Happy 20th Anniversary to The Beatnuts’ third studio album A Musical Massacre, originally released August 10, 1999.
Twenty years ago, Latino culture was in the midst of a mainstream explosion, particularly in the realm of music. Ricky Martin’s “La Vida Loca” was a completely ubiquitous pop phenomenon. Jennifer Lopez was beginning to ascend as a musical sensation on the strength of her debut album On the 6 (1999) and “If You Had My Love.” Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias, who had cultivated audiences for years, both released eponymous albums that transformed them into cross-cultural superstars. And Carlos Santana was experiencing a nearly unprecedented late-career revival with the massive success of the many-times multi-platinum Supernatural (1999).
This embrace of Latino culture spread beyond just pop and rock music. Just the year before, Fat Joe had begun his transition from street rapper to Puerto Rican rap don with Don Cartagena (1998). Big Pun, his partner in rhyme, had released his inaugural LP Capital Punishment (1998) to massive acclaim. The time seemed to be right for mainstream culture to embrace rappers from Latino backgrounds. And that’s where The Beatnuts and their third full album A Musical Massacre came in.
The Beatnuts, comprised of Jerry “JuJu” Tineo and Lester “Psycho Les” Fernandez, were…well…not Ricky Martin. Or Marc Anthony. Or Santana. Truthfully, in 1999 there was a pretty big difference between The Beatnuts and Fat Joe or Big Pun, two artists they had worked with extensively and were labelmates with at different points during their career.
JuJu and Psycho Les definitely did not cater their music towards the mainstream. They had started out as producers and were still renowned for their devotion to crate digging. Their music had purposely remained rough around the edges, and they often focused their rhymes on getting into dirt, gunplay, and nasty sex raps.
The group had notably always maintained an air of irreverence; they might have talked a lot of smack, but they never seemed to take themselves too seriously. More often than not, they didn’t give a f**k. The hook for “Psycho Dwarf,” one of their first songs, was “I wanna f**k, drink beer, and smoke some shit!” The first single from Stone Crazy (1997), “Gimme the Ass,” sounded like an overt lampoon of the hip-hop that dominated the charts and radio during the era of mid to late ’90s hip-hop, with the duo raunchily crooning for sex over a loop of Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots.”
A Musical Massacre was about as close as The Beatnuts ever came to creating an “accessible” album. Listening to the album, you can also tell that they’re making an effort at times to create a more “well-rounded” release that doesn’t just involve getting stoned, drunk, and shooting people.
Their different approach can be seen on tracks like “I Love It,” which musically has a much more smooth, polished feel than they’re previous recordings. It also features an R&B vocalist on the chorus—Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley to be exact, a Brooklyn-born R&B songstress making her first of two appearances on the album. To have a vocalist best known for ballads like “Thanks For My Child” and “Every Little Thing About You” show up on album by The Beatnuts was…different.
But the song really works. Even if the Beatnuts were a little more accessible on Musical Massacre, they legitimately became better emcees on this album. Part of JuJu and Les’ improved skills manifested in the way that they are able to bounce off each other, passing the mic back and forth with relative ease over a slowed down sample of Enoch Light’s “And I Love Her.” Over a plucky guitar, subtle bassline, and clattering percussion, Les rhymes, “You wanna be a big baller, but you traveling / Talk about battling? N***a, stop babblin!”, with JuJu adding, “Yo, when the first body touches the ground / A lot of blood gushes around, my silencer crushes the sound.”
The Beatnuts also adopted a targeted approach to creating beats for the album, purposefully imbuing them with Latin flavor. Many of the songs that they sample are either by Latino artists or are covers of songs by Latino artists. Their method succeeds in creating a distinct musical palette for the album.
Riley shows up again on “Look Around,” the first and only Beatnuts song of its kind: a socially conscious one. The Beatnuts have never been particularly big on introspection, so it was unexpected to hear them wistfully reflecting on the hopelessness that can engulf residents of ghettos throughout the United States. They’re joined by the then young and hungry Dead Prez, a pair who were just beginning to become known for their sharp political content. I must admit that it was heartwarming to hear JuJu and Les rap about the importance of family in their lives and excoriate others from forsaking their community in the name of greed.
However, both of the group’s most overt attempts at accessibility aren’t particularly successful. The common theme for the two songs is the enjoyment of marijuana, but they also seem to be cuts that were tacked on as a way to appease the record label. “Buddah in the Air” is the only flat-out miss on the album. The Beatnuts just sound out of sorts here, trying to make an overlong weed anthem that would get played in the club. The chorus, provided by Carl Thomas using a vocoder (the analog version of autotune, for those who don’t know), is semi-painful to listen to.
None of this should suggest that the Beatnuts completely flipped the script, as there’s a lot of red meat on Musical Massacre for the group’s core audience to enjoy. Songs like “Beatnuts Forever” and “Muchahacha” are classic head-knocking Beatnuts tracks, fueled by dusty loops and rugged lyrics. “Slam Pit,” where the two are joined by Cuban Link and Common, is the ruffest entry on the album. Common delivers one of the last really belligerent verses of his career, rapping, “Don't give a f**k where he from / He’ll get beat like a drum / ’Till this rap goes numb, seeking the hot producer for circulation / I strangled his string music and suffocate his drum.”
“Watch Out Now,” Musical Massacre’s first single, was the group’s biggest commercial hit and remains one of their signature tracks. After the success of “Off the Books” from Stone Crazy, the group revisits pairing a light-hearted sample with aggressive lyricism, and again succeeds. JuJu and Les each deliver a 16-bar verse over a flute loop taken from Enoch Light’s “Hijack.” “Beatnuts, forever diehard, you want pain?” JuJu raps. “’Cause you walking outta here breathing is insane.”
The Beatnuts would use the contrast between breezy sampled material and the less consumer-friendly content a couple more times on Musical Massacre. “Turn It Out,” one of the album’s best songs, has the two flowing over an old timey loop from The New Vaudeville Band’s “Whispering,” while Greg Nice of Nice & Smooth provides an old school-influenced chorus. The two create a circus-like track on the appropriately titled “You’re a Clown,” featuring a trademark slapdash verse from hip-hop’s greatest goof, Biz Markie.
The album ends with “Se Acabo,” another first for The Beatnuts crew, as it features JuJu and Les rapping entirely in Spanish. The pair had made it a point to not rap in Español on their previous albums, but here, joined by guests Magic Juan and Swinger, they switch things up. The four rhyme over a sample of Marco Antonio Muñiz’s song of the same name, giving it an even darker feel. JuJu makes his delivery and vocal tone sound even more sinister, rapping about getting into wild s**t with women he meets while out on the town. As changes of pace go, it’s solid.
A Musical Massacre is the group’s most commercially successful album, and one that also enjoyed critical acclaim. It’s an album that manages to stand up even viewed outside of the context of the late ’90s Latino explosion. The few hiccups are the same missteps that just about every hip-hop artist signed to a major label made back then. Meanwhile, songs like “Watch Out Now” are still universally beloved.
And in the long run, it’s not like The Beatnuts used this album’s success to try to become something that they weren’t before. They still dug in the crates to create nasty tracks. They still rapped about weed and delivering beatdowns to wack emcees. And they still didn’t give a f**k. Even though the group doesn’t release as much music these days, they’re regarded as one of the most consistent hip-hop groups to ever lace them up, and A Musical Massacre is a big part of that legacy.