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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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A film about Northwest hip-hop from

A.K.A Mista K-Sen

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A film about Northwest hip-hop from

Seatown Funk

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Seattle... The Dark Side

BOOM! Here it is. The best rap and R&B coming out of this dirty-white, rock ‘n’ roll lovin’ Emerald City. So says Mix-A-Lot, the biggest rap act out of this area for hundreds of miles. (And sadly, that’s straight up the truth.) He damn near promised us a sure-fire, kick in the ass, hit-to-hit collection by putting this LP out on his own label. (And that’s more proof for my earlier statement.)

BAM. I’ll be dipped in jeri curl juice! There’s some fresh and creative “dark” music being hidden away in this town somewhere. Mix, his new label Rhyme Cartel, and American Records (Rick Rubin dropped the “Def” part) have put out a rough and stylin’ nine-song selection. Not all of this compilation would be banned by the late KFOX playlist, though. There are some mainstream artists on this CD; a good third of it is mediocre at best. But that just makes the best stuff really shine.

My favorite cut is newcomer Jazz Lee Alston’s “Love…Never That.” It sent shivers down my spine. This is probably the best example of how dark it can get in a young adult’s mind. It’s an abstract tale of a female struggling to deal with an abusive boyfriend and the father of her child. It’s delivered in a slow, deliberate spoken-word fashion to a shuffling jazz tempo and haunting keyboard samples — a style few female rappers have dared to try.

I’m a sucker for ’70s soul samples. Two songs, in particular, bent my ear for a funfilled tour to back when. Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Sunshine” and Con Funk Shun’s “By Your Side” make for instant grooving on Jay Skee’s “Menace Crook” and Kid Sensation’s “Flava You Can Taste,” respectively.

Not all of the cuts rely on trips to yesteryear. E-Dawg’s “Little Locs” brings this LP back to the ’90s in a big way, using production skills that have had city streets cracking all over the US.

Two of the artists didn’t get their start in Seattle. Jay-Skee is from the LA area and Jazz Lee Alston is from New York City. So is Seattle really putting out new good rap acts? Or are they coming to this area to make it big?

I’m serious! This area has more major label scouts sniffing around than espresso carts on its corners. It is probably easier to count the numbers who are actually from Seattle. This album could be a swan song for most of these acts, or it could be just the beginning of some good, dark music for the future. (This review originally appeared in The Rocket and was written by Scott Griggs.)

Here’s another take:

Times change. This comp dropped in 1993, which to me was the year of the Great Upheaval in Northwest hip-hop. At that time, gangsta had outlived its welcome and new acts like Heiro and the Pharcyde were grabbing the attention. Local artists like Mix-A-Lot and Kid Sensation had lost their cool and had become the stuff of middle school dances, so by the time I heard about this album, my ears were closed.

I was in high school, the future underground was in full swing, and local acts like the Elevators and Tribal had quite effectively turned the early-’90s gangsta and R&B industry into a joke.

Though I did not appreciate this record at the time, listening to it in retrospect, I can hear the value in it. Here is some top-quality hip-hop attempting to assert itself in the face of change, And more poignantly, this is a declaration from Seattle’s Afro-American community and a group of artists who were very much left out of the anglicized Northwest music explosion of the early ’90s (AKA GRUNGE).

Dark Side is a short record. But its 35 minutes effectively showcases an important time in the 206’s long history of hip-hop. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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The Power of Rhyme

Let’s be honest: The Seattle rap scene has become a disappointment. At one time a couple of years back it was being hailed as a budding talent pool, just notches below New York and LA. NastyMix was at the forefront of Northwest rap and Kid Sensation looked to be a potential national hit right after his first LP.

Kid Sensation’s new album, The Power of Rhyme, will not be the area’s savior. The style is a mediocre hard hip-hop attempt–showing no improvement from his debut–with one noteworthy song, “The Way We Swing,” a collaboration with Ken Griffey, Jr. It’s not enough to save this album. The LP has been out since early spring, and by now it is fair to judge the Kid’s mass appeal; outside baseball collectors, there has been little. (This review originally appeared in The Rocket and was written by Scott Griggs.)

