Because Pitchfork released 200 Best Albums of the 1980s and I view such things as a personal challenge.
I never wanted to be a rapper. Prince, yes. Leroy from Fame, yes. Run DMC, no. I think I know why. I prefer dance, poetry or fantasy to macho, swag and confrontation. Well, I did in the 80s that’s for sure. Like most people my age in my country of my skin colour, rap didn’t exist one week and then it did the next when Walk This Way was suddenly number one on RTR Countdown. Aside from Run DMC and The Beastie Boys I didn’t really engage with rap and hip hop until much, much later. My trajectory was 80s pop, Guns and Roses, grunge. If I did hear rap I definitely did not hear people like NWA. The D.O.C. was a kind-of-member of NWA.
I feel like the thing to know about D.O.C. is that he released this album and then crashed his car and had to have a variety of surgeries on his throat that left him with a rasp rather than a voice. So this album and what came later sound far, far apart.
No One Can Do It Better has some great tracks on it, and The D.O.C. has fantastic flow. The fastest tracks are the best ones; the ones where he seems to be skating across the top of the beats landing with them and ducking between them. All that music behind him is from Dr Dre. and I guess I understood something for the first time listening to Whirlwind Pyramid: making the backdrop to the rap is a skill. I have no idea what a Whirlwind Pyramid is but the track underneath it is constructed out of the break beat from Yellow Sunshine’s track Yellow Sunshine, and the hook from Parliament’s Gettin’ to Know You. Those two things, manipulated, with a little growling note and some other effects is a great backing track for The D.O.C.. I think I never noticed that behind every great rap or hip hop track is a music nerd.
And then, on The Grand Finale, where a bunch of people from NWA take turns rapping a verse on The D.O.C.’s album I thought: is this like when jazz artists take turns doing solos? It is. Except, sadly, they use words instead of notes and their words are often lame juvenile fantasies or tirades. In fact, lyrically most of the album is on the theme of “why I – D.O.C. – am the GREATEST”. Which is, alright, but a bit repetitive.
The late 80s were a truly terrible time for pop. The D.O.C.’s album came out in August of 1989 and the singles on the top 20 countdown in New Zealand included things like: Milli Vanilli, New Kids on the Block, Edelweiss, Toy Soldiers, Bros, Jason Donovan…. Also, one of my top ten most hated: Wind Beneath My Wings.
And so there are inevitably a few things that haven’t aged well on this album which are all hallmarks of a late 80s sound. No One Can Do It Better’s nods to the late 80s include:
- The wikka wikka wikka of someone scratching a record. I understand why it’s there – a shout out to the origins of the music – but it sure is irritating.
- Editing someone’s voice so it repeats a word over and over: “rock-rock-rock-rock-rock me Amadeus”. I mean, it is kind of cool, but… yeah, we get it.
- Sampling spoken word audio. There’s a funky drum break that stops suddenly and a plutely older male voice says: “and now it’s time to get down”. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. A risky move.
- Eazy E. “Loving the bitches and the hoes boo hooing / Why ’cause they’re addicted to my dick.”
- Rock guitar in a rap song. This is Run DMC’s fault. Walk This Way is a brilliant track. It works. Run DMC thought it wouldn’t work. In fact they thought the person who suggested it to them was trying to ruin their career. You can get away with this. At the same time as this album was out I was enjoying Funky Cold Medina which is built out of samples from KISS and the Rolling Stones. I think the rule is – you can get away with it if the riff is super tight and clipped. For example, Back in Black by AC/DC is almost a rap track in itself; the riff is so tight and the vocals so clipped on the first verse that it would work effortlessly. When you break that rule (let’s call it the rock riff rap rule) then you’re into dangerous territory. Beautiful but Deadly is the worst track on The D.O.C.’s album mostly because the guitar is the opposite of tight and riffy. It’s all big chords and masturbatory soloing.
Listening to Funky Cold Medina again I wondered: is this a trans-phobic song about date rape drugs? The bit where Sheena has an Oscar Meyer weiner leads to this thought from Mr. Tone: “This is the 80’s, and I’m down with the ladies / Ya know?” But in the 70s you were down with the dudes? I’m not sure what you’re saying, but the weiner image is arresting. For a New Zealand version of this song I think he might be saying that Sheena was a man with a penis the size of a cheerio. There are levels here, but the main one is that Tone is real man who doesn’t sleep with men but if he did they would be well hung. Or am I getting this wrong?
Which leads us to the gallows of New Zealand’s highest charting local artist in the week that The D.O.C.’s album was released: Double J and Twice the T’s She’s A Mod. It’s hard for me to talk about this. About how this is essentially New Zealand’s riposte to Walk This Way. Or about how their next single was a team up with the Auckland Regional Council’s water conservation mascot Robert D Frogg.
Dark times. Dark, dark times.