Looking back on Hip Hop’s league of slept-on producers, the roster for Queens, New York’s Hydra Entertainment (Nick Wiz, Beatnuts, Ghetto Professionals, Kid Called Roots) turned out to be the genre’s ’89 Detroit Pistons. No player towered on the floor but the team delivered a mix of grit, innovative techniques and a mastery of stripped- down fundamentals. The Hydra squad hit its peak with the Hydrabeats series, 11 instrumental albums from the aforementioned artists plus an additional three from Godfather Don, one of Brooklyn’s most prolific, adaptable, and underrated artists. Not only did Don make beats for Ultramagnetic MC’s and Mobb Deep, but he also joined the exclusive ranks of emcee/producers whose skills in one area weren’t completely dwarfed by the other.
Over a decade later, the long awaited release of Godfather Don’s third LP, the shelved Donnie Brasco, was announced. The news felt bittersweet once it dawned on me what a perfect storm of potential album killers was waiting for Donnie in the opposite corner.
First, regardless of what anyone in it “purely for the art” tells you, the initial goal of putting out an album, movie, book, etc. is to recoup the investment and turn profit. Thus there’s a stigma and an expectation of shoddy quality attached to any creative property that was left on a shelf when it should’ve been out making its producers a couple bucks. Unfortunately, the “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” crowd is usually spot-on when it comes to predicting the (lack of) merits of behind-schedule releases. Pluto Nash? 88 Minutes? Anyone?
At best, people look at freed-from-the-vault material from the perspective of what the artist’s current output sounds like and how the archived material stacks up against it. (Case in point, Crooked I’s Hood Star, last month’s hit or miss LP unloaded by Death Row)
Second, Donnie Brasco is the true definition of a Hip Hop solo album. Zero guest features and the same single name on every production credit. Even Erick Sermon on solo albums like Double or Nothing and RZA on his Bobby Digital projects called in their fair share of guest emcees and/or producers to round out each LP.
Yet when it comes to Donnie Brasco, the surprise is that for the most part the hurdles described above turn out to be blessings in disguise. Is there an “Under 10 years or it’s free” policy on the delivery of some much needed raw, hostile Hip Hop to your door? Similar to the aforementioned RZA or frequent collaborator Kool Keith, Godfather Don creates his own surrogate – “Donnie Brasco” or simply “Brass” – to free himself up when handling the entirety of the LP’s mic duties. Lyrically the “Brass” persona is all about jewel smackin’ and surgical strike punchlines and would be at home right alongside Blaq Poet, Noreaga and Kool G Rap on GD’s own blaxploitation laced “Gorillas” beat. But referring to himself as, “Big and black like a sleestak,” and describing, “Sports cars, mini vans, European pants, big guts on all, even my Korean thangs” shows that Don and Keith’s Cenobites also remain in Brasco’s universe.
Musically speaking, the reason Godfather Don is able to close the time gap and impress with a collection of mostly solid tracks is a testament to his versatility as a producer. From the haunting piano on Cormega’s “You Don’t Want It” to the jazzy shot in the arm given to Ultramagnetic with his Four Horsemen contributions, anyone who’s familiar with GD can sense a cohesiveness in his attitude and techniques but could never pick out a template or stock formula to his music. Less along the line’s of his solo debut, Hazardous, which considered 110 bpm a plodding tempo, Donnie Brasco favors the bounce GD served up back in the ’90s for some of Queensbridge’s finest emcees.
There’s something about a producer’s choices when it comes to sampling guitars that feel different when he plays the real instrument proficiently. (Godfather Don is also a bassist). On “Raw,” one of Donnie Brasco’s highlights, GD uses a short strum from a speakeasy guitar to create an instant head nodder. And in a show of turning the most mundane sounds into musical innovations, the hand clapping of a studio audience is used as a sustained shaker. Cuts like this and Brasco’s shining moment “Win” are undoubtedly certified bangers. However they still feel like welterweights when placed next to Godfather Don / Screwball tracks like “I Spit,” “Street Life” and “Zoning,” a true windows-down driving classic.
Overall, Donnie Brasco proves itself a keeper. Part of the magic of Godfather Don’s music is all the strange sounds and samples buried under the surface that take three or four listens to catch. Bold choices like mixing rough samples and synthetic instrumentation along with pushing the snare in front of everything add a visceral and somewhat alien feel to the production.
Occasionally when one or two variables in this combination are off, the results can be tedious and frustrating. Brass’s rhymes on “Make Money” save the track from being a complete loss while the lush strings of “Look Into My Eyes’” are spoiled by the always deadly, “Know what guys? I’m gonna sing this chorus.”
On “Major Figures” Donnie Brasco’s halfway point, Godfather Don states, “I can’t wait till this album is mastered. I bet you that I have a classic like Biggie did, I’m just a city kid with dreams of six pretty whips, get with chickies on the tip till its sticky.” Eleven years later not only is Donnie Brasco now mastered, but its finally available to the public – and long overdue at that. It’s not a classic like Biggie’s, but it’s more than enough to make you imagine how Big would shine trading bars with Brass over some beats crafted specifically for that other legendary voice from Brooklyn.
City kids dreaming of whips and chicks.
That’s plenty of material to get them started.