Happy 25th Anniversary to Above the Law’s second studio album Black Mafia Life, originally released February 2, 1993.
It’s a given that the early 1990s were the peak of gangsta rap music. Both lyrically and musically, it was the most interesting period, as the emcees were sharpening their story-telling skills and the production styles continued to be trendsetting and innovative. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, released in late 1992, defined this era and changed the way gangsta rap was made. But another singular and sadly overlooked achievement during this era was Above the Law’s sophomore album Black Mafia Life, released just a month and a half after Dre’s magnum opus.
Above the Law were one of the first successful N.W.A offshoots. Their first album, the also underrated Livin’ Like Hustlers (1990), was one of the first N.W.A-affiliated projects released after Ice Cube’s departure from the crew. Produced by Dr. Dre, along with members of the group, it was akin to a more rugged version of Straight Outta Compton (1988).
The members of Above the Law, raised in Pomona, California, were certified hard rocks. Comprised of rappers Gregory “Cold 187um” Hutchinson (the nephew of famed soul singer and composer Willie Hutch) and Kevin “KMG” Gulley, along with DJs Anthony “DJ K-Oss” Stewart and Arthur “Go Mack” Goodman, they were considered Ruthless Records’ unofficial muscle. When the N.W.A and Ice Cube feud occasionally turned violent in 1991, Above the Law always seemed to be involved.
While Above the Law rolled with N.W.A and Ruthless Records, the group became more of a self-contained operation after their debut album. Their follow-up EP Vocally Pimpin’ (1991) was produced entirely by Cold 187um. After Dr. Dre left the fold over money disputes, he allegedly offered Above the Law the opportunity to come with him to Death Row Records. However, the group declined and remained loyal to Eazy-E, remaining with Ruthless.
There weren’t many hip-hop albums, “gangsta” or otherwise, that sounded very much like Black Mafia Life. Above the Law create a dark, dense, layered wall of sound throughout the album, with production that seems just as influenced by the Bomb Squad as it does by Dre. It’s a sound that the group had been developing with Livin’ Like Hustlers and one they further refined on Vocally Pimpin’. The crowded, at times chaotic, production techniques almost causes sensory overload at times, but the solid backbone of funk always keeps things anchored.
Cold 187um has maintained in the past that he created the G-Funk sound with Black Mafia Life, and that Dre appropriated it and used it to create The Chronic. Though Dre’s album was released seven weeks before Black Mafia Life, Above the Law’s album was apparently completed earlier. Cold 187um maintained that Dre heard Black Mafia Life through his stepbrother Warren G, who was good friends with members of Above the Law. In turn, he says Dre copied the template and made millions off of it, then denied Above the Law the credit for the pioneering sound and vision.
I am a huge fan of Above the Law, and I believe Cold 187um is a largely unheralded genius. That said, I don’t believe that this assertion is really accurate, even with Warren G crediting Cold 187um as the original creator of G-Funk during a 2013 interview. Yes, both albums use some of the same sources as sample material and both rely heavily on the funk aesthetic. But the production on Black Mafia Life sounds more packed and eschews live instrumentation, relying heavily on sampled material.
Black Mafia Life leads off with “Never Missin’ a Beat,” the crew’s uptempo ode to remaining true to themselves. Cold 187um describes how he hasn’t let fame or money change him, and how even after a few albums, he’s still not to be fucked with, rapping, “Yo, cause I can take you to the darkest corner / Tell your ass, ‘Let’s do this,’ and drop dogs on ya.” The beat is built around a sample of Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” (much like Dre’s “Fuck Wit Dre Day”), with additional melodic keys and P-Funk vocals.
“Commin’ Up” is more indicative of the overall sound of Black Mafia Life. The sinister track is a musical whirlwind, featuring multiple layers of piano, backwards-masked drums, traditional drum breaks, and warped and muffled vocal samples. It’s the ideal soundscape for Cold 187um to explain his lifelong commitment to hustling, through both legal and illegal means, in order to make sure that he can live comfortably.
Black Mafia Life is also notable for the increased presence of KMG. On their early projects, KMG often acted as arguably the most laid-back hype man ever to appear on record. He’d often appear to drop knowledge during the song’s hook. Here, he flexes more muscle as an emcee, and lends his lyrical skills to nearly all of the album’s songs.
