Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" was in many ways a landmark rap album. Few releases rival it in terms of historical relevance considering the careers it jump-started (Snoop, Daz, Kurupt, Rage, Nate, Warren), the careers it revived (The D.O.C. & The Doctor), the record labels it turned into major players (Death Row, Interscope), the amount of artists it inspired, and the amount of fans it acquired on behalf of rap music. Despite these facts, it would be unfair to single it out as the sole defining album for 1990s West Coast rap. Unfair towards all the other notable releases of that era. Los Angeles alone hosted an impressive array of rap acts, a melting pot of established artists reaching their creative peak and newcomers waiting for the torch being passed to them: Ice-T, Cypress Hill, KAM, Compton's Most Wanted, The Nonce, Ice Cube, King Tee, The Pharcyde, Eazy-E, Kid Frost, Rodney O & Joe Cooley, Insane Poetry, Mad Kap, Domino, 2nd II None, Da Lench Mob, Boss, OFTB, Funkdoobbiest, ALT, The Wascalz, Above The Law, Hi-C, MC Ren, Nefertiti, DJ Quik, YoYo, South Central Cartel, Mellow Man Ace, Volume 10, House of Pain, Juvenile Committee, A Lighter Shade of Brown, WC & The MAAD Circle, Kokane, Tha Alkaholiks, Freestyle Fellowship...
Before that era came to a conclusion with Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise," a young South Central rapper was responsible for another defining moment in 1990s hip-hop. In 1994, Ahmad Lewis, professionally simply known as Ahmad, captured everybody's imagination with his hit "Back in the Day," followed by a self-titled album that gets better with every so-so release that occasionally manages to escape LA these days. His debut single was 1993's "Who Can?" on Motown, but "Back in the Day," released by Warner affiliate Giant Records, was the head-turner. Likely inspired by KAM's "Still Got Love 4 Um," it fit perfectly into a period when rap music, outgrowing its childhood clothes, suddenly began to reminisce about seemingly happier days. The Wu-Tang Clan, on the verge of worldwide success, kept giving props to what is now known as the Golden Age, and a string of songs attempted to bring back fond memories of yesteryear, many of them following the lead of "Back in the Day" (last but not least TQ's R&B smash "Westside").
There are three versions of "Back in the Day" on the "Ahmad" CD. They're not radically different, but the one I remember being played on radio and television was the "Remix," its summery Teddy Pendergrass sample creating the perfect soundtrack to Ahmad's trip down memory lane. His songwriting is flawless, from the description of the different stages of childhood to how the song idea is explained in the chorus: "Back in the days when I was young... I'm not a kid anymore, but some days I sit and wish I was a kid again." He even thought of crowd participation, so that you too can join in saying: "I remember way back when." In reality, these days were not that far away for 18 year old Ahmad, but "Back in the Day" was rap's confirmation that kids do indeed grow up fast. "In 7th grade I hated school, wish it had blown up / No doubt, I couldn't wait to get out, and be a grown-up," Ahmad reminisces, but just a few years later he already wallows in nostalgia. Ultimately, "Back in the Days" works so well because Ahmad still is a teenager and remembers these times - as distant as they may seem to him - vividly, now that he faces the responsibilities of an adult. It's a song about growing up, maybe too fast.
While his young, clear voice was suited perfectly for mimicking Ahmad the kid "taggin' along, naggin'," it was hard to imagine this rapper addressing other topics in a similarly convincing manner. But Ahmad proved doubters wrong with nine other skillfully executed songs. Obviously, if you need to hear the hardened criminal in a rapper's voice, you're politely invited to skip this album. The non-confrontational, endearing persona he creates on "Back in the Day" is maintained throughout "Ahmad." But don't even think about comparing him to Skee-Lo, who had a big hit in 1995 with "I Wish," reducing Ahmad's thoughtful innocence to moronic gimmickry. If anything, Ahmad was the thinking man's Skee-Lo, making rocking the mike a priority and serving fresh plates of food for thought in the process.