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The Way I Swing

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Skin 2 Skin

The original version of the song “Skin 2 Skin” appears on Kid Sensation’s 1990 debut album, Rollin’ with Number One. It’s a slightly clunky love ballad, punctuated with synth stabs and banging drums. Through a series of telephone skits and rap verses, Kid attempts to convince a girl to come over to his place, expressing his sincerity and honesty, citing how Janet Jackson and Milli Vanilli said it’s “Alright.”

The brand new 12” “Naked Mix” featured here on this vinyl reimagines “Skin 2 Skin” as a new song, centering the music around a bright, funky guitar, while also dialing back the drums and adding a wide range of trippy left-right stereo effects. The mix takes the song in a fresh, intimate direction, one where you’re more likely to be won over by Kid’s flirtation.

On the flip side, you’ll find two versions of a superb new Kid track about wealth, racism, and society called “Homey Don’t Play That.” He recounts a series of misadventures that warn of the perils of money and fame: Girls who want to spend all his dough, fair-weather friends who need to “borrow” $20… He heads to a fancy restaurant and is instructed to use the service entrance. The Maître D’ insults him, saying “Black folks are only welcome to shine our shoes.” At the closing of the song, Kid and his friends are singing the chorus as a group. One guy yells out to stop, saying “The white girl is off-beat.”

Something to love about early Kid Sensation records is how they were a playground for new ideas and new talents. They’re daring. This record features the first vinyl appearance of a young DJ Ace: His work with Prose & Concepts and the ECP in the mid-‘90s made an important mark on the scene, and his appearance here is no doubt part of the reason this 12” single is such a stellar record.

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Prisoner Of Ignorance

For almost a century, vinyl records had been the dominant medium for music playback, but in the ‘90s, the format’s long reign was quickly eroded by two newer options: cassettes and CDs. Both were smaller, cheaper, less fragile, and portable. You could play cassettes and CDs in your car, throw them in a boombox, or go stroll with headphones and a fancy new Walkman.

“Prisoner of Ignorance” marks the first time NastyMix put their marketing and promotion efforts behind a cassette edition rather than the vinyl. (A plain-sleeve vinyl was made for DJs, but it was the cassette of “Prisoner” that got the cool cover art.)

NastyMix also splashed out on an MTV music video. In it, Kid Sensation is tied to an electric chair. He’s about to be executed. A white, racist cop narrates, saying “another Black youth is being appropriately punished.”

When asked if he has any last words, Kid raps that he’s a product of the system: “My only crime from birth is dark skin.” He recounts how he was expelled from school, how he turned to the streets and gangs. He started running with the wrong crew. In desperation, he tried to rob a liquor store. It went bad. He took a hostage, he killed two cops, the hostage was killed, too, I think? The story gets a little convoluted, but the message is clear: The system has failed him over and over again.

For his fall, he blames bigots, the school system, the media for promoting white supremacist falsehoods as truth. Americans are being brainwashed. Where is his piece of the so-called American dream?

At the end of the music video, Mix-A-Lot stands over Kid Sensation’s grave and makes the song’s anti-gang message clear: “Minorities make up 93% of all gang membership in the United States of America today. Whether you choose to call this genocide or just straight-up homicide, you brothers need to remember it’s all suicide.”

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Rollin' with Number One

The debut full-length from “teenage lady killer” Kid Sensation dropped in 1990, while Kid was, indeed, still a teenager. He and Sir Mix-A-Lot originally met back when pre-success, mid-80s Mix was a popular recurring DJ at Boys and Girls Club parties and events. Kid was a teen who’d linger after the set and help Mix put away his gear.

The backside of Rollin’ with Number One has all the best songs, like “Two Minutes,” where he shows us how it’s done by spitting verses for two minutes straight with barely a breath. The drums on standout “Legal” pierce your synapses at unexpectedly pleasant times. This one tune was co-produced by Mix-A-Lot—whose shadow looms large over the whole record—but it’s very much Kid Sensation who’s the star here, making all the beats and dominating 10 tracks with a smooth, speedy bullet train cadence.

