Happy 25th Anniversary to The Beatnuts’ debut full-length studio album The Beatnuts: Street Level, originally released June 21, 1994.
You had to come hard if you wanted to make an impact on the fertile New York hip-hop scene of 1993, and that’s exactly what The Beatnuts did with “Reign of The Tec” from their debut release, Intoxicated Demons: The EP (1993).
Listeners familiar with The Beatnuts over the last two decades will know them as a duo comprised of rappers-producers Psycho Les and Juju. Earlier incarnations of the group also featured Fashion and V.I.C. Their teeth were cut on production gigs for high-profile artists in the ‘90s, a lot of that work coming their way thanks to being affiliated with the Native Tongues collective. Credits included producing almost the entirety of Chi-Ali’s debut album The Fabulous Chi-Ali (1992).
Intoxicated Demons: The EP helped introduce The Beatnuts as not just gifted producers but also credible emcees. The acclaimed EP was followed a year later in 1994 by their excellent full-length debut, The Beatnuts: Street Level. The album picked up where Intoxicated Demons left off, offering more of the bully-rap style The Beatnuts were by now perfecting. This was hardcore hip-hop that was also fun, with lots of rowdy content about partying, drinking, smoking, violence and women.
As hip-hop aficionados and historians writing these tributes of classic rap albums, we often have to play the role of apologist for the misogyny and homophobia found on seminal albums from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Albumism’s own Jesse Ducker, for instance, has had to grapple with having to explain away some of the awful subject matter on classics by the likes of Slick Rick and Too $hort as being a sign of less enlightened times, and of how the offensive lyrics are far outweighed by the overall quality of the music.
There are a lot of distasteful moments on Street Level that are hard to overlook today, so now it’s my turn to apologize. It’s a skill in itself to say politically incorrect things and make them entertaining, and you’d be hard pushed to find two emcees who rap about depravity as well as Juju and Psycho Les. And it’s not all controversial stuff anyway, with Juju in particular proving himself to be an intelligent and sophisticated rhymer across the album.
Things are taken to a stupid level on “Lick The P***y,” but it deserves mention for being a Fashion solo track. The talented emcee left the group after this album, launching a brief solo career as Al Tariq. It’s a shame that he left because he, Juju and Psycho Les worked seamlessly together on the mic on highlights like “Ya Don’t Stop” and “Fried Chicken.”
“Lick The P***y” is also one of the mellowest songs on the album, nicely flipping “In The Mood” by Tyrone Davis, which is a nice segue into talking about the production. The instrumentals on Street Level are like a pastiche of everything else that was happening at the time. Those sessions with Native Tongues clearly rubbed off on the group, evidenced by the A Tribe Called Quest influenced bassline of tracks like “Props Over Here.” There’s also more than a hint of what DJ Muggs was doing with Cypress Hill on “Ya Don’t Stop,” elements of Pete Rock’s sound on “Hellraiser,” and a couple of tracks that would have sounded at home on a Naughty By Nature record.
This is not to suggest at all that The Beatnuts were trying to copy everyone else. They were creating this music at the exact same time as many of those other producers were still drawing the blueprint. By all accounts the group were also serious create diggers, fighting over the same samples as their peers, and deserve to be listed among the pioneers of ‘90s New York hip-hop production.
The Beatnuts have dropped five albums since The Beatnuts: Street Level, the most recent in 2004 (Milk Me). Psycho Les has been active in recent years as both an emcee and producer, but Juju is now less visible in the public eye. There has been talk for several years of a joint project with L.A.’s Tha Alkaholiks, a group very much considered to be The Beatnuts’ west coast counterparts. Sadly not much has transpired yet from this proposed super group who go by the imaginative name of the Liknuts (get it?).