This year, 2001, marks the 10th anniversary of the ground-breaking New Zealand hip hip album “What Can We Say?” by MC OJ and the Rhythm Slave.
Back in 1991 I had mixed feelings about the OJ/Slave experience. I thought the song “Positivity” and its video was pretty choice, but by the time I saw them open for De La Soul I thought they sucked and joined in with the audience in booing them.
But things change with time. Just look at the photo of them on the back of the CD liner. There’s OJ with a monobrow and kinda chubby-looking face. His right arm is stretched out. That arms is now covered in tattoos, and he’s made his name as a tattoo artist and mate of Robbie Williams. Slave, in the photo, looks young and fresh-faced. In some of the music videos he looks like he’s 12 years old. Ten years later he looks and sounds much older, like an old man from the swamp.
All sorts of rumours are flying around regarding the time around “What Can We Say?”. Is it true that they smoked so much of the substance espoused in track nine that they claim to have no recollection of the giant trousers in the “Joined at the Hip Hop” video? And does OJ really not remember the “Yo, Easy Shop!” ads? Ah, who cares? It’s all part of the OJ/Slave experience.
What was the charm of the duo? OJ didn’t sound like a rapper. He sounded like some guy you went to school with who wanted to be a rapper and/or a panelbeater. But then, maybe if it wasn’t for him the skinny white guy in Supergroove may never have picked up a microphone. Slave was the good-looking and good-sounding one. He’s got this cool drawl that sounds like it should come from someone older and more ethnic than him. Put the two fellows together and… I’m not sure what you get, but I don’t think it’s ever happened before.
So to celebrate ten years of “What Can We Say?,” here’s a track-by-track analysis of the album.
Joined at the Hip-Hop
The first track kicks off the album by introducing us to the family of MC OJ and the Rhythm Slave. There’s MC OJ, of course, and the Rhythm Slave. They give us a number of metaphors in which the close nature of their relationship is expressed. Just in case the title proves to be a little “uncomprehensible” OJ raps, “unlike Siamese twins who are joined at the hip, we’re joined at the hip-hop.” We are later introduced to the other two brothers in the “completely unrelated” family of four. They are the “people of straw”, that is Mark Tierney and Paul Casserly, otherwise known as the Strawpeople. Guest vocals from Bobbylon round out the track. A different version of this song was released as the single. It had funkier, bassier music and without Bobbylon’s vocals.
Based on KC & The Sunshine Band’s disco classic “That’s the way I like it,” “Positivity” offers advice for dealing with the little things in life that can stress us out. The advice offered is to keep a positive attitude and express yourself. They urge us to remember that “that’s the way of the world, man”. The positive vibes flow throughout the song, and at one stage we are reminded that “there’s more to life than dollars and cents” – stark contrast to the later track “Money Worries.” Finally, the most important advice is given: “don’t listen to what they say, listen to the Rhythm Slave and MC OJ.”
Body Rhymes (Protect Yourself)
Taking their duty as role models of young people seriously, OJ and the Slave take some time out for a musical public service announcement. Following in the footsteps of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Pubic Enemy,” the boys advise their listeners to play it safe and use a condom when having sex or having “a slice of yes”. The benefits of doing this, as OJ explains, means that “if you wear a hat you can play and spray and play all day.” The track also joins the large number of New Zealand songs that can boast guest vocals from Teremoana Rapley. Her sweet tones gently urge the listener to “make it safe to play.”
Sway Like This
Mixing reggae and hip-hop, and again featuring guest vocals from Bobbylon, “Sway Like This” is a very laid back, six-minute excursion into the rhythm of the streets, the rhythm of the dance floor. Slave’s deep dark vocals intertwine with the baseline, while Bobbylon’s singing wanders over the top. While Slave sounds real good on this track, OJ doesn’t really have the necessary darkness to his voice, leaving him coming across as some guy who’s trying to sound all dark and sexy, but sounds more like he’s got a sore throat.
