(Kwest The Madd Lad – This Is My First Album)
It’s a cliché we all hear: record companies are greedy, overbearing manipulators, pressuring their artists to sell out, sucking their talent dry and casting them aside when they’ve outlived their usefulness like an old loofah. The assumption is so commonplace I worry it’s being reduced to stereotype because this sort of thing really does go on, often to the ruination of passionate musicians who ended up being the victims of circumstance, profit margins and different priorities. I often find, however, that generalizations like this fail to bother me unless I can relate to it, unless I hear the story of a certain person who has suffered as a result of this experience. (To go to that famous quote of uncertain origin, but often misattributed to Joseph Stalin, “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic”) Well, here’s a very real experience from a talented guy that I’d like to share with you.
Kwest “the Madd Lad” gained considerably notoriety in the greater New York City area in the early nineties as a master of battle rapping; a freestyle rap competition between two MCs, partially spontaneous, designed to degrade and humiliate the opponent with cunningly linguistic put downs and unfavourable comparisons. One particular battle in Harlem was described in Hip Hop Magazine The Source as being one of the most one-sided, triumphant contests ever witnessed. In Kwest’s own words: “I had a jacket with all these pockets and in the middle of my rhyme I would pull something out of my pocket. I pull out a condom… and kick a rhyme about this condom I used on your moms. On the second and final round, he was trying to say some shit about how I keep pulling shit out of my pockets. I prepared a rhyme for him but it was mostly freestyle. So I basically freestyled the whole rhyme you heard and I was pulling out props and throwing shit at him. My aim was killer!” After this and a few promotional singles demonstrating his considerable lyrical prowess, Kwest got his record deal, and quite a big one at that, with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. From the few resources I have (several interviews) it seems things began to go sour rather quickly.
American Recordings wanted a standard 15 track album and gave Kwest the budget to cover this: he delivered 30-40 tracks. However, the authority over his own material was already starting to slip. “Industry rule No. 4081, never let you’re A&R man produce for you, son.” Said A&R man, Dan Charnas, also functioned as a producer on several of the tracks, and “every single I put out he had his hands on.” Instead of trying to support Kwest, promote his material and fight for his record deal, Charnas exploited Kwest for his own gain. When Kwest had a problem with the label, Charnas wasn’t interested. He used Kwest’s album as a springboard for his own career and couldn’t care less what happened to him. “He could have fought for me, but he didn’t. He was so interested in tryin’ to get his lil’ production off and prove that he was a big man that he wasn’t really thinkin’ ‘bout nobody but self.” Kwest’s struggles with the label pushed the album’s release date further and further back: after two years of disputing, the album finally came out in April 1996, and any hype that Kwest had accumulated was long gone. Even his American Recordings had seemingly given up on him, looking him over for other artists who had more of a buzz around them. Charnas called less frequently, he rarely got tour dates, even the quality of his accommodation when he was touring steadily decreased: first, the Hilton, then Quality Inn, then “a hotel that’s not even a hotel. Shit is so remote, yo, roaches is pullin’ up in lil’ Roachmobiles.” After the album was released, it was only a matter of time before Kwest parted ways with American. Probably half or more of the tracks he recorded remained unreleased, and rumours of his imminent demise spread like wildfire. Some said he was homeless, he didn’t wash, or even met an untimely death. Perhaps after his dealings with the industry, he wishes he had.
I haven’t even touched on the actual album yet. This is what makes the story worth telling: it’s not a bona fide classic, but certainly does NOT deserve to be slept on. Kwest’s skills from rap battling made the perfect transition from the streets to the studio as he delivers a series of scathing rhymes and freestyles; not only that, but his ability as a storyteller is also demonstrated well, with stories about underage relationships, being caught with a girl by her father and the like. Spitting some hilarious one-liners such as “The last time you were in some ass the doctor screamed, "I see the head!"” and “Wanna hear some shit that's funny? I'm SO skinny that if I sent my picture to Somalia, they'd send me money,” Kwest makes his album supremely entertaining. You marvel at his flow, laugh at his put downs and remain hooked on his tales. Production wise, with all due respect to his A&R man, isn’t bad, typical early 90’s stuff that rings with nostalgia but probably was a bit dated by the time it came out, which I’m sure didn’t help the already-poor sales prospects for the album. Hard-hitting drums, jazzy horns, electric keyboards and the like. The biggest shortcomings of the album are, I feel, largely down to the angle that the label was trying to push the album, rather than a problem with Kwest himself. For starters, a disproportionate number of songs on the album are details of Kwest’s sexual conquests, and while there’s a place for this, it feels like there’s an overreliance on this sort of material in the album. Kwest is a highly versatile rapper but doesn’t utilize this enough on the album, which he explains: “the label wanted to stay with the sex topics, but I had other material too.” Clearly American Recordings were looking for some sort of angle with which to promote Kwest, and finding he had a number of songs written on the topic, used this to define him, give him some sort of lyrical role, and unfortunately it doesn’t work too well. There are some hugely entertaining stories about the subject (101 Things To Do While I’m With Your Girl being the best, combining his conquests with hilarious disses) but too many of the tracks seem dependent on the idea of sex as an inherently funny topic, which unless you’re 12, it’s not. Similarly, the skits (which I generally hate) add nothing and are almost shockingly tasteless. The opening skit is named Everyone Always Said I Should Start My Album Off With A Bang, and once you realize “Oh, when he says a bang, he means sex!” this 47-second track of sex noises becomes almost offensively bad and has absolutely no replay value. Similarly, A Day in the Life of My Asspipe delivers a series of sound effects chronicling Kwest’s flatulence, bowel movements, and unfortunate prison rape after he gets arrested. Again, this is the sort of thing that might have been funny when you’re a pre-teen, but as a twenty-something this is embarrassingly bad. Whoever talked Kwest into doing this had better get his, if he hasn’t already.
The bottom line is that Kwest was a hugely talented rapper with a lot of potential and was badly mistreated by those who were supposed to help him. His album (and the title should be sadly noted: This Is My First Album: it’s also his only one) is not perfect by any means, but more guidance in the right direction and proper support could have seen it take off, maybe giving him the opportunity to go on and record more. It’s very unfortunate that this wasn’t to be. Disillusioned with the industry and the way things were going, Kwest got a day job and doesn’t really rap anymore, save for a few appearances on various tracks in the late 90’s. (Including the song Five Star Generals, which features a young Eminem) Besides, he appears to be something of a hip-hop purist (understandable) and his refusal to compromise probably didn’t help his career prospects. He hasn’t even recorded a guest verse since 2004, but in 2007 his unreleased recordings from his first album’s sessions finally saw release. They predictably were given practically zero promotion but retain, like his first album, a cult following. Kwest deserves more than a cult following, but perhaps the most important thing about his story is the lessons of caution wannabe musicians can take. Talent doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, and you better watch out for those shady record people.
Words – Adam.