May 26, 2017

Corrigan Blanchfield uploaded Jay Electronica’s debut to Soundcloud.

Rap demos are a real treat. For one, they’re essentially extinct—Soundcloud* offers a low-stakes sounding board for loosies of any sort, while simultaneously serving as a platform through which hits, even careers, can be made.  Gone is the notion of the label audition; get enough warm bodies somewhere talking about a track and they’ll come to you. With it, we’ve lost works of interest not only to collectors, but rap anthropologists too. Even if the songs didn’t go (they do), there’s a lot to be read regarding how a group like Digital Underground presented themselves to an A&R, facing artistic tradeoffs and budget constraints that simply don’t factor into the creative process of the mic-and-a-laptop generation.

There’s a fascinating tension between the recognizable Digital Underground-ness of these tracks collected on the demo tape and the extent to which they wear the camouflage of other rappers from the same era. Samples come from familiar and funky sources, but fall short of the goofy, distinctive (haters of fun might say self-indulgent) piano breaks that would later grace the likes of “Doowutchyalike.” There’s uncharacteristic hip-house production a little too reminiscent of Jungle Brothers, and Shock G and Money B both sound like the much-younger brothers of the emcees that would put out Sex Packets merely a year later (Humpty Hump, beloved alter-ego of the former, doesn’t make an appearance).

Lyrically, the tape shows its age in all the best ways. The cognitive dissonance of complaints about how hip-hop is portrayed by the media alongside extended parables against drunk driving or failing to keep your grades up is nothing short of hilarious. Valid as both are, it’s remarkably telling (and vindicating of the former claim) that this sort of content would be at the forefront of an appeal to a major label.

Even the ventures into the risqué are couched in radio-friendly euphemism: “I called Erlene, said what’s up tonight, do you want to hit the town / she said skip the show, come to my house, I just want to get down,from the second track is innocent enough that young ears could easily mistake it for an invitation to, I don’t know, come over and dance. In any case, it occupies the same abstract space of implied vulgarity that classic rock radio enjoys, an impression strengthened by the track’s reliance on a sample of the most stock guitar riff imaginable.

It’s in exactly these stylistic quirks that the demo finds its charm: tip-toeing around obscenity and blending clear influences en route to a real individual style are the very hallmarks of youth in rap. Listening through the rest of Digital Underground’s discography, it’s no surprise that none of these tracks ever saw an official release; however, historical interest is as valid a reason to make room in your library as any. It’s a document of an entire era, as well as a milestone in the development of two emcees that would go on to form that same era’s canon (to say nothing of launching the career of a guy named Tupac Shakur). In that, it finds its own special sort of cohesion—a nascent sensibility that would echo through years of hip-hop to come.

* I would be remiss not to mention where this thing came from – Soundcloud user hidingplaceplace does amazing work documenting and sharing their collection of musical apocrypha pulled from the void of storage units and the like. This was part of what they call a sizable (!) collection of unreleased music sent to a talent scout at a major label from 1986-1994 and later sold at auction.

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