Nathaniel Wilson was raised in Corona, Queens during hip hop’s infancy. He was just five-years-old when DJ Kool Herc ushered in a new artistic movement on Sedgwick Avenue, and at eleven, he saw the release of “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip hop hit. Whilst Wilson loved hip hop, life in Queens demanded no small amount of vigilance.
“Growing up in Corona was like a little Harlem,” recalled Wilson in an interview with The Source. “It wasn't that hard for a nigga to be influenced by the street life type of mentality… nigga started selling drugs at a certain point, and all that shit, it's what was goin' on in the streets ... eventually all my friends got smoked. Everybody was droppin'.”
An aspiring emcee nonetheless, Wilson reached out to a childhood friend to help in his search for a collaborator. Eric Barrier was a musician who’d swapped trumpets and drums for turntables, a choice which landed him a gig as a radio DJ for WBLS. He adopted a new moniker - Eric B. - and started to look for emcees with which to collaborate. When Wilson approached him for advice, he put him in touch with one Thomas Pough. The rest, as they say, is history.
Like Eric B. & Rakim, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo headed to Marley Marl’s house to cut their debut single. Though humbly titled “It’s A Demo,” the recording impressed Marl so much that he immediately inducted the duo into his hip hop collective, the Juice Crew. Helmed by Marl and headed by legendary radio DJ Mr. Magic, the Crew counted titans such as Roxanne Shante, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and MC Shan amongst their ranks. The duo recorded three studio LPs before disbanding: 1989’s Road To The Riches, 1990’s Wanted: Dead or Alive, and 1992’s Live and Let Die.
It was three years before Kool G Rap reemerged, free from the partnership and eager to return to the scene. It just so happened that mafioso rap - the genre G Rap had pioneered on “Road to the Riches” - was having a cultural moment, embraced by NYC up-and-comers such as Biggie (Ready to Die), Raekwon (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…) and AZ (Doe or Die). G Rap’s solo debut, 4,5,6, found him exploring the full potential of this vision with support from emcees he’d influenced, such as Nas, MF Grimm and B1.
Nas would release It Was Written, his own mafioso-infused record, just one week after Jay-Z dropped Reasonable Doubt, his legendary mafioso debut, and the genre would arguably peak in ‘97 with the release of Biggie Smalls’ posthumous Life After Death. Though the subgenre was short lived, it helped produce some of the most legendary East Coast records of the ‘90s, and whilst 4,5,6 isn’t counted amongst them, it’s a strong contention from an artist transitioning into his solo career.
In celebration of hip hop excellence, and as a start to our ongoing Juice Crew retrospective, we’re breaking down the sampling throughout the harsh, street-ready record!
4,5,6 features an intro reminiscent of Nas’ Illmatic, released just 17 months prior. A slow fade in eases us into a casual dice game, punctuated by bravado, bets and passing traffic. Kool G rocks up and enters the game, which leads us into the title track. Note that Kool G doesn’t hold his tongue, dropping the slur “faggot” twice in this brief appearance. That’s once more than Nas mentioned it on the whole of Illmatic: it pops up on lead single “Halftime,” where he raps that his “style switches like a faggot.”
The titular dice game is explored through the eyes of Kool G, who presents as a hardened street veteran with a talent for gambling. The track is strewn with references to the game’s well-documented rules and terms - “tracy,” “headcrack,” “pound” and “pimple” - that, if understood, unveil the songs compelling narrative.
The title track to Kool G Rap’s debut album is underpinned by an eerie piano riff, one courtesy of jazz muso Wayne Shorter. It’s lifted from the opening of “Mysterious Traveller,” itself the title track from Weather Report’s fourth studio album.
The sample scratched into the hook - “bettin' Grants with the cee-lo champs” - is lifted from Nas’ dense Illmatic cut “N.Y. State of Mind.”
It’s a fitting flip for a few reasons: the “cee-lo” that Nas refers to in his 1994 classic is a dice game, also known as “four-five-six,” a direct translation of the original Chinese name. Furthermore, it found pre-sophomore Nas pivoting towards mafioso rap, a genre pioneered by Kool G Rap in the late ‘80s.
“It’s A Shame”
With a hook from Shawn Brown and production from Naughty Shorts, “It’s A Shame” is a clear choice for Kool G’s debut solo single. It didn’t make any charts, and has since been largely eclipsed by second single “Fast Life.”
Founded in early-’70s Chicago, Southside Movement were a three-album funk outfit who, despite their limited success, have become a hit with hip hop producers.
Though Southside Movement are a frequently sampled mid-’70s funk band, “Love Is For Fools” has been flipped just this once. Other tracks from the groups 1975 album proved popular, appearing on work from Beastie Boys and Gravediggaz.
“Take ‘Em To War”
A choice cut co-starring both MF Grimm and B1, “Take ‘Em To War” does away with R&B hooks, opting instead to punctuate the serious gangsta verses with a quasi-chanted refrain. It’s a rough-around-the-edges sound that gels with the slow, brassy tales of murder.
