Happy 20th Anniversary to Redman’s Muddy Waters, released via Def Jam Records on December 10, 1996.
Redman is my favorite emcee of all time. I’m not saying he’s the best of all time, but he’s the emcee that I’ve enjoyed listening to the most for the last 25 years. His body of work for close to a decade is flawless, and he has one of the strongest discographies in the hip-hop. What drew me to Redman was pretty straightforward: he could rap his ass off and he didn’t give a fuck. About anything.
It was apparent the first time I heard Reggie “Redman” Noble that he was going to be special. He provided the final verses to two tracks on EPMD’s 1991 LP Business As Usual: “Hardcore” and “Brothers on My Jock,” stealing the show on both. The Newark, NJ native followed up with a verse on EPMD’s “Head Banger,” which stole the whole damn Business Never Personal album. It was the best verse kicked on record in 1992, and it’s on my short list for best verses ever.
Redman’s career had long been tied to his mentors Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith of EPMD, ever since he met Sermon while working as the DJ for Lords of the Underground. He was a member of the infamous Hit Squad (made up of EPMD, Das EFX, Redman, K-Solo, and the Knuckleheadz) during the early 1990s, and recorded his debut effort Whut? The Album in 1992 under Sermon’s tutelage. He sided with Sermon after EPMD’s tragic breakup in early 1993, and became a founding member of the Def Squad, which was comprised of Sermon, Redman, and the Long Island hard rock/Philly Blunt King Keith Murray. In 1994, he released his follow-up album Dare Iz a Darkside. But he considered his crowning achievement to be his third album Muddy Waters, which was released in December 1996.
Muddy Waters represented a minor tonal shift for Redman after 1994’s Dare Iz a Darkside. The content of Darkside was reflected by the album’s cover. An homage to Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, it depicted Redman alone, buried neck-down in dirt in the middle of the desert, shrieking to the heavens. And the album sound is much closer to those early psychedelic, drugged-out, early ’70s Funkadelic albums than its precursor Whut? Thee Album ever was. Redman himself handled much of the album’s production, with Sermon producing far fewer tracks. Redman has since revealed that Darkside reflected a, well, dark time in his life, when he was taking lots of LSD and various other mind-altering substances. He has also said that he barely revisited the sophomore album after recording it, and rarely performs songs from it.
Redman said he used Muddy Waters as his opportunity to come back “into the light” and he wasn’t subtle about leaving the Dare Iz a Darkside sound behind. Muddy Waters’ album images depicted him sitting or standing free, covered in mud, sporting a defiant mean mug, looking like a 1996 hip-hop Andy Dufresne.
But as much as Redman has made a habit of distancing himself from Dare Iz a Darkside, it’s not as if Muddy Waters represented a radical shift in how he created music. The album carries all the hallmarks of a great Redman album: the intricate wordplay, the infectious sense of humor, the funk sensibilities, the goofy skits, and, most importantly, the I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. It would be a mistake to call it “radio friendly” overall, as he never dumbs downs his lyrics or compromises his music values. Very little on the album comes across as more “accessible” than anything else Redman recorded, but it still features some of Redman’s most crowd-pleasing tracks and enduring hits.
After only producing three tracks on Dare Iz a Darkside, Sermon returns to split production duties about evenly with Redman this time around. Sermon was entering his post-EPMD prime, coming off a successful 1995 sophomore album Double or Nothing and handling the lion’s share of the production on fellow Def Squad-mate Keith Murray’s sophomore album Enigma. By the time Muddy Waters was released, Sermon had progressed past the point where he was sampling George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” and Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” for nearly every single song he produced. As a result, the vibe of his tracks is more varied.
One of Redman’s slept-on strengths is his reliability and steady lyrical presence. Though he is never boring as an emcee, he is always consistent. He rhymes just as hard on a guest verse for Montell Jordan or Christina Aguilera as he would for KRS-One or Cypress Hill. This lyrical consistency is on full display with Muddy Waters, as he gives his all as an emcee no matter the feel of the track. Ruff and rugged anthems like “Rock Da Spot,” “Case Closed,” (featuring producer and frequent Redman collaborator Rockwilder’s group Xross Breed) and “Rollin’,” are as impressive as any lyrical exhibitions released during the mid-’90s.
