Happy 20th Anniversary to Swollen Members’ debut studio album Balance, originally released May 31, 1999.
I have always been an unapologetic backpacker. As in, a fan of “backpack” hip-hop. I’ve never really given a fuck when holier-than-thou assholes use “backpacker” as a pejorative term. I have always liked gritty, beats and lyrics oriented hip-hop. And Swollen Members’ Balance, released 20 years ago, typifies this style of hip-hop music.
Swollen Members is solid boom-bap hip-hop from north of the border. In fact, they are the highest-selling Canadian hip-hop crew of all time. Their core is made up of emcees Shane “Mad Child” Bunting and Kiley “Prevail” James Hendricks. Other members of the group included producers Robin “Rob the Viking” Hooper and Zodak, as well as Moka Only, who joined the group in its early stages, left, then returned. The line-up that made Balance includes Mad Child, Prevail, and Zodak, who also enroll a few outside producers and a healthy list of guest emcees to help them on their journey.
Swollen Members play to their strengths on Balance, which is creating hard-hitting, gimmick free hip-hop. The album’s title seems to reference the balance between Mad Child and Prevail’s differing lyrical styles, and how they come together to make battle-oriented tracks propelled by ill imagery. Musically, the group’s sound has a gothic feel, making use of soaring strings, Spanish guitars, sinister pianos, and eerie vocals.
There are LOTS of versions of Balance. The first release to see the light of day was the 20-track “European” version. This was followed months later by an 18-track North American version, which removed some songs, added three new ones, and featured remixed versions of a couple others. There were even a few other reissues after that, as Battle Axe Records (Mad Child’s imprint) periodically changed distributors. Then, nearly a decade ago, Swollen Members released 1997 (2010), which included all the songs that were on the European but not the North American version, as well as a few other unreleased tracks.
Which is my long way of saying that this tribute covers the European version of the album. It’s the first one I bought, and the only version I identify with. I had been searching for albums from the group when they dropped three four-song 12”s between 1997 and late 1998. (which would now be marketed as EPs). But even with over half of the album being available prior to its release, Balance is still a satisfying first effort by the Canadian crew.
Mad Child and Prevail’s best lyrical performance together comes on the methodical “Brace Yourself,” where the two continuously trade verses, punctuated be a furious scratch solo by turntablist extraordinaire Mixmaster Mike. Anchored by a haunting vibraphone sample, the Joey Chavez-produced “S&M On the Rocks” manages to sound simultaneously nimble and menacing. Prevail practices weaponizing his verbals, as he raps, “razor rhymes like there's a sheath in my teeth that reveals a katana blade.”
Balance also provided early experiences for some of hip-hop’s current elite crop of beat-makers. Alchemist receives some prominent placement on the album, lacing Swollen Members with heaters like the album-opening “Front Street,” as well as “Strength,” “Circuit Breaker,” “Horrified Nights.” Of these, “Strength” is the most robust offering, with the crew rhyming over an intense piano loop and atmospheric howl of strings. Rhyming with cold-burning fire, Mad Child purports that he’s “embarking darker images and skeletal remains / Cold hearted soldier with ice in his veins.”
Alchemist likely hooked up with the group through longtime friend Evidence, who had worked with Swollen Members since their nascent stages. Evidence produced album highlights like “My Advice” and “Circuit Breaker,” which exhibit the trend of musical aggression found throughout Balance. But he also produced tracks like “Consumption” and “Shatterproof,” two tracks that are almost serene. “Consumption,” featuring the talents of Los Angeles heavyweight Aceyalone, has all three emcees weaving their verses together over a delicate piano sample.
Aceyalone is far from the only guest emcee to shine on Balance. In fact, Swollen Members recruit a laundry-list of some of the best artists that the West Coast Underground had to offer during the late ’90s. They team up with Saafir, Big Nous, and Third Rail Vic of Hobo Junction on the understated “Valentine’s Day Massacre,” a track largely dedicated to descriptions of ripping hearts out the chests of wack emcees.
Hieroglyphics’ spiritual leader Del the Funky Homosapien pulls double duty on “Left Field,” a rollicking, upbeat and thoroughly entertaining jam. Not only does Del craft the beat, but he also contributes two verses to the song, one as himself and the other as “Unicron,” his teenage alter-ego who had been M.I.A. since No Need For Alarm.
In addition to all the beats that Evidence contributes to Balance, he also appears relatively frequently rhyming alongside the crew. On “Counter Parts,” both he and Rakka Iriscience, his Dilated Peoples brethren, both deliver incredibly strong performances, forming solid chemistry with the other two emcee crew. While Rakka vows that he’ll “Make a smoothie outta rapper and his ice in my blender,” Evidence assures listeners that “in ten years, you'll find me on the low / Full-bearded, Serpico wit flows.”
But even when teaming with other artists, Balance is at its best when Swollen Members keep things ominous. The moody piano sample and crispy drums appropriately establish the sound on “Bottle Rocket,” as Mad Child is joined by Evidence, Everlast, and Divine Styler to deliver a solid stream of lyrics. Mad Child holds his own amongst the established spitters, rapping, “Take it to the street? Battle me? That’s a fucking sin / Go one round with Mad Child you’ll be sucking wind.” But it’s Everlast, still an accomplished lyricist during his “Whitey Ford” days, who has the best verse, throwing in a pointed comic book reference as he raps, “I T La Rock the bells ’til the break of dawn / Steady puffin L’s and fight Hell like Spawn.”
My personal favorite song is the shadowy and vaguely threatening “Forceful,” which sadly appeared only on the European version of Balance when the album was initially released. The song would later appear on 1997, under the name “Endangered Species.” Produced by Zodak, the song’s bassline rumbles forth, complemented by whispering voices and a shimmering sitar sample. Both Swollen Members emcees are joined by Evidence (again) and San Diego-based rappers Tony Da Skitzo and Mr. Brady, whose verses add to the songs surreal, ghostly aesthetic.
That Swollen Members didn’t attempt to manufacture what would pass for a “well-rounded” album, instead sticking to their strengths, served the group well. The crew was finding its voice and establishing what worked well for them. They would continue to hone their voices, releasing Bad Dreams (2001) and Monster In the Closest, (2002) achieving widespread success throughout the home country and earning a following across the globe.
Meanwhile, Battle Axe, the group’s imprint, would go on to release albums by a number of dope artists from the West Coast and up north, including Abstract Rude, Buc Fifty, Planet Asia, and Son Doobie of Funkdoobiest. They would become a reliable distributor of dope independent hip-hop during the early and mid ’00s.
Though I don’t listen much to Swollen Members’ current releases, I very much treasure the ones that they made while they were young and hungry and were out to rip a wack emcee’s head from off his neck. Balance gave a voice to artists from an oft-ignored section of the landscape, and allowed lyric-oriented hip-hop music to flourish.