Happy 25th Anniversary to Hard 2 Obtain’s debut (and only) studio album Ism & Blues, originally released July 5, 1994.
Hard 2 Obtain remains an oddly unknown quantity of mid 1990s hip-hop. Comprised of Warren “Taste” Mason, Lorenzo “DL” Smith and Kevin “DJ Six Seven” Calhoun, they released Ism & Blues, their first and only album, 25 years ago via Atlantic Records. The Long Island-based crew had a dope and reasonably successful single, “L.I. Groove,” and their inaugural LP was produced almost entirely by the SD50s/Stimulated Dummies, one of the most talented production crews of the ’90s.
But even back in the mid ’90s, Hard 2 Obtain never received much coverage. Atlantic believed in them enough to release a total of three singles and film a pair of videos, but the group received very little promotion otherwise. They were never interviewed by The Source or any other major hip-hop publications of the time. They never appeared on Yo! MTV Raps. There appears to be very little information about the group out there. Ism & Blues received mixed reviews when first released, but the album’s stature has grown over time. It’s now considered one of the underappreciated gems of its era.
Before Ism & Blues was released, Hard 2 Obtain had started to appear on the radar. 3rd Bass’ Pete Nice namechecked them as one of the groups that he was working with in an interview with The Source back in 1993. This is likely due to their affiliation with follow Long Island-residents KMD; both Taste and DL appeared on “F*** With Ya Head” on KMD’s unreleased Black Bastards album.
However, Dante Ross, the most visible member of the SD50s and a former A&R executive for Tommy Boy Records, has all but disavowed the album. Or at least made clear that he wasn’t fond of Hard 2 Obtain. The former A&R and talented producer has never been shy about sharing his opinions on the albums that he was involved with. In an interview with Wax Poetics back in 2004, he admitted that, “I never really liked them … I thought they were kind of wack actually and I kept saying that the whole time.”
Over a year later, DJ Six Seven fired back at Ross in the comment section on a long since inactive “Manifest Destiny” blog, calling him everything except a child of God. He vaguely threatened Ross and added that the other members of the SD50s did all the work on the album. He also tore into the then head of Atlantic Records for not knowing how to market hip-hop. It’s actually the most extensive comment on anything that I’ve ever read by a member of the group. Ross clapped back, dismissing him as an “idiot.”
Looking beyond the overall imprint that Hard 2 Obtain has left to future musicologists, Ism & Blues is a damn good album. It exemplifies the no gimmicks approach that emcees and crews signed to major labels could still take during the mid ’90s. A quarter of a century later, when most artists care an inordinate amount about crafting their brand, Ism & Blues exists as a stand-alone collection of dope music.
And yes, the beats are superbly crafted and exceptionally banging. SD50s didn’t often commit to producing nearly an entire album, but when they did, they came correct. And Ism & Blues is no exception. The crew was well known for their ability to take dusty soul and jazz tracks and transform them into hip-hop bliss. They excelled at creating both thick, sonically packed production, and simpler, sparser tracks.
What has been said about Taste as an emcee tends to focus on the fact that his vocal tone sounded a lot of like Grand Puba, one of the era’s more celebrated lyricists. The fact that SD50s had frequently worked with Puba as both a member of Brand Nubian and as a solo artist made the comparisons even more glaring. Though Taste was not as adept as Puba, he certainly proved himself competent, and both he and DL acquit themselves well on the SD50’s production.
As mentioned earlier, Hard 2 Obtain’s most recognizable song is “L.I. Groove,” a dedication to repping the area of their birth. The track is a near production masterpiece by the SD50s, as it starts with just Taste and DL kicking their rough raps over a cracking drum track and muted bassline. Slowly, the production team brings a jazzy sax sample and a distinctive piano loop from Melvin Sparks’ “If You Want My Love.” Eventually everything interlocks together to create a song as dope as anything released during the mid ’90s.
And as crews were wont to do during this era, Hard 2 Obtain recorded a lot of tracks that were focused on exploring and extolling their own lyrical ability. They display these skills on tracks like “Joker’s World” and “Babble On,” which set the album’s mood from the outset. Taste and DL channel hip-hop’s old school days on “Parkyard Lingo,” flowing over a funky but understated bassline, taken from Maynard Ferguson’s “Pocahontas.” “Bust Me Down” is blessed with another sublime saxophone sample and a smooth but moving keyboard groove, as Taste raps, “I’m all that / freaking all the flows that broke your speaker stack / and make you turn your fucking hat back.”
“A Lil’ Something,” the album’s busy posse cut, is notable for an early appearance by both of the Artifacts. The New Jersey roughnecks were also signed to Atlantic Records and would release their debut album Between a Rock and a Hard Place mere months later. Tame One delivers the best verse on the song, rapping, “Do damage like a tumor, walk through asses in my Pumas.” The song also features what I believe is the first and only appearance of Raquel, an emcee that sounds quite similar to LA’s own Yo-Yo, another Atlantic signee.
Hard 2 Obtain doesn’t solely focus on lyrical braggadocio, as some of the album’s best moments come when they address different topics. “S*** We Do,” produced by DJ Nastee, chronicles a day in the life of Taste and DL, as they wander through their L.I. ’hood, shooting dice and getting into various forms of trouble. The slow and deliberate bassline gives the track its laid-back feel.
On the more serious end, tracks like “Heels Without Souls” and “Street Dwellers” chronicle the dangers that they face living in the rougher parts of Long Island, warning of the denizens that are out to wreak havoc with remorse. “Local Hero” is a sharp bit of storytelling by the crew, as they chronicle the criminal aspirations of Old Man Vin and his growing empire. After setting up a 60-man crew of dealers and street soldiers, he becomes a neighborhood celebrity, before eventually running afoul of crooked cops and rivals gunning for his spot.
The DJ Nastee-produced “Ghetto Diamond,” the album’s second single, functions as Hard 2 Obtain’s inverted version of MC Lyte’s “Ruffneck” or a less explicit version of Apache’s “Gangsta B****.” The song is a dedication to beautiful and street-savvy women who rock Timberlands and jeans and have “slammin’ ass mentals.” Songs celebrating women you can puff a blunt and drink a beer with are very much a product of the mid-’90s, but this one holds up.
It shouldn’t really be important what became of Hard 2 Obtain after Ism & Blues. There’s the argument to be made that music should speak and be heard on its own terms, and context and history aren’t necessary. But I will say that Ism & Blues is good enough to make me want to know more about the group. It’s good enough to desire a follow-up album, to hear what they would have sounded like over more SD50s production. But if I need to settle for one album that sounds even better now than it did then, I’ll just have to live with it.