Happy 25th Anniversary to Shyheim’s debut album AKA The Rugged Child, originally released April 19, 1994.
Hip-Hop was a crowded field in 1994, but still managed to leave room for under-represented demographics who were well-versed in street correspondence. For instance, when the babyish voice of a 14-year-old bellowed heart-wrenching lyrics like, “An old man got shot in the parking lot / in front of my building, I hang with his grandchildren” over sinister horns and dusty drums, the rap world had no choice but to take serious notice.
Rap listeners, however, were merely about to scratch the surface of the poignant observational lyricism from the Wu-Tang Clan’s youngest affiliate, Shyheim Franklin, as he gave his guided tour through the playgrounds, hallways, and school yards of Staten Island for his 1994 debut LP AKA The Rugged Child.
In the early ‘90s, hip-hop was still mainly a monolithic voice, mostly of black men who were almost exclusively in their twenties, typically hailing from a little more than a handful of American big cities. Anything outside of that demographic either lacked representation altogether or was packaged as a major label special attraction to appease the broader consumer base. The industry gave white groups and solo acts some run, but their numbers were small. Female emcees stayed in rotation, but were still grossly outnumbered by their male counterparts. The occasional adolescent emcee had become sort of a reoccurrence, right at the dawn of the ‘90s, but most were usually overtly gimmicky, essentially using urban clothing brands as costumes and often supported by an obvious cadre of ghostwriters.
In retrospect, these were unfortunate trends in an artform that was created to allow expression to the overlooked and often underprivileged. In amplifying the perspective of the economically divested communities in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, hip-hop offered, almost exclusively, a one-dimensional voice to the horrors of the crack epidemic. While the rags-to-riches, dope-dealing tales fascinated the masses and proved that hip-hop was a viable force within the music industry, the voices from mothers, daughters, sons and little brothers that were also being affected by the drugs, violence and mass incarceration of the time were almost never brought to light.
Around 1992, groups and artists like Nas and Onyx began to emerge along with the supergroup Wu-Tang Clan to raise the flag as the new generation of artists that would redefine the look and sound for the East Coast. When Shyheim’s babyish voice cut through the crowded field, it commanded the attention of the louder adults, who were forced to finally give the juvenile perspective more attention. Luckily, his label (Virgin/EMI) had the sound vision not to market him as a cute kid with oversized clothes or promote weak fads like rivaling him against other artists near his age.
Instead, Shyheim offered the next chapter in the Wu-Tang saga, while maintaining his own distinct perspective of street journalism about the borough now dubbed Shaolin (“Times is getting hard / word is bond, I swear to God / I even got caught trying to steal from a junkyard / a born terror, a rebel without a cause / I never had a good Christmas, so is Santa Claus”). In the inaugural single “On & On,” the barely 15-year-old Shyheim not only provides an autobiographical verse, he also dedicates the first verse of the song to the crack-addicted teenage mom and the third to an aspiring drug-dealer.
AKA The Rugged Child is hardly an album-of-the-year contender, which was a feat that overwhelmed just about all seasoned veterans of the time, in the year that spawned debut LPs from Nas, Method Man, and the Notorious B.I.G., among other heavyweights. However, Shyheim did manage to secure a viable spot as a true artist. His voice was distinct, and he had enough talent to contend with almost any emcee at the time. He held his own amongst his own crew, the G.P. Wu, on multiple posse cuts including “Pass it Off” and “The Rugged Ones.”
Shyheim had great chemistry with RNS who produced nearly the entire album including “Party’s Goin’ On” which uses the same sample as Wu Tang’s “Tearz” to showcase his storytelling prowess and ability to add levity to the mostly somber theme of the LP. Shyheim also avoided being overshadowed by the sultry vocals of Kia Jeffries who could effortlessly steal attention like she did in 1996 when she featured on Akinyele’s late-night anthem “Put It in Your Mouth.”
I was only twelve when AKA The Rugged Child dropped and remember how desperate my peers and I were to gain a voice just within our own neighborhood. As preteens, we managed through the critical stage of adolescence, many of us fatherless, by doing whatever would help us stand out as the brave heart of our block, school, or apartment complex. Shyheim rose from the competitive ranks of rap gladiators nearly 10 years his senior, to become not only a sounding board for us, but also the Latasha Harlins’ (Los Angeles) and Donnell Porter’s (New York City) of the world, whose early deaths were tragically eclipsed by the kingpin stories of the “crack-era.”
Children have always helped shape hip-hop culture, specifically within the communities that inspire their respective artists. But it seemed the industry laid a healthy foundation with managing the career of a younger and edgier artist in Shyheim. AKA The Rugged Child helped propel him to having a successful career throughout the decade, creating memorable moments both on screen and in the studio, appearing in the TLC music video for “Waterfalls” (1994), as a Wu-Tang All-Star for the 1997 title song of the Soul in the Hole soundtrack, collaborating with Big L in 1999 for the song “Furious Anger,” and co-starring in the 1999 film In Too Deep.
Hip-Hop took off in the mid to late ‘90s and was generating billions by the turn of the century, with young teenage artists headlining major tours and appearing as the marquee acts in major film productions. Like other demographics throughout hip-hop’s history, the rise of adolescent emcees to prominence was hard-fought and somewhat heroic, with a pioneering “rugged child” from the slums of Shaolin bold enough to share his daily observations, without waiting until he was old enough for some people’s comfort.