Happy 25th Anniversary to Leaders of the New School’s second & final studio album T.I.M.E. (The Inner Mind’s Eye), originally released October 12, 1993.
Dante Ross has appeared on a lot of podcasts. With the surge of long-form online discussion in the last five to ten years, there have been some really good ones that have centered around people affiliated with the hip-hop industry talking to other industry vets, be they artists, producers, or executives. And Ross, a multi-platinum producer that got his start at Def Jam and is a former A&R of Tommy Boy and Elektra Records, makes a really good guest.
When Ross has appeared on podcasts like The Combat Jack Show, The Juan Epstein Show, or Mogul he has shared stories of his days in the trenches. He’s a knowledgeable, charismatic, and personable guy, so these episodes are always fascinating. He likes talking about his success stories, like signing De La Soul & Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or launching Brand Nubian’s career. But Ross also likes to talk about where things went wrong. Sometimes this involves him describing his experience A&Ring albums that he hated. And if there’s one thing that’s crystal clear from listening to Ross talk, it’s that he hated Leaders of the New School’s sophomore album T.I.M.E. (The Inner Mind’s Eye).
Released 25 years ago, T.I.M.E. was Leaders of the New School’s much-maligned follow-up to their heralded 1991 debut album A Future Without a Past. However, the album has a bad rap that it doesn’t deserve. I’ll go so far as to say it hasn’t received a fair shake. At all. It’s dark, occasionally lyrically and musically dense, and not particularly accessible. Coming off its exuberant precursor, it seems like a completely different animal.
Leaders of the New School was comprised of Trevor “Busta Rhymes” Smith, Bryan “Charlie Brown” Higgins, James “Dinco D” Jackson, and Sheldon “Cutmonitor Milo” Scott. They were protégés of Public Enemy, taken under the group’s wing as a bunch of teenage emcees based in Long Island, NY. Chuck D famously gave Busta Rhymes and Charlie Brown their stage names, and the group made its name touring with Public Enemy.
A Future Without a Past was a high-energy chronicle of teenagers from Long Island trying to find their place in the world. The album was successful, buoyed by such infectious singles as “Case of the P.T.A.” and “Sobb Story.” Soon Leaders of the New School (or LONS) began branching out, famously aligning themselves with the Native Tongues crew, and appearing on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” single from their sophomore set The Low End Theory (1991). No longer teenagers and looking to capitalize on their success, LONS began to work on their follow-up album. And that’s where things got complicated.
If you hear Ross tell the story, T.I.M.E. was snake-bitten from the start. What he and the Elektra Records team really wanted was a solo album by Busta Rhymes. Busta had the bombastic style and voice, as well as scene-stealing final verses on both “Scenario” and its remix. From early on, Ross, Rush Management (particularly Lyor Cohen) and Elektra believed he was a superstar in the making. Which, you know, he was. So after the release of A Future Without a Past and especially following LONS’ appearance on “Scenario,” there was a sustained push from the higher-ups for either A) Busta to leave the group and go solo, or B) the group to record a follow-up album with Busta at the forefront, built to further showcase his talent. And T.I.M.E. proved to be neither of these things.
The production for T.I.M.E. was helmed by Backspin, members of the group, and beat-makers like Sam Sever and RPM (of their affiliated crew, Rumpletilskinz). Which wasn’t that much of a departure from their first album, considering that Backspin and members of LONS had handled much of the production for A Future Without a Past as well.
Lyrically, the group took a different path with T.I.M.E. A Future Without a Past was filled with songs about cutting school, getting suspended/expelled from said school, borrowing your parent’s car, dealing with bullies, and appreciating the female form. In other words, things that high schoolers would conceivably talk or rap about. But since everyone was a little older when T.I.M.E. was recorded, the subject matter shifted accordingly. For this album, LONS mostly rap about being the literal Leaders of the New School of emceeing, working to advance the artform and display their skills in the process.
Each of the group’s members had always been stylistically unique, but there’s an increased emphasis on creating complex vocal patterns and flows. There’s still the energy and the Cold Crush Bros.-esque tributes with the old school chants, as all four members continue to “East Coast Stomp” over each track. But the moments of whimsy were gone. A lot of the material is reminiscent of the lyrical explosions that artists like Organized Konfusion would execute. Which made for good music, but was arguably, utterly inaccessible.
Ross was unhappy with what resulted. He’s said in numerous interviews that he sent the group back to the studio. Multiple times. In his opinion, nothing worked. According to Ross, he pushed for the group to allow Q-Tip to produce the entire album, but only Busta warmed to the idea. In the end, T.I.M.E. was eventually released in its current sonic and lyrical form.