But when the production takes on a mellower note on tracks like “On Fire,” “Creepin’,” and “Da Bump,” Redman still doesn’t kick any of that “punk smooth shit.” “On Fire” might sound like a track targeted for the clubs, but Noble kicks rhymes like, “Got that lyrical chicken feed for all chicken heads / Crowd your Rap City committee like I'm Big Lez / More sicker than them Menendez brothers / You’ll need Cochran when you're fuckin with Judge Dredd.” And “Creepin’,” with its jazzy sample of Roy Ayers’ “Shining Symbol,” may be the most laid-back song about robbing people ever recorded.
Redman picked three absolute winners as singles to support Muddy Waters. The first single “It’s Like That (My Big Brother)” is a collaboration between Redman and former Hit Squad member K-Solo, with the two trading verses over Just Ice’s “Cold Getting Dumb” track, as rappers rhyming over other emcees’ beats became en vogue in 1996. The track actually began as “That’s How It Is,” a traditional “three verses and a chorus” Redman solo song. Redman decided to turn the song into a pass-the-mic duet, with the three 8-bar verses by Solo spliced in later; the original version was available on the 12” single. By the mid-’90s, Solo had abandoned his “spelling style,” and was rapping with a deeper and gruffer voice. His flow was a little more stilted five or so years after his heyday, but he still drops a few hot lines, particularly, “My afro blows in 360 degrees / So this makes me the light-skinned Richard Roundtree.”
The second single “Whateva Man” is the most “traditional” of the three hits. Featuring a beat and opening verse from Sermon, its groovy, filtered bassline and muted keyboard sample make it perhaps the most “accessible” song on the album. But of course, this doesn’t mean that Redman pulls any lyrical punches: “I lit my first L before I started to crawl / I got my ass whupped when I had my first brawl / But things changed since I was twelve years old / I specialize in wrecking mics and area codes.”
“Pick It Up” is the best of the three singles, as well as one of the best tracks on the album. Over funky bass-lines that sound reminiscent of “Down By Law,” Redman varies his cadence and flow, expertly rapping, “Ah yes, coming from the North, South, East, West / Hold your nose and take a deep breath, recess / We bless mics / Three times a day, three times a night / It all equals subliminal sequels / Strictly laughing at emcees / Lyrics for years that run more than ten deep / Niggas be like ‘Aw, he changed his style up’ / Shut the fuck up, you’re still a dick rider!”
Redman also showcases his gift for making tried and true subject matter sound fresh every time. Redman is no stranger to creating tracks celebrating his love for herbal remedies; there are at least a couple of odes to toking good green on every one of the Funk Doctor Spock’s albums. But here, the brief ditty “Smoke Buddah,” an ode to wandering/driving the streets of Newark while stoned, sounds positively fresh. Even with Sermon’s looping of Rick James’ classic “Mary Jane,” sampled many dozen times by dozens of other artists (including EPMD), the song still sounds original.
“Do What Ya Feel” was Redman’s second collaboration with Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man and is another of the album’s high points. The pair first sparked their friendship while touring in the fall of 1994, while Def Jam promoted the “Month of the Man,” during which Red’s Dare Iz a Darkside and Meth’s debut album, Tical, dropped a week apart from each other that November. In the summer of 1995, the two famously joined forces on the great “How High,” featured on the soundtrack for Def Jam’s The Show documentary. However, “Do What Ya Feel” may be the pair’s finest collaboration.
Produced by the Fugees’ Pras and Jerry Wondah of all people, the beat features what sounds like filtered Spanish guitars coupled with hard-hitting drums. The sinister feel gives it a texture reminiscent of Redman’s Dare album, but still fits in seamlessly at the end of the album’s first half. Red and Meth trade verses with what would soon become trademark agility, and both are in top lyrical form. Redman rhymes, “Load the mic then cock it, drop it like three-quarters / When I slaughter don’t get caught in the water / ’Cause the Brick’s got its own World Order / Leave your bitch in shock like the third rail caught her.” Meth closes the song with one of his best verses, rapping, “Color-safe bleach so I don't fade / Scar your mental with my double-edged blade / Razor sharp, get your Band Aids, hold that / Like E said, Get the Bozack / Show them wack niggas where the door’s at / On the case like I'm Kojak / Kissing the grits on that Flo bitch / Flip scripts, take LOOONG shits.”
The obvious chemistry between the pair led the two to collaborate on nearly every subsequent solo album that either Red or Meth released. Things eventually led to the underrated 1999 album Blackout!, the 2001 film How High, and the short-lived scripted TV comedy Method and Red (word to Keith Deebeetham).
“What U Lookin’ 4” is a change of pace, subject-matter wise, for Redman. It’s one of the few “conscious” tracks Redman has recorded, as he raps about the perils of police profiling and harassment while he’s out driving his ’93 Landcruiser. The production handled by Sermon remains mellow, but edges towards West Coast in flavor. But that could be the Snoop sample during the chorus.
Muddy Waters also features the continued saga of Redman’s alter-ego with “Soopaman Luva III”. This time around, much like the first installment, the track is split into two sections, with Redman using the first half to set the stage with a laid back rhyme over an extended loop of the Heath Brothers’ “Smiling Billy Suite, Pt. 2” (most famously used on Nas’ “One Love). In the second half, he has intimate relations with EPMD’s fabled nemesis/groupie, the J to the A to the N to the E. He even ends the track serving the proverbial “two piece and a biscuit” (the ol’ left, right, gut punch combo) to her boyfriend, who turns out to be Parrish Smith himself. Of course, at the time of the track’s recording, the Sermon and Smith factions of the Hit Squad were embroiled in beef. By the next summer, everyone put aside their differences and EPMD released the Back in Business album.
Redman finishes the album with “Da Ill Out,” a raucous posse cut with standout verses from Def Squad members Jamal and Keith Murray. Here Murray turns in the best verse, attacking the track with reckless abandon, rhyming at 90 mph with lines like, “My directive, through where I live, is kinda primitive / See I get to the bottom of the problem, and make shit give / Step in the jam, hooded and high, plastered the master / Cast to the masses grabs the mic / Ten dollar rappers is what L.O.D. goes after / To my Squad, there's no matches, we bashes / Do photo-flashes in all flavor S-Classes / Bomb attack on wax, lyrical mini Mac to your back / Tie you up, throw you in the Ac.”
As with Whut? Thee Album and Dare Iz a Darkside, Muddy Waters was certified Gold. But as it was his last album recorded in the pre-bling era, he faced stronger pressure in his subsequent albums to make more “accessible” albums. His 1998 release Doc’s Da Name 2000 was another high quality effort, albeit one that more openly courted radio play. Redman still managed to avoid sacrificing the quality of his music, and it still turned out to be his most commercially successful album, earning him his first Platinum plaque. He followed up soon afterwards with the aforementioned Blackout! collaborative album with Method Man.
However, cracks in the façade began to appear with 2001’s Malpractice. It wasn’t a bad album, but one that lacked the funk and soul punch of his previous output, as he was relying less on Sermon and Rockwilder’s production and began to chase more trends. Things began to sour with Def Jam soon afterwards, and his Red Gone Wild album, after being delayed about three years, was released in 2007 to little fanfare and meager commercial success.
Redman has spent the better part of a decade trying to get back to what he created with Muddy Waters. As early as 2009, he revealed he was in the process of recording Muddy Waters 2, which he said was going to be a return to the sound and feel of the first installment. However, he instead released Reggie in 2010, his eighth album and most overt attempt to make hip-hop with commercial appeal. The auto-tuned mess ended up being a commercial and critical dud. Talk of the follow-up album resurfaced in mid-2013, as Redman promised a “prelude” EP/mixtape, and a release by the end of the year. The album never came.
In late 2015, Redman released Mudface, a fairly brief album that was supposed to serve as a primer for the Muddy Water 2 release; it may or may not have been composed of outtakes from the forthcoming album. Mudface proved a solid addition to his discography, and the closest to the return to vintage Reggie since Malpractice. However, it still felt light and a bit rushed. In mid-2016, Redman announced he was working on a new EDM album, with Muddy Waters 2 still MIA.
It certainly appears that Muddy Waters 2 may go the way of Dr. Dre’s Detox or RZA’s The Cure, other fabled albums by artists that promised a return to the halcyon days where they were creatively on top of the world. Which of course kind of misses the point of Muddy Waters. Much of what made it great was that Redman wasn’t trying to be great, he was just being the same artist he always was.