Happy 20th Anniversary to M.O.P.’s third studio album First Family 4 Life, originally released August 11, 1998.
“Manhattan keeps on makin’ it / Brooklyn keeps on takin’ it” – KRS-One on Boogie Down Productions’ “The Bridge is Over”
Embodying the neighborhood creed of “Never Ran, Never Will,” the Brownsville duo of Billy Danze and Lil’ Fame blazed their own trail when their Timberland boots kicked the door open as they barged into the rap game in 1993 with the rugged street anthem “How About Some Hardcore.”
Well past forty years since its inception, hip-hop is now recognized as a global musical phenomenon that has endured to defy all the odds of its humble South Bronx beginnings. As the cultural expression took form throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, it seemed to adapt distinct personality traits associated with specific neighborhoods within the gritty Big Apple. Big Daddy Kane had long been the flag bearer for Brooklyn hip-hop, with a great supporting cast of artists and groups including Special Ed, MC Lyte, Chubb Rock, Masta Ace, and Audio Two, among others. So, with such a strong foundation of trailblazers, the next generation of Brooklynites seized upon the possibilities of the ‘90s and offered the world an even more intimate glimpse into the planet of Brooklyn.
You could say that Black Moon led the charge for what would go on to define the rugged style of Brooklyn based hip-hop for the ‘90s and beyond with singles “Who Got the Props” and “How Many MC’s” leading up to their 1993 debut LP Enta da Stage. The Crown Heights and Bushwick based group would spark a major hip-hop movement by introducing a super collective known as the Boot Camp Clik, comprised of the groups Smif-n-Wessun, Heltah Skeltah, and Originoo Gunn Clappaz (O.G.C.) with each member hailing from Brooklyn, and the majority bred in one of the most notorious and poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Brownsville.
Their Brownsville hip-hop brethren M.O.P.’s debut album To the Death (1994), produced almost entirely by D.R. Period, did not generate a single track that could even be edited into a radio friendly mid-day jam or remixed for the vocals of an R&B artist to serenade as a summertime classic. Instead, their “Rugged Neva Smooth” street gems and bravado garnered two notable shout-outs that proved their impact on the evolving sound of Brooklyn hip-hop. On fellow Brownsville native Smoothe Da Hustler’s “Broken Language,” the song’s guest emcee (and Smoothe’s younger brother) Trigger Tha Gambler expressed, “To-the-Death thinker / M.O.P. bell ringer / How About Some Hardcore fan singer.”
Even more impressively, Brooklyn’s crowned prince, The Notorious B.I.G. of neighboring Bedford-Stuyvesant, gave a reverential nod to the east coast’s underground kings on the song “Warning” when he rhymed “Remember them niggas from the hill up in Brownsville / that you rolled dice with, smoked blunts and got nice with / yeah my nigga Fame up in Prospect / nah them my niggas nah love wouldn't disrespect / I didn't say them / they schooled me to some niggas that you knew from back when / when you was clocking minor figures.”
M.O.P. would go on to gain even more industry capital with their sophomore effort Firing Squad in 1996. They teamed up with the legendary Gang Starr soundsmith DJ Premier for the bulk of the album’s production, while Jaz-O, an early mentor to another king in the dynasty of BK title holders, assisted with four of the LP’s 18 tracks.
The blue-collar Brownsville duo gained the respect of fans and colleagues organically and honed their smashmouth style with each successive LP. On the heels of Gang Starr masterpiece Moment of Truth released in March of the same year, 1998’s First Family 4 Life served as the group’s most star-studded celebration of Brooklyn’s rap traditions. The LP opens with the song “Breakin’ the Rules” which offers as much action as a Chinatown shoot-out scene in a ‘90s John Woo flick, with DJ Premier, who at that point rarely stepped from behind the boards to offer vocals to his tracks, delivering the chorus: “Here it is: ghetto music (rock that!) / When it drop, if its proper (cop that!) / ‘cause some cats be fakin’ the moves / in other words, breakin’ the rules (stop that!).”
