It‘s tempting to think of Organized Konfusion as true rap underdogs. Mention the Queens duo to someone who‘s not a hip-hop head or to some of these younger fans (hmmmpfff) and I’d say, oh 7 times out of 10, the response you’ll get is “who?” Unlike many of their peers, you probably won’t hear one of their singles at some frat party or on some hip bar jukebox, or on Hot 97‘s “Old School Hour” [do they even do that anymore?], or even on one of those myriad VH1 docs devoted the history of hip-hop.
This is not to say that they were particularly obscure. All three of their releases came out on imprints with major label backing. The last two, 1994‘s Stress: The Extinction Agenda and 1997’s The Equinox even enjoyed moderate chart success. Still they probably have more name recognition these days as solo artists. Pharaohe Monch vaulted to indie hip-hop superstardom in 1999 with the ubiquitous single “Simon Says (Get The F*ck Up)” which could be heard everywhere from clubs to college parties to the movie “adaptation” of Charlie’s Angels. He also appeared on the equally ubiquitous smash “Oh No” with Mos Def and Nate Dogg, a one-off single that became the best selling rap 12″ of all time. His first album Internal Affairs boasted guest appearances by a number of high profile emcees, and came within spitting distance of the top 40. Prince Po‘s 2004 solo debut The Slickness featured contributions from Dangermouse, Cee-Lo, MF Doom, Raekwon, and Madlib among others.
Of course their solo careers have had an underdog quality as well. Pharoahe Monch and Rawkus Records, the label that released Internal Affairs, ran into a heap of legal trouble due to the uncleared Godzilla sample that powered “Simon Says’” monstrous beat, resulting in the album being pulled from shelves and taken out of circulation where it remains. He wouldn’t release another album for 8 years. Prince Po’s solo recordings remain woefully underappreciated despite scads of acclaim.
Like most true underdogs, Organized were, and continue to be critical darlings, cult favorites, with a relatively small but obsessive fanbase. They released three groundbreaking albums, several killer singles, and disbanded before they could tarnish their legacy by continuing to exist in what has always been essentially a young man’s game. Perhaps most importantly, they played a major role in engendering an entirely new style of hip-hop, one whose rhythms, meters, themes, and sense of experimentation, have influenced not only the underground but some mainstream artists as well. Luck, however, was rarely on their side.
As Pharaohe puts it in the song “Black Sunday” “from 1986 to 1989 Organized Konfusion did not get signed.” When they did, finally, in 1991, it was to Hollywood BASIC, a Disney-owned label whose eclectic, some might say highly idiosyncratic, roster included [thanks to the late A&R savant Dave “Funken” Klein] all-Samoan gangsta rappers The Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E., the Digital Underground side project Raw Fusion, African hip hop pioneers and Black Sheep protégés Zimbabwe Legit, and the Lifers Group, a group comprised of actual lifers from East Jersey State Prison. Oh and DJ Shadow.
With Beauty and The Beast tearing up the box office and Cinderella available on video cassette for the first time, one imagines that Disney was not devoting a large percentage of their advertising budget to the eponymous debut record by a fairly eccentric rap group whose songs you couldn’t really dance to, didn’t employ pop hooks [the R&B-tinged chorus of “Walk Into The Sun” notwithstanding] and employed lyrics that were as dense and elliptical as anything in hip-hop before or since. A sample from “Releasing Hypnotical Gases:”
“As you look from whenceforth I come; riding the wind
thus eliminating competition from bird’s-eye view, I’m
descending in helicopters — in a village raid
Flesh will burn when exposed to the poetical germ grenade
I’m highly intoxicating your mind — when I’m operating
on cell walls to membranes, cytoplasms to protoplasms
Disintegrate em eliminate em now no one has em in battle
I display a nuclear ray that’ll destroy bone marrow in cattle.”
