|To the East, Blackwards|
|Label:||4th & Broadway / Island Records|
If you ask longtime rap fans to name their favorite aspects of the Golden Era, certain items will probably appear on every list. First, there’s the quality of the music; with landmark albums seemingly dropping every week, birthed by artists that cared more about moving listeners than moving units. Then there’s the diversity of the time; a time when artists offered a variety of sounds and styles, and set out to separate themselves from the pack. In this period of individuality and dopeness, a four-man crew from Brooklyn emerged, who not only set themselves apart from their contemporaries, but from every rap act that succeeded them: the X-Clan.
Known for their princely wears, pro-Black platform, and P-Funk inspired tracks, X-Clan blended Afrocentric ministry and body-moving music in a way Hip Hop had never seen (or heard) before. The crew was a musical offshoot of the Blackwatch Movement; a grass-roots community organization founded in Brooklyn in the mid-1980’s. The Clan consisted of lead emcee-producer Grand Verbalizer Funkin’ Lesson Brother J (Jason Hunter), a gifted wordsmith from Flatbush, Brooklyn, with a scholar’s intellect and a pimp’s swagger; his colleague and DJ, Rhythm Provider Sugar Shaft (Anthony Hardin); and two elder statesmen from the Blackwatch Movement that rounded out the team: Paradise the Architect (Claude Gray) and Blackwatch founder Professor X the Overseer (Lumumba Carson). In 1989, amidst a flourishing progressive rap scene, and simmering angst in Black America, X-Clan inked a deal with Island Records. And in the spring of 1990, they introduced their brand of Pan-African funk to the world, with their brilliant debut album To the East, Blackwards.
From the moment To The East, Blackwards starts, it’s clear X-Clan is out to move the body and mind. Each song is steeped in classic funk; and Brother J doesn’t waste an ounce of it while he’s dropping science. The driving opener “Funkin’ Lesson” uses Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” and “One Nation Under A Groove” for support; and finds J descending upon Earth to deliver knowledge of self, and sporting a flow many emcees couldn’t hope to replicate. You’ll be transported to the motherland on “Tribal Jam”, a track that blends Bill Withers drums, Last Poets chants, African rhythms, and canned safari sounds. And rhyme pharaoh J uses this backdrop to refute mistruths about Black evolution, in a truly magnificent performance. “A Day Of Outrage – Operation Snatchback” samples the stomping drums from Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat”, and is a volatile retort to violence inflicted on Blacks; with Brother J and Professor X standing in defense of Yusef Hawkins, Michael Griffith, and every other victim of racial brutality. “Raise The Flag”, the album’s first single, borrows the milky groove from Roy Ayers’ “Red, Black And Green”, which J flows over with smooth precision, as he hoists the Pan-African flag symbolizing Black unity and pride. J offers more doctrine on “Heed The Word Of The Brother”: theorizing on historical fallacies presented as fact, over spliced loops of Zapp’s “More Bounce To The Ounce” and Parliament’s “Flashlight”. And on “In The Ways Of The Scales”, Sugar Shaft scratches a break from Art Of Noise’s “Beat Box”; while J commandeers the groove from Tom Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love”, addresses confusion and misguidance in Black education, and throws a jab at iconic Golden Era trio 3rd Bass for good measure.
Throughout this album, X-Clan dispenses their lessons with flavor; but on some songs, they have a little more strut in their step. Brother J pimp-walks through “Grand Verbalizer, What Time Is It?”, a cocksure joint featuring the same interpolation (Average White Band’s “Schoolboy Crush”) found on Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend”. On “Verbal Milk”, J spits what sounds like a masterful freestyle over the drums from The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President”; while Professor X rides shotgun in the Clan Cadillac. “Earth Bound” brings the interplanetary thump, courtesy of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”, and has J and Professor X jaunting through space and time; as chosen messengers of the Egyptian sun god Ra. In homage to old-school Hip Hop tradition, the Clan gives their DJ his time to shine on “Shaft’s Big Score”. While a Hindi-like groove plays in the rear, several members of the Blackwatch Movement drop ad-libs, then Sugar Shaft goes for his on the turntables, while Professor X assists with vocal lead-ins. And “Verbs Of Power” is fittingly titled; beginning with a Professor X reading of crimes committed against African peoples, then leading to a lordly mic display from J, who slow bops over a funky organ loop and tempered drum kicks.
Even in what was then a crowded field of Afrocentric artists, X-Clan easily stood out from their contemporaries, and it’s not hard to see why. Their embracing of funk gave their music energy not found on other rap releases of the time, and helped forge a perfect symmetry between their sound and their Black Nationalist content. But, even with these musical facets, the men in X-Clan were the glue that held it all together. Rhythm Provider Sugar Shaft, the taciturn turntablist, spoke volumes with his hands. The erudite Professor X, brought into the fold at the suggestion of Sugar Shaft, became widely recognized as a charismatic administrator; with trademark phrases that were woven into the fabric of X-Clan’s work, and became a group signature. And Brother J, though he’s rarely been credited as such, is one of the most skilled emcees ever to wield a mic. J had rarefied abilities most emcees could only pray to possess. With his authoritarian baritone, ice-water flow, and dexterous wordplay, J was stout enough to not be overshadowed in the X-Clan universe; a tall order given the group’s distinctive format.
To The East, Blackwards would go down in history as one of the best rap albums ever made. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t translate into widespread acceptance for X-Clan. They would not enjoy the commercial success of comparable acts like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions; and the original incarnation of the group would only last for one more album (1992’s Xodus) before disbanding. And, sadly, the group would never be able to regroup in original form, due to the deaths of both Rhythm Provider Sugar Shaft (1995) and Professor X The Overseer (2006). Nonetheless, X-Clan stands tall as prime contributors to rap’s most creative era. Two of their core members may have passed, but the pure artistry of X-Clan lives on.
Review by Syd Caesar
Listen to mp3 songs from To the East, Blackwards below: