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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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Cidewayz: Full Circle

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I Am Mark Womack

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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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Northwest Connection: What They Hittin Fo

In 1997, some of Seattle and Tacoma’s hardest rhyme spitters came together and assembled ten dope tracks into a compilation. The title is Northwest Connection: What They Hittin Fo, and according to the notes at Discogs the CD didn’t come out until fourteen years later when it was released by Death Wish Records in 2011. It is a solid release for those who like that gangsta-street content. Deuce Click has two tracks, a chopped-and-screwed-esque slow cut called “Keep It Comin,” and an inspirational, motivational creeper titled “The Break Of Light” that will put a smile on your face. Black Cesar (formerly known as Foul Play) also get two songs, reminding us of the importance of loyalty on “Love For Me” and dropping useful street game on “Without U.” Mr. D.O.G. makes an appearance with “Leave Yo Strap On,” warning listeners in multiple ways that he’s dangerous. The CD ends with a track by The DCP Organization, a Tacoma group in the early 1990s which included members of Criminal Nation.

My personal favorite track on the compilation is “Regardless.” Wojack and Candidt deliver over a smooth g-funk beat. “We sit back, relax, get ours regardless,” goes the chorus. “Regardless” rolls and dips like a low rider driven by these two OG Northwest rappers who are clearly gifted at what they do. Northwest Connection: What They Hittin Fo is an excellent display of late ’90s gangsta rap in Seattle and Tacoma. Compilations like this show that while the Northwest had a vibrant gangsta rap scene, the genre at large suffered from a narrow range of subject matter for most of the 1990s. As B-Self pointed out in a 2020 206ClassicRadio Youtube interview, the 1988 album Straight Outta Compton “succeeded too well,” meaning it was so influential that every young rap group wanted to resemble NWA to the point of abject imitation. It took years for rap music to recover from the long, tall shadow of Straight Outta Compton, and largely because of that album gangsta rap will always be a part of the fabric of hip-hop. Written by Novocaine132

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Where Ya Goin Wo?

Local Seattle music video director and rap fan Deven Morgan produced a short but informative interview series in 2014 called Do The Math Podcast. One guest on the show was legendary Seattle rap figure Samson S, who shares many of his favorite 206 rap projects, including his thoughts on Where Ya Goin Wo? by Tacoma’s Wojack. Samson explains how Wojack always wants to give him new stuff, but Samson only wants to talk about how dope Where Ya Goin Wo? is. You can find it on Youtube at the one hour and thirty-two minute mark.

Wojack had released albums in ’90 and ’92 as a member of the group Criminal Nation, but instead he teamed with producer M.A.S. who created all the beats for this solo 1997 side project. As Wojack puts it, “I made a subtraction, and got rid of all that wack scratching.” After the intro, the first cut is the spooky-sounding “To The Brain,” which turns out to be the answer to the question posed in the album title. “To The Brain” is one of the strongest tracks on the album, it creates a sinister mood which matches Wojack’s lyrics perfectly, and the chorus is a ready-made call and response. It’s one of those times when rapper and producer find a real synergy. Another hit is “206,” a fun, all-purpose, g-funk jam, equally appropriate for bumping in the ride, dancing in the club, or just chilling at home on the couch smoking a blunt.

Parts of Where Ya Goin Wo? devolve into misanthropic themes that don’t seem to go anywhere, for instance, the gloomy “No Escape” shows a man trapped in his own madness like the Steppenwolf. “Shootin Up Your Crew” is full of desperate nihilism, “Unloading clips off in your face, I guess I’ll be crucified by these demons trying to keep me in my place.” But when the album is at its best, it showcases a very talented wordsmith not only trying to expand his brand, but also taking risks by experimenting with his style and content. One year after Where Ya Goin Wo? there was a Criminal Nation album titled Resurrection which came out on Ocean Records, but according to the credits, Wojack is only featured on one track. Written by Novocaine132

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After Dark

DJ Greg B aka DJ Ready was involved in several Seattle rap groups in the 1980s. In 1992 he dropped a full-length solo cassette called Listen To The Greg B with DJ Skill. Around this same time, he teamed up with fellow hip-hoppers Dee-Lyrious and Jay-Skee to form a new group called Crooked Path. According to Greg, “All three of us went to the University Of Washington where we all met. Jay-Skee playing football, Dee-Lyrious playing basketball, and me DJing all the college parties. Jay-Skee brought everyone together and we all meshed naturally.” Their debut album After Dark combined the more humorous, wordplay elements of early ’90s rap with a more violent, shoot-em-up gangsta vibe. It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention that Greg B changed his name a couple of years later to one that is more familiar to fans of Seattle hip-hop, that name of course is Funk Daddy.

