Happy 30th Anniversary to Kool Moe Dee’s second studio album How Ya Like Me Now, originally released November 3, 1987.
Very few of hip-hop’s pioneering artists have released great albums. Acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Caz, and Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force all laid the foundation for rap music’s development in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, elevating the artform and developing what it meant to be a rapper or rap group. All of them were trailblazers who recorded and released classic songs that are essential to hip-hop’s identity. But I challenge anyone to name more than two albums total from that collective of artists without the aid of Google.
Mohandas “Kool Moe Dee” Dewese bucked that trend. He successfully made the transition from old school pioneer to top flight emcee as the genre exploded during the mid to late ’80s. He helped create innovative rhyme flows during the music’s formative years and during its creative golden age. He released a string of dope albums, including How Ya Like Me Now 30 years ago. While emcees like KRS-One and Rakim began to really build their legends in 1987, Kool Moe Dee existed as a seasoned veteran, who still could shock and amaze as hip-hop grew from party music in the clubs and parks into a genre that could sustain albums.
Kool Moe Dee is frequently associated with his distinctive look as an emcee/performer: the wrap-around “futuristic” sunglasses he was rarely photographed without wearing, the Kangol golf hat or a leather kufi he rocked as headwear, and the leather jacket to accompany both. But Moe Dee’s true legacy is as a lyricist, and he should be considered one of the first pure lyricists in the history of hip-hop.
The Harlem native was in the thick of New York City’s evolving hip-hop scene in the late ’70s, forming the Treacherous Three, comprised of Special K, LA Sunshine, and DJ Easy Lee. They recorded such classic tracks as “Body Rock,” “Feel the Heartbeat,” “Action,” and the Spoonie Gee supported “New Rap Language,” the latter of which featured all four emcees flexing the prototype of a double-time rhyme flow. Moe Dee eventually split off from the crew to start his own solo career, releasing his self-titled album in 1986. The album featured the single “Go See the Doctor,” a humorous ode to the dangers of not practicing safe sex.
It’s an understatement to say that Moe Dee has long taken the art of emceeing seriously. He’s one of the first intellectual rappers, valuing vocabulary as much as keeping the party live. Years later, the man literally wrote a whole book about the art of rapping. In There’s a God on the Mic (2003), Moe Dee ranked the 50 best emcees rapping at the time, breaking each down by such categories as versatility, vocabulary, flow, vocal presence, live performance, poetic value, etc. He also includes various other lists (such as the 10 Best Hip-Hop Pop Kings) and provides detailed explanations for many of his “battle laws.”
Battling has also helped define Moe Dee’s career. His legendary battle with Busy Bee at the Harlem World club back in 1981 is considered one of the great live battles in hip-hop history and Moe Dee’s verse is regarded as one of the great battle performances ever. And, of course, he’s perhaps best known for his protracted battle on wax with LL Cool J. But more on that later.
Like many early hip-hop albums, Moe Dee’s self-titled debut was mostly a collection of singles. The follow-up effort How Ya Like Me Now was Moe Dee’s first fully realized album. It’s a cohesive collection of songs that covered a wider array of topics and showcased Moe Dee’s sharp emceeing abilities. The production was definitely of the time, contrasting drum machine aesthetics with break-beat records, frequently scratched by Treacherous 3 hold-over DJ Easy Lee. Kool Moe Dee is listed as the producer on all of the tracks, though he received uncredited help from the legendary Teddy Riley on at least for of the songs. Riley’s work as a hip-hop producer remains underrated, as he crafted the beats on some of the album’s best songs.
The album leads off with the title track, one of the biggest hits in Moe Dee’s catalogue. The beat re-purposes horns and vocals from James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Moe Dee’s lyrical performance is impeccable, as he varies his flow, alternating short, clipped stanzas with lengthy, interlocking rhymes. He expresses the power of his lyrics, rapping, “Vernacular’s pure and I can ensure / Life or death with my breath, my voice is a cure / I heal life from the words I spread / I’ll make a sick man rock on his death bed.”
The song is well-known for the shots that Moe Dee throws at the aforementioned LL Cool J, who Moe Dee had been beefing with for a little while by the time of the album’s November 1987 release. After Moe Dee proclaims that he’s “bigger and better, forget about Defer” and promises to “splatter and shatter his pipe dreams,” he announces, “My word’s the law, that’s why you don’t beef / You’re nothing but a punk, track star, and a thief.”
