Happy 30th Anniversary to Stetsasonic’s second studio album In Full Gear, originally released June 15, 1988.
Stetsasonic is one of the few golden era hip-hop groups that have gotten lost in the mix. And given how good they were in their heyday, that’s a damn shame. They were the first hip-hop band, a group of dope emcees and capable musicians, known for delivering high-powered hip-hop on wax and on stage.
Stetsasonic’s lineup was expansive for a hip-hop group during the late ’80s. The crew was comprised of Glenn Kareem “Daddy-O” Bolton, Marvin Shahid “MC Delite” Wright, Arnold “Fruitkwan” Hamilton, Leonardo “Wise” Roman a.k.a. The Human Mix Machine, DJ “Prince” Paul Huston, keyboard and drum machine playing Marvin “DBC” Nemley, and drummer Bobby Simmons. Every member played a distinct role in the crew and all seven meshed together to create a well-oiled machine. Stetsasonic was also renowned at the time for having one of the best live shows in the game.
The Brooklyn, New York based group has its roots in the early ’80s as a mainstay on the NYC club circuit, where the honed their live show. Stetsasonic released numerous hip-hop club anthems on Tommy Boy Records, including “Just Say Stet,” “Faye,” and “Go Stetsa” a.k.a. the unofficial “Get Your Chain Snatched in the Latin Quarter” anthem. They eventually released their debut album On Fire in 1987 to critical acclaim. They then added Fruitkwan and DBC to the collective and got to work on their follow-up album. In Full Gear, released 30 years ago, is their best album and a prime example of the melding of old school values with new school rhyme techniques and production.
Stetsasonic execute each track with a coordinated bombardment of complementary styles. Daddy-O functioned as the de-facto leader and frontman. Fruitkwan was the best pure lyricist in the crew, armed with verbal dexterity and a smooth flow. Delite possessed a distinctive gravelly voice and had a no-nonsense delivery. Wise was one of the underrated beat-boxers of the era who also occasionally picked up the mic. A young Prince Paul provided excellent scratches and cuts, and was beginning to come into his own as a producer. DBC was an underrated beat creator and master manipulator of the drum machine. And Simmons’ live drum track provided extra flavor for the finished product.
The album’s production is another of its strong suits. Nearly every member of the group handles production duties for the album, which was eclectic and unique for the time. The group often made use of James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone samples along with Ultimate Beats and Breaks records, but also backed the loops with live drums by Simmons or expertly programmed drum tracks. Often the musical backdrops are fast-paced, in keeping with the group’s boundless energy.
Songs like the title track, “DBC Let the Music Play,” “It’s In My Song,” and “Showtime” follow the formula of pairing dusty late ’60s funk samples with neck-snapping drums and super-charged lyrics. “Let the Music Play” is one of the album’s early highlights, as all four rhyming members of the crew go for broke over a loop of Maceo & The Mack’s “Cross the Track.”
“Stet Troop ’88” is another one of the best tracks on the album and features some of its most interesting production. All of the “instruments” are either performed by Wise, who beat-boxes the drum track and provides some “human guitar,” or Prince Paul, who adds rhythmic scratches through the song. “This Is It Y’all (Go Stetsa II)” is another high point, a song dedicated to their fans. Stetsa recounts their travels across the country, detailing the interesting characters they’ve come across and recalling the liveliest crowds that they’ve rocked.
In Full Gear’s first single was “Sally,” the group’s ode to the most beautiful (fictional) girl in the neighborhood. Daddy-O, Delite, and Fruitkwan trade verses over re-freaked vocals from Dyke & The Blazers’ “Let a Woman Be a Woman (And a Man Be a Man)” and an expertly spliced drum track courtesy of Prince Paul’s manipulation of the SP-1200. The single garnered the group attention, but didn’t succeed in turning the group into household names.
In Full Gear and Stetsasonic are likely best known for its second single, “Talkin’ All That Jazz,” a dedication to and defense of the art of sampling when it comes to creating hip-hop music. The track was apparently inspired by a radio interview with James Mtume, who declared that hip-hop was spawning a generation of non-creative musicians. Over a loop of Lonnie Liston Smith’s “Expansions,” the quartet of emcees describe the process that goes into creating a hip-hop beat, and decry the narrow-minded critics who don’t consider hip-hop as serious art. The group filmed their first video for the song, which helped expand the album’s audience.
Stetsa was also known for their politically driven content. In 1987, they released “A.F.R.I.C.A.,” their song calling for the release of South African political prisoner and future president Nelson Mandela. The socially conscious content here manifests itself on “Freedom or Death,” a solo track by Daddy-O that was inspired by New York City-based activist Sonny Carson (a.k.a. the subject of the film The Miseducation of Sonny Carson and father of X-Clan’s Professor X). Over a simple African drum track and voices chanting the song’s title, Daddy-O decries the lack of value attached by many to Black lives, and argues that the Black population across the planet must be ready to sacrifice their lives in order to attain freedom.
One of Stetsa’s band members who has had the most longevity is the aforementioned Prince Paul, who’s gone on to become one of the best and most respected producers in hip-hop. You can hear him defining what would become his future sound all through the tracks he produces on In Full Gear.
Besides the title track, he also helmed the two strongest straight lyrical jams on the album, “Pen and Paper” and “We’re the Band.” The former is an upbeat ode to the creative process and the power of writing tools to create the even more potent written word. The latter is a darker and denser track, a flurry of samples, scratches, and vocal stabs. All three emcees come correct, but Delite has the stand-out verse, rapping, “Straight to the source for those who felt lost / Confused conclusions about our cause / Play back the track if you wanna unwind / As we begin to show and prove and define.”
Prince Paul also used the album to refine his expertise in creating skits and interludes. “Music For the Stetfully Insane” and “Rollin’ With Rush” are brief, mostly instrumental interludes, where he mixes cut-and-paste vocal snippets from hip-hop records and obscure cartoons and TV shows over funky loops. He later perfected this skill with his production work alongside his crew of collaborators, De La Soul.
Stetsa experimented with using many different styles and recording music in different genres. The best example on In Full Gear is “The Odad,” another Daddy-O solo cut, this time in the form of a deeply reggae-influenced jam. Daddy-O displays his smooth patois over a thumping reggae riddim, bragging how his “words start flowin’ like a lyrical tide” and professing his love for “plantains and fish.”
Even the songs that don’t quite work are interesting misses. “Float On” is an over-produced, seven-and-a-half-minute remake of the Floaters song of the same name (which is itself almost 12 minutes long). It’s not particularly good, but Stetsasonic’s commitment to the song’s original structure and execution is admirable. “Miami Bass” is in the same vein, an ode to Miami bass music made popular by artists like 2 Live Crew and Gucci Crew. Musically, it’s spot on, though it wasn’t a necessary undertaking.
While In Full Gear performed well on the charts and critically, it never really received the acclaim that it or Stetsasonic deserved. The group released one more album, Blood, Sweat, and Tears (1991), this time without Fruitkwan. It received a lukewarm critical reception and was a commercial failure; the group broke up soon after its release. By that point, Prince Paul was already enjoying massive success with De La Soul, and was able to move on. Daddy-O briefly pursued a solo career, and worked with Island Records to develop new hip-hop talent. Fruitkwan later re-named himself “Frukwan” and linked up with Paul as well as the RZA and Too Poetic to form the short-lived Gravediggaz.
Stetsasonic’s contributions to hip-hop music and culture should not be ignored. They were trendsetting in ways that were never fully appreciated. Their ambition may not have been rewarded like they deserved, but it did create great music. And In Full Gear is a great lasting monument.