Such wordplay is impressive on the page but it takes on an entirely new dimension when coupled with Pharoahe Monch’s booming delivery and a beat that’s “all gurgling, alien internal processes.” [Allmusic] You can compare the album to other recordings from the same era, and while Organized was clearly drawing from a similar sonic palette; 70s era funk and jazz, crisp organic sounding drums, the overall effect is a radical new sound, even in the pre-platinum era when experimentation and pushing the artform were the rule.
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However, in the pre-digital age their first records were not easy to find if you were outside hip-hop’s various epicenters. A brief autobiographical aside:
I can’t pretend that I was up on Organized Konfusion at this point. I was certainly listening to hip-hop but as a rare fan in a grey and lifeless Canadian city where import cassettes[!], the format of choice, ran you $20 (then much devalued Canadian dollar but still…) I didn’t take very many chances on artists I didn’t know. They didn’t play Organized Konfusion on Much Music’s Rap City, an otherwise surprisingly decent ½ hour hip-hop show that provided me with a lot of my early hip-hop knowledge. [It ran at highly irregular times of day and night and its host Michael Williams always seemed banished to the great outdoors no matter how frigid the temperature outside, which seemed a little cruel, but I tried not to miss it.]
They didn’t really do guest appearances either, another way they might have raised their profile. They appeared on O.C.’s stellar 1994 debut Word…Life, another album that was highly influential but not particularly commercially successful. They were featured on Vol. 2 of the soundtracks to New Jersey Drive and the Damon Wayans movie A Low Down Dirty Shame and a couple of other comps.
So I was oblivious until a friend of mine put me onto their second album shortly after it was released in 1994, at which point I had escaped the wretched confines of said grey and lifeless city. Even for a young lad weaned on Public Enemy it was fairly mindblowing. Stress: The Extinction Agenda, often cited as their best, retains some of the playfulness and funked up party atmosphere of their debut, but true to its title it’s a darker record whose lyrical themes largely center on the psychological effects of urban life. “Stray Bullet” finds Pharaohe personifying the title object with chilling matter-of-factness. “Black Sunday” uses the group’s own personal struggles to examine the problems and obstacles facing the community as a whole. It’s not all bleak however. “Let’s Organize” is a fist-pumping, uptempo and braggadocious party anthem (with a message) that features A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip on the hook and a verse from their old friend O.C. “Bring It On” is one of the most convincing MC battle cries you’ll hear. When Prince and Pharoahe say they’ll destroy all comers you believe them.
I was hellbent on obtaining my own copy. I was however ensconced in the wilds of Massachusetts, and the possibilities for obtaining the record were not much better. It wasn’t until years later in Boston that I chanced upon a white label promotional copy in some dusty bin somewhere and practically wept for joy.
The internet has made things much easier of course. You can order the albums from Amazon or eBay or any number of other online retailers but none of their recordings are currently available digitally. Thankfully this will change on June 17th when Prince Po’s Nasty Habits Entertainment label releases (or re-releases if you want to get technical) The Best Of Organized Konfusion, an overview of the duo’s most impressive work.
It includes music from all three of the group’s albums plus a couple of new tracks that have never been available, including a freestyle for Sway & King Tech’s Saturday Morning wake show that features a few bars from one Nasir Jones. Purists may quibble about the omission of certain joints (no Extra-P remix of “Stress” for instance) and question the decision to sequence the tracks based solely on reverse alphabetical order (although on that score I think it works surprisingly well), but this is fine introduction to your favorite rapper’s favorite rappers, two of hip-hop’s most exciting and versatile MCs who deserve to be underdogs no longer.
02. Walk Into The Sun
03. Sway & Tech Radio Promo
04. Sugah Shorty
05. Stress [Video]
06. Stray Bullets
07. Somehow, Someway
08. Roosevelt Franklin
09. Releasing Hypnotical Gases
11. Passion (Previously Unreleased)
12. Open Your Eyes
14. Let’s Organize
15. Late Night Action
17. Fudge Pudge [Video]
18. Bring It On
19. Black Sunday
20. 9 X’s Out of 10