Universal / Motown, 1996
Another album that tends to be forgotten in the meanders of Hip Hop. To tell the truth, the 90’s were so conducive to quality rap that some albums may have been forgotten over the years. The children of that generation know and remember this album, or at least these singles. Let’s put some light on this group and this album that, although forgotten today, brought to the Hip Hop of the early 2000s.
1995. Four lost boys from South Jamaica Queens used to the poverty of the tough neighborhoods release a first single that becomes a hit on all radios, Lifestyles of the Rich & Shameless. This single led to the signing of their first contract with Uptown Records before signing with Universal for the release of their first album, legal, drug, money.
Although lost in appearance, these four boys did not come out of nowhere. The group’s lead rapper, Mr. Cheeks, is the nephew of jazz and soul man Gill Scott-Heron, who took him under his wing to teach him the ropes. The other three are none other than friends of the main rapper, with sometimes a uncertain contribution in the group. If Freaky Tah’s role is more established as the hypeman with a participation on each song, the role of the other two, DJ Spigg Nice and Pretty Lou is slightly more obscure. Mr. Cheeks is de facto the front man, accompanied by Freaky Tah’s gimmicks and a few verses. On his side DJ Spigg Nice has a more background role behind the decks, although he does not produce. Concerning Pretty Lou, his contribution on this album is still unknown to me today since he is absent from each track.
Originally from South Jamaica in Queens, the Jamaican origins are felt in the performance of the two main rappers. Mr. Cheeks’ chewy flow with uncertain articulation dictated in a typical slang is characteristic of his origins. On the other hand, hypeman Freaky Tah’s raw, husky voice is eerily reminiscent of Busta Rhymes, although his flow is slower with a marked diction. Both definitely have a characteristic style of their own. The resemblance to Big L is noticeable, although Mr. Cheeks doesn’t have his elocution and flow, as talented as he is. Yet this drunken flow and hesitant delivery have a certain charm.
It is clear that legal, drug, money is marked in its time, both in the rhythms and in the themes addressed. But Mr. Cheeks has a sincere vision of the New York ghetto, with an almost nihilistic, even fatalistic philosophy. His stories are poignant and true. The drop of the hit Renee, originally released on the soundtrack Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, is incredible. Mr. Cheeks tells a typical neighborhood love story that is as implausible as it is romantic, the drop brings all the drama to its storytelling. The violence of the ghetto always catches up with the beautiful stories that can take place there. This title reminds strangely Me & My Bitch of Notorious BIG released three years earlier.
Mr. CheeksWent to the crib
And turned the lights on
A mad magazine stand
From Essence to Right On
A leather couch
Stero system with crazy cd’s
Understand ’cause she got G’z
She said cheeks do what you want
She said I’m gonna feed the dog
I said alright well I’m gonna roll this blunt
She came back with stretch pants and a ponytail, a t-shirt
The Lost Boyz are not looking for sensation, they are not looking to make life in the ghettos sexy, or even to glorify it. They talk about their current realities and their daily lives without getting lost in the game of violence for violence’s sake, although it is omnipresent in their lives. On Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless, Mr. Cheeks describes the illicit activities that inner-city youths engage in as a matter of survival before ending with an introspective verse about how he managed to get by. On Straight From Da Ghetto, he dwells on the moral dilemmas that forged him and that fatally dragged him into the shady business of the ghettos. Mr. Cheeks is not an ostentatious thug, his stories are full of humility and realism while being fatalistic with a background of social conscience.
While Big Dex, arguably one of the Lost Boyz’ earliest collaborators, will provide the album’s rough backdrop on most tracks. The singles that brought the group commercial success are signed Easy Mo Bee and Mr. Sexxx. Easy Mo Bee crafted the two hits Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz & Benz and Lifestyles of the Rich & Shameless with two melodic boom bap with sparse horns and slamming drums. Mr. Sexxx will bring the singles Renee and Music Make Me High. The first one is a tragic love story over a dramatic beat with three heavy keyboard notes, while the second one is a more danceable beat where Mr. Cheeks explains that his drug and escape is ultimately music over a raucously sung chorus. The sexually suggestive opening track The Yearn is by Pete Rock, whose theme is similar to Renee while being rougher.
Where Lost Boyz are both old school and innovative is in the sung choruses. They bring back the chorus both catchy and raw. His melodic flow will be taken up a little later by artists of the late 90s and early 2000 like DMX, Ja Rule, 50 Cent, etc.. The best examples are Get Up, Music Make Me High or Lifestyles of the Rich & Shameless, even if they are found on the majority of the album.
Without being a classic or a game changer, legal, drug, money is an album that you should listen to. An album that is typical of its time while having some attractive features. The first one is the chewy and crooning flow of Mr. Cheeks that inspired a generation, the second one is his sincere and fatalistic vision, and the third one is the effective and still classic hits.
To finish the story, Lost Boyz released a second album, also certified gold, before Freaky Tah was tragically murdered in 1999 shortly before the release of their third album, which was less commercially successful. This event will lead Mr. Cheeks to start a solo career, with mixed success. The history of the Lost Boyz was brief and even if their imprint in Hip Hop did not remain engraved in the memories, legal, drug, money remains an album which has its place in the history.