“Down To Earth”
(Correct Records / 1996)
I don’t actually remember the day I picked up this album from Harlem-raised, Chicago-based emcee Grav, which is unusual for me because I tend to have a memory like an elephant when it comes to recalling the finer details of my musical purchases throughout the years. I know where I got it from (Luton’s now defunct Soul Sense Records), but who I was with and details of the day are hazy to say the least. But the fact I can’t immediately bring back vivid images of my decision to dig into my not-so-fat pockets for this Windy City emcee’s one-and-only album is no reflection of the quality to be found within its fifteen tracks, but it does hint at the fact that this was an album that popped up out of nowhere from an unknown artist that, at the time, obviously wasn’t at the top of my wants list.
In fact, had it not been for the fact that “Down To Earth” was released on the short-lived Correct imprint, I might not have paid the album any attention at all whilst scanning the new releases on that day back in 1996. Wax historians will remember Correct Records as the label that, prior to this release, had dropped former Beatnuts member Al’ Tariq’s solo album “God Connections”, a project that this particular Hip-Hop junkie bumped in heavy-rotation throughout the autumn of ’96 (and yes, I’m still mad The Source only gave that particular release a criminal two-and-a-half-mics in the mag’s legendary Record Report section).
It was the easily recognizable orange Correct logo on this album’s back cover that prompted me to ask one of the Soul Sense staff if I could hear a few snippets out of curiosity. What boomed out of the shop’s speakers would go on to become one of my favourite long-players from the 90s independent era.
A solid, confident collection of boastful rhymes and heavy beats that leant heavily towards the raw boom-bap of NYC, “Down To Earth” found Grav (a.k.a Mr Massive) positioning himself as an accomplised emcee with a boisterous but likeable microphone persona.
At the time, Common was still really the only underground artist from Chicago to have gained universal props from all corners of Planet Rock, with other Chi-town acts such as All Natural having yet to drop their future releases that would draw further attention to the city’s busy subterranean rap scene of the time. So Grav’s “Down To Earth” (recorded in both Chicago and at NY’s legendary Powerplay Studios) was something of a novelty to a Hip-Hop head familiar with the stylings of Queensbridge, Compton and The Bronx, yet still largely unaware of what the Midwest had to offer.
Whilst “Down To Earth” boasts sterling production from Common collaborators No ID and Dug Infinite, what has made Grav’s debut something of a curiosity in recent years is the fact that over half of the album’s full-length cuts were produced by a young Kanye West. A world away from the sped-up soul samples that became his Roc-A-Fella trademark and the somewhat pretentious hugely-orchestrated productions of last year’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, Kanye’s production here was rooted in the dusty wax found in Chicago record store basements, encapsulating soul, jazz and funk samples placed skilfully over headphone-ready, dome-nodding drums.
On the ominous “Sick Thoughts” Grav comes off like a low-key Dungeon Dragon era Busta Rhymes as he delivers lyrical body blows to his competition, whilst the funky “City To City” finds Al’ Tariq joining his labelmate for a potent display of witty fast-paced wordplay over a pulsating sample lifted from Eddie Henderson’s 1978 jazz fusion classic “Cyclops”.
“Thought It Was On” is a humorous account of a failed relationship that wears its Slick Rick storytelling influences on its Ecko Unltd sleeve, whilst “One Puff” is the obligatory weed cut that was a staple of so many 90s albums, with Grav speaking on a smoke-out session gone wrong (“My brains’s pounding over and over again, Since when was weed a hallucinogen?”).
The Odyssey-sampling title track features Jurassic 5’s DJ Nu-Mark on turntable duties, whilst the closing Andy C.-produced “C’mon” is a dope mixture of menacing bass and melodic chimes that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Godfather Don release.
Looking at the album’s liner notes in 2011, it’s interesting to see names such as Rubberoom, Juice and Rhymefest being given shoutouts, artists that in 1996 would’ve meant little to anyone outside of the Chicago rap scene, but who in subsequent years would all achieve varying degrees of success in the wider world of Hip-Hop.
Ultimately, “Down To Earth” has stood the test of time well. Built on a foundation of production techniques and lyrical styles that are quintessentially mid-90s, the album doesn’t sound overly dated or cliche today.
With acts such as All Natural, Molemen and, of course, Kanye West, all doing their part to push Chicago rap further into the global Hip-Hop conscience, this one-off album from Grav could perhaps be considered the link that bridges the gap between the early-90s work of Common Sense and the later material released by the aforementioned Windy City artists.
As Grav himself might say, that’s word to all my Dunzillas!
Grav ft. Al’ Tariq & Lil’ Ray – “City To City” (Correct Records / 1996)