Ah, David Axelrod: the noted ‘70s jazz producer turned radical avant garde solo artist. Axelrod is a favourite of producers such as Pete Rock, Madlib and Tribe, his hand playing a role in more than 400 seperate samples.
Kool G’s verse - the third, following efforts from MF Grimm and B-1 - is itself a huge interpolation of an earlier guest spot from the emcee. His entire verse is identical to the one he spat on “Cook A Niggaz Ass,” an early-’90s track that wasn’t formally released until 2008.
The long-shelved album, Crazy Like A Foxxx, came with two discs: the first was the finished ‘94 cut, and the second the ‘93 D.I.T.C. demo version.
Kool G’s “coming straight off the sidewalks of New York,” a rough city to have been raised in. It’s his experiences on the NYC streets that allow him to kill “executioner style,” a particularly cold-blooded approach to murder. Whilst many slayings are consequences of different crimes and scenarios - muggings, robberies, home invasions, etc. - an execution-style killing is the most distressing mode of murder.
The dusty percussion that underpins “Executioner Style” is the handiwork of influential funk drummer Bernard Purdie. It’s sourced from the opening of Gary Burton’s “Leroy The Magician,” the penultimate track on the vibraphonist’s 14th studio album, 1969’s Good Vibes.
“For Da Brotherz”
Friends and family who have died before their time - da titular “brotherz” - are frequent subjects in hip hop. Odes to fallen friends seemed to become a staple during the East Coast renaissance, with acts such as Wu-Tang (“Tearz”), Nas (“Memory Lane”), O.C. (“Born 2 Live”) and Intelligent Hoodlum (“Grand Groove”) toasting their comrades. The West Coast got in on it too: Tupac with “Life Goes On” and The Pharcyde on “Moment In Time,” to name a couple.
Given the dusty aesthetic of Art Farmer’s “Soulsides,” it’s unsurprising that “For Da Brotherz” is another T-Ray production. This cut originally appeared on his 1972 record Gentle Eyes, an Austrian-recorded jazz LP featuring big band arrangements.
Whilst hardly his most famous cut, Idris Muhammad’s “Power of Soul” has featured on a handful of hip hop tracks, largely due to the bombastic horns within. It’s actually a cover of a 1970 Jimi Hendrix tune.
“Blowin’ Up In The World”
D.I.T.C. producer Buckwild comes through with an invaluable assist on '“Blowin’ Up In The World,” Kool G’s reflection on the hustle that got him to the top. The soft-spoken instrumental sounds as if it’s reflected in a memory, distant and sentimental.
The atmospherics that loop throughout are taken from Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love,” a blue-eyed soul single released ahead of his 1978 self-titled debut. It’s been sampled more than 60 times by acts like Tupac, Aaliyah and Guru.
Sidenote: this sample might be amongst my all-time favourites. It’s a simple-but-effective atmospheric flip that reminds me of AZ’s “Ho Happy Jackie,” another Buckwild beat.
The drums, meanwhile, are sourced from earlier in the decade. Milly & Silly released “Gettin Down for Xmas” in 1973. The festive cut was included on the b-side of the 7” single, though a-side “I’m an Xmas Tree” has never since been sampled. These two tracks represent the extent of Milly & Silly’s career.
This track, which has accrued just four flips on WhoSampled, was also used on Buckwild’s “Ho Happy Jackie,” also released in ‘95.
Another Buckwild beat, this time on the second single! “Fast Life,” featuring one Nas Escobar, is a triumphant reflection on the highs of the mafioso lifestyle, including “champagne wishes,” “caviar dreams” and “fast cars.” Though a single, the track’s at odds with much of the album, which focuses on the harsh realities of a gangster lifestyle.
The distinctive lick that anchors “Fast Life” is taken from Surface’s “Happy.” Check out 0:12 and 0:21.
Surface started out as in-house songwriters for EMI before adopting the name and releasing their own compositions. Their version of Hi-Tension’s “Happy” is technically a cover, though the members of Surface actually wrote the track for that group. It was included on their self-titled debut and proved to be one of their biggest hits.
The spoken word element that opens the song is taken from Scarface: “the time has come. We’ve gotta expand the whole operation. Distribution: New York. Chicago. L.A. We gotta set our own mark, and enforce it.”
Despite the title, nobody seems to really know what samples are at play on “Ghetto Knows.” There’s a suggestion that producer Naughty Shorts, who’d previously produced “It’s A Shame,” used the break from The Meters’ “Here Comes The Meter Man,” but even that assertion seems questionable at best. I’ve included that break below, because though I have trouble hearing it, a number of different writers have made the claim. You can decide for yourself!
If James Brown is the Godfather of funk, then The Meters might just be funk’s childhood friend. They spent a lot of time together in their infancy and, truth be told, funk probably wouldn’t be what it was without the influence of The Meters.
