Happy 30th Anniversary to King T’s debut album Act a Fool, originally released November 15, 1988.
When it came to Southern California hip-hop in the late ’80s, Compton was definitely in the house. The relatively small city located to the south of downtown Los Angeles became notorious for its high crime rate in the ’70s and ’80s. And as rap music became a major musical force, it became ground zero for some of Los Angeles’ best known rappers and albums. The year of 1988 saw the releases of N.W.A’s Straight Out of Compton and Eazy-E’s Eazy Duz It. But a release that often doesn’t get the props it’s due is Act a Fool, the debut album by Roger “King T” McBride (previously known by his slightly modified stage moniker King Tee), released 30 years ago.
Back in the late ’80s, the LA rap community was tightly knit, so King T came up with pioneering rap crews like Uncle Jamm’s Army and Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate. His style and approach to making music was definitely steeped in crafting tales of grim realities on Compton’s streets, but King T was also a multi-facetted emcee. More than most of the Southern California-based rappers, King T prided himself on being a lyricist. Possessing a deep, booming voice, he exuded cool, and had verbal techniques to back up his often audacious boasts. The cover to Act a Fool said it all: King T strutting through the streets of Compton, shotgun in hand, just in front of a sparkling white Cadillac.
An even more underrated component of Act a Fool is its production. The legendary Mark “DJ Pooh” Gordon shines behind the boards throughout the album, creating a distinctive sound. Pooh is primarily known for his early ’90s works with the Boogie Men, producing albums like Ice Cube’s Death Certificate (1991) and Del the Funky Homosapien’s I Wish My Brother George Was Here (1991), not to mention his role co-writing and acting in the film Friday (1995). But Pooh did some of his best work with King T, shining as an innovator at manipulating the drum machine to create banging drum tracks to go along with the sample-based Los Angeles funk.
King T first became known for “Bass,” a rollicking party jam that became a staple of LA parties and rotation on KDAY, the nation first all hip-hop station that operated in the ’80s and early ’90s. The track is King T’s ode to foundation-shaking beats, and he makes sure to pay homage to the almighty bass drum, rapping, “I need some BOOM, to crack the walls / Break the windows, shake the room / When I’m done take my photo, this is how it go though / King of cool lyrics, and I’m solo.” The song appears in remixed (and superior) form on Act a Fool, as Pooh’s production adds some heft to the track, featuring the horns more prominently, while maintaining the levels of hard-hitting thump.
“The Coolest” is King T’s attempt at sounding downright regal on record. He assumes the role of a “cool impresario, majority ruler,” slaying fake emcees and crack cocaine itself over the span of three verses. DJ Pooh freaks a sample of The Meters’ “Sissy Strut” to complement his confident, laid-back flow, as he raps, “Microphone magician, it’s the end when I start / A confidential differential, I’m the state of the art / Crowned King b-boy, the elite rap reverend / Master of the Ceremony 24/7.”
On “Payback’s a Mutha” King T goes full Mike Tyson on those who refused to pay him respect. He attacks the track with the brashness and fury of a young LL Cool J, ready to establish his dominance and crush all trash-talkers and back-stabbers. The song features one of the earliest uses of James Brown’s “Big Payback,” infusing it with even more urgency as King T goes for the throat. He raps, “Got an Emmy in rap for using my cool strategy / Rapping was nominated to get an Academy / The girlies I get, suckers probably get mad at me / But I don’t care, King T is the baddest, see.”
King Tipsy demonstrates his storytelling ability on the album’s title track, and the first single used to promote the album. It plays like his version of N.W.A’s “8-Ball,” with King T cruising the streets of Los Angeles on a Friday night, bumping Parliament and Dana Dane, looking for a party to crash, and getting inebriated as the evening progresses. He also makes what I believe may be the first reference to using a cellular/car phone on record. Pooh’s use of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Lover Jones,” along with various screams and yelps from James Brown and Joe Tex, makes the track practically drown in funk. The drum track pounds away like a piston, grooving with machine-like precision and efficiency.
DJ Pooh’s production chops really shine on a track like “Ko Rock Stuff,” particularly his innovative drum programming. The constantly shifting patterns blend seamlessly with the funk-filled bassline sampled from The Meters’ “Cardova.” Both King T and Pooh contribute rhymes to the song, often trading lines, often punctuated by samples and vocal scratches from Three Stooges films.
“Guitar Playin’” is another song that highlights Pooh’s abilities as a beat-maker. King T rhymes mostly bare-bones, but the drum track Pooh creates is intricately complex. Pooh adds snippets of guitars from War’s “Slipping Into Darkness” and backwards-masked horns. King T primarily uses a slower flow throughout the song, speeding up his cadence when necessary, rapping, “’Cause rhyme is what I like, I got a metaphor background / A punk jumps up, I bust a verse, he sits back down / I wrote an epic, I hope you accept it / Fly stupid rhymes I composed and perfected.”
King T has often brought a less serious sensibility to gangsta rap. While he’s been committed to depicting the adversities of being born and raised in Compton, he’s always worked to inject a little levity into his material. On “Flirt,” a track dedicated to his prowess at scooping females, King T doesn’t take himself too seriously. I found the skit “Baggin’ On Moms” particularly entertaining during my high school years, considering that it’s essentially two minutes of non-stop “Your mother…” jokes (pre-dating The Pharcyde’s “Ya Mama” by about four years). I’ve lost track of how many times I told someone “Your mother’s so ugly, her shadow won’t follow her.”
Act a Fool draws to a close with “Just Clowning,” the album’s posse cut. Here King T shares the mic with Breeze, an LA Posse affiliate making one of his first appearances, and Los Angeles hip-hop legend Mixmaster Spade, a member of the aforementioned Uncle Jamm’s Army. The song is a love letter to the early days of Southern California hip-hop, as the three drop light-hearted, party-oriented rhymes over Parliament’s “Aqua Boogie.” The verse by Spade, who passed in 2005, is a highlight of the song, as you can hear his joy vibrate through his sing-songy flow.
King T continued his reign throughout the early ’90s, earning respect from his peers and building a strong catalogue. He briefly signed to Dr. Dre’s then fledging Aftermath Records, but his planned release Thy Kingdom Come was never officially released. However, he continued to have an impact on some of the well-known greats: Ice-T has said King T was one of Notorious B.I.G.’s favorite emcees. And you can hear his influence in the style of recent Compton superstars like Jay Rock. So while his albums may not receive the shine that they deserve, King T’s impact and ability is unquestionable. In reevaluating 1988, a great year for Compton hip-hop, the King sits comfortably on his throne.