the time meant Prince and Madonna, so it wasn't so bad.
My cousin could tune in a station from Detroit, and one of the nights I was there, we stayed up and listened to a show called the Midnight Funk Association. The DJ was a smooth-voiced man who spoke in seductive tones like a DJ character from a movie. He played a seamless stream of music, without commercials, blending one track into another, only coming on occasionally to announce the show or explain his track selections. It was probably my first exposure to real mixing. He played a lot of tunes that night. I remember Whodini's "The Freaks Come Out at Night" and "Friends" being in there. There was were many I have also forgotten or maybe never heard again to cement my knowledge of what they were. Most intriguing, though, was this story of a girl named Roxanne. The DJ played a track early in the show where a bunch of MCs stepped up to a girl and she shot them all down. Then, later in the show, there was another song by the girl herself, completely tearing the guys a new one. I was absolutely fascinated by this. These songs (there may have even been a third) were constructing a narrative, and the DJ of the Midnight Funk Association was sprinkling them across his program like a serial we were returning to over the course of his hour.
Of course, what I had stumbled onto without knowing it was the famous Roxanne rap battle. I was hearing the initial salvos. The songs I remember were both by UTFO (Untouchable Force Organziation). The first was "Roxanne, Roxanne," the members of UTFO comparing notes about the super hot girl they had all asked out and how they had been sent packing. There was Kangol Kid, Educated Rapper (EMD), and Doctor Ice, and their DJ, Mixmaster I-C-E. It has an old school structure--long verses over a simple loop and scratching, and a chorus coming in as a dividing line between each MC, who rattle off their stories in a conversational manner that matches perfectly with the driving music. In addition to telling their own tragic tales, there was some boasting and dissing of each other. Doctor Ice in particular thinks he's got the goods, only to get shot down, too. When you think about it, it's abnormal for a rap band to be so self-deprecating. These days, it's all about how much money they have, how many "hoes." I can't imagine current rappers talking about being slammed by girls.
Even further, I really can't see them putting a song on their albums where the girl gets her due, but sure enough, the second song I heard that night was the closing track of UTFO's self-titled debut. "The Real Roxanne" is Roxanne delivering her rejections. UTFO don't even give themselves a chance to present their counterpoint in the song, it's all Roxanne ripping them apart.
I loved it! My cousin and I kept aping the chorus, and quoting weird lines like "She wouldn't give a guy like me no rap," where the MC's voice would rise up high and then drop down to a baritone all in one sentence. We had taped the show, and we listened to it over and over, even in his mother's car. Much to her chagrin, when the DJ would talk, he'd layer traffic sounds over the instrumental track, and my aunt couldn't understand why so many people were honking at her that holiday season. She never figured out it was on the tape.
I really wanted to take that cassette home, but no dice. Given that those were my junior high days, I'm actually surprised I didn't just steal it. I would take a five-finger discount quite often back home, and what would my cousin have done had I absconded with the Midnight Funk Association? Fly out to California to get it?
Alas, I did without. Being back home meant I missed out on all the response records that came out from other Roxannes and the ongoing war over who the "real" Roxanne was, but I eventually found a cassette version of the UTFO album at a swap meet. There was a guy there that sold what must have been bootlegs, because all of his cassettes were too long for the album, and usually side two started at the same spot as side one ended, you just had to flip it over rather than go to the end of the side. I know it had a different cover than the one posted here, because it had Mixmaster Ice in his ninja outfit, which I thought was awesome. Ninjas were totally in at the time. Kangol also carried a samurai sword, and you can hear Roxanne make fun of it (she pronounces it "samurai suh-ward") on "The Real Roxanne."
The rest of the album was more of the same. There was a second part to their Roxanne diss, "Calling Her a Crab," which was a term that was like a precursor to "pigeon," and on "Lisa Lips," a rap about a girl that is a little easier to get but you're not sure you want to, Lisa is instructed not to be a Roxanne. "Calling Her a Crab" was the bite back that had previously been missing, where the guys spend an entire track answering Roxanne's cutdowns. In addition to the raps, there is also a soul-style croon called "Fairytale Lover" that hasn't aged well.
Still, UTFO's UTFO was my first exposure to a concept album, maybe the first rap version of a rock opera. (Pete Townshend, take note.) And despite the sonic leaps hiphop has taken over the years, it's still hard to beat the pure and original energy of old school platters. Kind of like no matter how good new rock bands are in 2006, they still have a hard time being better than the Beatles. Listening to UTFO puts me back in the car in 1984, driving through Michigan while my aunt wonders what it is about her car that is pissing off all the other drivers, but it's also as fresh and fun now as it ever was.
NOTABLE B-SIDE: A fun bit of trivia I found in researching this: "Roxanne, Roxanne" was the notable B-side. It was the flip to "Hanging Out," but the A-side wasn't very distinctive and the B took off instead.
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Current Soundtrack: Sweetie DVD commentary
Current Mood: pensive
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich