This week, Metalface Records reissues MF Doom’s Operation Doomsday (in a lunchbox, for some reason) and that seems like a good excuse to look back on the label that first released the project–Fondle ‘Em. While Rawkus, through its feats of star-making and self-mythologizing, now stands as the singular beacon of the ’90s NYC indie rap boom, it was Fondle ‘Em that quietly and consistently dropped smaller and more exciting projects.
Headed by industry vet and WKCR radio personality Bobbito Garcia, the label started as a gag (Fondle ‘Em Records: A division of Tickle ‘Em, which is a subsidiary of Squeeze ‘Em Ent.) printed on the would-be white label pressings of the Kool Keith side project The Cenubites and quickly became one of NYC’s most promising indie imprints for the type of in-the-know rap nerd types who wore Champion hoodies in the summertime and occasionally described beats as “mad blunted, yo.” Though Bob’s bare-bones, friendship-over-business model–no press promos or formal publicity; no contracts or deals; artwork-free, vinyl-only singles and EPs for the most part–was somewhat noble, it was also self-destructive. The name artists built their brand on Fondle singles or EPs and then either quickly jumped ship to bigger and more business-minded indies (The Arsonists were the first rappers signed to Matador, for whatever that’s worth) or fell off the map completely (Juggaknots, Siah & Yeshua) and the label’s legacy faded over time. While their indie rap antecedent Def Jux (now deceased as well) paid homage with a proper retrospective when the label officially shut its doors in 2001, today Fondle ‘Em seems to exist almost solely in the consciousness of German rap nerds and the dealers who sell them collectible records on eBay. (Even the type of Doom-obsessed teens who post things like “Interests: Classic ’90s Raps” in their Tumblr bios seem wholly unaware of the label’s existence.)
In an attempt to slightly correct this imbalance in the history of underground hip hop history, we’ve provided a quick look back at some of the label’s essentials, sans the obvious Doom classics:
1. FE002 Juggaknots LP (1996)
Initially Fondle ‘Em served as something of a refuge for major-label rejects. The Juggaknots had been dropped by Elektra Records before they could even drop an album, but found a proper home in the Fondle ‘Em non-roster. “Clear Blue Skies” is the pick here, a chilling narrative and one of the greatest songs about interracial dating in hip hop or any genre. Frontman Breezly Brewin later found some success as the lead emcee on Prince Paul’s rap opera A Prince Among Thieves but by the time the group reunited for a follow up–which was actually pretty great–it was 2006 and the underground rap world had stopped caring. The Juggs’s album was rereleased in an expanded edition as Re:release back in 2002. It’s sadly now out of print, but can be found illegally on dozens of European-run rap blogs.
2. FE005 Siah & Yeshua Da PoEd–The Vizualz EP (1996)
A playful tag-team duo in the Tribe Called Quest mold, Siah & Yesh’s first and only record is centered around “A Day Like Any Other,” an epic, eleven minute, multi-movement fantasy rap complete with magic potions and a haterish dragon. Traffic released a very comprehensive reissue of the project a few years back (and this one is still in print) but, apart from a few loose cameos compiled therein, the duo never recorded together again. Yesh went on to form the similarly charged Wee Bee Foolish crew, while Siah retired from rapping
to pursue an academic career.
3. FE001 The Cenobites EP (1995)
The genesis of Fondle ‘Em. Built around outtakes from Ultramagnetic’s Four Horsemen sessions, The Cenubites (on the first pressing, Cenobites on the second–what would a blog post about underground rap be without nerdy nitpicking?) finds Kool Keith being Kool Keith (“emcees smell like fish–that’s a reason”) and trading bars with the very underrated Godfather Don. Like the Doom album, the project closely echoes the tone of Stretch & Bob’s radio show–unhinged freeform rap madness with an off-the-cuff touch of absurdist humor. “You’re Late” also features legendary tape slanger-slash-underachiever Percee P.
4. FE007 Cage–“Radiohead” / “Agent Orange” (1997)
Before morphing into the aging emo BFF of Shia LaBeouf and Kid Cudi that he is today, Cage was an angry, chubby shock rapper on Fondle ‘Em. Effectively functioning as a double A-Side, “Radiohead” found Cage rapping about how crazy he was and the crazy things that crazy rappers do. The flip–“Agent Orange”–did the same, but contextualized it better with a Clockwork Orange theme and sample. It’d be easy/lazy to compare it to Odd Future in the name of blog-buzz familiarity but I won’t because not all incredibly vulgar and socially dysfunctional rappers are built the same. “Agent Orange” later exacerbated a beef with fellow rising underground star Eminem, who posed as the film’s Alex on the cover of Stress. You might recall Em’s boast on The Slim Shady EP: “Bought Cage’s tape / opened it / and dubbed over it.” That tape likely had “Agent Orange” on it. That’s Em’s loss.
5. FEMF-1 MF Grimm–“Do It For The Kids” / “Bloody Love Letter” 12″ (1998)
B-Side wins again here with “Bloody Love Letter” tells the grim (npi) tale of the shooting that bound MF Grimm to a wheelchair. Though his profile is a lot lower than his one-time rhyme partner Doom, Grimm has been able to carve out a solid, if nichey, career for himself in the years since, dropping a long-running string of projects including an overly indulgent triple disc and a DC/Vertigo published graphic novel based on his life.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 29, 2011