Happy 20th Anniversary to The Alkaholiks’ third studio album Likwidation, originally released August 26, 1997.
There weren’t many groups like Tha Alkaholiks. During their mid-1990s heyday, they functioned as a kind of throwback early-to-mid 1980s crew, where emcees and DJs were committed to rocking a party. However, their lyrics were as fierce and as complex as any emcee or group recording at the time. It’s easy to view their desire to make music to keep the party rocking and to create “straight lyrical fiyah” as diametrically opposed, but Tha Alkaholiks managed to do both. Released 20 years ago and one of the best albums of 1997, their third album Likwidation remains a largely underappreciated gem.
Tha Alkaholiks’ early career was initially shepherded by Los Angeles O.G. hip-hopper Roger “King Tee” McBride. Eric “E-Swift” Brooks functioned as his DJ for At Your Own Risk (1990) and Tha Triflin’ Album (1993), all while putting in work with James “J-Ro” Robinson and Rico “Tash” Smith. Though E-Swift and Tash were raised in Ohio, they had migrated out to Los Angeles in the late ‘80s and linked up with like-minded artists. After J-Ro and E-Swift recorded appearances on the aforementioned Triflin’ Album, the trio dropped their first album 21 & Over in August 1993. They followed the album up with Coast II Coast in February 1995. With both of these albums, Tha Liks earned the acclaim of their peers and the critics, while hip-hoppers who were really in the know considered Tash one of the best rappers holding down the mic during the mid ‘90s.
By the time 1997 rolled around, Tha Liks were really into the groove, and with Likwidation, they didn’t fiddle with their formula. During a time when hip-hop was becoming increasingly about choosing a side, Tha Liks created music that was neither overtly “pop” nor overtly “underground.” It was just dope. The album didn’t break any new stylistic ground for the crew, and it didn’t need to. J-Ro and Tash flexed their sharp lyrics over “that 99 beats a minute, party shit” tracks.
Tha Liks kept things thematically consistent with Likwidation, opting mostly to rap about being dope and imbibing their favorite likwit refreshments. The album reinforced that J-Ro and Tash are two of the more underrated lyricists from the 1990s. Tash came across about as amped and hyper as a Vodka and Red Bull (even though these albums predated the popularity of that brutal concoction) with J-Ro flexing a flow as smooth as Cognac. Producer E-Swift had rapped quite a bit on the previous two albums, but on Likwidation he mostly demonstrates his talents behind the board, producing the vast majority of the album’s material.
The album shines the brightest when Tha Liks play to their strengths, keeping things moving with upbeat tracks and ruff-and-rugged rhymes. The group opens the album with the Easy Moe Bee-produced title song, with J-Ro and Tash trading verses over a breezy guitar loop and scratches throughout the track. “Aww Shit!” covers similar territory, but remains just as dope, as J-Ro and Tash flex their skills over a loop of Fatback Band’s “Lovespell.” Over the bouncy funk beat, Tash starts things off in fierce form, proclaiming to be from the “The L dot A dot Crenshaw Boulevard / Where I write rhymes so hard %^&*as swap my trading cards / ‘Cause my Cali %^&*as feel this realness, lyrics heal this / That’ll make the specialist want to grab this gun and kill this / But still this brother stays alive like Wyclef / I’m steppin’ through the house the rappers step to the left.”
Tha Liks employ a good deal of guests on Likwidation. Some—like LL Cool J, Nas, and the brother El DeBarge—just appear on brief drunken interludes, apparently swinging by the studio at the right time. But others recorded tight verses that appear throughout the lengthy album. The immortal and appropriately inebriated Ol’ Dirty Bastard contributes an unhinged performance on the album’s first single, “Hip-Hop Drunkies,” mostly spraying spurts of lyrics in between Tash and J-Ro’s verses. It sounds as if ODB kicked one complete verse and then a bunch of semi-coherent stanzas that they pieced together after the fact. Despite the inherent intoxicated insanity, the track works perfectly, with J-Ro vowing to “bend you in half and drink a Genuine Draft,” while Tash proclaims that he “wastes motherfuckas like toxic fumes” and ODB describes his “dick as a lightning rod.” The chaos is held together by a stripped-down piano loop take from the intro of Marley Marl’s “Symphony” video, along with sounds of bottles clinking and scratches.
The album’s second single “Off the Wall,” which features a solid verse from the Def Squad’s Keith Murray, is about as close to an accessible track as Tha Liks provide on Likwidation. The song is an overt party jam, with all three emcees rapping over a disco-infused beat provided by T-Smoov (which samples Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”) mainly known for his production of the R&B group Tha Truth! On “Likwit Ridas,” Tha Liks bring in Bay Area homies King Saan and Mr. Taylor of The Whoridas (an offshoot of Oakland’s Hobo Junction crew) for a bit of music aimed at the trunk, rather than the party. With its grumbling bass and thumping drums, the crew show that they’re adept at creating rider music.