One of the pillars of the Gang Starr Foundation, Freddie Foxxx joined for a rare but coveted cameo appearance on the track “I Luv” where he contends, “I love the fact that I survived through the roughest of times / and break the mic when I want, with the roughest of rhymes / it’s a luxury to see me emcee / it’s so hard, this lyrical brutality, feed's a nigga's mentality.”
O.C. of the Diggin’ In The Crates (D.I.T.C.) crew and the second assembly of the Crooklyn Dodger supergroup collaborated for the BK anthem “Down 4 Whateva” also produced by DJ Premier, who brilliantly scratches the vocals of nearly every Brooklyn neighborhood for a vintage Preemo chorus. Another production highlight on the album is “Salute Part II” featuring Guru, which resembles “Code of the Streets” revisited, with Premier’s looping of the dusty intro to the obscure “Keep the Faith” by Mel & Tim (1974).
First Family also houses “My Kinda Nigga Part II,” the sequel to the group’s collaboration with Heather B which appeared on her 1996 debut album Takin’ Mine. This time the track was supplied by Black Moon’s production team of Evil Dee, Mr. Walt, and Baby Paul collectively known as the Beatminerz.
Brooklyn Don JAY-Z adds his Bed-Stuy flair to the high-impact “4 Alarm Blaze,” where his rhymes revert back to his Marcy Project days: “I'm real—how you think I got rich, ho / pack steel—ain't afraid to let a clip go / I got enough paper to get low / come back when the shit blow over / get the dough over / whip the Rover / snatch the gat from the clip holder / rip through ya shoulder bitch it's Jay-Hovah.”
Although M.O.P.’s third LP sticks to their highly effective formula, a testament to the duo’s artistry is their noticeable growth, in reflecting on their lives growing up in Brownsville. On “Ride with Us” Billy Danze expresses “What can I say, I'mma stressed ghetto soldier / I'm shell shocked from a bad block off Saratoga.” Lil’ Fame, usually the more animated of the two, adds “Brownsville slugger, knucka up in the house / had a rumble with the Grim Reaper, knuckled it out / this ain't for you big willies, this is for my small paws / thuggin’, wit guns in they draws / go against the grain, break all laws.”
“Blood Sweat, and Tears” adds a more introspective dimension to the lyrical bash brothers, with Billy Danze rhyming, “Without the guidance of our fathers / all we know is how to double clutch revolvers / me and my own staff flaunt a different path,” followed by Fame’s confessions, “I chose not to let my Beretta swing / cause I'm a veteran / and I'm livin’ for the better things / it's cold-hearted B / check the majority of blacks / they slingin’ crack, livin’ in poverty / what you gotta do is live what your life give / And make the best of it.”
“Downtown Swinga ‘98” also provides insight into the duo’s commitment to express the sentiments of their rugged real life surroundings, with Danze leading off again, “It's me (prime time!) BD/ I get better with time like a fine wine / you see, ever since I was a youth / I promised to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Fame comes in at the clean-up position and summarizes the group’s entire brand of lyrical street aggression, “Yo I illustrate and design for those doin' crimes / totin' heat and in the streets like yellow lines / and I'm here to represent for 'em / so bow down, to them cats that swing Downtown.”
Until their 2000 hit “Ante Up,” M.O.P. was sort of an East Coast secret, a trump card for official backpackers that proved you knew hip-hop beyond mainstream radio and television. When their fanbase expanded however, it felt like a shared success, because if you followed their career from the beginning, the ascent, like hip-hop’s itself was remarkable considering the group’s humble beginnings.
M.O.P. was not pretty, their vivid and violent lyrics were unapologetically eye-opening and cathartic for those hailing from similar environments. Now two decades old, First Family 4 Life stands as possibly the greatest testament to the duo’s storied musical career. A bridge between obscurity and notoriety, for a group that helped define the sound of a borough known for its toughness. Salute!