Happy 25th Anniversary to Above the Law’s third studio album Uncle Sam’s Curse, originally released July 12, 1994.
It’s frequently said that gangsta rap reflects the harsh reality of the streets. Rarely was reality so harsh as it is on Above the Law’s Uncle Sam’s Curse. Before this album was released 25 years ago, the Southern California crew had been making a case as one of the strongest gangsta rap groups in the game. With their third full album, the collective continued to prove that they understood and could articulate the hopelessness that poverty spawns better than most rappers.
Comprised of emcees Gregory “Cold 187um” Hutchinson and Kevin “KMG” Gulley, as well as Arthur “Go Mack” Goodman, Above the Law were signed to Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records, and were probably the best overall crew working with the label at the time. Uncle Sam’s Curse was released during a period of great roster expansion for Ruthless. Death Row Records was firmly dominating the West Coast sound, so in what seemed like a move to prevent Dr. Dre from fully cornering the market, Eazy began signing and releasing lots of albums by a whole host of artists.
Some of these artists were superstars in the making, like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Others were musically interesting if not commercially successful, like Blood of Abraham or Atban Klann (an early incarnation of Black Eyed Peas). Still others were bad ideas all together, like H.W.A. or Steffon. And then there were the gangsta OGs with undeniable street bona fides, like MC Ren, Frost, and Above the Law, who were offered a chance to join Death Row, but had decided to remain with Eazy instead.
Above the Law had been moving in a “darker” direction for a few years. The group had been unsung pioneers in the creation of the G-Funk sound, and with Uncle Sam’s Curse they continued to expand and improve their musical palette. Unlike their previous album Black Mafia Life (1993), which relied heavily on sampled material, Cold 187um chose to go another direction with Uncle Sam’s Curse, making more frequent use of live instrumentation.
Songs like the album opening “Return of the Real Shit” and later the album’s title track typify this approach. The former track lays on heavy warped keyboards and a bassline, while incorporating portions of Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” that are slowed down to almost beyond the point of recognition. Meanwhile, “Uncle Sam’s Curse” is a busy and dense mixture of synthesizers, percussion, and vocals, which all somehow come together to be darkly melodic. Both of these tracks also deal with the album’s overall theme: the pervasive despair that often goes along with living in economically depressed areas.
Uncle Sam’s Curse is a grim but not nihilistic album. The title of the album is the group’s own term for ghettos across the country, as they viewed these areas as the legacy of hundreds of years of oppression of the African-American population by the ruling class. Much of the album concerns the group discussing how to survive in these communities, amidst rampant crime, drug abuse, and a predatory police force.
Above the Law incorporate snippets of dialogue from the film Against The Wall (1994) as a framing device and as a means to express their philosophy throughout the album. The made-for-cable film depicts a somewhat fictionalized version of the 1971 Attica Prison uprising. The references to the film communicate how they and the population in these neighborhoods viewed themselves, prisoners living under a hostile force, but ready to rise up if necessary, because “if they won't let you live like men, you can sure as hell die like men.”
Throughout Uncle Sam’s Curse, Above the Law employ “non-traditional” means to ensure ghetto survival, eschewing the “live positive” paradigm as a cure-all. Take the album’s first single, the deeply funky “Black Superman.” Both KMG and Cold 187um position themselves as protecting and “saving” their loved ones, but not in any conventional way. KMG describes himself as crimefighter, but instead of a traditional Baseball and Apple Pie superhero, he’s “a walking dead man” who carries a big gun, dispensing cold and efficient street justice. Meanwhile, Cold 187um describes how he’s “saving” his mother and the rest of his family by selling drugs in his community, using the money that he earns from crack sales to give them all a better life outside of the ghetto.
Another of the album’s highlights is “Set Free,” where Cold 187um and KMG recount the necessary steps they took in order to not get caught up in the pervasive gang lifestyle while growing up. It features some of the album’s best production, as the two flow over a meandering guitar and jarring synth hits. “One Time Two Meny” is the group’s anti-police screed. Cold 187um uses conversational flow to rail against unnecessary and racially motivated car stops by the crooked cops.
Uncle Sam’s Curse is not unrelenting in its gloom. “Kalifornia,” the album’s second single, is a celebratory ode to the Southern part of the state of their birth, as the pair rap over a replayed version of The Time’s “Gigolos Get Lonely Too.” The song also features a verse by Kokane, the rapper/singer who had a long history of collaboration with the group, and is a frequent presence throughout the album.
Kokane also contributes a verse on “Who Ryde,” another upbeat jam dedicated to rolling through the streets of Los Angeles, seeking out female attention, and, when necessary, raining bullets upon their enemies. It’s another musically creative entry on the album, built around backward-masked drums, a bassline, and keyboards, while also using bits of lyrics from Parliament’s “Colour Me Funky.” The song is also notable for its closing verse by Tone Lōc, who hadn’t released an album since 1991.
“Gangsta Madness,” the album’s final full song, is a wrenching look at the omnipresence of death that Black communities can face on a daily basis, as the number of victims of gang violence continues to grow. Over a live guitar groove and soaring synths, KMG delivers a moving verse, rapping, “I realized a long time ago I couldn’t accept death to the dome / ’Til it hit me close to home / But we suppose to pick up the pieces, act like it didn’t happen / And wait for the next hood cappin’.”
Uncle Sam’s Curse ends with another sample from Against The Wall, a scene where it appears that then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller has agreed to meet with the Attica inmates, only for the National Guard to lay siege to the relatively unsuspecting prisoners instead. It’s a grim end to a largely grim album. But it still reflects the group’s overall ethos: Above the Law may end up victims of the ’hood and the crooked government, but at least they’ll go out fighting. And sometimes the will to fight is enough to make living cursed worth it.