Tha Liks are joined by their mentor King Tee on the all-too-brief “Funny Style,” one of Likwidation’s best tracks. Over a slow and funky sample of James Brown’s “Don’t Tell It,” J-Ro and King Tipsy himself trade verses. With slow and deliberate flow, annunciating each syllable, King Tela demonstrates that he still had it and could still rip the mic with ease, rapping “Alkaholistics, all true with no tricks / The infrared pointed at they lips / And man they don’t speak, they keep the conversation petite / They shit is weak, I’m concrete like the beat.”
While Tha Liks use Likwidation to showcase the one who helped them break them into the industry, they were also instrumental in breaking new talent with the album. The now legendary Madlib, then a member of The Lootpack (along with Wildchild and DJ Romes) earned some of his first exposure with Tha Liks, producing and rapping on their first three albums. Here the self-styled Bad Kid produces two of the strongest cuts on Likwidation: “Killin’ It” and “Tore Down.” It’s possible to trace the thru-lines of his production style from these two tracks to the present, as they have a different sound and feel than anything else on the album. “Killin’ It” is buoyed by rhythmic key strikes and watery echoes, with Tash J-Ro, and Likwit crew homie Xzibit (a.k.a. Big Bad Insane Black John McClain), all recording fierce verses.
Madlib and Wildchild appear on “Tore Down,” where the producer also utilizes atmospheric noises and chimes, paired with chunky drums, as well as DJ Romes on the cuts. But the track also features some of J-Ro and Tash’s best verses on the album. Tash uses a more laid-back cadence, but his lyrics still pack a punch, as he raps, “‘Cause my brain tells me go against the grain / ‘Cause these other n&*%as out here all be rapping just the same / But I spit flames, I kick ass and take names / Fuck the boozy dames, this art should be placed in frames / And hung up on the wall right next to Picasso / I heard n^&%as coming down the pike, but not so hot so / Tash comes blazing, Loot Pack blazing / Hot enough to fry you into California Raisins / ‘Cause my alkie style of rhyming is ahead of its time / I make words connect lovely like Coronas and limes.” J-Ro commands the mic as well with his own verse, rhyming, “N%$#as talk about scrapping when they can’t scrape a grape / That’s why I choose to stick to myself like a roll of tape / You don’t wanna battle dog, I got a catalog / Of rhymes, break it down to your enzymes / But your ass talk trash, know when your style is garb-y / You soft as a Barbie, hard as Terence Trent D’Arby / You the wackest MC I ever heard / You fly like a wingless bird, it’s absurd.”
Not all the songs on Likwidation are pure lyrical exhibitions. With “Captain Hook,” J-Ro and Tash mock unoriginality in hip-hop, deriding lyrical laziness in the form of the eponymous anonymous clown. The dastardly thief becomes known for stealing other more respectable emcees’ styles, watering them down and packaging them with recognizable hooks, so that he can secure play on mainstream radio. The beat created by E-Swift is one of the album’s strongest, as it meshes vivid sitar and pulsating keys.
On the jazzy “Feel the Real,” the group vents their unresolved feelings concerning their ex-girlfriends who they’ve discovered have cheated on them. “All Night,” the album’s third single, features one of the album’s most soulful beats, as J-Ro and Tash pay homage to the great Los Angeles nightlife, parties, and DJs over a sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Too High.” The track is further bolstered by a live flute that carries on throughout the nearly six-minute song.
As the album draws to a close, the beats and flows get a bit more frenzied. “Pass Out,” built around a one-bar guitar loop, feels more lyrically and musically aggressive than most of the material on the album, with J-Ro and Tash quickly trading four-bar verses. The final track, “Contents Under Pressure,” buzzes with claustrophobic force, as the itchy guitar loops complement the group’s lyrics, which pulse with energy.
Like many dope, non-overtly commercial albums from this era, Likwidation didn’t enjoy much success by way of sales. The group soon took a hiatus, with Tash deciding to pursue a solo career, releasing his Rap Life album in late 1999. The album enlisted the talents of B-Real, Raekwon, and OutKast, along with Sir Jinx, Rockwilder, and Battlecat behind the boards (along with E-Swift). Rap Life was interesting, but still didn’t give Tash his elusive commercial success.
The group reunited in 2001, now going simply as Tha Liks, and released X.O. Experience, the group’s most commercial album to date. Despite the Neptunes’ produced single “Best U Can,” the album didn’t resonate with their core audience, the wider hip-hop music buying public, or critics.
Tha Liks laid low for a while, before releasing Fire Water in 2006, proclaiming that it would be their final album. The album barely registered on their fans’ consciousness and went fairly unnoticed. Tha Liks have since reunited again in the early ‘10s. Like many a group that enjoyed their ‘90s hey-day, they still tour extensively in the United States and Europe. As far as recording new material, the group decided to link up with The Beatnuts to form LikNuts. They’ve been talking about releasing an EP since 2011, though it appears efforts have long since stalled. So far the only song that they recorded and released was the extremely dope “Grumpy Crocodile.” Five years later, it seems that a complete album may never be forthcoming.
It would have been nice if during the mid to late ‘90s era Tha Liks could have enjoyed sales commiserate with their skills. But unfortunately, some great groups and album runs remain unheralded by the masses. Though Likwidation may never have received its fully deserved props, it certainly stands tall with any album from that era. And sometimes dopeness is its own reward.