The Cactus Album
“Steppin’ to the AM” via the FM airwaves of 88.9 WERS into my Braintree, MA bedroom: fall 1989
It was, admittedly, a tough call. I vascillate between three albums, normally two, for which is my favorite hip-hop album of all time: Buhloone Mindstate, Cactus Album, and Paul’s Boutique. Lurking somewhere on the periphery is Illmatic. And frankly they don’t really fall in any order. They all came out within a five year window, when hip-hop was approaching its apex as a creative art form and I was approaching the apex of my vocal registry until it settled into the slightly raspy mid-baritone it is today. And they all are front-to-backers. Two are likely on every hip-hop head of my generation’s list, at least in the top 10, two are likely on but a few. But that is part of the charm.
Buhloone Mindstate is a bit out of left field, but more on that in a future post. Paul’s Boutique was a revolutionary record that utterly changed the shape of hip-hop as we knew it then, effectively standing it on its ear, and certainly as we know it now (or up until its death a few years back). Illmatic was the nuclear annihilation on which we had all been waiting for years, since first hearing Nas eviscerate the landscape at the BBQ. And we all know all that.
But for me, The Cactus Album is one of the more singular albums in the history of hip-hop certainly, if not music as a whole. Truly seminal. Starting with the beats, as all great hip-hop albums do. Expertly crafted in dense but fluid layers of somewhat well-known soul samples, TV and film vocal snippets, and catchy bass and drum loops, by turntable aficianado-cum-bit player in the movie Juice: DJ Daddy Rich (nee Richie Rich), they provide the perfect sonic backdrop for the give-and-take antithetical flows of MC Serch and Prime Minister (Sinisterrrrr) Pete Nice.
The technique for all these cats is enough to laud, clearly having cut their teeth learning how to move a crowd at raw, largely dangerous, live hip-hop venues like the LQ and Union Square before ever having the good fortune to be able to flex on wax. But beyond the unintentional novelty of a LEGIT white hip-hop act, what stands out is the fluidity of their disparate styles and how it all feels like one of the most authentic representations of New York hip-hop specifically, and that era in general, both musically and culturally:
Serch the jester – a rambunctious MC with the rarely seen Jew-fade, considerable crowd command and annunciation skills: the essence of the street kid who was always playing, but at the same time, you knew, push comes shove, wasn’t. Pete Nice, the NYC legend of a basketballer with a complex Dr. Seuss-ical style (more so than simply the “green eggs and swine” line from their unfortunate crossover “Pop Goes the Weasel”), Ghostface-esque in syllabic complexity but smoother and more baritone with a bit less-efforted nebulosity. Perhaps the most aptly-named rapper of all time (maybe second only to Black Rob). Add in the legendary Daddy Rich and the debut of MF Doom as Zev Love X from could-have-been KMD (on Gas Face), and its no wonder they dropped a supernova of an album.
But like all supernovas, their flame burned both bright and brief, and after a strong if less accessible follow-up, 1991’s Derelicts of Dialect, they split amidst animosity relative to thieir newly-found pop success.
Each has taken a post-3rd Bass path aptly suited to their lyrical identity. Serch has assumed a more noticeable place in pop culture since the split, having signed and helped launch Nas’s career via his ‘Back to the Grill’ posse cut, then lining up the murderers’ row of producers for the epic Illmatic. And most recently/unfortunately, as host of the ego trip Search for the Next White Rapper reality show: Yo! MTV Raps meets, American Idol, meets Jersey Shore. Prominent, if a bit too much.
Pete Nice, in true nicean fashion, now tends to the collective memorial of our national pastime as head of memorabilia and archives for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Perhaps the most amazing job I could ever think of, and one of which even Thurston Howell himself may be envious. Truly pimp, Lovey.
Thankfully, for me anyway, both were reunited recently via their being featured prominently in Bobbito’s classic book “Where’d You Get Those?“, as commentators on city life as sneakerheads well before it became cool (speaking of things that have since died an excruciating death). Again, about as legit as it gets. Like so many things, Russell perhaps said it best: “3rd Bass is just stupid; that shit’s…3rd…Bass…”