Happy 25th Anniversary to Positive K’s Debut Album The Skills Dat Pay Da Bills, originally released November 3, 1992.
In an era crowded with great albums, The Skils Dat Pay Da Bills often slips under the radar. Recorded by Daryl “Positive K” Gibson, it’s an exercise in solidly grounded and creative hip-hop music that has exhibitions of humor, charm, sadness, and some good old-fashioned verbal slaughter. Now, 25 years after its release, it’s a bit odd that’s its best known for a song where he raps as a woman.
Positive K, a Bronx native, came up in the early ’80s park jam scene, and as the music’s popularity grew, became a fixture at legendary New York hip-hop hot spots like Latin Quarter and Union Square. He grew up as peer of artists like Kid ‘n Play and Stetsasonic, but didn’t really break into the business of recording music until a couple of years later. He also counted artists like M.O.P., JAY-Z, and Sauce Money as friends, but managed to break through to release an album earlier than all of those artists.
Positive K first really made a name for himself in the mid-1980s when he linked up with First Priority Records, the label best known for releasing music by MC Lyte and Audio Two. He released crowd-pleasers like “Step Up Front,” “A Good Combination,” and “Quarter Gram Pam,” and numerous appearances on the label’s compilation album that it released in 1988. The most famous song on that album was “I’m Not Having It,” a duet with MC Lyte where Positive K tries to work his charms, only for Lyte to repeatedly and often forcefully rebuff him.
Positive K eventually left First Priority to sign with Island Records. Through his manager, Lumumba Carson aka Professor X of the X-Clan, he linked up with Grand Puba Maxwell, who continued to show him the ins and outs of the rap industry. He eventually appeared on Brand Nubian’s debut album, One for All, recorded a duet with Puba simply entitled “Grand Puba, Positive, and L.G.” For those who are unaware, L.G. was Positive’s frequent musical collaborator and DJ.
Positive K’s rhyme persona was clearly influenced by his mentors, which included artists like Grand Puba and Big Daddy Kane. These were emcees who portrayed being smooth players on wax, always ready to spit game and scoop a lady. However, they also prided themselves on being fierce lyricists, ready to carve a wack rapper at the drop of a dime. They could flow slow or spray lyrics at rapid-fire rate. And Positive K followed their example, possessing the skills to flex many different styles over the course of an album.
On The Skills Dat Pay Da Bills, Positive K does it all. He kills ’em with the lyrical shit, plays the smooth microphone controller, operates as the cool and calm ladies man, and spins some interesting yarns. The album is strong from the production side as well, as he received soulful and boom-bap production from beat creators like the aforementioned Easy L.G., Silver D, and DJ Jazzy Jay. With this album Positive K displays an undeniable charisma and panache, and backs it up with true talent.
Songs like “One to the Head,” “Shakin’,” and “All Over Now” all showcase Positive K’s ability to serve battle rhymes as well as any of his contemporaries. “How the Fuck Would You Know?” is a four-verse lyrical clinic, featuring Pos spitting ruff and rugged shit over a loop of The Meters’ “Just Kissed My Baby.” He drops four lengthy murderous verses, aimed to establish his lyrical superiority, effectively using pauses in his delivery, setting up even more potent punchlines as he raps, “I’m the gentleman, very instrumental and / Executing styles that can even move a mannequin / The successor, casual dresser / Grab your girlfriend and I just bench-press her.”
With “Ain’t No Crime,” the album’s third single, Positive K shows he can deliver lyrical wizardry over a slower and more leisurely pace, as he recites dope rhymes over the Soulful Strings’ version of “Groovin’.” Then he delivers one of his best verses of the album on “The Shout Out,” which in this case, appears in the middle of the album rather than the end. After promising to “hit n***as off like Pepper Johnson” (as in the former New York Giants linebacker), he releases a potent 16-bar verse over a slowed down sample from Quincy Jones’ “Main Squeeze.” Positive K raps that he’s “[s]wift and interchangeable, yet remain the ill / Rhymes will intoxicate you when they spin upon the turntable” and later concludes that “brothers still fronting, still fronting to flex / Wouldn’t squeeze the trigger on a bottle of Windex.”
