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The Criminal Nation Movie

During 2020’s Coronavirus pandemic, MC Deff (aka Wojack) set about to tell the story of his ’90s gangster rap group through video chats and a simple question: “When did you first hear about Criminal Nation, and what does the group mean to you?”

What follows is a series of touching video voicemails and personal stories from rappers and producers across the Northwest, including Silver Shadow D, J-1, Squeek Nutty Bug, Josh Rizenberg, and many others. This film has a real feel of hanging with the homies. Clearly, this music meant a lot to a lot of people, and this footage is intercut with photos of memorabilia and record covers.

Many of the interviewed artists were youngsters–only 12 or 13 years old–when they first heard the staccato synth opener of Criminal Nation’s mega-hit “Release The Pressure.” Each was thrilled to have hometown heroes on the radio. Awall Jones talks about the beats and his amazement that “they’re from Tacoma, too?!” Un The Rhyme Hustler says, “I was trying to be MC Deff,” echoing the sentiments of many. Several of the artists rap and sing their favorite Criminal Nation songs, too. It’s charming.

Wojack himself does a freestyle summarizing his thoughts on “Day 34 of quarantine.” Notably absent from this project is Wojack’s Criminal National collaborator DJ E (aka Eugenius), though he and the rest of the NastyMix crew–E-Dawg, High Performance, Kid Sensation–all get plenty of props for their roles in establishing the early Northwest sound.

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Trouble In The Hood

Criminal Nation have finally put out their follow-up album to their ’90’s surprise hit, Release The Pressure. They continue the hard-core themes that have brought them limited popularity in the press: Bitches, thievin’, and general gang mayhem abound. It’s been covered many times before. DJ Quick and other LA rappers have just about played this theme out.

The music kicks, though, and the layered sampling and heavy-handed bass will have your speakers jumping. The cameo appearance of the 1st Lady, soon to be a star in her own right, makes for some diversity. Notable tunes are “You Can’t Funk With It” and the jazzy “Just Loungin.” (This review originally appeared in The Rocket and was written by Scott Griggs.)

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Release The Pressure (Single)

The song “Release The Pressure” by Tacoma rap group Criminal Nation is undeniably one of the best-ever hip-hop tracks released in the Northwest. Seriously.

Even now—30 years since it dropped—the tune captivates from those first few moments of DJ E’s arpeggiated synth and string stabs, followed by MC Deff’s bristling, confident opening salvo, “I’m a human explosive, I got a temper…”

Indeed, during the 2020 lockdown, MC Deff (aka Wojack) made a whole half-hour-long movie about Criminal Nation’s legacy. The film features many local OGs, including Silver Shadow D and Squeek Nutty Bug, commenting on the huge impact “RTP” had on inspiring their own careers. A number of the interviewees charmingly sing and rap their favorite parts of the song. (It’s on YouTube.)

Criminal Nation’s superb 1990 full-length debut album was also named Release The Pressure, which makes it a little confusing when, in 1991, NastyMix then put out this six-song “Release The Pressure” cassette, too. (There’s also a DJ-friendly white sleeve vinyl.) It features bonus tracks and remixes that honestly struggle to compete with the near-flawless original song.

Bonus cut “Rap Criminal” contemplates life in T-Town and Hilltop, set against a banging beat and furious scratching, while “Shoutouts” employs the same beat against two minutes of praise for the group’s favorite West Coast contemporaries, Mix-A-Lot, DJ Quik, BET, radio DJs and so on.

But seriously, if you’re not already hip to Criminal Nation, go look them up on Spotify or your favorite streaming service and be amazed by the earliest days of Tacoma rap.

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The Right Crowd

Hmmm... There's not a lot of information about this project in the museum encyclopedia. We'd love your help! TOWN LOVE is maintained by an awesome community of passionate volunteers who keep it all up to date.

Do you know something about the history of this record? Do you have a favorite lyric or a favorite memory? Send us an email on why this is one of the great hip-hop albums from the Northwest. Thanks!

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Black Power Nation

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood faced genuine social problems: unemployment, poverty, addiction. But an ongoing turf war between two rival gangs—the LA Crips and Cuban immigrants—meant that drive-by shootings and armed attacks became a real danger for the area’s residents. Murders and violence in Hilltop reached their peak in 1989, not long before this song was released.

For mainstream media and local rap groups alike, invoking “Hilltop” became a Northwest shorthand for “dangerous,” and was used to show off one’s street cred the same way NY and LA rappers would namedrop Harlem or Compton.

This early single from Tacoma rap group Criminal Nation, “Black Power Nation,” is a counter-narrative: The group spent a lot of time in Hilltop and provide a rallying cry against the connection between rap music and violence.

On it, MC Deff (aka Wojack) promotes an anti-government, anti-police, pro-Black message, stating that Black women and men coming must work together and unite to fight the drugs, racism, and economic inequality tearing the community apart, while also encouraging greater respect for ourselves and others.

The two B-side tracks are more in the expected gangster vein and prominently feature Criminal Nation’s extended posse, The D.C.P. (D-Rob, Clee-Bone, and D-Whiz). “Niggas From The Ghetto” starts with some seriously funky drums and lists a long litany of dire consequences should you mess with Criminal Nation.