The Good Life Cafe, training ground for rap collectives such as Freestyle Fellowship and who we now know as Jurassic 5, is shouted out in the album's liner notes, but Ahmad can't really be linked to either one segment of LA hip-hop. His consideration for party rap is almost old school, he employs Stan 'The Guitar Man' Jones, who lent a helping hand to many a gangsta rapper, he features Roger Troutman before the big names remembered him, and shortly after Ahmad joined Ras Kass and Saafir on the lyrical manifesto "Come Widdit," planting the seed for the supergroup project Golden State Warriors (which ultimately never materialized).
If any comparisons are in order, Ahmad could be seen as a combination of Slick Rick, Young MC and The Fresh Prince, with all of whom he shares a knack for telling stories and rocking parties. The album opens with "Freak," where the plot starts to unfold in no time. Ahmad sets out on a mission to find a spot where he can do the Freak (a dance, and maybe more than that), but gets caught up in South Central crossfire. He manages to dodge the bullets and arrives at the location "all out of breath and could hardly speak / but soon as I walked in the door a honey asked me if wanted to freak." That, my friends, is good storytelling exemplified in the shortest possible way. "The Palladium" is less eventful for our hero, as he plays it cool on this Friday night ("...than bein' home watchin' CHiPs / I'd rather watch chicks") and merely witnesses others get into trouble ("...havoc and mayhem - both straight from the West Coast"). But Ahmad wasn't just an observer, he was also a participant. People who might have been lulled by his boyish charm may have been surprised to hear him profess his carnal desires so frankly:
"I'm still cool at the Palladium show
yellin' out yo's with my bros and steady clockin' the hoes
But now it's 2 o'clock, I'm ready to split
ready to get in my Chevy
to get home and start hittin' it hard with Betty
Smith or Johnson, fuck it, it don't matter
just wanna climb inside a bladder like a ladder
cut the chit-chatter
So now you see me taggin' asses like graffiti
and on the next day I be restin', exhausted because I was naughty
but damn, that was a helluva party"
On this debut, Ahmad throws a couple of parties himself, and these weren't VIP happenings either, as anybody could join as long as you showed appreciation for the funk. Check "We Want the Funk," where Ahmad passes out flyers regardless of social status: "All you ballers with your 64 Impalas and bass comin' outta your trunk / you better holler if you want the funk," "y'all kids with tapes on your shelves and twelves boomin' outta your trunk / you better yell if you want the funk." "Touch the Ceiling" gets the party started with a busy horn section, a time-tested bassline and a scratched in Son Doobie offering "bonafide funk for your fanny." "Can I Party?" is West Coast funk meets East Coast jeep beats, thumping hard as Maurice Thompson lays "a beat down like the feds" (to use Ahmad's verbiage), slipping the drums from Digital Underground's "The Humpty Dance" into a double whammy of Parliament samples. With such a potent background it's a simple matter for Ahmad to give "props to the old school and the West Coast / who just toasted the return of the funk / with the fat beats for your trunk."
Fat beats which certainly are a great part of the appeal of "The Jones'." Producer Kendal concocts a slamming combination of hard drums and funky keyboard stabs while Roger adds his note of talkbox funk. Without any additional rappers, "The Jones'" is an effective claim of superiority on behalf of Ahmad and his crew the Jones'. He ain't no Rakim, but as ever so often, it's not just the lyrics that determine the impact of a rapper, but his entire demeanor. And Ahmad certainly had the confidence to make any claim:
"I'll hit you where it hurts
major relapse occurs when I throw verbs
and nouns; any sound that I spit up
'll have battle rappers usin' they clappers
because they don't wanna get up
They all wanna be like me
and so they re-write them wack-ass raps
that they make and try to fake
So I break bones and holler Jones'
forever; cleverest shit around
but don't ever let us get you down"
Still, the most memorable moments didn't occur when Ahmad talked about parties or engaged in wordplay. It's the songs that are on par with "Back in the Days" that make this album noteworty. "You Gotta Be..." is a cautionary tale about a gang initiation rite. Ahmad plays the soon-to-be BG at the same time acting and reasoning with himself, showing us how peer pressure works:
"If I don't rob this store
then I'm not sure
if I'm gonna be considered as a gee
And you gotta be (rough)
Cuffs are temporary, homies are for life
So I grab the deuce-deuce and go inside
I decide to groove in the mini-mart, 'Don't nobody move
start fillin' up the paper sack with loot or I might shoot!'
