Do you even remember what you were doing in 1991?? I was 8 going on 9. And whatever I was doing, I was certainly doing a variation of the wop and reciting parts of “Hip-Hop Junkies” that I did not understand. I didn’t even know that this was the same group that made the other song that I liked, “Funky For You” a year before that. I just knew that I was now a fan of Nice & Smooth. Welcome to the year that I became an active music listener.
I remember my boy Eric, who was one of my best friends in High School always talking about this album. I didn’t fully respect it until he went out and re-bought it on CD and made me listen to it when I was in summer school my Junior year. I saw what he meant. When you hear jaded older hip-hop heads going on about what rap used to be, this is what they’re talking about. It’s that combination of real and street relevant and relative, while care-free and light hearted…Not taking itself too seriously to have fun and party and be rhythmic. Nice & Smooth have always represented balance, down to their monikers – which they embody and live up to the tee!
Nowhere is this more evident than on this album, which is hands down their most memorable and most successful. Ain’t A Damn Thing Changed is the LP that made these guys a top-tier rap act in the early to mid 90’s. Especially when you consider that right at the height of this album’s buzz and dominance, the group appeared on the perfectly timed and instantly classic “DWYCK” with Gangstarr (that song will never get old). Spawning the most singles, this album really played up the duo’s individual strengths. The selection of releases also showed their versatility, with some tracks being whole r&bish ditties, to others being lyrical rap rides and some evening out as rap/harmonized hybrids.
Speaking of “Harmonize”, the album starts off with a hyped up track of the same name with the duo doing just that. One of their standards and part of their calling card, they don’t really sing in 2 part harmony as much as they just synch their very different voices to deliver rap chants ala The Cold Crush Brothers or T.J. Swan from the Biz Markie era. Granted, Smooth B can hold a note and he exhibits this plentifully throughout the album with bridges and breaks in rhyme scheme, but crooners these 2 are not. And I don’t think they were trying to be or even cared. It more or less seems to be truly the natural way that the group chose to express another facet of their creative process. The fact that this happens over some of the most irresistibly catchy and most clever uses of samples from popular breakbeats and funk songs into midtempo rap grooves only makes it feel more free-spirited and authentic.
“Cake & Eat It Too” is a prime example of this. The single that loosely tells a story of an unsatisfied girl is a full-out song in the conventional sense of the word. It’s so early 90’s that it’s not even New Jack Swing. It’s just Smooth B singing off-key while Greg Nice delivers the rap verses over one of the few original beats on the album, but what comes off more like a track you’d hear on a demo. It’s almost not full enough to sound done because it’s not the cleanest vocalizing and the beat consists of a 3 note piano bass melody. Yet it thrives in its simplicity. It’s one of those songs that was so memorable because it was sooo different from what was going on at the time. Rap was going through a sort of puberty at the time…Discovering that it had a multitude of avenues that it could choose. It was still rolling off of it’s afrocentric phase, reveling in it’s house and jazz experimentation that contrasted mellow, more heady rhymes coupled with more subdued deliveries against the booming uptempo dance scene littered with big pants, big hair and polka dots. And the lure of gangster rap was fresh on the rise, about to make everyone drop a hardcore album in the following 3 years…Including this group. But for this exact period when this song was a hit, it was perfect. A summer song that broke the rules by being more of a sing-songy sap fest, yet reflected the overall tone in hip-hop. The 2 guys were so confident in what they were doing that you had to respect it. Plus, by the time they dropped this, they had already given you more than enough hits to not have their credibility as rappers in question.
If Balance was the group’s main theme, then songs like “How To Flow” showcased this impeccably and made it clear as to why they could get away with joints like “Cake & Eat It Too”. One of the more hardcore tracks on the album, and yet another great single (my second favorite track off the album from back in the day), it actually starts out with a melodious riff by the 2 going back and forth in an old school cadence. Immediately after that, Greg Nice – who usually sets all the songs off, rips into the bass guitar lead track as it thumps with lines like “Massive meltdown, bring the red tape/bag up victims who caught the vapes”.