“Tribute To The Ladies,” is exactly the opposite: A revenge song directed at a woman who broke your heart, addressing all her shortcomings and her future regrets. But it’s all fun, “we’re just clowning,” they say, before shouting out their NastyMix label mates, Mix-A-Lot, Nes, etc.

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Insane

Criminal Nation, those bad-ass boys from Tacoma’s Hilltop, never bothered to waste time on literary nuance or metaphors. On “Criminal Hit,” MC Deff makes it clear that “all the motherfuckers in the white sheets can suck dick.” And the reason why is simple: “MC Deff’s got a gun, plus he’s got a big posse.”

The song appears on the B-Side of this Insane vinyl single, an edition made for DJs with bonus cuts. A second bonus song, “Homicide” is a more laid-back, darker, minor-key tune, riding wave after wave of infinitely riffing guitar loops.

Each is a tale of heat-packin’ revenge rap, seeking accountability and justice for police harassment of the Black community, and calling bullshit on being told anyone has gotta accept a raw deal from society.

The A-Side hit single “Insane” is a high-BPM sonic machine gun blast. There’s no doubt this music was popular with breakdancers and at clubs. Chopping, insistent drums get your toes tapping and suddenly the dance floor is full. This music gets you moving.

Throughout Criminal Nation’s whole catalog, DJ E (aka Eugenius De Hostos) invents endlessly creative arpeggiated synths, floor-shaking, growling bass lines, and bucket drummer hi-hat taps. His unique work alongside MC Deff set Criminal Nation apart from their contemporaries in the Northwest. This record also includes an instrumental version of “Insane” where you can really study the CN beat-making magic at work, and contains some damn fine scratching, too.

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Release The Pressure

Release The Pressure is a 1990 hip-hop record from Tacoma gangster rap group Criminal Nation. It’s primarily the work of two musicians: DJ E, “the table-wrecker,” and MC Deff, “the renegade,” with the occasional assist from their extended crew, the D.C. Posse, filling out the album’s front cover. The record was jointly released by NastyMix and Cold Rock and was one of the first to put “life in Hilltop”—the gangs, guns, drugs, girls, and cops—on the map.

It’s a bad-ass debut LP, mixing militant politics with dance floor appeal. DJ E’s production is filled with groovy bass lines, electro synths, scratching and guitar samples, while MC Deff is on the mic murdering emcees with superior rhyme skills.

Release The Pressure infamously bears the Northwest’s first Parental Advisory sticker, and it proudly earns it. Every song is filled with expletives. They’re angry. It’s time for action. Frankenstein rap tune “My Laboratory” slips into “My Lavatory,” and MC Deff is gonna drop his, uh, “bombs” on Seattle.

“We didn’t make no record to play radio,” said Deff in an interview with The Rocket.

Today, rappers tend to say any motherfucking shit they want, so it’s hard to recognize how awesomely in-your-face transgressive Release The Pressure sounded in 1990. Indeed, it spent 13 weeks on the Billboard charts and netted four hit singles.

The vinyl stored in KEXP’s vaults acknowledges the album’s airplay challenges: “So many red dots for profane lyrics… The best tracks, unfortunately. They combine NWA with Public Enemy’s black nationalism. Also, it’s very funky.”

Fun fact: The song “Definitely Down for Trouble” includes Washington’s earliest cannabis reference on vinyl: “The vapors from my lyrics rise through the area, The suckers get blazed from the ways the words is flowing, The way I be blowing.”

For a long time, this record has been, uh, criminally hard to find, but was recently added to Spotify. You can finally go hear Tacoma’s first great rap record today.

Here’s another take:

These bad-ass brothers from the Hilltop (formerly America’s Most Wanted) have put out one of the best debut rap albums I have ever heard. The mix of black awareness songs like “Black Power Nation,” which talks about how black people need to cure themselves before they can cure the world, and hard songs like “Criminal Hit” and “Mission of Murder” make Release the Pressure great. On other songs like “Insane,” “Violent Sound” and “Definitely Down for Trouble,” they are mostly talking about how crazy and bad they are and how big their posse is, but that’s how most rap albums are.

M.C. Deff’s voice and style of rapping give this album a sound like no other. Even “The Right Crowd.” which sounds like a pop crossover, isn’t that bad if you really listen to the lyrics. Another reason for Release the Pressure’s success is that D.J. E. doesn’t over-sample. You might hear an old George Clinton guitar lick or beat, but it’s not overdone.

A lot of credit should be given to Nes Rodriguez and Brett Carlson because, as executive producers, I’m sure they had a large influence on the album. Having Nes as one of the producers was a good move for Criminal Nation because he was one of the main people who brought rap into the Seattle scene.

Overall, Criminal Nation is a kind of Tacoma version of NWA, except they don’t refer to women as “bitches.” In the words of another NastyMix rapper, Kid Sensation, “when you talk to a girl like a bitch, nine times out of ten, that’s what you end up with.” (This review originally appeared in The Rocket and was written by Orion Penn.)

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