The third and perhaps final volume in music journalist Brian Coleman‘s Rakim Told Me/Check the Technique series of books of interviews with legendary spitters and beatmakers is my first encounter with Coleman’s series, and it’s such an exhaustive read it took me three months to finish. That’s because Check the Technique Volume 2 (Wax Facts Press; $14.99 for Kindle/$28.00 in paperback form) is a book that’s made for Spotify.
The best way to enjoy the Check the Technique series is to open Spotify to whatever album Coleman covers in each chapter and then keep it playing in your headphones while reading through Coleman’s interviews with the musicians (and sometimes engineers or record label employees) behind the album. Almost all of the 25 albums (all pre-1999) that are discussed in Check the Technique Volume 2 are available to stream on Spotify. Bumping the albums while reading through Check the Technique Volume 2 makes the book a much lengthier reading experience, but it’s worth it.
Most of these albums are ones I paid little attention to when they were first released. Thanks to Check the Technique Volume 2, I’m now a fan of both the Gravediggaz debut album 6 Feet Deep and the Dr. Octagon album Dr. Octagonecologyst (I had no idea DJ Qbert was involved with Dr. Octagonecologyst before reading the book’s chapter on Octagonecologyst). Coleman’s main purpose in his books is to provide these albums with the kinds of detailed liner notes that their booklets never contained but should have (as in track-by-track breakdowns and interviews with the artists about how they met or how they accomplished their sounds), but Check the Technique Volume 2 has also introduced me to albums I’ve never heard before from start to finish, like 6 Feet Deep and Octagonecologyst.
Back when most of these artists first worked on these projects, they had no idea these works of art were going to endure as long as they have or that there would be heads out there who wanted to know about craft or process and which samplers were used for 6 Feet Deep or whatever, so that’s mainly why their liner notes were merely skippable shout-outs to friends, family and deities. This was long before the present era of Questlove tweeting trivia about the production process or rappers going on Rap Genius and writing an explanation of a bar or two from their own track (you’ve also got artists doing audio commentaries of their own albums on Spotify).
So Check the Technique Volume 2 does a valuable service in filling in the blanks on the liner notes, but how does the oral history portion of the book fare? Just like with any interview with a rapper, the chapters are interesting depending on how candid or funny the interviewee is. Throughout the book, Coleman, like any good journalist who does his or her job well, counterpoints somebody’s memory of something that happened with another person’s different recollection of the event, like when Stetsasonic members and execs from their label Tommy Boy Records express differing opinions on whether music videos would have boosted album sales (the group wanted to film more music videos, while Tommy Boy was cautious about spending their budget on video shoots). It’s been a minute since the artists recorded these albums, so their memories aren’t exactly the best.
Because of the huge amount of interviewing and research Coleman undertook for this book, he never mangles artists’ names, although he confuses Gimme a Break! star Nell Carter with ’60s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” crooner Mel Carter in a Talib Kweli quote about the Cosby Mysteries/network TV acting phase of Mos Def (if you’re wondering what Nell Carter has to do with him, it’s because he portrayed her teenage son on one of her sitcoms). Nell Carter name flubs aside, if you’re the type of music nerd who chuckles over shade being thrown at engineering legend Bob Power, Check the Technique Volume 2 is for you.
* MC Serch of 3rd Bass, recalling what happened when MC Hammer’s camp heard his partner Pete Nice make a joke in “The Cactus” about Hammer, whose music they hated, and Hammer’s camp took it to be an insult towards Hammer’s mother: “There was a lot of drama that resulted from that song, with MC Hammer. The hit [death threat] that Hammer’s brother [Louis Burrell] put out on us was a real concern when we went out there [to LA]. We were in physical danger.”
* Mista Lawnge of Black Sheep: “I like the remix of ‘The Choice Is Yours’ better than the original.” So do I. Mercury Records’ request that Dres alter the third verse (now known as “the famous one” from that remix) was a rare case where the record label was right.
* The Coup’s Pam the Funkstress: “I love all kinds of music, but I could never DJ for Spice 1, Too $hort or N.W.A., calling women bitches and hoes. I listen to their music, but as a female I couldn’t let myself be involved with that.”
* Kool Keith, on the making of Octagonecologyst: “We were giggling as we were making the tracks, because we knew that people were going to trip out on them. It was like we was at a house party and we was making a punch out of lemonade, Pepsi and Welch’s grape soda.”
* DJ Qbert, regarding Dr. Octagon’s “No Awareness”: “Back then me and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz would do this thing called ‘Q & A,’ where we traded bars scratching with one another. So it was just second nature to do it on that Octagon track. I was trying to be different and swing the patterns super hard so that they sounded off-beat, but were rhythmically on-beat, in a jazzy way. I don’t know if it came off that way, but that’s what I was trying to do.”
* Prince Paul: “Working with RZA during that era really grounded me, because he was so unorthodox. He didn’t care about anything – sequencing, timing, quality. Random snares all over a four minute track. Who does that? But it sounded right, he was onto something. It’s about how it feels, not about how technically beautiful it is.”
* Kwamé: “My production style has always been the same: 50 percent samples, and 50 percent live playing. I was The Roots before The Roots.”
* Shawn J. Period, the producer of “Children’s Story” and “Hater Players” for Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star: “I made a decision back then not to sample, because of spiritual reasons. I became a devout Christian at the time and I felt that ‘the sampling people’ teach you to steal and then cover it up.”
* Smooth Bee of Nice & Smooth, who started out as a ghostwriter for Bobby Brown: “People had a perception of R & B mo’fuckas being soft, but I saw more guns with Bobby than any of these rappers today even talk about on their records. There were more gangsters behind with [sic] scenes with Bobby than cats can even imagine.”
* Raekwon: “I never owned a [rhyme] book, because I always felt like, ‘Yo, I can kill you right now. I don’t have to have my shit on paper.'”
* Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O: “Bob Power did most of the engineering work on ‘Go Stetsa I’ but he was too anal for our taste, so we didn’t work with him after that.”