But things didn't go as planned cause this man had his own gun
We're standin toe to toe, eye to eye, so I figured why not
pull the trigger, put this nigga on the ground
It'll show that I had poise, then my boys'll know I'm down
But I didn't do it quick enough or he thought of it first
cause he blasted to the chest and now I'm restin', yellin' 'Nurse!'
and holdin' on to life or at least tryin' to hold on
in a jailward wearin' cuffs
cause I had to be (rough)"
Realizing what little influence a rapper who talks sense actually has, Ahmad closes by saying: "Well, that's the end of my tale / but before you know it fools'll just forget what I said / and the story go on and on until you up to no good, and / back throwin' up your hood and still doin' what you shouldn't." Yet the anti-gang message of "You Gotta Be..." didn't prevent Ahmad from pledging allegiance to the homies. "Homeboys First" reminds us of the true definition of a homeboy, that of a childhood friend. Finally, there's "Ordinary People." The Crusaders sample ("Do You Remember When") again evokes times past, and indeed the song's theme seems much more fitted for the warm '70s than the cold '90s. Ahmad dedicates the song to all the ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things. Like for instance a single mother:
"It was hard growing up with no pops
But moms did the supernatural; very
person that she is
She finished college, three kids at home cryin'
but never got fed up, and kept her head up
'Shoot for the sky,' is what she said, it
In my skull
That's how I got soul
to reach ya through your speaker
My mother alone helped me to be me
So that's my role model, not an idiot on TV
Used to do it 'like this
and like that, and like this'
But since she never let me join a gang
I couldn't g-thang
So for all her prayers at night under the church steeple
I give thanks to my mother, one of those very extraordinary people"
In sharp contrast to Ice Cube and his Westside Connection, who some years later claimed that "Gangstas Make the World Go Round," Ahmad assured: "Ordinary people make the world turn." Too bad "Ordinary People" wasn't a single, it could have countered MC Eiht's "Geez Make the Hood Go Round" single from the same year. Eiht's observation may have been accurate from his perspective, but somehow Ahmad didn't feel like glorifying the gangsta mentality:
"I wrote this to give a message, I'll be glad if it
switches your goal from bein' a gangsta to a graduate
And if you listen close to what I said you learned a lesson and
heard that all the average Jones are no greater or no lesser than
stars, cause all we all are is equal
So shut off your TV set and show respect to some of the ordinary people"
Ahmad promoted himself as the "West Coast kid with the new sound." And in case it wasn't really all that new, Ahmad and Kendal still made sure it was banging. What WAS new about a rapper like Ahmad was that he was his own man and not afraid to go against the grain. He wasn't a pothead like Cypress Hill or The Pharcyde, he wasn't a pop rapper like Young MC and Gerardo, he wasn't gangsta, he wasn't political, he was just Ahmad, a teenager whose love for hip-hop has him saying things like "Sorry, I don't mean to be a dog or a mutt / I'm just a big Cool J fan and Tina got a big ole butt." This Cool J fan came up with one of the most intriguing deliveries of his time, a conversational yet highly melodic flow, paired with liberal but concise rhyming patterns. Lyrically, he was able to make an argument over the course of more than one or two bars, which sadly is a rare quality. It made for an interesting rapper to listen to, even if what he said ultimately wasn't always that interesting. Add to that solid songwriting, some excellent hooks, clever use of background vocals and a powerful sound (it always pays having Brian 'Big Bass' Gardner add the finishing touches to your shit), and you end up with an EXTRAordinary album.
Music Vibes: 9 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8.5 of 10
Originally posted: May 10, 2005