Happy 25th Anniversary to Volume 10’s debut album Hip-Hopera, originally released April 26, 1994.
Volume 10’s Hip-Hopera is a particularly inaccessible album. Even for mid-1990s West Coast underground hip-hop. Even compared to Freestyle Fellowship’s Innercity Griots (1993), which pretty much set the standard for inaccessible West Coast underground hip-hop during the mid ’90s.
Much of the album’s inaccessibility has to do with Dino “Volume 10” Hawkins himself, particularly his rhyming style. And Volume 10 wore his inaccessibility like a badge of honor. The Inglewood, California native came up in the fiercely competitive arena of the Los Angeles underground and worked hard to expand the boundaries of rhyming behind traditional rhyme schemes.
Volume 10 first recorded in the late ’80s/early ’90s with Cut Chemist, a soon-to-be legendary Los Angeles-based producer. Later, on the advice of future Jurassic 5 emcee Chali 2na, he began frequenting the weekly open mic sessions at the Good Life Café. The Good Life was a health food store located in South Central Los Angeles that became a famed proving ground for the left-of-center Southern California hip-hop scene, including artists like Freestyle Fellowship, Ganjah K, Chillin Villain Empire, and Medusa. Volume 10 became a regular and eventually a member of the core “O.G. Crew” who frequently held court at the two-hour events.
Products of the Good Life Café have always prided themselves as jazz musicians, using their voices and raps as instruments. But if we’re going to play the “emcee as jazz musician” game, stylistically Volume 10 was farther out than the Cecil Taylors of the world. But in 1994, it wasn’t that far-fetched for an emcee with “gangster” bona fides like Volume 10 to utilize such an unorthodox rhyme style.
Volume 10’s lyrical technique and delivery is best described as unhinged. Or volatile. Or unpredictable. He often shouted his raps, starting and stopping and changing cadences. He repeated lines and phrases multiple times, using different lyrical patterns each time. It can make the content at times hard to decipher. Hip-Hopera is not for hip-hop neophytes who feel like shutting their brain off when they listen to music. It benefits from multiple listens and rewards its audience with its complexity.
It’s weirdly fitting that the song that Volume 10 and Hip-Hopera are best known for is about as far away as the album gets in presenting the “real” Volume 10. “Pistol Grip Pump,” the album’s first single, is a generous portion of mid ’90s West Coast gangsta funk. It’s a tale of Volume 10 driving through the streets of Los Angeles with a gun on his lap, rhyming over a thumping track produced by The Baka Boyz. It was a reasonable radio hit at the time, but over the last quarter century, it has become an undisputed hip-hop classic.
And, as detailed in an extensive MySpace Music article, nearly everyone involved making “Pistol Grip Pump” hated it at the time. Volume 10 thought he’d compromised too much of his artistic vision recording it, watering down his style far too much in the process. The Baka Boyz, a pair of renowned sibling DJs and co-hosts of the “Friday Night Flavas” radio show on Los Angeles’ Power 106, didn’t want to make “Pistol Grip Pump” either. About the only person who seemed to have any interest in the recording was the label’s A&R, who fought Volume 10 extensively to record something for Hip-Hopera so that he could give Immortal Records an accessible single to push the album.
Truthfully, “Pistol Grip Pump” is an excellently crafted song. There’s a reason why “Atomic Dog” and “More Bounce” were the foundations of so many West Coast hip-hop classics: they fucking knock. Here the Baka Boyz use both expertly, along with the guitar from Kool & The Gang’s “Life Is What You Make It.” They incorporate these elements, along with an elastic bassline and a snatch of vocals from the Beastie Boys’ “Hold It Now, Hit It.”
In terms of lyrics, just because the song was accessible for Volume 10 didn’t mean it was easily disposable tripe. Volume 10 felt may have felt he was selling out by reigning in his unorthodox delivery, but there’s still a lot of what made him unique as an emcee present in “Pistol Grip Pump.” It’s not just a track about rolling around strapped, but conveys the paranoia that can grip an individual living in the rugged streets of Inglewood.
“Pistol Grip Pump” imparts the listeners with the knowledge that the key to survival in this environment requires extreme caution and the presence of a weapon. And having a crew to back you up helps too. About halfway through the track, Volume 10 boasts about his street credentials, stating “Rhyming is a cinch, son of a bitch I’m rich / But that don’t mean you can gank me, cause all my peoples is pimps / Players, hustlers, killers, all been through the filter / I hang with my dogs man, fuck a guerilla!”
The last line has been perceived as a dis to Ice Cube. The story has been told that Ice Cube used to visit the Good Life Café, and caught Volume 10 performing on stage. Afterwards, many speculate that Cube began to alter his vocal style so then he sounded a lot like Volume 10 (see: Cube’s performance of Da Lench Mob’s “Guerillas In the Mist” and subsequent material that he released during that era). Cube later incorporated many elements of the “Pistol Grip” beat for his 1993 hit “Really Doe.”
