Happy 30th Anniversary to Special Ed’s debut album Youngest In Charge, originally released May 16, 1989.
The problem with kids rapping today is that there’s no kids rapping, today. At least none that are really out here trying to push the boundaries of what it means to be a great emcee.
The foundation of hip-hop as we know it was first built on seasoned veterans of the park jams and house party days. But after these forefathers came a youthful explosion that built the framework for hip-hop’s Golden Age. Hip-hop’s innovation, especially lyrically, used to be youth driven. Artists like LL Cool J, Rakim, MC Lyte, King Tee, and Ice Cube were all teenagers when they first broke through, often recording the material that would make them famous when they were 15 or 16 years old. Emcees like these were brash, bold, and original whenever they touched the mic. They were all dynamic personalities that became hip-hop pioneers.
By contrast, a lot of the teenagers looking for fame as rappers don’t seem to particularly like hip-hop. That, and they sound like they’ve been hit in the back of the head with a 2x4 before they entered the vocal booth.
Edward “Special Ed” Archer was one of those brash, bold, original, and, moreover, young hip-hop artists who came on the scene with a unique style of self-expression. The Flatbush, Brooklyn native’s debut album Youngest In Charge was another wildly creative project. Profile Records released it 30 years ago into an environment where artists consistently tried to outdo each other artistically with each effort.
Ed had a distinctive presence on the mic. He delivered his rhymes with a breathy baritone, at times inflected with tinges of a Jamaican accent. His flow was experimental, speeding and slowing down within each verse, at times using pauses and space to increase his rhymes’ impact.
Howard “Howie Tee” Thompson produced the album in its entirety. It’s one of his best overall bodies of work. Howie Tee is one of the most underappreciated beat creators of hip-hop’s old school and golden era. He’d been active since the mid 1980s, working behind the boards for such artists as UTFO and The Real Roxanne, but he first established himself producing the majority of Chubb Rock’s early material. The year 1989 became the most fruitful year of Howie Tee’s career, as it saw the release of both Chubb Rock’s And The Winner Is… and Youngest In Charge.
From the album’s onset with the rocking “Taxing,” Special Ed sets out to display his exceptional talents and to declare his own supremacy, rapping, “Yo, on the rhyme I’m a lyrical joy / And whoever shall front shall be destroyed.” Howie Tee’s production shines as well, as he meshes the horns from Ripple’s “Funky Song” with a hard-charging electric guitar, later adding beat switches and breakdowns.
Special Ed and Youngest In Charge are best known for “I Got It Made,” an indisputable hip-hop classic. It’s as straightforward as any of the hits of the late ’80s era, with Ed rhyming over a drum loop on the distinctive bassline from Ripple’s “I Don’t Know What It Is, But It Sure Is Funky.” Like many of the tracks on the album, there’s no “hook” to speak of, with Ed and Howie Tee letting the music speak for itself on the song’s chorus.
Ed has said that he recorded the song at the age of 14 or 15. He conceived the rhymes to be aspirational, as he obviously didn’t own any private islands or solid gold bones when he was still in high school. But he did have poetic mastery, as he varies his flow and uses unorthodox rhyme schemes, rapping, “I'm creatively superior, yo – I never lose / I never lost cause I'm the boss, I never will cause I'm still / The champion, chief one, won't lose until I choose / Which I won't cause I don't retreat / I’ll run you over like a truck and leave you dead in the street.”
“Think About It,” the album’s second single, may have a more traditional structure (three more or less 16-bar verses, interspersed with a hook scratched by DJ Akshun), but Ed’s unconventional delivery and stylistic decisions make the track stand out. Over a sped-up loop of Average White Band’s “School Boy Crush,” Ed kicks lines like, “If I tried to hit you, do you think that I would miss? / Well, I’m fast, I only hit the center, mass and head / I’m Special Ed, funkadelic relic of the ages / If you like this, then I got pages and pages.” It’s a quirkiness that’s refreshingly off the wall to this day. Three decades later and I still don’t know what the Navy and gravy and rice have to do with anything that he says.
“I’m the Magnificent,” the album’s third single, has also endured as a timeless hip-hop classic. However, it’s the remix, which is the version that appears in the video for the song, that is still the best known. The lyrics are the same on both versions of the song; the key difference being that in the original version, Ed rhymes entirely over a banjo loop from Desmond Dekker’s “Shanty Town.” On the remix, the banjo sample is only utilized during the song’s bridge. The remix version of the song would appear on Ed’s sophomore album, Legal (1990).
Ed does move beyond rapping about his own lyrical prowess. “The Bush” is a thumping dedication to his neighborhood that features one of the most imaginative uses of the intro guitar from Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.” “Ak-Shun” is a low-key dedication to his DJ of the same name; the track sports an understated yet bottom-heavy bassline, while the song’s namesake scratches vocals from Orange Krush’s “Action.” There’s even a legitimate dancehall track, “Heds and Dreds,” where Ed flexes his authentic patois to create a perfectly respectable rap and reggae fusion.
Not surprisingly, some of Ed’s attempts to branch out aren’t as successful. “Club Scene,” an overlong hip-house dance track is the most glaring example, an attempt at club appeal that features Ed trading verses with Kazaam a.k.a. Dee Scott, a Howie Tee affiliate. The go-go influenced “Monster Jam” is a near miss, not quite working due to the synthetic track. Ed does acquit himself well on the mic, proclaiming, “When I’m busting a discussion to the percussion / I leave it to the Flatbush Crew to do the rushing.”
However, some of the album’s oddball moments are surprisingly enjoyable. I concede that I may be the only person on the planet Earth who likes “Hoedown.” Three decades before Lil Nas X made “Old Town Road” a massive hit (but a few years after Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Squaredance Rap”), Special Ed was getting a little country himself. He describes his escapades with both Lucy and Jody, rhyming over the banjo and fiddle intro from Bad Bascomb’s “Black Grass.”
Special Ed takes an even better stab at storytelling on the goofy “Fly MC,” featuring Ed bum-rushing the non-existent Queen and King of France and their musical entourage. The Queen then absconds with him on their royal plane and makes him a willing member of the Mile High Club. The song ends with Ed kicking “the bitch through the cargo hatch” while the plane is still in flight. The song is ridiculous in ways that most rappers never dare to be these days, which is a shame. “Fly MC” also serves as a warmup exercise for his later hit, “The Mission,” an equally ridiculous James Bond-inspired track.
Special Ed would continue to harness his youthful energy into the aforementioned Legal, his follow-up album that he released the next year. He then took take a hiatus from rhyming, focusing on production; he was an architect of tracks for both 2Pac and Biggie Smalls’ affiliates Junior Mafia in the mid 1990s. By the time he launched a proper comeback in 1994/95, with his appearance on “Crooklyn” and his Revelations (1995) album, his was a spry 23, still a relatively young man in the realm of hip-hop.
Hip-hop continues to miss the youthful fire of artists like Special Ed. He wasn’t afraid to be a different sort of rhyming character, while trying to create a wide array of styles for his debut album. Hip-hop music could use more artists who possess a ton of self-confidence and can back it up with skill. Here’s hoping more come along and approach the genre in a way that will allow them to try new things that aren’t solely designed to sell records or get streams or go viral. Like Ed demonstrated with Youngest In Charge, sometimes being brassy enough to be different is its own reward.