~ Masters of Ceremony
Label: Strong City / 4th & Broadway
Release Year: 1988
Produced By: Grand Puba      D.J. Shabazz

If you’re familiar with Golden Era rap, chances are you know the work of Maxwell Dixon, a.k.a. Grand Puba Maxwell. Grand Puba, a loquacious emcee-producer from New Rochelle, New York, first attained widespread prominence in 1990, as founder of the Afrocentric quartet Brand Nubian. In the years that followed, Puba’s influence in the entertainment world would be displayed in myriad ways; as an acclaimed soloist, when he left Brand Nubian in 1991, a noted producer who laced tracks for MC Lyte and others; a fashion plate that introduced clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger to urban clienteles, and, of course, as one-fourth of the beloved Brand Nubian, both in his first stint with the crew, and after his return to the Nubian mothership in the late 90’s. Though Grand Puba has been rightfully lauded for his achievements in the 90’s and beyond, his tenure in the game actually began several years before Brand Nubian broke ground. In fact, it extends back to the early 1980’s, and a talented but seldom acknowledged group Puba performed with for most of the decade, called Masters of Ceremony.

The Masters of Ceremony were a trio from New Rochelle (or “Now Rule” as Grand Puba called it), with skills to burn, and flavor for days. The group’s core was comprised of two emcees – Grand Puba Maxwell and his cousin Dr. Who – and turntablist DJ Shabazz, and the triumvirate made their debut in 1985 with “Crime”, a single that was co-produced by future new jack swing pioneer Teddy Riley. A short time later, the crew met Rocky Bucano, a fledgling entrepreneur with a desire to start his own label, who began to guide the group’s career. In 1986, while searching for a recording house for the Masters’ next single “Cracked Out”, Bucano happened upon Jazzy Jay Studios, a Bronx facility owned by Hip Hop legend Jazzy Jay. Bucano convinced Jay to partner with him in a new label, and Strong City Records was formed that same year, with the Masters of Ceremony as its flagship act. “Cracked Out” would be released in ‘86, followed by another single (“Sexy”) later in the year; the both of which led to an album deal with Island/Polygram affiliate 4th & Broadway Records in 1987. In 1988, with Strong City and 4th and Broadway backing their play, the Masters of Ceremony graced the main stage for the first (and last) time, with a splendid 10-song set entitled Dynamite.

As a complete package, Dynamite is compact, flexible, and undeniably dope. Its 10 tracks clock at 48 minutes; they incorporate reggae, go-go, and R&B into the traditional New York boom-bap sound; and they show glimpses of the artistic sensibilities Grand Puba would later employ with Brand Nubian. Reggae artist Don Baron, a Strong City labelmate of the Masters of Ceremony and an unofficial fourth member of the group, appears on a handful of the album’s numbers, including “Redder Posse”, a bouncy dancehall number where Puba, Dr. Who, and Don Baron slip in and out of harmonic, ragga-toast flows; and make a jam that’s ideal for summer jaunts to the beach. Baron shows up again on the go-go teaser “Sexy”; chanting rudeboy style on the hook while Puba and Dr. Who spit game to every dimepiece that crosses their path. The template changes a bit on “Cracked Out”; replacing the sweet grooves of “Redder Posse” and “Sexy” with a moody syncopated beat, which Puba and Dr. Who use to explore the freebase menace (crack), and its destructive effects on people that were once straight-laced and upwardly mobile. “Rock With The Master” has a hypnotic shimmy that’s as suited to a Chaka Demus and Pliers album as it is to Dynamite; and it features harmonizing vocals from Dr. Who and a pair of female vocalists, more silver-tongued toasting from Don Baron, and one tight, crowd-swaying verse apiece from Puba and Doctor Who. And “Hard Core” moves on many levels; first with an irresistible go-go track that makes you bop involuntarily; then with nimble turntable work from DJ Shabazz, and lastly with fly, science-fueled verbs from Dr. Who and Grand Puba, who also end the song admirably, by rhyming together in perfect unison.

Dynamite has plenty of radio-friendly material, but the Masters of Ceremony were just as adept at the timeless street hop that typified the Golden Era. The title track “Dynamite” marauds with subtle insistence, thanks to layered staccato drums and a dusted rhythm base. And Grand Puba Maxwell, Dr. Who, and D.J. Shabazz all shine in this setting, with Puba and the Doc trading bars back and forth with vigor, and Shabazz spattering razor cuts across the backdrop. Had it been released as a single in ‘88, “One To The Knot” may have become a big hit, not to mention a favorite among Golden Era enthusiasts. Its track thumps beautifully, due to a crisp drum line and a simple but intoxicating melody, which is done sweet justice by the mic presence of Who and Puba, who display a flair and mic chemistry similar to Bronx duo Nice & Smooth. “Rock Steady” is rugged, raw, and absolutely divine. Its percussive drum clangs shake the floor, Shabazz’ break splices from ESG and Aretha Franklin blend in seamlessly, and the two emcees (especially Dr. Who) come off harder than they do anywhere else on the album, and make you lament we’d never hear more of them. And “Master Move” is a collage of many of the elements that propel this album; boulevard-rocking drum kicks and an understated guitar loop, rapid-fire chants from Don Baron, Ginsu cuts from DJ Shabazz, and one more dose of mic dynamism from Dr. Who and Grand Puba.

As good of an album as Dynamite was, it may have been cursed by the time in which it was released; more particularly the year in which it was released. 1988 was loaded with classic rap albums from both coasts of the United States, and several places in between. Due in part to this barrage of bomb music, many rap artists had their works overlooked, and the Masters of Ceremony unfortunately found themselves on this dubious list. This album sold poorly during its initial run, and its commercial performance contributed to the group’s disbanding in 1989, and the departure of each of its members from Strong City Records. This album would go out of print in the 1990’s, and would become a point of historical reference primarily for fans of Grand Puba Maxwell’s later works. Grand Puba, of course, would rebound quickly from this setback; producing the demos of two young New Rochelle soloists (Lord Jamar and Sadat X) in 1989, subsequently partnering with them, and turntablist DJ Alamo, to form Brand Nubian, and capturing the renown that eluded him the first time around. After the demise of the Masters, D.J. Shabazz would resurface here and there, most notably on production for Puba’s 1992 solo debut Reel To Reel. Dr. Who, Puba’s talented cousin, would regrettably fade into the shadows after this album, and never be heard from again. After its initial distribution ceased, Dynamite remained out of print for several years, and copies of it sold for a king’s ransom on Internet auction sites and in specialty record shops. In 2005, music distribution firm Traffic Entertainment Group helped remedy the situation, by securing the album’s rights from Jazzy Jay, and re-issuing it on CD and mp3. Though it didn’t receive its deserved acclaim in its time, Dynamite is still a heat-rock that not only accurately represents the best year in rap history, but also the spirit of Hip Hop’s most creative period. The era of the Masters of Ceremony was relatively brief; but if Dynamite is any indication, these Masters will always be in effect.

Review by Syd Caesar

Listen to mp3 songs from Dynamite below:

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