KMG’s deadpan, slow, and monotone flow provides a good counter-point to Cold 187um’s amped-up and breathless delivery. KMG shines on tracks like “Why Must I Feel Like Dat,” where he raps, “You ever try to bust to a gangsta type slow flow? / Bump an ATL demo? No / Because our house is a lawfully ghetto bound / Vocally pimping the black mafia sound.”
The pair of emcees also have an incredibly underrated rapport when it comes to playing off each other. Throughout Black Mafia Life, Cold 187um and KMG expertly trade rhymes and lines, with a chemistry that transforms that into a gangsta-fied version of EPMD or Run-DMC. On “Harda U R Tha Doppa U Faal,” the two describe distributing their unique brand of hip-hop like dope, with Cold 187um proclaiming, “So welcome to the place where nobody dares to go / So head for the hills and hide your hoes.”
“Pimp Clinic” is the album’s best track, with both emcees dropping the “ATL pimp game” over an infectious track. Cold 187um and KMG rhyme over guitars and keyboards from Bootsy Collins’ “Fat Cat,” which is bolstered by handclaps and elastic bass and vocals. They even throw in vocals from Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” for good measure (the “Swing down sweet chariot…” refrain used by Dr. Dre on “Let Me Ride”). It’s not the most enlightened lyrical content, but both emcees have the panache to pull it off.
The production on the officially released singles from Black Mafia Life is more accessible, while still preserving the album’s overall vibe. “V.S.O.P.,” the album’s first single, is a mellow and funky track that’s best appreciated while in the car. Musically, it incorporates elements of Fatback Band’s “Backstrokin’,” the intro keys to Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go For That,” and the closing key solo from Parliament’s “Theme From the Black Hole.” Lyrically, it’s another fine example of Cold 187um and KMG using their back-and-forth chemistry. The first verse of the track is memorable, as the two continuously incorporate references to ’70s and ’80s funk bangers throughout their rhymes.
The album’s second single, “Call It What You Want,” is probably the most straightforward track on the album. Here Cold 187um and KMG team up with Digital Underground’s Money B and a young and brash 2Pac to create a party banger. The production mixes samples with live instrumentation, and the spine of the song is built around Funkadelic’s “Freak of the Week,” with a live electric guitar providing the extra flourishes.
Above the Law enlist the remaining members of N.W.A and other Ruthless Records affiliated artists throughout the album. An extremely animated Eazy-E contributes one of the best verses of his career to “Game Wreck-Oniz-Iz Game” (Note: A quarter of a century later, and I still have no idea how to pronounce the song’s title or discern what it means). Kokane joins the group on “G-Rupies Best Friend,” a down-and- dirty tale of their sexual exploits while on tour. The beat is another slinky and messy work of art, meshing Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” with the horns from Prince’s “Housequake.”
“Process of Elimination” is another of the album’s highlights, a track strengthened by a pulsing piano track, a menacing bassline, and sound effects taken from George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.” N.W.A’s MC Ren makes a standout appearance, using his verse to lambast imitators who pilfer his lyrical style. He raps, “I used to wear black, but the shit got played / From the biting ass n****s that I slayed / For trying to walk the path that I walked in / And 90% of them trying to talk how I be talking.”
Not everything on Black Mafia Life quite clicks. “Me Vs. My Ego,” the album’s final full song, is a near miss. Musically, it bangs, as the beat melds elements of Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” with flutes, multiple drum tracks, jangling guitars, and vocal samples. KMG’s verse, where he struggles with the mild-mannered and devious sides of his nature, is also strong. The song falters with Cold 187um’s verse. I am usually a very big fan of gangsta rappers incorporating Jamaican patois into their rhyme schemes. However, Cold 187um’s prolonged riff is not executed particularly well and he drones on too long, hindering the song. Perhaps he decided to use it after incorporating samples from the film Marked For Death, an awful Steven Seagal vehicle set partially in Jamaica.
Overall, whether or not to what extent Black Mafia Life influenced The Chronic isn’t really important. The album is dope enough to be lauded on its own merits, and be evaluated and appreciated independently. In the years that followed, Above the Law would record and release more “traditional” G-Funk material, replete with live instrumentation and synth-based production. These albums have all been dope in their own right, but Black Mafia Life stands out as an album that still sounds fresh and unique. There wasn’t an album out like it before, and there hasn’t been one since.