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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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Hollow Point Lyrics

Dividenz is a rap duo consisting of C.O.L.A. and Notes. Their first album is called Hollow Point Lyrics, and it came out in 2003 on D-Sane’s Street Level Records. Notes brandishes a bullet on the album cover artwork, while C.O.L.A. holds an umbrella. Skuntdunanna helps to fire up the party, dropping a punchline-filled verse on the album’s first cut, “It’s All Official.” “Too Much” featuring Bullet is one of my favorites on the album for its simple, gangstery beat and Nate Dogg-ish vocals on the hook sung by Jazz.

“Million $ Mouthpiece” features Seattle rap legend Byrdie, who had dropped his solo debut Poetic Epidemic two years prior in 2001, also on Street Level. Although the beat is catchy and smooth, the lyrics fall into the rap-about-rap trap, which limits the content of the track to solipsistic musing about being an MC. There are happy exceptions however, “I’m rollin by señoritas, yelling mama mia, they dream like they got shot with anesthesia,” raps Byrdie.

Fans of Hall & Oates may appreciate “We Don’t…” which interpolates H&O’s 1981 classic “I Can’t Go For That.” “I never been a sucker, I’m just a young hustler trying to have the world spinning in my hand,” goes a nice line from “We Don’t…” Overall, Hollow Point Lyrics is a solid debut. Six years later in 2009, the group would drop a second Street Level album, 10% Rap 90% Hustle. Written by Novocaine132

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The Sport-N-Life Compilation Vol. 1

Sportn’ Life Records launched in 2002 with a two-song, twelve-inch rap single. The A-side was called “We Are” by Last Men Standin, and the cut lyrically served as a rectangle-sticker-on-their-chest introduction to the group and the label. The single’s B-side was by Danger, later known as D. Black and now Nissim Black, and titled “You Need A Thug.” Both tracks were produced by Vitamin D of Tribal Productions fame. Sportn’ Life co-founders Devon Manier, Emery “Slim” Buford, and Jamal Henderson quickly began to attract talent, and in 2003 the label put out a massive collection of Seattle hip-hop called The Sport-N-Life Compilation Vol. 1, containing twenty one tracks.

Let me apologize ahead of time to some of the fine artists that I will not have time to mention, there are too many tracks here to cover them all. Danger and Fatal Lucciauno start things off with their excellent “Make A Change.” Both performers have an economic way of rapping, using supply and demand to create phrases, sentences, and verses of extreme value.

The aforementioned Vitamin D carries some weight on Compilation Vol. 1, producing four cuts on the CD. Besides the two songs from the 2002 Sportn’ Life single which both appear here, Narcotik’s easy-paced Seattle classic “Chips To A Cell” from the group’s 1995 album Intro To The Central is also featured. Vitamin’s own track “Pimp Of The Year,” is yet another example of his talent both in the booth and twisting the knobs.

Producer J Bellamy gets flutey on J. One’s pop-sounding “Tonight,” featuring a short rap by Wojack and vocals by Sophia. “No Ordinary” by Footprints is one of my favorites of the whole set. “The rumor is I’d make a million overseas. America, she’s so hard to please,” is one of Proh Mic’s effortless lyrics. Mall Saint also entertains with “Caught In The Red,” showing off his very unique, speedy rapping style.

Three huge names finish the long compilation, Silent Lambs, Fleeta Partee, and Candidt. Sportn’ Life managed to accomplish so much with this ambitious CD. The thoughtful project brought together artists who may not have otherwise appeared together, which added so much character to the listening experience. I would be remiss if Bean One did not get a shout out too, for producing over a dozen beats on Compilation Vol. 1. Written by Novocaine132

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Finally was manufactured in 2001 by Sea-Sick in Seattle, home to releases by RC Tha Trackaholiq, Skuntdunanna, and Central Intelligence. However, the album is not technically on Sea-Sick, but rather Emerald City Records, which also worked with local group Dividenz. In fact, the credits of Finally tease an upcoming Dividenz album which eventually came out on Street Level Records.

Label details aside, Oxagin consists of two members, Sli and Loe. Their debut Finally is predominantly a story of hustling, street life, and crime. For example, in the skit “Tha Jack Move,” they steal a car from a hapless fellow citizen. “On A Roll” continues the carjacking story, “I can’t blame him, I would have shot him, I spot him, and if you would have missed, I would have got him.”

The sultry track “I’m Chok’in,” featuring singer Francci, is all about the large quantity of weed smoked by the group. Vampire movie fans will like “Lost Boys” which repurposes the eerie choir-boy chants from the movie’s soundtrack. “Thou shalt not kill…” For a taste of Barry White, check out “Realer Than Real,” which flips the famous ascending bassline from “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little Bit More Baby.” “Takin Over” featuring DMS is a solid effort by both groups.

To me, the most interesting track on Finally is “Send Me An Angel,” produced by Scott. Australian synth-pop band Real Life had a worldwide hit in 1983 with their emo song of the same title. Oxagin repurposes it here for a dirge-like tale of a character killed in a drug deal gone bad. “You should have known that life falls just like rain, you should have known they killed you for that cocaine.” This track captures the despairing, helpless tone of the original, and shows the ability of hip-hop to basically reintroduce us to songs that are already familiar. Music never dies, it just whistles a new tune. Written by Novocaine132

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Hillz of Darkne$$

Hillz Of Darkne$$ is a 1996 CD from Tacoma artist J-One. The opener “Massacre” effectively uses the forlorn melody from RHCP “Under The Bridge” to convey the mood of the track. To me, “Massacre” is evocative of work by Bone Thugs & Harmony. Several other songs flirt with pop jams, in fact “Freeze Ya Dome” feels like a tribute to Biggie, flipping the “One More Chance” beat and adding some confessional lyrics. “From the nine-two to the nine-five I was locked down, fiending for freedom so I could represent the Puget Sound.” The cheeky “Stay Macc’n” has some fun interpolating “Careless Whisper.”

Most of the tracks on Hillz Of Darkne$$ are slowed way down, and the sluggish pace works to create a hazy reality. The lyrics are concentrated on gang violence, and the difficulty of surviving in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. In fact, the dragging tempo can be suffocating, and to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s famous 1964 phrase, the medium is the message. Listening to this album can make you feel trapped in J-One’s world, all the way down to the sirens and helicopters, which is an artistic achievement.

To me the two most successful tracks on the album are “Funny Style Individuals,” and “Death Is Calling Ya Name.” “Funny Style Individuals” is all about dishonest people, “Yeah I saw you fronting, smiling in my f***ing face, but now you’re scheming so I’m watching every move you make.” The easy beat and melody make this cut a winner. “Death Is Calling Ya Name” has a very hypnotic vibe from the first moments of the track. This CD was reissued in Japan in 2011, and some of those copies are floating around the internet. Written by Novocaine132

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Beat This

Rapper and musician J-1 recorded this thrilling three-song EP at Soul Studio One, in Tacoma, WA with help from Dangerous “D” and Beatmaster J.E. It was released on T-Town Records in 1989, making it one of Tacoma’s earliest rap records, if not the first.

A favorite cut here is the B-side opener, “On a Roll.” Against a backdrop of electro drums and gangsta synths, J-1 launches into a delightfully evocative monologue about being nasty, but smooth… You could learn a thing or two from him, he’s un-bitable, he can’t be stopped, even in the face of prejudice, he’ll “feed ya some cyanide lyrics, and cook you for supper!” After a lengthy barrage of verses, he switches it up and launches into a two-minute instrumental piano solo.

This whole EP is a real gem of early NW hip-hop. Seek it out!

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