The real bread and butter here is on their more straightforward rap tracks tho. Songs like “One, Two And One More Makes Three”. As well as the requisite posse cut (which was mandatory back then), “Down The Line” where the first bond with Gangstarr was made as Premo reinterpreted the same “Night In Tunisia” sample that he used on Gangstarr’s debut single “I Manifest”, and Guru lent a verse. Nothing is more Killer than on “Pump It Up” where the 2 show just why they each were a force to be reckoned with then. On both solo verses, both rappers ride the same beat that would go on to become famous as Biggie‘s “One More Chance Remix”. Yet this beat is delivered in fashion with that of the whole album, as it breaks down on the chorus to a lighter, chimey sample, only to go back into the pounding and scratching. Both bring their A game, and their individuality attacks in a way that reinforces their solidarity as a duo. It’s like seeing something split apart to strike from 2 different angles just to join back together and enjoy the victory. Listen as Smooth B drops lines like “my brain contains memory info…/Protons, Neutrons, cells and membranes/molecules are the tools that I in-frame/so you can get a vision – a visual picture/1,2,3, a consecutive mixture/Solids, liquids, gas creates matter/you bite my rhymes, well I’m flattered………………..bite-able cause even the best did/but you can’t check me, cause this ain’t Chess kid!/”.
This beat, this cohesion and distinction at the same time, are explicitly what the group is made of. The juxtaposition of hard parts next to soft sample breaks in the beats was the backdrop for you to take in the matching of Greg Nice’s high energy, simplistic, call-and-response flow with Smooth B’s paced, soft-spoken encyclopedia-laden (sometimes made-up) wordy flow. Despite these conflicting energies, they work cooperatively and never change the vibe or tempo of the songs themselves. Both rappers use their differences to marry whatever beat their on top of and not collide with one another, but simply compliment. The party part of party songs never mellows out just because a guy named Smooth B rhymes after a guy named Greg Nice who practically just finished yelling his verse.
And the party songs are there. While every song is pretty much a party song because Nice & Smooth are from that class of rappers that were out to entertain primarily, some are more deliberate in their mission. Those songs, like “Medley; Step By Step”, “Sex, Sex, Sex” and their claim to fame, “Hip-Hop Junkies” are littered at different points of the album, but unless you’re doing a critical review of the album like Iam here, you probably won’t notice the difference, because like I said, every song has a catchy vibe to it that can rock in some kind of party.
Even on the melancholy and topical “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow”. It’s just the breed of rapper these guys are. They understood that even a song with semi-heavy subject matter shouldn’t kill the jam. Over a sped up sample of folk star Tracy Chapman‘s “Fast Car”, the group plays off of the title and makes it a poetic one of their own, having nothing to do with the actual conversation in the verses. This song is however, their second most popular single. Another song that became memorable because once again, it was so different from everything else out there. There were alot of different styles of music being sampled in Hip-Hop at the time, but nothing resulting in something so unapologetically as non-hip-hop as this. And it worked. It was also a nice deviation in the album sequence from the funk and thump.
And that’s the group in a nutshell. This album was the 2 Bronx Golden Era rap legends at their best; Not under or over doing it. They were truly just being themselves and you could hear them having fun. Even the bragging seemed realistic and from a thought out point of view. It was less about demeaning others or making outlandish claims. It also helps that the 2 have some of the most distinctive voices in Hip-Hop history. Greg Nice may well be one of the best performance style rappers. Smooth B was one of the best who attempted the I’m-gonna-use-big-words style. Besides the unnecessary “Billy Gene” skit and the wack and unfocused “Paranoia”, every track on here is great and serves it’s purpose.
Having that said, my favorite songs are “Pump It Up”, “How To Flow”, “Down The Line” and of course, “Hip-Hop Junkies”.
This album gets 12 Candles out of a possible
4, 8, 12 or 16.
4(Classic Just because where it stands in Hip-Hop, whether it be the time of it’s release, it’s influence, or the popularity of it’s singles overall)
8(Classic because it was solid for it’s time, but may be a little dated or less than amazing by today’s standards)
12(Classic as a complete release and probably celebrated widely on the surface, but possibly lacking one key element – be it one song that doesn’t fit, a wack guest appearance, lyrics, lack of depth or beats)
16(Classic all around)
It’s more like a 10, but you know…