Happy 25th Anniversary to Das EFX’s debut album Dead Serious, originally released April 7, 1992.
The first time I saw the video for Das EFX’s “They Want EFX,” it blew my 16-year-old mind. I want to say it was a Friday night, more than 25 years ago, and I was watching TV with my brother, flipping through channels until we hit The Box, the now-defunct “call in and request” video channel. I’m pretty sure we discovered it in progress, but it hit me hard regardless. Since video is, obviously, a visual medium, the visuals hit me first: the sewer setting, the torches, the hoodies and face muzzles, the pick-axes and shovels, the guy in the background rocking the gasmask, the exploding turntables and speakers and 40 oz’s.
And, of course, the song itself was amazing as well. First there was the beat, a dark and sinister loop sampled from The JB's "Even a Blind Man Can See It." There was the rapidfire style exhibited by both emcees, the fast and furious references to Looney Tunes, Jabber Jaw, Dukes of Hazard, and commercials for Parks Sausages and Connect Four. The pair recited “Pudding Tane” and “B-I-N-G-O.” They did the hokey pokey. And there were the iggedys. Lots of iggedys. As in “Bum stiggedy bum stiggedy bum.” Or “spiggedy spark the blunt.” It was radically different than anything I’d heard before.
Das EFX is composed of the Brooklyn-bred William “Skoob a.k.a. Books” Hines and the New Jersey native Andre “Dray a.k.a. Krazy Drayz” Weston, who met in 1988 while attending Virginia State University, bonding through a love of emceeing. They soon formed a group, and began recording music and competing at campus talent shows. Eventually, the pair performed at a local club’s talent show in the hopes of winning the $100 prize. Two of the judges in attendance just so happened to be Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith, the two halves of the legendary duo EPMD. The legend goes that even though Das had the highest score of all the acts at the event, right before announcing the winner, Smith whispered something into the host’s ear, and another group was declared the winner.
Afterwards, Smith approached the pair and made them a proposition: “Yo, what would you guys rather have: a record deal or $100? Meet me in the back of the club in five minutes.” The pair met with EPMD in the club’s back room and played them a demo of the song they’d just performed. Sermon and Smith liked what they heard and told Das if they could record nine more songs as dope as that one, they’d get them a record deal. By late 1991, the pair had a deal with East West Records, and became members of The Hit Squad, the crew led by EPMD that included K-Solo and Redman, among others. The following spring, 25 years ago this week, their debut album Dead Serious dropped.
Lyrically, Das EFX didn’t get too deep on Dead Serious. For 80% of the album, Dray and Skoob’s rhymes are a continuous stream of consciousness with a plethora of pop culture references. The contents of their verses were made up references to cartoons, commercial jingles, and nursery rhymes, and constantly peppered with iggedys. And I mean this in the best way possible. They created dope standalone verses, and had the chemistry that allowed them to trade the mic back and forth, so that their contrasting voices (Dray’s rasp and Skoob’s deeper growl) meshed effortlessly.
The pair credited the development of their unique rhyme style to the fact that while attending college in Virginia, they were largely cut off from the prominent New York City hip-hop scene. In Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique, they explained that Virginia radio didn’t play NYC hip-hop, and they didn’t have access to the mixtapes that circulated through the five boroughs and across Jersey. The pair were fans of Brand Nubian, but beyond that, they didn’t hear a lot of NYC music created for much of the year.
Chris Charity and Derek Lynch of Solid Scheme Productions handle the majority of the album’s production. They did an admirable job, pairing the duo’s off-the-wall vocals with sturdy beats. Sold Scheme certainly had their go-to signatures on this album: they use Skull Snaps’ “It’s a New Day” three times and ESG’s “UFO” at least twice. However, each time they put them to good use and created crunchy, head-nodding, mid-tempo excellence. Clocking in at around 39 minutes in length, Dead Serious doesn’t linger; Dray and Skoob handle their business quickly and efficiently, with only a brief bump or two.