The same song was sampled by fellow Juice Crew member Big Daddy Kane on the Marley Marl-produced cut “Long Live The Kane,” released on Cold Chillin’ a whole seven years prior.
“It’s A Shame (Da Butcher’s Mix)”
Da Butchers’ remix of “It’s A Shame” features a new, eerie instrumental and a far simpler scratched hook. It was originally issued as the b-side to the lead single, but made the album despite the fact it features the very same verses. It’s not a bonus track, either: there’s one more original tune that follows.
Da Butcher’s remix of “It’s A Shame” trades funk for jazz fusion, taking elements from the long and storied career of guitarist Ryo Kawasaki. “Bamboo Child” was originally included on 1976’s Juice, Kawasaki’s fifth record.
Though he’s considered one of fusion’s progenitors, Kawasaki is also famous for his technical innovations: he developed music software tools throughout the ‘80s.
“Money on My Brain”
Kool G is joined by B1 and MF Grimm, both of whom previously featured on “Take ‘Em To War,” for album closer “Money on My Brain.” It’s just as materialistic as the title suggests: the three emcees flaunt their wealth and consider the ruthless hustle it took to acquire it.
It only makes sense that 4,5,6 close with one of the most famous jazz fusion tracks of all time. When Herbie Hancock released Head Hunters in 1973, he had no way of knowing that lead single “Chameleon” would become a jazz standard. It did and, for three years, Head Hunters was the highest selling jazz album of all time.
The easygoing drums that wander throughout “Money on My Brain” are the work of Avalanche, an obscure Melbourne-based Australian outfit. They’re not to be confused with the current Australian plunderphonics group, The Avalanches.
If Live and Let Die was the end, then 4,5,6 was a new beginning. It cut a clear divide between the consumers and critics, becoming a beloved commercial success despite no small amount of skepticism from music journalists. Though The Source, then still a moderately respected hip hop publication, gave the record an admirable four mics, the album has yet to be critically reevaluated. As recently as 2011, Rolling Stone gave the album a lukewarm 3-star review in its New Album Guide.
The record pushed G Rap to the forefront of a scene he’d created years earlier. In collaborating with G Rap, Nas was pivoting to the mafioso sound with the endorsement of the originator himself: it’s hardly surprising that this was Nas’ first guest spot on a single. Along with AZ’s “Gimme Yours,” G Rap’s “Fast Life” was the only feature on a single prior to the 1996 release of It Was Written. Unsurprisingly, both of these appearances led into Nas’ radical reinvention as a street poet turned high-flying mafia boss.
G Rap’s 4,5,6 would prove to be the last record issued on Cold Chillin’. Despite its place as one of hip hop’s most legendary and pioneering labels - perhaps second only to Sugar Hill - Cold Chillin’ failed to maintain the momentum that had driven it throughout the late ‘80s, petering out as the decade rolled on. It wouldn’t be until ‘98 that the label officially folded, but 4,5,6 was released in ‘95, signifying a three-year stretch without any releases. The label’s catalogue was sold off to LandSpeed Records, who now operate under the Traffic Entertainment name.
Though it had nursed him from novice to veteran, G Rap was determined to prove his longevity beyond Cold Chillin’. His sophomore record, Roots of Evil, was released in 1998. It featured a swathe of guest spots, most notably one from a young Papoose, who would go on to release his debut single, “Thug Connection,” the following year. That track featured both AZ and Kool G Rap, two legendary Queens emcees, a powerful cosign for a new act.
2002’s The Giancana Story was a much delayed follow up, hindered by the impenetrable bureaucracy of label politics. The album was recut as it passed from Rawkus to Koch Records, with more than half the original tracklist altered and remixed. Though it was far from his original vision, the album received rave reviews, an exceptional achievement for an emcee rhyming in his third decade. G Rap’s complex schemes and multisyllabic rhymes kept him abreast of innovations in the craft, and assists from more contemporary producers such as Bink! and Rockwilder were surely useful. The old school was still well represented, with Jaz-O and Buckwild making behind-the-decks contributions.
It wouldn’t be until 2011 that G Rap released his fourth LP, Riches, Royalty, Respect. It was followed by Return of the Don in 2017, though the emcee did release a collaborative record, Once Upon a Crime, with Necro in 2013. Though he shows few signs of slowing down, G Rap seemed to pass on the torch in 2018 with the release of Son of G Rap. A collaboration with Rochester emcee 38 Spesh, the 15-track LP featured G Rap on nine songs, also enlisting assists from emcees such as Freddie Gibbs, AZ, N.O.R.E. and Cormega and production from the likes of Preemo, Pete Rock and Alchemist.
Whether or not Son of G Rap signifies a retirement remains to be seen, but it feels as though the don is here to stay. After weathering three decades of hip hop, it’s hard to believe that any shift in the culture could render him ineffective: in fact, the young emcee was so ahead of his time, it took a little while for everybody else to catch up. Even though the golden age of mafioso rhymes has come and gone, as long as boom-bap persists - and you already know it will - there’ll always be a place for some Kool G raps.