Livin' Proof - Group Home - LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #85

In a great deal of professions, success is less dependent on your talent than the connections you make and the people you know: such can sadly be said of music. The huge success of many artists can be traced to the connections they made when they were nobodies (Did you know Jessie J wrote songs for Miley Cyrus before she was famous? Kesha wrote for the Veronicas? Lady Gaga wrote for Britney Spears?) and the strings they likely pulled to get their own record deal. That’s not to say these folks are necessarily devoid of talent, (the aforementioned three are, but that’s just coincidence) but rather they know how to play the system, and as a result of their ingenuity end up as platinum selling superstars when, if they were promoting themselves solely on the merits of their work, might have gotten nowhere at all. Group Home was such a pair as this, and their subsequent fade into complete obscurity (getting name-checked on Nas’ 2006 song Where Are They Now? speaks for itself) proves that they had little to offer in the first place. However, because of the big names they knew in the beginning, they not only got a record deal but managed to get working with hip hop’s finest producer DJ Premier, who fortuitously happened to be at the zenith or his artistic expertise.

Group Home consisted of two rappers with the entirely unmemorable and unimposing names of Lil’ Dap and Melachi The Nutcracker. Such names at least were fitting for their lyrical and vocal prowess: I’m not saying they were terrible, but barrel scrapings have likely produced better rappers than these guys. In their defense, I believe the pair were in their teens when the album was released, but other younger rappers (like Shyheim) were miles ahead of them and would continue to improve. Also, their smarmy, faux-gangster attitude really doesn’t make them any more likeable, and they’re prone to some tough-guy preaching and pseudo-intellectual ramblings about race and ghetto life that mostly sound entirely fabricated and insincere. However, (there is indeed a however, and one I alluded to earlier) somehow they managed to form the acquaintance of DJ Premier, all round producer extraordinaire and one half of Gang Starr. The two Group Home rappers appeared briefly on two previous Gang Starr albums which exhibited their less than stellar talents, and in some lapse of judgement DJ Premier decided it would be a good idea to producer the majority of a full length album for the pair. He must have lost a massive wager or something, as he’d previously worked with almost all of the finest rappers of his generation, and this was a considerable step down. However, Premo quite famously produced some of the best beats he ever created for this album: perhaps to make up for the sub-par rapping, perhaps to showcase his own talents in the absence of compelling vocals, or perhaps he was just feeling generous. At any rate: Premier’s beats are by and large the most memorable part of the album, and in fact are so good that this entire album, while it should be embarrassing, turns into a reasonably compelling listening experience.

Group Home.
The title track is probably the best-known cut from the album, and the track that probably features the most impressive (relatively) rapping from the two members. Premier’s Spidey sense was tingling as he took a three-note electric keyboard sample from a Ramsey Lewis album, cut it and looped it to create an unnerving, dissonant piece of beatmaking; its gritty, unforgiving sound painting an atmosphere of inner city turmoil over which the duo manage not to embarrass themselves. I’m being a little harsh here: their rapping is quite good on this track, telling their individual stories of how they survived their difficult upbringings and the troubles of living in New York. But it’s truly the beat that dominates, as in many of the other songs: Suspended in Time uses an Incredible Bongo Band sample to create a seductive, ethereal atmosphere, and Up Against the Wall is here presented in two versions, clearly because Premier had two brilliant beats that he wanted to use even if the rappers didn’t have enough lyrics written for them. Strangely though, the two beats are so diametrically opposite that despite the identical lyrics, each version seems to be saying something different: the first version uses a sped-up Isaac Hayes sample, giving the substance of defiance and inner resolve to the duo’s raps about the harsh realities of their lives. The second, with its melancholic piano, emanates defeatism and a resignation to their fate of being swallowed by the pressures of the city. Such is a common theme of the album: Premiers beats often give weight and attach extra importance to the raps of Group Home. They’re guilty by association, and it’s quite a clever trick in that we’re fooled into believing that the proficiency of the rapping is on the same level as the beats, whenever it just isn’t so. Presented in an acapella form, or with other beats substituted, this album would be a cataclysm of travesty, whereas an album of Premier’s beats one could easily listen to. There are only so many lines such as “Word up yo, I kill you in the battle/Deadly like a rattlesnake, but I don’t rattle” I can put up with before the whole façade comes tumbling down and I fail to take anything else they say seriously.

Livin’ Proof was a moderate success when it came out in 1995, reaching the charts and with three charting singles. Their follow up in 1999 bombed like the Luftwaffe, and a notable development was the loss of DJ Premier’s guiding hand, producing only one track. A retrospective interview with the producer in 2003 revealed that the group “don’t respect what fed them,” and their ungratefulness caused him to sever all ties. Just like how the key to success can be who you know, the key to sustain that success, especially if you’re reliant on these people, is to keep them sweet. It’s not hard to work out, but Group Home didn’t realize it and suffered the consequences. The industry can be kind to those who don’t deserve it, but if you’re relying on favours, you’re treading one some thin ice that you’d better not agitate.

Words - Adam.

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