Brandish the Weapon of Mass: Sean Price and Small Professor’s 86 Witness

Joel Biswas goes in on the Brooklyn MC's posthumous album, featuring the talents of one of Philly's best producers.
By    February 18, 2019

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Joel Biswas will smack shit out your “We Are the World” song.

Sean Price is the original underground champion — a one-man typhoon of sly references, dazzling alliteration and death blow punchlines. At the time of his untimely death in 2015, Price had been a reliable mainstay of the NY underground for so long that it was easy to forget that long before he was Sean Price he was Ruck, the smoothest and most agile member of Brownsville’s Boot Camp Clik. When he re-emerged in the early 2000’s as Duck Down’s unlikeliest star, he made a point of going by his government name except when he didn’t. Whether he was Master P, the 50 Dollar Man, the Brokest Rapper, Kimbo Price, or Decepticon Sean, no absurdist moniker could hide his unmistakable flow.

He might put your moms in a headlock, kick fire out your ass like Fei Long or fricassee your eulogy – possibly all in the same verse. In his hands, the bar was a more complete vehicle for understanding the art of rap than most rapper’s songs. He put them together the way Ali strung together punches and delivered them like seven-hit Street Fighter combos. The space mattered as much as the sounds, the aural equivalent of a body rebounding off the ropes before connecting again, rapid-fire consonants raining down like fists. Lines like “I’m Sean, King of the Apes, you Prawn, King of the Shrimps/ Funny-style, limp-wristed son of a bitch” had enough layers to power a thesis in ethnolinguistics but were never cryptic. His was the sound of a grizzled vet who had seen enough to hate the game but not enough to satiate his appetite for roasting onion-head MC’s.

86 Witness is the third posthumous release since Price’s passing. In many ways, it’s the most successful. For one thing, it’s the first time a single producer has provided a complete backdrop for Price. Philly’s Small Professor worked with Sean when he was alive and pairs him here with a mostly younger generation of artists like Elucid and Curly Castro, many of whom have followed the independent trail he blazed. He also gives the album with a thematic arc (the year 1986) to highlight some of Price’s best pop culture references.

After a boom bap intro powered by DJ Revolution’s scratches and allusions to Audio 2 and N.W.A., things kick off in earnest with the action film strings of “Refrigerator P.” Price threatens to sell crack to your sister and disrupt the recording sessions for “We are the World” before former Heltah Skeltah partner in rhyme Rock floats a hook that reminds you why they were such a potent combination. “Latoya Jackson” rides a wigged violin sample and beat box to put Sean alongside alongside Quelle Chris before a beat flip coda sees Sean eating canned ravioli and salmon, gun in hand as the bemused ghost of Malcolm X looks on.

Instrumental “P’s theme” loops Price’s favorite verbal refrain to remind the listener that while a lot of rappers claimed the letter P, only Price deployed it like a SCUD missile. “John Gotti”, “Think About It” and “Word to Mother” sit comfortably alongside his best mixtape material. P’s verse on “John Gotti” is so great that Pro even drops a remix that allows his Illadelph day-ones Curly Castro, Zilla Rocca and Reef the Lost Cause to go in with predictably great results.

Small Professor’s production sparkles throughout, whether offering a witty sonic detail to make a Robocop reference land harder or dropping an unexpected fourth quarter beat change on tracks like “Think About It” and “Latoya Jackson”.

Posthumous rap records can often feel exploitative in their desire to revive a ghost, but in Small Professor’s hands, Price is very much alive and in his element. “86 Witness” is an inspired tribute that takes his Pantheon status as a given, while delivering the kind of polish and cohesion that his projects often lacked. It’s the welcome reminder that “Sean Carter is nice, but P is the best.” On the mic, Sean Price was never more serious than when he was joking.

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