Much is usually made about Busta’s performance on the album, which is indeed excellent. His verse on “Scenario” proved to be an excellent launching point for his evolution as a lyricist. Yes, he was still the proverbial “dungeon dragon,” with the monstrous voice and mic presence, but he had also grown as an emcee, and was capable of delivering intricately constructed verses.
It’s worth noting that Charlie Brown is excellent in his own right throughout T.I.M.E. He also grew as an emcee, eliminating his previous reliance on gimmicky quirks (like frequently shouting “Aah!” through his rhymes), and improving his delivery and performance. Dinco remained an underrated contributor to the group’s success, lending a straight-forward, no frills flow, and a distinct vocal tone. Cutmonitor Milo, the group’s DJ, is still a little rough as an emcee throughout the album, but he still holds his own.
Listening to T.I.M.E. can be an exercise in musical sensory overload. The album opening “Understanding the Inner Mind’s Eye” is a swirling, spacey vortex of vocal samples, pianos, and neck-snapping drums. Tracks like “Daily Reminder,” “Connections,” and “Bass Is Loaded” are similarly complex productions, where the different musical elements often seem right on the edge of clashing, but still somehow gel together.
Both of the album’s singles, “What’s Next” and “Classic Material,” possess the same chaotic sonic aesthetic, and were unlike most singles being released by reasonably popular hip-hop groups at the time. “What’s Next” moves at a much more rapid pace, while “Classic Material” is more deliberate and methodical in tempo. Busta gives the best lyrical performance on the track with his closing verse, blacking out as he raps, “We express an emotion through a style they call lyrical / Mysterical, we make it complicated and technical / Numerical as we move down like a decimal /(East Coast Stomp!) ’Cause you know that is the principal.”
And then at times LONS take a much different approach on T.I.M.E., using a minimalist approach to the musical backdrop. Songs like “Syntax Era,” “Time Will Tell,” and “The End is Near” are practically reserved, as the stripped-down musical execution allows the lyrics to shine.
“Spontaneous (13 MC’s Deep)” is a similarly sparse, dark posse cut produced by the always underrated Sam Sever. The track features verses from indeed 13 emcees rhyming over a brooding horn loop and piano samples. Besides the four members of LONS, the line-up including LONS-affiliates Rumpletilskinz and the first appearance of Rampage the Last Boy Scout, who would go on to become Busta’s Flipmode Squad cohort.
T.I.M.E. is at its strongest musically when things seem close to careening out of control. “A Quarter to Cutthroat” is one of the album’s best entries, punctuated by a rumbling drum track and blaring horns. The song is bookended by a pair of great verses. Charlie Brown leads things off with perhaps his strongest effort on the album, as he raps, “One fourth the factor, here to Cackalacka / Crack that back like a chiropractor / Just a collective, my perspective / To be effective is the main objective.” With his final verse, Busta effectively strings together declarative statements into a continuous flow, rapping, “You need to sweat yourself, don't sweat nobody else / I got my own perspiration, check the conversation / Minutes away, your ass is through dealing / Ha! Smack yourself and find exactly what you're feeling.”
As mentioned earlier, T.I.M.E. was not a commercial success, but by most accounts very little could have held the group together. The personalities within the group had begun to clash during the recording process, and things boiled over soon after the album’s release. In an infamous installment of Yo! MTV Raps, the group dissolved mid-episode. Things had started off tense, beginning with contentious comments made by Charlie Brown, and went downhill from there. Eventually the group huddled up off camera and called it quits.
In the wake of the breakup, Ross, Rush Management and Elektra Records got what they wanted, as Busta Rhymes emerged from the crew a burgeoning superstar. After another slew of outstanding guest appearances, he released his solo debut LP The Coming in 1996, and hasn’t looked back. Busta has more or less remained in the spotlight as a solo artist for over 20 years.
The other three members of LONS haven’t been as successful at making music outside of the auspices of the crew. Dinco D’s Cameo Flows (2016) is the only album to be released between the three of them. The trio has toured and performed as LONS, but of course things aren’t the same without Busta.
It’s never quite clear whether or not Busta and the rest of LONS get along at any given moment. The four reunited on The Coming’s “Keep It Movin’,” and Busta did perform with the group in Brooklyn in 2012. However, in between and after those instances, they’ve aired a lot of dirty laundry, and it’s never been quite clear whether they really like each other. In late 2016, there were some rumblings that the group was working on new material together, but nothing has come from it, at least not yet.
Busta’s superstardom and the lingering ill-will has made T.I.M.E. an odd artifact of the times. It was far too out there to be a mainstream hit, and it’s conceivable that Ross heard it and didn’t have the vaguest idea of how he could market it. But it is admirable the group took risks in recording the album, grew artistically, and didn’t play it safe. Though they weren’t rewarded with record sales, T.I.M.E. remains a solid artistic achievement that deserves recognition