Given Positive K’s player persona, a good chunk of The Skills Dat Pay Da Bills is concerned with his pursuit of the opposite sex. On the album’s first single, “The Night Shift,” he takes things to the extreme, taking the role of pimp and describing the tactics he uses to mobilize and manage his ladies. The song features vocals by Big Daddy Kane, who lays down his game on the track’s chorus, describing the tricks of the trade. The song was produced by Kane as well, as he expertly flips a bluesy guitar sample lifted from Lee Moses’ “Time and Place.”
“I Got a Man” remains Positive K’s best known song, the album’s second single that earned him considerable acclaim and attention from mainstream radio. The song was conceived as a follow-up to “I’m Not Havin' It,” a second battle of the sexes on record. However, this time Positive K was arguing with himself. He had his voice pitched up so that it sounds like a woman’s vocal tone, and then trades occasionally sharp barbs with himself, rapping as the player in the club trying to unsuccessfully spit game at fly girl, then as the fly girl who declines his advances by insisting that she’s spoken for. The unashamedly goofy song is definitely Positive K at his most accessible, and its bolstered by an Easy LG beat that samples A Taste of Honey's "Rescue Me" and the Crash Crew’s “High Powered Rap.”
Despite the light-hearted humor on songs like “I Got a Man,” The Skills Dat Pay Da Bills gets pretty grim in terms of subject matter at times, as Positive K occasionally shows that he doesn’t have a particularly bright view of humanity. “Friends” is a prolonged screed against people who claim to be pals, but are really only there when they need you. He asserts that “I’ve learned that I can do bad on my own,” then explains that “My so-called friends, I grew up with / Either fell off, smoked out, or just ain’t shit / And the rest I just don't like / And if I see him again, I swear we're gonna fight.”
“Minnie the Moocher” is a dark, slow, jazz-influenced track that’s a loose rap update of the classic Cab Calloway track of the same name. Positive K details the life and times of Minnie, a club-going, cocaine-snorting woman who uses what she’s got to get what she wants, rolling in circles with shady characters in order to find her next benefactor. A dancehall-influenced, patois-drenched chorus by Grand Daddy I.U. provides a good contrast to the song’s overall somber mood.
After a period of cynicism, “A Flower Grows In Brooklyn” is a nice palate cleanser. Over a bouncy sample of the guitar intro from the Five Stairsteps’ “New Dance Craze,” Positive K sings the praises of young love in the form of a “Brooklyn honey who don’t want me for my money.” He marvels as she walks down the streets, object of every man’s potential affection, knowing that she only has eyes for him.
The Skills Dat Pay Da Bills was a moderate success, mostly based on the popularity of “I Got a Man.” And, as major label artists during the early to mid ’90s were wont to do, Positive K immediately tried to recapture lightning in a bottle by trying to duplicate the song’s success. First he remixed “Carhoppers,” an album cut about women based on the condition of the automobile, turning it into a near carbon copy of the album’s big hit. Again, he utilized the same studio tricks to “battle” himself, crafted a similar call-and-response based chorus, and rapped over a nearly identical old school hip-hop track, but with diminishing returns. The remix didn’t stick and now just comes off as a blatant cash grab.
As dope as The Skills Dat Pay Da Bills was, it is also Positive K’s only album. According to an interview with Unkut.com, Positive K said there were plans to record a full album with Grand Puba that never fully materialized; they recorded one song together, but were waylaid by label politics and money issues. He eventually started his own promotion company and worked with various records labels and acts, and reportedly helped break OutKast on a nationwide level.
Positive K attempted to restart his career throughout the ’90s and into the early ’00s, releasing numerous singles independently, though none really ever caught on. He has spoken of trying to put together a whole follow-up project, but has never released a complete album.
These days when Positive K gets name-checked, it’s mostly for one of those stupid “Best One Hit Wonders!” lists that pop-up in various publications, due to has lack of releases following the success of “I Got a Man.” It’s a shame that “I Got a Man” is his lasting legacy, because on The Skills Dat Pay Da Bills he demonstrated the potential to become an extremely talented artist. But the fact that he was able to release a dope album in a crowded period for dope hip-hop and still stand out is an accomplishment in itself, and one that should be lauded.