Side B opener “Flowin’” is a great example of Kid Sensation’s dual threats of production and rapping. “I’m impossible,” he says at one point, adding, “Sucker emcees can’t comprehend because they’re too slow.” Kid then lays down a ground cover of drums, samples, and vocal wordplay, demonstrating his impressive skills, letting you know he’s “cutting you down like grass in a mower.”

The song is yet another NastyMix tune that incorporates elements of “Posse on Broadway.” (That’s 4, for anyone keeping count…) I’d love to know if there’s a larger story here.

Deft samples include movie lasers, a heart-rate monitor, and the infamous “funky drummer.”

The jacket will have you plotting your next beach fire at Golden Gardens. Listen closely to the lyrics and you’ll hear references to Rainier and Seward and other Town locales. This one is on Spotify so you can go bump it right now.

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Seatown Ballers

If you listen closely to the bass line at the start of “Seatown Ballers,” you’ll hear it morph from synthesizer to beatbox vocalization and back again. Throughout his music, “Seattle’s next rap star, Kid Sensation” finds many creative new ways to incorporate his human voice.

“Seatown Ballers” is a curious song. Another one that, like “Back 2 Boom” and “My Hooptie,” yet again revisits “Posse on Broadway,” both in sampling and lyrics. (While also sampling contemporaries Public Enemy and Beastie Boys, too)

It recounts “another day in the life of the ECP,” where Maharaji, Attitude Adjuster, Mix-A-Lot, and Larry—the white guy, real estate investor—are driving down Rainier, picking up girls… Wait, haven’t we heard this all before?

Indeed, these early NastyMix rap singles are like interlocking Russian dolls, or watching Inception: It’s all layers upon layers, right down to the cover photo. Kid and DJ Skill pause in front of Minoru Yamasaki’s Rainier Tower, and they’re holding copies of Kid’s “Back 2 Boom” records, too.

At one point, Kid raps, “I don’t need drugs to create this feeling,” and you agree, yeah, it’s all déjà vu. And the beats keep turning into his voice and back again.

The music video for “Ballers” was shot at the brand new Westlake transit hub which first opened the same year, 1990.

Flipside cut “S.B.I.A.” is an acronym for “Seattle’s Best In Action.” Although no one is directly credited on the cover, Kid passes the mic around to a cypher featuring his contemporaries from Seattle’s unsigned hip-hop underground: Richie Rapp, MC Willin’, and MC Linn all drop baller verses before Kid himself takes us home.

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Back 2 Boom

The b-side cut on Kid Sensation’s solo debut is a song called, “I S.P.I.T.” Kid is rapping about his lyrical abilities and shouting out the whole Mix crew. “The Pacific timezone is on the attack.” The song includes uncredited feature verses from the whole posse: Attitude Adjuster, Maharaji, and Mix-A-Lot himself. There’s also a new voice, Greg B, aka Funk Daddy. The beats here are all about the drop. At one point, Kid raps “I merge with Mix to make a masterpiece,” and that’s a pretty great description of this whole EP.

Someone recently described the Mix-A-Lot and Kid Sensation relationship like Batman and Robin: It’s apt: Mix was 26 and Kid was only 18 when this single dropped.

Mix’s mentoring hand (and production) is evident throughout the title track, “Back 2 Boom,” which makes the song all the more curious. It starts by liberally sampling and referencing “Posse on Broadway,” Kid is driving down Rainier… The tune play like many of Mix’s early rapid-fire, Electro hits, hyping up the crowd even higher. It’s so referential to Mix’s other work and apes his style, you start to wonder, is this a parody track?

Two minutes in, everything shifts. Kid drops the beat to half speed like it’s some early chopped-n-screwed experiment, and the song lingers here for the duration. This is the “boom” … Kid changes up the verses, he and the posse are trashing stop signs, tearing shit apart, blowing up Broadway.

And then the verses are spoken backward. And then you remember how Kid Sensation is a talented beatboxer, and you realize the beats have been his voice all along. Everything eventually drifts away like a car crash in slow motion.

So arrives the debut of Mix-A-Lot protégé Kid Sensation. BOOM!

