Happy 20th Anniversary to Def Squad’s debut album El Niño, originally released June 30, 1998.
I was just a little kid falling in love with hip-hop in the summer of 1992 when EPMD dropped their fourth LP Business Never Personal. Even at only nine years old, I remember that feeling of an atomic bomb being dropped on the world of hip-hop as the supergroup Hit Squad began to run the table for a full industry takeover.
EPMD was like an enigma to me, because somehow without dominating radio, they still managed to be the most talked about rap group in my neighborhood. Every car or jeep in West Baltimore seemed to be blaring their hit record “Crossover” with songs from fellow Hit Squad members Das EFX, Redman, and K-Solo on deck for the boombox or car stereo. When “Head Banger” dropped, hip-hop heads everywhere were in such a frenzy that even Wu-Tang Clan members have gone on record to state that they studied this record as the blueprint for their own organizational structure.
None of my friends or I understood what it would mean for hip-hop that Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith were parting ways as the smoke cleared from the colossal “Head Banger” posse record. Redman’s classic debut Whut? Thee Album, released later that year, did however show that there was plenty of promise from the Hit Squad camp. The ensuing months would see the squad splinter as the members were left to choose sides between the two leaders who would break off and lead their own factions. Smith would keep the Hit Squad moniker and the kids from the sewer, Das EFX, while Sermon kept a close relationship with Redman, and a new protégé by the name of Keith Murray who would debut on his 1993 solo LP No Pressure to form the Def Squad.
Sermon would rise to high acclaim in the early ‘90s, becoming a premier hitmaker both for rap and R&B records. He oversaw the bulk of Redman’s production which helped bolster his respect as one of the elite solo artists of the decade. Murray would carve his own path with his 1994 debut The Most Beautifulest Thing, which would earn a gold plaque for the innovator of advanced vocabulary.
With two of the game’s highly revered emcees behind mastermind-level production, El Niño was one of the most anticipated LPs of 1998. Pushed with Redman’s winning personality and stoner brand of humor, “Def Squad Delight” and “Full Cooperation” highlighted the group’s freestyle delivery and frat house camaraderie.
Murray led “Full Cooperation,” easily delivering battle raps “I see y'all been writin’ /still bitin’ / still lookin’ lame / half y'all niggas still soundin’ the same / I'm excitin' when live on stage, when reciting, enlightening, frightening / lightning throwin' thunder in chain, when I first came / I gave birth to a million emcees in the game / who should all carry my last name.” Sermon would follow suit, having proven himself a viable double threat on both ends of a good beat, since his early days in EPMD. One of E-Dub’s most memorable verbal displays is his boast on the second verse of “Full Cooperation,” in which he contends, “So flavorous you can taste it / so hardcore, I wrote this layin’ on the floor in the basement / my style ain't no walk in the park / got mainstream emcees, scared to rhyme after dark / and there ain't no half-steppin’ / I'm reppin' like a nuclear weapon /manifestin' the Immaculate Conception.” Redman’s trip to the plate made good contact and cleared the bases, landing the lead single as a success for the group with his vintage rhymes, “Now when we take it there, these three niggas in the square / my squad hangs out like 400 pounds in braziers / my death-row alliance, bein’ signed then aligned, too electric / so it clear like a chair in Texas, HOT / approach with extreme caution / no horsin’ around when my squad abortion a sound.”
Much of the album which was anticipated with high expectations seemed to be filler, and exposed what appeared to be a lack of focus. All three members had released solo projects in the not-too-distant past and were already fulfilling label obligations for future work. It would seem like Redman already had his sights on collaborating more frequently with Def Jam labelmate and new rhyme partner Method Man.
El Niño did however produce at least one more memorable moment as Parrish Smith delivered the hook for “Countdown” which had the intention of recreating the magic of 1992’s “Head Banger.” Along with Smith, “Countdown” features Jamal, who is still considered the group’s fourth member and maintained a relationship with Erick since originally collaborating as a member of the group Illegal for the 1993 song “We Getz Busy.” Jamal’s 1995 debut LP Last Chance, No Breaks would have a strong Def Squad presence with both its singles produced by members of the collective.
Album opening track “Check N’ Me Out” immediately shows the group’s strength in the form of hardcore raps over Sermon’s funky, base heavy rhythm. Redman’s rhymes, “When we do jobs, me and my dogs ready to get it / snatch you out the 5 Series like I'm winning the Pennant / even at 112 degrees, Sky's the Limit / sodomized the style till you idolized the finish,” followed by E-Dub’s “I'm suave with it, my rhyme I play with it / I cut the style up, and DJ with it / can you help me / ask Bill Bellamy what's the jam of the week / when he speak, it be something I freak” show a game plan the crew repeatedly strayed from. A little too skit heavy with some premature tri-coastal experimentation, El Niño was still a fun soundtrack for my own juvenile delinquency, and a welcome reminder of the days of Phat Farm t-shirts, baggy jeans and the secrets stuffed in the bottom of our Jan Sport bookbags.
The super trio proved that you could have a good time while staying lyrical, although they didn’t quite deliver the product expected by a kid that had literally been raised on their music.