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Despite tremendous SoundScan sales numbers, something is missing from today's hip-hop. Humor, a rap music staple during the '80s in the hands of Biz Markie and others, has all but disappeared as the music's popularity has increased; instead of hitting with punch lines, current top-selling rappers are more likely to throw punches.
So the Mountain Brothers, a Philadelphia-based trio who've overcome years of major-label woes to independently release their debut album, Self Volume 1, are something of a novelty, though not a novelty act. Out of step with much of the hip-hop community, they've combined clever wordplay, stellar organic production, and -- freshly rescued from hip-hop's endangered species list -- a sense of humor.
Public Enemy set the standard for blending humor and intelligence in rap. Often misunderstood as a strictly serious ensemble, the group's undeniable genius on albums like 1990's Fear of a Black Planet wasn't the pumping, apocalyptic Bomb Squad-produced soundscapes or even the influential verses from Chuck D. Rather, it was the teaming of the unflappable Chuck with his comical, hyped-up partner in rhyme, Flavor Flav. It's hard to picture Public Enemy without Flav, or imagine its medicine-flavored lyrics without that spoonful of sugar to ease them down.
In recent years humor has been the key to top-selling releases from the Beastie Boys and the Pharcyde, but few others have so skillfully utilized comedy as a form of expression. And far too small a number have done so while bringing forth a genuine lyrical acumen. That's exactly what makes the Mountain Brothers' debut so noteworthy. To play off an album title by A Tribe Called Quest, the Brothers represent a hip-hop triple threat: beats, rhymes, and laughs.
Comprised of two Chinese-Americans and a Taiwanese-American (Scott Jung, a.k.a. Chops; Chris Wang, a.k.a. Peril-L; and Steve Wei, a.k.a. Styles), the trio's music is a mesh of harmonious Bob James- and Pete Rock-influenced grooves, courtesy of the baritone-voiced Chops, who handles a third of the rapping duties, most of the punch lines, and also plays a multitude of instruments to single-handedly craft the group's sound without samples. Additional vocals are in the deft hands of Peril-L, while one-liners like "I got ten times the ends/But only half the real friends" come from Styles, the group's most potent freestyle rapper.
Scheduled for a February release on the trio's own Pimpstrut label, the album combines mix-tape favorites like "Paperchase" with songs like "Galaxies: The Next Level," which bears the imprint of electro-funk pioneer Roger Troutman. The group comments on record industry complexities and familiar nine-to-five headaches on "Day Jobs" and delivers tongue-in-cheek pieces like "Love Poetry," which parodies the much-maligned rap love song. Their sources for joke material seem to come from anywhere: "Super Saturday" pokes fun at overblown commercials for monster truck events, while "Oh, Oh, Oh" honors Miami Bass booty-shaking.
"We're big fans of punch line MCs, like from Big Daddy Kane, Lord Finesse, to Common, Redman, Ras Kass," explains Chops from his home studio in Philadelphia. "Various cats that are about rhyming for the sake of rhyming and having lines that are funny or have twists in meaning to them."
Coming off a victory in Sprite's national Rhymes From the Mind contest in the summer of 1996, the trio was awarded an invaluable prize: instant radio airplay. Heard on urban frequencies throughout the nation, the trio's 60-second commercial spot for the soda was a bouncy track filled with keyboard stabs that professed love for the soft drink and whipped major-label A&Rs into a frenzy.
In 1996, Pennsylvania-based Ruffhouse inked a deal with the Mountain Brothers. It made them the first Asian-American hip-hop act signed to a major label but was also the official beginning of an arduous relationship that legally ended only a few months ago.
Unwilling to release the Mountain Brothers' completed album (one vinyl-only promotional single was issued across two years), Ruffhouse seemed to have its hands full with its stable of superstars, including the Fugees and Cypress Hill. The Mountain Brothers were apparently a difficult act to sell. "As time went by, they couldn't find a place to easily put us in terms of marketing, and so they wanted to push us in a direction that was more easier to sell," explains Styles.
The group found itself at odds with the label. "It was certain creative things," says Chops, sounding uneasy. "We had an album recorded, and we were happy with it at the time.... And there were suggestions made to have certain producers come in and remix stuff. Like certain people that happened to be hot at that particular second."
Ruffhouse maintains that its relationship with its corporate parent was partly to blame. "We're a joint venture with Sony," says Ruffhouse president Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo, who has also engineered and produced records by Cypress Hill, Spearhead, and others. "When I brought [the Mountain Brothers record] to the Sony Records radio and urban department, they didn't salute it. It took the wind out of my sails. I let [the band] go with its masters and did not charge a cent, nothing."