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Rippin’ / Attack On The Stars

The “Rippin’” EP is a true double A-side: Center circles are labeled “1” and “A.” Both singles are strong, but the best cut by far is a mind-boggling three minutes and forty seconds called “bonus beats.” Mix chops up Kid Sensation’s beatboxing into a wild construction, demonstrating how truly skilled he is as a beatmaker, sampler, and turntable scratcher. At the end, he boasts to Nes that his competition “better retire.”

To best understand early Mix-A-Lot, picture him as an identity worn by Anthony Ray, the same way Bruce Wayne dons the guise of Batman. Early Mix was “Adam West”—a campy, computer-obsessed nerd with style who knows how to rock a party.

“Rippin’” plays like a send-off for this early Mix, looking back at his early hits and summarizing his rise to success. The lyrics revisit the themes from “I’m A Trip,” a section of “Square Dance Rap” makes a reappearance, and he samples vintage Electro greats Kraftwerk and Gary Numan.

After this record, the Mix character becomes brasher, bolder, more gangster… a guy who’s tough because he’s a gun-toting badass with a posse, and not just because he knows how to oscillate the bass kick on his computerized gear.

It’s always been curious that most of Mix’s earliest tunes have never been released digitally or on streaming: These songs are mostly great fun, weird, geeky, production marvels. Go seek out the original vinyl records! I found many of these in used bins for $1. You’re in for some wild ass silly shit.

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SWASS

Sir Mix-A-Lot is one of Seattle’s Greatest Of All Time Rappers. It’s surprising how often Mix gets written off as a one-hit-wonder, as though the dude doesn’t also have multiple platinum and gold records to his name. (He’s also made $100+ million dollars from that “big butts” song, making him not only our first major rap star but also our most-ever commercially successful one.)

His debut album, made four years prior to “butts,” is a self-released gem called SWASS. It’s the one with “Posse on Broadway.” The album sold so many copies on vinyl and cassette and CD that it went gold, and then platinum, and indeed, between 1988 to 1991, it was the bestselling record to ever have been released in the Northwest in any genre of music.

Think about that for a second.

For the three years prior to Nirvana’s Nevermind, Seattle was suddenly on the map as a rap success hotbed, known all around the world as Sir Mix-A-Lot’s town.

This album—a debatable acronym for “Some Wild Ass Silly Shit”—is a gonzo trip, full of West Coast attitude, electro-gangsta beats, and humorous stories. On the front cover, Mix grabs the Space Needle as if it were a giant cock. The album plays like a concept album: you follow Mix and his posse as they pull heists, go clubbing, drive around the CD and Capitol Hill, and end up at Dick’s. (Note that the song “Bremolo” towards the end is an unfortunate blight of sexist trash and you should skip it.) This record put Seattle on the national rap map for the very first time, the beats and rapping are fire, and it’s as bizarre and entertaining to listen to today as it was 33 years ago.

You can find SWASS on Spotify, and I strongly encourage you to go listen to this slice of Seattle hip-hop history today.

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I Want A Freak

“I Want A Freak” has not aged well. There’s no tiptoeing around the fact that this song is mostly sexist trash, one of many regrettable rap tracks by many, many rappers from this period. Mix complains that too many unattractive “mud ducks” think they’ve got a chance with him when all poor Mix needs is a “freak”: A sexually adventurous mini-skirted woman who’s down to go “all the way” and party. This song is a lot of insults directed at women.

Someone’s inevitably going to argue that these lyrics are just some innocent “boys will be boys” locker room talk, but that’s exactly the issue with dick-dominated songs like these: Too many rap songs tell young men that a woman’s value only extends to how far she’s “willing to go” and that it’s totally okay to insult girls who refuse to “put out.”

But let’s not blame Mix entirely: “I Want A Freak” began as a B-side on his 1986 “I’m A Trip” EP. The song proved so popular that NastyMix re-released it here as its own single, with two new remix versions. A surprising number of online commenters—both men AND women—cite this as their favorite Mix-A-Lot track, so IDK.

This vinyl’s B-Side cut is worth a listen. “Electro Scratch” is a delightfully weird rap song, with vocoder vocals and beatboxing. You also have Mix-A-Lot showing off his prowess at scratching the platters, demonstrating he’s not only about computers. It includes the first appearance of Kid Sensation, Mix’s teen protégé who would soon launch his own successful NastyMix career…

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