In the chorus of this track, OJ and Slave try and sing like a soulful ’70s funkster, but as they can’t sing, let alone soulfully, those vocal stylings ought to be filed away in the same place as Supergroove’s second album. “Rhythm Business” is mostly a song about itself. Musically it sounds like the sort of track that’d get played in background of a cooking and lifestyle TV show. It has a few crazy samples (“Wanna live in my house? I’d like ya to.”), but the lyrics aren’t really about much else than the grooviness of the music and the need for world peace.
This is an utter classic. Positivity can only go so far to dealing with the woes of the world, when you ain’t got no money it can really suck, and “Money Worries” describes the frustration of being broke. The pain of having no cash is underscored by the searing guest vocals of Mikey Havoc who wails “Moneeeey! Moneeeey!” to which OJ and Slave rap, “I ain’t got none, I wanna get some.” But it’s not all bad. One thing that’s free is being able “to rap about money worries”. Ten years down the track we can only hope that money is no longer a worry for the boys.
A moody, slice-of-life portrait of life one night in Auckland or “the AK town”. Activities include observing the petrolheads (“that’s a nice Cortina”), getting money out of a cash machine (“a modern curse or a dream?”), checkin’ out the fly Gs, getting some junk food, watching a fight and the joy of finding a $50 note. Their social conscience is exercised with an observation of a glue-sniffer (“everybody’s got a vice and it’s cheaper than booze”). The second half of the song is jazzy, moody instrumental piece, accompanied by street sounds. Auckland, 1991, represent.
A performance from bFM where OJ raps about his favourite footwear, Dr Martens boots. Run DMC had “My Adidas,” OJ has his Docs. Slave doesn’t appear to share the same enthusiasm about Docs, so he instead raps about how much of a bad arse he is, and “baby we was meant to be.” OJ then raps about how all the ladies love him and his boots. It should also be noted that this song was sort of covered by the Hallelujah Picassos as “MC OJ and His Boots”.
This may be the raddest song in the entire world. Predating Dr Dre’s cannabis concept album “The Chronic,” OJ and Slave’s “Marijuana” revels in the pleasures of toking on a fat-arse joint. Several, in fact. All aspects of smoking dope are examined, including getting the munchies and the dries and the appearance of a policeman. But it’s not just about smoking marijuana, the chorus (“Drugs, drugs drugs, drugs, drugs! Marijuana! Marijuana!”) shows that by calling it “drugs”, they are more into doing what their parents and teachers warned them against: MC and OJ and Rhythm Slave said yes to drugs.
The One About Girls
This is the song where OJ and Slave talk about how incredibly sexually frustrated they are. Establishing in the beginning that they “want a sexy butt to chew,” the boys start off on a mission to score some tasty booty. Trying to impress girls by asking if they’d seen them on the cover of More magazine (!), or commenting “my, you have a beautiful bust,” doesn’t seem to work. Rejection comes hard and fast, even with the killer line, “baby I think you’re pretty damn spunky.” Finally they manage to score with some hottie at a club, but – oh no – it turns it out it was a dream. Then they (he?) meet a real life 22-year-old babe, but her hotness turns them into a nervous mess, and it turns out she’s got a thing for Bobby Brown. Let’s hope that OJ and Slave are doing better with the ladies now.
“What can we say?” is an excellent album, and one of the finest examples of Aotearoa hip hop. Scour your local second hand record shop for this ‘cos it’s a gem.
Update – August 2015
It’s now 25 years since MC OJ and Rhythm Slave’s first single “Positivity” charted. When I first wrote this track-by-track, there were no OJ/Slave music videos online, but slowly videos have begun to appear. It’s now got to the point where there are seven clips – either proper music videos or live performances – of the album tracks. Not only that, but there are also videos of Joint Force, their later project with DLT. While OJ and Slave have gone on to thriving careers in the music and taco truck biz, it’s still nice to be able to look back at their moment as fresh faced young rappers.