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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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The Coolout Legacy

NYC filmmaker Georgio Brown moved to the Northwest in the early ’90s. In 1991, along with VJ D, he founded The Coolout Network, a public access show on cable television that would record the evolution of Seattle’s early hip-hop scene. As Georgio says at the beginning of this film, “we went to the community centers, parks, schools, clubs… Every place that hip-hop was happening… We wanted to cover it.” They certainly did. Coolout ran for 16 years on television, from 1991 until 2007. Various forms of the project continue online to this day.

This particular film, The Coolout Legacy was made by Georgio Brown himself. He narrates and reflects on the impact of the show and its importance to our local hip-hop community.

There’s vintage footage here galore: A teenage Funk Daddy shows off a trophy “taller than me” that he won at a DJ contest, before showing us some of the moves that earned him the victory. Laura “Piece” Kelley addresses the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated rap scene. She often faces the insult that “she can rap pretty good for a girl.” But she replies, “I rap good for the world… And I don’t rap good. I rap well.”

Rapper H-Bomb heaps some well-deserved praise on Specswizard: “Nobody’s been doing hip-hop in Seattle longer than Specs.” We then catch up with the ‘Wizard and he shares a book of graffiti sketches from ’93. The late, great J. Moore shares his wisdom for success and acknowledges the importance of that Coolout played in “coalescing a scene.”

There are numerous live performances and freestyles of Seattle legends in their early days, as well as national acts like Mary J. Blige and Leaders of The New School. Brown talks about encouraging young artists who bravely stand on a stage with a mic and bear their truths. It’s hard. But with Coolout filming you, “every little victory helps,” adds Ghetto Chilldren’s B-Self.

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All Things Considered

It’s too bad the nine-song debut full-length from Tacoma group High Performance isn’t on Spotify… or online anywhere. It’s one of Tacoma’s very first rap albums. And in 1990, NastyMix put a lot of marketing and airplay muscle into trying to make High Performance into superstars. All Things Considered is a solid effort that’s worth hearing.

Pictured here is the German edition. Both this record—and Mix’s Seminar—were released in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland by European record label BCM. Over five short years, NastyMix had grown from local D.I.Y. label to global powerhouse. All around the world, labels wanted to tap into that new Northwest hip-hop sound.

There’s a copy of this vinyl in KEXP’s vaults that’s covered with notes from DJs from over the years. One note says, “The production is hot, the lyrics are sharp, and the grooves are funky. It’s hard to choose a favorite cut here, they’re all solid. No laughable ballads, no silly novelty songs.” Another is more succinct: “T-town. (Rhymes with Sea-town: don’t let your slang down.)”

Either way, KEXP’s DJs praised how every song on this album is a radio-friendly “clean” version at a time when the ruling style of gangster rap was about being as profane as possible. (Though let’s also note that “Funk” does some heavy lifting here as an obvious lyrical placeholder.)

Both of the group’s solid “Party” singles are included on the album–“Do You Really Wanna Party?” and “Here’s A Party Jam”–as are a mix of other B-Boy bangers and more serious songs from the Hilltop streets. Either way, nine solid tunes from start to finish.

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Here’s A Party Jam

Tacoma rap group High Performance followed their first single “Do You Really Wanna Party?” with the easy-to-confuse, similarly titled, “Here’s A Party Jam.”

This second “Party” song is another dance track for B-Boys, relying on a sample from Parliament’s “Flash Light” to do some heavy lifting. Nonetheless, it’s a real toe-tapper, and there are three versions on this vinyl: A Club Mix, A Remix Edit, and an instrumental “Dub” version.

Things get interesting with the B-Side cut, “The Hill,” which is most definitely not for the club.

This song has more serious, couch-lock vibes, warning youth of the dark pull of the streets in Tacoma’s Hilltop area, of drugs and criminality. High Performance have gone gangster, sampling Public Enemy and Mix-A-Lot’s “My Hooptie,” in telling this gritty tale of “rollin’ in Tacoma.”

This record’s artwork reflects these two identities: On the cover, the foursome are ready to dance-battle in matching uniforms. On the back, white police are in an armed standoff with an unarmed Black man. This haunting back cover art would again be used on the front of their debut full-length, All Things Considered which also dropped in 1990.

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It's Just Funky

“It’s Just Funky” is another groovy b-boy toe-tapper from Tacoma’s High Performance. The music is assembled from looped funk guitars, soul singers, and cowbell samples, each more clearly evidenced in the instrumental version of the song, also found here on this vinyl DJ release, along with a radio edit and a club remix.

The B-side is a surprise. It opens with “Action’s Intro,” where a new emcee highlights how he was left off the album and so then drops profanity galore, as if to deface the group’s clean, radio-friendly reputation… As though High Performance were now daring to be as explicit as possible.

The EP’s closing track, “Another Day In The Neighborhood,” has a genuinely scary construction: the chorus beats are made from gunshots, looped over and over again, and directed at the listener. By contrast, the verses are made from lemonade-sippin’ relaxed Motown samples. This combo sets up an unsettling verse-to-chorus pivot that each time feels like it arrives too soon.

The song is almost seven minutes long, and the whole time you’re riveted… Nervously never quite able to settle into those verses about sweet sunny days because at any moment they might be cut short in a hail of gunfire whenever the chorus arrives. And sometimes they make you wait. It’s honestly quite a remarkable song, probably the best in their whole catalog. It also demonstrates a group looking in a whole new direction away from their origins in the b-boy scene.

It’s Just Funky was the group’s last record with NastyMix. They left the label shortly after and all but disappeared. They resurfaced once more on vinyl in 1993 on the split single, “Talkin Over Shit” with The 23rd Street Mafia released on Tacoma label Just Cash Records.

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Do You Really Wanna Party?

One of NastyMix Records’s first rap signees not named Mix-A-Lot was a Tacoma breakdancing foursome called High Performance. The group had famously won a breaking battle at the Tacoma Dome against the #1 ranked New York City Breakers.

Their first single, from 1989, is an irresistible dance track, a mash-up of three mega-hits from Michael Jackson, Prince, and KC & The Sunshine Band. The latter’s 1979 disco-funk hit, “Do You Wanna Go Party,” is heavily leaned on here, providing the key hook. There are a couple of verses, but they’re short. This record is for B-Boys.

“Do You Really Wanna Party?” spent seven weeks on the national Billboard rap chart, peaking at #16.

This 12” vinyl opens with a seven-minute “Dance Mix” of the group’s hit, remixed by famous Manhattan DJ Gail “Sky” King. Her name is credited in large type on the cover, so her involvement was clearly a big deal for the group. (Fun fact: Not long after working with High Performance, she was hired to be a composer and writer for Sesame Street from seasons 24 to 30–the years 1992 to 1998–where she created dozens of memorable songs for the show.)

This banger is followed by five other not especially different versions of the same song. This is a record you throw on and let it play. Vinyl DJs should keep a copy of this wax in their back pocket. It’s one of those great transition records guaranteed to keep the party hopping while you plot your next move or hop away for a quick smoke break.

One thing that always bugs me about this record, though, is a completely unnecessary insult towards women in the first verse: “Grab a girl, and hope the girl ain’t chunky.” STFU, dude. Otherwise, this song is a solid non-stop party from start to finish—Prince AND Michael Jackson, mixed together?!—completely worth spinning six times over in a row.

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