After Dark was re-released by Belgian label Southwest Enterprise in 2021 and is now available on vinyl and CD. The 2021 version contains Funk Daddy “fun facts” on the jacket which give contextual info about some of the tracks. For example, two songs from After Dark also appeared on Rhyme Cartel’s Seattle…The Dark Side compilation, “Menace Crook,” and “12 Gauge.” The best thing about “Menace Crook” is the track’s pulse-quickening momentum created by the clamorous scratching and catchy bassline. “12 Gauge” has a slower, suspenseful sound, and the lyrics talk about how the group is strapped up for any situation. “I got your back *****, I got the gat *****, I got the shit to make a sucker fall flat *****,” goes a typical line from “12 Gauge.” Tacoma artist Wojack from Criminal Nation makes an appearance with his laid-back track, “Something 4 Your Trunk,” in which he expresses his feelings toward his record label. One could conjecture that he was referring to either Cold Rock, Nastymix, or Ichiban, three labels he had worked with in ’92 and ’93.

Other After Dark highlights include “Where De’ At,” a super funky cut in which all three group members bust rhymes over the famous One Way “Don’t Fight The Feeling” sample flipped so successfully by Too Short. Jay-Skee’s “I-5 South” features some lovely, stirring backup singing by Gina Douglass, and her voice is perfect for the chorus. After Dark was not the last project for this crew. Dee-Lyrious completed a solo CD two years later in 1996. Funk Daddy continued putting out music throughout the ’90s. Crooked Path returned in 1998 with their second album Which Way Is Up on Dogday Records. Written by Novocaine132

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The DCP Organization

The DCP (Deff City Posse) Organization were a huge crew of MCs that came together with Wojack and Eugenius, two artists who are perhaps best known for their group Criminal Nation. DCP members included Bumpy, Clee Bone, D-Rob, D-Wiz, The A, and K-Luv, plus Zell Dogg and The Bom performing as N***** From The Boneyard. Some of these artists had appeared on the posse cut “The Bum Rush” on Criminal Nation’s Trouble In The Hood album. The DCP Organization dropped this self-titled compilation of sorts in 1993, executive produced by Brett Carlson for Cold Rock Recordings.

Wojack and Eugenius perform four tracks together, “You Can’t F*** With The Criminal,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Something 4 Your Trunk,” and “Stretcher.” My personal favorite of the four, “Something 4 Your Trunk” was also featured on the Crooked Path After Dark reissue which appeared on Southwest Enterprise in 2021.

Gangsta cut “N***** From The Boneyard” by Zell Dogg and The Bom flips the Tom Tom Club “Genius Of Love” beat, which is a perennial hip-hop staple. “How can you talk if your mouth’s on my glock?” the group asks. The laid back “Smooth Night” features The A, Clee Bone, and D-Rob. “Shall I go farther? As long as I’m alive, cemeteries gonna get larger,” mourns one of the MCs in a moment of self reflection. “Nothing But A Come Up” features a groovy Parliament “Give Up The Funk” chorus and solid verses from the MCs. For example, “Coming up is a must, but on the ‘Hilltop’ who the f*** can you trust?”

Approximately three years after The DCP Organization came out, DJ Eugenius and the Homegrown Klik dropped The Album Volume One on compact disc in 1996. The following year saw the release of Wojack’s street classic Where Ya Goin Wo? on all three formats, vinyl, CD and cassette. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, The DCP Organization was digitally re-released on Bandcamp in 2013. Tacoma is in the house! Written by Novocaine132

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Excuse Me Mr. Officer (Fed Up)

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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

Tacoma’s Criminal Nation released a full length album in 1990 titled Release The Pressure. The album generated two singles that year, “Black Power Nation,” and “Insane.” Criminal Nation was riding high on their local celebrity, and so in 1991 they put out a third single with two more tracks from Release The Pressure titled “The Right Crowd” and “I’m Rollin.”

“The Right Crowd” has a New Jack Swing swagger with a crooned chorus and snappy, stuttered drum machine work. The lyrics are all about surrounding yourself with the right people, and watching out for fakers in the music business. Criminal Nation was comfortable putting out dancefloor movers like this one in between harder more gangster influenced tracks.

The B-side is titled “I’m Rollin,” and it is built around the funky bassline from the funk anthem “Flashlight” by Parliament. “I’m Rollin” is all about bragging and letting loose with punchlines. It’s slower than “The Right Crowd” and it’s more of a “rap about rap” song, meaning it’s aimed at other rappers rather than the general public. The whole Release The Pressure album was full of various styles showing easy versatility. The group also put out a single of the title track “Release The Pressure” in 1991 capping off a very successful year for the group. Criminal Nation dropped their second album Trouble In The Hood in 1992, and continued their reign as one of Tacoma’s best hip hop groups. Written by Novocaine132

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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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