The Moe Dee/LL battle on wax was hip-hop’s first definitive beef, and is literally up front on How Ya Like Me Now; the album’s cover famously features a red Kangol in LL’s Bermuda Bucket style being crushed underneath the front tire of Moe Dee’s Jeep Wrangler. The genesis of their differences apparently stems from Moe Dee believing that LL wasn’t paying significant respect to the architects that came before him, which is the type of thing that rappers used to argue about in the ’80s. It’s interesting to note that Moe Dee always maintained that he respected LL’s abilities, but still wanted to teach him a lesson. LL retaliated in response to “How Ya Like Me Now” with the classic “Jack the Ripper,” to which Moe Dee responded with the B-side “Let’s Go.” The pair always managed to keep the battle music-based, and the competition ended with both of them sharper.
The album is also well known for its second single, “Wild, Wild West,” Moe Dee’s ode to his neighborhood and crew while growing up in Harlem. It’s the type of track that would never get released as a single today: an unironic cowboy-western influenced track, complete with the replay of the legendary theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Ostensibly the song concerns Moe Dee and friends on his block learning tough streets lessons. After getting chased out of a house party after someone pulls a gun, he links up with his friends and vows to roll deep whenever they leave the safety of their neighborhood. Moe Dee brags that his new crew prefers the use of fisticuffs (using firearms only if their “enemies choose them”), and is always ready to “fight you on like a man, and beat you down with our hands and bodyslam you.” The song remains perhaps the best popular song Moe Dee ever recorded and is an infectious crowd mover.
Moe Dee continues to demonstrate his storytelling abilities, as well as his sense of humor, on the album’s third single, “No Respect.” Over a replay of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (speaking of something rappers could never get away with today), Moe Dee chastises wannabe drug dealers, pimps, and criminals for trying to be big shots. He slams the aspiring “Macaroni Tonys” for forgetting that their chances of incarceration remain high and their prospects for survival remain slim, rapping: “Word, I spell it out, I’ll yell it out / For those brothers that keep selling out / ’Cause local clout is all you're about / A few bullshit bitches and hanging out / And every day’s like a title bout / When the next man wants you taken out / I’d like to know what you're thinking about / It sure ain’t dying without a doubt.”
Considering how much acumen in illegal activities is valued in the lyrics of rap music in the last 25 years, it’s fascinating to think of a time when rappers liked to remind you that crime doesn’t pay. Which is not to say that “No Respect” is preachy; it’s remarkably funny at times. Throughout the breaks between verses, he adds a little levity as he plays the role of a former boss who was once the baddest man on the block, now reduced to an existence as a wino begging for change.
Moe Dee dedicates three songs on How Ya Like Me Now to his interactions with the opposite sex, the best of which is “I’m a Player.” Though the song isn’t progressive in its worldview, Moe Dee uses enough tongue-and-cheek humor to make it clear he’s winking at his audience. “Get Paid,” where Moe Dee speaks about money being a powerful aphrodisiac, is musically interesting, with a clock-like drum track that’s reminiscent of “Do You Know What Time It Is?” from his previous self-titled album.
The album is the most enjoyable when Moe Dee is in full verbal assault mode, delivering battle rhymes over break beats and hard and heavy drum machine tracks. Songs like “Don’t Dance,” “Suckers,” and “Rock You” showcase Moe Dee’s verbal dexterity and range in delivery. “Suckers” is one of the best songs on the album, as it features Moe Dee rhyming with reckless abandon on top of a deep, blaring, alarm-like keys and a cowbell-accented drum track. It’s one of his best lyrical displays on the album, as he raps, “Now I ask you who’s the best and everybody replied / But if you guess I’m not the best, you’re just as wrong as apartheid / Double up thoughts, think twice, but not about / Me being cool, because I’m ice, without a doubt.”
Moe Dee pays tribute to his old school roots with “Way Way Back.” He kicks familiar lyrics and lines from park jam era songs and routines over a complicated drum-track, while his DJ scratches the horn refrain from the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache.” It’s notable that he’s exhibiting nostalgia for an era that was about five to ten years in the past, celebrating the first era in what was at the time a musical art form still in its nascent stages. But contrasting the call and response nature of the rhymes on “Way Way Back” with the more complicated lyrical structure of much of the rest of the album showed how much lyricism grew in a short amount of time.
How Ya Like Me Now is Moe Dee’s most successful album, going platinum not long after its release and featuring his most beloved and revered songs in his catalogue. It isn’t his best album (that would be 1989’s Knowledge is King), but it showed that he had staying power as an artist. And it helped solidify his credentials as a rapper who took the art of emceeing seriously. Post-recording career, he has demonstrated a sustained interest in getting his peers to speak about their craft, as well as other important facets of musical culture. Moe Dee may not receive as much acclaim for his greatness as he deserves. Nevertheless, he has definitely left a few monuments that reinforce his indisputable prowess on the microphone.