Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 17: Black Sheep, "The Choice Is Yours"

Artist: Black Sheep
Song: "The Choice Is Yours"
Album: A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing
Year: 1991

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In nearly every aspect one could think, the early 1990's were a breeding ground for creative musical endeavors.  From the blending of genres in ways like never before to great forays within individual genres themselves, there seemed to be no limit to what could be accomplished musically.  This fact is even more clear, as within modern music, there is rarely anything that is much more than a stale copy of a sound or style that had gained a bit of commercial success.  This idea of an almost repetitive nature is perhaps no more apparent than within the current hip-hop scene, and yet it is also this genre that showed the most diversity during the early 1990's.  Though "gangsta rap" was beginning to build steam, there was a large portion of the hip-hop scene that was paving new group in the genre, from dance-style hip-hop to more socially conscious rhymes.  Without question, it was New York City that was still the main source of new sounds within hip-hop, and it is that city which was one responsible for one of the most innovative groups of the era: Black Sheep.  Releasing only a handful of albums, it was Black Sheep that gave the world what endures as one of the most overall entertaining records of the decade with their fantastic 1991 debut, A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing.  Brilliantly witty and musically unique, everything that made Black Sheep so fantastic can be found in their unforgettable 1991 classic, "The Choice Is Yours."

The moment "The Choice Is Yours" begins, it is clearly unlike any other hip-hop song to date, and yet it somehow manages to fuse together all of the different trends that were making for successful hip-hop songs at the time.  It is also within the music that one can experience the wide range of influences of the members of Black Sheep, as the songs they choose to sample are from all across the musical spectrum.  "The Choice Is Yours" is built around the combination of a mesmerizing bassline and catchy hook, and it is created from samples of The Bar-Kay's "Humpin" and "Big Sur Suite" by, Johnny Hammond.  While these two samples on their own may not have seemed significant, the fact that the third song that is heavily used on "The Choice Is Yours" is in fact Iron Butterfly's "Her Favorite Style" not only shows the groups' diverse musical tastes, but also its depth, as one can easily argue that this Iron Butterfly song is one of the more obscure tunes in music history.  Regardless, the combination of these samples, along with some fresh sound effects and other small musical pieces results in one of the most truly perfect musical arrangements in hip-hop history.  The song is able to hit hard enough to have that "turn it up" quality, yet it is simultaneously laid-back enough that it has a smooth feeling that is unlike anything else in hip-hop history.  It si seemingly juxtaposing sounds that made "The Choice Is Yours" so unforgettable, and much the reason it remains so highly revered nearly twenty years later.

It goes without saying that the rhymes found on "The Choice Is Yours" are nothing short of phenomenal, and this is not all that surprising, as Black Sheep were one of the "affiliates" of Afrika Bambaataa's "Native Tongues" group.  Along with the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Jungle Brothers, it was this "crew" that made great forays into the more positively styles hip-hop music, and they paved the way for later groups like Jurassic 5 and Common.  This upbeat, almost jovial nature comes through clearly in the lyrics, as emcee Dres rolls out some of the finest lyrics ever recorded.  Unlike many of his peers, Dres' delivery is never anything but smooth and measured, and he rarely sounds as if he is forcing the words of pushing his voice.  It is this chilled-out mood that serves as the perfect finishing touch to the song, and his rhymes on "The Choice Is Yours" remain some of the most iconic in the history of the genre.  Over the past two decades, one can find many instances of his lyrics being "bitten" or slightly modified, and this serves as a testament to their lasting impact.  Truth be told, in an era filled with countless memorable lyrics, few have a similar staying power to the beginning of the songs' third verse, which states, "...engine engine number nine, on the New York Transit line..."  While one cannot make a valid argument as to "why" this lyric has endured, the fact remains that it has, and it is rhymes like this that have made "The Choice Is Yours" a true hip-hop classic.

Though it does not receive as much credit as many other albums of the era, one cannot deny the fact that Black Sheep's A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing remains one of the most artistically influential albums in all of hip-hop history.  From the fantastic mixture of musical samples to the unique delivery style and subject matter of the songs, the album is without question entertaining in a manner unlike any other record of the time.  It is this distinctive sound that enabled the song to rise on the charts, and it shot even higher with the release of the albums' third single, "The Choice Is Yours."  While the delivery may seem a bit lighter in nature than that of many of their peers, the power behind the words is no less, and the distinct nature of their artistic approach can be heard within the lines, "...never was a fool, so we finished school, never see us sweat and you'll never see us drool...out to rock the globe while it's still here to rock, don't punch girls, and we don't punch a clock..."  While at face value, the latter half of the rhyme may seem a bit silly, when put in the context of the other emcees of the time, it simultaneously lifted Black Sheep to a higher level, while blatantly pointing out the childish nature of many other rappers.  It is this more subtle aggression, combined with the superb rhyming style of Dres, backed by the perfectly executed music that has enabled Black Sheep's 1991 single, "The Choice Is Yours" to endure as one of the most iconic songs of the decade, as well as one of the greatest in the entire history of hip-hop music.

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