Volume 10 hits back at Cube a few times on Hip-Hopera, including “Stylesondeck.” The album-opening track comes a lot closer than “Pistol Grip Pump” to featuring the “real” Volume 10. The track is nearly four minutes of Volume 10 unleashing his vocal fury. He becomes a veritable hurricane, vibrating with undeniable energy, barely contained by the constraints of the track.
“A Real Freestyle” further showcases Volume 10 is all of his messy glory. The track is an extended freestlye session featuring Volume 10 and Good Life compatriots Smooth 7, RKA, and the late Ganjah K, all freestyling. And when I say “freestyle,” I mean that they are genuinely freestyling. The song features each emcee’s off-the-head raps, warts and all. And Volume 10’s contribution is particularly wart-y: He careens across the busy Fatjack produced-track, just barely staying on the rails. There’s starts & stops, pauses, repetitions, and mistakes that many emcees make when rapping off the dome, but would never think to include on an album. Volume 10 ending his first verse by bellowing “Fuck everybody and their mama, I say!” repeatedly is one of these moments.
But the soul of Hip-Hopera is found in other tracks throughout the album, particularly the depth it explores within the recesses of Volume 10’s mind. Hip-Hopera is the West Coast version of Mr. Scarface’s Mr. Scarface is Back (1991), a classic debut album known for centering on the psychological effects of living in poverty and needing to commit crime to survive.
Volume 10 was clearly a huge fan of Texas hip-hop. The chorus of “Pistol Grip Pump” is a Bun-B line from UGK’s “Pocket Full of Stones.” And about halfway through “What’s Up To…,” the album’s “shout out” track, Volume 10 proclaims, “Don’t nobody last long in the tape deck as them n****s down in Texas.” And like many emcees from the Lone Star state, including the venerable Mr. Brad Jordan, Volume 10 spends a good amount of his debut album exploring his own damaged psyche.
Volume 10 copes with his father’s alcoholism and early death on the first verse of “Where’s the Sniper?” “Liver shrank from liquid legalized evil and now I’m giving roses… Thank you,” he mourns. During his next two verses, Volume 10 shifts gears to another source of trauma, relating tales of police brutality and corrupt law enforcement officials that marked his own upbringing.
“Harderthanally’all” features Volume 10 telling the tales of three lives—his, his brother’s, and his niece’s—with each struggling to overcome the pain and misery so often a huge part of making it through life. The narrator is the only one among the living, but he’s still severely damaged, confessing that he turned to “smoking up the world … almost lost my fucking mind.” The sped-up piano sample of Ramsey Lewis’ “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right,” backed by otherworldly chirps and whistles, is suitably haunting.
“Home Alone” is a swirling, chaotic tale of isolation and mental anguish, as Volume 10 wrestles with thoughts of suicide. He describes “sitting in my cave,” pistol on his lap, feeling the walls closing in on him, and “howling at the moon.” Producer Fat Jack captures the claustrophobic mood perfectly by using trundling basslines and wails from the film Scarface.
“Sunbeams” shows Volume 10 attempting to seek solace and comfort in an environment that often lends itself to chaos. He ruminates on spending a summer day in the park, seeking both calm and sexual attention. He describes the passionate encounter in detail during the song’s verse, giving it an air of messy desperation. The Torcha Chamba production collective works behind the boards, building the song around a propulsive bassline and scattered guitar licks. The song would be remixed later by the Baka Boyz for the album’s second single, retooling it into something far more accessible, but still funky.
Volume 10 does dedicate portions of Hip-Hopera to those who are close to him. “Sho Is Hype” is a detailed account of how he met his girlfriend, and how their relationship grew from a fling into a true partnership. Meanwhile, the heart-warming “Firstborn” is a dedication to the fruits of the aforementioned relationship, his first daughter. Along with his mother, Volume 10 speaks about these three women as his source of sanity and stability.
Sometimes Volume 10 just cuts loose and provides angst-free braggadocio based hip-hop, like on the album’s title track and “Knockoutchaskull,” the latter of which is about exploding wack emcees’ heads with the sheer force of his lyrics. “Flow Wood” is another posse cut, featuring Volume 10, Ganjah K, RKA, and J-Smoov rhyming over what sounds like another modified sample of “Atomic Dog.” Ganjah K, batting lead-off, gives the strongest performance on the track, rapping, “This is the return of the Star Child, loc / Catching organisms by the throat / And there was no mercy that was given! / He was killed by the beat and the rhythm!”
For many years, it appeared that Hip-Hopera was to be Volume 10’s only full-length. The album wasn’t enough of a financial success for Immortal Records in order for him to get a second major label shot. He had gained a rep of being difficult to work with, and spent the next few years in his home, struggling with his personal issues. Volume 10 has released a number of projects independently since 2000, and maintains a Soundcloud and Bandcamp page for his new music.
Volume 10’s subsequent projects may never have achieved the same level of acclaim as Hip-Hopera, but that album remains a touchstone that elevated an entire scene. It also spawned a universally beloved classic hip-hop track that has been sampled and referenced dozens of times.
Whether or not Volume 10 was difficult to work with, he poured his soul into Hip-Hopera. Those who were listening close enough knew that he was sharing the most intimate parts of his thought process and life. Not many artists are so brave.