Happy 25th Anniversary to the Menace II Society Soundtrack, originally released May 26, 1993.
The early to mid 1990s saw the rise in the release of “urban” films. Hollywood was becoming more aware of hip-hop music as well as the purchasing power of the demographics that were fans of the culture. John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood started the boom, and was followed by films like Juice, Who’s the Man?, Above the Rim, and New Jersey Drive. This, is turn, give rise to the hip-hop soundtrack, an album supporting the film that mostly featured the talents of hip-hop artists.
Some of these films were better than others, and, of course, some of the soundtracks were better than others. The quality of the film and the soundtrack were not necessarily correlated, but it’s safe to say that the Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society, released 25 years ago, was one of the best films of its kind, and featured one of the best soundtracks.
As a film, Menace II Society had a pretty grim view of life in inner city Los Angeles, so it’s fitting that many of the songs on the soundtrack share this borderline nihilism. The soundtrack draws together artists from around the country, and works best when the music reflects the bleak ethos of the film. Violence occurs without warning, drugs are omnipresent, and young Black men are an endangered species.
The album begins with “N***a Gots No Heart” (“Trigga Gots No Heart” in its edited form) a melancholy track by Oakland’s Spice-1. Produced by E-A-Ski and CMT, it’s one of Spice-1’s strongest songs. He raps as the pensive street enforcer, knowing that he must separate himself from all of his emotions and act without thinking if he’s going to make a living through the violence associated with selling crack.
“Only the Strong Survive” by Bay Area godfather Too $hort explores similar themes. Over piercing keys and understated guitar licks, he details the necessary steps to survive in the ghetto. “There just ain’t no future for us young Black men,” he laments, “’Cause we always get killed or sent to the pen.”
MC Eiht gets the honor of recording the film’s theme song, “Streiht Up Menace.” Over subdued synths and an acoustic guitar, Compton’s Most Wanted’s frontman provides a loose retelling of the film’s plot, exploring the futile situation of trying to make it out of the ghetto that raised him. Produced by DJ Slip and Eiht, the song is for all intents and purposes a Compton’s Most Wanted track, but served as the first effort to push Eiht’s then-burgeoning solo career.
Another highlight is “Guerillas Ain’t Gangstas” by Da Lench Mob. Over a beat produced by QDIII, the group forcefully insists that they serve as “street politicians on a mission” rather than “gangstas," stressing their efforts to educate and enlighten. “Guerillas…” was also the last song the group released with their original line-up, before J-Dee was arrested and convicted of murder (he’s currently approaching 25 years into a 29-to-life sentence).
But while the vast majority of the West Coast artists go the more subdued and introspective route, it’s the East Coast artists that lay down the more exaggerated “gangsta” tracks. Some of these tracks work better than others. Brand Nubian contribute “Lick Dem Muthaphuckas,” a rugged jam about dispensing violence when necessary. Sadat X has the standout verse, as he details his mother’s efforts to convince him to move out to Alabama in the hopes of getting him away from doing dirt. The song actually presaged a shift in Brand Nubian’s content, as the duo released the more street-influenced Everything Is Everything the following year in 1994, which features a remixed and darker version of “Lick Dem…”
Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “Death Becomes You” is a solid, albeit out-of-character track by the duo best known for “They Reminisce Over You.” The YGzs, a crew of infamous and certifiable hard rocks from Mt. Vernon, New York, contribute verses promising bloody violence and retribution. Regardless, it’s a little hard to take C.L. Smooth seriously as he raps “blood spills, shells drop, because I gotta kill!” and “Now you punks are picking lead out of your assholes!” In this case the beat saves the day, as Pete Rock provides an eerie horn and keyboard heavy track that’s true to the duo’s classic sound.
The one complete misfire on the soundtrack is “Stop Looking At Me” by The Cutthroats. The group was affiliated with Gang Starr’s Guru, and to my knowledge, it’s the only song that they ever recorded. Unfortunately, the song is so bad that it sounds like a parody, with all three emcees in the group, as well as Guru, doing their worst Onyx impressions. It’s probably the worst thing Guru was involved with during the ’90s.
Since much of the film deals with the effects of drug addiction, it makes sense that the soundtrack features songs that tackle how drugs impact communities, for the users and the sellers. Boogie Down Productions’ “P Is Still Free” is a DJ Premier-produced sequel to one of the crew’s earliest recordings. KRS-One crafts two tales of the ravages of crack addiction, occasionally using flashes of morbid humor. The song would later appear on KRS’s first solo album, Return of the Boom Bap (1993).
One of the soundtrack’s finest tracks is “Pocket Full of Stones” (Port Arthur Remix) by UGK, then a young and fresh-faced Texas rap duo. The epic tale of the rise of two street-level dealers to the level of drug kingpins had first appeared on their 1992 debut album Too Hard To Swallow, released six months earlier. The remix is superior, sporting bluesy guitars and crackling drums to compliment the syrupy drawl of rapper/producer Pimp C and Bun-B. A quarter of a century later, it remains one of the most incisive first-person accounts of the realities and cyclical nature of slanging drugs ever released.
Menace also features a trio of R&B/soul flavored tracks, which for the most part are enjoyable. Kenya Gruv’s “Top of the World” is the cream of this crop and most interesting of the three. The song, produced by Tony! Toni! Toné!’s D’Wayne Wiggins, sports a mellow and airy vibe, making it ideal picnic and barbecue music. Though he would not release any other solo material, Kenya continued to work as a session guitar player for various singers and rappers throughout the Bay Area.
Some songs fit in on Menace because they sound like the type of stuff that people listened to back then. Ant Banks’ “Packing a Gun” is a rollicking Bay Area-flavored jam about wilding out on a weekend night and getting into trouble. Mz. Kilo’s “All Over a Ho” is a gritty tale of revenge on a cheating boyfriend, bolstered by a dense and muddy track by Above the Law’s Cold 187um. The album ends with DJ Quik’s “Can’t Fuck With a N***a,” a dis track directed at Everlast, who fired first in a line from the “Shamrocks and Shenanigans” remix. It’s a little odd that Quik decided to clap back on a soundtrack for a completely unrelated film, but it wouldn’t be the last time that he did so.
Soundtracks like Menace II Society have fallen mostly out of favor in the current climate, though it probably has to do more with the state of the music business than the film industry. Menace is a reminder that a film’s soundtrack can feature songs that enhance the enjoyment of the film but can be enjoyed independently as well. And to this day the film and the soundtrack have endured.