Happy 25th Anniversary to Tha Alkaholiks’ debut album 21 & Over, originally released August 24, 1993.
One of the weirder misconceptions about “party” oriented hip-hop is that it’s simplistic. That in order to get the crowd moving, the lyrics have to be dumbed down to the absolute lowest common denominator. Hip-Hop has always been about moving crowds, both through their lyrics and the beats. Tha Alkaholiks made great party music that didn’t pander to pop sensibilities and always remained true to hip-hop’s spirit.
Tha Alkaholiks are the product of the Los Angeles hip-hop scene. The crew, made up of emcees James “J-Ro” Robinson and Rico “Tash” Smith, along with MC/producer/DJ Eric “E-Swift” Brooks, came up under the wing of King Tee, one of the pioneers of L.A. hip-hop. The group (represented by J-Ro and E-Swift) had its first appearances on two tracks on King Tee’s Tha Triflin’ Album (1993) most prominently on “I Got It Bad, Y’all,” the album’s first single.
Released 25 years ago this week, Tha Alkaholiks’ inaugural effort 21 & Over is a fun album, which had become an increasing rarity within hip-hop. However, it remains entertaining without dumbing down its approach to the music. The album maintains its party-oriented spirit while featuring top quality lyrics and well-crafted beats. J-Ro and Tash were two of the more clever emcees recording music during this era, and E-Swift’s work as a producer continues to be largely unheralded. Containing 10 tracks and clocking in at a little over 36 minutes, the album doesn’t waste time or drag at any point.
Tha Liks begin 21 & Over with “Likwit,” which is a functional sequel to “I Got It Bad, Y’all.” All three members of the group contribute solid verses, and are joined by their mentor King Tee, who closes the track with his first of two appearances on the album. The production on “Likwit” is exceptional, as it, like “Got It Bad…” uses a sample of the organ from Lou Donaldson’s version of “Ode to Billie Joe.” However, this time E-Swift further chops the organ sample and adds various horns, flutes, and keys, which filter in and out throughout the song.
“Make Room” was 21 & Over’s first single and further demonstrates Tha Liks’ ability to create mid-tempo party jams with clever lyrics backed by excellent production. E-Swift is in rare form as he creates another busy yet crowd-pleasing track, composed of piercing horns, low and subdued horns, and rumbling organs. The result is one of the “tunes hitting hard enough to dent your trunk” that the crew boasts about on song’s hook. The lyrics for “Make Room” are also on point, as J-Ro contributes a pair of verses, and Tash demonstrates why he would come to be known as one of the more underrated emcees of the ’90s, kicking witty punchlines like, “That's why I'm screamin’ on MCs like I’m ONYX / I’m hooked on gin and tonics like your mama’s Hooked on Phonics.”
“Only When I’m Drunk” is another type of fun track that would become another of the group’s strong suits. Over an already watery sample of the infamous “Seven Minutes of Funk” break, with extra key and horn stabs provided by E-Swift, all three emcees detail their drunken misadventures. J-Ro opens the song in entertaining fashion, rapping as if he’s nearly drop-dead plastered, slurring, belching, and nearly vomiting all through his verse. Tash drops a smooth, straight-forward verse, rapping, “All up in this bitch with the gin and Tanqueray / Drink like Mr. Wendall, smoke bud like Dr. Dre.” Meanwhile, E-Swift contributes probably his strongest verse on the album, rhyming, “I get drunk and can't nobody whoop me / I’m tripping, must be the brew that I was sipping / Kicking in, guess I shouldn't have mixed it with the gin / ’Cause when I'm laying on my back I can feel the room spin.”
21 & Over has numerous displays of the group’s lyrical capabilities to go along with their drunken reveling. “Last Call,” one of the album’s best tracks, is a song dedicated to members of the group, particularly Tash and J-Ro who display their superior verbal abilities over an elastic, bouncy bassline, a sample of the intro to James Brown’s “Payback,” and flourishes of horns. Tash starts the song off strong with “It’s time to roll my sleeves, fuck a few emcees up / Another rough cut from the crew that won’t ease up / Tha Alkaholik clique, a.k.a. the 40 downers / Flips rhymes like Calvin flips fries and quarter pounders.” J-Ro is able to deliver just as effective of verbal blows as well, rapping, “Can’t we get along? Nope. / Switchblade to the throat to emcees who ain't dope / Call me J-Ro the klepto, ’cause I’m stealing to the jaw / Of these half-baked rappers trying to get raw.” In terms of sheer lyrical executions, “Last Call” was one of 1993’s best.
J-Ro gets a lot of time to shine on 21 & Over and gets most of the spotlight on “Can’t Tell Me Shit.” Even though E-Swift has a brief and fairly lackadaisical eight-bar verse, J-Ro owns the song. He hops from topic to style throughout the track, bragging, “I’m more gifted than Christmas morning / I pull out a pen and write a rhyme when I'm boning.” He takes time to dis R&B artists for sabotaging the music by reusing popular hip-hop breaks and instrumentals, jacking hip-hop’s aura rather than remaining true to R&B’s roots. He also drops a gem of knowledge that I still quite like today, “Rappers always talking ’bout back to the old school / We never should’ve left in the first place fool.”
21 & Over features some of the first musical contributions from Oxnard’s The Lootpack a.k.a. Madlib and Wildchild, both on the mic and behind the boards. More specifically, the album features some of the first Madlib productions to be released on a major label. Madlib’s production style was different 25 years ago, with his sound on some more traditional hip-hop jazzy shit, rather than the trippy beats with un-quantized drums that he’s known for today.
Madlib and Wildchild make their lyrical debuts on “Turn Tha Party Out,” with the two trading verses and lines with all three members of Tha Liks. Though both Lootpack members were still clearly getting their sea legs, the track still works well as an uptempo party jam. The Lootpack also work behind the boards on “Mary Jane,” the album’s third single, and Tha Liks’ ode to the other intoxicant they enjoy partaking in: marijuana. I’m not sure if it’s the first hip-hop song where rappers talk about an inanimate object like it’s a person, but regardless, the jazzy, murky track works as a mellow love letter to herbal medicine.
Tha Liks finish the album with the raucous “Who Dem N***as,” another sonically hectic, wild-out party track, this time featuring a brief opening verse by Deadly Threat. The South Central rapper was connected to the crew via King Tee, who helped oversee (and even produced for) his solo album released only a little over a month before this one. Tha Liks’ verses all feature braggadocio and trash-talking, as J-Ro proclaims, “If I hear one more n***a kicking that Das EFX shit, I'm bombing / My style is un-Common.”
21 & Over began what was largely a successful career for Tha Liks, leading to four subsequent albums, at least two of which were excellent. The group continued to refine and perfect the style and approach that they display on this album, creating a memorable and underappreciated album run. Even a quarter century later, their odes to getting hammered should still put a smile on any hip-hop fan’s face.