Das EFX excels when the vibe of Dead Serious veers toward the dark and grimy. The aforementioned “They Want EFX” holds up as a bona fide classic: an ode to hard-rock, murky hip-hop music. The group’s second single and album opener “Mic Checka” evokes a similar feel. With its rumbling bassline, mixed in with a guitar sample from James Brown’s “Think ’73,” the track is another menacing underground anthem.
Dead Serious features its fair share of muddy funk, a sound that Hit Squad ringleaders EPMD practically invented. Songs like “Brooklyn to T-Neck” and “Straight From the Sewer” would feel right at home on an album by Erick & Parrish, as evidenced by the thumping basslines with dusty drum tracks on vocals. The rugged “East Coast” showcases arguably the best lyrical performance of the duo on the album, as Dray says he’ll “sling raps for hand claps and toe taps, I'm down / Silly creep, I leap a rapper with a single bound,” while Skoob invokes Bell Biv DeVoe and says that he “whips it, I smacks it, I flips it / With slick shit, when shit hits the fan, man, I slaps lips like lipstick.”
“If Only” is one of the album’s best songs and the jazziest track on Dead Serious. The sped-up saxophone sample from Stanley Turrentine’s “Man With the Sad Face” gives the song a grand, epic feel, especially as it contrasts the pulsing horns with a four-note piano loop. “Klap Ya Handz,” the track that Das performed at the famed talent show, is another highlight. Produced by Das EFX themselves along with an uncredited friend named Dexx, it features a piano loop from the Emotions’ “Blind Alley” (best known for its usage on Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half Steppin’), backing it with a sparse bassline that gives the track a brooding and foreboding feel.
Only twice on Dead Serious does Das EFX attempt a “concept” song. The first is “Looseys,” where Dray and Skoob rap about diarrhea over a loop of Booker T and the MGs “Hip Hug Her.” It’s goofy and innocuous, and the best track about an unfortunate lack of bowel control since the second verse of Groove B. Chill’s “Why Me?” There’s also “Dum Dums,” where the pair share tales of women who once fronted on them but now find Das’ newfound fame an aphrodisiac. While not the strongest tracks on the album, both tracks demonstrate that the group was capable of constructing a cohesive narrative.
The group’s best story rap from that time period, “Hard Like a Criminal,” wasn’t on Dead Serious, instead appearing as a B-side to the “Straight Out the Sewer” single. Here the pair rhyme from the perspective of two separate hard rocks each creating havoc on the city streets, while heading to the same house party. The pair crosses paths at the end of the track, and tempers flare before things end in gunshots and bloodshed.
Even though Das EFX’s songs weren’t the most pop-accessible, Dead Serious was a commercial success, as the album eventually ended up going platinum. It was also pretty influential, as the pair’s rhyme style was appropriated by many young up-and-coming acts, and even had an effect on a few respected hip-hop vets. Das EFX had a clear influence on Ice Cube’s The Predator album, and other legends like Kool G Rap and Melle Mel also adopted a similar style of delivery on music they released during that period.
Others utilizing their rhyme style became so ubiquitous that Das EFX almost abandoned it completely on their sophomore album, Straight Up Sewaside, which they released in the fall of 1993. The album is decent enough, and the pair further refined their storytelling abilities, but much of the album is lacking in the personality department. The group got back on track with Hold It Down, where they struck the right balance between straight mic ripping and narrative, and began to incorporate work with outside producers, such as DJ Premier and Pete Rock. The result was one the best albums of 1995. In 1998, they dropped Generation EFX, which was solid artistically, but made little noise commercially. These days the pair continues to tour and perform throughout the country.
It’s not too often that a group can say that they brought something truly original and influential to hip-hop music, but Das EFX succeeded in doing so with Dead Serious. Although their music wasn’t designed to be accessible, it captured the imaginations of their audience and their peers. The musical stylings might have been from the sewer, but Das EFX had an impact that reached all the way to the top.