Happy 25th Anniversary to The Brand New Heavies’ Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol. 1, originally released August 3, 1992.
As I drift deeper into the abyss of my thirties, it still doesn’t seem fathomable that the music that provided the soundtrack to my youth is hitting milestones like 25 years. It’s even odder when I happen upon the throwback CDs, cassettes, and vinyl that has made its way into the crevasses of my man-cave. I find myself reflecting upon the times when great music flooded record store shelves weekly, often with no precedent for the moments of brilliance that lay within these now battered album covers.
A largely overlooked landmark in the very exclusive genre of sheer musical chic is the Brand New Heavies’ 1992 sophomore album Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol 1. The British acid jazz/funk band had already proven how unnecessary musical guardrails were, with the addition of the Southern songbird N’Dea Davenport, whose sultry vocals meshed with the Heavies’ rhythm section. The combination was surprisingly satisfying, in a way that signaled euphoria akin to the first time you ate fried chicken with buttermilk waffles.
Switching over to the Los Angeles based indie label Delicious Vinyl to re-release their eponymous debut album in 1991, the band managed critical acclaim and some commercial success within a landscape still dominated by the New Jack Swing movement. Going back to the drawing board to avoid the sophomore jinx, the band conceived a jam session styled album with some of hip-hop’s most elite lyricists of the time.
No big deal for students of the succeeding decades, but in 1992, some critics still thought that hip-hop had merely outlasted Disco, but would inevitably fade into relative obscurity. Undeterred by the naysayers, the Heavies pushed on with their visionary album, and stylishly charted a path that melded funk, soul and hip-hop years before we would be formally introduced to Philadelphia’s Roots crew and the chart-topping Black Eyed Peas.
Some of Heavy Rhyme’s standout moments took form with their Delicious Vinyl labelmates, namely The Pharcyde and Masta Ace. The Pharcyde’s street corner chemistry and animated voices on the album-concluding “Soul Flower”—the group’s first time on wax—offered a welcome alternative to the “I’ll shoot ya mother” gangster rhymes of the time. The track closes the album with as much entertainment as would have been expected if Fat Albert’s Junkyard Gang had offered a freestyle over a Gamble & Huff song.
“Wake Me When I’m Dead” features Masta Ace a.k.a. the “Music Man” in one of the most understated moments of his unsung career. The skilled emcee uses the supporting live instrumentation to show his high musical IQ, delivering an off-beat flow with his signature wit that would inspire future underground artists like the Lyricist Lounge’s Wordsworth along with more mainstream icons such as the one-and-only Marshall Mathers.
The Godfather himself, Kool G. Rap, also dropped in to add his vintage Mafioso lyrics to the ‘70s themed “Death Threat.” Sounding like the perfect villain theme for the goon sent out to murk Shaft, G. Rap exhausts the album’s entire F-bomb inventory. But while he singlehandedly earns the album its Parental Advisory sticker, he’s thoughtful enough to avoid overshadowing the band’s ability to keep it funky with crisp synchronicity.
The Grand Puba blessed “Who Makes the Loot?” makes a strong case for the strongest song on the LP. Along with his production partner DJ Shabazz, the swag king brings as his uptown pedigree and signature style to the table over a Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “The Way We Were/Try to Remember” sample, years before the release of Wu Tang’s iconic track “Can It Be All So Simple.”
One of my few personal grievances with the LP is the missing-in-action status of Davenport, whose conspicuous absence is particularly felt on “It’s Getting Hectic” with the late great Guru of Gang Starr. Most would agree that Guru’s monotone delivery and thought-provoking lyrics would have bounced perfectly off her vibrant alto. Luckily, “Baldhead Slick” would recruit Ms. Davenport a year later for his own Jazz-Funk-Hip-Hop fusion album Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol 1. “When (Guru) put together the Jazzmatazz project, it was definitely one of the first and finest in how it was conceived," Davenport recalled during her conversation with Albumism's Christopher A. Daniel in 2016. "It started being the norm to put an emcee with a vocalist. That set up a certain precedent, too, that’s really not recognized. He definitely deserves a lot of props for his contributions.”
“Bonafied Funk” featured Main Source, a group who almost seemed destined to own the ‘90s, specifically the group’s front man and producer extraordinaire Large Professor. Main Source’s debut LP Breaking Atoms was one of hip-hop’s most acclaimed albums of 1991, so when Extra P’s deep Queens accent burst through the jazzy live instrumental, “Bonafied Funk” became the most effective means of helping the Heavies expand to a more late night audience.
Long before Kanye West collaborated with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, or JAY-Z rocked out with Linkin Park, the Brand New Heavies were making live music for the cool kids, and added one additional ingredient to their simple recipe. The bold and ultimately genius formula of combining the strengths of the group’s talented musicians with some of hip-hop’s most gifted lyricists forever changed the game. The end result was Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol. 1, arguably the sleeper album of 1992 and now a highly coveted possession for any true hip-hop snob, especially in this current era of vinyl’s resurgence.