I first heard Grand Puba (given name, Maxwell Dixon) rap languidly over Handsome Boy Modeling School’s, “Once Again (Here to Kick One for You).” I was 10-plus years behind even on that (So…How’s Your Girl? came out in 1999). Legendary producers, Prince Paul and Dan the Automator (well, they’re legends in my little corner of the universe) get credit for the music – the atmosphere created by the organ, the half-speed snippet of “Just an Old Fashion Love Song,” etc. – but it was love at first listen with Grand Puba’s flow. The only analogies for his delivery that come to me reference baseball – e.g., thinking a change-up.
The Handsome Boy project owns a lot of the credit for me circling back to see what I missed with all of hip hop (the other, li’l embarrassing, was Girl Talk). The seed they planted with Grand Puba took deep enough root for me to pick up his 2009 release, Retroactive. I didn’t expect it to match Handsome Boy - i.e., I don’t just throw around that word, “legendary” – but hoped he would hold onto the mellow flow.
Happily, Grand Puba is no slouch when it comes to arranging/composing. He lays down three reasonably distinct sounds/tones between Retroactive’s first three songs (“I See Dead People,” “Hunny,” and “It Is What It Is”): a melodic, soulful meditation on our nation’s brutality against African Africans, precedes a light, bouncing get-her-digits tune, which precedes a sultry narrative number about a woman using her body to get paid; check the particular politics in each song as it suits you, but that’s range, people.
A couple other tracks stand out – e.g., “This Joint Right Here,” an approach I loosely label a “club track,” and another number where he gives the stage to Sarah Martinez, who spits poetry-slam stuff on “Reality Check” (which has some tangled politics) – but the one that really stuck with me was “Cold, Cold World.” It’s not the best song on Retroactive (see any of the above, really), but I can’t get the sense that it pokes the tongue into his cheek just a little – i.e., see the lightly overwrought chorus, etc. Even if that song could be heard sincerely just as easily, I find that little wink endearing, for some damn reason.
That’s Retroactive, but I went deeper into Grand Puba’s work, back even to his original project, Masters of Ceremony (thanks, Wikipedia! thanks, Spotify!), and his short spin with an act that floated around the first hip hop acts I liked, Brand Nubian. Bluntly, Masters of Ceremony’s, Dynamite, didn’t do anything for me – too “proto” (as in, hip hop not yet out of beta-testing) – though, apparently, it got critical notice (but not sales). Brand Nubian, on the other hand, had (/has? last album 2011) decent legs as a musical project, even if Grand Puba fell out with the group after the first album, All For One.
All For One sounds like its era – see the “go! go! go!” that plays under “To the Right” – but they pulled out some inventive stuff, too: contrast, say, the jazz samples/rhythm that bubbles under “Dance to My Ministry” against the funk riff they rap over for “Feels So Good” (and, holy...did they have focus in the 90s?). Also, for any older folks who happen by this post, listen to “Slow Down” and see how long it takes you to pick up on the source for the main sample. I’ll wait…
Given Grand Puba’s short time in the ba…Brand Nubian (still struggle with calling a hip hop act a “band”), his solo projects constitute his real body work. I only put in time on three of his five albums: Retroactive (above), 1992’s Reel to Reel and 2016 (yep, 2016) Black from the Future. (His other two albums, 2000 and The Contemporary Classics, I’ll have to come back to.) And, broadly, I genuinely like what Grand Puba does – smart, wide-ranging choices with samples/sounds (e.g., “The More Things Change” versus “Yard”; and, for fun(!), also, check the sample on Brand Nubian’s “Slow Down”), solid range of content (e.g., listen to “Soul Controller” right after “Hunny”), stacks of well-turned phrases and phrasing (though Reel to Reel has a line he loved a little too much “toys ain’t us,” as in, not playin,’ but that’s one smart guitar snippet that plays under “Big Kids Don’t Play”), and he fits it all together into a consistently smooth sound. Think cherry flavor for cold medicine; maybe you’re not into that flavor (because you’re sane), but you get the thinking – i.e., makes things go down smoother.
And that brings me to one of my eternal questions about any popular music: Why not Grand Puba? What keeps a guy/act like him from blowing up?
My best stab at an explanation starts with looks (e.g., he never really had them, and he’s not going to start getting them as he ambles past 50), but he also approached hip hop from…what’s the right word? Call it an unexpected place, just a step to the side of mainstream sounds and themes, and not a huge one. Who knows, maybe that’s all it takes? Then again, an artist like Kanye West feels like he comes from a similar space – one step away (even as I’d argue he makes more nods toward the mainstream) – but it also feels like Kanye kept opening up and progressing into a wider creative space, while also imbuing each album with a clear mood/identity. Grand Puba, on the other hand, ranges all over within each album; maybe that makes him harder to pin down artistically, maybe it all goes back to that “fuck around” sensibility noted above. Again, not totally sure about the particular alchemy that makes one guy a household name and another a diamond in the rough, but that’s how it goes, yes?
At any rate, and to cut off the rambling, between the subjects he chooses (and has always chosen really) and the mellowness of his delivery, there’s something timeless in Grand Puba’s sound and songs. Rap feels like a young man’s medium, even more than rock, and songs about getting crazy at the clubs, the honeys, and booty-shaking put a shelf-life on an act sure as “My Generation” sounds sillier for The Who to perform with each passing year. Grand Puba speaks to more universal, consciousness raising stuff (see “Original” or, further back, “Concerto in X Minor,” plus many others above); Grand Puba hit “black consciousness” themes throughout his career, and big ups for it.
Then again, maybe that’s something that holds him out of mainstream/national acceptance (I always wonder, though, how big some of these acts are within New York City, specifically)? Could be, could be. All I’m saying, is that Grand Puba put good work into the world. Give him a listen.