By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
Son of Bazerk has the greatest voice ever!" That's according to Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, praising the lead rapper for the grandiosely monikered Son of Bazerk Featuring No Self Control and the Band, a Bomb Squad–associated group from Freeport, Long Island, who secured cult status in hip-hop off the back of 1991's critically acclaimed Bazerk, Bazerk, Bazerk album—and then promptly disappeared for nearly 20 years.
Dressed in slick $3,000 suits scored from Delancey Street and adhering to an image Chuck calls "the 1960s soul ethic," they came over like a James Brown backing band reanimated into the hip-hop age, with Bazerk's baritone bark and otherwise heavily nuanced vocal style assisted by high-strung raps and ad libs from Half Pint, plus smooth crooning and ragga-chatting from Daddy Raw and Almighty Jahwel. It was a formidable formula, but one not immune to the cruel whims of the record industry. Despite amassing support from their peers—Bazerk still remembers Naughty by Nature rapper Treach praising their innovative style—the group's ascent stalled. Instead of etching a place in rap's annals as a game-changing act, they left devoted fans clutching their sole album and speculating as to what exactly happened to them.
Hip-hop folklore attributes Son of Bazerk's vanishing act to one of two factors: Their sound was either ahead of its time, or they were stymied by Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee, who released their debut album through his M.C.A. imprint, S.O.U.L., but allegedly refused to sanction a follow-up, compelling Bazerk to characterize Shocklee as "one of the dirtiest motherfuckers I ever seen in my life" in a 2008 interview reprinted on the rap blog Unkut. But now they're (finally) back, with the knowingly titled All Thawed Out, an album that brazenly opts to pry open a time capsule rather than even remotely acknowledge rap's present trends.
Addressing the reasons behind their exile, Bazerk recalls L.A. gangsta-rap trailblazer Ice-T warning the group that the "critically acclaimed" plaudit usually ensures that you're not going to make any money—"And he was right." But it's fair to argue they were an authentic casualty of the times. Daddy Raw says the group's aim was to present themselves "like great performers on stage, with nothing militant about the music," just as hip-hop albums were most likely to double as statements of sociopolitical intent. In SOB's immediate circle, Public Enemy had just dropped the overtly political Fear of a Black Planet, while Ice Cube's Bomb Squad–crafted solo debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, saw him vying for the title of official national misanthrope. (Tracks from Most Wanted were at one point earmarked for Bazerk's album; he provided backing vocals on Cube's "Who's the Mack?") Rap albums were suddenly more than a collection of stunning 12-inch singles that lit up a party; Son of Bazerk sounded like Public Enemy's funkier step-cousins trying to coerce people onto the dance floor at the worst possible time.
It was that second factor, though, that the group itself insists ground their careers to a halt. "We wasn't seeing eye-to-eye, not with the label, but with Hank Shocklee," says Bazerk. "He wasn't going to let our follow-up album come out, and that's the way that was." That's a relatively diplomatic spin on a long-simmering dispute: Bazerk told Unkut that they recorded two versions of a new album, both rejected by Shocklee in a move that suggested a "personal vendetta" at play. When a U.K.-based hip-hop magazine previously published the same interview, it elicited an e-mailed response from Shocklee Entertainment labeling Bazerk's comments as "slander and complete lies."
Asked for his take on events now, Shocklee dismisses the idea of a vendetta. Instead, he says, "The group had broke up in the middle of recording their first album. T.A. [Bazerk's real name is Tony Allen] had beef with Pep [Daddy Raw's alias], and also a beef with Jahwel. I had to piece the album together—T.A. and Flavor Flav are the hardest people in the world to get anything out of." Then he adds, "They never recorded a second record."
Whatever the truth—to date, traces of that fabled second record can only be experienced by searching YouTube for songs like "No Fair Ones" and "Freestyle for Fun"—SOB were denied an opportunity to furrow their own niche. "To me, the full effect of Son of Bazerk would have changed the game," Daddy Raw says. "If we'd had that chance."
But now, setting aside the bickering and inspired by the support that swelled up after the Unkut interview, the group reunited in the studio, this time with Johnny Juice, who scratched on early Public Enemy songs, as the sole producer; Chuck D's Slam Jamz label agreed to release the result. But that's about it for any changes: All Thawed Out's compact eight songs prove the prowess of their original, hard-funkin' hip-hop formula. "I Swear on a Stack of Old Hits" could be a twin of their old calling card, the schizophrenic "Change the Style," with both songs switching up tempos and beats with fevered glee as they progress (though only the new cut includes a short interpolation of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall [Part II]").
It's exactly how you'd want a group that hasn't released anything for close to two decades to sound: no undignified reaches toward the Drake generation, just resolutely vintage moments like "Let Me Tell You Who I Am," which combines the eerie feel of Efil 4 Zaggin–era N.W.A. with the punch of peak Public Enemy. If your cornerstone rap albums hail from SOB's early-'90s heyday, this song's your new private anthem, whisking you back 20 years in the best possible way. By simply sticking to their blueprint, they've chalked up a fittingly long-haul victory. "We've been at this for a while now," Bazerk testifies. "We're not too bad at it."
Son of Bazerk Featuring No Self Control and the Band perform at Central Park SummerStage August 15 with Public Enemy